Why do we believe… dating is only appropriate if you are exclusive and considering marriage and in the notion of “The One?”

Why do Christians believe… dating is only appropriate if you are exclusive and considering marriage and in the notion of “The One?”

The standard Christian narrative and wisdom regarding relationships is this:  First, minimize and control your interactions with opposite sex; do not flirt, casually date to have fun, or spend too much time alone with a member of the opposite sex. Doing any of the above might lead to leading someone on, hurt feelings, inappropriate intimacy or even sexual sin.  In the meantime, pursue God and in time God will bring someone into your life someone that is perfectly suited to you and attracted to you.  Then get into an exclusive and committed relationship with this person to seriously consider marriage; call this dating.  After “dating” for several months (or a couple of days/weeks depending on the anecdotal story) it will be obvious if the person you are dating is “The One” God has brought into your life that you are supposed to get married to. When this is clear get engaged and get married.  (While I am sure there are variations on this theme this is an aggregate of sorts of the relationship advice I have been given by many Christians.)

What this practically means is that Christians do not date.  We as a sub-culture have kissed dating goodbye.  Thank you Joshua Harris. What Christians do is get into committed and exclusive relationships whose aim is to evaluate the appropriateness of marriage.  This is not dating.  This is an exclusive relationship whose aim is to evaluate the appropriateness of marriage, a relationship which comes with rather extreme pressures and expectations. The Church often advocates for the path to marriage as being a road from “just friends” (or not knowing each other at all), to an exclusive relationship, to marriage. In this three step process, which can happen very rapidly, we skip dating completely.

I believe dating is going out with a member of the opposite sex in a far more light-hearted manner.  Dating is not marked by exclusivity or the pressures of a committed relationship and is much more low stakes.  You should be able to get rejected or turned down in dating and be able to laugh it off with your friends. You should be able to make mistakes on dates without fearing dire consequences (such as losing the love of “The One”). The purpose of dating is for having fun, getting to know about yourself, getting to know others, leaning about what you want in spouse, learning how to interact with the opposite sex and a lot of other great things that grow you as a person.

Dating also provides an accountability of sorts for doing personal work you might need to do.  If you are not being invited on dates or no one is accepting your invitation to dates there might be something on your end you need to work on.  Is your biting sarcasm and cynicism really that attractive of a quality?  Do you take care of yourself and your physical appearance or have you “let yourself go” as they say?  Do you have hobbies and interests you can share with others?  What would you bring to a relationship?  None of these questions are asked (or resolved) if one only pursues God and waits for God to bring you “The One.”

Turning our attention to the second belief in focus, even the notion of “The One” seems to be a bit ridiculous.  I find this nowhere in scripture and think it is a weird mix of Romanticism and a large collection of anecdotal stories.  Pastor Rick Countryman at BVG once talked about this notion and suggested it did not make sense for Christians. Pastor Rick’s rationale was simple. If there was “The One” and you didn’t marry them, and you married someone else and the person you were supposed to marry in turn married someone else, then the spouses you both married are not married to the person perfectly matched for them as they settled for you.  By making a human mistake you have set off a chain reaction whereby no one is getting married to the person God had for them! While ridiculous if you step back and look at it, this message is taught by so many movies, stories, and anecdotes it is still very prevalent.  Like Radiohead says in their song Motion Picture Soundtrack, “It’s not like the movies / they fed us all on white lies.” The belief that God will just drop off a ready-made spouse for you is about as ridiculous to me as still believing that babies are dropped off by a stork; it just doesn’t work that way.

My “dating” history would be a classic example of the effects of this teaching.  I consider three girls to be my “exes” but in reality I have only had an actual relationship with one of them and have never dated (as I now define it).  I was, however, convinced that each of these women were “The One.” After my relationship in college went south (after two days) I was so heartbroken and gun-shy it was six years before I truly pursued another woman.  That meant through all of college and for several years after college, prime time to be dating, I was alone and not going on dates.  I missed out on a lot of fun and personal growth as a result. In my one real relationship we went from meeting one another to being in an exclusive relationship considering marriage very fast. We went from not knowing each other to contemplating spending the rest of our lives together with effectively nothing in between.  This is not healthy and it did not end well.  Now I am in the second half of my twenties, a time when things start to get more serious in the relationship realm, with very little wisdom about and even less practical experience in relationships.  This is compounded by a rather low level of knowledge of what, exactly, I am looking for in a spouse or what I bring to the table.

