Who Should I Date? (Notes from the Trenches of Happily Ever After)

who should I date

(Fair warning: this is a longer-than-usual post because it is actually from a talk I did to a college group this week.)

When people hear that my husband and I met on my front door step, I am often asked “was it love at first sight?” The answer is a resounding NO. It took us a couple of hits and misses, and a whole lot of awkward to figure out whether to date. As I’ve said before, he really didn’t seem like my “type”.  However, one thing I learned is that sometimes it’s wise to be open to dating a little beyond the boundaries of what you think your “type” is.

This begs the question: who should I date, then? It’s a question I spent dozens hundreds countless hours thinking about at college.

Dating is the process through which you figure out whether you and this other person are “right” for each other. Admittedly, part of what is so horrid about dating is that 1) we don’t like to mistakes and 2) we like to know the end from the beginning, and so the idea of committing to someone, albeit loosely, when you really don’t know how this is going to work out, is a scary thing.

There is, of course, a prior question, which is “Should I date at all?” My answer is “not necessarily. There is no reason that you have to date, or indeed should date.

But, it is statistically likely that most of you are interested in sex, and statistically likely that most of you will get married – and so unless you come from one of those privileged cultures where people with wisdom and connections and love for you are willing to arrange your marriage – you are probably going to have to do most of the leg work yourself. In other words, you’re going to have to date.

Dating is our cultural norm, the customary vehicle for how we get from one place to another. As a Christian, I believe that dating is a morally neutral thing: it is neither “good” nor “bad”. I think dating is a bit like driving. It’s the way we get from one place to another given where and when we live in history.  You can drive well or you can drive badly. And similarly, you can date well or you can date badly.

So, if you are someone who wants to date well and wisely, this is a collection of my thoughts on who and how to date, from the perspective of someone in the trenches of happily ever after. I use the word trenches advisedly. The view on the horizon is gorgeous, but there are battles to be staged. The company in the bunkers is critical. Sometimes you have to hunker down, but it’s the togetherness that makes the difference.

A curious story about houses…

A few years back, my husband and decided it was probably time for us to start thinking about buying a house. We had a third kid on the way and were now in our late 30s… in other words, even though we didn’t feel like “real adults”, the delusion was starting to wear a little thin. So we started looking for houses. We made a list of the things of things that were important to us in a house: how many bedrooms, where we wanted it to be, and some other values: like it had to have a yard, and we wanted a big enough living are to be able to invite people over. We started browsing properties on the internet, and at some point met up with a realtor who took us to look at a few houses.

A curious thing happened while we were looking at houses. We discovered some things that became more important to us as we looked, and we learned some things we really didn’t like… which we didn’t even know were important to us beforehand. We learned that we’re picky about how living spaces flow into each other, and how removed the kitchen is from the yard.  We didn’t know this was important to us until we’d actually been there.

My point is this: we thought we were looking for houses and evaluating them so we could choose one. But once we started the process, we learned so many new things about OURSELVES. The process turned us into different buyers. It accentuated certain things, and made other things we thought were critical seem less so.

The same can be said of dating. We have this idea that we go into dating in order to “find and evaluate the right person”, but the truth is that dating serves TWO purposes: yes, you get to know more about being in relationship with the other person, but importantly – you are also getting to know YOURSELF.

Who you are BECOMING while you date is as important as who you are date, and who they are becoming.

The first time my Mom met my husband was over a lunch. They chatted  politely for an hour or two before he made his way home. Afterwards, I was all over her: what did you think?? What did you think? My mom said this: “I like him. And I like YOU WITH HIM.”

What an important distinction: to not just like the other person, but the YOU you are with that person.

Two things to write on a post-it: 

There are two implications to realizing that dating is a process of other-person discovery as well as self-discovery.

The first is this: you have permission to break up if your dating journey reveals that this is not a good fit for you. If there are red flags about the direction either of you are growing in together, then it’s okay to walk away. You have permission to break up. Dating involves clarifying and refining who you are and what’s important. You can change direction in the process.

