Jaime B. Achacoso
This article is a product of 30 years of experience of the author’s counseling work with young people. It provides concrete opinion on dating age which may run counter to the current attitude of many young people of today. The readers are advised to look into and reflect upon the arguments of the author based on his rich actual experience on the subject matter.
Why is a priest writing about a topic like this? What does he know about this stuff? The answer to the latter is simply that I too was a regular dude once, the campus scene in the early seventies not being much different from what it is now as far as this topic was concerned, except that premarital sex was much less then.
After counseling young people for the past thirty years- especially as a priest in the past twenty- I have arrived at the conclusion that premarital sex among teenagers can largely be blamed on going steady. Ultimately, of course, the deterioration of morals in society should be blamed. However, I am more convinced each day that the occasion for possible failures in this regard can be minimized by postponing going
steady until after college. This is the main reason that urged me to write this article.
Why Go Steady?
Before anything else, it is important to define our terms, given the different stages of the man-woman relationship prior to marriage. In brief, we can lay down the following:
1st: Dating – the stage of boy-girl friendships, without any hint of exclusivity or any relation to the possibility of a future marriage.
2nd: Courtship-the period of mutual discovery of a man and a woman, the essential qualities of which are the thought of a possible future marriage and- because of this- varying degrees of commitment and exclusivity. This stage can be subdivided into:
a) Going steady, the earliest stage of courtship, also referred to by most teenagers as “being on” or- in its lesser form- as “MU” (mutual understanding). It starts when the possibility of a future marriage is first entertained, and therefore marks a certain degree of exclusivity.
b) Informal engagement, which follows the moment when a man explicitly proposes marriage to a woman and at least an approximate time frame for such is agreed upon privately between them.
c) Formal engagement, the stage after a man formally proposes marriage, for a specific date, and such is communicated to relatives and friends. Most young people go steady for the wrong reason:
a) For companionship– but one doesn’t need to get into such a semi-permanent commitment for companionship; dating several people in turn could provide more companionship.
b) For inspiration (to have a special someone)- but at this stage of development, a special someone is more of a limitation to friendships with the opposite sex, which is a big part of high school and college life.
c) For a ready date– which is really what most fellows are after at this stage, since it’s a hassle having to find a date every weekend.
If I fall in love
“Father, you make it sound so cold-blooded”- objects many a young lady. The fact is, love can be a cold- blooded affair, if it is true love- that is, an act of the will towards a person who has been perceived by the intellect as somebody worthy of love. One does not “fall” in love helplessly. One loves deliberately. Either that or one surrenders oneself to one’s feelings.
Unfortunately, love has been confused with feelings or affections. These latter are reactions to sensible good that can indeed precede, accompany or follow love, but they are not love. Feelings can be deceiving, since they are only reactions to sensible goods: a pretty or handsome face, a thousand and one details that makes somebody nice (or what most girls call “cute”). Only the intellect can really judge the overall aptness of a person for conjugal love. Only afterwards should the will follow: “I love him, because he has the qualities that I consider indispensable for the man who will be my husband until death, and who will be the father of my children.”
The failure to distinguish between feelings of love and love itself is at the bottom of many failed marriages. Consider the fellow who “falls” for his officemate: she shares his interests (they’re in the same profession), she is supportive (they work together), and she is very pretty (he only sees her in her business best). There’s just one hitch: he’s married, with two kids.
As the song goes: “It’s so hard to belong to someone else when the right one comes along.” Only the intellect recognizes that precisely because one already belongs to someone, then anyone else coming along cannot be the right one.
So why can’t I deliberately fall in love in college or high school?
Because real conjugal love is inseparable from marriage. Going steady is like getting engaged. The couple are getting to know each other more, so as to be able to finalize the decision for conjugal love and marriage. It is not rational to get into this relationship in college or high school, because it is too early for that.
Imagine if a friend tells you he’s going to shop for a computer system. You casually ask him when he plans to make the actual purchase and he- just as casually- tells you he has no plans yet, at least not in the next couple of years. You would think he’s nuts. Why shop now if you’re not going to buy it in the next few years? Something like that happens with going steady in college.