An alternative approach to dating, that I have in a large part come to agree with, is presented by Dr. Henry Cloud in his book How to Get a Date Worth Keeping.  While initially his advice struck me contrary to everything I had been taught (because it is) I felt there was still something to it (because there is). Much of my attitude towards dating is now shaped by this book and I would encourage anyone searching for a helpful perspective of dating that is healthy, effective and Christian to check out this book.

After a sliver or more relational experience I can see the wisdom of Dr. Cloud’s statement that, “dating is not for marriage.”  Serious exclusive relationships and marriage are for marriage.  Dating is for dating.  Dating is not for considering if you are going to marry someone. Dating is for having fun, growing, getting to know each other, and experiencing relationships in a safe, low-stakes venue; it is not a trial run at an engagement. I have even come to agree with Dr. Cloud in that I do not think people should date exclusively.  I think that both Christian men and Christian women should play the field and go on dates with different people as long as the situation and the lack of an exclusive commitment should be clearly and mutually understood.  I do not think it is wrong for a man to go on a date with one woman on Tuesday and a different one on Wednesday.  Nor do I think it would be wrong for a Christian woman to be dating different men on a consistent basis.  Is there a reason she should not be getting to know different men at the same time? And while we are at it, why not date someone you are not automatically drawn to or see as a possible future spouse?  Who knows, you might have a fun time and learn something about yourself.

To my brothers I challenge you to get a good supportive community of guy friends, and then ask out a lot of girls, even ones you think are outside of your league or you might not be head-over-heels in love with.  You may get rejected but if you don’t invest your self-worth in the dating realm you’ll be okay. You also might go out on dates with girls you thought would not give you the time of day.  It never hurts to treat a woman right on a nice night out on the town and this is a worthy aim in and of itself (I am old school enough to think a man should still pay).

When I came across this advice it initially struck me as unethical and even possibly immoral.  I realized later it is because I had always understood “dating” to be serious committed exclusive relationships; having multiple relationships that are “exclusive” going at the same time would be unethical.  Dr. Townsend was really advocating for something different because his understanding of dating was not equivalent to a committed exclusive relationship.

It goes without saying that I do not believe dating should not be marked by any significant level of emotional, physical or spiritual intimacy.  To do so would be to wander into relationship territory where exclusivity provides some measure of safety, though any real relationship will always involve vulnerability and risk.  If two people dating end up being exclusive or are becoming deeply attached to one another, they should have a conversation about what both people want from the relationship.  If they both want exclusivity, great, but if one partner is still unsure they might have to stop dating or modify their relationship in some way so someone is not getting strung along or is at least taking these risks willingly.

Overall I think we should seriously consider our approach to romantic relationships in the Church and the conventional wisdom regarding it. Where the Christian beliefs concerning dating and relationships are adhered to I really think we shoot ourselves in the foot. When Christians skip dating and wait for God to bring us “The One”, we skip out on all the fun, growth and self-awareness that dating can offer and we often avoid our issues that may make us undesirable to the opposite sex or ill-prepared for marriage. I would even go so far as to humbly suggest a number of Christian divorces have their root in these beliefs. People, lacking a lot of personal growth, experience in relationships and self-awareness, get married to the first person they have had mutual attraction with thinking that person was “The One” God brought them. And as Lord Capulet says in Romeo and Juliet, “Too soon marred are those [marriages] so early made.”

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About Kevin

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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15 Responses to Why do we believe… dating is only appropriate if you are exclusive and considering marriage and in the notion of “The One?”

  1. Dan says:

    I like what you propose, but am curious how physical interaction with those you are playing the field with influences the exclusivity of a relationship. Under your banner of dating, basically, the terminology of girlfriend and boyfriend become irrelevant until you are on that “The One” kick….which is way past the dating scene. Holding hands, hugging, kissing, meeting the family of multiple people who you are – by your definition – dating can create some extreme amounts of tension, jealousy, and problems.

    • Dan,

      Good question. Regardless of what is being spoken as soon as people start crossing physical, emotional and spiritual boundaries there will be attachment and intimacy. I personally would not go past a hug and a kiss on the cheek if I was still not exclusive with a girl. I would probably also not desire to meet the family of a girl until I was not exclusive with her.

