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  • Asking the right questions and listening to young adults can help bring about mindset and behavior shifts that can diminish passive participation in the hookup culture. Tweet This
  • It’s time to devote more attention to solutions that can help foster meaningful romantic relationships among young people. Tweet This

It’s extraordinarily well-documented that the prevalence of casual sex and hook-ups have contributed to a significant decline in intentional dating and marriage. With this problem so clearly identified, it’s time to devote more attention to solutions that can help foster meaningful romantic relationships among young people.

A new documentary film, “The Dating Project,” does just that. The film, which premiered for one night only on April 17, follows the romantic lives of five young people of various ages. The interviewees were candid about their hopes for meaningful romantic relationships, as well as their insecurities and flaws, sex lives, and sadness about their current romantic situations. The result is a film that is authentic, evokes laughter and tears, and inspires viewers toward something greater for our romantic culture.

The film opens with a host of questions that aren’t easily answered. Can young adults expect to find a meaningful relationship without sex? What roles do technology and infinite dating options play in a young person’s inability to commit? How do we move an entire culture that is saturated with this casualness toward sex and relationships and that has experienced such incredible changes in technology, communication, and community formation?

One central conclusion of the film is that we need to teach and encourage more intentional dating among young people. I noticed another solution that probably wasn’t intended by the filmmakers but was perhaps a by-product of the filmmaking process. Namely, the questions asked in the interviews provoked reflection by the interviewees, which resulted in positive shifts in their mindsets and actions concerning dating.

"The Dating Project" follows five young adults—two college students, a 20-something, a 30-something, and a 40-something—through a series of interviews and life experiences concerning their romantic lives. The stories of the two college students are fairly straightforward: they’re on an extra credit assignment for Dr. Kerry Cronin, who teaches philosophy at Boston College, where she is known as “the dating prof.” The assignment: to go on a “Level 1 date”—defined as no longer than 60 to 90 minutes, light, get-to-know-you conversation only, no alcohol or physical affection beyond an A-frame hug allowed (shoulders touch, not full body embrace), the invitation must use the word “date,” be in person, not over text, and whoever asks, pays.

Dr. Cronin’s assignment has generated a fair bit of popularity on campus, and for good reasons. Cronin poignantly speaks to the unhappiness of most students concerning the hook-up culture and the loneliness and confusion it creates, while offering them a simple solution to their dating lives. “Dating takes social courage,” Dr. Cronin told the Boston Globe, “and we need to teach our young people the virtue of social courage. This documentary opens a conversation that a lot of single people are wanting to be part of.” She continues:

I’ve been having a wonderful conversation about it for years with students at Boston College, but the movie also does a beautiful job of showing the great human struggle that single people face day to day. I think we need to work together to support them in proving that there are ways to date differently.

Her classroom explanations of the levels of dating—Level 1 (casual, yet intentional date), Level 2 (exclusive dating) and Level 3 (emotional interdependence, often headed toward marriage)—give her students, who admit to feeling very uncertain about how to date, clear expectations and rules. The result: a number of students say on film that the feeling they got asking a person on a date was greater than any feelings they’ve experienced in the hook-up culture.

Intentional dating, as Dr. Cronin teaches, is a desirable solution for the post-college young adults interviewed, but it’s a solution that perhaps is not as easily adopted outside an environment like college. The following of the 20-something, 30-something, and 40-something interviewees illustrated just how difficult it can be for a young person who desires more for their romantic lives to find another person who shares such desires for intentionality. For each of them, it had been years since they’d been in a meaningful, long-term relationship, but not for lack of desire or trying.

Yet, in what seemed like an unintended product of the filming, I was struck by the changes in mindsets and approaches to dating that each of the post-college interviewees experienced as a result of participating in the film.

For example, Rasheeda, the 30-something woman, tells filmmakers in her second interview that talking with them made her realize she felt “unnoticed” and as a result, she joined a dating app, as a way to get back out there in the dating scene.

As Chris, the 40-something man, discusses the influence of his dad and his subsequent death when he was nine years old, he makes a profound realization. “[My dad’s] purpose was to come home every day to his wife and family,” he explains, “I think if I was raised by my dad, I think I would be married by now […] I’ve never thought about that [until now],” he states.

Cecilia, the 20-something woman, has a moving interview in which she breaks down crying after articulating how a man caressing her arms made her realize just how starved she is for physical affection in her life. In the next interview, she’s returned to Mexico after four years in Chicago, so she can live near her family. This made me wonder if the realization of her loneliness is what compelled her to return home, where affection in her daily life wouldn’t be so lacking.

As a journalist who has interviewed hundreds of young adults about dating and marriage, and as an editor of a storytelling blog (www.ibelieveinlove.com), it’s been my experience that young adults have very few places to reflect upon their relationships. The by-product of asking young adults to articulate their values and expectations for romance is not only greater clarity for the young adult, but also better approaches to dating.

Viewers can expect to be pleasantly surprised by the trajectory of the romantic lives of Rasheed, Cecilia, and Chris through “The Dating Project.” The film shows that when considerate friends and family ask the right questions and actively listen, they can help bring about mindset and behavior shifts in young adults that can diminish their passive participation in the hookup culture and motivate them to actively pursue more intentional relationships.

Meg T. McDonnell is the executive director of Reconnect Media and the founding editor of the story-telling blog, I Believe in Love. In 2011, she was the recipient of a full-time Robert Novak fellowship for a project titled "Marriage and Young Adults: Understanding the Struggle to Get to ‘I Do.’"

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.

Photo credit: "The Dating Project"