‘Culture of disconnection’: Catholic dating complicated by technology, pornography, pandemic
May 20, 2021
Have you ever been asked out on a date with a text?
Or had trouble finding a good Catholic to date, a person striving to be holy and chaste?
Do you feel like you’re swimming against the tide in a hypersexualized, hookup culture?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, you’re likely familiar with the challenges of dating in 2021 – in our digital, secular age.
“I would say we’re living in a culture of disconnection,” said Rachel Tvrdy, who as marriage preparation and enrichment coordinator in the archdiocese’s Family Life Office helps prepare nearly a thousand couples a year for marriage.
The culture of disconnection, according to Tvrdy, is fueled by three major problems: an over-reliance on technology and social media, which leads to fewer face-to-face interactions and inaccurate portrayals of people online; pornography, which creates an inability to be truly intimate with someone; and the social isolation the coronavirus pandemic brought on.
“True dating is the ability to connect emotionally and spiritually with another on a deep level,” she said. “But this is becoming more and more lost in this age.”
The solution to many of those problems lies in strong Catholic communities, Tvrdy and others said.
Those communities give people a sense of belonging, a place to build up self esteem and a sense of self worth and a way to grow in intimacy with others, authentically and without expectations, Tvrdy said. “There’s no better place to meet somebody than through a faith community, where you’re already getting to know each other in a friendship context.”
Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future St. Pope John Paul II, “wrote that friendship is the building block of love, and it is not to be undermined,” Tvrdy said.
“If young adults can establish themselves in a Christ-centered community, in their parish or otherwise, they can build deep friendships based on core values and deeper principles,” she said.
Catholic communities, such as the one at the St. John Paul II Newman Center in Omaha, give young people the confidence to talk about their faith in secular settings and help them establish boundaries for behavior, said Luke Capoun, a freshman at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) who’s involved at the Newman Center.
“Boundaries are such a great thing to have in place, and a lot of people at the Newman Center have like-minded boundaries within relationships,” said Grace Giebler, a sophomore at UNO. “Being able to talk about those boundaries with one another and keeping each other accountable” is important among friends, she said. “It’s such a gift to have those relationships.”
Giebler and her boyfriend, Colter Fulton, also a sophomore at UNO, planned a trip to Colorado this month with other dating couples associated with the Newman Center. The men and women were to stay apart overnight, all holding each other accountable in chastity and holiness, they said.
In Denver, they were to volunteer with Christ in the City, an organization devoted to “knowing, loving and serving the poor,” specifically the homeless.
“So that’s where it becomes really helpful to have a community like the Newman Center, where you have other couples who are pursuing the same thing as you,” Fulton said.
As a community of Catholic couples, “we’re walking the same path together,” he said. “We’re journeying towards Christ together, and we’re struggling with the same things and finding joy in the same things.”
When looking for the right person, it’s important for individuals to first know themselves and be transparent about themselves with the person they’re dating, said Tvrdy, who has a bachelor’s degree in family science from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master’s degree in marriage and family science from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Rome.
“If you value and know yourself and your purpose, you’re going to be very specific in what you want,” she said. “And a lot of people do not know themselves and they don’t know what their purpose is or what their core values are. You really do need to find someone who is in alignment with your core values and your purpose.”
“Oftentimes people aren’t transparent before marriage because of shame or things they just don’t want to talk about,” Tvrdy said.
“People need to know themselves very well before they get married,” she said, “just making sure you’re entering into a relationship in a healthy place and that you’re both willing to grow together – not being perfect people – but being willing to grow with another person.”
Sometimes people don’t discern and want “to just find someone,” Fulton said. “It doesn’t matter what they believe or think.”
“There’s this tendency to kind of jump ship and abandon what the Catholic Church says about relationships, just so you can have a relationship,” he said. But that quickly leads to emptiness.
Instead, people who think they are called to marriage but haven’t found the right person should embrace the time of being single, seek the Lord in a deeper way and perhaps pray for their future spouse, Fulton recommended, based on his own experience.
“It’s really important just to learn what it means to be alone with the Lord in that season of singleness and sort of be OK with where you’re at and really develop a deep understanding of the Catholic faith and develop a relationship with the Lord through prayer and the sacraments.
