Almost 13 years ago, I met my husband and officially stepped out of the dating game. It’s a good thing, too, because I was never very good at dating.
I have always really enjoyed socializing with men, but found intentional dating emotionally confusing and frustrating. I have never been good at communicating my feelings. I have always been awkward in intimate situations, emotional or otherwise. And I have never been particularly interested in the game of “attraction.” In fact I think that, were I ever left a widow, I’ll probably die single. I’m not sure you could pay me enough to jump back in that game.
Some of my friends don’t have the luxury of sitting back and thanking God the dating game is over for them. Some of you are still in the thick of it and, from what I hear and observe, it’s a very frustrating time to be in the thick of it. The world of dating in 2018 seems a lot more complicated than it did 15 years ago.
From my vantage point:
Young people seem far too emotionally immature and over-sexualized. Older people seem far too casual in their long-term, unmarried monogamy. Everybody’s got baggage. Everybody’s been married before or has kids already.
Add to these complications the recent “woke-ness” of our culture about issues of sexual harassment and assault which, for all the ways it has empowered victims, has also created a debilitating kind of social anxiety about relationships between men and women. I would imagine that people everywhere–men, especially–just don’t know anymore what is and is not permissible in casual relationships, and what, exactly, constitutes “expressed consent” in intimate relationships.
The nuanced dance of flirting and the thrill of the pursuit is over, my friends. Things went and got complicated.
Where does that leave us (you)? Well, I said I was no good at dating. But I did date. And I watched my friends date. And I’m watching my friends date now. And I have four children who will, one day, want to date.
So whether you’re trying to find a mate or trying to be found–or if you’re my child reading this in 10 years–I have a few suggestions for how to survive this complicated (new) world of dating without losing your mind.
Learn to date without expectations for intimacy.
I think it’s time to reintroduce casual dating to the world, especially to the Church. And by “casual,” I mean truly casual–not casual in public and intimate in private. I mean something like meeting up for a concert or for a cup of coffee or inviting a friend to a work event as your date. I mean two adult people spending one-on-one time alone doing normal things that normal adults do to keep each other company and to interact in the real world together and to have conversations like normal people do so they can get to know each other better.
I think it’s perfectly appropriate to casually date more than one person, at least for a short time. But casual things don’t usually last forever and it takes a lot of maturity to know when it’s time to either move on or ramp up the intentionality of the relationship. This will happen naturally if you get more interested in one person than the other(s), but it might need a little help. This is where being an effective communicator comes into play.
Learn how to express intentions.
Communicating feelings and intentions is hard, at least for me. But there comes a point at which both people in the relationship will start to wonder “what’s actually going on here,” and somebody needs to take the first step to define things. Especially if you’ve introduced any physical intimacy.
My husband and I spent hours upon hours together for six months before we ever actually touched or had a defining conversation about our relationship. We talked about everything in heaven and on earth except our actual relationship. And it was confusing and it did seem like it took forever to have that conversation and I did cry and pray over our relationship many times during those six months. But I’m so glad I didn’t force the conversation because if I had, he probably wouldn’t have been ready.
Neither my husband nor I were interested in diving into a long-term relationship that didn’t end in marriage. We had both been there before and walked away heartbroken and wanted to avoid going there again. We used the term “courting” to define the next stage in our relationship because we had a goal in mind–marriage–and we fully intended to walk away if, at any point, marriage wasn’t going to happen. It was a decision to dive in and pursue something other than just a good time together.
I can’t tell you how long it should take to go from “we’re more than friends” to “let’s get married.” It took just over a year for us. And it was an intense year with a lot of hard questions and hard conversations and a time or two when I honestly thought it was all over and he was walking away. It may take you six months or it may take two years. (But I think it’s safe to say that if it takes five years, you’re probably doing something wrong or you’re doing it with the wrong person.)
Learn how to walk away.
If things aren’t working, it’s okay to walk away.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, for most married people, there was another person before their spouse, someone that they were head over heels for or someone who they thought was The One. Learning to walk away from a good thing, when you know it’s not the right or best thing, is harder than hard. It’s heart-breaking. But when the irreconcilable differences are big enough to cause recurrent problems or when, at the end of the day, you’re really just not that into each other, it’s okay to walk away. It can be done graciously and without irreparable emotional damage, especially if you learn to do this before jumping into bed together or tagging along on the family vacation to Jamaica. Again, honest (and kind) communication works wonders for this sort of thing.
