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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  • Labarum

    Marrying early is key. We’ve focused too much on waiting until marriage, and then silently also waiting and waiting and waiting to marry. We weren’t built to delay marriage the way we do.

    • Yep.

    • Episteme

      Early marriage has usually only been practiced to cement political ties among the nobility or within the rural & general-working poor in times of historic poverty. In urbanized cultures and communities of economic specialization, marriage age has always been later because of the needs both of further formal training or apprenticeship as well as less need of numerous children as either working hands or political pawns.

      Catholics need to stop looking at postwar America as their example of marriage age. Firstly, postwar America had an explicitly low marriage age because of abnormal economic growth and the advanced training that soldiers & sailors had received in service (AIT equivalences of college degrees allowing a 20-year old veteran to get the job where previously maybe a 26-year old was needed). Likewise, the death rates in combat and from the Spanish flu/Depression before hand required the replacement rate of earlier marriage (which the economic boom and security of the GI Bill allowed for). If you compare that to the rate of post-WWI marriage ages, those are actually about the same as today, because the economy wasn’t set up uniquely to allow for that.

      America today is a modern country. As time goes by, more and more specialization is required by dint of growing technology and changes within industries. As much as the Church has tried in the past to argue against this, it is not in the place to any longer in terms of cultural power, nor really should it economically in terms of many benefits (focusing on subsidiary social justice elements is another matter). If Catholics are going to universally choose to marry early as the panacea for not figuring out how fix the issue of dating and courtship, that’s going to cost them — literally.

      As for the “waiting until marriage” part? Seriously, I can honestly say as virgin just shy of my 35th birthday: continence is EASY. The Church — and especially parents — have merely opted merely to not teach chastity as a positive good (big surprise, since most of them were fooling around all the time in their youth and then lying about it to their children) and so have continued the Jansenism about sex that only worked in a climate of a public shame culture. There’s a reason that JPII did his Theology of the Body, but the married who make up the Church are too busy throwing harvest parties at their parishes to think of things like teaching spirituality and theology to the youth who are facing an uncertain culture…

  • Paul S.

    Dances: We make Whit Stillman’s The Sambola an institution.
    Activities: I did take a girl out to the shotgun range once, does that count?
    the other thing re marrying in the early days of the Catholic ghettos is how many cases of webbed feet you’re willing to put up with… 😉

  • Episteme

    Mormons and yentas (as in Jewish communities even in the modern day) have the same thing in common: actively working to get young people married — not “married off” as many Protestant mega-churches are accused of, but married into the community. The Catholic Church has tended to either unfortunately outsource this to religion-specific Internet-dating or assume that everyone is running off to sow wild oats before penitently rejoining the community (if they do at all in this age where religiosity has flipped from social-plus to social-minus).

    I’ve joked before about the pastoral issues of the Prodigal Sons coming and going from the Church versus the expectations and illusions that the marrieds and older parishioners have of the Loyal Brothers who stay in the parish (not really helped by such forums as this where sadly all we get to do is discuss what is being done wrong) — I keep trying to politely ask middle-aged old married guys not make suggestive hints about the (as you put it) the “hedonic thing” that they assume that I must be doing on the weekends and evenings where I’m studying or working charity. If that same effort making false aspersions about my chastity was spent introducing me to a Catholic niece or neighbor who might just go to a different parish, I might not be single (with no prospective women even known) staring down thirty-five.

    I got a good chuckle, as a lector, reading 1 Cor 12 and 1 Cor 13 over recent days at morning mass. Those two readings are a perfect synopsis of the dilemma in the Church today that you talk about — we’re told about how we’re part of the Body of Christ with particular skills to use and means to use them…but then quickly learn that however any ministries we apply ourselves into are meaningless in terms of being ‘counted’ in the parish if we haven’t found love. And I mean counting literally: parishes DO count by families, so we singles literally don’t count — it took me months to actually convince the parish office to start sending me envelopes for tithing after I finally broke off from my father’s registration a few years back (and I’ve been going to this parish since birth); they simply didn’t have any way in their system to easily plan for an unmarried (a.k.a. not divorced/widowed/single parent) person trying to be part of the community. As it is, I still didn’t get to vote for parish council, since only “families” get votes (ironically, one member there is actually an older single woman, included for her connections to the township government, who herself didn’t get to vote).

    I can’t even tell you what’s wrong with the system. Folks keep trying to claim that there was a Golden Age of the 1950s, which didn’t exist. If you actually look into the history (I work with oral history), neither Catholics nor other folks were any more chaste than they are now — they just kept quiet about it and lied to their kids and grandkids about it for decades so as to try to control their own behavior rather than actually work to teach them responsible chastity. Likewise, that was an era of unique economic postwar success and growth that the baby-boomers squandered and destroyed for our generation. We’re living in the existential waste that the Golden Age of Dating created — the same folks who, by the way, are the ones who were the ones who created all those spike in divorces in the sexual revolution after their young marriages that folks trumpet as the greatest of ideas.

    Married couples decided long ago to pull up the ladder and kick in the face the scrambling singles who were trying to climb on board shouting “wait, do you know anyone?,” believing the new theology of marriageism borrowed from the Protestants (adapted merely for Catholic birthrates). Hence why the closest thing to a compliment any single gets in a Catholic church today is “have you thought of becoming a priest (/brother/sister/nun)?” since that at least presumes some good Christian qualities, even if it marks that the questioner is showing that they’re officially jettisoning all charitable aid in helping find an appropriate spouse or place within the lay community for the single — it’s they married-person way of saying “stop stinking up OUR parish and go hide out at a seminary/convent/monastery until you find something to do with yourself, failure!”

