The Myth of Perfect Dating

Why breaking up to “put God first” doesn’t work.

We sat across from one another at a tiny table, in the midst of a crowded restaurant brimming with happy, chatty diners. It was a warm and sunny day for the most part—except the air was punctuated by a tiny dark cloud, and it was hanging directly over our heads.

I leaned in toward my friend to listen as she spoke. Her face was downcast and her eyes moist as she recounted the events of the previous week: “I’m not sure what happened, but he said we needed to take a break. He wants to pray about the relationship. He needs time to make sure he is following God’s will. He doesn’t want us to have any contact for a month.”

Christian courtships are about as straightforward as the Cha Cha Slide: You take two steps forward, then one step back.

Just like that, my friend was sent into a tailspin. She hadn’t seen it coming, and neither of us knew what it meant. Was this just a cowardly way of breaking up? Or was her boyfriend genuinely seeking God? And why had God communicated something so different to him than He had to her?

As difficult as my friend’s experience was, her story is not unique in the Church. In my experience, Christian courtships are about as straightforward as the Cha Cha Slide: You take two steps forward, then one step back. You meet one another’s parents, then decide to limit your time together. You start talking about marriage, then you stop engaging in any physical contact. You start praying together, but you also begin “fasting” from one another.

Most Christian couples have their own version of this back and forth, and it’s somewhat understandable. New relationships are intoxicating. Falling in love is blissfully disorienting, so it’s easy to lose your true North. Everything, including God, can take a backseat to your beloved. Knowing this, many well-meaning Christians work hard to stay on the straight and narrow. In an earnest attempt to honor God and one another, many sincere couples take a circuitous route marked by pain, confusion and unnecessary detours.

However, these manic dating rituals are not the product of godly intentions alone. There is a second motive that exerts pressure on Christian relationships, one that is far more prone to lead couples astray. It is the desire for perfection.

After slogging through the world of dating, many couples yearn for that perfect relationship that makes it all worthwhile. For some, perfection looks like a fairytale—a romantic love story with a happily ever after. For others, the perfect relationship is a holy bargaining chip: As long as you can stay pure and keep Christ central, God will reward you with marriage. But this if/then approach can easily become an attempt at bribing God.

Here’s the problem with the perfect relationship: It doesn’t exist.

Here’s the problem with the perfect relationship: It doesn’t exist. Whenever you bring two sinners together, there will be brokenness. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Even the best relationships and the strongest marriages are marred by sin. My husband and I have a great marriage, but our dating relationship was not perfect. We hurt one another, we made mistakes and we have regrets.

But here’s the good news: the Gospel is not the story of our perfection, but of God’s redemption. When we screw up, when we sin against one another and against God, He is faithful still. That’s why so many marriages endure in spite of sin—of course sin is toxic in any relationship, but God is greater.

Does that mean anything goes, that we should “continue in sin that grace may abound?” As Paul responds in Romans 6, “By no means!” Christians should certainly pursue holiness and spiritual integrity in dating. When my husband and I dated, we set aside a day each month to retreat from one another, pray and re-center ourselves.

These forms of accountability and seeking God certainly have their place. But make sure you are doing it for the right reason. Are you placing expectations on your relationship that God Himself does not have? Are you pursuing holiness in order to earn the reward of marriage? Are you trying to perfect your love life apart from the grace and mercy of God? By trying to avoid idolatry of a person, are you idolizing the perfect relationship instead?

Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more: What would it look like to date in the freedom of that reality? What would it look like if the goal of dating was not the perfect marriage, but a better love of God and neighbor? Would that spell the end of random devastations like the one experienced by my friend? Not entirely, but perhaps Christian dating relationships would be a little less riddled with angst. And freed from the pressure to “get it all right,” we will find Christ’s yoke is so much lighter than the burden of perfection.

29 Comments

Timothy

4

Timothy commented…

Awesome article. Thanks for that important insight. I have seen people too often shy away from wanting to meet up or hang out for fear that they 'might fall for the person' or for whatever reason. So thanks for your challenging questions to both parties, they are appreciated.

Rocky

13

Rocky commented…

Good article. The time to consider whether you're willing to marry a person is in the first few dates or exchanges, not when you are romantically or emotionally caught up with them. We were taught never date someone that you would be unwilling to marry. As you get older, you may be able to ignore that advice, but they say there's no fool like an old fool. dunno.

