Saturday, July 05, 2014
On Dating--Getting to Know You
I'm going to venture here into the tricky realm of dating philosophy, especially as it concerns Christian parents of young women. This typically blunt post by Matt Walsh has been doing the rounds on Facebook, and I like it. I have one reservation about it, which I'll get to in due course.
First of all, what I like about it: Walsh is right that "hanging out" should not be a male-female relationship category. It is so vague as to be postmodern. It typifies the unfortunate and baffling paralysis that seems to have descended upon American young men, including even Christian young men who want marriage. It is insulting to a young woman for a young man to be unwilling to admit that he is even somewhat interested in her while at the same time it is obvious that he is interested in her. It puts her in the position of not knowing what is going on. "Hanging out" as a category in itself embodies this type of insult. It says, "I want to say that this girl and I have something, but God forbid I should say that I'm dating her, or even that we have gone on one single date. That would be way too committal."
Moreover, "hanging out" as a category is, in the secular world, tied sociologically to the hook-up culture, which is an abomination. You hang out in groups and then you have sex with strangers or near strangers. The ultimate anti-relationship. Walsh is, it goes without saying, right to deplore "hooking up."
Walsh is also right that marriage is a good thing and that both men and women should value marriage and should seek it, unless called to singleness or unable to marry for some overriding reason.
Walsh is also right in his tacit complementarianism. He implies the shockingly anti-feminist idea that the young man is responsible for the course of the relationship and should pursue the young woman, rather than vice versa.
My one hesitation about the post is this: Walsh implies that the men who are "hanging out" with women rather than dating them actually know what they want and should be actively courting one particular woman instead of "hanging out." Perhaps in some cases that is true, but in other cases, they may in fact need to get to know a girl better before they know if they should be, or want to be, courting her.
I'm certainly not going to say that there was some golden age of dating in which this was all perfect, but it does seem that a category is getting left out here. Unfortunately, it's a category that young men nowadays seem to be encouraged to leave out both by the secular crowd and by some in the Christian crowd, though for vastly different reasons. That category is the getting-to-know-you date. It's perfectly legitimate for either a man or a woman to be somewhat interested in a member of the opposite sex but to want to get to know the other person better before deepening their relationship. If you have regular group activities where you can just chat casually and be friends, that's great, and it doesn't need any special label. In fact, it would be (as implied above) insulting to a girl to tell her, "I'm a tiny little bit interested in you, but I just want to continue hanging out with you at church. I don't want to take you out, because I'm not sure I like you enough to take you out." If that's how you feel, and if you see her so frequently at church, then just be normal and friendly with her at church and make up your mind whether you want to take her out! But also, don't overlook the fact that you can take a girl out to dinner without putting a ring on her finger! Taking a lady out can be a way of getting to know her better. In fact, it seems that some such category is extremely useful, because it gives two people a chance to talk to each other in semi-privacy and find out more about one another without making others feel excluded. E-mail could serve that purpose to some extent as well, but it really is no substitute for face-to-face conversation.
What seems to have happened is that some Christians decided to emphasize extremely serious courtship rather than dating at an unfortunate time in social history. They decided to tell young men to get very serious very fast about a young woman, to talk to her father before so much as taking her out to dinner, to treat a date as an extremely heavy thing, just at the moment when the hedonistic secular world was also telling the young man that a date is an extremely heavy thing. But the secular world has a different agenda. The secular world's agenda is, "You don't need to have a relationship with a woman to have sex with her."
Good Christian young men are, by definition, not part of the hook-up culture. (If they were, they wouldn't be good.) But they can nonetheless hear and accept the message from the secular side of society that a date can't be used to get to know a girl and to admit merely some degree of interest, short of very serious interest. When that message is fully internalized (to use a bit of jargon), it contributes to a debilitating paralysis in the development of further relationships between the sexes. There are many factors at work, of course, including feminism. Feminism would teach that it isn't one person's role in a male-female relationship to ask the other out (or to pay) any more than the other's. So why not wait for the girl to ask you out? Then you don't risk rejection.
The fear of rejection has always been a difficulty to be gotten over for men asking women out, but now it seems to have grown to a monstrous size, aided and abetted by both secular and Christian attitudes that getting-to-know-you dating is out of fashion and is not an option.
Let me be clear: I am not saying, literally, that a date, even a casual date, has absolutely nothing to do with marriage. Such an extreme statement is false. If that were the case, there would be no problem with a married man's taking out a woman other than his wife on a date! Obviously, dating has, or ought to have, something to do with marriage, if only as a possibility "out there." That is why in my generation Christian girls were carefully enjoined not to date non-Christians--because dating has something to do with marriage.
The courtship idea in Christian circles developed in part as an understandable negative reaction to the complete divorce (if I may use that word) of dating from marriage. Young couples could be "dating," even "going steady," for five years without anyone's so much as breathing the m-word. Or worse, ten-year-old girls had "boyfriends" whom they thought of themselves as "dating." (And then the parents wondered, after years of encouraging early sexualization and childhood romance as cute, why their unmarried daughters became sexually active at fifteen!) In fact, I gather that both of these phenomena still go on as well, parallel to the secular hookup culture and the Christian courtship culture.
So, yes, it's important to be mature about dating and not to pretend it is nothing at all. But the opposite confusion is to bind burdens on men's backs by telling them, "You must never take a girl out until you are ready to court her seriously." My one caveat about Matt Walsh's post is that it might encourage that idea. I strongly support telling men to man up, but it's perfectly understandable for the best of young men to want a period of discernment in which to get to know a woman better. If we can restore the delicate, in-between category of the getting-to-know-you date, we give young people an additional tool for that purpose so that they can move by reasonable steps towards marriage and the formation of Christian families. That is a goal that all Christians should support.