The second is this: remember that just because you have two first class people doesn’t mean you will have a first-class relationship. Sometimes two first class people can have a second-class relationship. I dated a guy for four years in college, which was longer than we probably should have dated. He is a great guy: smart and funny and he loves God – but when we were together we brought some real snark out of each other and it wasn’t healthy or edifying. I think one of the reasons it took us so long to break up is that we felt like we needed to find some critical flaw in the other in order to give us an “excuse” to move on. But the truth was, although I liked him, I didn’t always like Me-With-Him.

Get to the point already: Who should I be dating?

So, it’s okay to date. And it’s okay to break up: you are going to be discovering who you are and who the other person is during this process. But WHAT SHOULD WE BE LOOKING FOR?

This is where the notes from the trenches of married life become helpful. So many of my early conversations about dating were held with people who were in exactly the same boat as me – and all we really had going for us was pooled ignorance. We didn’t even know what questions to ask, nor did we think to ask them of people who had actually survived the dating years and could reflect with the luminous 20/20 vision afforded by hindsight.

Instead, we had pooled ignorance, and I confess that the majority of the conversation I had or heard about marriage relationships before I got married had to do with two topics: 1) sex, and 2) who gets to lead and who has to submit. These were the two things that most everyone was talking about when it came to marriage.

Then I got married and within a few months, we hit a bumpy patch and I remember my husband holing up in his office with his computer to escape the stress while I sat in our bedroom sobbing into my pillow and dramatically resigning myself to be miserable forever. I remember opening up my bible and flipping through all of the marriage passages I could think of to try and find some counsel: I read Ephesians 5 and Jesus’ words on marriage in Matthew 18 and Colossians 3’s instructions to married folk. I did not feel particularly helped.

But at some point my eyes flicked to the verses just above those addressed to married people in Colossians 3, and there – in a passage not particularly about marriage – I found the most helpful relationship advice possible.

In verses 12-17, the apostle Paul writes this:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

This was GOLD. Be kind, compassionate, humble. Remember who you are. Be PATIENT with one another’s weaknesses. Forgive. Love. Remember you are called to peace. Encourage one another. Practice thankfulness.

This right here in Colossians is a relationship gold nugget, preserved for over 2000 years, but also – you’ll be glad to hear – recently backed up by science.

An article in the Atlantic from November last year entitled “Masters of Love” detailed the work of two psychologists and marriage experts. One of these was Ty Tashiro, author of The Science of Happily Ever After. The other was John Gottman, who has studied thousands of married couples over the years in his “love lab”, where he and his researchers have invited couples to spend a weekend together under observation.

Over the years these guys have studied what the single biggest indicators of relational success are in a marriage: regardless of age, socio-economic status, religious affiliation, age gap or the number of shared interests.

Are you ready? Here they are: the two biggest indicators for relationship success, as “discovered” by science: kindness and generosity.

To which the Bible says a very polite: “I told you so.”

Why is this important?

This is important because it means that far from figuring out sexual compatibility (and I’ll have more to say on that in a minute), or shared interests or who gets to make decisions and how – the biggest benchmarks for relational success are in fact the QUALITY OF HOW YOU TREAT PEOPLE DAY TO DAY.

And friends, this is VERY good news for dating.

It is very good news because you don’t need to be married to find out whether you’ve got what it takes to work. And it’s good news because you don’t have to wait until you’re married, or even until you’re dating, in order to be preparing well for the most successful relationships.

Dating and marriage is a micro-study in the broader subject of healthy Christian living, and what this means for dating is that we have the tools already not just to start evaluating others, but also to evaluate ourselves and the quality of our interactions with someone.

On the day we got married, my husband made a speech and, in his typical understated way, this is what he had to say of me and our marriage. He said “I realized long ago that asking “is this the right person for me?” is not the right question to be asking. The right question is “am I willing to become the right person for them?”) We had dated for long enough for him to decide that he wanted to commit to the journey of being the right person for me, and I had dated him for long enough to know that I wanted to commit to the journey of being the right person for him.