I don't think her boyfriend should have made that decision without her agreement; he should have talked to her about it and explained things more. There are some guys who actually break up with their girlfriends because they want to get their "lust" under control!? God told them "if you cannot contain, marry"; they object saying I won't marry until I can "contain", yet the passage clearly teaches that continency and celibacy is a gift for some, not others. You can't give it to yourself; if you have desire for sex, find a compatible partner and marry. Devote yourself to each other's good and the permanency of the married state. If you don't like the permanent legal relationship, perhaps you should opt for concubinage, also a biblical relationship (Exodus 21:7-11; Judges 8:31).

Jen Smith

8

Jen Smith replied to Rocky's comment

"Without her agreement". I see your point. If he can't communicate and compromise, she may be better iff without him.

Jim Meatloaf

4

Jim Meatloaf commented…

Good point, although I wish you'd gone into greater depth/complexity.

Unfortunately, many a pastoral relationship rebuke falls hardest on the people who need to hear it the least, as those most sensitive to these things may be in a great relationship but freak out when they hear warnings about idolizing a relationship.

I'm that girl's boyfriend. In my own heart, I tend to create a dichotomy of God vs. Girl that is unhealthy. When I catch myself to far on the girl side, I react and try to get things under control. However, this can become a repeated "yo-yo" that spreads shame, insecurity, and fear through a relationship, particularly if you break up as a part of this. And while most of us lack the guts to break up when we need to, sometimes what we need to do is center the relationship in God and take responsibility for your own relationship with God and self-discipline, rather than go through week or monthlong spats of monkhood. Love always protects (not that that's an excuse to be evasive or patronizing).

Steve Cornell

208

Steve Cornell commented…

Please balance this discussion with what we should expect from someone who claims to have had an encounter with our merciful and forgiving God. What should you expect? What difference should it make in a person's life and in relationships?

See: http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/what-should-you-expect-2/

Franc Werner

12

Franc Werner commented…

nothing could be further from the truth. you can have a wonderful dating experience and a wonderful marriage if you follow some simple rules.

but first let me mention that christian.courtship today is very blur and a mixture of secular courtship although not recognised, but spending time alone with your loved one in a roomif you arent married is a no no and csn be considered as secular or modern day courtship resulting in s vulnerable situation.

the i need to pray part from the intro of the article means im just not that into you.

real courtship is all about playing hard to get and real marriage is all about being easy to be with but when you mix this strategies up you will fall into trouble.

let your partner approach you first in the first interaction, stay a mystery and that will redult in your partner being crazy about you even after you are married.

of course have high standards, your partner should have a similar spiritual level as you, an education and a job, and then everything is ready for dating. end dates first, end phonecalls first, and livr happily married ever after.

Breana

1

Breana replied to Franc Werner's comment

I'm not sure what you're saying is untrue. The idea that people should avoid both the extreme of idolizing another person and the extreme of idolizing the perfect relationship? The idea that people should possibly pursue loving God and others better, rather than a perfect relationship?

As for real courtship being all about playing hard to get, I disagree. I don't play hard to get. I *am* hard to get, but I definitely don't play games. I think that sets a bad precedent for later in the relationship.

I also hope your "play hard to get," "let your partner approach you first" "end dates and phone calls first" stuff is aimed at the ladies, since if men do the same, none of us will ever get married!

As for the mystery bit, perhaps it worked on you, but it hasn't made anyone crazy about me yet!

I think the point the article made, about how a couple should seek to love God *together* and not be so quick to do the, "Oh no, I think I like you too much, I'd better break up with you" thing is very wise.

Eileen Hume

3

Eileen Hume replied to Breana's comment

To Franc Werner: THanks for your comments. I once thought that a woman was to play hard to get. I agree that a woman does best to keep a high standard that guides her choices in relationships. I believe she should live her life, not just wait around for mister right and her 'life to start' I began doing more of those two things, 1) being intentional in my interactions with guys, and 2) focusing my attentions on God and the work he has for me. Then I had two guys interested in me simultaneously. So that says something about attractiveness. I did not ever get anyone ( of quality character) interested in me by playing hard to get, or by putting on a facade of mystery. I read a recommendation to do those things in a ( nonreligious) book which promoted 'catching' the guy, keeping him interested, and keeping him 'wanting' you. It promoted lack of communication, and a cat and mouse type game that included more 'tactics' than relationship building activities. I am thirty two and have barely begun 'real' dating and effective communication in my relationships with those guy whom I 'like' and those interested in me. I took the ideas of 'kissing dating goodbye' ( fine for highschool I think) and old fashioned courtship to heart. I knew all the rules. They only helped me back into a corner and miss out on risking relationship with great guys. Anyways, sorry if this sounds like a rant. It probably is, not so much to you, but to air my frustration about how hard we have made pursuing love ( as Christians) with our 'traditions' and novel ideas. Take it with a grain of salt.

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