The dating apocalypse is upon us! At least that’s what a recent Vanity Fair article, “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse’,” claims. Is it true? Are we really in a “dating apocalypse”—or worse, a “marriage apocalypse”? Is that why, at 26-that-basically-rounds-up-to-30, I can be hopelessly alone on a Friday, despite being willing to split the check, carry the conversation, and even indulge an anecdote about your pet rat? Surely, there’s a better way.
As Nancy Jo Sales bleakly describes the dating scene and the effects of hookup culture, I can’t help but see a correlation with a seemingly opposite phenomenon in the church: courtship. It seems that the impetus behind hookup culture and the desires that drive courtship may not be all that different.
The Holier Version of Hooking Up
In the world that Sales details, men and women sit side by side at a bar, and instead of exchanging wry glances and shy smiles, they’re sending emojis and propositions to ten different Tinder profiles, all without having to pay for a stranger’s drink. I’ve spent more time and money ordering a pizza than some of these people have arranging their dalliances for the week.
But how does this kind of love-‘em-and-leave-‘em lifestyle compare to the church? It all comes back to a little book by Joshua Harris. At least, that’s what I like to think when I’m alone, again, on a Saturday night while some very single, wonderful, handsome men from my church are also alone on a Saturday night.
In 1997, a 21-year-old Joshua Harris kissed dating goodbye, and many in the church followed suit. Conservative Christianity raced to embrace a courtship culture, one that places pretty strict limitations on time spent alone with the opposite sex and encourages parental involvement throughout the process. While some of the more stringent observations have faded away, the essence of courtship still permeates the church: The purpose of dating is to find someone to marry, so date with resolution and intentionality.
Coffee dates have become interviews for the altar, and to say yes to a first date is to commit yourself for all of eternity—or so it feels.
One of my friends was recently asked out on a date by a man with whom she had very little history. As she nervously nibbled on a Panera salad, her date began to compare her to the Proverbs 31 woman and his own mother. Clearly, he was already sold.
However, while I love her very much, I can attest that my friend is not the Proverbs 31 woman. In fact, she’s just a normal woman, one who snoozes her alarm on accident and tells little lies about why she’s late. She’s human, and what’s going to happen once her date realizes this unfortunate truth? Does her worth diminish—or does her boyfriend grow dissatisfied—once her very “humanness” begins to show?
Now it seems people are only as valuable as they are marriageable. Every interaction between singles is tinged with commodification: What can you do for me? How much can you provide? How well can you love and serve me? And truly, the only relationship with the opposite sex worth cultivating is one that leads straight to “I do’s.” Some days it feels like once a guy knows I’m not wife material, he decides I’m not worth knowing at all.
But this strategy hasn’t done much to increase our marrying odds. As hookup culture hurtles alongside the church’s courtship culture, the results aren’t very pretty. Marriage rates for the entire 20somethings group are the lowest they’ve been in six decades. Only 26 percent of Millennials are married, compared to the 36 percent and 48 percent of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers who were married by age 29.
The Reality of Picking and Choosing People
While they seem like an unlikely pair, the hookup culture that’s deteriorating our dating scene and the courtship culture left haunting the church may indeed be growing out of the same circumstances.
As a product of a broken home, I can speak to an obvious cause: No one wants to get divorced. Many of us have seen our parents divorce. In fact, we’re the largest generation to be raised by single or divorced parents. After wading through irreconcilable differences, confusing custody battles, and hectic bicoastal parenting, it’s no wonder that we, as a whole, are a little hesitant to pull the trigger (what an unseemly analogy), lest we repeat the cycle.
Many Millennials also struggle with the immense burden we feel to find the right person. This decision can affect your happiness, family, earning potential, and even career path. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, once said that the “most important career choice you'll make is who you marry.”
Courtship culture has also perpetuated this idea. According to one article, “Every suitor is a potential husband, and every woman is a possible wife . . . Who you choose to marry is the most important decision of your life. More than anything else, it will dictate your future happiness and success.”
That feels like a pretty heavy weight to carry on a first date, but we do it. Over and over again, I hear my friends (and, okay, myself) analyzing a dating or Facebook profile and discussing it in terms of “husband potential.” “He’s got three part-time jobs. I mean, I’m glad that he’s working, but where’s the stability in that?” “He spends a lot of time with his family. I love that. Being family oriented is really important.” “We couldn’t fit a car seat in the back of a Camaro!” You get the picture.
All of this commentary, however, only highlights the fact that none of us know what we're doing. Tim Urban describes our inability to fully comprehend this idea of “The One,” writing, “Thinking about how overwhelmingly important it is to pick the right life partner is like thinking about how huge the universe really is or how terrifying death really is—it’s too intense to internalize the reality of it, so we just don’t think about it that hard and remain in slight denial about the magnitude of the situation.”
But pressure and denial manifest themselves in different ways. Some of us embrace the courtship mentality and think that through overanalyzing, praying, and marriage-centered dating we can actually take control of the situation. However, this method is self-defeating. In seeking the perfect relationship, we will eschew genuine, intimate relationships that develop as a result of grace, patience, and love being required and extended.
