Saturday, September 24, 2011

Some thoughts on “Dating With An Audience”

There isn’t a St. Patrick’s Day that goes by that I don’t try to watch that great John Ford classic, The Quiet Man. The picture it gives of Ireland in the 1920s may strike modern sensibilities as a bit saccharine, especially in its almost total ignorance of Catholic-Protestant tensions (the Catholic priest even subtly helping the Church of Ireland vicar retain his benefice). However, it’s a great story, with fine moments from the whole cast, and fairly authentic in its portrayal of small-town Irish sensibilities.

The mainspring of the plot is the attempts of Sean Thornton (John Wayne), a man born in the little village of Innisfree but who grew up in America, to woo and win the fiery Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), the sister of a rival landowner, “Red” Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen). But besides Squire Danaher’s malicious hatred, Thornton must also deal with the Irish rules of courtship and marriage; for all her seeming independence, Mary Kate can’t — or won’t — marry Thornton without Danaher’s acquiescence.

I bring all this up because Elizabeth Hillgrove’s fine essay on Virtuous, “Dating With An Audience”,  reminded me of one particular scene: Thornton trying to court Mary Kate traditionally while riding with her on a jogging cart under the vigilant (and quite intoxicated) eye of Michaleen Og Flynn (played to perfection by Barry Fitzgerald).

Elizabeth was talking of teens dating in the presence of chaperones. It occurred to me that adults could stand to be monitored by third parties as well.

Elizabeth brings up the very valid point that “Not every couple needs a chaperone, but limiting alone time is wise. Being together a lot without anyone else around can tempt you to ‘play house’ because it feels as intimate as a lot of marital moments. … Teens and young adults need to grasp that the earlier you start testing your physical boundaries with the opposite sex, the earlier you could take it farther than you wish. Rather than considering ‘how far’ you can go, think about how close you can get to doing what’s right for both of you.”

This point is no less true for the over-twenty set than it is for the under-twenties. The evidence is in: Sex before marriage does nothing to increase fidelity or commitment, and even undermines it. Cohabitation is actually associated with more divorces, not fewer, which eviscerates the “try before you buy” rationale of its defenders. There are so many social problems associated with premarital sex that only those with a financial interest in maintaining its ascendancy (*cough planned parenthood cough*) still believe it to be harmless.

But the reason for dating with witnesses goes beyond that. The fact is, when you marry, you don’t just get a man or woman — you get his/her family and friends as well.

It’s fairly easy to maintain a mask over the short term, so long as there’s no one else there to tear it off. A person in the presence of close friends and family is forced to act in a way recognizable to them; you can compare how he acts and talk in the company of people with whom he’s ordinarily comfortable to how he acts with just you, and how those people react. Ladies, it’s also a good time to see how he treats you in front of others: are you a companion? a drag? a trophy? a goddess? a serving wench? Men, does she treat you like a hero? a spear-carrier? a walking bankroll? a friend? a doormat?

An old rule of thumb has it that men tend to marry women like their mothers, while women tend to marry men like their fathers. I don’t care to debate the merits of this old saw, but it is worthwhile to watch the relationship of a man with his mother and a woman with her father. For one, the opposite-sex parent is likely going to be the rule by which your behavior as a spouse is measured, whether consciously or unconsciously. For another, any unresolved conflicts or tensions are likely to be transferred from the opposite-sex parent to you, mostly without your spouse’s intention or conscious awareness.

Of course, all this presumes that you’re able to detach yourself and look at your beloved analytically, even critically. Hormones aren’t usually that weak; they can often persuade you to overlook or minimize that which, if you saw them in a friend’s intended, would send red flags a-flyin’. Which is another reason to date with witnesses: your friends and family will often spot the bad sorts before you do. Not always, because an accomplished sociopath will deliberately try to co-opt your natural allies, but often enough.

Social gatherings are also good places to see how your intended is with children. Is he awkward? Does she go absolutely gushy over babies? Do children automatically gravitate to him/her, with that odd instinctive knowledge of the natural-born father or mother?

Speaking of allies brings us to the most important reason to date with friends and relatives: building the support network.

Those of us who write about sex and relationship issues constantly reiterate one fact — no matter what the songs and stories tell us, a marriage doesn’t work of its own accord. It takes effort from both parties, and both parties need support from others.

When you date in the presence of friends and family, you have the opportunity to build relationships with your intended’s circle. The more they like you, the more they’ll support your intended’s efforts within the context of your relationship. The more your friends and family like your intended, the less you have to battle them in order to have the relationship at all.

To sum it up: dating in social groups isn’t just a way to avoid “the near occasion of sin”. Not only can such dates be marvelous fun, when playing the long game they’re also useful for making better, more complete judgments of a prospective spouse.

As I’ve said before, the bedroom is only one room of the house, and it’s not even the most important room. Marriage is a social institution, and as such doesn’t exist only behind the front door of the couple’s home; it also exists in public gatherings, in churches and concerts and restaurants and children’s birthday parties. The more social situations in which you can put your relationship before marriage, the better idea you’ll have of what it will be like after the rice is thrown.