      I would humbly suggest my definition of dating is designed to be low-stakes and avoid tension, jealousy and problems as much as possible. There will always be risks in dating. This is unavoidable. If you are not ready to make the adult decision to take such risks, don’t get in the game. However, I would suggest the general Christian approach is far more high stakes and faulty than what I have here suggested. An incredibly problem could arise if one person is dating by my definition and the other is “dating” by the more common Christian definition. If someone is brining with them the unspoken of expectation of exclusivity and is then surprised that the person they went on a date with yesterday is now out with someone else, this could definitely be a problem. That’s why I advocate for openness and honesty in what is going on and what each person is willing to commit to.

      Thanks for the push back Dan 🙂

    • Joel Gonzaga says:

      That aside, the gradients between “casually dating” and “serious relationship” are not easily defined in an objective sense. The risks you offer are unavoidable.

      Ultimately, Dan, the person who experiences jealously is responsible for their own envy.

  2. ashleymccleery says:

    I, too, think Joshua Harris’ book screwed up our generation. Such a shame that people in the South regard it almost as high as scripture without looking at it with a critical eye.

  3. kyleshevlin says:

    In a lot of ways, I find myself in a similar quandary. I have only had two serious relationships. Both during my freshman year of college, back to back, and both ended badly. It has been almost seven years since I have been in a relationship. On top of that, I haven’t dated very much in between. Prior to becoming a Christian, most of my romantic interactions with women were sinful and since becoming a Christian, most of my romantic interactions with women have been non-existent. This leaves me as a man in my mid 20’s, who would like to eventually be wed, with next to none of the skills needed to get to that point

    I agree that Christians should be more open to the concept of dating. Especially in how it can help men learn to be leaders and risk-takers, e.g. asking a girl out, planning the date, providing (granted, as a poor seminarian, even my potential dating life is affected by my budget).

    I also agree that the notion of “the one” is simply wrong. In fact, I don’t really look at it as “finding a good fit.” There are skills that it takes to have a good relationship. People in good relationships tend to already have these and would likely be able to find a good relationship with another person. The whole Jerry McGuire “you complete me” thing is a fabrication of Hollywood and Romanticism that has made us forget that we still have to work on ourselves, to become people worth dating and marrying.

    Good article, Kevin.

    • Kyle, I agree with you. “You complete me” is such a co-dependent thing to say. If you need another person to complete you, you are half a person entering the relationship and you will be devastated if and when they leave your life. People should take care of themselves and be a whole person before they start dating. This is the best way to avoid a lot of the heart-break and drama that is not necessary in relationships. If you were okay before you asked a woman out, and she rejects you, you will probably still be okay. But, if you are looking for a relationship to fix you, and you get rejected, it can be devastating and feel like healing you need is denied you. When, in fact, the answer is most likely not that you are alone, it’s that you have issues to deal with.

  4. phil says:

    Hey Kev,
    Definitely appreciated your thoughts on moving people to a healthy culture of dating. It seems like many Christian schools are at odds with a clarity about this issue and the pressures of finding the “One” influence us in less than positive ways.

    I also appreciated your openness in your experiences and suggestions that gently encourage people to do so.

    I think your points about the concept of “The One” not being found in the Bible also highlights another point- that many of our ‘christian’ norms of dating/marriage are established from long inferences from scripture. all that to say is that i think the Bible is incredibly silent for a phenomenon that’s only started in the last few centuries (dating, that is). so, i welcome your suggestions about what Christian culture of dating should look like because it honestly doesn’t have to look like anything.

    keep writing brother

    God bless you

  5. Joel Gonzaga says:

    I’ve gone from thinking that “the One” is wrong to wondering how it keeps getting propagated.

    My theory is that there is a certain “methodology” that works for men who want to be Pastors and women who want to be pastor’s wives. Since they “hold the keys” so to speak on what gets said in church their anecdotes are what become authoritative, however skewed their perspective may be.

    When I was in undergrad at a Christian College, I remember reading in the campus newspaper an article from a girl who was pleading with the guys to be more open to casual dating. I wonder how many other girls feel pigeon-holed? I don’t want a pastor’s wife.

    For the record, the last girl I dated was post-evangelical Christian who was influenced by french feminism. It sucks that we broke up, but I don’t regret the relationship one bit.

    What I do regret is a relationship that was aborted, partially because I was confused and failed in patience, and partially because she thought being physically attracted to me made her shallow (among other things).

    In conclusion, Josh Harris can suck it.

