Desperately Needed: New Relationship Scripts

Desperately Needed: New Relationship Scripts September 18, 2014


My wonderful Patheos co-blogger Leah Libresco has recently been hosting a symposium of sorts on her blog on relationships, dating, and the “Nice Guy Problem.” Here’s the roundup.

Man, are we in a bad way. Cultures have relationship scripts: i.e. memes or cultural stories that more-or-less dictate how relationships work. The script doesn’t mean that everybody follows it, but it tells us what to expect, and what is culturally expected of us. For many centuries, we had the more-or-less arranged marriage, where families present children with essentially a menu of options to choose from (or one option, but the child has a veto, at least theoretically). Then we had the 1950s model of short & (officially) chaste dating/courtship followed by engagement. Then the sexual revolution iterated on that with more dating, earlier sex, and serial monogamy.

But it seems that even that model has fallen apart. One thing I gleaned from Leah’s writing is that our culture is now so commitment-phobic and so anti-body that kids these days (am I already at the yelling at kids to get off my lawn phase?) find dating so formal and foreboding that nobody dates (even coffee dates!), and the first step is sex, not as in casual-sex, just-here-to-have-fun, but as the only piece of the relationship script that’s left amidst the rubble. And this isn’t just true in college, but for many young adults. And we’re talking about college-educated mostly-white people, here.

I mean, at this point, this has nothing to do with social conservatism or religion or what have you. This is about the profound existential despair that we are visiting on countless people desperately seeking (sometimes without even realizing it) a mate in the most treacherous waters ever in a world where for most people committed monogamy is still a necessary part of human flourishing. All our scripts have failed us, and so there is no script anymore.

We need new relationship scripts. One of the main works the Church needs to do in its offensive plan is cultural R&D.

The only alternative plan that I’m aware of is the “Courtship” model in some Evangelical subcultures. I think that works great for some people, but I think it requires a cultural density that’s not available for most people. And yes, there is something quite creepy about fathers being invested as guardians of their daughters’ virginity.

Frankly, what is needed is a way to connect people with similar goals. I did the hedonic thing in college and law school, and at the ripe old age of 21 found out that it was wrecking my soul, and desperately wanted to settle down, but there were no takers for that. It was only sheer random luck (a.k.a. the mighty grace of the Holy Spirit) that threw the woman who would become my wife in my face and gave her the utter recklessness to do the utter folly of saying yes to marry a bum like me three weeks after we met.

The world is full of great guys and gals, who are good and nice (nice-nice, not “nice”) and all the rest. What is absolutely sorely lacking is what can only be called the emotional maturity of realizing that our current relationship hamster-wheel is insane and that settling down and building your life on a solid foundation is a great good.

If there is one argument for the Benedict Option, this is clearly it. Look at the Mormons. Then again, I know of far too many cases in Benedict-type communities where the immaturity that comes from a sheltered life, and the pressure to marry early and with One Of The Tribe produced failed marriages and wrecked lives (and this is not alien to my reserve toward the Benedict Option).

So, chto dielat? I’m not sure. I only have inchoate intuitions, among which:

I’ll be damned if the internet and algorithms can’t help, although neither should we think they can save us.

We have no script, but the Middle Ages had scripts and the Renaissance even had a literal map. There’s much that we know was wrong about Medieval culture and the sexes, especially rampant misogyny and rampant sexual violence, but I think there was a conscious cultural effort to work towards a settlement that balanced the reality of human nature with the aspirations of virtue, which is something we need most of all today.

We should kill the date and replace it with activities where two people do things together rather than sit across from each other and project fake versions of themselves. (Rock climbing! Parachuting! Paintball!)

We need yentas (algorithmic yentas?) and other cultural institutions (dances?), but we need to be careful to strike the right balance between anarchy and destructive social pressure.

We need, frankly, to be more socially conservative. To remind people, at the very least, that sex is and should be an expression of committed love; that it’s good to get married early; that marriage should be a foundation stone and not a capstone; most importantly, that there is no life well lived without existential risk-taking, especially in the vocational area.

As I said, all I have is intuitions.

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