Down To Earth Discipleship    .    Getting real with issues facing young Christians today
Chapter 3
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3. Establishing and developing sexual relationships

(Courtship: life's most important feasibility study)

or: A fresh look at Christian dating

  • Relationships usually do not just happen, they require some commonsense and deliberate activity.
  • A continuum of romantic behaviour and intimacy can be outlined in each relationship, leading eventually to commitment and marriage.
  • Many evangelical churches have youth and young adult cultures which make it difficult and intimidating to negotiate this progression.
  • Too much expectation may be loaded into any 1:1 initiative, and discontinuing a steady relationship is often seen as failure rather than a positive step. "Dating" is often not a useful term.
  • Practical aspects of the courtship continuum or trajectory, especially communication, are discussed.

How does one establish a pattern of wholesome interaction with individuals of the opposite sex, which provides social exercise involving head, heart and hormones? That allows the growth of eros within proper limits? Chastity before or outside of marriage is almost certainly easier if one is having an active fun time socially and enjoying some emotional warmth and excitement, even though the hormones are also a part of it and normal sexual urges need curbing.

The biblical, and hence Christian, benchmark for romantic appreciation and engagement is the Song of Songs. Beyond that the Bible doesn't talk about boyfriend-girlfriend relationships - only betrothal (engagement) and marriage itself. The 'down to earth' contents of this chapter should not be allowed to detract from the Song's spontaneity, nor its sensuous beauty and majesty. Here we aim to flesh out some contemporary wisdom in relation to the love extolled in the Song and the progression towards an enduring marriage relationship. We build on chapter 2 with a more social emphasis.

This chapter is directed at those who are mature enough to be engaging in relationships as responsible young adult individuals, and in a position to start thinking about the idea of committing to another person as a life partner in the relationship we call marriage. This chapter presumes both that marriage is the goal and is foreseeable in a few years, through perhaps several relationships. It aims also to take into account those who, from outside the frame of reference of chapter 2, may come to marriage via faithful premarital sexual relationship or even cohabitation.

However, most in their teens and some in their early twenties, will still be more comfortable in a peer group which routinely hangs out together, where any ongoing one-to-one boyfriend-girlfriend relationship is a matter of social convenience and enjoyment without any long-term agenda. These single or multiple friendships with the opposite sex are a wonderful opportunity for personal growth and maturity, and incidentally can make individuals more relaxed about future periods of singleness.

But returning to the more serious agenda, it is a good idea to realise that most young people have three of four significant relationships before they find their life partner. In fact, arguably, one should enter any romantic relationship with the expectation that it will run its course in one or two years, and with the maturity acquired you will both then be open to more prospective opportunities. Of course, in the delightful event that you find yourselves steadily converging socially and emotionally after any hormonal high has abated, then the presupposition of transience can happily be discarded as you move to engagement.

The sexual urge is supremely irrational, so it needs to be balanced with a good deliberate dose of rational thinking and appraisal, aided by reliable friends. Falling in love is often (and rightly) referred to as temporary insanity! But certainly things start with some sort of attraction, usually with a sexual element. The relationship can then progress with increasing mutual knowledge and understanding until there is a real connection, at which stage it should become a kind of mutual feasibility study, as discussed in Sectioin 3.2 below.29b Calling it a feasibility study is not meant to sideline the euphoric romantic aspects, but to assert strongly that they are not enough!

Secure and contented singleness is a much better basis for initiating a compatible friendship leading to a romantic relationship than is a lonely and hormonally-driven sense of need. And along with that, single-handed abatement of hormonal highs is a sensible and effective means of self-control for most guys and some girls. For some, being single-minded is adequate, for many it is more practical also to be single-handed. Allow time and social space to develop some confident independence, while all the time growing normal close friendships. Of course, long-term singleness is another matter, and needs to be a calling, with marriage the norm where possible.

Marriage is arguably the most important decision a Christian person will make, it therefore needs careful, unhurried and critical consideration based on evolving familiarity. This chapter is designed to aid that process. It needs to be said that if the chief driver towards marriage is to satisfy one's emotional or sexual needs, it is likely to end in grief (though incidentally needs will be met in any marriage). ). If the driver is genital more than rational, beware and cool it!29a The maturity of contented singleness is a better starting point for being able to give oneself to another.

Regarding lifestyle, there is a lot of wisdom in the often-repeated advice that if you want to head for a good marriage, don't live on your own. Of course, there is much to be said for learning to live with others anyway, in growing tolerance, avoiding self-centredness and becoming too set in one's ways.