  6. From Facebook…

    Leah R. – It sounds so simple and easy in writting but practicing Clouds “program” isn’t easy. How many new women have you met this week? How many have you dated? As an addict myself I shake my head.

    Kevin G. – Its not a numbers game. I am not trying to chew threw stats or put notches on my belt. I do not think Cloud ever advocates for getting as many dates as possible but more a relaxed attitude and a different approach to dating contrary to a lot of what is out there.

    Leah R. – My bad. You did recommended the book. I was simply asking you questions based on the program Cloud created. How has working his program worked for you? From my readings it is a numbers game. Chapter 10 is called Stick with it, and get your numbers up. A relaxed approach is not by my definition Clouds program. It’s bold and actively pursing and introducing yourself to the opposite sex.

    • Leah,

      First, let me apologize I was confused about your question because I had not read the book in a long time. I reacted to an accusation that was not there. I thought you were suggesting it was a numbers game of sorts which was not your point. My bad.

      Second, dating is hard. It is difficult and will require effort and activity to go on dates. That is part of Dr. Cloud’s point. Dr. Cloud (and I) do not advocate that one should be obsessed with numbers (like if you go on more dates you win or are cool or are healed) but Dr. Cloud does suggest meeting five new people a week. This is to ensure that the pool of potential dates does not become stagnant or get depleted. If your community stays the same, eventually you will have dated every potential person and you might not find someone worth keeping.

      This is a hard discipline and it takes effort, but it may be ultimately worth it.

      Furthermore, by relaxed I do not mean passive. Obviously Dr. Cloud would advocate for being very active in both taking risks, going out on dates, and dealing with you (as opposed to pursuing God and waiting for Him to bring you a spouse). By relaxed I meant not with the pressures of finding “The One,” looking for your date to heal you, make you whole, or complete your life.

  7. Steven says:

    Hi Kevin, interesting article. Maybe I’ve been brainwashed by Hollywood (though I don’t exactly watch tons of movies), but I think you might be coming down a little hard on the idea of “The One.” I think there are two basic points to remember:
    1) “The One” is who you choose to spend your life with. Even “perfect” people have problems in relationships, but they must be worked through.
    2) In Christianity you are only supposed to have one spouse. I think that’s where the “I’m searching for ‘The One’ ” mentality comes from.

    That being said, it doesn’t help anyone if you’re foaming at the mouth looking under every stone for your perfect mate. The reality (I think) is that God in His wisdom has created someone for you and has arranged things in such a way that you would see fit to choose each other (i.e. love & care for each other). Nor do I think God would ever simply drop a man or woman in someone’s lap and say “ok, time to get married.”

    Remember when Jesus talks about how God feeds the sparrows and clothes the flowers of the field? Think about it. God gives food to the sparrows, but the sparrow doesn’t simply sit on a branch waiting to be fed, it goes out to find the food which God provides.
    In some ways, I think that God’s provision with relationships is the same. We (in trying this experiment called dating) are searching for what God provides for us relationally. Ultimately, if you are searching for a husband or wife that’s what it comes down to. If you’re not really sure you want a spouse or what you’re looking for in one, then I can almost guarantee you’re not ready for one yet.
    As for what Dr. Cloud has proposed, I don’t think that it’s wrong, I simply think that to call it dating would be a misnomer. As far as I can tell, what he suggests is simply a way to build friendships with the opposite sex while keeping the possibility of a future intimate relationship with them open (that is, you’re not stuck in “the friend zone”), and to be fair friendship with the possibility of more is an excellent way to start a relationship.
    While I think that properly understood (by all) this method wouldn’t cause too many problems, I also think that it complicates human relationships unnecessarily(and quite frankly, they’re complicated enough). I think it’s just an attempt at creating another layer of protection between yourself and making a lifelong commitment so that you could choose for yourself who you’d marry (which is what dating was originally meant to be). Ultimately, I think your approach moves dating into the realm of platonic friendship, in order to lessen what’s at stake and the possibility of getting hurt. I think that instead of lessening what it means to date, we should begin to consider more deeply what it means to have friends. Then, perhaps, we will be able to more from friendship to a relationship heading towards marriage being informed of who the other person is, and knowing who we are and what we can offer to them.
    I could write quite a bit more on the subject, but I think you get the picture of what I’m trying to say.
    And having said all that, I’ll leave with these two points:
    1) I think that this type of “dating” would lead to a fear of intimacy with another person because they would be juggling many casual relationships.

