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It’s Complicated

When my dad was my age, he was a father of three. I was four years old, my sister was two, and the first of four younger brothers was an infant.

I, on the other hand, am not a father. I am not married. Only one of my siblings is married – and all but one of us is old enough that we could be. We are poster children for the new cultural reality of postponed marriage.

I’ve heard and read a lot about this in the last few years, much of it from already-married people. There has been a bit of hand-wringing, a number of discussions about dating/courtship methods, and plenty of suggestions that guys need to man up and get with the program. Each of these may have its place, but none of them is particularly helpful to those of us who are looking at marriage from the outside.

As a single man, I actually concur with the concern about the postponement of marriage. I actually agree with my parents and my pastors and my other married friends in thinking that most of us should get married – and sooner rather than later. I actually think God was right when He declared “It is not good that the man should be alone.”

However, as a single man, I’m also intimately aware of the complicated cultural environment we’ve built up around dating and marriage. Allow me to explain – or at least make some observations.[i]

I understand the move away from the potential dangers of “casual dating.” However, I think we overcorrected. Dating has become a major commitment in itself, a high-risk proposition to be agonized over and carefully analyzed. Dating is now seen more or less as a committed relationship from the get-go. We no longer date a person to get to know them; we’re expected to be pretty serious about marrying them. Breaking up is a catastrophic failure, rather than a successful conclusion to an exploratory relationship.

(As an aside, I find it interesting that the process of getting to know a person preparatory to marriage hasn’t really changed all that much – it’s just become less official. Since dating is such a big deal, some of what used to happen in dating now happens before dating; we call it “over-familiarity” or “pre-dating” or other such dirty words.)

Somehow we need to de-seriousify the dating process. We need to get back to seeing dating as relatively low risk and low commitment, at least in the beginning stages. We need to make it easier to start dating – and easier to stop, if necessary. We need to allow dating to once again be a way to get to know a person and explore whether marriage is even an option – instead of needing to know that already. 

Alas, I don’t know exactly how to correct our overcorrection. I do, however, have a few gentle suggestions.

To men

  • Start asking. I know dating is a big deal, but I think the only way we’ll ever make it less of a big deal is to simply try it more freely. If you’re not ready to ask for “a relationship,” consider asking for a single date – like it was in the old days.
  • I hear that you don’t have to have your entire life in order before marriage. I’m taking the word of those who should know, but they say that it’s OK to figure some things out as you go. They also say that you’ll never feel completely ready, so maybe just go for it.
  • Don’t be intimidated by a lady’s goals, passions, achievements, or other impressivenesses. I know that some of us are a little scared of dating that girl who looks like she’s really got it together. However, I have it on good authority that at least some of them are pretty open to the idea of marriage, so there you go. It can’t hurt to at least try.
  • Don’t be disheartened by getting turned down. I know we are living in difficult times. But take heart, brother. Maybe the next girl you ask will have read this article.

To ladies

  • Say yes.[ii] Give us a chance. We get a lot of grief for not asking girls to date. The truth is that many of us have asked and have been turned down, some of us multiple times. I know that saying yes can be scary, because dating is a big deal. But asking you out is also scary, because dating is a big deal. So if we could work together to make dating a little less of a big deal, that would be great. We’ll be more OK with asking if you’re more OK with saying yes. Deal?
  • Invite relationship. Be friendly. For some of you, this is not a problem. (And for just a few of you, this is really not a problem… and that’s a problem.) But it seems like a few of you actually avoid guys you like because you’re afraid of being too forward. I know there’s a fine line there somewhere, but it’s OK to be available.
  • Be aware that some otherwise fine men are easily intimidated – especially if you’re a strong, successful, or otherwise impressive lady. I say this only so that you’re aware of it, not because you need to change. But if the above characteristics apply to you, and if you want to get married, it might not hurt to make an extra effort to be personable and relatable.

To dads of ladies

  • Please be OK with dating being a little less of a big deal. Be open to different approaches, such as approving a date instead of a relationship, or allowing a more casual get-to-know-each-other time if the man doesn’t know your daughter well. 
  • Please check us out, but please don’t make us run the proverbial gauntlet before getting permission to date your daughter. Dating should be a time for both you and your daughter to get to know the man and determine if marriage is an option or not. You don’t have to fully determine that before allowing us to date.
  • Be involved, but help us be men. That might mean giving us your blessing and telling us to figure it out, or making us ask your daughter for a date instead of doing the work for us. This may be counterintuitive, but in the long run this type of approach might make dating a little less scary by keeping it uncomplicated and straightforward.

To everyone

  • Older married people, we know that you think we need to just get with it and start dating. But please realize that things are different now, and in some ways you helped create the environment that we are now dealing with. Not only is dating a much more serious matter than it was in your day, but we also have more spousal options than any previous generation, thanks to our increased interconnectedness. We have a lot more choices and simultaneously a lot more pressure to choose correctly the first time.
  • Dating should be an opportunity to get better acquainted and determine if marriage is a feasible option. In other words, it’s OK for two people to not know each other very well before dating. That’s what dating is for.
  • Dating is not engagement. Make less “fuss” about newly-dating couples. Don’t start discussing wedding plans when a couple goes on their first date.
  • Breaking up is OK. It means that dating was successful.
  • We need to broaden our concept of God’s will for a spouse (and for many other things). It’s probably a mistake to wait for Him to reveal “the One.” Maybe His will is actually pretty simple: Love God. Find a person of the opposite sex who loves God and who also loves you. Marry that person. That may be just a little over-simplified, but you get the picture; what God hath made straightforward, let not man make unnecessarily complicated.[iii]
  • We need to be more OK with people desiring marriage. There’s a bit of a stigma attached to a desire for marriage. That desire is God-given, and people who admit to it are not “desperate.”
  • We also need to be more OK with different methods of finding a partner. For many, the traditional courtship routine works fine. But for some, the story may play out differently. If we’re really OK with the possibility of God moving in mysterious ways, there may even be opportunities for such things as blind dates, random run-ins, and first-time acquaintances to result in happy endings.

Make no mistake, we must continue to hold the bar high regarding the sanctity of marriage and purity in courtship. We dare not minimize the high stakes inherent in such a relationship. However, we could also afford to lower the bar in some ways in the initial stages. If marriage is as desirable as it’s chalked up to be, let’s remove unnecessary roadblocks and make it easier to achieve. I am convinced there are ways we can do that and still have relationships that glorify God and honor each other. 

[i] My thoughts on this issue are obviously based on my personal experience and observations. I realize there are communities where this is a non-issue, and situations where our current model works well, particularly when potential mates already know each other well. There are also people who don’t desire marriage, for reasons of varying validity; this article does not attempt to deal with that. This is written from the perspective of a person who desires marriage but is stymied by the cultural expectations surrounding the process. Also, I do not intend to make a statement by my use of the terms dating versus courtship. Personally, I use the two terms almost interchangeably, at least in the context of Christian dating/courtship.

[ii] I won’t even attempt to explain everything I don’t mean by that statement. Just assume that I have considered all the potential disclaimers. If this makes it better, here’s a lady saying pretty much the same thing:

[iii] For more on the topic of finding God’s will, see Kevin DeYoung’s excellent book Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will. Besides having an epic alternate title that is too long to include here, it also contains a lot of truth. Truth is good.

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