The Millennial Story: Why The Dating Game Is Weird

Bright psychedelic flowers decorated the walls, and groovy music played to bring the contestants on stage. The Dating Game announcer introduced the episode’s young lady and the three mystery bachelors walked in without being seen by the girl.

Then the questions.

The he hard facts (name, age, occupation, income, etc.) were off limits. Questions like “describe the perfect date” (April 25—all you need is a light jacket!), or “What’s your favorite book and why?” or “If you had $1,000, what would you do with it?” At the end of the episode, the woman would choose one lucky bachelor to go on a date with, compliments of the show.

Ah, were it still so simple.

The New Dating Game

Now the dating game is more game than dating, and it seems like the rules are always changing. “Meet cutes” don’t happen outside of the movies, however improbable (though still possible) they may be. If I stumble over my dog’s leash at just the right moment, I’m not cute, I’m a hot mess. Which isn’t a compliment.

It used to be that a boy would notice a girl, or a girl would notice a boy, and sooner or later, the boy would ask the girl on a date. And, assuming the girl didn’t have any prior plans—like washing her hair—and found the boy tolerable, there would be a date, where they would spend a few hours getting to know each other, deciding whether or not there might be a second date. Then, maybe after a few dates, the couple might decide to “go steady.” But that wasn’t a given. People might experience many one-time dates as they learned about themselves, other people, and who might be headed in a similar direction.

Sure, it could become complicated; relationships have a tendency of doing that. But the starting point was clear.

Now? Not so much. First dates are harder and harder to come by, and it’s not just that boys aren’t making grand gestures (like jumping on ferris wheel chairs a la The Notebook). It’s a strange social evolution that makes dating in your twenties feel impossible.

An Online Aside: To be fair, it’s not technology’s fault. But it seems like first dates are only awarded to those who are brave enough to venture online.There’s absolutely nothing wrong with online dating; I know many happily married couples who met online. It’s a great way to meet people your area if you’re not into the bar scene. We typically see the same people in our weekly routines, so online dating can widen your circle—and your options.

How We Got Here—The Dating Pendulum

The relationship pendulum swings between two extremes: hooking up, and courting. Somewhere in the middle is the normal dating, but that seems to be a somewhat elusive state. A fourth dimension or something. (I’m still looking for that stage door. It might be online.)

Many of our parents and grandparents married their high school sweethearts. But with the push for Millennials to attend college, the task of finding a mate was postponed. And once we all graduated from college, the next thing to do was find a career that would pay off those school loans. Marriage was slid to the back burner, and many were content to simply “hook up.”

Hooking Up: For Millennials, junior high and high school sex-ed classes emphasized “safe sex”: if you’re going to have sex, make sure you’re protecting yourself from STDs and pregnancy. The message was clear: “Sex is bad, but it’s also fun, so if you’re going to do it anyways, be smart about it.” Dating became a way to explore sexuality, and one might jump from relationship to relationship, experimenting and finding oneself.

Hooking up isn’t a new concept; it’s what you do when you don’t really want to date or marry, but you still want to fully experience your sexuality. Call it what you want—friends with benefits, sleeping around, one-night stands—it’s all the same thing: casual, care-free, no-strings-attached sex.

There’s plenty of reasons for why and how we arrived here as a culture, including, but not limited to, the sexual revolution of the sixties, the women’s liberation movement, Woodstock, Hollywood and other entertainment productions, as well as the culturally-holy idea of individualism. And we can’t forget the general human desire to satisfy the cravings of the flesh.

It’s a serious misuse of the sexuality God created and gave us to enjoy within marriage. And it’s damaging our souls.

On the other end of the spectrum, and particularly in faith-based circles, there’s “courting” (and its variations). If hooking-up is one extreme, the pendulum swings in the opposite direction in response. That swing is exemplified in a book (and ensuing movement) called I Kissed Dating Goodbye. And it did its own kind of damage to our souls.

I Kissed Dating Goodbye

Just as many Millennials were reaching dating age, this new book arrived on the scene, influenced by purity movements and the evangelical subculture of the 1990s. It was exciting because there weren’t very many dating books out there, and this one wasn’t written by some stodgy, stuffy pastor whose last first date was in the 1970s. No, this one was written by one of our own (!) — a spry 21-year-old by the name of Joshua Harris. He would share his own story of dating, how he had survived his teen years having only had one serious relationship, and was now living real life at 21. How exciting.

