Married before God, blissful passion, beautiful children, enduring unconditional love- the end product of a successful Catholic dating experience looks pretty darn perfect. For those of us either in or seeking romantic relationships, this dazzling potential too often stands in stark contrast to reality. Problem being, we (not excluding but rather very much embodied by your dear writer) are so very far from being perfect ourselves. Whether this is due to damaging previous experiences, low self-esteem, societal pressure, unrealistic preconceptions… we struggle to trust and love in a healthy way. When asked for a blog entry on my relationship experiences, my first thought was how the last thing I can offer is “how to be a perfect Catholic lover”. Instead, following is a reflection on how I hope to grow in four ways for my partner-in being present, faithful, realistic, and loving as we are called to.
Discussions exploring love and marriage can provide exceptional insight into both one’s partner’s values, and life vision. Such conversations take on a greater urgency perhaps within the context of a Catholic relationship, as its members are defining it against that which is commonly promoted by contemporary society. Once the exploration becomes specific however (i.e. “if we were to have kids,
when we grow old together…”) it can afford premature and unrealistic security in a relationship. A series of “mini proposals” in the form of testing the waters and allowing conversation to dwell too often in the future may initially make both individuals feel more secure, but it is a security built on a potential rather than real trust and may skew the discernment process. To be blinded by the beauty of what one may have could cost one evaluating (and enjoying!) the current reality.
Conversely, a “carpe diem” relationship, offering only day-by-day responsibility to one another is neither a loving nor affirming experience for either party. “One-day-at-a-time” is fine and even healthy initially, however at some point both members must embrace a few formalities and take responsibility to either stick around or leave. Similarly, though all relationships serve as an opportunity for growth, once it becomes definitive that marriage will not result, all truly Catholic relationships – as being concerned with discerning marriage – should end there. It is not enough to be content to tread water at the cost of one another’s happiness.
Beyond the obvious “thou shall not commit adultery”, there are many subtle means by which we can dishonour our partners. To promote trust, not only intentions but actions need to be monitored. “But I don’t feel anything for them” can be unconvincing when weighted against a seemingly compromised situation. Flirting or even constantly engaging with a mate of the opposite sex can give unclear indicators to them, in conjunction with hurting one’s partner. For lads in particular, faithfulness extends to the mind. Use of pornography, visual fantasying (regardless whether about your girlfriend or not) undermines the value of your partner. As in Matthew 5:28 “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart”.
Let’s talk about sex
Loving chastely is perhaps the most challenging part of Catholic dating, but also the most rewarding. Having conversations about physicality sooner rather than later maintains honesty in the relationship – sure, maybe don’t start paraphrasing ‘Theology of the body’ on the first date, but too often we wait until we’ve started making compromises before communicating our needs. Discern as a couple what your relationships’ physicality will look like. Continue to reflect and have ongoing conversations about intimacy. Think affection vs arousal, stick to boundaries once they are set and if you’re feeling the itch – pray, exercise, pray, (repeat). When dating non-Catholics, be open to having such conversations earlier. Be honest and uncompromising in the non-negotiables, but recognise how difficult it can be for people to adjust. We must trust that loving chastely is possible for anyone!
It is really, REALLY hard to live out Church teachings when one is swept up in passion. But it has and can be done. May we never stop trying to grow together towards God. Draw on grace through Mass and prayer, and in friends of strong faith.
There’s no such thing as a ready-made Prince/Princess Charming
Catholics living in accordance with Church teachings on love and sex are an absolute minority, so for those individuals finding a partner who share views on non-negotiables – yes, it will be harder than it is for some of those living by societal standards. Conceded. However the self-generated pressure such difficulty seems to place on Catholics to find the “perfect fit” is unnatural, unrealistic, and essentially unhealthy. Without cutting short on needs, we must remain open minded about wants! Compromising one’s faith for another leads both partners to draw further from God and therefore eventually from one another.
One can fall into the trap of either despairing and compromising completely on what one needs from a relationship, or beating one’s chest and wailing about the lack of Catholics out there. Neither nurture faith or happiness. Just because someone is Catholic doesn’t make them perfect and regardless only God is perfect! One must walk the line between needs and wants, be hopeful, and look for love in unusual places.
Be patient. Que sera, sera.
Use the word genuinely
Throwing around “love” is like not finishing antibiotics- for the sake of humanity, please. Let’s just… not. The language of the Western World has unfortunately not provided the means to distinguish how one feels about coffee from how one feels about one’s life-long partner, therefore we must avoid further watering-down of the L-bomb by using it flippantly in a relationship context. When someone offers a declaration of love, it can (unjustly) produce guilt in the receiver, and lead to dishonesty. Articulating genuine feeling should invariably be rewarded not shamed. One of the most difficult but also the most formative experiences can be waiting to return someone’s love, or conversely for them to return your feeling. If one does not feel love for the other person, why compromise trust and say you do? As with all of life, honesty is the best policy.
Know what it means
I remember when I was 17 being told “I love you for how you make me feel”- my thought being “Yeah…Thanks buckets.” Straight from Aquinas, love is defined as willing the good of another, notably dissimilar to infatuation, concerned primarily with the pleasure oneself experiences from a relationship. JPII offered unchecked desire as deforming and replacing love, “if predominant… it (desire) can rob them both of it.” Too often the strength of feeling can distract from discerning the nature of the same; behaviour rather than feelings can serve as a more reliable indicator of when one is beginning to love. Self-sacrificing actions, concerning oneself with one’s partners welfare rather than functioning off a hand-to-mouth mentality (i.e. replacing “I want him/her now” with “what’s best for him/her?”), and attempting to grow for their sake are all positive indicators of healthy relationship development.
Above all, be bold. We cannot despair at the enormity of the task- it is worth it. We must have faith, love, and never losing sight of the beauty of ‘one-day’, embrace the beauty of sharing our perfectly imperfect reality.