Apart from ongoing faithful relationships with long-term potential, on the trajectory towards marriage, there is of course scope for more recreational encounters and social friendships where you simply hang out to enjoy one another as people. The sexual buzz is there, but for any number of reasons the long-term prospect of anything more than friendship is not for the time being. Such reasons may be just 'chemistry', one not being a Christian, or simply that intention to marry is some years off. So, enjoy, but make sure that both sides appreciate and agree that the relationship is just social and not part of a feasibility study. Such a situation should not be tightly exclusive of others' expressed interest in initiating a more serious relationship.

3.1 A courtship continuum - more than just waiting-dating-mating

Obviously the starting point is actually to mix with congenial singles. Christians have a great advantage in being church, which by definition meets more or less weekly as well as in subgroups and where members have a broadly similar set of values. But this advantage can be wiped out by any unhelpful subculture which may prevail. That concern provided the impetus for this chapter.

It's essential to get to know members of the opposite sex in a relaxed social context before there is any thought of deliberate courtship. While many guys can mentally and emotionally leap from initial visual acquaintance to a date (or more), most women - especially in a Christian context - will want to take a little time to get to know and consider the prospects.

There is no particular point in pairing off long before you are ready for marriage, as long as you are active socially with members of the opposite sex, learning how they think and react, and becoming at ease with them. Of course many people gain this by growing up with siblings, others need to catch up a few social skills outside the family.

There is obviously a full range of relational possibilities between first acquaintance and marriage. One can see these as a gently progressive and exploratory continuum of social interaction and deliberate choices, with acquaintance leading to faithfulness and finally commitment through increasing attachment. It is an evolving friendship at its most basic level, but with a sexual buzz as it progresses. Real exclusiveness is deferred until a stage before an engagement is announced. What we might call the courtship continuum progression runs something like:

  • deliberate interaction in a group and casual social context, establishing friendships, perhaps flirting, and certainly anticipating having a lot of fun in that group context (incidentally, some arm's length discussion of relationships and how they are pursued and how they might develop).
  • making or accepting/declining individual invitations for coffee, dinner or shows, etc with someone you fancy, without this being too much of a big deal, to
  • focusing attention on one person with repeat invites and hanging out together, which is starting to feel serious (probably much more so for the girl) and becoming regular 1:1 contact with a sense of ongoing relationship, taking greater emotional risk with the person and starting to understand their expectations, to
  • very clear social recognition of a serious relationship (being "an item" together, taking a joint "selfie"), increasing intimacy in sharing reflections on life experiences, faithfulness which aims to match the other's expectations, and while open-minded to considering other possibilities, extraneous invitations are withheld/declined, to
  • serious and deliberate consideration of making this a permanent match, in which case it becomes
  • engagement (provisional and public commitment to one another) leading towards
  • the permanent covenant commitment of marriage.

We have not numbered the seven dot points above because apart from the last two, they are not really discrete stages, each flows into the next, or doesn't, in which case each party backtracks to around the second or third level and pursues other possibilities. However, it will be evident that the second and third points are very much viewed from a male perspective and the female party may feel much more involved than the guy at that stage.

Note that there are two significant markers in the progression: when a friendship becomes an exclusive relationship socially, and when it become engagement - a provisional commitment. In each case, a decision by one or both not to proceed involves a public acknowledgment of that. There may be hurt feelings involved, but they will certainly be less than proceeding without mutual conviction. And backing off from what is not more than an exploratory relationship should never be seen as failure, nor stigmatized. Backing off from an engagement is more serious, but better than proceeding without clear conviction.

Those two reference points are widely recognized in Christian (and other) circles, but the first is sometimes given undue prominence so that it represents a very significant step change rather than part of a continuum or smooth trajectory. Over-rating its significance means it becomes daunting in distant prospect, in immediate transition and in backing off or splitting up. It can create a fear about the prospect of perhaps not continuing a particular relationship, where the subculture causes this to be seen as a failure rather than a sensible part of the flux in the early stages of getting to know members of the opposite sex whom you fancy as attractive and prospective.

Incremental, not leaps
Some church contexts are socially deficient in the first few stages of the progression outlioned. Unless they are effectively subsumed in the way the peer group functions, there can be a significant psychological hurdle to get into the system. It goes from almost nothing to something which can be akin to engagement in one leap. That may be fine in individual cases, but as an established culture it is awful.

A better situation is where nobody should ever feel deterred from suggesting or venturing the next step in a long, relaxed continuum. The smaller the steps the easier they are to take and the less is at stake in each. Whatever the outcome of each step, the consequences should be small enough emotionally to cope with. Nothing should be rushed! But if the church culture is such that the very few steps are large and rather public, the stakes are higher and there can be a real sense of risking too much. Stress replaces joy. And the smaller the steps, the less hurt and drama in backing off or splitting up.

