There is no doubt that in our culture marriage as an institution is under attack. People no longer see marriage for what it really is and many social evils have resulted as a consequence. Of course, God made marriage as a permanent union between a man and a woman primarily as an “office of nature” for the proper “procreation and education of children” and secondarily for husband and wife to offer each other mutual help (which includes the “remedy for concupiscence”) to get through life and get to heaven. I put many of the terms in quotation marks because they are the older terms used in traditional Catholic theology that seem completely foreign to the modern mind. Everyone seems to view marriage as just a legal or more formal recognition of love primarily for the happiness of the couple. Sex is of course expected, yet it is also expected outside of marriage. Kids might come along, however they are seen more as things that a couple might choose to have “after they settle down,” much like a house. For this reason, society sees nothing wrong with divorce and remarriage. Obviously, if all marriage is about is the happiness of the people involved, there is no reason to continue on as married people if they are not emotionally satisfied at the very moment. As a consequence of this “downgrading” or marriage, people see it as excessive in many ways. Some people reject marriage altogether because it is just an unnecessary formality. Others, while they do not reject it openly, see it as nothing more than a ceremony to celebrate what already exists. In the TV show Friends, two characters Monica and Chandler decide to get married. In the episode that takes place right after their wedding, Monica begins to get sad and worry that after the honeymoon, everything will be pretty standard. She feels a huge let down now that the wedding ceremony has ended. It is as if the wedding ceremony was just like any other, a happy occasion and then back to the day to day life. What she, and many others in our culture don’t realize, is that marriage has now begun. Everyone knows that marriage can be a struggle at times, but the newlyweds have no need to be upset or “let down” right after the wedding! They can and should look forward to their lives together. The problem for our society is that we don’t see it like this. We think of the wedding as only a nice party to celebrate what is already going on, it does not mark a new stage in the relationship, since marriage not viewed as anything fundamentally different than the status quo. If sex outside of marriage is OK, and marriage is not permanent ( divorce being the ready option that it is for many) then in what sense is marriage different than any other couple involved in a “relationship”? Of course, Catholics should reject this opinion as completely and utterly false.
The culture’s view on marriage as nothing special also effects how the culture views dating, but in a somewhat surprising manner. If we make marriage into nothing more than a formal declaration of love, then dating has to change a bit. Dating in some ways is “replacing” or more precisely becoming a kind of shadow or ersatz marriage. It is becoming overly serious in a lot of ways. This may seem paradoxical coming from the “hookup culture,” but let me explain. Both the physical sexual desires and the romantic interest for people of the opposite sex are built into us. God made us this way and there is no way around that. Of course, some people put one desire over the other or live in such a way that they satisfy only one, but the point is people have this built-in attraction to those of the opposite sex. God gave us these in order to assist us in marriage in order to help build the family. We can’t get rid of these feelings though, so without marriage we are left with just the desires.
Obviously our world sees no problem with satisfying sexual urges outside of marriage. For some, it is much easier to do this without any sort of commitment or emotional strings attached. This seems attractive in a lot of ways. There is no need to worry about any qualities of your sex partner other than physical attraction, you don’t have to spend money on dates, worry about incorporating your significant other into your life including your social or family life, you don’t have to worry about breakups or jealousy, and of course you aren’t limited to one person. On the other hand, there is a major problem with this lifestyle; it is unsatisfying. We are built for personal relationships and it is hard to snuff that out. For a time people may live in such a manner that they just sleep around and all, but at some point, it will fail.
Since not everyone wants to just sleep around, either because of morals, self-respect, fear of disease, ease and convenience, or the desire for something deeper, the fact is that “dating” still goes on to some degree, but has become something different than what people of my parents generation experienced. Admittedly for some this dating is basically informal prostitution or “friends with benefits” under a nicer name. ( Hook up culture and all). However, if your are not just ” hooking up” dating often means you are ” in a relationship” This relationship has some features that we used to attribute to marriage, including an expectation of exclusivity and emotional commitment. Much dating is then kicked up a notch. Couples very early on are spending all of their time together, telling each other how much they are in love with each other, and treating each other as if they are certainly going to be together forever. Similarly, breakups are viewed as much worse and anytime one person in the relationship finds someone else they are considered “cheating” much like we would consider a married man flirting with a secretary to be near cheating, and if he actually did anything with her, he would be cheating. In fact even if two young people just grow apart as they mature, their is often pain and distress “ending the relationship”. As a college student myself, I notice these attitudes everywhere. It is like the complete opposite of the hookup scene. Also, I think the image young people have of dating, even if they are not in a relationship, is largely as described above. Maybe this is why some people even prefer the hookup life, because they see dating as “too much”, maybe even rightfully so. I think that it probably has something to do with how we don’t treat marriage as anything special. People deep down still want this commitment and trust in one person, but if marriage does not represent a significant change in the status and nature of the couples relationship with each other and if it is viewed basically a celebration of the couples already existing “love for each other”, then, dating is the place where this deep commitment must begin, but there is no particular event or place to signify it publicly. Couples are often left confused and disoriented as to how much their “love” is “permanent.
There needs to be a middle ground form of dating. Dating is to prepare for marriage and this happens in two main ways. First, to actually find the right spouse, and second, to get to know and learn how to interact with people of the opposite sex. In order to do this properly, it is obviously better to pace yourself and keep an open mind while dating. This means that dating a lot of people, is in many ways ideal. Clearly then it is not good to become “too” involved with one person early on. This can only lead to trouble. As the courtship progresses of course there will be more exclusivity, affection, and overt commitment. However, this can’t be the standard form of dating. It makes dating in many ways a burden and something to be avoided.
I believe that this “middle ground dating” is snuffed out because of the way the culture sees marriage. The culture doesn’t see a need for dating as I defined it above because marriage is not necessarily an end in itself, only “true love” is. But true love to our culture is all about what is emotionally satisfying at a specific time, so lifelong commitment isn’t necessary. We want some sort of commitment though, so we’ve turned dating into something that resembles marital love. If there is no true marital love that must exist within marriage, and people still want it, they have to find it elsewhere. Dating in many ways has been turned into the replacement for marriage. In fact the term “dating” is used less frequently than back in the day. Now one is either in or not in “a relationship” and if you are not in a relationship you are “single”. There was a time that if you were not married you were “single”, so times have changed. Marriage and “being in a relationship ” are not the same obviously, but in many ways it resembles it and is a much-less-than perfect attempt at recreating marriage since marriage has virtually been destroyed. Since many people don’t want this kind of commitment, at least not right away, and see no reason to refrain from sexual activity outside of marriage, they resort to the other extreme, that is “hooking up”. At least this is my theory.
There are of course many moral implications of this odd dichotomy in the culture. For one, sexual immorality is obviously rampant. Following on this, abortion is seen as a solution to the “problem” of a baby. Marriage continues to be seen as unnecessary and unimportant leading to the social evils that come with divorce, cohabitation, and having children apart from marriage. Dating is made more difficult for a Catholic trying to look for a spouse and the list goes on. The solution has to be, as always, to remember the purpose of dating. This can only happen if we remember what marriage is all about.