So…. (“At last!”, you say, “insert drumroll here!”)…. if this is what both Science and Scripture say about having healthy long-term relationships…

Here are some things to  consider when you’re asking “who should I date?” (keeping in mind that these are the same questions which someone should be asking of you as to whether you’re dateable….)

  • is this person kind, and growing in kindness? How do they treat their friends? How do they talk to their family when they’re with them, and how do they talk about their family when they’re away from them? How do they treat the ‘lowly’ people – like restaurant servers and janitors and those they aren’t trying to impress?
  • How do they handle anger? Are they able to express anger appropriately? It’s important to know how to talk about the things that make you angry, instead of stuffing feelings and silently seething, or does their room have a bunch of punch holes in the wall? Can they handle hanger? There’s healthy anger and there’s unhealthy anger – do they know the difference? And, if they are wronged, are they able to forgive and move past it?
  • How does this person handle conflict? Colossians 3 calls us to be able to let the peace of Christ rule. Are you the kind of person who wants to be right, even if it’s at the expense of your relationship? You can be right about an issue, and still handle it in all the wrong ways… so look at how this person handles conflict, because this is GUARANTEED to come up in your relationship. Super important: date someone who knows how to apologize. I’m serious.
  • Does this person know WHO they are and WHOSE they are? Colossians 3:12 starts out by saying “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved… put on compassion, kindness and humility.” Friends, this is SO important. Knowing that your identity is found in belonging to God and being WILDLY, RECKLESSLY, UNCONDITIONALLY loved by him is crucial for healthy relationships… or else, we begin to try and find our identity and affirmation in how loved and respected the other person makes us “feel”. No person, no matter how wonderful, can fill this deep, deep need we have to be unconditionally loved and belong. This is a God-shaped hole, and we need to be people and date people who let God fill the God-shaped hole – and then we supplement and complement that.
  • In the same vein as that, is this a person I can GROW together in the Christian life with? Colossians 3:16 says this: Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. At a very basic level: is this someone with whom the message of Christ can dwell between you richly, and with whom you can share God’s wisdom and encouragement and instruction? Colossians 3 is about the basic bedrock for good relationships, and our marriage relationships should at least meet this standard.
  • Is this person aware of (and patient with) weakness? Here is a striking thing about Colossians 3:13 – it doesn’t say “fix one another with all your wonderful suggestions”, it says “bear with one another”. In other words, it acknowledges that there is always going to be  sin pressure points, or weaknesses in us, which are going to rub against other people. No matter how long you are married and no matter how many great communication skills you have – you NEVER will outwit, outsmart or outmaneuver sin. You will ALWAYS have weaknesses, and your partner will ALWAYS have weaknesses. The question is: do you know what they are? And are you willing to bear with each other? Yes, we hope for growth and maturity and sanctification… and that does happen. But those fault lines in my soul will be there until the day I see Jesus face to face, and only then will I be perfect… and you know what? That’s the day that my marriage ends because “Death will have parted us”. So. All of that to say – date with an awareness of and a grace towards both your own and someone else’s weakness.
  • Can this person be faithful? Are they faithful to do what they say, faithful to keep a confidence, and faithful with their (and your) sexuality.

