Pam was my first real girlfriend. She had long, blond, wavy hair and a pixie nose. She was bouncy and always seemed to have a crowd of friends around her. What a moment it was when I showed my family Pam’s picture. Oh, how my dad and brothers “oohed” and “aahed”! I was seven years old.
Try as I might, it was six more years before I had another girl to call my own. By then I had severe doubts about myself. Without a girlfriend I never quite felt “cool” enough. But at the end of sixth grade my anxiety finally lifted. One day at recess I got my nerve up to give my St. Christopher’s necklace to a girl who I thought really liked me. I can still recall how Laura put it around her neck – her way of saying, “Yes, I’ll be yours.” Less than a week into the summer I received my necklace back in an envelope in the mail. No note, but an emphatic message. I was devastated.
At seven years of age I was already dividing my world up in terms of boyfriend and girlfriend. I approached the opposite sex as a potential object of conquest. Little did I realize how cut off I would become from our shared humanity.
The litany of lost loves in my life continued throughout high school and college – a typical story of looking, trying, imbibing, then moving on. Most of us have been through the forming and then dissolving of many “special relationships.” We have chased the wind of romance, often with a vengeance, and assumed the chase was just a part of life, part of what it means to be man or woman, part of growing up.
Being “hooked up” is not a harmless social custom. By its nature, pairing off is geared toward obtaining intimacy without sacrifice, relationship without commitment. It reduces the art, the struggle, and the discipline of knowing and caring for another person to a ritual performance of hooking up and breaking apart.
Outside the context of lasting commitment, pairing off breeds an exclusivity that separates us from family and friends. It fosters self-gratifying relationships by overemphasizing the physical and emotional to the exclusion of the spiritual. When it involves sex, it can leave a conscience so heavily burdened that it takes years to heal. It creates unnatural jealousies and dysfunctional identities, prohibiting natural, free, wholesome relating. Worst of all, it schools us in the art of performing, false impressions and broken promises, thus eroding the very foundation that ensures a happy, life-long relationship with another.
The current boy-girl construct in our society, with its on-again-off-again syndrome, is dehumanizing. It reduces the other to the categories of option or non-option, hot or not. Consequently, fewer and fewer of us know how to be ourselves with the opposite sex. Instead, we either simply use each other or we idealize the other, so much so that we find ourselves either perpetually disappointed or utterly afraid to reveal ourselves as we truly are. The pressure to perform and maintain an image in the process of finding or being “the right one” is so immense that we rarely, if ever, let down our guard.
So why is pairing off so prevalent in our culture? Part of the reason is a set of myths we hold about love and romance. We believe that happiness depends on being in an emotionally driven and sexually active relationship. We think that our well-being, and even our worth, depends on whether or not we are possessing and being possessed by another. If only I had that special someone, my life would be fulfilled!
That special someone, however, is little more than a placeholder for a certain feeling – a visceral emotion that has little to do with our deepest longing. Whether or not this feeling lasts is less important than that it exists. It is the feeling, not the other person that really matters. In this sense, love is “blind.” How well two people know each other does not matter as much as whether it “feels right” to be together or not.
Whether it feels right to be together is, according to this popular understanding of love, largely outside one’s control. This kind of love, like magic, just happens; it sweeps one away in an ocean current of overwhelming rush. It is neither duty-bound nor constrained by willpower. This kind of love is supposed to make it easy, or at least easier, to be with another person.
But none of this has much to do with real love. God’s love, of which married love is but a symbol, is unconditional – it is lasting, faithful, forbearing, and committed. It is not about an experience or a feeling, nor even about the dynamics of relationship, but about a way of being, a way of giving. Marriage and family should be built on a love that is rooted not in what is immediate or transitory, but in what is lasting and unwavering.
Loving someone is hard work, not because it is a duty, but because it demands that we enter the battle between good and evil that lies within each of us, and that we seek to overcome the evil with good. In short, love compels us to consider the other person’s need before our own.
How then should young people nurture healthy relationships with each other? I have found that is takes parents and friends working together. In the community of which I am a part, dating and pairing off are not allowed. Instead, young people are given opportunities for positive, natural exchanges in daily settings of working, playing games, relaxing, singing together, celebrating and spending time with each other in family settings.
More importantly, they are taught and reminded that Christ – not romance, nor marriage – must be at the center of every relationship. Toward that end they receive the spiritual guidance of parents and pastors. Without this it is extremely difficult for two people getting to know each other to keep their priorities straight. Only when two people – and those they have confided in – feel that God has drawn them together are they ready to seek marriage.
By rejecting the common practice of pairing off and replacing it with a caring community, the need for companionship can be filled, lustful temptations tempered, and the battle against loneliness won for every person. Boys and girls, young men and young women can relate naturally with each other, free of adult agendas and of having to obsessively eye each other. They can be given time to mature and gain a healthy sexual identity without having to perform or give away what is meant for marriage. And though the struggle against superficiality and sexual temptation always remains, it need not overwhelm or engulf them in a maddening cycle of lost loves. If and when the time comes, they will be ready for that special someone. They will be ready to become one – not a pair but a union for life.