Others, like those in Sales’s article, give up that hope entirely. Finding the perfect partner, or even an acceptable lifelong partner, is too hard. So we should all just enjoyably bide our time with meaningless, fruitless hookups until the perfect person comes moseying past our booth at the Waffle House, right?
The Wandering Eye and Greener Pastures
Perhaps the advent of the Internet, and consequently dating sites and apps, has acted as a catalyst for one of our deepest fears: There’s always someone better out there.
For years we’ve joked about and openly owned our FOMO (“fear of missing out”), but maybe FOBO (“fear of better options”) is actually dictating our dating. Am I picking the right person? What if I’m settling and then “The One” shows up in a year? Will this person be worth the sacrifice of my freedom? For women, these fears are only heightened by a race against the clock, an arbitrary expiration date that all good, Christian women should be wed by or else lose the possibility of starting a family altogether.
Because we can browse dozens of profiles while wasting time on a Monday night, we see exactly how many people are out there. Instead of only being exposed to the three eligible bachelors in our small church, we have access to handsome, eligible bachelors from around the world! But, this isn’t necessarily a good thing.
We now find ourselves standing at the largest buffet known to man, and with that empty plate in hand, we’re wading between rows and rows of options. Do we want the egg roll or the cheeseburger? The brunette who can play guitar or the skinny youth pastor in Daytona? And just as we reach to grab a pair of tongs, something tastier, better, catches our eye.
We’re paralyzed by options. And we’re scared to death of choosing the wrong one.
In hookup culture, the stakes are low—really low. There’s very little risk of rejection as you never know who may have passed on your profile, there’s an abundance of superficial affirmation, and there’s little investment. It’s as easy as downloading a free app and eating up the data on your cell plan.
Even in our courtship culture, we still model this risk-averse behavior. It’s not worth the risk of dating someone who probably, maybe, won’t be my spouse, and it’s not worth establishing relationships that will potentially only end in heartbreak instead of a honeymoon. And all of this makes me wonder if it’s actually our fear of intimacy that has us trudging through this dating quagmire.
Andrew Reiner claims that our generation is unable to love because of our lack of intimacy with each other. He writes that hookup culture “flouts the golden rule of what makes marriages and love work: emotional vulnerability.” And I would argue this same idea applies to those engaging in courtship culture. Remaining aloof until someone pledges undying love may be wise, but it’s also a little cowardly.
Being so guarded also removes any need for self-reflection. I’ve recently thrown myself deep into the dating waters. While I’ve been on nine consecutive first dates without even an offer of a second date, I know that I wouldn’t have met a handful of those guys for breakfast again, no matter how delicious the pancakes were. But for a few of the others, it does cause me to pause, to ask tough questions about myself, my communication style, and my expectations. Though I haven’t come to any strong conclusions, the process of questioning has been very beneficial for me. If I had continued to only embrace courtship, I never would have been forced into such uncomfortable, but ultimately profitable, self-examination. Because sometimes it’s not them—it’s me.
Reiner goes on to say that “dodging vulnerability cheats us of the chance to not just create intimacy but also to make relationships work.” This idea, more so than the others, resounds through the churches whose pews I’ve warmed. When we are only choosing to engage in a relationship with people who are sure-things, with people who fit easily into our lives, with people who don’t require work, we’re losing something. There is much to be gained in loving people who aren’t the easiest to love.
Making a List, Checking It Twice
Over and over I’ve been told to guard my heart (with good reason, as I am quite likely to hand it away to strangers, vagabonds, and not-nice-men), but I wonder if this too has contributed to the problem. I’m only just now learning the difference between using discernment and remaining distant.
In a bid to guard my heart, I’ve constructed a rather ridiculous mirage of man, complete with deal-breakers and marriage-makers, and I’ve called this wisdom. Unfortunately, I’m not alone. I don’t know a single girl who doesn’t have at least a few basic necessities jotted down on a mental spreadsheet, ready to analyze and itemize the next guy to come along. But too often these lists of ideals become unrealistic, more closely resembling a spiritual superhero than a God-fearing man.
As much as I can pray for a guy with financial stability, spiritual thirst, confidence, and a desire to adopt, I can only hope there’s a man praying for a girl from a broken home with a bum knee and mild social anxiety because at times those seem like my selling points. At the end of the day, I have to question whether my list helps me find a husband or is actually keeping me from one.
Yes, we’re stuck in a broken system, but a broken system can’t fix itself. It’s when we invest more in the process of dating than in the person we’re dating that we find ourselves in unfulfilling or abusive relationships, confused because we did it all right on paper. Perhaps we need more open dialogue regarding the problems that plague our singles, or maybe we need more singles who are willing to revamp the system, or maybe we just need more people encouraging us with affirmations. A friend recently closed an email with a few words on dating that I jotted down and hung above my desk. So with my own mixed feelings of hope for more and resigned acceptance of today, maybe here’s what you need to know too: “You’re fine. The world is just busted.”
So let’s figure out how to fix it.