In reality few relationships will proceed smoothly from one end to the other of that trajectory - each will be a bit different and unpredictable, and stages will sometimes get telescoped. But the concept is perhaps useful in understanding and thinking about the progression. Girls especially tend to perceive relationships as being either on or off, with a much clearer distinction than guys, and may thus be singular in their romantic affection at a stage when the guy is not. In particular, a girl is likely to perceive any relationship as exclusive from the time a desirable guy starts to show any real interest in her, which skips at least two stages above! But even these tentative generalisations depend on experience - a person's first romantic relationships tend to be more awkward, fraught and anxious than later ones.

So, the neat concept of the continuum as set out here is arguably more a male construct and guys do need to keep that in mind and not assume that the ladies in and around their lives see things in quite the same way as they do! The continuum is simply an empirical model - in practice relationships do often develop in all sorts of ways and kinds of steps. If you speed through the early stages of a relationship, that's great! The problem comes when a big step is set as a social and subcultural expectation. The point is that aiming for something like this progression is more useful and less daunting than where big and well-defined steps are set forth as the norm.

Furthermore, whatever the good sense in the model outlined, it runs up against practicalities of particular social situations. For instance, in a church context where the girls tend to talk with one another in a cliquish way, asking one out (in preference to the others) can be seen as more significant than it really is. And if a guy is seen to ask different ones out on different occasions (such as in some "dating" cultures) he may be cast as someone who is just playing around. While this may be silly and illogical, it can be real in the emotional atmosphere of a closed church subculture and needs to be minimised by encouraging change of relationships at the pre-engagement stages to be seen as normal and not a big deal. The obvious corollary of all this is to socialise lots but hold back from exclusive relationships until marriage is a practical option within a year or two.

Lighten up!
The early stages of the progression, while certainly full of serious possibilities, are best seen as somewhat playful rather than being too emotionally intense. Start with simple but real friendships. Some objectivity is important, along with plenty of common sense concerning how people relate and a realistic concept of the sort of person who will make a sensible match, though at the same time hanging loose on the criteria in that regard. It is a time to build relationship skills and maturity through experience. It is a time to learn about different kinds of people close-up in a different way than in teenage groups, and simply to have fun.

Getting started
This is not the place to explore details, but there are a lot of obvious ways to be open to initiation of relationships. Each person needs to have some realistic appraisal of their own strengths and weaknesses, and how those appear in relation to the values of the wider group. Personal appearance and dress is an important part of this - make sure they express how you want to be perceived and never assume that anyone will be interested in peering beyond a slovenly exterior29 nor impressed by a fussily tarted-up one.

Be active and open, and be seen to lead a balanced life. Find opportunity to hang out with the sort of people you like and admire. Establish mutual acquaintance and good rapport in the public space and context. Maybe use social media to build a relationship with someone you are interested in (once they have become a 'friend' - not a high hurdle!), by commenting on their posts and engaging in light-hearted banter occasionally. Facebook repartee can be a good way of tuning in to someone you fancy, or alternatively establishing that there is not much scope for that.

In general the guy needs to take initiative and not be put off by uncertainty, let alone be paralysed by fear of rejection or any sense of possible failure. But obviously if you ask someone out when they hardly know you, you are likely to be turned down! Similarly if you come across as too intense.

Presupposions are unhelpful
Looked at from the opposite perspective, guys can be too fussy at early stages of the progression and not give themselves a chance to get to know and warm to a girl, instead simply judging her at a distance and dismissing the prospects if she doesn't appear to match some superficial criterion. While there will obviously need to be some threshold criteria, definitely don't try and tick too many boxes before allowing first-hand experience of a person you fancy based on time spent with them to modify first impressions! A person's real virtues are often hidden at early acquaintance.

Guys need to be flexible in their outlook and not be put off by girls who don't seem to have time for them. Strong, competent young women are not going to become like submissive kittens just to fit in with some Christian subcultural notion of what dating or marriage should be, and hence they cannot be expected to make themselves attractive on those criteria. Nor will they want to be seen as too eager!

We acknowledge the challenge of finding eligible Christians who are not so set in their ways - especially vocationally - that they will spurn romantic possibilities and opportunities.

How much initiative should the girl take? - or may she take? There is scope for plenty, but perhaps subtly! Certainly anything in the public arena such as mentioned above in establishing acquaintance and rapport should be fine, since at that level one is simply talking about simple friendships. While asking a guy out on a date would be unusual, inviting him to any kind of hospitality with a couple (or more) of others on your initiative would generally be fine, as would inviting a guy along to a movie or show when you are with two or three others. Also of course there is plenty of possibility for phone, texting etc, though in restrained fashion!

Part of the interaction between the sexes is often flirting, and this can be a valuable way to assess interest before inviting out, or even to gently advertise an alternative to someone who is at the pre-engagement stage of another relationship. It is also good fun if one party is not leading the other on, and if it is in a wider context than a closed social circle such as the workplace, assuming those involved are more or less on the same wavelength. The sexual innuendo and overtones need to be restrained and under control of course, but flirting as part of the social flux of a church can lighten up the serious aspects of finding a compatible life partner, especially in the early stages. (If flirting becomes emotionally intense it is no longer flirting!)

