Humans are made for community. Whether it’s the family unit a child is born into or the friends he or she makes in school, the way that God created humanity, in the community of the Holy Trinity as the image of God, directs human DNA toward relationships.

But as humans grow, the need for relationships deepens in ways we don’t always understand. We know we’re searching for something, but sometimes, we can’t put our finger exactly on what it is. It’s like U2’s anthem, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” that puts the focus on the search, rather than the finding.

And yet, the human heart longs for a lifetime relationship with someone who can play the dual role of friend and spouse, spending hours searching for the right “one,” chasing the moments that will inform our decisions about commitment and marriage. But too often, instead of investing in the pursuit, a person will settle for the quick interactions that don’t last—the ones that momentarily feel good in passing, shallow ways but fail to satisfy.

For Millennials, who often delay marriage for a host of reasons—including not wanting to experience divorce the way their parents so often have—the question is: How do we go about building a strong, life-long relationship from the outset?

The Dating Project

Dr. Kerry Cronin, a professor at Boston College, believes this is a cultural shift that can be redirected over time, if intentionally approached. She teaches a course on dating and gives her students a chance to go on a controlled date for extra credit. Her own path, including her role as associate director of the Lonergan Institute, a research center dedicated to the teachings of Canadian philosopher Bernard Lonergan, has driven her to share her knowledge and experiences with her students.

“I went to school in the late ’80s when music parties weren’t just retro fun!” she tells Citizen. “We had hooking up but it wasn’t called that—it was one-night stands. We get the phrase ‘hooking up’ from pornography. When my friends had one-night stands, they told everyone, but they were sheepish—taking the temperature of what everyone in the circle thought. Now, hookup culture is so dominant that students are sheepish when they don’t want to take part in that scene—like, ‘I’m too busy,’ or ‘I’m religious.’ That’s a flip that happened sometime in the 1990s.”

Cronin’s work ended up being documented in the feature film The Dating Project (2016), which explores the experiences of several of her students. It provides real- life anecdotes to the work Cronin has been doing, and the background for what she knows to be true.

Applying What We Know … in Class

Crediting a mix of the Holy Spirit and “stumbling into it,” Cronin found herself talking with a group of Boston College seniors about their lives after graduation. Only one had been on what Cronin called a “real date.”

As she prepared for another session of her integrated course on Philosophy on Theology, she worked queries about culture and dating into the overall question, “What is the best way to live?” She found the students craved the discussions about dating, and yearned for someone to mentor them on the different approach from “hooking up” to “real dates.”

Cronin explains that hooking up is a physical or sexual interaction that is a mental and emotional attempt to deceive ourselves.

“It’s asking ourselves to deny that our bodies are saying things when we’re doing things with our bodies,” she continues. “I think that hookup culture encourages us to celebrate disconnected ideas, where the physical and the sexual are disconnected. Dating asks us to reveal ourselves in appropriate and real ways. Students tell me all the time when they go on a one-hour date how surprised they are at what could be asked or answered. They’re shocked when the other person doesn’t look at their phone!”

That’s where Cronin’s background intersects with her students’ futures. Her lessons prompt the current students to hear from their predecessors about their dating experiences, to share their own experiences in past relationships, and to figure out how to maintain proper boundaries on future dates. She assigns them a three-page paper after the dating assignment to process their experience and their feelings. Because of the deconstruction and splintering of families, she says that even more than the “rules” of dating (set time limits, interactive activity required, split bills, etc.), they long for someone to invest in them and mentor them in how to build the relationship.

Cronin says humor is the best way to approach the situations students find uncomfortable, so she tells an abundance of stories, applying faith and ethics to real- life situations, much like Jesus did with his parables.

She shows them that unlike the average rom-com, where two people hate each other until they fall in love during a music montage, dating requires two people to show mutual respect, to invest in the other person, to share their desires for the future and for the possibilities that await them.

The Conversations We Tend to Avoid

Cronin’s instructions include a reminder to actually interact. While social media “friending” and texting have swept over culture, she encourages dating prospects to find ways to actively converse, even about tough situations and topics. There is a mutual investment in both sides of the budding relationship.

How will each person show love to the other? Have they considered love languages, pet peeves and hot topic issues (like sex) that should be discussed? Have they considered talking with other married people in their lives, like their parents or close friends, when discussing what it means to actually be married?

What does the other person think about family? How will the new family that emerges after a wedding relate to each partner’s family of origin? What are each person’s hopes for children and the future?

When it comes to money and work, how will the couple handle the need for funds and the importance of the chores to be done at home and in the workplace? When choices need to be made about the future work of the family, whose career will be highlighted?

Ultimately, the movement from hooking up to dating requires time, intentionality and patience. But Cronin says it pays off with lifetime relationships, romantic and otherwise.

In that, there is hope—for the future, for love, and for real interactions that last longer than one night, maybe even forever.

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Originally published in the October 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.