I expect we have all seen dating relationships go wrong. We have all seen people move from unwise and unhealthy dating relationships into turbulent, difficult, or even doomed marriages. How can we help people avoid this? What are some danger signs of an unhealthy dating relationship? Lou Priolo’s books have often been helpful to me and this has proven the case once more with a little booklet he’s written on this very subject. He offers a long list of danger signs, but I want to focus on just 6 of them, on the ones I’ve seen most often.
Persistent doubts about the relationship. The first warning sign is the existence of persistent doubts about the relationship. There are many reasons people may experience such doubts. Some of these may be legitimate and some may ridiculous, and the difficulty comes in knowing which is which. Priolo warns, “The Bible teaches that, as a follower of Jesus Christ, you should not move forward until you are confident that what you are about to do is not sin” (see Romans 14:5, 23). We can draw from the Bible a “holding principle” that warns us not to act until we are confident that it will not be sinful to proceed. “If you can’t proceed in doing what you would like to do without having the faith (the scripturally based assurance) that you can do it to the glory of God, it’s best to wait until your conscience has been informed by the Word of God.” If you are having serious, nagging doubts about the wisdom of proceeding toward marriage, make time and effort to resolve those doubts biblically.
Subjects that are off-limits. Another warning sign of an unhealthy dating relationship is the existence of subjects that are off-limits. Are there certain subjects that your boyfriend or girlfriend refuses to discuss? Are there subjects you avoid bringing up out of fear of anger or hurt feelings? There are at least two warning signs wrapped up in such a situation: “These kinds of thought patterns may indicate an inability to biblically resolve conflicts on the part of your partner or an inordinate desire for approval on your part.” It could also be fear—fear of the other person’s emotional or even physical response. Either way, a marriage cannot thrive where a couple has subjects that remain off-limits, where relational intimacy can exist only if certain subjects never come up. Learn to talk to your future spouse about anything and everything and be concerned if subjects remain off-bounds.
Increased physical intimacy. A very serious warning sign within a dating relationship is an increase in physical intimacy—intimacy that is appropriate only within marriage. Of course the cultural expectation is that a couple will quickly ramp up the physical component of their relationship until they are sure they are sexually compatible. Only then will they be convinced that they can have a healthy marriage. But the Bible offers many and repeated warnings about sexual intimacy outside of marriage (which includes, of course, sexual intimacy prior to marriage). In fact, 1 Thessalonians 4 goes so far as to call such sexual activity “defrauding” another person, exploiting them for your own pleasure. Be concerned if your boyfriend or girlfriend ramps up the intimacy or pressures you to ramp it up. Take this lack of self-control and lack of desire for sexual purity as a warning sign and seek out help and counsel from others.
Strong opposition from family and friends. It is wise to be concerned about your relationship if it is opposed by family and trusted friends—especially Christian family and friends. The Bible often teaches the importance of seeking out and heeding wisdom from others. Their wisdom is not inerrant, but it may still be valuable. They may see things you do not. They may have the wisdom and insight you lack. “In the multitude of godly counselors there is wisdom. … If the objections are biblical (if there are valid biblical reasons to consider waiting to get married or to reconsider getting married at all), then wait until the issues are resolved before you move ahead. Let the Scriptures be your guide in all matters of faith and practice.” Ask trusted counselors about your relationship and carefully consider their concerns.
Lack of spiritual harmony. The Bible forbids Christians from marrying non-Christians, so the most important spiritual harmony comes by ensuring your future spouse is a true believer. I have spoken to many brokenhearted husbands and wives who have realized too late that they married an unbeliever. Be convinced! Another kind of spiritual disharmony is when major doctrinal differences divide spouses—issues like disagreements on the roles of husbands and wives or on the way God guides his people, whether through Scripture or through other kinds of revelation. Discuss and decide what you believe about infant baptism and about church attendance and membership. There is nothing more important to a dating relationship than communication, so take time to talk about everything. Talk, listen, and pursue harmony.
Inability to resolve conflicts. Another serious warning sign is an inability to resolve conflict. We could go so far as to say that the two essential qualities for a spouse are a shared Christian faith and an ability to resolve conflict in God’s way through God’s Word. If these are in place, everything else can follow. “The difference between a good marriage and a bad marriage is not necessarily that in the former there is little to no conflict and in the latter there is much conflict. The difference is that in a good marriage the conflicts are resolved biblically, quickly, and with a minimum amount of sin.” You will have conflicts and must learn to resolve them in a healthy manner. You also need to understand that conflict is not necessarily bad and, in fact, is often necessary to resolve issues that inevitably arise between sinful human beings. But a healthy marriage depends on a couple learning to work out their issues in a constructive way.
These are just 6 warning signs. For more, and for a workbook approach to identifying and dealing with them, consider picking up Lou Priolo’s booklet Danger Signs of an Unhealthy Dating Relationship.