Cruising, relaxed
The middle stages of the courtship continuum, with different degrees of going steady - exclusive or not - may be prolonged and involve a range of friends, partners and matches. This is where most people will appropriately roll along for a while - perhaps many years - if marriage isn't a foreseeable option - a change of life and a singular commitment that they feel ready for. Marriage requires some maturity, and readiness to reorder priorities so as to make that change. Many people rightly want to gain a variety of life experiences such as travel and living away from the parental home before contemplating settling down. Hence any close exclusive attachments may be deferred, making this socially fluid stage a holding pattern to be enjoyed for some years rather than one to move through fast in order to get serious - cruising rather than converging in the relationship. However, guys need to understand that their female partners tend to have rather more emotional investment in any relationship than them, so not be too cavalier. Also they will be much more impressed by romantic gestures than by simply relying on the wisdom of any progressively rational process such as we have sketched!

Outsourced help
A number of people from their mid 20s use Christian dating agencies, or internet dating and speed dating to expand their social possibilities and in the hope of meeting someone with compatible interests with whom to pursue a relationship30. Opinions vary as to the virtue and real usefulness of these mechanisms. They can encourage a superficial approach, but often they can be very valuable, especially from a limited social circle in a smaller church. They are also a way to get around the problematic aspects of romantically connecting if a person is in a larger church which is socially dysfunctional in some respect. There is no good reason not to use the internet to connect with people, but because it takes us outside a known social circle with its built-in feedback possibilities, considerable care and even caution is required. Certainly, first impressions of anyone, whether on the internet or at a party, barbeque or prayer meeting are unreliable and can be misleading, so the real task is unhurried follow-up.

Whatever the means employed, the whole process and the friendships involved should be fun! Of course for most of us there will be a bit of frustration and heartache along the way, but overall we are experiencing God's guidance through our hormonally-enriched socialisiong, involving efforts to find a life partner, which has to be exciting! If it isn't we need to ask whether we have a wholesome approach to our sexuality or whether we are simply pitching our ambitions way beyond our social skills.

3.1 Discussion questions:
How would you describe the dating culture of your church or fellowship?
To what extent does it allow and encourage you to get to know and explore the possibility of relationships with a range of people? Is there freedom to enjoy simple real friendships with members of the opposite sex?
Would you say that you are at a stage of simply enjoying relationships while gaining wisdom and experience, or are you consciously on the lookout for a possible life partner?
Are there social opportunities that you should do more to exploit simply to meet people?
What do or would you seek in a romantic relationship?
If, after some months, you decide (mutually or unilaterally) to break it off, will you see that as success or as failure? Why?
Are there aspects of the courtship continuum model we have sketched which you would like to experience but which seem unrealistic? Which, and why?
How can you modify your words and behaviour to make your interaction with romantic prospects less likely to be misinterpreted?
"Many of the guys around church are almost sub-human in their approach to sexuality." Could that be said of your situation?
In your church or fellowship subculture, can you flirt enjoyably without being misinterpreted?
How can you contribute to lightening-up the early stages of romantic relationships in your fellowship?

3.2 Focusing the feasibility

What is involved in being 'an item'?
If a relationship is not simply in cruise mode, with marriage prospects beyond the horizon, then the stage immediately before engagement is certainly exclusive since there is a serious mutual feasibility study going on, usually both propelled and complicated by the heartthrob aspects of being in love! While of course the relationship will be driven by the positives that each sees in the other, it is also vital to check all possible negatives. As far as possible, eliminate the likelihood of surprises a year or two down the track. Check the family most of all, since those potential in-laws would become your family!

At this stage the main things are:

  • to know and be agreed on where you are as progressive choices are made,
  • for faithfulness in matching each others' expectations short of commitment,
  • to be where you both want to be (as far as possible!),
  • for others to know where you are,
  • to proceed with the feasibility study - without any rush, but not to isolate you forever at this stage (if you are getting green lights then get on with it, if not, back off and don't squander your 20s in something that's going nowhere),
  • recognise that the feasiblity study is just that and not a conveyor belt or escalator - it can provide one answer or the other, and should be considered a success either way,
  • to confirm your desire to be life partners when you are both ready to make that further increment to commitment, which means you can announce an engagement,
  • to be able to move back a step in the commitment spectrum if you both want to (preferably without "breaking it off" in any traumatic way) and to communicate this to others as you look around for other possibilities,
  • Whichever, hopefully to remain friends long-term.

