'Once Upon a Time' and the Pitfalls of Dating

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Earlier this month, the popular ABC series Once Upon a Time ended its third season with the protagonist Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) finally getting together with the once-villain Hook (Colin O’Donoghue). I have to admit, since the show first introduced the character Hook, I rooted for these two characters to get together. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on why I enjoyed this pair so much. Was it the fact that he was a shameless womanizer and flirt who finally met the girl who resisted his charm? Was it that she was a typical modern jaded woman who slowly put down her walls down for her relentless pursuer? I’m sure those were factors.

Yet, looking back, I realized what made this budding romance so unique: Hook and Emma’s love story had elements of a courtship, not simply a dating relationship.

Most mainstream Hollywood movies and primetime television shows portray the common practices of casual, recreational dating. The music swells as the two individuals share their first kiss. The climax of the plot comes with the couple’s first sexual encounter, with little or no reasons for compatibility beyond romantic feelings and sexual tension. Watching those same movies as a married woman in my mid-twenties,I now find those love stories one-dimensional and lackluster. Filmmakers rarely show us the negative consequences of dating. Here are some pitfalls of casual dating, and how Hook and Emma avoided them. Hopefully, we can all glean some valuable relationship advice from these two.

(WARNING: The following will have plenty of spoilers. Be sure to get caught up on the series before reading on!)

1. Dating focuses on one-on-one interactions, stunting the get-to-know-you process.

In a dating relationship, it is all too easy to put up a façade. After all, it’s all about presenting the best version of yourself. On a typical date, a couple is completely absorbed in each other; rarely do they interact with each others’ families. Hook and Emma went on exactly zero dates–count ‘em, zero–yet somehow, they were successfully able to get to know each other. How? They learned each others’ character traits while spending time with their family and friends. By the Season 3 Finale, Hook has become a part of Emma’s trusted community: Emma allows Hook to babysit her son Henry, and in turn, Henry enjoys Hook’s company. Several times, Emma runs away from family discussions upset, and her parents allow Hook to run after her. Contrast this with Emma’s relationship during the year she was away from her parents (and away from their better judgment). SPOILER ALERT: It ended with an almost-engagement to a flying monkey.

In his book, Choosing God’s Best, psychoanalyst and Christian Author Dr. Don Raunikar writes of the benefits of including one’s community in the dating process: “What people are like within their own families before marriage can be a reliable indicator of how they will act after marriage[…] How people treat others is a good barometer of how they will treat you when the honeymoon is over.”

Keep in mind, Hook and Emma are not officially a couple when Hook starts spending time with her community. This makes it easier to be friends, without the potential temptations to be overly romantic and infatuated, which brings me to my next point.

2. Dating fuels intense romantic attraction at the beginning of the relationship at the expense of a stable foundation of a slowly built-up friendship.

Ask any long-time married couple what has kept their marriage strong and they’ll tell you: it’s not the big romantic gestures or the “butterflies.” It’s the friendship. It’s easy to overlook this important pillar of a successful relationship. But when infatuation and fleeting romantic feelings run their course, what remains is a friendship…or lack of one.

According to Dr. Raunikar, there are four levels of friendship involvement in the courtship process, each leading to the next:

1. Acquaintance

2. Casual friendship

3. Close friendship

4. Intimate friendship

As acquaintances, two individuals discover they have mutual interests. Soon, the relationship grows and they begin to build trust and understanding. Finally, they become friends.

“A solid friendship will be the springboard for beginning a healthy courtship,“ says Dr. Raunikar.

We witness Emma’s emotional wall finally crumble right before their first real kiss in the Season 3 Finale. (Sure, they kissed in Season 2, but Emma recoiled, claiming it was a “mistake” and a “one-time thing”). Hook had just revealed that he gave up his most prized possession, his pirate ship, in exchange for a rare chance to cross realms and get to Emma. According to the Bible, "Greater love has no one than this: that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). READ: friendship equals sacrifice. And our dear Hook clearly demonstrates his ultimate sacrifice for Emma.

I love how the producers withheld the big kiss until after a two-season long courtship. This brings me to my next and final point.

3. Dating encourages premature sexual interaction before trust and commitment are established.

Alas, in direct contrast to most movie and television couples, Hook and Emma have never gone further sexually than kissing (GASP!), yet their love story is so likeable.

In most mainstream films and television, the sexual encounter comes before the couple gets a chance to develop trust and establish a commitment to each other. Therefore, we viewers are supposed to come to the conclusion that a relationship is never official until two lovers seal the deal with sex.

In an earlier post I wrote:

Sex without love and commitment is like the life-sucking hell of chemotherapy. Dose after dose, one hookup after another, casual sex seems to be the best antidote for the unbearable cancer of loneliness. But under the surface, the chemo is indiscriminate: healthy cells are destroyed right alongside cancer cells. One’s ability to connect and relate well with others weakens with each “score” divorced from emotional intimacy and commitment. (Source)

Generally speaking, Dr. Raunikar explains, dating “disproportionately exalts physical and romantic attraction” and “emphasizes emotions, lust, and sexual desire–all of which demand a sexual response.“

Therefore, he says, it’s no surprise when singles fall prey to sexual intimacy without commitment. “One-on-one dating is designed specifically for sexuality and physical attraction.”

Hook and Emma have shown us that a simple kiss bears much more weight and significance (1) in the context of a relationship vouched for by one’s community and (2) with the foundation of an unyielding friendship.

