“How can I cope with my sexual feelings when I’m single and there’s no end to my celibacy in sight?”

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Dear Bronwyn,

I read your article on sexuality when you’re single  and the importance for me as a guy of developing gendered friendships with both men and women; but I’m not sure what that looks like. What do you mean by “embracing sexuality as a man” while remaining sexually pure in friendships with women?

I am 26 year old Christian man, trying to “wait until marriage”, but I’m struggling with feelings and needs, and the older I get, the more worried and sad I get about it. I don’t want to sin, but I feel the need to do some things I shouldn’t, and I just wish I could marry and fulfill these desires in a non-sinful way. I’ve tried eliminating thoughts of sex from my mind, but it isn’t working. I feel so guilty and unclean about these desires, and I’m lonely too because, while I make friends easily, I’m shy with the girls I’m interested in and nobody seems to like me enough to be my girlfriend. The fact that there are no dating prospects in sight (and so, no foreseeable end to this frustration) feels like an unending burden.

Can you help?

Lonely and Longing

Dear LaL,

Here’s the challenging thing about talking about sexuality these days: instead of sexuality referring to our identity as men and women, and what that means for us relationally; we almost always associate sexuality with SEX. This is very much a feature of the age we live in: we’re saturated in a sexualized and sexualizing world – where women are viewed as sexual objects: in obscene and awful way (like porn), but also in a zillion other ways that happen so frequently around us that we think it’s normal. “Getting the girl” is the plot for umpteen stories: a couple landing up in bed is the closing scene—the climax!—of narratives from TV to movies to music. Sexily clad women are in the media all around us: selling cars and web host services and beer and soap to men, and selling beauty products and dream vacations and who knows what else to women. The world we live in puts a CRAZY amount of pressure on men and women to direct their thoughts and goals towards landing up naked together.

I think the church has, in some way, drunk the Kool-Aid. We, too, have focused our conversations regarding sexuality on what you can and cannot do with your genitals. We haven’t left a lot of room for conversation and imagination on what it means to be men and women apart from being sexually active. We have bought into the lie that we are supposed to function as androgynous/asexual Christians in all our friendships and relationships; and then expected people to “flip a switch” and suddenly turn on their sexuality and express their maleness and femaleness safely once they’re married.

This doesn’t work. But of course, you know that. This is exactly what you’re struggling with. We are not asexual beings who suddenly get permission to inhabit our sexuality once we get married. We are, for the entire length of our lives, sexual beings. There is no way of being human without being male or female. It’s part of who we are, and so we need to think about what it means to live as a healthy MAN or a healthy WOMAN in all our relationships, in every season of life. And friend, in a world where the images and stories and sounds around you keep directing your focus towards the erotic, that’s a SERIOUS challenge.

But it’s a challenge you need to face.

You need to learn how to be friends with women without the glaring awareness of them as potential sex partners. You allude to struggling with masturbation, and I’m not really going to comment on that except to say that if porn is part of that struggle, it is making things exponentially worse for you. Porn hardwires the brain to see women and sex in an objectifying way, and with each participation in that body-brain experience, it puts more distance between you and the possibility of a healthy sexual relationship with a woman in the future.

However, even if porn is not part of the issue, it’s still a real challenge to learn to see women as whole, complete, made-in-the-image-of-God partners in life in a world which sees them as sexy bodies. You say you make friends easily but get shy when there’s a girl you’re interested in…  I strongly suspect that’s because all of a sudden you’re hyper aware of her as a potential sexual partner, and that distracts from you getting to know her as a person.

You need to learn how to be a guy who can talk to women, to listen to them and learn from them and work along side them and appreciate them as essential partners in life, and to be your full self in these relationships (not just a guy hoping to get a date). Are there opportunities for you to participate in group efforts where you work alongside women? Maybe serving in some capacity at church, or volunteering at a Habitat for Humanity project, or making sure you’re plugged into a small group that has both men and women talking about the big issues we face disciples of Jesus (and not just an accountability/confession group)? These kinds of scenarios are important: they shift the focus from the “small talk” of social meet-ups where the unspoken-but-desired-for-outcome is often romantic/sexual/dating interest; and instead have you working shoulder to shoulder with women.

