You've started dating, but aren't ready to get engaged. What might your relationship look like during this "in between" time?
Before continuing with this article, please review the preamble included at the beginning of this series, "Biblical Dating: How It's Different From Modern Dating."
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PART 5: Navigating the Early Stages of a Relationship »
My last article, "Biblical Dating: Navigating the Early Stages of a Relationship," sought to apply some of the principles we've discussed in this series to the early stages of a dating relationship.
We talked about how to establish intentions for the early stages, appropriate topics of conversation, types of dates and level of emotional investment. The idea in all of that was not to establish a level of emotional (or certainly physical) intimacy that would imply marriage (defrauding one another), and result in a de facto emotional divorce if things don't work out. Our goal in dating as Christians is to save marital levels of interaction for marriage itself; to care well for the other person's soul, to be different from the world and so to bring glory to God.
This time, I want to apply some of the same principles we've been thinking about to a relationship that moves beyond the "early stages" and gets serious.
The essential line to walk here is to get to know one another better so that you can make a responsible and informed decision about marriage, but without acting married in the process and without violating 1 Thessalonians 4's admonition not to defraud and mistreat one another. Let's look at how this stage might play out by considering some of the same issues we looked at for the early stage.
Clarity and intentions should be established when things move from "testing the waters" to "yeah, the water's fine." Don't assume that because you agreed to start dating or courting (presumably with the intention to determine whether marriage was the right thing) you (or your partner) will "just know" when things begin to progress. In the design of a relationship that we're carving out here, caring well for one another means we can't place too high a premium on being clear.
Guys, again the brunt of the work falls to you here. If you've gone through the early stage of the relationship and truly feel before God (to whom you will give account for your decision) that you should begin to get more intimately involved with this woman because you think marriage to her is a good possibility, you have to tell her.
Tell her that you have loved getting to know her, that you find her a godly woman, that you are interested in pursuing a more serious relationship with her for a finite period of time, basically to see if there are any clear obstacles (in terms of beliefs or affections or goals or personalities) to the two of you getting married.
Finally, you should tell her that if she does not find herself in the same place in terms of her feelings about the relationship (or if she becomes certain at any point moving forward that she is not interested in marriage to you), she should break up with you immediately.
Be clear. Be honest. Be deliberate. Is this scary? Sure. Will it feel a little forced or awkward? Maybe, but being deliberate and clear about where the relationship is need not suck all the fun, spontaneity and feeling out of the whole affair. In fact, many women tell me they deeply appreciate such clarity. Let me also reiterate that, like asking someone to date initially, this conversation is not a proposal, and neither person is committing to marry the other at this point. It's just a marker to say things are going well, and as far as you're concerned, the game is changing. If done well, it should actually put you both at ease moving forward.
Obviously, as your relationship progresses, the two of you will probably spend more time together than in the early stage, and more of that time will be spent alone together. That's OK to a point, as you will need to have some more serious discussions about major issues.
That said, it is still dangerous to spend time together alone in a private setting. Temptation in this area is easily underestimated, and it is very difficult to regain discipline and backtrack once you have sinned physically. Spend time in public. Remember those long candle-light dinners in restaurants I suggested were unadvisable in the early stages of a relationship? They can actually be good at this stage — especially when compared to long nights "chatting" on the couch at one of your apartments. Even at this stage in the relationship, there is still no reason or need for the two of you to be alone in one of your apartments together. For the sake of purity, be very careful about how and where you spend time together.
Now What Do We Talk About?
In getting to know one another more intimately, there will also be some changes in some of the topics that are appropriate to discuss. You may, at this point, begin to get to know your potential partner at a more deeply spiritual level. You can share testimonies, talk more deeply about who you are, goals, hopes for your life's ministry (should the Lord tarry and give you many more years). As I've mentioned before, you should also discuss things like important theological issues and where you're comfortable going to church — to make sure the two of you are basically on the same page.
You should find one of two things as you have this these conversations regarding goals and anticipated ministries; there should either be a good deal of commonality between your goals and visions, or there should be significant flexibility on the part of the woman (who would one day be called to submit to her husband's headship with regard to career, direction of the family, etc.). Things will likely be very difficult down the road if one of you feels strongly called to a particular life or ministry that the other would absolutely dread.
You can also discuss things like interests, family, emotional issues, etc. in greater detail if it looks like things could be headed toward marriage, but caution is always in order as you get more deeply involved.
Also, do clearly discuss limits on your physical involvement (in other words, reiterate that there will not be one) and put methods of adhering to those limits in place. That said, don't make physical involvement — even a lack thereof — a frequent topic of conversation. That in and of itself can become a temptation — and the more you go over it and over it in your mind, the stronger the desire becomes and the less egregious the sin becomes (in your own mind, that is).
Finally, keep in mind that it is still not advisable to have long, intimate prayer times together at this stage. The situation has obviously changed somewhat, but that is still too tempting and too intimate. Pray with the people that are watching over your relationship. For that matter, go back over the list of topics I just talked about. Feel free to have any of those discussions in the presence of people you both trust or who are counseling you about the relationship.
Obviously, I've talked about this stage as being more emotionally intimate than the early days of a relationship, and I realize that in this day and age, many people feel that they must know the person they marry better than any other human being on the planet before they marry him or her. I generally think that is a wrong assumption and that such an approach leads to a lot of emotional "marriages" outside of actual marriage that are not biblical or healthy. Remember that in Scripture, we don't see deeply intimate romantic relationships outside of marriage — or if we do, they're described as sinful.
Because of that, let me suggest, even as you assess at this heightened level whether marriage is right, that you limit your emotional (and, of course, physical) intimacy. Put that person on your list of confidants, but do not make that person your primary emotional outlet. As I wrote last month, that will be incredibly hard to do, but trust me when I say that that discipline and care for the other person will serve you well, whether you end up married or not.
This later, more intimate stage should not be used by either person to "drink deeply" of a level of companionship that feels good for its own sake. It's not intended to give you a forum to "play married" and see how it works. It should not be drawn out. I cannot, as a biblical matter, give you a specific timeline here. As a practical matter, I think we're talking a matter of several months, not a year or two.
Guys, the woman you're dating can and should end the relationship if she realizes she doesn't want to marry you. But you are the guiding force in the relationship. It's incumbent upon you to move the relationship deliberately. This stage should be short, deliberate and limited.
Accountability is even more important as the relationship deepens than it was in the early stages. It should still be frequent, personal, local and tough. At this point though, more questions need to be added to the list. Not just "are you staying pure physically?" and all the emotionally equivalent questions, but "what are you doing?" "Where is this going?" "What kind of time frame are we talking about before some clear action is taken?" should be a regular part of conversations.
So those are a few suggestions for handling a relationship as things progress. Again, these are practical suggestions about how to apply biblical principles we've discussed before. It will certainly look different from relationship to relationship, and that's OK — even good. Keep the underlying biblical principles in mind, seek to live them out faithfully, and the Lord will be glorified.
PART 7: From 'Hi' to 'I Do' in a Year »
Copyright 2007 Scott Croft. All rights reserved.