For the benefit of those who may not follow Once Upon a Time (but more for the benefit of my fellow #TeamHookandEmma members), I’ll leave you with this gem: a fan-made montage of their love story.

QUESTION: Which aspect of the Hook and Emma courtship did you enjoy the most?

Resources:Choosing God’s Best by Dr. Don Raunikar

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Don Jon Reveals True Purpose of Sex

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UPDATE/ DISCLAIMER: It has come to my attention that some readers are interpreting my publication of this article as an all-out recommendation for everyone to watch the film. Make no mistake, this film is not for the weak-hearted. The filmmaker transports the viewer into the mind of a pornography addict, and forgive the gross understatement, it is NOT pretty. Watch at your own risk. Now, back to your regularly scheduled programming.

In 1997, a company called “Cherry Blossoms” found success in the poverty-stricken Philippines (the country from which my parents immigrated). For a fee, Cherry Blossoms provided “matchmaking” services between older American males and young Filipino women. For some of these women, a rich American husband was the only way out of the densely populated and filthy squatters’ towns populated by makeshift houses made of scrap metal.

One customer wrote to a potential bride:

There are two young ladies…who have written that they would do ANYTHING for me…if only I gave them… the opportunity to come to the United States with me. Tell me, Vilma, how do you feel about that?…Would you do anything I ask?“ He describes a particular sexual activity, then writes, "My preference is [for a] partner [who] would be willing, able, and skillful enough to perform that activity for me, at any time.

Christian Author Gary Thomas mentions this story in his book Sacred Marriage, and likens it to "lifetime prostitution.” For these men, sex is something they expect to receive, not what they expect to give.

Ask anyone to describe the purpose of sex, and you’ll get varying answers. Is it individual pleasure? Connection to another person? I would argue that true sexual fulfillment comes from giving up of oneself in body, soul, spirit and will; not taking and using someone as an object of satisfaction.

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In the film Don Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, the protagonist Jon Martello (also played by Gordon-Levitt) attempts to satisfy himself not only with a series of one-night-stands each weekend, but more so with his pornography addiction.

In an interview with RogerEbert.com, Gordon-Levitt, who is also the screenwriter of the film, gives some insight on his character.

Everything in Jon’s life is…a one-way street. He is not connecting or engaging with anyone…He doesn’t listen; he just takes. At the beginning of the movie, he is finding that dissatisfying because there’s the sequence where he brings a young lady home from the bar and he is comparing her to this checklist that he has got of what he likes to see in a pornography video. Obviously, a real human being is not going to map onto that because there is a fundamental difference between a human being and an image on a screen.

What follows are “unrealistic expectations that…lead [him] to objectify people or to not connect.”

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When Jon meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a “dime” on his buddies’ rating system, he expects to find a cure for his pornography addiction. He finds his viewings decrease, but somehow even real sex with “the most beautiful thing [he had] ever seen” doesn’t compare to the beloved women on his computer screen.

When an older woman and classmate Esther (Julianne Moore) befriends him, she offers him advice that takes him by surprise: “you have to lose yourself in another person. It’s a two-way thing.”

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Pastor Nate Larkin was married with three children when he became addicted to hardcore pornography. He shares his story with the Christian organization I Am Second.

“I think we’re all made for intimacy,” Larkin says. “But intimacy carries its risks. People can reject us. People can disappear. They can die. Pornography offers this artificial intimacy with no risks. Every day I said hello to the woman who wouldn’t laugh at me, or who found me attractive, engaging. And every day, I gave a piece of myself away. It left me emptier and hungrier every time.”  

Contrary to what most movies and pop songs purport, others do not exist to please me. Too often, we use each other as mere objects of satisfaction, instead of treating others as individuals made in the image of God. Each of us are human beings with intrinsic value, who deserve to be appreciated and accepted, apart from what pleasure we can bring to another person.

In The Gift of Sex, sexual therapists and authors Clifford and Joyce Penner (Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist and R.N., M.N., Clinical Nurse Specialist) offer an alternative view to sex.

Lovemaking cannot be just physical…If there is to be a fulfilled relationship, there must be more to it than meeting physical needs. The total person–intellect, emotions, body, spirit and will–becomes involved in the process of giving ourselves to one another.

The Penners narrow down the root cause of sexual addictions like Jon and Nate’s to a lack of true intimacy: “Neither the Internet nor magazines demand a relationship. The images cooperate completely with the needs and fantasies of the addict, who never has to give of himself and his own needs.“

Although the average person may not struggle with pornography addictions like Jon or Nate did, many of us are still plagued with the temptation to use others as a means to satisfy ourselves, especially when it comes to sexual actions. Like Nate, we may avoid true connection in an attempt to experience “artificial intimacy with no risks.”

There is always a risk in putting yourself out there, always the possibility of not having our love reciprocated. But losing oneself in another person is the only way to connect and have a truly fulfilling sex life. We must be willing to lose ourselves in another person in the sexual experience, to be totally open and vulnerable.

As with most Christian principles, the biblical purpose of sex is paradoxical. If one pursues individual pleasure, he soon finds himself unsatisfied and lonely. Yet if he pursues a total connection of emotions, body, spirit, and will, he finds contentment.

The Penners summed it up perfectly: "Sex is not something we do to someone, neither is it something we do for someone. Rather, sex is a with experience.”

Resources:The Gift of Sex by Clifford and Joyce Penner

[All images from RogerEbert.com]

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