If there are opportunities to laugh together, to get your hands dirty together on a project, be an environment where there is healthy hugging and touch. Doing these things might go a long way towards your relaxing around women and expanding your view of them… and in the process, you may well find yourself developing some new intimacy in friendships with the men and women around you… and maybe one day, one of those might lead to marriage and sex.

Your sexual feelings won’t be disappearing any time soon, but I do think there are ways you can pursue rewarding, affirming, healthy touch and intimacy in relationships without those needing to be sexual. Can I recommend Wesley Hill’s book Spiritual Friendship to you? He is a celibate gay Christian, which is not the struggle you’re facing, but his insights on deep, fulfilling relationships and stewarding our sexuality well while we’re celibate are really helpful and healthy. Even as a married, straight woman (and he is none of those things!); I’ve found a lot in his words to encourage me (as a woman, and inherently sexual being) to relate deeply and well to the men and women in the family of believers in a holy and wholly intimate way. Even once people are married, there may be seasons where sexual feelings can’t be expressed (due to illness or extended absences or childbearing or aging…), and so the question of learning to pursue healthy and holy intimacy in the face of pent of sexual tension is one all believers have to grapple with at some stage. You’re not alone in this. God knows us and will help us as we continue to ask Him for help in stewarding—rather than suppressing—our sexuality.

Blessings to you,

Bronwyn

 

 

Ask Me: How can I know if he’s the one? And are we too young to get married?

Am I too young to get married? How can I know if he's the one?

Dear Bronwyn,

My boyfriend and I are both 20, and have been dating for 4 years. We have been talking about getting married for a few months and I’m getting scared. I’m scared that he’s not the one for me because I don’t have that gut feeling and part of me is saying run away and that were both pretty young. I really want to be with him and wake up next to him. I’m worried I’m just in love with the idea of getting married and he’s convenient so I should just marry him. But we have a fuzzy electrical feeling when we kiss or touch and I don’t want to let that go. He says he knows I’m the one for him, but I just wish I had that feeling too. He’s everything I didn’t know I wanted in a husband. I’ve prayed and asked God for a sign to let me know if hes the one for me. The first time He sent a shooting star. The second time I felt like He was telling me through particular songs that kept coming up on the radio. After that second time you would think “Okay, God, I get the message,” but I still can’t shake the gut feeling of wanting to run. Is that the devil at work? Does the Bible say anything about this? Please help.

From,

Dating but Doubting

Dear DbD,

I hear three questions in your letter: Are we too young to get married? How can I know if he’s the one? And, will God give me a sign that I’m making the right decision? I’ll try to touch on each of these:

Firstly, on the question of “how old is old enough to marry?”: A hundred years ago (and probably for centuries before that), a couple who were twenty and had been together for four years may well already have been married! It is a strange feature of our modern world that it has become normal to delay marriage for ten, even fifteen, years later than our ancestors did.

But there is still much to be said for marrying young. In her excellent article The Case for Getting Married Young, Karen Swallow Prior talks about the difference between seeing marriage as the cornerstone, rather than the capstone, of your adult life. I was one who married a little later, but am now in a position where I have a group of friends who are my age but many of them have been married ten years longer than we have (and have kids going to college already!!), because they married in their late teens and early twenties. When these friends of mine talk about their marriages, they talk about how they and their husbands had to grow up together: they figured out how to “adult” (as it now seems to be a verb) as a team… and they are the better for it.

But this is not the norm with most people in their early twenties. I hear more people talk about first wanting to reach certain career and financial milestones before thinking about marriage, and while this is the conventional wisdom of our age, I don’t think the Bible has anything to say about seeking first career and financial stability, and then marriage being added unto you. Certainly, those who delay marriage and land up making poor sexual choices as a result have not chosen well. (In fact, did you know that in the Westminster Catechism, in the discussion of ways in which the seventh commandment is infringed, they list “undue delay of marriage” as one? Qu 139 over here.)

