For Catholic convert Amy Bonaccorso, the path to marriage wasn’t an easy one. After running the gauntlet of the modern dating scene, she finally found her husband… but not before having several preconceptions about dating and marriage shattered along the way. Noticing that there was little in the way of practical guidance for modern, devout women looking for a spouse, and thinking that her own hard-won experience might help other Catholic women in the same predicament, Bonaccorso turned that knowledge into a book: How to Get to ‘I Do’: A Dating Guide for Catholic Women (Servant Press).
Margaret Cabaniss spoke with Bonaccorso about her book and the challenges — and opportunities — of dating as a Catholic woman today.
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Margaret Cabaniss: What made you decide to write this particular book?
Amy Bonaccorso: I felt very strongly that a lot of single Catholic women were getting unrealistic advice on dating. I wanted to inject some realism into the highly idealized Catholic dating scene to help single women reach their life goals. I was also encouraged at one point by Rev. C. John McCloskey to pass on the lessons I learned to other women.
The books and articles I read in the past on dating were typically by clergy, lifelong singles, or married people of other generations. I am one of the only married women in recent memory to write such a book for modern-day Catholic women.
My girlfriends and I got a lot of advice based on how things ought to be, not how things are. Not every Catholic woman can find a relationship that follows the formulas and scripts, and I thought these women needed a book. And some girls are just deflated and need some encouragement.
One major motivation was to assure Catholics that the courtship model and vocabulary was not working for most people. It’s unhelpful to talk the courtship language when most of the public is “dating.” I’ve never met anyone in my age group who made “courtship” work. It’s just something we read and conversed about. And “date” is not a bad word; a date might be coffee at Starbucks.
I also wanted to help women weed out church jerks (Chapter 9 — “When Holy Rollers Don’t Measure Up”). Catholic women have their own unique ways of sabotaging themselves as well, so I talk about that in Chapter 12, on the “Secular Sisterhood.” One is being too nun-like and church-mousey, with long skirts every day. Women can have fun with current fashion trends and cosmetics without being immodest.
How do you think dating today and expectations for marriage are different than they were for our parents’ generation?
I think it’s harder to form genuine, long-lasting relationships now. Life is more complicated — people don’t have the closely-knit communities so much anymore. Desirable mates are potentially very busy with work, school, or other responsibilities, so meeting them outside of those spheres can be a challenge. Online dating can help overcome those obstacles, but it takes effort and some courage. It also means making relationships a priority. Once you find someone, it can be hard to get started on beginning salaries, too, so it can cause people to delay commitments.
And now there is an overwhelming pressure to conform to what other people think is correct. Back in the day, people would find their partner and go for it. Now, you’ve got people saying, “You need to wait two years,” or “You can’t know the person unless you have cohabitated.” I had to defend my choice not to cohabitate on a few occasions, as if I was doing something wrong. I didn’t understand why random people cared so much about my premarital living arrangements!
Women’s status has changed since the 1950s and 1960s, too. Now, both daters probably have jobs or budding careers, and so women can no longer expect men to carry the financial burdens they once did. Catholic women tend to be on the traditional side, so at they need to be prepared to discuss expectations and priorities with their boyfriends before signing up for marriage.
How does being a Catholic woman affect the way you date and what you should be looking for in a husband?
Catholic women who are serious about finding a Catholic man will probably focus on finding someone at Catholic events or on Catholic dating websites like Catholic Match or Ave Maria Singles. This works well for some women, so persistence can pay off. But what if it doesn’t? That’s when things get confusing.
I encourage women to try things like Match.com or in-person services when the Catholic avenues don’t work. Hobbies can also help you find people with common interests. When I tried Match.com, my friends thought I was taking a risk, but it’s not necessarily negative to grow outside of yourself and trust that God is working everywhere.
I think Catholic women tend to accumulate too many qualifiers, so I encourage them to throw out their checklist or examine it very carefully. Checklists quickly become limiting and cause people to lose sight of the fact that they really need someone who shares their core values, has good human virtues, and takes commitment seriously. Just because a guy goes to daily Mass or knows his theology like the back of his hand doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be a good boyfriend or husband. Chapter 1, “Living in the Real World,” drives that point home.
What do you wish Catholic men understood when dating Catholic women?
They have to understand that most devout Catholic women are very genuine about their desire to date chastely. Men will get some serious kudos for understanding and respecting that. If guys lie about where they stand on that subject to a girl, it’s going to shatter trust and poison the relationship.
The most devout Catholic men I dated misrepresented their commitment to chastity. I always resented their dishonesty more than the fact that they didn’t truly share my values. It’s better if men are diplomatic and honest in the beginning, because at least then they show some true integrity. Then you can build some trust and discuss differences in a meaningful way without a cloud of betrayal.
Men also need to know that some things never change. Even if you share expenses later, pay for the first date and don’t be a miser. Have fun, but make sure you don’t leave the impression that you’re just going out for giggles. Good Catholic girls are seeking commitments. Honor the value of her time. I know people are into long, drawn-out engagements these days, but to make a woman wait too long is insensitive.
What piece of advice do you give in the book that you think would most surprise readers?
At least one thing has caused a few waves: While I encourage women to try to find a Catholic guy first, for reasons that are obvious to IC readers, I really think that sometimes women need to consider non-Catholic men if their prospects are bleak and they feel called to family life. If he respects her and her faith, and she is able to respect him, it can work. I know women who are married to wonderful non-Catholic men. Sometimes the men convert, and sometimes they don’t. If he has good character, and there is an attraction and other elements of compatibility, it’s something to consider if the search for an observant Catholic is not yielding good results after years of trying.
I was not Catholic when a Catholic guy chose to date me. God works through relationships. I chose to convert not to please the guy, but because the Holy Spirit really used that relationship to change me.
Have you gotten much feedback about your book?
Yes. For one, I have been thanked numerous times for writing it, because I am giving some women a voice. I share my experiences and they realize, “Oh, I’m not the only one who has been through that?” They may then feel more comfortable talking about it.
Sometimes they zero in on one point and say, “That’s too hard” — but getting married these days can be hard! At the same time, some women I meet are really impressive. They have it all together and just need to tweak a thing or two.
My biggest challenge has been fielding questions about chastity. I’m hearing that most women are not having success with chaste dating. It has forced me to listen very carefully and be more candid with my responses.
Another challenge is getting questions from men and previously married people who are now middle-aged and seeking a spouse. Some of their questions are very specific, and sometimes their problems are not easy to resolve.
A lot of my blogging and social networking is shaped by what readers and callers on radio shows tell me. I feel like I should be a conduit of sorts for the concerns of frustrated single Catholic women. I don’t think many Catholic writers are tackling the most difficult issues, and I understand why: It’s hard! But, more than anything else, single Catholic women want to be heard, and they need advice that is both empathetic and realistic.