Last night I was chatting with some friends about dating. We were standing in my kitchen, swirling glasses of wine and balancing plates of gorgonzola and double-crusted Italian bread, when the topic inevitably turned to relationships.
“What’s better? To date a lot of people, or to just be friends with guys and get to know them that way?” my beautiful and single 25 year old friend asked.
We puzzled over it for awhile, crinkling eyebrows, cringing, wondering how one is supposed to meet a mate. It’s not there aren’t ways to do so—it’s that there are so many ways to do so, and no etiquette or script for any of them. If you choose the friend route, chances are you’ll end up in a world of ambiguity: just friends, something more, friends with benefits but no love, brotherly love but no attraction? Every interaction becomes an opportunity to drive yourself crazy with overanalysis.
And if you go the dating route—booking your calendar with as many nights out on the town as possible—the varying expectations and interpretations of what it means to go on a date make things messy. Juan might never ask you to be his girlfriend, even though he takes you out regularly, but Johannes might think that you’re a couple after two mediocre dates and get offended when you tell him you don’t know how you feel yet. Richard might get jealous that you’re seeing other people, Rob might book two dates for the same night.
We didn’t come up with an answer to my friend’s question, other than the easy pass “It probably depends on the person and on the situation” which practically amounts to “Figure it out for yourself.”
Which reminds me of a conversation I had with two recent college grads about the scarcity of marriage models in popular culture. There are plenty of pop culture depictions of short-term relationships and lusty hook-ups, stifling marriages and steamy affairs—but very rarely in the media and increasingly rarely in real life do we see the successful course of an intentional relationship that ends with a happy (lifelong) marriage. We know that we want marriage eventually, but we’re not sure how to get there.
These same college grads raved about the movie Julie and Julia for its refreshing, relatively sap-free depiction of two happy but not perfect marriages from two different eras. Even if the marriages in the movie aren’t real (in real life Julie and her husband both had affairs and a relatively rocky relationship, although they are still together), any kind of positive portrayal of marriage provides at least some image for us young adults to strive for and to emulate.
And that’s how we learn—through the exchange of ideas, the passing down of traditions, the tweaking of imperfections in the previous script while holding on to its wisdom. Most of us cannot start with a blank canvas and no prior knowledge, and then paint a masterpiece. Rather, we look at what has come before, we study techniques, and then embellish the past with our own flair. The point is that young adults are pretty desperate for guidance–for at least some cultural norms to help us on the path from singleness to marriage. Sure, some of us seem to revel in the lack of boundaries, the do-as-you-please libertinism, the do-nothing-if-you-please apathy. But, for every reveler there is at least one young adult longing to leave the insecurity of the dating world for the settledness of marriage.
Anyone want to show us how to get there?