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Healthy Relationships Are Defined

woman with her hand on her boyfriend's shoulder, laughing and holding coffee. vulnerability
Every healthy romantic relationship is defined. Let's look at five different romantic levels on which relationships can operate.

Nothing is quite as exhilarating as being in love. Romantic interests raise your confidence, make you look better in the mirror, envelop you with a strong sense of belonging, and brighten all of life. At the same time, nothing on earth can be as frustrating, annoying, heartbreaking and unpredictable as vulnerability in a dating relationship.

Romantic relationships can range from comforting to chaotic because they captivate our hearts and move our emotions in powerful ways. Our hearts are determined to search out a romantic life-partner. But the heart is easily deceived and will not automatically connect us to people who are good for us. You don’t have to look very far to see that people make as many bad relationship decisions as they do good ones when the heart is allowed to run unchecked.

Consequently, every healthy romantic relationship is defined. You can determine your personal vulnerability by choosing the level of conversations, physical expressions and self-disclosure you are willing to pursue. If the level of vulnerability matches the definition of the relationship, it will be satisfying and secure. If you become more vulnerable than the relationship can handle, however, it will thrust you into a chaotic swirl of fear and attachment.

To help you determine the level of vulnerability you want with your dating interests, let’s look at five different romantic levels on which relationships can operate.

1. Cautious Relationships

This is the world of acquaintances in your life. You can’t date if you aren’t meeting people, so romance begins with acquaintances at work, church and social circles.

You are cautious because you don’t know them well enough to trust them or have interacted enough to be sure you shouldn’t trust them with personal information. Once you determine that someone ought to be in the Cautious category, it is in your best interest to:

  • Restrict conversations to small talk you would be willing to let anybody know
  • Avoid physical contact beyond anything you would offer in a professional setting (like shaking hands)
  • Only meet in the context of a safe group. Since they are not part of your circle of trust, you have no idea what they might do or what they might say happened when you were together.

2. Curious Relationships

As you spend time with people, a few individuals will get your attention. You will sense some attraction because you are growing curious and would like to learn more. You still have more questions than answers, so you will want to:

  • Expand conversations to casual goals and personal interests. This is not the time to talk about your fears, closely held dreams, or sensitive details of your life.
  • Maintain the same level of physical contact you would exercise in Cautious Relationships
  • Only meet with these people in the context of a safe group since you are still testing the reliability of these connections

True story: Julianna was fascinated with Isaac because he was handsome and gregarious. She was pleased when he asked if she would be attending their friend’s barbecue. Over dinner, the conversation started out great, but then Isaac began to talk negatively about his mom and sister. The more they talked, the more intense he became over his mom’s overbearing demands and his sister’s irresponsibility. Julianna was shocked when he blurted out, “To be honest, I hate most women, but you seem different.” Her curiosity quickly turned back into caution, and she was relieved they were not on a date.

3. Confident Relationships

As you stay active in relationships, you are likely to meet someone who demonstrates genuine concern for you and your well-being. Your values in many areas of life are similar, and you enjoy each other’s company. As a result, you are willing to spend exclusive time together. In the back of your mind you have a notion this could be someone you eventually marry, but you don’t quite have enough information or interactive experience to reach a conclusion.

You will discover the strength of Confident Relationships when you:

  • Talk about your personal convictions and challenges which will make you more vulnerable to one another

If conversations go well, your confidence and joy will grow. If conversations don’t go well, you will experience intense feelings that may range from disappointment to panic to the need to run. You have these reactions because you are testing the relationship to see if further vulnerability is a good idea.

When relationships are at this stage, it is important to talk about it as a couple. Questions like, “What kind of relationship do we have?” or “What is your interest in me?” help clarify how vulnerable you are willing to be without guessing. Anytime you sense movement in the relationship, ask these questions again. If you find your interest levels are different, it is time to end the dating relationship before you hurt each other unnecessarily.

  • Limit physical contact to casual demonstrations of affection.

Although there is certainly room for more physical displays of affection, it is still in your best interest to deliberately limit your physical contact. Romantic and sexual arousal is one of life’s great experiences, but intimate physical interaction at this level will confuse your heart (1 Corinthians 6:18-19). A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, If we don’t get married, could I look this person’s spouse in the eye without guilt or regret?

  • Spend personal time together with deliberate boundaries.

When my wife, Pam, and I were dating, we met in places with bright lights, ended our dates before 11 p.m., and talked about appropriate physical displays of affection. These simple traditions provided emotional freedom in our whole relationship.