Disconnecting or not
It is important to note that if at this stage (or in engagement) serious misgivings emerge in one or both partners so that a decision is made to back off and go separate ways romantically, that is a positive outcome, not a failure.  It doesn't necessarily mean the end of a friendship. If you are inclined to see breaking off a relationship as failure, please read section 1.8 of this book. Look beyond the hurt to new opportunities. Being propelled by peer group expectations into a marriage which goes very stale after a few years would be a tragedy, especially if the points of discomfort were evident at the pre-engagement stage31. Take time to get it right, though this goes against the natural instincts of impatience to enjoy sexual union - for the Christian, of course, meaning when married!

Having said that, moving from an exclusive relationship to being just friends is not easy to accomplish without wounded pride and bruised self esteem. But backtracking as such is not any reflection on a person's ultimate suitability as a partner for someone, nor their ability in any dimension of marital relationship. It does however require some humility to do graciously, especially since there will have been some sharing of personal stuff and hence the separation creates a sense of vulnerability. Each party should honour the other in keeping confidences and not retaliating, even if emotions are running high. Faithfulness of a different kind, with grace and humility are essential.

The difference between going steady and engagement is that both parties need to be open to other possibilities as you explore whether the relationship has the potential for marriage commitment. A comfortable relationship has the makings of a good long-term friendship but not necessarily of a good marriage - one looks also for intellectual and emotional stimulus in both directions, some sense of mutual excitement and energizing, not to mention some genital anticipation. The object of the exercise at this stage is to make sure you have got your choice right, not simply or necessarily to consolidate the existing tentative commitment. Faithfulness here means honest communication as much as anything. Engagement signals closing off other options and committing to one - you have decided to proceed to marriage.

One of the factors which may help lead to a breaking off at any stage of the proceedings is obviously that one partner becomes more interested in an alternative possibility. That situation needs to be handled very carefully and sensitively, because three people's feelings and futures are involved, and communications become more difficult than ever. But the point of the whole pre-marital exercise is in fact to explore options and come to clear decisions, and a full measure of rationality is needed to counterbalance both fickle affections and inevitably hurt feelings.

It is quite appropriate at this stage for a guy to say to an attached girl whom he has been getting to know as well as possible from the outside of that relationship: "Hey, if you were not attached I would really love to be taking you out!" This of course might be graciously and sensitively rebuffed with good humour, having been slightly flattered, or it might be just the kind of prompt they need to face up to and deal with some niggling doubts. Other options are then clear, to be put aside or perhaps even followed up. The outcome might be a break-up and realignment of relationships, or it may lead to a consolidation of the existing relationship. But some careful signal is entirely proper at this stage if sensitively done rather than simply being pushy and thus predatory behaviour in 'hitting on' someone who is spoken for. However, there is nothing sacred about a romantic relationship pre-marriage! In any case the female concerned needs to be treated as a mature individual, not a chattel. For all parties concerned, the goal is increasing clarity about potential commitment, achieved without offense.

Be realsitic!
Everybody needs to start out on their romantic relationships with the expectation that unless marrying young they will go through several such relationships before they find themselves ready to proceed to marriage with someone they have discovered will be a suitable life partner. This means that they need to expect several partings of the ways from individuals whom they probably remain fond of but don't see the wisdom of committing the rest of their life to. Those partings, or more crudely break-ups, are a sign of the success of the overall venture, for both parties. In no sense do they normally represent failure. (Of course, some hit the jackpot earlier, others never seem to.) However, having this fact of life in mind is no reason to be at all tentative, or to approach each relationship as if it doesn't have strong possibilities to turn into a life partnership. Note that it is inappropriate to talk of "failed relationships" - better past or discontinued relationships.

If you don't both do that feasibility study well, then after a few years you risk finding yourself married to a partner whom you are bored with, while you keep noticing more plausible life partners in your social circle. Overdoing the physical intimacy prior to marriage will distort rational judgment. See also section 3.8 below.

Feasibility study must be real
Again we say: getting it right for the long-term is of prime importance, commitment is quite secondary at this stage. Faithfulness to the other person is not the same as commitment - it means that open communication has priority over closing off options. Being so preoccupied with avoiding hurt feelings, or being afraid of the prospect of reverting to single status, so that a relationship stumbles on into an inappropriate marriage is a recipe for much greater hurt later. The feasibility study is not simply a conveyor belt to marital bliss.

Disappointments in relationships are inevitable, but poor communication will make them worse, and hurt more. If one party comes to the conclusion that a relationship is not going anywhere long-term, that needs to be said - don't lead the other party on in false hopes, or let them assume that your silence means that you fully concur with them. That would be unfaithful. Wasting one's life and emotions on an arid romance is futile.

So there is an increasing sense of faithfulness to the other party and respect for the special interaction in the developing relationship, but commitment is really something for the last lap. The growth correlates with increasing difficulty of breaking off and going your separate ways.

A helpful confirmation of the feasibility study outcome may be that you love one another not only for what you see in each other, but for who you each are when together.

