By Jacob Hosier
February 14, 2020
Wheaton students are bombarded everyday with phrases like “ring by spring,” “date for marriage” and “guard your heart.” What’s peculiar about these messages is that they do not seem to reflect the heartbeat of the student body, who almost unanimously wish for a more casual dating culture. Although these messages are not harmful in and of themselves, their overuse can perpetuate extreme social pressure and a theologically inaccurate elevation of marriage, which in turn results in diminishing the single vocation, or a calling to be single. Even in this newspaper, there is an engagement ring advertisement, which seems out of place — aren’t we all a little young to be thinking about marriage?
If you have been on campus enough, the words “Wheaton dating” can sound like an oxymoron. Ministry Associate for Care and Counseling Kelly Urbon, who wasn’t married until she was 38, spends a lot of time helping students navigate Wheaton’s unique dating culture. “There seems to be so much verbal interest [in dating] and so little action,” Urbon said. Urbon noted that during her time working at Wheaton in the 90s people mused on that same dichotomy, dispelling the myth that Wheaton’s dating scene is any sort of new phenomena.
One of the reasons this tension seems to persist is because of misunderstandings between men and women. In a phone interview, President Ryken touched upon the discrepancy between men not initiating relationships and women putting too much pressure on dating opportunities. This in itself presents a dilemma — a stalemate between the sexes — where women want men to act, but men fear acting because of the expectations that follow.
Junior Lonzie Helms said that he isn’t afraid of dating, but he has often found that his approaches fall outside of the rigid conventions of Wheaton dating etiquette. Helms shared a story about sending a direct message to a girl that was in one of his classes. “The message itself wasn’t super weird, but I didn’t get a reply, and then I heard that she was super weirded out by that,” he said. Helms went on to share a series of similar anecdotes detailing how, when a relationship gets to the DTR stage, “people start to get squeamish, especially if they don’t see it immediately translating to marriage.”
Juniors Christy Kim and Daniel Giles are two students whose Wheaton dating experiences could not be any more different. Kim, now single, talked about how some of the aspects of Wheaton dating culture can make it hard for a relationship to get up and running. “There’s this weird prerequisite of needing to talk for x amount of time before you go on a date versus a more casual ‘hey I think you’re attractive and I’d like to get to know you better. Would you want to go on date?’ sort of thing,” Kim said. Giles, who is currently happily in a relationship, reflected on how Wheaton’s idiosyncratic dating culture placed a burden on his relationship early on. “I felt like we had to fit in with other couples — no touching, all these deep spiritual talks. I felt like we had to prove to people we were serious,” Giles recalled.
Kim mentioned that she does not strongly desire to be in another relationship while at Wheaton because of the culture. “I want to entertain the idea of casual dating better because I feel like going into something so deep so fast and with all these expectations doesn’t work generally,” Kim said.
Wheaton’s dating culture has its upsides. “We’re not a place where people easily connect with other people and then discard them,” Urbon said. Many students remarked that although relationships at Wheaton take awhile to get going, the ones that do are often very healthy, with mutual respect, commitment and depth central to the relationship. This is very distinctive to Wheaton, especially in an age where hook-up culture is becoming more and more prevalent.
Sophomore Annie Shand was able to witness this culture firsthand while attending Temple University before transferring to Wheaton. “I didn’t see a lot of people actually dating. Honestly, the dating culture was not to date,” Shand said. She went on to describe how being single at Temple was often seen as being more favorable than being in a relationship because the culture allows students to have intimacy without commitment. Whereas in secular universities singleness is often met with a strong sense of empowerment, on Christian campuses singles often feel a strong sense of loneliness.
To junior Michael Loewer, the dating culture at Wheaton is so distinct from standard dating practices that it merits an ethnographic research project. He plans to focus on the 20s ministry at College Church. “Often in the Christian evangelical world, we think of singleness as this sort of liminal space, like either you want to be in a relationship, or you are between relationships” Loewer said. “Singleness becomes this in-between space where you are just waiting to be in a relationship. But if you look at the Bible [1 Corinthians 7], it doesn’t advocate for marriage over singleness.” He said that married people can be guilty of making assumptions about the spiritual life of singles. “You see someone who is in their thirties and they’re single and you think, ‘Oh, what’s wrong, I wonder why they aren’t married.’”
“I think it’s a big myth that you haven’t really grown up until you’ve gotten married,” said Steve Ivester, dean for student engagement. Ivester, who is single, reflected on how the dating culture at Wheaton is “frustrated,” noting, “I don’t think students have cultivated enough freedom and comfort to be honest about what they’re feeling and thinking. I think we live in the shadows around dating and the peer group also perpetuates the fear. Oftentimes it’s the way you treat each other informally that also causes the fear, so you see a man and a woman having a meal at Saga, knowing nothing about it, and all of a sudden you feel like you can harass them.” Ivester goes on, “There’s a lot of pressure, too, at Wheaton that you have to find the right person, date them and then marry them. At a lot of Christian colleges, there’s extra pressure that you go to college and you get married. You hear it at different large events, maybe in chapel.”