The health and maturity of your relationship matters so much more than your age. I would encourage you to try to rely less on your feelings and more on the wisdom of your community in taking stock of whether you and your boyfriend’s relationship is healthy and mature enough to move towards marriage. Ask your parents, leaders around you at church, trusted friends, and people who have been married a while: ask them about their experiences, ask them what advice they’d have, and then ask them if they would help you to identify any red flags they might see: do you have patterns of co-dependency that you might not be aware of? how do you handle anger, disappointment, and conflicts of interest etc? Also, if you are seriously thinking about marriage, I would strongly encourage you to do pre-marital counseling. Take your time and take it seriously: pre-marital counseling doesn’t “solve” any issues up front, but it really does a lot to help you walk into marriage with your eyes wide open and your expectations adjusted towards reality. If you can—and this is gold—stay in relationship with those counselor’s and ask if you can check in with them every couple of months after you are married. That kind of mentoring makes the world of difference.

As to the question: “how can I know if he’s the one?” I’ve written about the idea of finding the “one” and how much we can trust the tingly feelings of dating chemistry here, so I won’t go into too much about that more. I do want to add this, though: that you are dating in a millennial climate where we all like to keep our options open, but the downside of that is that sometimes keeping all our options open means also watching them all go by without having taken any. The desire to optimize all our experiences—to find the best deal, or the perfect vacation destination,  or the dream school, or the perfect mate—leads us to the deluded belief that if we just do enough internet research, we will make the perfect decision and then life will be easy. But it is a delusion. And sometimes, wisdom says that we would be happiest if we picked the GOOD option and worked with that, rather than indefinitely delaying deciding because we’re waiting for the best.

I mention this just to express some sympathy for the cultural climate we live in: the fear we have of “making the wrong decision” and “settling for second best” is horribly amplified by the world around us; and it is undergirded by the false premise that the “best” decision (or “the one”) really is out there, and that if we would just find that one then we will all live happily ever after. But life is not like that, and no matter how wonderful you and your partner may be (or how long you wait), marriage is still one between sinners and you will have seasons of deep challenge and mutual refining… and in the process, grow together.

Now that’s not to say we should go to a dance and “take a partner by the hand and doh-se-doh into happily ever after” with the first available single guy. Obviously, we need more wisdom than that: finding someone who loves God, who loves you, with whom you can grow and serve together, and (I think this is a deal breaker), with whom you can laugh at both triumphs and disappointments, goes a long way towards making marriage smoother. You say in your letter “he’s everything I didn’t know I wanted in a husband.” I think that’s a really encouraging start 🙂

Finally: will God give me a sign so I can be sure? Probably not. Will he give you wisdom if you ask? Yes. Will he give you guidance as you prayerfully try to figure this out? Yes. Will he make the decision for you? Usually no. Not unless you’re Gideon. But take heart, dear friend: just because God hasn’t put an appendix at the back of the Bible with the list of who you will marry (wouldn’t that be a trip?) doesn’t mean he isn’t leading, guiding, and providing, or that he won’t work in good and amazing ways through this process of questioning you’re going through. If I think back on the discernment process through my own dating and deciding-to-marry relationships: I felt so unsure at the time, and really wished God would just TELL ME WHAT TO DO ALREADY, but as I look back I can see his faithfulness in answering every one of my prayers, for being with me through the breakups, and in landing up where I have. I have ever confidence He has no less than abundant plans for flourishing for you, too.

All the best,

Bronwyn

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What Marriage Isn’t

The marriage had its troubles in it, which is easy to say. It had something else in it too, which is not so easy.

The fresh-faced and totally-in-love newly weds sat at our dinner table, eager for our advice. They wanted to start a website for newlyweds, they said, and share their story to encourage people. “Marriage is awesome”, they beamed, “and we think people should know”. I chewed my dinner slowly and considered what to say, being five years further down the road than they.

Yes, marriage is awesome.

Except when it isn’t.

But how could they possibly know that yet? And who wants to be the Debbie Downer of Domestic Bliss? Marriage is absolutely awesome and also absolutely hard: both these things are true, and not in the sense that they cancel each other out in the midway to make marriage lukewarm or “mostly harmless”. Both these things are true in deep, shocking measure. Like the little girl with a curl in the middle of her forehead, when marriage is good it’s very, very good; but when it’s bad it’s horrid. And sometimes both these things are true in the same week. So to those newly weds I wanted to offer some words of perspective: Marriage between sinners can never be wholly good, but it does a holy good in us.