The Problem of Serial Monogamy
Another consequence of teen-age steady relationships is the rise of a mentality which has been called serial monogamy- i.e., such steady relationships do not last, averaging anywhere between a year or two. Granted that within those two years the couple may really feel in love with each other and thus practice fidelity with each other (hence are monogamous in a sense ), nevertheless, since they are too young to really commit themselves to each other for life, the relationship is not indissoluble. Thus, in the span of the decade or so prior to marriage, the unwary young man or woman might go through several monogamous but dissoluble relationships. Such serial monogamy prior to marriage is the breeding ground for a divorce mentality afterwards, since conjugal love has been equated with monogamy alone, forgetting the aspect of indissolubility.Real marital love is for keeps. As the old song goes: “If I fall in love, it will be forever. Or I’ll never fall in love.”
How long should courtship be?
When I ask young ladies this question, they invariably answer “a long time.” I always have to stifle a chuckle, since quite often the young lady in question would be in her late teens and “engaged,” and of course most girls nowadays are not really contemplating marriage before their 25th birthday. This is quite logical, since most girls- at least in the urban setting- go to college, and would therefore want to experience a bit of their professional career before they settle down to the more serious business of raising up a family.
Hence, the young lady is not answering my question, but is rather thinking of how long it will take her to be old enough to get married. If she’s only nineteen, and she wants to enjoy her professional career until she’s twenty-five, it stands to reason that she and her boyfriend will have to wait at least six years before they can marry.
Rephrasing the question normally unravels the fuzzy logic. “If you were twenty-six- I ask- and you start going steady with a twenty-eight year-old fellow who is professionally stable and well off, how much time do you think will you need to make up your mind about each other?” She normally answers: “A year.”
This is the crux of the matter. A couple going steady are calling each other up daily on the phone, probably going to and coming home from office together, spending the whole weekend together, meeting each other’s family- it’s a super-exposure to each other. If they can’t decide in a year or two whether they are meant for each other or not, there’s something wrong with their thinking process.
Why long courtships are unhealthy.
What’s wrong with starting the courtship in college or high school and just prolonging it all the way to marriage at a much later date? The answer has to do with physiology and psychology- specifically male physiology.
Most girls are not very aware of this, but any red- blooded human male will immediately empathize with what I’m going to say: Man is a very sexy (albeit rational) animal.
Girls and women are perfectly equipped by the Creator to be loving and caring- also with the opposite sex- without getting sexual. This is part of their femininity, which is relevant to their role in society (especially connected with child-rearing and caring for the family). Hence nurses have traditionally been women.
Thus in a boy-girl relationship, the girl can be affectionate in many ways- words, looks, affectionate touches, gestures, attention to details- without getting sexually stimulated.
But not a boy. A fellow’s threshold level for sexual arousal is pretty low, so that for most teen-aged boys, a physical display of affection is almost concomitant with sexual stimulation. It’s a matter of physiology and psychology. Thus, a boy is not designed to spend many years with the object of his affection- his girlfriend- beside him, day in and day out, without getting on with it. Either that or he is subjected to a terrible strain to control his sexual drive.
Thus, a steady relationship at college (worse in high school) can be a proximate occasion for going too far – at least where the guy is concerned. But since a steady relationship always includes a girl (hopefully!), then the principle applies to both. The moral principle is that to deliberately open oneself to a proximate occasion of doing something wrong, one needs a proportionate reason- i.e., proportionate to the gravity of the wrong that one is exposing himself to.
So when can one start going steady?
Human acts are for their end: to act rationally, one must have an end in mind, and orient his action according to that end. Now what’s the end of courtship?
Marriage is the end of courtship, just as final purchase is the end of shopping (even when one is just window-shopping at the moment, he is normally looking forward to buying in the near future). Thus, when to go steady is a function of the decision- approximate as it may be initially- of when to get married.
As previously mentioned, most girls don’t want to get married earlier than twenty-five; some even much later. Hence, the healthy age for girls to start going steady can be roughly computed:
25 years old – 2 years = 23 years old at least
(ideal age for marriage) – (of courtship)
Nevertheless, girls can really be quite flexible in their target marriage age: as soon as they have the right fellow, they really can get married.
