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.”