I was thirteen years old when my father first handed me Joshua Harris’ bestselling book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Having experienced the pain of a broken marriage himself, my dad was anxious to ensure his children were given good dating principles. And when God saw fit to bless him with six daughters (me being the oldest), dating formation became even more important to him as he sought to protect our hearts. At the time, I Kissed Dating Goodbye was immensely popular among Christian circles. Seeking to find an alternative to the secular dating scene many parents, like my own, sought to pass on its gems of wisdom to their own children.
Written by Harris when he was only 21, this book highlights what the author views as wrong with the traditional dating scene while also presenting his own new formula for Christian relationships. In it he talks about the problems of teens and young adults committing their hearts in exclusive relationships, leading to an increased emotional attachment and inappropriate physical intimacy. Seeking to help young people form holy and healthy relationships, Harris advocates abandoning dating altogether, instructing singles to form holy friendships with members of the opposite sex instead. Then, after getting to know one another in strictly group settings, they should later embark in a courtship relationship with the intention of marriage. This courtship should be done within the family context, protecting couples and training them for marriage.
There are, I think, some good principles in his book. I agree that it is dangerous for young people, particularly during teenage years, to get into these intense relationships. Too young for marriage and still discovering who they are, often times these end up with sexual lines being crossed and broken hearts at the end. I also agree that it is important for couples to discern marriage within a communal context, whether that be among families or friends, providing both a sounding board during the discernment process and spiritual accountability. However, having seen many young adults apply Harris’ relationship philosophy as a kind of fool proof formula, I have some serious issues with this idea of “courting” and the book itself.
Both as a college student and young professional, I have met many young people who are anxious to do things right when it comes to dating (myself included before my own marriage). And with the divorce rate in the United States currently reaching between 40 to 50% (American Psychological Association, 2016), who could blame them? Nobody goes into marriage wanting a divorce, and with many of us coming from broken homes ourselves we’re all seeking the “solution” to a successful marriage. Consequently I’ve met many Catholic and Christian singles who have bought into this concept of courting, or “dating with the intention of marriage.” However, I find this philosophy to be deeply problematic because, for one thing, I have personally found that it puts tremendous amounts of pressure on the relationship during its beginning stages.
As a Catholic, I believe that dating should be a discernment process. Much like a seminarian or a novitiate, it is a process of discovering God’s will for your life. The constant question throughout the process should be: Is this the person God has called me to enter into the sacrament of marriage with? Like Harris, I’m appalled by the hook-up mentality of secular society, but to say that a person should only date someone if they are willing to marry them seems totally backwards to me. How can you possibly know that without dating the person first? And how can you possible get to know someone on the deep, personal level necessary for discerning marriage when you limit it to group settings among friends? You are literally putting the cart before the carriage.
I think it is revealing that Harris himself has begun to reevaluate and even recant parts of his book. In an interview with NPR on July 10, 2016 Harris states:
“…I just think people-myself included – it’s so easy to latch on to a formula. You know, you do these things and you’ll be great. You’ll be safe and you’ll be protected and you’ll be whatever. And I just don’t think that the way life works. I don’t think that’s the way the life of faith works. And so when we try to overly control our own lives or overly control other people’s lives, I think we end up harming people. And I’m – I think that that’s part of the problem with my book.”
Harris has similar statements on his own personal website Joshua Eugene Harris where he invites readers to share the good and bad of their experiences produced from his dating philosophy. He states:
“Over the years I’ve heard from people who have been helped by the book, but I’ve also heard a growing number of voices of people who have been hurt by it. I want to understand this better. I’m starting to listen.”
Buying into this philosophy of “courting,” I’ve seen young adults time and time again commit themselves prematurely to a relationship. Thinking they can only date someone if they plan to marry her/him, they enter the relationships making promises and plans right from the get go. The problem is, when they later realize that the relationship isn’t meant to end in marriage, the other person is left feeling lied to and deeply wounded because of broken promises.
This in turn leads singles to feel like failures when the relationship doesn’t end up in marriage, which is also all wrong. If the purpose of dating is to discern marriage together, than breaking up isn’t a failure but rather a success. It means that you did your job and discovered that God had other plans for your life. This doesn’t mean that there won’d be hurt involved. Any time we open our hearts to love we also open ourselves up to pain and suffering. As I shared in my article Miscarriage: The Loss of a Child, love without suffering is impossible. It’s natural to feel disappointed when things that you hoped for don’t work out. But if done right, you should be able to walk away from that relationship without regret; to part ways with mutual respect for one another and the confidence that God has other, better plans for your life. I don’t mean to imply that this is easy, but this should be the goal of every relationship.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it is important that we as parents form our children in purity and give them solid principals for dating. Especially as teenagers, I expect my children to include my husband and I in their dating process so that we can provide good accountability for them and prevent things from getting “hot and heavy.” I also see this as an important learning opportunity for them, showing them how to have pure and healthy relationships with members of the opposite sex. Later as adults, I hope and pray that they will always include God in their vocational discernment and that they will seek out advice and accountability when it comes to their dating relationships. I will teach my children the importance of prayer and of interceding for their future spouses (assuming marriage is their calling in life). Perhaps most importantly of all, I will continue to striving daily to exemplify a holy and functional marriage to them.
But I don’t want them to throw out the baby with the bath water. There is nothing wrong, particularly during adulthood, with going on a casual date to get to know someone. You don’t have to be ready to get engaged to hold someone’s hand or even to give them a kiss. Lastly, I don’t believe that there is a single formula that fits us all. God has made each one of us unique and therefore our vocational discernment and relationships with one another will take on different forms. I’m sure there are people who have followed Harris’ advice and have had successful marriages, but that doesn’t mean this is the way it has to be to have a holy marriage. In the end, what matters is that we continue to strive for holy relationships and marriages and that we support one another in the process.