I don’t believe in the Perfect Mate myth, so I am comfortable encouraging people to date for fun and to get to know each other before becoming exclusive. But I also believe that long-term non-married monogamy is a lame substitution for marriage.
Marriage is good. It’s good for you and your spouse, good for children, good for the world, good for the economy, etc. Marriage is a good relationship goal. And if you spend your first fifteen adult years screwing around for fun, sowing your wild oats instead of looking for a good wife or husband, finding a good wife or husband will be much harder and your eventual marriage will be harder, too.
Pro tip: Our world is increasingly more okay with shunning the institutions of marriage and parenthood. So if you know, for a fact, that you want to be married and have children, don’t be afraid to say so when you meet someone you’re interested in. Don’t be weird about it and make it a big deal. And don’t show him your dream wedding dress or anything bonkers like that. But mention it when it comes up if it comes up. If they go running, bid them good riddance.
Expect sexual brokenness.
Let’s be honest, friends. We live in a broken world. There is a high likelihood that the person you date and/or end up marrying will have some sort of emotional or physical baggage about sex. Either they’ve been abused or have been an abuser. Maybe they have had a lot of sexual partners or are afraid to have one. They may have been happily married before and you may feel insecure about their expectations. They may be addicted to sex or porn or you may be addicted to sex or porn.
Screw the taboos. Maybe don’t discuss your sexual history on Day 1. But, when things get serious, get serious about being honest. Your future spouse deserves to know your whole story, even if the details or the depth of the effects takes time to unravel. Sexual brokenness can heal and marriages can thrive amidst the brokenness, but not so long as there are secrets and unaddressed fears or insecurities. A healthy sex life requires openness, vulnerability, and trust. Don’t wait until after you’re married to tell it like it is.
Limit your alcohol and be wary of being alone.
This bit of advice, especially, will be a constant refrain spoken to my children.
First, I’ll say this now so you know I said it: sexual assault is never justified. It is not okay. A victim is never to blame.
Now, let’s also be honest about what environments make sexual assault–or uncomfortable relationship scenarios of any kind–more likely. My guess is that many assault situations involve a) drugs or alcohol and/or b) being alone in a compromising situation.
I can’t tell you what to do, but my advice to my children will be straight-forward:
Do not drink alcohol in mixed company, with a group of people you don’t know and trust. Do not spend time alone, in private places, with someone you do not know and desire intimacy with–especially with alcohol involved. Do not push the limits of sexual desire and self-control with someone you do not know and trust, especially if he/she seems more or less interested than you do. If you don’t know what someone wants or is really asking for, ask them. And do not hesitate to call me or your father or any other trustworthy person within reach if or when you feel vulnerable and need help.
Yes, assault and abuse can absolutely happen in marriages or in friendships, at the hands of people you trust. But I think this “don’t drink / don’t be alone” advice is a good start and could save a lot of people from unnecessary baggage later on in life and relationships.
But, really, my best piece of dating advice is this:
Lots of people think you’re great.
But not everyone is going to want to date you or marry you and that’s okay.
Marriage is awesome and I recommend it and I think everyone should do it. BUT. Marriage is not the end goal of life and it’s not a sign of success. You can be a million awesome things without being married.
So, while you wait or while you look for a mate, find good work that makes those around you and your world better. Surround yourself with people who support you and whose love for you makes you an even better you. Do the hard work now of becoming the kind of person you’d like to marry. And then even if you never end up married, you’re still super awesome and have amazing friends and have made the world a better place to boot.
And, lastly, marriage is 10% magic and 90% doing the dishes and “Honey, can you bring me a roll of toilet paper?” So, when you meet someone who’s a good catch, don’t wait for the magical moment to ask them to hang out. Even if you’re already friends and it might be awkward. Even if they aren’t really your type or you’re afraid you might not be theirs.
Maybe grab a coffee. Maybe go for a walk.
And maybe skip the cocktails until a few months in.
Godspeed. (I think you’ll need it.)