The longer I am married—and the longer I write—the harder I find it to write about marriage. Not because I’m disillusioned or unwilling to share, but because the mystery of marriage seems to me to deepen with time. Perhaps this is why this reflection from Hannah Coulter—Wendell Berry’s beautiful novel with an elderly woman’s reflections on her life—is so profound:

“The marriage had its troubles in it, which is easy to say. It had something else in it too, which is not so easy. As I go about quietly by myself in my days now or lie awake in the night, I hunt for the way to speak of it, for it is the best thing I have known in this world, and it lays its peace on everything else I know.

The longer I am married, the more I understand why St Paul, in his famous description of love, started out by trying to say what it was, but then was pushed into saying what it wasn’t. Love is patient, love is kind. That’s what love is. But love has a mysterious element too: defined as much by what it isn’t as what it is: it isn’t jealous, nor self-seeking, nor rude. It does not boast, nor does it tally others’ wrongs.

Love is known by its presence and its absences. By the giving of grace and the withholding of judgment. By what it is and what it isn’t. And so is marriage.

Marriage is a friendship, but it isn’t just that. Marriage is family, but it isn’t the only way we experience family. Marriage is hard, but often for very soul-shapingly good reasons. Marriage is good, but that good isn’t always easily won. Marriage is a firm resolve to keep the covenants we have made, and yet it isn’t just that; for marriage can also hold an easy camaraderie and a comforting togetherness and a desire to be together and come together which are so very hard to put into words.

Marriage isn’t salvation, but at its best it models grace and mercy.

Marriage isn’t life’s ultimate goal, but done well it can point us in that direction.

Marriage isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of relationships, but it is the most intense and refining and rewarding one I’m called to right now.

Personally, I am wary of marriage articles that begin with “5 ways to…” and “31 days to…” The longer I am married, the more I feel like a list of bullet points will not hit the target I’m aiming for. We need to read—and write—words and lyrics which tell the truth about marriage: how we will trip over our own egos and griefs, how again and again we will need deep grace, how sometimes daily life gets boring and yet we need to seek togetherness… and how, somehow, finding that togetherness of partnering through life in God’s service together, despite all our faults and failings, remains the most deeply comforting and joyful things I’ve known in this world.

It lays its peace on everything I know.

 

Image Credit: Sweethearts / Patrick (Flickr Creative Commons), edited using Canva.

Help: Am I Married Or Not?

are we married

Dear Bronwyn,

I have been reading about marriage, sex, vows and covenants in the Bible, and my question is: am I married or not? I can’t find what defines a “biblical marriage”: Genesis says a man should leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife. I am living with my girlfriend (but my registered address is with my parents), and “cleave” seems to mean glued. Does that mean if we live together and have sex we are married?

I also read a lot about vows and covenants: I am committed to her and don’t want to fully have sex unless we are married. She wants to have sex and says “we are married”, but then when I ask her about getting a marriage license she says no. If I have promised to stay with her, is that a vow? And what does it take to make a covenant? Is that what the blood is about when women lose their virginity?

Please help: I am worried about losing my salvation over this,

Confused About the State of the Union 

 

Dear CASOTU,

There are different schools of thought on when God would consider you to be married:

  1. God views you as married if the government you live under views you as married.
  2. God views you as married if you have been through some kind of formal, societally-recognized marriage ceremony.
  3. God views you as married if you have had sex with a person.

I believe that #2 is what counts: you have been through some formal, public exchange of views, declaring your new commitment to one another as one another’s primary family. However, ideally, all three would met: you’d get legally married (in your case, get a license), your community would publicly know about it and BOTH you and your girlfriend would be intentional about the promises you are making each other and what they mean, and that marriage would then be consummated by sex.

(However, there are circumstances where perhaps #1 is not possible: for example, in South Africa under Apartheid laws the government regulated who could and could not marry. There were, however, such things as “african customary marriages” where the local chief could marry a couple. The government didn’t recognize those, but I believe God did. Also, I know of people who, for various reasons, are unable to consummate their marriage and so don’t meet requirement #3: I don’t believe—and nor do they!—this makes them any less married.)

