Let’s acknowledge the awkward, giant elephant sitting in the living room of our hearts: Dating in 2022 is weird. Dating as a Catholic can be even weirder.
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 As I have navigated the dating scene (and learned from many mistakes), I have heard plenty of unhealthy, outdated, and just plain bad advice.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 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 Community and my own experience, here are eight things we were told about Catholic dating that turned out to be wrong.
Myth #1: You Need a Spouse to Complete You
Yikes. If there was one destructive myth I swallowed up and believed wholeheartedly, it was the idea that having a husband would complete me. Women 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 need to be secure, whole, and free on our own. A partner in life should enhance and add to your life, not (completely) fulfill you.
Myth #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?
Myth #3: You Should 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 man simply because he's Catholic guarantees nothing. Let’s stop shaming Catholics for marrying or dating non-Catholics.
Myth #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 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, naïve 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.
Myth #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.
Myth #6: Chastity Is Easy
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.
Many of us grew up in Catholic circles hearing one thing about chastity: saving sex for marriage. There is little real, honest discussion about the difficulty and nuance of navigating this reality though. Is it bad to do XYZ? How do you discuss healthy physical and sexual boundaries with your partner? What, specifically, do you need to discuss as a couple?
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.
Myth #7: Virginity Is Your Value
In and effort to communicate the good of reserving sex for marriage, many times well meaning people 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. And that's the point of chastity!
Sometimes, the way we talk about virginity leaves little room to acknowledge with compassion those of us who are no longer virgins. At it's worst, women are objectified and reduced down to merely our "status" as virgins. This completely misses the point of Catholic teaching on the dignity of people - which is what teachings on chastity are rooted in.
Myth #8: The Vocational Path Is the Same for Everyone
Some women 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 receive annulments and remarry and have blended families.
Vocation and discernment are different for each of us, and we should strive to respect and value the uniqueness of others’ paths in life. As a Church, let’s make space for the many different paths for married, single, divorced, and widowed Catholic women in our communities. There have been Saints with a wide variety of experiences and vocations - and that's still true today. Catholicism is a Church for all.