“So when the right person comes along, you’ll know, and you’ll be willing to pursue the relationship in the way the Lord is asking you to.”
Many people fear commitment and intimacy, Tvrdy said. “And I think a lot of this goes back to divorced and separated families and people growing up in dysfunctional family patterns.”
Growing up with healthy family dynamics is important because it shows what marriage should look like and what it’s made for, she said.
“If you ask an engaged couple: ‘Do you admire your parents’ marriage? Would you want to imitate that?’ the answer often is no,” Tvrdy said.
“The greatest thing we can do before marriage is to embrace our self worth, or in the words of JPII (St. John Paul II), to receive the gift of ourselves,” she said. “We choose partners based on what we feel we deserve. Oftentimes, we subconsciously choose partners that re-enact parts of our childhood trauma, or places where we didn’t feel secure or loved in our past.
“Catholic dating is messy, because the secular culture is messy,” Tvrdy said. “If we embrace the dating standards of the culture, which is driven by hookups and ambiguity, we won’t be able to navigate our way to sacrificial, life-giving love. We need a road map.
“Ultimately, the family is a school of love and a road map, and our education in intimacy is learned first from our parents and primary caregivers. If there is any insecurity in that foundational learning, we carry that into our adult romantic relationships.
“With the divorce rate nearing 50%, it is little wonder younger people are fearful to make a vowed commitment. We are now living in an age of disconnection – social media, COVID, pornography – and the answer to all these counterfeits of intimacy is to build a culture of connection,” she said.
“Dating online is kind of the norm now because there are fewer and fewer opportunities to meet people face to face, especially with coronavirus happening,” Tvrdy said.
Online dating can be problematic for some, however.
“With online dating especially, there’s almost a consumer mentality now. You flipped through all these profiles, and maybe there’s someone better. There’s almost endless options like you have in the consumer world. Maybe someone’s better. You don’t really commit. And so I think that this ‘grass is always greener’ mentality can kind of paralyze us.”
A consumer mentality also creeps in with the use of pornography, which treats people as objects to use and throw away, Tvrdy said, “just to meet your own sexual needs and gratification. It’s very selfish. It’s the complete opposite of the Theology of the Body (by St. John Paul II), which is all about reverence for the body, reverence for the other.”
“We’re living in a hypersexualized culture,” Fulton said, “where everything gets oversexualized, even friendships.”
Catholics need to set boundaries in dating relationships, he said, and obviously that would include abstaining from sexual relations and living in separate households. Less obvious would be establishing how much time one should spend with a person, how late to stay out with that person, how much is shared emotionally and guarding what is shared.
“There’s a progression,” both physically and emotionally, Fulton said, as two people move from not dating, to dating and to becoming married.
When two people are married, they share everything. But what they share when they’re dating requires prudence, he said.
“One thing that I’ve noticed with our generation,” Fulton said, “is a lot of us have lost the art of in-person communication. A lot of people would prefer to just text or DM (direct message) on social media or even just call on the phone. It can be hard to break that habit of always communicating via text message or Snapchat or whatever it is, and to be willing to go out of your way to form a connection with someone face to face, in person.”
Some people try to build a relationship through texting, Capoun said. “And for the most part it doesn’t work.”
Using texting to ask someone out on a date “is in my mind one of the worst things you can do,” he said. Texting might make it easier to deal with rejection, but the tactic is likely to be received adversely or the message misunderstood, Capoun said.
Technology leads to other problems, too.
“I think we live in this over communicative, overstimulated culture, that’s kind of ingrained into our generation,” Fulton said. “It can be hard to just sit down and have a conversation without having the urge to get out your phone, or have your attention be on one person and be really intentional.
“I think there’s a lot of corollaries to that when it comes to having a prayer life or being attentive in class. I see people in our day and age struggle with those kinds of things.”
“A lot of young people don’t know how to sit in silence and be with their thoughts,” Capoun said.
Putting down a phone or other device is “just a sign of respect and that you’re actually valuing the person in front of you,” Giebler said. “We’re called to love the person in front of us, and it’s not really loving another person if you’re being distracted and trying to find your joy elsewhere, when really, joy is right in front of you.”