Bethel's social scene impacts relationship expectations and reflects students' approach to dating
Views | Jon Westmark
The Clarion's News Editor, Jon Westmark, offers his perspective on cookie-cutter Bethel romances.
I often hear the word “intentional” to describe romantic relationships at Bethel, as in: “We are just being really intentional about getting to know each other before we decide if we should date.” Don’t get me wrong, taking time to get to know someone is great. But if taking time is the goal, then why do Bethel relationships seem to move so quickly?
The problem I see with the intentional mindset is that it makes anything a date. Going to coffee, meeting for lunch, hanging out in the shack or dorm lobby, even walking to class together – all become marked with significance. They become events. For all intents and purposes, they become tryouts. A clock ticks during each passing moment with the other person. It’s a clock that we are all too aware of.
Questions come up: Shouldn’t we have figured out what the next move will be? Is it time to define the relationship? Has it been long enough for him/her? Why haven’t I figured out if this is right yet? Suddenly, there is a track laid out in front of the relationship – an ideal sequence that Christian relationships can be compared to. Each step has a suggested time frame allotted before it’s time to move on.
A friend recently told me about a conversation she overheard in the DC where one girl said to the other, “I think if God is leading us in that direction, we'll know probably by March if we will get married or not." Whether or not this story is what it sounds like, whether or not this girl actually put a countdown on God’s reaction time, I don’t know, but her language says something about the intentional mindset.
The concept of being intentional is based in a presupposition: that there is an ideal Christian relationship that can be easily distinguished — a series of events that can be checked off until the relationship culminates in the ideal marriage.
There is also a collective awareness of what this ideal should look like, which adds peer pressure to live up to it. We joke about DTRs, but they are a reality for many Bethel relationships. They mark the first step on the road to the mythical ideal Christian relationship. Should people communicate how they are feeling about a relationship to one another? Of course, but by making it into an event, something singular and significant, they place more emphasis on the storybook script than on how they are actually feeling.
Relationships should have a spontaneous element to them. Someone should catch your eye, or pique your interest. Maybe more importantly, they should continue to do so. You shouldn’t come into meeting someone with a ready-made checklist of qualifications in mind; that only sets the relationship up for mediocrity.
However, in my experience, the Bethel social scene lends itself to this hyper-aware brand of relationship development. It begins freshman year. Within the first few weeks of school, the freshman dorms pair the brother and sister floors up for a get-together. RAs plan and prepare to go off-campus for something special. Arrangements are made for transportation and food. It is an event.
Not only are you going to get to know your brother or sister floor, you know that you are going to get to know your brother or sister floor. That is the point of the event and everyone knows it, creating expectations from the start. For many students, events like this, along with the numerous events planned by BSA, become the primary way of meeting and hanging out with the opposite sex.
But what’s the alternative? Well, from what I know of some of my friends’ first weeks in college at larger public schools, there are a lot of things that would not mesh with the Bethel Covenant — things that we choose to get away from by coming to Bethel. However, there is one thing that I take away from my friends’ accounts of their first weeks in college: spontaneity. Instead of things being planned to happen, they just happened. Expectations didn’t arise. There was no being intentional; there was no event.
I am not advocating for Bethel to have a “party” culture where alcohol, drugs and sexual promiscuity are permitted. However, I am advocating for a social climate that is more relaxed and informal —one where it is more normal to hang out than to go to dinner together.
Obviously, visiting hour rules and the shoe-in-the-door policy have a purpose. They keep things from getting so relaxed that morals take a snooze. But in my experience, they also place more emphasis on the organized events as a time to get to know the opposite sex. By having a social atmosphere that is centered around events, students may feel more pressure to be intentional about relationships, which is not natural.
Where is the middle ground between a structured social system and a random one? Intramurals and student organizations are a good start, but I can’t help but feel there is more that can be done.
Clubs also come to mind. I’m not talking college Democrats or Republicans or Lambda Pi Eta, I’m talking about “special interest” clubs and below. Right now, there are nine such clubs at Bethel. St. Olaf has 62 special interest clubs, ranging from the St. Olaf Quidditch Association to a croquet club.
I’m not advising that everyone should go start a club or join every intramural team, but whatever the ways of getting in more casual environments, I think students should use them to put less emphasis on events like Gadkin, Nikdag and movie night on Sem Hill.
On a deeper level, the myth of an archetypal relationship progression needs to be broken down. No relationship is like another, not even Christian ones. So next time you and your special someone plan a DTR session by Lake Valentine, opt instead for something less built up and more genuine.