{Now, this is the part where I want to digress and talk about sex for a minute. A few weeks before I got married, someone I dearly love and trust pulled me aside and told me that one thing I really needed to do before marrying was to test whether we were sexually compatible. I love her still, but on this issue she was dead wrong. Here’s why:

  • Having sex with the person you are dating hinders your discovery process about all the other things you are trying to figure out. Once you start getting naked physically, you stop talking, or at least you slow down significantly on the journey of getting to know one another. It defeats one of the main goals of dating – testing character, and building relationship, while adding a whole bunch of other confusing dynamics. Instead of going on a date thinking “we’re getting to know each other”, you’re wondering how the evening is going to end.
  • Secondly, having sex when you’re dating tells you very little, if anything, about what the quality of your long term sexual compatibility will be. Honestly – ask some married folk you trust –  were the first 20, or 50, or even 100 times they had sex a good indicator of the quality of their sex life now? I’m willing to bet not. Sex is not about bodies doing something biological. Sex is primarily about PEOPLE doing something spiritual with their bodies. It involves the whole person, not just biology. So all that to say, having sex while you’re dating is actually going to tell you VERY little about your sexual compatibility, which depends so much more on your established intimacy in other areas.
  • Thirdly, God says it’s a bad idea. And since he created it and wrote the blue print for it, we should probably trust the designer’s manual. You know how when you get an electrical appliance it has a sheet which says stuff like “do not immerse this appliance in water?” Because they know how things can explode if you use them incorrectly? There are consequences to using good things in stupid ways. Sex is a hot stuff appliance, but it really shouldn’t be dunked into dating waters. (I have some more thoughts on this here, if you’re curious. Also, that post has funny pictures.)
  • Lastly, and this is on the point of faithfulness – I want to suggest that while dating is a terrible time to test sexual compatibility, it is a KEY time to test sexual integrity. People who are in control of their own sexuality are the ones who are free to enjoy it. Out of controlness might seem fun at first, but it can get scary and dangerous quickly. Key factors in long term sexual health are the questions of how well you steward and express your own sexual desires: learning to respect your partner, to be able to say no to lust, to control your own appetites – these things are CRUCIAL in marriage.

It is worth spending some time thinking about what you are learning about your own and your partner’s sexual responsibility in dating: learn what is actually lying beneath your sexual drive – Sexuality is so much more than a primal physical urge. is it a desire to be in control? To be satisfied? To be found attractive? To be close? How do YOU handle these things? And how does the person you are dating handle these things?

Furthermore: I have some gender-specific things to say on this issue when you are in the dating phase.

To the women: be wise about the fact that more often than not, what drives our desire to get sexual with a person is not so much that we desire THEM, but that we desire their desire of us. We want to move physically closer to people who have moved emotionally closer to us and make us feel safe and wanted and beautiful. This is important to know about yourself, and it’s important to develop responsibility over those feelings. Don’t egg guys on because you love the feeling of being desired and attractive to someone. Be careful of that. (Men who are reading this paragraph – this is what it means for you: know that for women, physical desire is often about wanting to feel wanted, more than it is about sex.)

To the men:  this is what I need to say to you: the #1 way you can screw up your sexual future is by being involved in porn.  I have been around long enough to see the terrific damage it does to people’s sexual relationships in the long run. So, a key way you can be a guy worth dating from a girl’s point of view is to handle your sexuality well in this area. (Women who are reading this paragraph – obviously this would be a really awkward thing to ask someone outright about, so this is where it’s important to be dating someone who has healthy, accountable relationships with other Christian guys. Because you don’t want to date someone who has an out of control porn problem.)

To men and women alike – date someone who is being FAITHFUL and responsible in handling their sexuality. It’s your best bet at sexual satisfaction and enjoyment in the long run.

(Phew! Take a deep breath! Serious part is over… now, back to Colossians and the things to think about in dating…)

  • Is this person thankful? Do they practice thankfulness both in big and small ways? Colossians 3:17 talks about a habit of gratitude, giving thanks in all circumstances. Date someone who practices saying thank you: to God and to others. Be someone who practices saying thank you: to God and to others. It’s the gateway to joy.
  • And finally, friends, date someone who loves Jesus. Really. That is your single best indicator that they will be someone who loves YOU well.