At the engagement stage you have moved on from where there is clear scope for considering other possibilities, it comes down to simply confirming the commitment of each to marriage and arranging that, preferably without undue delay. It is the final check and appraisal stage after the feasibility study and given that engagement signals the commitment, it is best not to delay the consummation unduly. In a Christian context this means that elaborate wedding arrangements which delay the marriage are likely to have a substantial cost in postponing the life together that is eagerly and properly anticipated. Apart from considerations of geography - needing to be able to live together once married - there is no good reason for a long engagement. A couple of months is normally all it need take to organise a party and service! To magnify the wedding at the expense of early consummation of marriage is to adopt worldly priorities.

While in the sense of God's sovereign love one may be able to say that God leads each of us to a single unique life partner, in practical terms, on the ground so to speak, each of us is capable of a wonderful and successful marriage with many potential partners, so don't get too anxious! In many respects the partners in marriage shape each other as they grow together, so the customizing largely comes after the consummation.

3.2 Discussion questions:
Is it too clinical to describe the later stages of a steady relationship (before engagement) as a feasibility study?
While enjoying the positives, what are the main areas of due diligence to check out and think hard about?
How much do you enjoy each other's circle of friends? Of family?
Do you have a sense of moving forward in the process, or have you stalled with indecision? If stalled, is this due to specific doubts you can investigate, or simply that you are not really keen to commit your life to this person?
How are you using your friends to clarify your guidance? Do you seek their more objective views and wisdom, or do you allow them to set an expectation that you have failed if you don't proceed to engagement?
We said "Faithfulness to the other person is not the same as commitment" - do you agree?
If one of you came to the conclusion that your relationship is not going anywhere long-term, would you have the courage to quit it? Would you then view that parting of the ways as success, or as failure?

3.3 Building relationships, communication

Many male-female friendships are simply and properly platonic, without romantic or sexual overtones, and it is important for these to be able to flourish without the church community reading more into them than is appropriate, and thereby making them awkward. They are an important aspect of life alongside the romantic relationships.

Social barriers
Some church contexts have younger single people being 'spiritual' and social on a group level, but with guys never venturing into fun and relaxed one-to-one relationships or even evenings out unless they have summoned up courage to embark directly upon a steady and exclusive 'dating' relationship. The notion that simply asking someone out implies the considered intention to make it an exclusive relationship has been imported too easily into the church social context, thereby setting up an intimidating step change.

The church position is, understandably, a reaction to the secular norm of taking someone out for dinner and expecting to get laid that evening or at least the next occasion, where sleeping together is a normal "getting to know you" activity. But a Christian overreaction - of avoiding such one-to-one dinner/movie/theatre dates - is inimical to the whole idea of a relationship being both fun and a serious ongoing feasibility study. Many churches have not properly promoted an alternative model for chaste interaction. We would urge hesitant and unattached guys to stir themselves to organise at least an occasional one-to-one date - perhaps with different young women, and to be accountable for achieving that, for the social and hormonal exercise. It is all a part of learning to relate to those of the opposite sex within limits and without particular romantic attachment, let alone sexual expression in any very physical sense.

Moving on from this, the essence of a growing romantic relationship is communication. It is important to acknowledge that the way we function or respond emotionally to signals is often different as male and female and we can thus easily fail to communicate adequately. Girls - rightly - often look for guys to take the initiative or even be assertive in an evolving relationship, to plan how time together is spent, and so on. They want to know where they stand, but because they are often left guessing, there is a risk of a girl reading more into an invitation or other initiative than the guy intends or is aware of. For their part girls can easily be so cool about a relationship that they inadvertently convey lack of interest.

Beyond the need for a guy to be a man and be prepared to take the initiative in a servant sense, these misunderstandings are primarily a shortcoming in communication rather than in action. It does not presume that the girl is merely passive or "submissive" in the way sometimes promoted - it allows for girls to be very outgoing and quietly take some initiative alongside their partners. As one young professional woman said to us: "The male role is one of the greatest bugbears that we have as girls. Although we don't always help ourselves, we long not only to know what goes on in the heads of guys in our peer group, but also for them to actually take a bit of initiative in the relationship equation and stop (apparently) messing us around! Whatever happened to gallantry?!" This is fair comment, but girls need to give guys space to lead, and to be patient if their competence in expressing feelings is less than that of girls.

Having said that, in this context guys should not too readily see a negative response as the end of the matter. Often it will simply mean that a girl feels the need to get to know a guy a bit more at arm's length first, or is a bit coy or diffident and is looking for strong male persistence as sign of real interest, rather than just floating a tentative suggestion. Conversely of course guys must not persist so strongly or blindly that they become pests! Distinguishing a firm negative from one which implies "please ask me again" is sometimes tricky.

