As a teenager, I saw two contrasting cultural norms being lived out around me: friends at school were flitting between ‘relationships’ and ‘hook-ups’, as they explored dating as a lifestyle, while Christians around me seemed to be gliding seemingly swiftly from singleness into relationships and then on into marriage. My conclusion was that, as a Christian myself, dating was much more serious than my friends portrayed it, and that once I had met my wonderful person I would inevitably marry him, following the easy path to which I was entitled.
We live within a culture which has a lot to say about dating and relationships. We are unavoidably influenced by that, and yet we are called to live counter-culturally.
As we do this, it is good that we take marriage seriously and commend it. I totally believe that marriage is such a good idea of God’s, and a potentially amazing gift. And we shouldn’t enter into dating without the possibility that it could end in marriage.
But how do we live out good, Biblical relationships, without the Christian cultural approach becoming unhealthy?
I find that in advocating marriage as we do, we risk creating the expectation, even in jest, that at the first date wedding bells are already ringing, and we encourage those dating that the right thing to do is to move on into marriage.
In reality, I have since discovered, life is messy and doesn’t follow ideal plans. Relationships take work and they don’t always work out. But God cares about us having good relationships. Marriage should be better than simply an automatic successor to dating; it should be a reflection of Christ and the church.
We talk about singleness and marriage but less often the in-between step. If we value marriage I think we need to value dating, as the ideal way to decide about and prepare for marriage. The Bible says a lot about how to do relationships that are honouring of each other and of God, and although we may spend a lifetime learning these things, the learning can start in dating.
Dating is also an opportunity to get to know the other person, how they think, cope in hardship and make decisions. It’s a time to get to practice and set habits of how to work as a team, how to communicate and to enjoy yourselves. Choosing the person to live life with is a big decision which doesn’t happen passively or by default.
When we approach dating in this way, it might be that along the way we decide that a relationship isn’t going to work in marriage. But this isn’t a failed relationship – it may well be a wise decision - and the learning gained from that relationship can be taken on to future relationships.
If we demonstrate, talk openly about and support healthy dating, everyone benefits. A first date becomes simply a first step, by those acknowledging and accepting that the end of the story is unknown. Those in relationships are supported to be in the best place to wisely make that decision. And couples who have then married benefit, because they made good use of their time dating to prepare and practice for a healthy and God-filled marriage.
So we need to talk about how great marriage is.
We need to talk about how to do marriage well.
We need to prepare people for that in dating.
And we need to be honest about the fact that life doesn’t follow patterns and defaults, and that messiness is OK too, because we’ll support each other in it.
- Ellie Swarbrick