  • I agree that at the heart of the problem is the average marriage age is now late twenties. So what do couples do if they’re in their early twenties with no intention of getting married? Have sexual conquests and move on to the next.

    • Late twenties is optimistic!

      • I thought you were half joking but for Europe you’re right. I was surprised. It’s mostly early thirties. In the US it’s still late twenties. This lists ave age of first marriage by country:

        • Thanks.

          • James Kabala

            It is also true, though, that the average age of marriage in early modern Europe was in the late twenties. The U.S. was always a bit lower, but the very young ages of the 1950s were actually a record low. Our ancestors were apparently just better at controlling themselves, I guess.

          • James Kabala

            Never mind; someone already said this at much greater length below (or above, but for some reason I had my settings on “Sort by Newest,” so I didn’t see it).

  • Kathleen Worthington

    I still remember years ago on Sean Hannity’s radio show a dad calling in. His daughter was Hannity’s intern, I think, and some young man in the station wanted to take her out on a date. The dad said “no”, and Hannity had him on air to explain.

    The dad’s response is what resonated for me: “Dating is practice for divorce.” I’d never thought of that. Basically, the dating ritual throws a couple in all kinds of situations with no relevance to married life: restaurant meals, shows, etc. Real life is cooking, cleaning, entangling emotionally with all levels of family. So the dad said that the young man could come to a family picnic and hang out with his daughter. The young man could, essentially, join their family on a trial basis. That was his replacement for dating.

    • Oh, interesting.

    • Mike

      Divorce is at 50% and will only fall i suspect bc fewer and fewer ppl will ever actually get married; marriage will become a quaint ritual without any real meaning; secular marriage that is; once it’s redefined to include ppl of the same sex this trend will accelerate and marriage will become a “real” thing for 1 religious pple and 2 rich ppl for whom it will become an excuse for a big expensive party.

    • KL

      But that’s a false dichotomy. Ideally, dating should involve both fun and serious aspects. Yes, dates can encompass fun, romantic things, which build chemistry and reveal basic compatibility or incompatibility, and it’s entirely fine to start a relationship on those grounds. Of course, a couple considering marriage should absolutely spend time with each other’s families and begin discussing and working through what domestic life will be like post-wedding. But I disagree that going out to movies and meals is “practice for divorce”: married people should be doing those things, too. If you and your spouse are pros at dividing chores and maintaining a household, but don’t have intimacy or enjoy spending leisure time together, that’s a problem too.

      • I heard once that many people’s goal for marriage is to be good roommates. Live together. Don’t fight. Divide the chores well. That is important but it is a far cry from the total gift of self Christian marriage is supposed to be.

        • KL

          What a joyless model! I want to rejoice in my partner’s constant presence in my life, not simply endure or even appreciate it.

      • Kathleen Worthington

        A date, where everyone’s on their best behavior, ill prepares you for how someone will react when you’re in the trenches together. No matter how joy-filled a life is, it also includes suffering. A family picnic is an easy way for a prospective couple to see how the other reacts under stress. Intimacy is the reward of a married life. If a couple begins their relationship with unearned rewards, how can they build the foundation for the tougher days ahead?

        • James Kabala

          Is a family picnic really any more “realistic” than a restaurant date? It is still very different from a rushed meal of microwaved leftovers.

        • KL

          I’m not arguing that dating should consist solely of dinners out. Family picnics and similar interactions are important, too. Both aspects of forming and sustaining a relationship have their place and purpose, and degrading one at the expense of the other isn’t constructive.

  • mochalite

    Perhaps unrelated, but this is my experience of our shifting relationship scene: Several young people of my acquaintance (including our daughter) are late twenties, extremely happy in their careers, active in their lives, Christian, non-daters, not sexually active, and seemingly giving no thought at all to marriage.

    It’s not commitment phobia, as far as I can tell, as much as it is a sense of lots of time. Life expectancies are well into the 80s and 90s (my grandmother died last year at 108) and healthy childbirth is possible well into one’s 40s. To these young adults, I think early marriage seems unnecessary, and even marriage itself seems like a re-routing of their life paths that they don’t seek … They’ll embrace it if someone convinces them of it, but they’re not looking for it.

    The WSJ did an article several months ago about parents in their 60s who would love to be grandparents, scratching their heads over this new phenomenon being acted out in their children’s lives. That’s where I am (my husband is more easily accepting of it) and I’ve had many interesting prayer times with God. During each “how to make sense of this” convo, I get the strong feeling that God says, “Chill, sweetie … everything in My time.” So I do, and enjoy the wonderful person she is right now.

    I don’t know if this is part of the shift you and Leah are perceiving, but it’s a real part of the landscape out there.

    • Interesting.

    • Chris Dagostino

      “The WSJ did an article several months ago about parents in their 60s who would love to be grandparents, scratching their heads over this new phenomenon being acted out in their children’s lives.”

      I never liked this very much. The desire for grandparenthood is fine, but in order for that to happen, your kids have to have kids, and that’s a major life decision.

      I’ve been darn near close to asexual since I was 13 and never wanted kids, so marriage would be pointless. After reading the many horror stories about Western divorce (Google Chris Mackney), I know what Paul meant when he said that he wished all men could be like him.

  • niknac

    Without the temptation and choice of infidelity, the bonds of monogamy are meaningless. So infidelity will always be a prominent feature of Catholic family life.

  • Bruno

    Who knows, something may come out of the Synod of Family on this.

  • niknac

    I just read of two heterosexuals marrying because neither wanted an opposite sex marriage and there are financial and security benefits to be had. They will certainly not have infidelity issues but I assume would amicably divorce if one wants to marry someone else.