Clear and explicit communication about the relationship needs to start well before any exclusive stage, and usually needs to lay out some boundaries of expectation and behaviour. Some of these limits may be how far a relationship can go physically and where the physical intimacy has to stop, or how much time is spent together 1:1 and where. Failure to do this can easily lead to compromising what you both know to be right in the relationship, with the excitement of mutual attraction taking you past your personal beliefs and boundaries. Both parties need a willingness to be responsible and to behave accordingly. Although precisely where these boundaries belong will vary between couples and require discernment, discussion and prayer, as a general practical rule they should be placed well short of any direct genital activity. Se also section 3.8.

Communication needs to be authentic and honest - any kind of deception is inappropriate and will destroy trust, though of course sharing is progressive. The reason it needs to be progressive, and the reason for not giving in to impatience in opening up to one another, is simply to allow time for each to reflect on the unfolding understanding of the other. Being open doesn't mean it is necessary or appropriate to bring up every sordid detail of one's past (or present), the purpose is communication not confession! If the relationship proceeds towards marriage, much more can be exposed later when it may be more appropriate. In the last stage on the threshold of engagement there is a necessary place for a large measure of confession (but not raking over details). This is where due diligence and full disclosure are necessary as a basis of trust.

Exploring common interests
This is both a major way to build the relationship while assessing its potential, and also a means of keeping the focus of interest off the genital possibilities. Enjoying each other's company, having fun in activities of common interest and seeing one another in a variety of real-life situations of family, church, recreation and work will make both compatibilities and points of irritation clearer. The goal should be for all this to build up to where each is completely comfortable being themselves in the other's company. Just being with the other person gives an eirenic sense of comfort, trust and joy. This properly takes time and patience so should not be rushed.

We have been asked what are the things that a couple needs to check out in each other to progress the feasibility study without seeing it as an inexorable conveyor belt? Without being definitive or exhaustive we suggest that some compatibility in many of the following might be indicative of a relationship with potential.
Agreeable or similar sense of humour?
Similar intellectual level?
Compatible close friends? Families?
Compatible wider friendship circle?
Recreation interests and energy?
Emotional disposition - patience, temper, etc.?
Spending patterns and priorities, use of credit card?
How organized are they?
Music tastes?
Style of doing church/ worship?
If living independently: kitchen cleanliness and household mess?

Enjoying a few relationships where you are discordant in some of these respects will help you work out which are most important for long-term harmony, and also maybe they will increase your tolerance!

Tuning in
It is very helpful to discover each other's "love languages" - those things that in a romantic context give most pleasure to the other partner: words of affirmation, quality time together, gifts, acts of service and physical touch.31a Learning and applying these is a wonderful exercise in learning to serve the needs and desires of your partner.

Guys, allow yourselves to be driven equally by sexual attraction and other considerations in your approach to girls, because that's the way you have been designed and it's precisely what your so-called sex drive is for. There is nothing spiritual about being a sexless wet fish. Also, what does it implicitly say to a girl if it isn't obvious that you are sexually turned on by her? So, while keeping things well under control, don't hide your hormonal ardour!

And to reiterate: it is important to see the funny side of sexual interaction - certainly to take it seriously, but without being too serious about it.

Young women need to appreciate that most males need hobbies or other intense intellectual or physical outlets. Girls often don't seem to need them at the same level of depth and intensity, beyond their own close friendship circle. Related to this, the male expression of close friendships involving shared interests with other guys is all too often not understood by girls, some of whom see such social intimacy as only appropriate within marriage and may foolishly resent it in their partner outside of the romantic relationship headed for marriage. See also comment in 1.1.

At the outset of any relationship it is important to discuss the fact that any such relationships should be a triangle: God, you, me. Relationships like these should be seen as an opportunity to deepen each person's own relationship with God, but together. It is a special opportunity to spend time encouraging one another in getting to know God together, and letting the conduct of the relationship arise from that. If the romantic relationship is not furthering each others relationship with God, one needs to question where it is rooted - as simply a relationship between you and the other person, or a triangular relationship - one where you go forward together as disciples into the future that God opens up for you.

Vital social context
Group socialising either singly or as a couple is great, and one learns some things about people there that can easily be overlooked in the one-to-one situation, so it must be complementary to that. And groups are often where people together most readily generate a sense of fun! In particular dancing is an opportunity to mix more closely than usual with a range of the opposite sex, and to be proactive in making sure the other person enjoys themselves rather than just thinking of maximising the buzz for oneself.

If one goes with the idea of a gentle progression through to a steady well-developed relationship - the courtship continuum we have described (even if in practice it has some distinct steps), then there needs to be social acceptance of all stages of this, which involves communication with friends, and engagement in fellowship.