From God’s perspective, I believe marriage (however your culture acknowledges it) makes you a family (I’ve written about this before as this being the crucial difference between “living together” or co-habiting, and being married) . You and your girl friend have not made any private or public commitment to be one another’s family. And sex doesn’t make it so. I think the Genesis statement about “leaving one’s family and being joined to their wife” is not a one time thing like going out on a date and having sex. I think it represents a far more symbolic act of leaving your parents’ household and establishing a new one, so that in answer to the question, “who is your next of kin? and who should we call in case of emergency?” the answer is no longer, “my parents”, but “my wife”.

A covenant is a formal kind of contract, binding two parties together. All contracts involve people agreeing about something or making promises/vows to one another, but covenants seem to be a special type of contract: indicating a high personal commitment to one another, usually regarded as being unbreakable (whereas a rental contract might expire naturally after a year). To establish a valid covenant, you would need a few things: two parties, both willingly in agreement as to the terms of this new relationship, there would be vows made as each party commits themselves to the covenant, and sometimes the swearing of oaths. In ancient lands, the oaths involved calling down curses on yourself if you were to break the covenant. I think that’s what the blood represents in ancient covenants: as in a “I’d rather die than break this covenant” promise, or a “if I break this promise I’m deserving of death” idea: in both cases, death is represented by spilled blood.

In God’s covenants with people, the spilled blood also represents forgiveness of sins (death, represented by blood, is paid for by a substitute. And unless there a way to deal with sin, we couldn’t be in a relationship with a holy God… so the blood of sacrifices in Israel, and now Jesus’ blood, symbolize the covenant of grace with God: our forgiveness and relationship made possible through sacrificial death (for example: see Ephesians 1:7, Colossians 1:20, Hebrews 9:11-15 )

I have always thought that the ancient marriage practices saw virginal blood as being a “sign” of the marriage covenant, but I don’t know that our modern understanding of covenants acknowledge or require blood in the same way. Certainly, even in my personal faith, I participate in the “blood of the new covenant” symbolically by taking communion. More than once I’ve read through Exodus and Leviticus and just been so ridiculously grateful that we no longer live in an era where a high priest splashes bulls’ blood over our foreheads.

So what are our covenant symbols these days? In faith, we take communion and participate in baptism. When it comes to marriage, it seems to me that public vows and the exchange of rings at a ceremony are often outward symbols of that internal commitment. Since you and your girlfriend haven’t (and by the sounds of it, don’t want to) do that, you are not married.

One final thought: your question got me thinking about how it is we can say that “God joins people together” in marriage (as Jesus said), and yet still believe that marriage is primarily a social institution rather than a religious and sacramental one. Because it is true: the job of marrying people in ancient Israel wasn’t a priestly task, nor was it something we see Jesus, his disciples, or any of the ministers in the early church doing. Jesus attended weddings, but they weren’t “religious business”. I think this gives us a solid ground for saying that we take our cues for what constitutes a marriage from the social norms around us. Maybe that involved the men in the family exchanging sandals at the city gate (as it did in the book of Ruth), or in customary Zulu culture, marriage requires families to agree on a bride price, followed by a ceremony and celebratory feast. For us, we needed someone with a marriage license to officiate over our vows (they could be ordained in a church or a public official… but the law said it had to happen “under a roof”… so there was a local custom we had to observe to make it legal.)

However, saying that marriage is a societal institution doesn’t mean that God doesn’t work in and through our cultural norms to join people together. Maybe a helpful parallel is considering that God doesn’t tell us what kind of government we should have: He doesn’t prescribe communism or monarchy or democracy, but he DOES say that all authority is given by God, that all rulers are ultimately accountable to him, and that we all should submit to the authorities we live under (unless they are requiring us to disobey God). I find that a helpful parallel: God doesn’t say “you must have a marriage license”, but he does say sex belongs in marriage… and so depending on when and where you live, the definition of “marriage” is probably fairly clear. In your case, you’d need a marriage license. And your parents would probably need to know. And—this one is critical—both you and your girlfriend would need to be intentionally, willingly, life-long committing to each other.

