In matters of dating or courtship, I generally recommend that people either get married or break up within a year or so of beginning a dating relationship. I also believe that this recommendation applies with equal force to single men and women in college. I’ve arrived at this conclusion by thinking through a number of biblical principles.
One of our bedrock governing principles in biblical dating — and in how we treat our brothers and sisters in Christ generally — is not to “defraud” our single brothers and sisters by implying a greater level of commitment between us and them than actually exists (see 1 Thessalonians 4:6). I discuss this principle more fully in “Principles for Drawing Boundaries” and “What Does a Biblical Relationship Look Like?” As a quick refresher, we can “defraud” our brother or sister in a dating context by showing or encouraging a level of intimacy — either emotionally or physically — that the Bible seems to reserve for marriage and marriage only. If we act like we’re married before we’ve made that commitment, we’re defrauding (and sinning).
I don’t know whether you’ve noticed this, but people involved in a dating relationship tend to get to know each other better over the course of that relationship. In fact, they are usually really enthusiastic about doing so. We might even say that getting to know one another better and more deeply is (up to a certain limited point, of course) the very purpose of a dating relationship. When two people are dating — especially when it’s going well and two people are really into one another — the desire to spend more and more time together, to know each other better and better, to confide in each other more and more often and exclusively, is overwhelming. As your general comfort level around each other rises, that momentum grows even more.
Now picture, for example, college life. We’ll assume, per another clear principle from Scripture, that both members of our college couple are Christians. On most college campuses, that likely puts the two of you in the same relatively small social circle. Perhaps both of you are active in the same campus ministry, you go to the same church. Over time, maybe you take some of the same classes, live near one another, etc.
In that context, living with the desires I’ve just described, how likely do you think it is that over the course of two or three or four years — some couples date over most of their college years — you will be able to maintain enough emotional discipline and distance to avoid acting emotionally and relationally “married”?
I’ve spoken to numerous “long-dating” couples, in college and beyond, who other than living together, could do little to intertwine their lives any more than they already are. They see each other every day, are with each other’s families every holiday (and often know their partner’s family as well as any son or daughter-in-law does), they travel together, spend most of their non-working (or studying) time together, they daily confide in one another (and maybe only one another), and are without doubt, closer emotionally with one another than with anyone else on the planet.
This is exactly the level of intimacy that is reserved for marriage only and that dating couples should make every effort to restrain until the appropriate time. Can this level of emotional intimacy happen between people who have been dating for a shorter amount of time? Of course. But the longer a couple dates, the harder it becomes to avoid it.
Scripture calls Christians to “flee” from sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:18), not to “see how difficult we can make the temptation and still prevail” or to “see how close to the line we can get without sinning.” In my view, Scripture teaches clearly that there is to be no romantic physical intimacy outside of marriage.
No reasonable person would argue that physical temptation does not increase — a lot — the longer two people date who are attracted to each other and who grow to love each other. Sadly, statistics and anecdotal experience both indicate that even the vast majority of Christian couples who spend time in dating relationships of any length, sin physically.
The longer the relationship, the higher the percentage. Where a relationship is shorter, accountability stronger, and the level of emotional intimacy more responsible, the level of physical temptation, and the likelihood of sin, goes down.
The Bottom Line
To put it simply, “not acting married before you’re married,” gets exponentially more difficult the longer a pre-marital relationship persists. If our goal is to move positively toward God-glorifying lives (rather than simply to “walk the line” by attempting to satisfy our fleshly desires as much as possible without sinning), wisdom and godliness would seem to counsel keeping relationships shorter.
Certainly, as God’s people, we don’t want to live in fear and have our lives be primarily defined by avoiding temptation rather than positively seeking after Christ. I’m not suggesting that we do. Still, where particular known areas of temptation exist, it’s not living in fear to be deliberate about taking the wiser course.
Let me try to deal very briefly with the most popular responses I get to this argument — especially from college students.
1) “This argument doesn’t really apply to us, because we’re in a long-distance relationship.”
I think it does, even if the physical circumstances are different. As to emotional intimacy, we live in the age of email, free long distance and unlimited any-time minutes, and cheap flights. It’s still really easy to “act married” emotionally, even in a long-distance relationship.
As to physical intimacy, many long-distance couples have told me that because they are not physically close to one another as often, they actually experience more intense physical temptation when they’re together. And again, if you believe the stats, long-distance couples don’t do any better than others at staying physically pure.
2) “We dated for less than a year and then got engaged. We’ll be engaged for the next 18 months while we finish school, but we’re already committed, so that’s cool, right?”
Um, no. If you’ve forgotten the cardinal rule of engagement, re-read “Tips for Engagement.” Engagement is a great thing, but it’s not marriage. It may, as a practical matter, necessitate addressing issues and being a bit more intimate than they were before, but the simple fact is that couples break up even after engagement. Your fiancé is not your spouse until the wedding is over. In the meantime, the “we’re already committed” rationalization tends to make couples feel free to act in all sorts of ways they didn’t before, and every argument I’ve made in this series applies even more strongly to engaged couples.
3) “We’re so much more ‘fruitful in ministry’ as a couple; we ‘feel led’ to be together; ‘God’s calling us’ to date throughout college.”
I doubt it. The above language is hard to argue with (who can argue with God?), but that doesn’t mean that anyone who uses that language is automatically correct. As a quick theological aside on guidance, God does not primarily lead His people by mystic feelings in the pits of our stomachs about what He wants us to do. He leads us primarily by His Word, and we are to look there first and primarily for guidance about how to live and make decisions.
God does not ever “call” or “lead” His people into sin, or even into folly or spiritual danger. We should take a given course of action because it comports with the principles of Scripture, not because we mystically feel “led” to do something we have a strong desire to do anyway.
4) “We have no choice. We have to wait. My parents will not pay for school if we get married before graduation.”
I hate to be a pain here, but you actually have at least two biblically responsible choices. They’re both hard, I admit, but they are doable. Choice one is to get married anyway and work your way through. Many people work their way through school. Will it take longer? Sure. Will it lead to other hard choices? Almost certainly. Can it be done? Yes.
Choice two is to stay in school and put the relationship on hold. Stop spending time together one-on-one. Talk less often. Be deliberate about avoiding “marital” levels of intimacy. Wait until a responsible time to start the relationship back up. By the way, more than one set of Christian parents have relented on this question in the face of respectful, biblical resolve by their children.
5) “People I trust think you should date at least a year or two before marrying. I can’t get enough information about the other person over the course of a short relationship. I’m really worried I’ll end up ‘settling.'”
Now that’s a topic for an entire article in itself! Check out my piece “Settling.”
Copyright 2007 Scott Croft. All rights reserved.