    2)I think that this is more of a laissez-faire attitude toward dating, which deems comfortableness as the greatest good as opposed to intimacy (whatever happens happens, and if something upsets you that’s your own fault).

    Thanks for your thoughts Kevin, and I hope you continue with strength and integrity in your walk with God!

    • Steven,

      Thanks for your input. More conversation is always welcome. I’m going to push back on several of your statements.

      First I would agree with your main two points at the top (I believe in monogamy and I believe whoever you choose to marry is now someone you have to accept, warts and all) but even using the language of “The One” is unhelpful to many. It’s a loaded term with a lot of different unspoken assumptions about it that come from the Christian dating culture and romantic stories.

      “The reality (I think) is that God in His wisdom has created someone for you and has arranged things in such a way that you would see fit to choose each other (i.e. love & care for each other).” – Where do you find this in scripture? Specifically, the belief that God has created someone (i.e. one specific person) for you.

      Your example of the sparrows is a great one. God will provide for them, but that does not mean He waves his hand and fills their stomachs with nutrients. Diligent work is involved in their part. Dr. Cloud uses the exact same argument in his book.

      “As for what Dr. Cloud has proposed, I don’t think that it’s wrong, I simply think that to call it dating would be a misnomer.” – A British friend and I had a discussion about this and she mentioned that what I (and Cloud) would call “dating” British culture just calls hanging out. However, if I invited an American Christian woman to “just hang out” this will often communicate very different things and lead to more confusion. I will probably also probably just be put into the “friend” category to stay there. I think it is far more beneficial to communicate your intentions in an up-front manner regardless of what you call what you are doing.

      “Ultimately, I think your approach moves dating into the realm of platonic friendship, in order to lessen what’s at stake and the possibility of getting hurt.” – No. I recently took out a woman on a date and it was in no way setting up a platonic friendship. We both agreed to not see each other non-exclusively because we were interested in one another. This was not setting up a non-physical or non-romantic friendship. We also agreed we were willing to risk the very real pain of getting attached to one another but ultimately parting ways (presumably for another person). My view of dating inherently involves acknowledging and accepting the risks of dating and is not about setting up non-physical/non-romantic friendship.

      “we should begin to consider more deeply what it means to have friends.” – I could not agree with you more. We live in a very individualistic culture and the Church has by and large been patterned after this world in this regard. We do not do fellowship, community, friendship and relationships in general well.

      “1) I think that this type of “dating” would lead to a fear of intimacy with another person because they would be juggling many casual relationships.” – No. This style of dating can help people navigate relationships, learn about themselves, and learn about relating to other people. In my own experience my fears of intimacy (with any human being, not just a woman) was supported by the belief that God would just bring me a spouse. Pursuing this style of dating in a responsible manner I think will grow people in their ability to relate to other. I do not see how relating to others engenders a fear of intimacy.

      “2)I think that this is more of a laissez-faire attitude toward dating, which deems comfortableness as the greatest good as opposed to intimacy (whatever happens happens, and if something upsets you that’s your own fault).” – No. First, I am not advocating a “hands-off” approach to dating; you are the second person to bring this up and I do not know how this message got communicated. “Low-stakes” is not to be confused with passive. I am very intentional in dating. I think about what I want, work towards it and deal with any obstacles in my life. This is not a hands off, passive, or “whatever happens happens” attitude. Second, I have never championed “comfortableness” as a virtue anywhere in my post or in advocating for dating. I also never put down intimacy. I suggested if people become intimate they are wandering into territory that is best reserved for a committed and exclusive relationships and this is not a bad thing, just something that needs to be addressed. You’re bringing a lot of context to my argument that I am missing.

  8. Taylor Broussard says:

    Quite a faithless article. Somone who doesnt teust God to provide for them.
    ” Is your biting sarcasm and cynicism really that attractive of a quality? Do you take care of yourself and your physical appearance or have you “let yourself go” as they say? Do you have hobbies and interests you can share with others? What would you bring to a relationship? None of these questions are asked (or resolved) if one only pursues God and waits”

    This sums up the obvious lack of gaith in God of the author. “Only” persueing God is the river of life that all of His Grace pours from.

    Seek first the kingdom and his righteousness and all these thing will be added to you.

    This applies to Godly marriage. What do you really worship? Human pleasure or The living God.

    Do i sound overly sanctimonious?

    I’m not, thats jus basic Christianity. Following Christ is to persue God.

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