There has been much written about dating and courtship and a variety of definitions have been given to these terms, so much so that if you haven't been reading the various publications dedicated to this genre you may well be trapped into giving an "incorrect" answer to a question such as "Do you Date or Court?" As in so many of these life and faith style questions we have gone back to the root and tried to determine how we handle these situations.
Why did God make us?As we have learned from our little green catechism, God made us to Know, Love and Serve Him in this world and to be together with Him in the next. Cool. That is a great starting point. Know - Love - Serve. In that order.
So, in order to truly serve someone, you must love them, and to truly love them you must know them. Otherwise, loving someone you do not know is either loving an illusion or loving only part of them. Either way this is an unsatisfactory love that cannot fully satisfy.
With this in mind, the aim of any dating, courtship or "going out" is to know the person better to determine whether you really love him or her.
So how do you Know someone?Let's look at successful marriages, those in which the husband and wife have been married for a good time and obviously love each other. Reviewing their discussions about how they have grown in their love, one thing comes out strongly. The secret of knowing someone is Shared Experiences.
Shared Experiences are those things you do together and in doing them you learn more about each other. Not just the external things such as favourite colours or preferred foods or sports, but the important things like honesty, integrity, ability to serve, how they treat others, dedication to a task and so on.
Why go to all this trouble?If the ultimate aim of getting to know someone in this context is the possibility of marriage, what makes marriage work? We know part of it is shared experiences, but another important aspect is the serving part. Remember, the progress is know - love - serve. Our knowing leads to a true love which leads to true service. That means our understanding of marriage will be flawed if we look at through the eyes of contemporary media. Marriage works best when the couple works together serving through love and knowing each other more every day. That means the husband and the wife serve each other 100%. Not 50% each. It's a maths thing. If each serve each other 100%, that is 100% x 100% = 100%. A fully lived life in love. If it is 50% each, then you are only getting 50% x 50% = 25% - a small fraction of what you could be experiencing.
It is important to remember however that the 100% each provides is not identical. Each member of the marriage have complementary gifts to bring to the union. That is what makes marriage so productive. If both did the same thing, there would be a lot less interesting development and just more of the same.
So the knowing stage is designed to learn about the gifts each can bring to a marriage and whether both suitors are capable of the serving required in a true loving union.
So what are the best type of shared experiences?An experience shared depends greatly on the background of each party. If both have a similar background it is more likely that the experience the couple participate in will be considered the same way. But the more the backgrounds diverge, it is more likely the experience each person gets from the experience will differ.
For example, if one of the couple is from a large family and the other has been home alone, the experience of a family dinner with lots of people milling around will come as quite a shock to one and be background noise to the other. But the experience when discussed and reviewed in chats afterwards will form an excellent shared experience. The empathy of both persons should allow each one to hopefully see a little of life from the other's point of view. Now we have a point in time where they know more about each other and have shared a little snippet of life from which a true relationship can grow.
But what about chemistry?The issue with a couple going out is that human chemistry can interfere with the growth in knowledge and tempt the couple to cut short the knowing stage and go directly to the loving stage. On the one hand the chemistry (or hormones or natural attraction) is necessary to get the whole thing rolling. After all, you wouldn't even bother getting to know someone more if you weren't attracted in the first place. But if you succumb to the attraction and go too far, the physical nature will take over and you will have missed much of the important knowing stage. Suddenly the joyful experience of loving is tainted by the illicit nature of the exchange and the fruitful development of getting to know each other through shared experiences is also twisted. Now instead of looking for experiences through which you can learn more about each other, you aim for times to be out of sight of others - allegedly to "be alone with each other".
So how do you achieve the right balance?It isn't easy. On the one hand a "courtship" whereby you never have any time alone to actually discuss or have any unique shared experiences is limiting, but on the other hand "dating" whereby you are always together alone is a recipe for succumbing to temptation and hence failure too.
The steps for a successful knowledge stage of a relationship would be:
1. Being in a state of grace.
Each person in the deal needs to have a proper relationship with God, and strive to balance the important two sided nature of any enterprise whereby it is worked on as if it is 100% depends on God and 100% depends on your work too. Faith without works is dead - you need both sides for the task to be a success.
2. Agreeing on the whole point of the exercise.
At the initial stage, the point is not marriage - it is getting to know the other person. You can't contemplate or plan marriage to someone you don't love, and you can't love someone without knowing them. So stage 1 is getting to know each other.
3. Organising lots of shared experiences.
These would be with friends and with family. Knowing someone means knowing their friends and family. If you don't like any of the other person's friends are you sure you are really compatible? Also, shared experiences are not just "fun" things like movies and entertainment. They should include regular things like dinner, attending Mass and visiting family and friends, special things and tasks such as helping someone move house, painting, working together, participating in sports, volunteering time or watching and supporting the other person do something they enjoy.
4. Having quiet time.
It is important that there is time alone to ponder and review all these shared experiences. It is not just the experience itself, but the consideration of those times that allow the experiences to fully take root and flower. There also needs to be times when you can just sit and chat about important things without all the noise and confusion. No TV, no texting, no Internet - just sitting on the beach or the back yard or deck, watching the horizon or birds and insects dart around the trees and plants. In fact, this quiet time is part of the shared experience - both the time spent together reviewing the experience and the time alone doing the same thing.
The final key to successAll this only works when the path is laid out at the beginning. In any endeavour you need to know the objectives before you start in order that you are able to determine whether you are actually on track or have lost your way. There is no point having a process without a destination. The goal needs to be appropriate to this stage of the game. Knowledge of the other person is the aim for this stage, with the greater conditional aim of marriage. Discerning that marriage is not appropriate for this couple is not a failure, it is a correct outcome. Not only is this not a failure, it is a valuable lesson for both parties working out what - and who - they are actually seeking. That is the whole point of the exercise.
So go and get to know each other. Avoid occasions whereby you will be tempted to shortcut the process as doing so will not result in true happiness. And on the way you will have more fun and less regrets.