Not Ready for Prime Time

As a teacher, I have met dozens of bright, beautiful, serious-minded young women keen on finding a husband, getting married, and starting a family.  Most were eager to devote themselves to society in other ways too, but they saw motherhood and family as an important part of their vocation, and they were eager to get started.  But there was a problem. They couldn’t find men who were “ready for prime time”: ready to commit; ready to make someone else’s needs and goals their own; ready, in other words, to “man up” and become mature adults.

During this same period, I have also had male students who were bright, engaged, and genuinely community-minded.  But very few were “ready for prime time.”  They just weren’t good marriage material — yet. In the not-too-distant future, probably; but not yet.

If I knew a single guy ready for marriage and looking for a potential spouse, I could give him a dozen names. But I know a dozen women looking for good potential spouses, and I can’t give them a single name.  We have a big problem with the formation of young men.   Ask any young Catholic woman, and they’ll tell you.  I hear it all the time.

Before saying more, let me admit that I was once like these young men. I didn’t get married until later in life, but I have the best wife ever. God was very good to me, but He pretty much had to be because I was really stupid. I have since come to think that perhaps we should try to be less stupid and make God do less work.  But the point is, I am writing not from a position of superiority, but as a fellow traveler who made all the same mistakes I see being made by others, even guys who are smarter — and much more likely to be getting dates — than I was.

One earnest young man asked me the other day, “Okay, so how do you get ‘ready for prime time’?”  Just asking the question shows he is ahead of the game.  He is eager; he is interested; he knows he is lacking something he wants, and it’s not just sex.  That’s a good start.

Here is what I told him: “Get a job.”  This is not the most important qualification, but it’s not unimportant, and it’s practical.  I have found it’s good not to get these young adults lost in their heads too much.  You don’t want to turn marriage into a massive intellectual and spiritual problem.  “How do I do this incredibly important thing that will determine the rest of my life?”

That’s like asking, “How do I approach this exam which, if I don’t do well on it, I will never be happy?”  Well, first, you don’t approach the exam with that attitude.  You get yourself ready and take it one step at a time.  In courtship, you ask a girl out on a date.  Maybe you’ll go on one or two more, maybe you won’t.  But a journey of a thousand miles begins with one simple step.


And here’s another clue. Ignore what the media tells you and don’t treat a woman the way you treat your guy buddies. Even women I know who swear like sailors don’t like guys using the f-word repeatedly.  And all the stuff you talk about with your guy buddies, don’t do it on a date.  You need to be interested in her.

Women in their twenties and thirties have another answer to what “ready for prime time” means.  For them, it means being ready to commit.  Few things are more irritating to young women, it seems, than men who keep dithering around unable to commit.  And young college women are tired of guys who seem interested but do nothing more with them than “hang out with the group.”

Often lacking, it seems, is adult mentoring.  When multiple beautiful, talented young women are begging me to write about dating and commitment, there is definitely a problem. Where are the adults to say to these young men: Grow up. Get a job. Ask that girl out.  Stop playing video games. Porn is stupid and destructive. Get off your phone.  “Virtual” reality isn’t real.

Love and marriage are real, and for that reason, better. Stop making marriage a huge problem to be solved.  You don’t find the “perfect woman.”  You find a good, virtuous woman; you devote yourself to her, and she devotes herself to you, and you both devote yourself to children, and that builds love and friendship.

Do young women also need mentoring?  Almost certainly.  It’s a basic feature of the human species.  But as a guy, that’s not advice I can give.  The only advice I can give to women is the advice their father would give.  Men are “out for sex,” so make them “man up” and commit before doing anything that might have long-term emotional and physical consequences.

Most women I know appreciate that advice, but it’s also depressing.  It’s not as though they didn’t already have enough trouble finding a decent guy.

Studies repeatedly show that a good marriage is fundamental to people’s happiness and to success in other areas of life.  It keeps them going to Mass too.  If we cared about the flourishing of our young people, we would prepare them not merely to “get a job,” we would prepare them for marriage and family, helping them reflect more deeply on what’s involved and developing the virtues they would need to get what deep down they know they want, but aren’t sure they can ever actually get in a culture so filled with toxic sludge.

If Aristotle is right (and he is) that happiness is activity in accord with virtue, then few things will help these young people develop those virtues better than marriage and family.

Choosing one person cuts off your options. But not choosing cuts off the chance to enjoy any option.  Until you have no more options.


*Image: In the Garden (Rustic Courtship) by Winslow Homer, 1874 [National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC]

You may also enjoy:

Wendell Barry’s The Country of Marriage

Brad Miner’s How to Find the Perfect Woman

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.