So what?So where does this leave us? I think it leaves us with two distinct take aways. The first is this: culture’s wisdom on “getting a guy” or “Getting a girl” is just really terrible advice. Almost all of it is focused on enhancing physical attraction: be bigger, be smaller, be smilier, be more ripped, be bustier, be more confident etc. And it puts tremendous pressure on us to pour all our energy into these things that have little or no correlation to dating – which is actually about figuring out whether you can DO LIFE with this person. You marry someone to LIVE with them, not to look good in instagram vacation shots.

Rather, dating well means dating someone who is becoming a person you trust and respect, and with whom you can partner to live for God for the rest of your life. And it means discovering more about yourself so that YOU can become more that person.

At this stage of my life I know people of all races, all weights and heights and BMI’s, of all professions who are happily married and unhappily married… and this is what I want to say in light of all this: what someone LOOKS like is an almost IRRELEVANT indicator of whether you should date them.

So, maybe consider dating with a bit more of an open mind. You don’t have to know all the answers about where this is going when you start… you just need to know enough about this person to think that you might want to know them a bit better.

Date to get to know yourself.

Date to get to know whether this person is kind and generous.

Date to see if you can talk about fun things as well as hard things in a way that is gracious.

Date to learn about sexual responsibility.

Date, and give yourself the freedom to break it off as you learn more: remember, two first class people can still have a second class relationship. So work on being a first class person, and as you date – ask the community around you not just if they like the person you’re dating, but if they like the YOU you are becoming in the process.

Colossians 3 is GOOD NEWS for dating, because we learn that marriage relationships, like dating relationships and friendships and family relationships… all depend on the quality of how we treat each other. There is no mystical “x factor” you have to worry about finding as a mystery ingredient to the perfect marriage. Rather: it’s the stuff we already know and appreciate about others, and it’s stuff that is do-able and know-able in every day.

So date, friends. Be kind, be generous, and date.

 

 

17 thoughts on “Who Should I Date? (Notes from the Trenches of Happily Ever After)

  1. I think your advice is tremendously wise and useful, Bronwyn. I would add that Christians are taught to seek God in ways that give them exceptional opportunities to know the will of God before and during dating. Lots of issues can be worked out one-on-one in one’s prayer life, such as types of unions that are out of the question. I am not trying to quell all experiment in seeking, because that also is how we learn, as you sensibly explain. Relationships are dynamic and grow and your advice about what is needed for them to grow is true, although I doubt most young people can hold all those ideas in their heads at once — they are part of the learning process. But the cultivation of our God relationship should bring clarity so right decisions can flow from it during that process. For example, I was complaining about my single state to God when I was 33, almost two years after the only man I had ever contemplated marriage with had died, and God said, “Why would you want to enter into a situation that is not ready for you?” That word dispelled recurring doubts that I would have a husband, which was helpful! But it made me realize my future husband must be in some kind of trouble so I began to pray for him. We met four months later at the earliest possible time — at the wake for the woman he had intended to marry — after that tragedy in which he was entangled had been played out a thousand miles away in another country and his new life in Christ could begin. Like you, I did not consciously recognize him as my future husband immediately — I had forgotten that word from God in the shocking circumstances — although I must have known in the depths of my being because I responded to him in little personal ways despite the bizarre situation. We had to work through great difficulties before we could marry: a foretaste of the road ahead, which we also somehow knew would be “a long, muddy road.”

    • “Why would you want to enter into a situation that is not ready for you?” wow. what a powerful question! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Excellent and very wise. Maybe we need to quit quibbling in Christian circles over whether it’s “dating” or “courtship” and spend more time, as you have, thinking about what we are trying to accomplish in the process of finding a soul-mate for life. The best advice I ever got from my sweet mentor/friend was, “Don’t marry him unless you absolutely have to!” After 25 years of marriage to my guy that I couldn’t imagine living without, I have added many more reasons to my list of why he was indispensable for my life and my growth in Christ. Every married person should be praying for an unmarried person (who wants to be married) and helping them to develop and evaluate relationships.

    • I so agree: the dating/courtship debate is a fruitless one if we don’t take into account the quality of how we treat one another in that process, no matter what name we give it. Thank you for reading!

