Right now, you are fast asleep during your afternoon nap (which explains why I can take the time to type this letter to you). Upon awaking, your thoughts will probably turn to a trip to the playground or to the latest book we took out from the library (Jesse Bear's Birthday--I highly recommend it).
I can pretty much guarantee that there is one thing you won't be thinking about: dating.
That's why I am writing you this letter.
There will come a time--hopefully many, many years from now--when you will likely become interested in dating. At such a point I (hopefully) will not panic, but instead share with you the wisdom I have gleaned from life experiences and from those much wiser than I.
But, seeing how it will be years until such a conversation will transpire, and considering that my experiences with dating aren't all that long ago, I thought it wise to jot down some thoughts about dating right now, while they are relatively fresh in mind and before the cobwebs of time begin to cloud my memory.
These are the things I wish you, dear daughter, to know before you delve into the wonderful, perplexing, exciting, and sometimes exasperating experience that is dating.
1. Date With a Purpose.
Why do people date?
There was a time when I was dating a dear friend. He was honest, absolutely respectful, and so very kind to me. We enjoyed each other's company and shared many laughs together. After several months of dating, however, I began to feel very uneasy about our situation.
You see, as dear and as kind as he was, I knew in my heart of hearts that he wasn't the man for me. As easy and convenient as it would have been to have him be my vocation, I knew there was someone else out there.
During a heart-wrenching conversation in which I explained this, he suggested we not take things too seriously. No need to say we were in a relationship--we could just casually date, with no serious implications for the future.
It was a tempting choice. I did very much enjoy his company, after all...
But what is the purpose of dating?
So many people date to have fun, to have companionship, to share physical affection.
Yet, the true reason for dating is to become acquainted with another person with the intention of discerning if this is the man or woman God intends for you to marry.
When you date, you should always have in the back of your mind: Is this my future spouse?
If you have gathered enough information and adequately observed your date to determine "NO," then it's time to say goodbye.
That goodbye can be hard. I know from experience that it is.
But I also know that, a few weeks later after saying goodbye, I came to say, "Hello" to the man who would become my husband.
People date to find a spouse. This is our guiding principle.
2. Don't Look for Heartbreak
When should one begin to date?
Let's let our guiding principle answer that for us. If dating is a process for finding a spouse, it seems that one should only begin dating when he or she is of marrying age.
Generally, in the United States, this is about 18 years of age.
Now, you will find, here and there, those high school sweethearts who do indeed eventually marry. It happens. But it isn't the case for the overwhelming amount of high school couples.
The majority of couples give their hearts to each other, only to realize a few weeks or months down the line that the relationship isn't really working out. This boyfriend or girlfriend isn't all you thought him or her to be.
If you start seriously dating in high school, by the time you eventually meet your spouse four, eight, or ten plus years later, your heart might have become emotionally scarred from bad relationship wounds. It will be that much more difficult for your spouse to gain your trust and you'll have more baggage to unload before you are free to give your heart completely in marriage.
So, what's one to do in high school? Avoid the opposite sex altogether?
The best scenario: spend your time forming strong relationships with female friends and socialize in a mixed gender group, so you do have interaction with those of the opposite sex, which is certainly important. Avoid any serious, committed relationships--there will be plenty of time for that later.
3. Form Your Ideal
So you are now an appropriate age to date! Where to begin?
Just because you can date someone doesn't mean you should date him. Remember, dating is all about finding a future spouse. So, the question you should ask yourself is: what am I looking for in a spouse?
The answer might eliminate many men right then and there.
You might be introduced to an individual who seems like a pretty decent fellow. However, if he is an atheist...well, you could certainly be friends, but he probably isn't someone you should date, since you would want a spouse who shares your faith.
Form your ideal. Make a mental image of your future husband. Add on all the adjectives you want: responsible, intelligent, humorous, patient, hardworking, virtuous, handsome...
Of course, you can search the whole world and you won't find someone who is perfect. Only God is perfect. BUT you can find the perfect man for you--the man God created with you in mind.
Your ideal is out there! People might tell you that you are unrealistic, that you are being too picky, that an "ideal" doesn't exist.
If your vocation is marriage, your ideal does exist. So never give up; God will bring him to you.
But you have to know what you are looking for.
The process of dating may help you define your ideal with more clarity, but you have to start out with a template.
4. Don't Compromise
This is a logical consequence of point #3. If you have an ideal in mind, don't compromise it.