Single vocation is upheld as praiseworthy in 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul argues that singleness can help promote the gospel, even as he exhorts Christians who desire marriage to pursue it. However, a problem that occurs in many Christian communities is the elevation of marriage and subsequent demotion of single vocation. Reflecting on this, Urbon, who was raised Catholic, said, “In my parents’ generation, to choose the vocational priesthood was a highly lauded thing, or to be a nun. So to choose singleness in vocation for Christ was highly valued. It’s so interesting to me that in evangelicalism we don’t have that high value for singleness.”
“We don’t have good models [in evangelicalism],” says Loewer. He noted that often, the respected people in evangelical circles are often married pastors rather than single spiritual leaders. Junior Emily Ding credits this phenomenon to the church’s focus on the nuclear family. “When you’re young,” she said, “you belong to your parents’ family unit and once you become an autonomous, independent adult, suddenly you don’t have that unit. Then you have a very weird, floaty place in the church until you get married or you start a family, then [you find] your place in church again.”
President Ryken thinks one way to resolve the tension that Ding described is to “understand the church is our primary family, not a secondary family that is analogous to the earthly family, but actually our primary eternal family. When you regard it that way and you recognize that your relationships in the body of Christ are primary and if singles saw that lived out more strongly, it would help give a stronger definition of the calling of single people in the body of Christ.”
The pressure to date at Wheaton often stems from a lie that Wheaton will be the last good opportunity for people to find spouses. “I remember freshman year a lot of my friends were really excited about meeting their wives here, and I thought that was super weird, as if this is the only place where you can meet good Christian people,” Giles said.
Freshman Sarah Danielson noticed that pressure immediately. “When I first got here, it felt like kind of a mad dash. It was something I’ve never really experienced before. It was weird because we got here and there were already couples who had met at Wheaton Passage [a program that helps students transition from high school to college]. I’m not saying that’s bad, but the first week really felt like everyone was thrown into a rink and they were like ‘find someone!’ It felt a little animalistic.” Danielson went on, “My main problem with Wheaton’s dating culture is that people are so intent on finding someone that they tend to view others as objects. It’s not necessarily a person that you’re attracted to but the idea of marriage.” Danielson’s friend and fellow freshman Meghan Kwong also remarked on the current culture, saying,“College is such a formational time in our lives where we’re really trying to find out who we are, not in terms of just ourselves, but also what it means to be a good friend, like your roles in life, to be part of a family, to be part of a community. When you start mixing in romantic relationships, that’s when everything gets messed up. I really think, as a freshman, what people need the most are good friends. You need good friends so that you can get through school together. You need people to speak truth into your life.”
Junior Sam Ruff, co-president of Refuge, a group for students who identify as LGBTQ, talked about the added pressure that comes with navigating the Wheaton dating culture as a gay student. “[Singleness] is definitely not discussed anywhere really outside of Refuge,” Ruff said. “And even then, it’s not super talked about. It’s very much assumed that you’re straight and so therefore could want to date and would want to date.” Even when LGBTQ students desire to date, many of these relationships are not sanctioned by Wheaton’s theological covenant, which students sign upon admission. As such, LGBTQ students are the ones having more conversations about what it means to be single as a Christian.
Urbon said, “Those in the LGB Christian community are the ones starting to ask the questions about why we do not have Christian single vocation that is just as valuable as marriage.” Ruff agrees, “I suppose coming here is a blessing in that it has required me to work out my faith and find out how that aligns with my sexuality. Also, it allows me to do something for the community. I am not put in a place of comfort and therefore I am required to grow. I am required to stand up for myself. I am required to stand up for other people.”
Although not all of us will end up being married, we will all go through a season of temporary or lasting singleness. Therefore, it is essential we learn how to be content in that season. Ivester mentioned some of the positives of singleness, saying, “I can invest more into my church and ministry and the college in ways that my married peers are unable to.” Senior Mattea Gernentz remarked that often, romantic relationships can take you away from friendships: “[When I was dating], I hadn’t been making an effort to be involved in friends’ lives, but as soon as that relationship was gone, I was like ‘oh, these are my people, and I’ve been neglecting them in a certain way.’”
Urbon also reflected on the upsides of single life. “There’s a lot more freedom. There’s a lot more autonomy — your decisions, your finances, where you live, what you’re going to do with your time — all of those belong to you. You give that up to a degree when you get married. Even things like what you’re going to deal with in yourself, when you’re single you kind of get to make decisions a little bit more.”
What we often forget is that, before you have a successful marriage, you have to be a successful individual. “If you don’t feel comfortable eating in Saga alone, you probably shouldn’t be dating,” says freshman William Pendleton, a transfer who is married to fellow freshman Heather Pendleton. There is not anything wrong with being single. There is also no illegitimacy in desiring a relationship: it is only unhealthy when one is desired out of pressure an institution has placed on its students.”
The reality is, marriage is not prescribed to be a fulfilled human being or even a fulfilled Christian. “I’ve gone down journeys of dating, and being engaged, and heartbreak of a broken engagement, and have seen a bigger vision to life,” says Ivester. That vision is to “glorify God,” as Ivester puts it. “I want to pursue that vision as opposed to shortchanging that vision and just trying to do the next immediate thing.”