  3. BEAUTIFUL. And encouraging and timely. I am 32 and single. I take the idea of dating seriously and I appreciate all you said. You put into words things I believe but can’t always express. Thank you for encouraging me today to keep my head up and date for the right reasons. This means a lot.

    • You have really encouraged me! I have been to many weddings in the past few years of friends who married in their mid 30s to late 40s – and it has been beautiful to see how well many of them have dated. May your story be one of similar faithfulness.

  4. That talk was outstanding! Thank you so much for sharing it. I’ll be printing out a copy to save for our soon-to-be-tween daughter who will be navigating these waters soon enough.

  5. That Colossians passage makes for a great marriage manual, Bron. As the researchers found kindness and generosity to be key to a healthy marriage, I’ve noticed the same thing although I always label it hospitality – patience and kindness and generosity and inviting the other person in are all hallmarks of hospitality in the relationship. And if we’re not willing to be hospitable to our spouses, who are we going to be hospitable to?

    On your point about dating before marriage unless you’re in a society where marriages are arranged for you, my daughter lives in one of those societies but has found that young people are dating anyway. They keep it from their parents, though, and know that the dating relationships will almost always not result in marriage. It’s like they date for love but marry for family. I am interested in seeing how this plays out when the dating generation has marriage-age kids of their own.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    P.S. If you really want to know what it takes to find the right person to date, you can follow my son’s number one tip for choosing a girlfriend or boyfriend: Dating Made Simple – The Only Rule You’ll Ever Need For Picking A Perfect Date.

    • Kyle has such a great sense of humor 🙂

      I think I prefer being in dating culture than arranged marriage culture – particularly as my spouse’s faith was a deal breaker factor for me, but would likely not have been for my parents. Still, I’m pretty happy with how it turned out… but when it comes to my kids, well, let’s just say if they were open to arranged marriage I’d be happy to stick my paw in.

  6. hey Bronwen! Did you happen to record the college life talk? I Drive a lot, so I prefer to hear it, not to mention it has your voice in it

    • I did not record the talk – sorry. Maybe soneone else did, though… I was kinda shocked to discover one of my cl talks on youtube some years ago: i had no idea!!

  7. Absolutely lovely and wise and all that great stuff. I’m happily married now, but I sure could have used this advice eons ago. I do think I had one aunt who tried to give it to me but, of course, I disregarded her wisdom only to realize too late (well, not really, because I am happily married!) just how right she was!

  8. My pastor says that women have 4 main needs: love, protection security and provision. If you marry a woman with kids, add father hunger to the list. Another warning. See how his father treats his wife and how his brothers treat their their wives. Family patterns, though not absolute, are good indicators of how he will treat you. As far as porn goes, be advised, in Britain, they are starting to treat women for porn addiction. How many of your lady colleagues are planning on seeing Fifty Shades of Gray? Regarding men: have you father get a computer guy to check out the mans computer. Find out how much porn he s really watching. He will lie to you. One other really important thing: if he is still watching or recently stopped, what kind of porn appeals to him? Is it the kind that a normal marriage should address or is it something that could lead to the cops being called later. Porn is fantasy and what he or she watches indicates what is really in their fantasy life. Ladies, you can’t do this alone. Your father and pastor need to find computer savvy folks to check out your betrothed’s online life.

  9. Pingback: Pick of the Clicks 1/30/2015 | bronwyn's corner

  10. LOVE this:

    “All of that to say – date with an awareness of and a grace towards both your own and someone else’s weakness.”

    And this:

    “You marry someone to LIVE with them, not to look good in instagram vacation shots.
    Rather, dating well means dating someone who is becoming a person you trust and respect, and with whom you can partner to live for God for the rest of your life.”

    Bronwyn, you are so wise and well spoken. Thank you for using your gifts to boldly speak truth. We all love you for it. 🙂

Comments are closed.