Confident Relationships is the level at which most relationship mistakes take place. It is common for the two of you to be at different levels of attachment or to entertain thoughts of increased intimacy/vulnerability even though it doesn’t fit in the relationship yet.

True story: Dennis noticed that Marissa was always surrounded by people who enjoyed her company. A couple of his casual friends were part of her social circle, so he asked if he could join them at their next gathering. He was a little nervous until she greeted him enthusiastically, and they talked for 30 minutes. Over the next few months, they attended many of the same social gatherings and talked at most of them.

When Dennis finally asked her out, her “yes” was just as enthusiastic as her initial greeting. The date went well which led to another and another. After their fourth date, he was surprised to find that her status on Facebook had changed as she described him as her boyfriend.

“Marissa, I noticed you changed your status on Facebook.”

“I did it because I was so excited to let everyone know.”

“I was a little surprised because we never decided we were boyfriend and girlfriend.”

“Yeah, but we are.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“We are only going to date one another, and we are going to tell others that we are a couple.”

“I don’t mean to be difficult, but we would need to decide that together.”

The evening ended awkwardly, but they kept seeing each other. As Marissa continued to tell people about her boyfriend in her social media posts, Dennis continued to grow uncomfortable. She seemed to be deciding for them what kind of relationship they were having without discussing it with him.

When two of his buddies asked him, “Dennis, when are we going to meet your girlfriend, and why haven’t you changed your status on Facebook?” was the day he realized they were not on the same page. Breaking it off brought a difficult sense of relief.

Confident Relationships is also the stage at which you figure out if a love relationship is the real thing.

True story: Kevin and Allison met on a missions trip with their church. As they observed each other helping people who were less fortunate than themselves, an interest was sparked in both of them. At the end of each day, they spent time talking. The more they shared about their convictions, goals, challenges and relationships with God, the more their confidence grew.

After the trip, they began dating. They deliberately talked over how much time they would spend with each other and with friends. They set limits together on how they would express affection. Over the next few months, they continued to explore the relationship by sharing fears they struggle with and what they would like to do different from their families. Each time they shared, they discovered new areas of agreement which naturally led them to move to the next level.

4. Connected Relationships

This is the step you take when you get engaged. You have concluded this is the one to the exclusion of all others. The period of engagement takes the relationship to another level of intensity and provides time to plan the wedding. You will get the most out of your engagement when you:

  • Courageously talk about everything: your dreams for life, strengths and weaknesses of your family, good and bad habits, fears you carry in your heart, and ambitions that drive you. You need to convince yourselves that you can handle life together without secrets.
  • Increase your displays of affection

You will naturally begin to explore more intense ways of expressing your love to one another. It is easy to think, We are going to get married anyway, so there is no need to wait, but self-imposed caution is still in order (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Someday your kids will ask you, “Did you wait until you were married to have sex?” You are designing the answer today.

5. Committed Relationship

This is the exclusive relationship we call marriage where you merge your money, your decisions, your bodies, your social life, and your journey of growth. You will see the best and worst in each other. You will build great memories together. You will make ridiculous mistakes together. You will face setbacks and obstacles. And you will become intimately acquainted with someone who is every bit as imperfect as you. As a result, everything in marriage is intense and works best when you:

  • Pursue selfless interaction

Your partner will know you well enough to comfort you at a deep level or create damage. Listening without giving quick solutions, showering your spouse with compliments, and developing non-verbal responses that create a safe environment are vital in marriage even though they are optional in most other relationships.

  • Explore physical ways of expressing love. The power of sexual intimacy is now yours to explore together without restrictions.


You can harness the power of romance today if you courageously define the level of vulnerability you are willing to share with the people you are interested in. There’s no magic formula for relationships or simple equations to probe matters of the heart, but assessment can at least be a tool providing perspective and can help you enjoy both the connection and the clarity that can come from a healthy relationship.

Copyright 2015 Bill Farrel. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Bill Farrel

Bill Farrel has been influencing lives for over 25 years as a senior pastor, youth pastor, radio talk show host, community leader, and sought-after conference speaker. Bill is the author of The 10 Best Decisions a Man Can Make, and he and his wife, Pam, have written more than 30 books, including Men Are Like Waffles—Women Are Like Spaghetti and Red-Hot Monogamy. They have been married more than 30 years and have raised three young men who love Jesus and athletics.


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