I Kissed Dating Goodbye introduced courting to the Millennial generation just in time, before we could actually go on any real dates. The idea of courting wasn’t new; it’s an old-school approach to dating in which relationships are formed with the express purpose and expectation of marriage, and couples are never to be left alone unsupervised. You could still “date” the person before you met at the altar, but the altar was, at the outset, a forgone conclusion.

How we decided a 21-year-old single guy had all the insights and had figured out the best spouse-finding way is beyond me. (I would bore you with the list of my own views that have changed since I was 21. And perhaps reading my works in another 10, 20, or 30 years will be entertaining!) Nevertheless, many Christian Millennials spent their teen years kissing dating goodbye, and nary a date was had unless it was in the presence of at least one set of parents. And with a person who you were definitely intending on marrying.

And so with the I Kissed Dating Goodbye movement, an entire generation forgot—or rather, never learned—how to date like normal people. Or even healthfully interact with the opposite sex.

Christian Millennials who kissed dating goodbye in high school, went to college and began careers, are now looking for love. But we don’t quite know how to go about it, because we never learned how to date. And due in part to the formulaic dating theory and heavy emphasis on marriage that carried the I Kissed Dating Goodbye movement, it has become increasingly difficult to read cues from members of the opposite sex. If I ask her out to coffee, will she think I want to marry her? I don’t even know if I like her yet. Or He called me yesterday to ask about a thing at church; does that mean he likes me?

Like I said—it’s a game. And the rules are always changing.

I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye

It sounds like I’ve thrown Joshua Harris under the bus. But we are where we and now Millennials are learning to navigate the dating game. In Harris’ defense, he is currently working on a project in response to the I Kissed Dating Goodbye movement that he unwittingly set in motion. The feedback he received in the years since the book’s release was mixed, to say the least, but it revealed the impact it had on a generation.

“I was 21 and I thought I had all the answers. But today, I’m not so sure,” said Harris in a video about the project. “As the years have gone by, I’ve learned that life is more complicated, more nuanced than a lot of the simple answers that I gave in my book.”

His new project is called “I SURVIVED I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” and Harris wants it to be a resource for churches and a look into his journey of his changing views.

I want to cheer Joshua Harris on this. Imagine becoming a best-selling author at the age of 21, powered by “youth, zeal, certainty, and ambition,” as Harris says in his TED talk that he was. You become known for an entire movement for an entire generation of an entire subculture. But 20 years later, you don’t even believe the message your movement spread. But instead of shrinking into the shadows and disappearing into obscurity, Joshua Harris is going public with his changing viewpoints. That takes courage. Well done, Joshua.

Harris’ dilemma is a picture of the uncertainty of 21st century dating. It’s not cut-and-dried like we want it to be. Going about relationships and dating and healthy interactions between the sexes in a way that honors God is harder than it looks. The social rules (guidelines?) are different than they were a generation—even a decade—ago.

Combine the lack of clarity in social interactions with the fear of divorce (more on that here) and the college-and-career push, Millennials are on a long and winding path toward marriage.

We’re trying to figure it out.

How You Can Help

If you’re a Boomer or an Xer who’s married or has been married, your dating season likely looked much different. It certainly had its own quirks and challenges, and I’m not comparing the two to claim any worse hardship. It’s just different. And I hope this helps you understand where we are. Thank you for caring about us. We don’t mind talking about this weirdness with you, but it’s difficult to explain across the generations. So thank you for your patience while we figure it out and for remembering that we are more than our relationship status.

If you’re a Millennial, hang in there. We’re all in this together. Remember you are more than your relationship status or online profile. But you’re also made for community and relationships with lots of different people. So keep learning, making friends, being part of your community and trusting God with the rest. Oh, and have grace when your aunt asks if you’re seeing anybody yet. She’s only asking because she wants you to be happy. (Then move on and tell her other good things happening with you. That usually helps.)

God’s Good Work

About ten years ago, Hollywood rebooted The Dating Game show and raised the stakes; contestants vied for not just a first date, but a marriage proposal. The season-long contestants provide some laughable entertainment, but beyond that, The Bachelor/Bachelorette doesn’t have a great track record for marriage, either. Only a fraction of The Bachelor/Bachelorette couples married and are still together.

The good news is, God’s track record is 1,000%. He knows me better than I know myself. And he knows how and when the dating game is going to end for me. And He doesn’t need any psychedelic flowers or groovy music or reality TV to make anything happen. Thank goodness.

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