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Life in the Digital Age: What’s Love Got to Do with It?

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How have changes in technology and the culture impacted the development of romantic relationships in the 21st century?

It used to be that long-distance relationships were the stuff of romance novels, never to materialize in the real world. Of course, with the technological revolution of the late 90s continuing into the 21st century, distances have become much shorter. More significantly, the natural obstacles that used to stand in the way of two people separated by different time zones (or perhaps even an entire ocean) crumbled, giving way to a world made ever smaller through satellite technology and fiber optics. And, most remarkably, means that were intended for staying in touch have been in large part transformed into new forums of social interaction where like-minded people come to meet others for the first time (many of whom might otherwise have never met in person).
 
Such is the Digital Age, and such is the day-to-day life for the Millennials – the generation of today’s young adults who came of age just as the advent of the Internet brought with it the dawn of a brave new world. Yet, technology aside, this new era is not marked solely by the manifold technological advancements of our day, but rather by the society that drives it. A recent New York Times article (The End of Courtship?) explores the very question of whether this “digital age” has in fact transformed the love lives of those who have been most significantly impacted by it: the Millennials. Has the lack of more direct forms of social interaction, along with changing social mores and cultural ideologies, broken down the dating culture?
 
Caitlin Bootsma, 28, was married in 2011 and is now the mother of a 7-month-old boy. “What I saw [of the ‘dating scene’],” she says, “was that everyone had lowered their expectations. On the one hand, they wanted the romance from a movie; on the other hand, they were willing to chat online and ‘go Dutch’ on coffee and call it dating.” (To which she adds, “I’m so grateful I held out for someone who believed courtship isn’t dead!”) As the NYT article points out, Millennials often indicate that there is a general sense of confusion about dating, boyfriends, girlfriends, love, relationships, sex, (you name it).
 
And why shouldn’t they be confused? The sexual revolution may be dead as an active movement, but only because it has succeeded in capturing the culture. And, like it or not, Millennials of all backgrounds have been brought up within this same culture, and regardless of whether they adhere to these beliefs or not, they are still impacted by it in one way or another. According to one young woman living in the DC metropolitan area (who chose to remain anonymous), “I have the same exact dating struggles as my liberal, Jewish, new-ageist friend back home in California. I’ve been to the Catholic scene in DC for several years now and I’ve boiled the problem down to one thing: fear. Fear in both sexes.”
 
This fear takes many forms: for some (perhaps for most), it is the fear of commitment. For others, it is the fear of rejection. However, these two fears can merge into a fear of the unknown – a sense of uncertainty stemming largely from unclear expectations. The sexual revolution forever changed the way in which men and women interact, effectively uprooting them from their respective roles as initiator (he who pursues) and responder (she who is pursued). And while many a postmodern mind might balk at the idea of gender roles, it seems that this amorphous posturing is precisely why so many Millennials have found little more than discouragement in the dating scene. In “Anonymous’” own words: “It is more in woman’s nature to respond, and if the leadership is weak, the response is oftentimes confused and frustrated (which many of us are).” Add to this gender-based confusion the fact that social media and technology have further estranged individuals from regular personal interaction, and you have a generation of people who, as a whole, lack the skills to interact effectively with one another in ways that bring about the fruition of “community”.
 
And yet, technology as a tool for communication (or even meeting new people who might otherwise have never crossed your path) should be distinguished from the misuse of technology as a substitute for more organic forms of interaction. In direct response to Shani’s story in the NYT article, Kristina Olney (also of Washington, DC) had this to say:
 
“The problem wasn’t that he texted her – it’s that he didn’t have the decency to show up. Selfishness, then, is a part of the reason why women like Shani are being disappointed in the dating world, but it isn’t a modern problem. Modern technology has simply made it easier to fall into the traps of pride and selfishness that are natural to the human condition.”
 
Olney also cited one Internet matchmaking success story about two close friends of hers who met online at the age of 16. Eventually, their initial casual interaction led to marriage by the time they were 18, and they are now the happy parents of four children. “And texting or chatting online didn’t stop their fairytale from materializing,” said Olney.
 
In yet another example, a 25 year old man from Eugene, Ore., speaks of his success in finding love on CatholicMatch.com. Having grown tired from a “short stint of casual hook-ups”, he turned to another alternative, which offered the distinct possibility of finding a Catholic mate. Since his initial encounter with his match, the mutual attraction between the two has grown, and prospects of marriage now seem to be very real.
 
These two success stories, as well as countless others that begin in what could perhaps be considered the “more or less traditional way”, reveal that while the dating culture is damaged (along with the culture at large), a true love built on a spirit of mutual gift and self-sacrifice still remains. And while it may not be something that is readily found on the surface, it is the innate force that brings joy to the hearts of men and women alike, and it is that same force which they seek. After reading the NYT article, Anna Krestyn, 31 – a Director of Religious Education in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington – offered the following reflection: “I would paint a much brighter picture for the future than the one portrayed in the article, because as Catholics, we are struggling through our broken culture and our own broken histories toward belief in the lasting good of marriage and family life.… Getting to this point has required a lot of ‘getting real’ about what can make me truly happy.”

And if you were to ask Anna now, she wouldn’t hesitate to tell you that she has found authentic happiness.

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