Attitudes & Dating

The following was written as a companion to a teaching series about dating at PBC’s Young Adult Fellowship. While this post specifically addresses dating relationships, the core principle is equally applicable to platonic friendships or relationships with coworkers.

I have had countless conversations over the years with friends about how hard the “dating dance” is and how there are so many potential pitfalls. From these conversations it is clear that my friends so much want someone who will cherish them, someone to share the joys of life with, but finding that person is so difficult and painful they can sometimes wonder if it is worth it.  I encourage them to seek to understand how God might want bless them, be it though  singleness or marriage. What’s most important is to be open to what God is doing.

I have often noticed my friends struggle more than is necessary because they are seeking romance but really want intimacy. But even when my friends have known what they are looking for, there are still plenty of struggles. I often hear my friends wrestling with:

  • Why can’t I find someone I want to date?
  • Why don’t people want to date me?
  • How can I avoid being taken advantage of, how can I be sure I don’t give away too much?

Often I suggest to my friends that they need a mind shift, a new approach to dating. An approach that moves things from the realm of chemistry and instant connection into the realm if intimacy and friendship which can be the basis for a wondrous relationship. I think there is a new perspective which addresses all of these questions.

Don’t Be a Consumer…

The question “what are you looking for?” in relation to who to date is understandable, but can put us in the wrong mindset. I have noticed some people looking at potential dates almost the way they would look at cars. Comparing price, features, style, etc. I believe the advent of online dating services have fueled this tendency. Statistics from For Love or Money: Does Online Dating Really Work? indicate that 73% marriage partners still meet the “old fashion way”, but I think online dating services have changed many people’s expectations, even those who don’t meet their future spouse through a dating site. There are countless profiles one can peruse. These sites give the impression that there is a huge, an almost unlimited number of possible dating / marriage partners. These sites provide an illusion that if we are willing to wait, we will be able to find exactly what we are looking for.
Most of us believe the more choices we have, the happier we will be, because we will be able to choice what is perfect. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Barry Schwartz throughly explores this issue in his book The Paradox of Choice. What he, and a number of other researchers have found is that if you give people more choices, they tend to make worse choices, and they tend to be less content with choices they make… especially if they believe the will be able to change their mind in the future. This was nicely summarized in Dan Gilbert’s talk Why are We Happy. Applied to dating and marriage, if you are getting involved with someone, but are thinking in the back of your mind, “Maybe this is the right person, maybe they aren’t, there are other people if this doesn’t work out” you are less likely to see the relationship go well. I am not advocating to going back to arranged marriages, or that you have to marry the first person you date, but I will suggest how you approach the relationship may have much more to do with how successful the relationship is than picking the perfect person.

The final way a consumer orientation will lead you wrong is that it can set your expectations too high. You start to have an expectation that this wonderful person you have found will make your life better, they will fulfill you. The relationship will go well because you found someone great. This is doomed. No matter how special or wonderful the other person is, that if you are looking to them to complete you, to meet all your needs and desires, you will be sadly disappointed. You are designed for life in a community. You are designed to be in relationship with God. There are many things that only God can provide. You will get nothing but grief if you decide to remove all the other avenues God might use in your life by saying “my date or my spouse, they are my provision”. Furthermore, if you have troubling finding that one person, or the person you found fails you, it’s very easy to turn the consumer thinking around and wonder if the reason you have having trouble is because you aren’t a good “product”, e.g. that you aren’t worthy of love. The best ground to start a relationship with someone else is to be confident in God’s love for you.

… Be an Investor

A very common issues I have seen a number of friends struggle with, especially though who are trying online dating is a fear that they are going to be taken advantage of, that they will give away things while dating that they shouldn’t. One response to this in some Christian circles toward avoiding “dating”, and to embrace “courtship”. I have often seen people taking a “courtship” perspective, while avoiding some pitfalls of modern dating, run headlong into others. A fear of being taken from, of lose, demonstrates a perspective which is rooted in taking rather than giving. A key truth is that people can’t steal something you are freely giving. I have seem people (typically men) who are reluctant to invest in a relationship unless they are sure that the other person is going to reciprocate their interest. This self protection almost always results in a failed relationship because it shows a lack of courage, and an unwillingness to love unconditionally. I think the secret to good dating relationships is to be focused on giving rather than taking.

I encourage my friends to ask the questions”What am I bringing into this relationship?” and “what am I investing into this relationship?” This is a focus on service, and looking for opportunities to grow, to learn, to care for someone else. My experience is that relationships where one or both of the participants viewed the relationship as a context to learn and grow in love did well. That’s not to say that the dating led to marriage, or marriage didn’t have their struggles, just that if the dating relationships ended, both people tended to part as friends, that the marriages were able to push through the tough times, and that the couple would say that the dating relationship was a force of good in their life. For me, this perspective was instilled by the teaching and example of the leaders of the church I attended in college and as a young adult. Much of what I was taught got turned into the book Spiritual Relationship That Last which was written by two of our pastor / elders. If I was to select a single sentence from this book, to extract the key to a successful relationship, it would be “… is not to find the right person, but to become the right person: a person who has learned to practice Christian love at the most intimate level”

Rather that viewing dating primarily as a way to determine if a person is your future mate it is much better to view your dating relationship as an opportunity to learn to love someone, to grow, and to help your date to grow. Dating relationships provide wonderful opportunities to develop relationship skills. Dating provides opportunities to influence each other. To encourage each other, to challenge each other to grow. Dating provides time to learn about someone. During the early stages of a dating relationship I would suggest that we need to strongly resist the tendency to ask “is this the person I will marry?”. Rather, just enjoy learning who this wondrous person is. They are fearfully and wonderfully made. God is doing something special with them. What an adventure to get to see the arc of their life. Maybe you will get to share life’s journey as a spouse, maybe as a friend… but whatever the outcome, the time spent dating someone isn’t wasted. The time will come when you will have to decide how a relationship will evolve, but there are many good outcomes, several of which don’t involve marriage. Even chance encounters with people you will never see again could be a blessing.
When we feel attraction toward someone else, it’s hard to know if we are actually investing in them, loving them, or if we are largely being driven by our emotions and desires. Our hearts are best revealed when what we desire is denied. Our response to a relationship ending truly reveals our heart, but that’s too late. I sometimes encourage people to do a thought experiment. Lets say a young man is struggling through his feelings toward a young lady. I ask him to consider how he would response if after a bit the women he is attracted to shares that she feels that she has been called to go to Siberia as a missionary in the next year, and he didn’t. I will ask the young man “If you are confident that she is called to this ministry could you set aside your personal desire for her as a romantic partner, join with others to provide financial support, pray for her daily, encourage her to follow strongly after the Lord, even though that takes her to a distant country?” I might even challenge him to imagine he knows a godly man who was also called to Siberia. I ask “Could you introduce them knowing they might get married which would be a blessing for them, giving both a partner in a tough ministry.” If the answer is “I don’t think I could do that” I ask the question “Why not?” This is the sort of love we are called to have.

Earlier I recommended several books about dating.  The two books that I think are particularly relevant to this post are  The Marriage Builder by Larry Crabb and The Meaning of Marriage by the Kellers. These two books explore the issues I have raised in much more detail.

As for me, this is a season of singleness. A time to take care of my daughter and to figure out what’s next in life. Of course not dating doesn’t mean you can’t invest in other people’s lives.  I still get the pleasure of  spending time with new and old friends, hearing their stories, and maybe helping them along the way. Being in community is precious.

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, [dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4:8-9

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