I have a confession to make: I still love my ex-girlfriend. To be perfectly honest, I still love all of them- and I am not embarrassed to say this to my wife (she usually edits these posts). Let me tell you why…
Over the ten years that I dated, I couldn’t exactly tell you how many girls I asked out who said no (it was a lot… I was an awkward teenage guy). There were, however, four brave young women who said yes to going out with me a second time, and each of these relationships endured at least a few weeks all the way to nearly a year. Looking back on those four along with other friendships & first dates that never materialized into a relationship: there are two things I am both grateful for and proud of when I look back on those ten years.
First, I loved each one of them then, and I still love them today. The whole reason I entered into a relationship with any one of them began from a superficial attraction, but when I consider the four relationships that had the chance to grow… I was able to move past attraction and hormones to genuinely wanting the good of the other person. In one case, this meant letting her go to pursue a religious vocation (leaving me with a broken heart at the time – although things have certainly worked out for the best!), and in another it meant hearing hard truths about my own brokenness – and being challenged to grow beyond them. Each of these young women was a person of character and quality, for whom I wished the best when we were together, as we broke up, and still today. In a word, I loved them then and I love them now – and I would be proud to introduce them to my wife, because they each played a part in forming me for my own marriage… and I pray I was able to contribute as much to their vocations along the way.
Second, and closely tied to the first point: I essentially regret nothing. Yes, there were a few moments that I would handle a little differently – particularly choosing to make a clean break or draw clearer boundaries when I realized a relationship wasn’t going to work out. My biggest regret from my dating years was that I was guilty on occasion of leading girls on – both by my actions and by the way I spent my time. That being said (and they being the forgiving type) even those experiences were learning experiences for me where I learned a little about where I lacked self-control… a very important virtue to bring into marriage.
Why am I sharing this? I’ve spent the better part of the last seventeen years working with teenagers. One thing a good number of you are concerned about is relationships – and I hear a lot more regrets about from teenagers about what you have compromised and done in relationships than any other aspect of your lives, hands down. On a weekend when we celebrated Valentine’s day – on a Saturday, no less – I’d like to offer you the best two pieces of advice I learned along the way during my decade of dating.
1) Love comes first. I don’t mean the butterflies-in-your-stomach twitterpated feeling, or the lack of control that raging hormones can sometimes bring over us… but rather a genuine care and concern for the person you are dating. Dr. Seuss once expressed a beautiful truth in the book Horton Hears a Who – that a person is a person, no matter how small. We can talk about the value of each human life – particularly the most vulnerable (the unborn, the elderly, the sick, the marginalized…) – but we ought to always recognize that our dates are people, too. They aren’t a prize we have to show off to our friends, gloating that we have someone and they don’t. They aren’t someone to use to make ourselves feel good. St. John Paul II wrote that every person “…is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.”
2) Aim for no regrets. This is easier than you think, and starts by thinking through clearly the purpose you have for dating. Mary Beth Bonacci, one of my youth ministry instructors says that: “Dating is for dumping” and that “Real love means never having to say ‘I’m sorry I messed up your life.“ She means that ultimately, you date with the idea that you’re trying to discover (or discern) if this person is the person – or sort of person – you could commit to love for a lifetime. And at the moment that you realize the answer is no, out of genuine love for the other person, you should end it. (Likewise, if you see that right from the start – no matter how attractive the person is, or what it might do for your reputation, you also say no.) This doesn’t even begin to explore those who pressure you for photos or physical gratification… but there’s a huge red flag there, too.
The reality is that to be in a relationship – and to feel loved, no matter how flawed that love might be – is a powerful experience. Every one of us wants to feel loved by someone else, and at times, the desire to feel loved can overwhelm every rational part of who we are. But to feel loved and to actually be loved are not always the same thing. Real love is sacrificial, and looks out for the good of the other person first – not hanging on to the “trophy” of a boyfriend or girlfriend, and not trying to use the other person to make oneself feel better. Surround yourself with people who care about you enough to call into question those moments where you’re tempted to compromise things for that (fleeting) feeling. Studies say that the average romantic obsession lasts two years (often even less time during your high school years) so you need to build a relationship on something much more. What our faith offers us first and foremost is the understanding that we are positively loved by the God who IS love. [One of the things I learned to look for in the girls I dated was someone who loved God more than they loved me, and though this was the reason one young lady left me for religious life, it’s probably the most important advice I was ever given.]
Ultimately, on the day our relationships end – as most of them do – we want to be able to say that we acted towards our boyfriends/girlfriends out of a genuine sense of love: seeing them always as a person first. The hope is that their future boyfriends, girlfriends, and eventually their spouses – can walk up to us and say “thank you for the way you treated him/her.” After all, this person you are dating is a son or daughter of the almighty God – created in His image and likeness, beloved by Him… just like you are. Treat them with love now… and you’ll be able to say years later that you still love them.