May God give you grace as you work this out. You are not married, and my heart goes out to you because it sounds like you are trying so hard to figure out how to handle the sexual aspect of your relationship as best you can. We all struggle with our sexuality at one point or another, and I do believe God knows our hearts and he is our Father who has GREAT compassion and wants the best for us. I don’t believe you will lose our salvation over this: God’s invitation to you is to COME to him, no matter who you are or what you’ve done.  If you keep asking him for wisdom on what to do in this situation, James 1:1-5 promises that he will give it to you.

All the best,

Bronwyn

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.

 

 

Scanning The Crowd for Love

Today I’m over at my friend Cara Meredith’s blog, where she has a wonderful little series called “The Little Things”, telling about how it’s the small details of life that sometimes make such a very big difference (great series, right?) I LOVED getting to write this – it’s the awkward and unlikely story of the little thing that made me realize the guy I thought was Not My Type had perhaps more to him than I had realized. Click on over to Cara’s right away (and look around while you’re there!), or read here for a preview 🙂

Amanpreet Kaur - Couple Holding Hands (Flickr Creative Commons)

Amanpreet Kaur – Couple Holding Hands (Flickr Creative Commons)

He stood at my front door with a sheepish grin and a bomber jacket that really should have stayed in 1987. He was late. He mumbled. He seemed uncomfortable.

However, he was new to town and I was ‘practicing hospitality’, as it were, so I welcomed him in and introduced him to the dozen friends at the table. We made conversation over dinner: he was an engineer, he had traveled, he had quit his job to spend a year at seminary reading. He was introverted, mathematical. He needed a new jacket.

I sized him up: he was the perfect guy.

For somebody else.

Putting on my Emma-matchmaker hat, I made a mental list of quiet, mathematical girls I could introduce him to. This could work out nicely, I thought.

 

(OK, Go! Go! Go! Over to Cara’s Right Away!)

The intimacy of toothbrushes (and sex)

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Kim looked steadily at the crowd of 200 kids. “Let me explain what holy is,” she said. “Holy means set apart for just one person’s use. It means its not for anyone else. Just for one person.”

She produced a toothbrush from her bag. “Like this toothbrush. This is my toothbrush. I used it this morning. You just had snack and probably need to brush your teeth. Would you like to use my toothbrush?”  The crowd erupted with a chorus of “no!!!” and “eeeew!” Not a single furry-toothed kid wanted to take her up on her offer.

Brilliant illustration, I thought. Even at a young age, kids know that toothbrushes are intimate things. You don’t just go around sharing toothbrushes: they are reserved for your mouth alone.

The toothbrush analogy came flooding back to mind this week while I was watching a TV show. As is the way of much entertainment, the story involved a (young, in-love, responsible, monogamous) dating couple. They were in bed together. Another show later that week depicted another couple waking up together – with different partners than they had woken up with a few weeks earlier in the season.

It got me thinking: how is it that we live in a world where we think that sharing toothbrushes is more intimate than sharing your body? Why does a crowd of children shy away from the thought of picking up a friend’s toothbrush and shoving it in their mouth, but we don’t bat an eyelid at the thought of someone picking up a friend and…. (well, you know.)

Is it the germs on a toothbrush? Sex involves more germs.

Is it the risk of disease? Sex has way more risk (and more reward, as I’ve written about here.)

Is it the intimacy of a toothbrush? Sex is more intimate.

And yet people seem to be willing to brush their bodies together long before they’ll brush with one another’s toothbrushes.

In the last few weeks of our engagement, I remember running an errand – and instead of taking my old-jaloppy of a car, I borrowed my soon-to-be-husband’s significantly nicer set of wheels. I dropped something off at a friend and she walked me out to the parking lot. “Wow,” she observed, “I’m impressed! He trusts you to drive his car!”

I was stunned. Of course he trusted me with his car. He was about to entrust his heart, his life, his pocket book, his most vulnerable self to me. What was a car in the scheme of things?

Entrusting yourself to someone is more intimate than entrusting your car to them. And sharing your body is more intimate than sharing a toothbrush. By an order of magnitude, in my opinion.

And it makes me wonder if, after an evening of flirting and good chemistry, if handsome guy was to sidle over to delightful girl and whisper, “so, you wanna go home and share my toothbrush?”, whether the response might not be a little different.