You may become very lonely. You might get really tired of waiting for your vocation to show up.
Don't compromise your ideal for something less.
If you have dated someone and there are clear warning signals that this is not the right man for you, don't relax your standards just for the sake of being in a relationship with someone.
The right man is worth waiting for.
This is why it is so important to form around you a strong community of female friends and to keep yourself busy by helping others, staying active in your church community, and forming yourself professionally, spiritually, and intellectually.
5. Make It a Family Affair
Dating is a discernment time: it's a period of asking yourself if this man is your future husband.
To adequately discern this, you need input: from friends, yes, but from family, too. Family are the people who know you the best.
So, be sure to keep your family involved. Introduce your date, from the start, to your parents and siblings. They will provide you with valuable input and a necessary perspective.
There was many a time my family helped me see things I was denying or ignoring about a poor relationship. At the time, their input wasn't always welcomed, but in retrospect, it was absolutely critical.
Don't keep your dating a secret. You don't have to share every single detail with your family, but you should share enough so they are in the loop.
And if a relationship does end and your heart is hurting, the unconditional love of your family will always be there for you, to embrace you and to assure you that you are precious and beautiful.
As a corollary, when you are dating, be sure to learn about your date's family, too. These are the people who raised him and are likely the greatest influence upon him. They may be your future in-laws one day.
Be sure to spend time around his relatives and to observe their family dynamic. Watching your date around his parents and siblings will reveal another important side to him and will further help your discernment.
6. Give the Perfect Gift
If you are dating and decide that this man is marriage-material and fits pretty well with your ideal, and your family concurs...then it may well be time to enter into a courtship.
Some people might call it entering a "relationship," which is generally understood to mean that the man and woman will see each other exclusively.
However, I think the more preferable term is "courtship," because it keeps in mind the ultimate end of thing. The man and woman are moving from a time of dating to courting, in preparation for a possible marriage.
If you find yourself in a courtship, this is a tremendous blessing and you should certainly thank God for it!
However, two very important points:
1. Discernment doesn't end until the day of marriage. Remember that you are still learning more and more about this man in order to know if he is your vocation.
2. Physical affection might have begun in the dating stage (holding hands, hug goodbye). If the relationship becomes more serious, that doesn't mean that physical affection should as well. From the very start, your goal should be to give the perfect gift and this is a goal that must be defended and protected at every stage of the relationship, from dating to courtship to engagement to marriage.
7. Is Marriage Your Vocation?
Every person has a vocation: an invitation from God to love and serve Him and His Church in a particular state or way of life. We receive our vocation in Baptism.
Many people are called to serve and love God through the sacrament of matrimony.
But not all people.
Some men are called to the vocation of priesthood. Some men and women are called to the vocation of religious life.
These vocations are not the "back-up" plan if you don't meet the right person. They are legitimate, beautiful, and fulfilling ways to live one's life.
Some might say that a young man has a holy duty to prayerfully and actively discern the priesthood before he begins dating. To serve as a holy priest of God--to be not just alter Christus (another Christ), but ipse Christus (Christ Himself)--is perhaps the highest calling on earth. St. John Vianney has said, "What a great thing it is to be a priest! If I were to understand this fully, I think I would die."
A woman may be called to the religious life. To be a religious sister is to enter a religious community, which becomes your family, and to give oneself completely to God through vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience. I have a friend who is called to the religious life and here are her words to describe her calling: "To be all His [God's], finally: that's what I'm excited about; that's what my heart was made for."
This might be your vocation, too! Your heart might be made to be a religious sister. So honestly and prayerfully open your heart to God and ask Him to show you your vocation. Remember that the only way you will know true joy is through living the vocation God intended you to have.
8. God is #1
If you are seeking out your true love, remember that He is already there. God is your true love--the one who created you, redeemed you, and sanctifies you.
You may be called to marriage and one day find a man who fills your heart with song. To be in love is an extraordinary experience like no other.
But the love between man and woman is just a shadow of the even greater love that God has for you.
So, while there may be a man who captures your heart, never forget that your heart ultimately belongs to God.
Spousal love flows from God's love. Be certain to always keep God first and foremost in your heart. That way, you will be free and able to truly love your spouse.
As C.S. Lewis has said: "When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. In so far as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased."
My dear Mary, do not be afraid: God has beautiful, wonderful plans and whatever vocation you are called to, if you surrender to God's Will, you will know joy--here on earth and, through His grace, in heaven for eternity.