But not so with men, normally. Contemporary society imposes a minimum age for a man to get married well- i.e., the age when he is professionally stable and financially solid. He is expected to be able to set up house immediately after getting married- at least to be able to rent a flat. Otherwise he will be forced to bring his bride to his parents’ home or move in to his in-laws’ home. As Christ solemnly said, quoting Genesis: “For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife. (Mt. 19:5).
In our society, this age is about 28-30 years. It takes that much time for a fellow to graduate from college (21 years old), find a suitable job after trying several (25 years old), stabilize himself in that job and get a few promotions (28-30 years old). Nowadays a joint family monthly income of P30,000 would barely enable a couple to rent a humble apartment in the metropolis, or buy a low-cost house on installment somewhere in Calabarzon. Thus, the minimum age for a man to get into a serious relationship with a woman can also be computed:
28 years old – 2 years = 26 years old at least
(practical age for marriage) – (of courtship)
Of course there are exceptions- e.g., if either the fellow or the girl is a millionaire to start with (from inheritance or otherwise).
Does this mean teenagers shouldn’t date?
Of course not. Knowing the opposite sex is part of the maturing process that coincides with high school and college years. Dating therefore forms part of a healthy college life. But dating is not going steady. One doesn’t get serious with an occasional date. One doesn’t get intimate with him or her either. Much less would one be committed to him or her in an exclusive relationship. And this is the key to the whole thing: non-exclusivity.
Non-exclusivity is the very guarantee of non- seriousness and therefore non-involvement in those details of physical intimacy which are the run-up for sexual activity. Concentrating one’s affective capacity on one person leads to developing strong feelings (mistaken for love) for that person.
Boys and girls should have many friends of the opposite sex in college and high school. It is part of their educational process to discover different personalities of the opposite sex, precisely in order to be able to one day choose a partner for life. It would be quite a limitation if instead of choosing from a large field of possibilities, one were to be hitched to one person at sixteen, be limited to that person until they break up (statistically they do so after 1-1/2 years), then get stuck again with one person for another two years, and this way until finally getting married to one (hopefully, without having gone into something regrettable with any of his or her previous partners).
Some girls think that dating several guys would mean they are promiscuous. Quite the contrary, what such casual dating accomplishes is precisely that they avoid being physically promiscuous. Among other things because guys normally behave well- as in properly- with a female friend; he gets more daring with a girlfriend.
A last word on teen-age dating. Multiple dates should be the rule. Not only are they safer–goons will think twice before attacking two or more couples, they also provide a natural check against going too far in manifestations of affection.
One of the greatest consolations in my life as a priest has been to see young people grow- physically and spiritually- into mature individuals, without suffering the scars of a badly-lived adolescence. An even greater joy comes from guiding some of them to lives of dedication to God and their fellow men. No less exhilarating is to see youthful romances bloom- all in their due time- into mature conjugal love and eventually marriage.
In contrast, some of the greatest heartaches I’ve had to suffer as a priest have been to see young people get derailed by premature steady relationships with the opposite sex.
Unfortunately, the past 30 years have seen Hollywood and the media glorify teen-age romantic relationships. Coupled with an eroticized environment, this has resulted in what is quite obvious to everyone now: an alarming increase in teen-age premarital sexual relationships, a rise in teen-age pregnancy, and on the whole a deterioration of sexual morality.
I hope reading this piece will make some teenagers reconsider their position and postpone any serious emotional involvement with a person of the opposite sex until the right moment. And if they are already too emotionally involved, at least to cool off a bit.
But if they are hopelessly in love, then I earnestly invite them to go to regular spiritual direction, to frequent the sacraments, and to embark on a no-nonsense struggle to develop the Christian virtues. That was how healthy teen-age romances were possible in the not too distant past. Perhaps that’s how they can be made possible again. I, for one, am all too-ready and willing to help them through spiritual direction.
This updated article was printed by permission from the author.