Let’s acknowledge the awkward, giant elephant sitting in the living room of our hearts: Dating as a Catholic woman in 2020 is a weird place to be.
I am 34 years old and unmarried. As I have navigated the dating scene (and learned from many mistakes), I have heard plenty of unhealthy, weird, and just plain bad advice.
And I suspect some of you can relate to this.
Maybe it was a rigorous “purity culture” that lacked pastoral compassion. Perhaps it was unhealthy attitudes from books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Or maybe it was an excessive focus on things like virginity, modesty, or how a Christian woman “should act.” I think for many Christian women today, that list would go on and on
Over the years, as I have learned how to date in a more healthy, self-aware manner, I have thrown away much of what I used to believe about Catholic dating — and there was a lot of garbage to toss out.
Based on a conversation in the FemCatholic Forum and my own experience, here are eight things we were told about Catholic dating that turned out to be wrong.
1. You Need a Spouse to Complete You
If there was one destructive myth I swallowed up and believed wholeheartedly, it was the idea that having a husband would complete me. As women, we can receive this message implicitly or explicitly from a variety of sources: parents, mentors, the Church, other people, etc. When I got married at the ripe age of 26, I can honestly say part of the reason why I got married was that I wanted the love of a man to fulfill and complete me. I thought that everything that was lacking or wounded in my spirit could be fixed by my husband’s love. I was horribly wrong.
We women need to be secure, whole, and free on our own. Our worth is not found in our relationship status (or lack thereof) but, rather, in the God who created us. A partner in life should enhance and add to your life, not (completely) fulfill you.
2. Marriage Could Never Become an Idol
Sometimes we can hear the phrase “idol worship” and think, “Geez, it's not like I’m worshipping a golden calf with burnt offerings like the ancient Israelites did.” Idol worship can take a variety of forms. One of the most common versions I have witnessed in faith-based circles is the idolization of marriage. Here is an example of what it might sound like:
“Marriage is wonderful and perfect! It is the prize waiting for you after years of being single. You are with your best friend all the time. Sex is great and easy, and you have lots of it. The transition is seamless, and you just know how to integrate your lives.”
Marriage is not an idol to be worshipped. Our lives must be rich, full, and beautiful regardless of our relationship status. Can we please stop treating Christian marriage (which is a very good thing!) as a prize to be gained?
3. You Must Marry the “Perfect Catholic Man”
A message often implied in Catholic dating circles is this myth: “Find the perfect Catholic man (or woman), and everything will work out. You have to marry a Catholic, because marrying a non-Catholic is too risky.”
Marrying the “perfect” Catholic man does not guarantee a happily-ever-after love story. I married a man who I thought was the “perfect Catholic man”: a former seminarian who went to weekly Mass, had a prayer life, etc. It turned out that he was a sex addict and addicted to pornography, and then he sexually abused and manipulated me.
Marrying a Catholic guarantees nothing. Let’s stop shaming Catholics for marrying or dating non-Catholics. We need to bust the myth about finding the perfect Catholic man, because, at the end of the day, he doesn’t exist (and neither does the perfect Catholic woman).
4. You Must Always Take Dating Very Seriously
Dating is just that: dating. It is neither commitment to exclusivity nor a marriage proposal.
I was in my early twenties when I listened to a talk on CD by the wife of a well-known Catholic writer and theologian. Her talk was about dating, courting, and marriage for Catholic women. One specific point she made struck me. She said something to the effect of, “The point of dating is marriage. After you date someone for six months, you should have a sense of whether you want to court this person with the likely potential of marriage someday.” While this was my own interpretation, naive Patty heard this: “After six months, I should know whether this guy is marriage material.”
For a young twenty-something woman, that was crazy advice! We have to resurrect the idea that there is nothing wrong with dating (as in going on dates). Going on lots of dates can be a healthy way to learn the art of dating. It gives you opportunities to practice, discern what you want in a partnership, and discover what you like and dislike along the way.
You become a better dater with time and practice — so, go on dates. Yes, you should have standards and principles, but enjoy the process and have fun, too.
5. Marriage is the End-all, Be-all
We often speak about marriage as the prize won after a long race of being single, the proverbial carrot dangled in front of a man or woman who hopes to be married. In reality, marriage is not guaranteed. A desire to get married does not mean that you will.
Furthermore, we portray marriage as the only way to experience joy and fulfillment — which is also alarming. The joy and fulfillment every human heart seeks is not completely satisfied by a husband or wife. Your wedding day is not when you “arrive” in life. Hopefully, you are already living your best life right now, because at the end of the day, marriage is not the most important life goal.
6. Chastity Is Easy
Whether in a dating relationship or marriage, chastity is just plain difficult sometimes. When two people are physically attracted to each other, a desire for sex is a biological reality. Sex is not bad; it is, in fact, very good.
More often than not, talks about chastity only focus on one aspect: saving sex for marriage. There is little real, honest discussion about the difficulty of being chaste while dating. Is it bad to make out? How do you discuss healthy physical and sexual boundaries with your partner? What, specifically, do you need to discuss as a couple?
We tip-toe around the reality of how difficult it is to practice chastity. Yes, saving sexual intimacy for marriage is in our best interest, but how do we navigate that time until marriage? While I was a virgin when I got married, I was not an excellent example of the virtue of chastity before my wedding day.
Let’s start having real conversations in our faith circles about the difficulty of chastity in dating. If the Church offers us an ideal for our bodies and sexuality, we need to be able to openly talk about how to strive for that ideal.
7. Virginity Is All That Matters in Chastity
In our efforts to communicate the good of reserving sex for marriage, at times, we push the pendulum too far and turn virginity into an idol. Reflecting on my own experience and talking with other women, there is a lot of discussion on “saving yourself for marriage” but not always enough emphasis on how to have good, holy relationships with anyone — romantic partner or otherwise.
Sometimes, the way we talk about virginity leaves little room for pastoral care and compassion for people who are no longer virgins or those who lost their virginity in a violent, abusive manner. We need compassion, grace, and mercy in how we speak with and relate to both men and women in this area.
8. The Vocational Path Is the Same for Everyone
The vocational path does not look the same for every Catholic woman. Some will marry young, and others will not. Some will have their own children, some will adopt, and some will be unable to have children. Others will remarry and have blended families after receiving annulments.
We should strive to respect and value the uniqueness of others’ paths in life. Vocation and discernment are different for each of us. As a Church, let’s make space for the many different paths to vocation for married, single, divorced, and widowed Catholic women in our communities.