Somewhere along the way dating became too hard. There must have been a time when it was easy—people knew what was expected of them and how to behave (even if too often they just went ahead and chose not to behave). But today I talk to an endless succession of young people who are trapped between dating and courting and some weird hybrid of the two. Dating has become the most difficult thing in the world, probably because they’ve got a million books and web pages telling them how. They can’t just do it—they’ve got to do it by the book. And along the way they are ruining their dating relationships.
Here are some ways I’ve seen people ruin what could have been a beautiful thing.
They start having sex. The first and most common way of ruining a perfectly good dating relationship is by adding sex to the mix. Sex is for marriage—you know that. God created sex for marriage, not for dating. God created sex to seal and celebrate the marriage relationship, not to serve as an exploratory part of it. Dating relationships just don’t have the seriousness, the level of commitment, or the divine sanction to support sex. So don’t ruin your relationship by adding even the least little bit of sexuality. There will be plenty of time for plenty of that later on. You will not regret the wait.
They stop having fun. Dating is not the time for sex, but it is the time for fun. It is time to simply enjoy spending time with another person, to learn who the other person is, to learn what makes the other person tick. This can be approached with complete deliberateness: Sit down and answer my list of questions; Let’s read 6 books on marriage together. But it can be better approached in the context of service (find a place to serve together!), fun (find something you both like to do and do it!), and informality (you don’t need to plan absolutely everything!). Once you completely take sex off the table, you are free to just have fun with the other person. In the context of that fun you will learn who he or she is, you will learn what he or she values, you will learn whether or not the two of you are compatible. Don’t lose the fun!
They succumb to morbid introspection. Next up is morbid introspection. Now, obviously dating is a good time for introspection. It is a good time to look within and to ask whether you are really ready to be a husband or wife, and ready to commit yourself completely to another person. Well and good. But what I see so often is a paralyzing level of introspection that drives a person to despair. The simple fact is that none of us is fully qualified to be a husband or wife. You will never be worthy of the honor of having another person commit his or her life to you. None of us is the top pick out of the 7 billion other people on the planet. Yet the wonder of marriage is that a messed up, sinful man actually can marry a messed up, sinful woman and somehow build a beautiful, life-long relationship that shines a spotlight on God and his gospel. If you wait until you are worthy of marriage, you will never get married. If you wait until you’re perfectly suitable, you will be waiting forever. You can’t wait until you’re all grown up before you get married; sometimes you need to get married to really grow up.
They have unrealistic expectations. If people are prone to paralysis when they look inward, they are equally prone to paralysis when they look at a potential spouse. I see too many people who have unrealistic expectations of the person they would choose as a spouse. You know what? She isn’t perfect. She isn’t the best or godliest or most beautiful person on the planet. But who are you to think you deserve all of that, or that you need it? Who are you to think, “I deserve better than this”? And that guy, he isn’t going to be completely gentle and sweet and selfless all the time. But again, who are you to deserve a perfect man? We all marry as sinners. We all marry sinners. While you ought to expect a lot of your future spouse, it’s unfair to expect perfection.
They live in fear. If we look for a common thread in all of these other ways to ruin a perfectly good dating relationship, I think we come to fear. A lot of people are full of fear. They make major decisions out of fear. But dating is a very good time to remember that we serve a God who is sovereign and relentlessly committed to our good. His instructions on marriage are basic: Marry a Christian, live and die for one another, and remain married for life. He doesn’t lay down the long lists of criteria you’ll find in all of those books. He doesn’t describe technique or methodology. He just tells us of the good and glory of marriage and expects that those who wish to be married will figure out how to make it happen. And then, one way or another, through joys and through trials, he pours out his blessings.