Think of all the great marriages you know. Each started with a moment of meeting. Maybe it went well; maybe it went badly. But there can be no potential of a happy ending without a beginning. That’s the message of the new documentary “The Dating Project,” which had a theatrical preview in April and is out now in digital HD and on DV
The feature-length film profiles five singles — between college-age and 40s — trying to find love in a culture where the entire social script of dating and mating has been deconstructed.
If you wonder why 50 percent of America is single, and why so many young people aren’t getting married, it may be because many don’t even know where to start, in terms of building a healthy relationship from the ground up.
“The Dating Project” is both heartbreaking and heartwarming, funny and forlorn. It doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulty of finding love in modern America, but it does offer some practical suggestions.
At the core of “The Dating Project” is the work of Boston College philosophy professor Dr. Kerry Cronin. About 12 years ago, responding to something she noticed about her students’ difficulty with forming relationships, she decided to challenge them to ask someone out on a date — no alcohol, no physical contact other than a hug, during the day, no more than 90 mins in length, etc.
To her amazement, this apparently simple task hit many of her students as an entirely novel idea, as opposed to just “hanging out” or “hooking up” with someone, which can mean anything from a drunken make-out session to sex.
Here’s Cronin’s assignment to her students (also available at the Website for the film, DatingProjectMovie.com):
Over the years, Cronin has seen the hookup culture only expand on campus, and the social script for dating steadily erode — not only in college, but in the adult working world as well. At the same time, the entertainment industry isn’t helping people form a realistic notion of romance.
“My students are convinced,” she says, “by some sort of formula of romantic comedies, maybe, that you’re going to hate somebody until you love that person, suddenly. The formula of seeing somebody across a room, or the bookstore, and then 10 years later you find that person.
“I like the idea of a soulmate, but guess what? We’re all souls, and we’re all searching for love and relationships and connection. The fact of the matter is, there are a lot of great possibilities out there. Attraction can grow; crushes can grow; feelings can change.
“But we’re mesmerized by the, ‘Oh, it was an instantaneous thing, and that’s it, the chemistry.’ A lot of college students especially will say to me, “I just figured, sometime in my 20s, it will just happen’ — as though, there’s nothing I have to do myself.
“It’s a version of, ‘God will drop someone in my lap, whom God picked for me from time immemorial.'”
Among many Christians, there’s the idea that dating is solely a precursor to marriage, and that you should not go on dates with anyone unless that person is a likely marriage prospect. Cronin disagrees with this all-or-nothing approach (with the understanding that, despite lax modern mores, dating someone isn’t necessarily synonymous with having sex).
“I like to advocate for low-stakes dating,” she says. “We learn a lot about ourselves in dating, and it’s not just simply utilitarian in that way. We learn about other people in the world, and God, in dating people outside our usual type.
“We learn how to put another person first, put another person’s cares and concerns maybe before our own. We learn how to navigate emotional landscapes that are different from the landscapes we’re dealing with in friendships and family relationships.
“You learn how to open your heart, and you learn about some things that you shouldn’t open your heart to, and things that don’t work with you and your values.”
While a first date that reveals seriously unpleasant or dangerous things about the other person should send you in the opposite direction, Cronin urges that a merely shaky first round might deserve a do-over.
She says, “There’s a lot that goes on in a first date about nerves, and we’re all awkward. We’re trying to make our way through the first-date conversation. It’s almost always worthwhile to go on a second and even a third date, just to really see if you can uncover in yourself, and another person, what’s really up with that person.”
Asked what she’s like single people to take away from “The Dating Project,” Cronin says, “Just try. Just try. A lot of people are paralyzed by their fears and their past, and what went wrong in the past and could go wrong in the future. Sometimes you just have to try.”
If it doesn’t work out?
“You can try again,” Cronin says. “When you try, people around you find out that you’re trying, and so then they might be willing to ask you out. Dating begets dating. If you try, then other people might try with you.”
Not specifically a Christian film, “The Dating Project” counts many faithful Catholics among the filmmakers, and it’s suffused with Catholic values. There is a brief (but not explicit) discussion among friends about pornography. With that proviso in mind, it’s suitable for mature middle-schoolers and up, for youth groups, young-adult ministries, and anyone who’s free and willing to date or knows someone who is.
“The Dating Project” — from Paulist Productions, MPower Pictures and Family Theater Productions, and distributed by PureFlix — is currently available on DVD (including in Target and Walmart), and for digital rental or purchase from several platforms, including Amazon Video, iTunes, Vudu and Google Play. Click here to learn more.
There’s even a discussion guide created by Focus on the Family’s Boundless young-adult ministry — click here to sign up.
Image: Courtesy PureFlix/Paulist Productions/MPower/Family Theater Productions