Promise not to judge me?
I used to have pretty strict views on dating.
But give me a break: I was in leadership of a Christian student ministry and felt like I had to play the big bro. I wanted to protect the girls and make sure the guys were acting honourably. Good things, right?
Add to that one case of a dude wheeling a few girls who eventually got hurt, and you can understand why I took a skeptical and conservative approach to the whole dating thing.
Suffice it to say, those views changed after I got hurt by them.
Basically, I used to think that you had to be super serious before you made any kind of move. You better know your intentions and be clear about them. And in the Christian subculture where romance is inevitably tied to impending nuptials, this can lead to either hasty confusion or paralysis. Things happen too quickly or not at all.
This uptightness doesn’t work, however. Relationships are messy, after all. Am I really going to know what I want early on?
Combine that with the fact that the non-Christian world takes dating so flippantly. Casual sex, Netflix & chill… these are par for the course, and really not options for the Christian who is in search of a monogamous long term partnership. Hearts are not to be played with, nor should dating be treated with frivolity.
So… Should we?
So I understood when a friend asked me recently, amidst my dating blog posts: Should people (perhaps Christians in particular) even date at all? Is it the best way of doing things?
Perhaps we can’t know if it’s the best way or not. But I think we can assess whether the concept is helpful or unhelpful.
Christian psychologists and psychotherapists Henry Cloud and John Townsend point out in their book “Boundaries in Dating” that it is not the general concept of dating that is flawed, but rather our poor use of the concept. Being human, we take what could be a helpful process of discernment and screw it up royally.
Here are some things they like about dating:
Dating lets someone learn what he or she likes in the opposite sex.
For me, this is perhaps the biggest benefit. In looking for a spouse, I’m not just looking for a good person who shares my deepest values (though those are top of the list). I’m looking for a friend who I just plain enjoy.
But it actually took a healthy (or at least improving) dating process for me to even realize how important that kind of friendship was to me. Without having gone through a thoughtful process here, I think I’d be missing out on some important information regarding mate selection.
Dating gives people a context to meet and spend time with a wide variety of people. They can find out what they like, what they need, and what is good for them.
This is one of the tougher parts for some Christians (like the old me) to accept. “Dating multiple people??? Gross!!” some will say. But hold up – when we say “dating” we need to define our terms since the word can be used in different ways.
Here, we mean a casual “getting to know people” kind of dating. Taking someone out for a coffee, no strings attached. Going for a walk. You’re not yet in a more committed or intentional phase that you would label “in a relationship”. Here, commitment is low and discernment is high, and you can learn about yourself and what you want in a partner.
This variety of experience has a few benefits. For one, it helps you keep from committing all at once to one person. I’ve found it can keep me from becoming infatuated too much with one person when I am intentionally taking it slow and exploring my options.
Second, as Cloud & Townsend say, it helps you find out what you like, need, and what is good for you. Some people get lucky with the first person they are in a relationship with. But it can often happen that that first person is not a great fit at all, so it is best to move on.
Dating gives a context to learn sexual self-control and other delays of gratification.
You might find this one interesting. Some Christians argue against dating because they think it will lead to premature sexual intimacy. But two mature people who share the value of chastity (or other physical boundaries) can still get to know one another without succumbing to temptation. In fact, Cloud & Townsend argue, this context provides the opportunity for growth in self-control.
Does the risk mean we take away the method? Only if there’s a better way, since risk is inherent to any method, and no method means we never accomplish our goal. In this case: no dating may mean no marriage.
Sometimes in the church people are told to stay far away from temptation, and that is a good, biblical thing. Yet, like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, some people make rules that miss the point and do more harm than good.
We could throw the baby out with the bathwater and say “don’t date at all”. Don’t ask someone out to coffee, because you could lead them on and hurt them. Don’t spend any time 1 on 1 because that could lead to early physical intimacy.
But these rules assume two people can’t take responsibility for themselves or their actions, or that they can’t practice any self-control. It also assumes that they can’t employ precautions, like spending 1 on 1 time in public places. Sure, it’s wise at times to put up healthy boundaries, even in some cases extreme ones. But building the walls too close means you’re going to get paralyzed.
Instead, perhaps two mature people can practice delaying gratification as they go through the hard work of getting to know each other and discerning. With the help of family and friends and mentors, they can go through a healthy process that gives context to practicing self-control and helps inform them thoroughly regarding one of the most important decisions they’ll ever make.
Keep calm and date on
So what about the original case that had led me to my old views? Once more, I think it is how we date that is the issue. Take it seriously. Learn to know when a relationship has run its course. If you aren’t feeling it, end it. Don’t let things run on. Hold back on promises and commitments until you know you want to move forward – and then do so deliberately.
So I say go ahead and date, wherever you’re coming from. But be intentional and keep a close watch on yourself. Hearts are not to be played with. And while you’re at it, have some friends and others who can be giving you some input in the process. Sometimes it’s your own heart that can play with you.