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“Why can’t you just relax and have fun?”
That’s what people always used to say when I went on a date and came home tangled in anxious knots. Which was always.
“What do you mean? How am I supposed to relax and just have fun?” I’d reply.
People acted like it was so obvious that dating is supposed to be fun, and that I shouldn’t take it so seriously to the point where one date would put me on edge.
But that made no sense to me.
I had always been told by the church and my parents that dating as a Christian was serious business and not to be taken lightly. And I’m almost 100% certain no one ever said it was supposed to be fun.
So I was flabbergasted that anyone would ask me why I couldn’t relax.
How could you relax as a Christian in the dating scene?!
You have to always be dating with intention, ensuring they’re “Christian enough”, being confident you can picture yourself marrying them, and “guarding your heart”. And I can tell you from experience, those messages by themselves are not a recipe for fun, but instead have all the makings for a cocktail of anxiety and over-thinking, which I have drank about a hundred times.
It’s taken me several years as an adult to finally unwind all that I had been taught about Christian dating as a kid, and to figure out why rather than protected, it made me feel overwhelmed.
I realized that it’s because while all of the messages that were taught to me were true, and well-intentioned, there were clarifications and caveats that my youth pastor, parents, and Focus on the Family left out.
They had forgotten that kids take what you say quite literally, and they don’t assume anything is open to interpretation or exception.
So I started thinking, knowing what I know now, how do I wish Christian dating had been presented to me differently when I was younger? In what ways could someone have expressed the same idea, but with an extra splash of reality and explanation to temper the anxiety?
I’ve pinpointed three specific messages I remember being told as a kid.
And from my experience, I’ve identified the ways that I believe we can change the conversation for the next generation. So that while protecting their hearts, they may also find themselves actually enjoying the experience of dating.
Message # 1: “Don’t date someone if you can’t see yourself marrying them”
Clarification: …but you don’t need to be able to picture yourself marrying them on the first date
If I could only choose one message about Christian dating to change, it would be this one. It may sound crazy, but what this has done to not only me, but other Christian men and women that I’ve spoken to, is caused us to spend the entire FIRST DATE trying to decide if we see a future with this person.
On the first date you know next to nothing about one another, and even by the end, you’ve barely begun to scratch the surface. Not to mention that almost no one fully acts like themselves. So how can you have any clue if you can see yourself marrying this person?
What you can know is if you see potential and want to continue getting to know them. But that’s about it.
See, I agree that you shouldn’t continue dating someone if you’ve identified they don’t have the key attributes of someone you’d want to marry. This is 1. Just a waste of time and 2. You are likely setting yourself, or the other person, up for heartbreak.
But what was left out of this guideline is that you can go on dates with someone you’re not sure you can picture yourself marrying right off the bat. And until you are sure, one way or the other, it’s completely acceptable to keep seeing them. That’s how you figure it out!
So you can, in fact, relax. You have time.
Message #2: “The purpose of dating is marriage”
Clarification: …but through dating you also discover more of what you do and don’t want in a spouse, and discover more about yourself
I remember talking to my grandmother, just a few years ago, about my struggles with dating, and how I wish it could have just worked out with the first person I had dated. In her wise, grandmotherly way, she said “Oh no, you have to date lots of people. That’s how you figure out what you want.”
I thought she was crazy. This was the total opposite of everything I’d ever been told about the purpose of dating. The intention of dating was to get married, so like in number one, I was taught we should always be focused on dating only people we can really see ourselves marrying, and be extremely discerning about who we go out with.
But while this is totally fair, and definitely helps to protect our hearts, it also keeps us from going on dates at all because there’s so much pressure when marriage on the line. But if we never go on dates at all, to my grandmother’s point, how do we know what we are looking for in a partner?
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t encourage “dating around”. Meaning dating just for kicks with absolutely no intention of continuing anything with anyone. That’s how people get hurt. But I do encourage being open to just going on dates.
I’ve dated far more now than I ever planned (mostly because I’ve had more time to date than I ever planned), and I’m so grateful looking back because the person I thought I was looking for, isn’t actually good for me. And I’ve been surprised to find and experience people who are nothing like who I expected to find, and that in certain ways are better for me than my original picture.
Saying that the only purpose of dating is marriage causes people to become so paralyzed to go on a date that they never will, or to get so serious so fast that it sabotages the relationship, and they miss out on this valuable learning.
Yes, marriage is the ultimate goal, but it is not the be-all-end-all of dating.
Message #3: Don’t date someone who isn’t a Christian
Clarification: …but you can go on a date with someone without knowing his spiritual resume
“Do you think he loves Jesus?” That’s my first question to my friends when I find a guy I like. And it’s a completely valid question because I am committed to marrying another Christian whose faith is important to him.
But you can’t always know someone’s level of spirituality right off the bat. And honestly, to ask immediately would be pretty freaking weird, let’s be honest.
What you can tell about someone, generally, from the start is whether or not they seem like a good and decent person. And there’s no harm in going on a date with a good guy without knowing what church he goes to, how many Toby Mac CD’s he owned as a kid, or how many Tim Keller books he has. You may find that after you drop some hints that your faith is important to you, he will chime in with a similar experience. Or you may find that it just isn’t something that’s central to his life, and you can make the decision not to continue.
But overall, allowing yourself to spend an evening, or a few, with a guy without knowing exactly where he is spiritually is ok as long as you’re cautious to call it off if it becomes clear you’re not on the same page.
You certainly, however, do not need his full testimony just to grab some dinner.
So there you have it. The three ways that I believe we need to change the conversation about Christian dating.
I can certainly say that for me, since I’ve untangled these messages from my childhood, and paired them with the realizations I’ve had as an adult, I get it now. I get what everyone was saying about having fun. I’ve learned that I can still be protected, and exercise good judgement, and also take a breath. I no longer find myself over complicating the simple act of going on a date. I can just sit back and enjoy getting to know another human being, and take my time figuring out where it’s going.
After all, the purpose of dating is to find the one God has for us. And we can’t do that if our brain is in over-thinking hyper-drive, and our heart is pulsing on anxiety.
We owe it to ourselves, and this next generation of young Christian men and women, to change the conversation about dating.
And we most definitely owe it to ourselves to relax, and have some fun.