Be aware of the time you spend simply enjoying the company of a GF/BF, and be aware of the opportunity cost of this for other peer relationships and activities. That is not to say that it should be minimised, but nor should it be simply a lazy indulgence which is socially isolating and ministry-limiting. Look for opportunity to share some tasks. Time spent together should ideally lead to a marriage partnership which is both strengthening and enabling socially and for ministry, which reflects the character of our relationship with God (Eph 5:21 ff) and which is a basis for wider social and ministry engagement as well as hospitality. There is much scope for anticipating that marital partnership in joint as well as single social relationships which range beyond the immediate romantic preoccupation. Obviously at one social level a faithful romantic relationship is exclusive, but at other levels it should not be.

As well as being able to hoist some kind of flag which says "exclusive - feasibility study under way", we also need to be able to signal the removal of that flag.  Two young people can test out the possibility of a lifelong exclusive relationship without making a song and dance about it. If they decide not to elevate that exclusive stage into something socially akin to engagement, there needs to be some clear way to change back to singleness without emotional and social trauma. This may be by increasing the group socializing and pointedly not behaving as 'an item' there, so that other possible relationships are explored and people can see that the exclusiveness is being disowned. Moving out of a steady relationship should not be as dramatic as breaking off an engagement, though both are preferable to proceeding inexorably with a relationship when there are clear reasons to believe that the other person is not the most appropriate life partner.

3.3 Discussion questions:
Do any clearly platonic relationships that you have provide a helpful context for discussing your romantic relationships?
How would you describe the difference between your one-to-one times together dating and those of friends who have different views of sexual relationships?
What are the main challenges you face in communication with your partner?
Guys: could that be your girlfriend speaking (nearly halfway through this section)?
Girls: do your encourage your guy to lead and even be gallant?x If you are up to fairly exclusive stage of the relationship, have you both been clear re your expectations with one another?
What are your partner's "love languages"?
Do you insist that your partner significantly cuts back on the intensity of other friendships to devote to you? Is that necessary or wise in your situation?
How do you see and experience communication steadily building trust in your relationship?
Are you using the balance of group socialising and one-to-one time effectively? Do you need to change the balance?
What hiccups have you experienced in your relationship due to unclear communication with friends and others around you both?

3.4 Problems and pitfalls in relationship building

Time priorities
The first obvious problem, much more pronounced as people hit their 30s, is where people manage their lives in a way which sets them up for indefinite singleness. Diaries are full, social occasions are simply superficial, work obtrudes. But there simply must be priority given for meaningful romantic contact - dates, in common parlance - unless that busy single lifestyle is a deliberate long-term objective. And the criteria for engging in that one to one social interaction must not be set too high or too narrowly. The whole idea that a person might have a detailed idea of their perfect life partner before being well along in a particular relationship - with its evolving process of mutual understanding and gaining wisdom - is stupid. More fundamentally the notion of the perfect match discerned by mentally ticking boxes at the outset of a relationship is ridiculous in several ways (see also 3.9).

Crowding out relationship opportunities can occur in several ways. Sometimes girls may feel that their main romantic opportunities have passed so they may not retain a clear sense of priority to allow for meaningful occasions to interact with the opposite sex - creating potential for potential romantic connection. Then by age 40 or so spinsterhood has arrived. Some would say it effectively arrives much earlier, with a watershed about 30 for many girls who are not socially active enough to be known and noticed. Meanwhile on the male front there are likely to be a few disappointed guys left along the way, wondering how to break into the female circles of mutual support, or simply without enough incentive or encouragement to man-up and take the social initiative. It can be very hard to do so, but it is even harder for a girl to take that initiative.

Though plenty of guys have their romantic streak, girls are the ones likely to develop the romantic illusion of wanting to be swept off their feet by some new guy and moving straight to an exclusive relationship. This can make the ordinary flux of social interaction seem less attractive, but waiting for such a proactive male to appear wastes time and opportunity. One might also observe that it is not a common feature of church romances.

Look at me!
Then there is the situation where one person is keen to develop an existing relationship but the other party is apparently oblivious to this.  Sometimes this may be when the two are going out together regularly, in which case some clear and frank communication is called for to resolve the impasse.  But occasionally where there is no active relationship the other party may even be unaware of the interest, while the person who is keen (usually the girl) simply reserves themselves and avoids or refuses other approaches while living in hope that the desired one will notice them and initiate action.32   In this case some sounding out via mutual friends is needed to ascertain whether real potential exists or not, and if so, to give the anxious party enough confidence to set in train communication which will get things moving and if not, to free up the eager/hopeful one for other possibilities.

From anecdotal evidence we think that  quite a lot of Christian talent may be sterilised for months or even years in this way, sometimes due to unrealistic hopes, but always ultimately lack of communication either directly or indirectly or failure to rely on mutual friends.  In most cases the main blame can be laid at the feet of the male who needs both to take initiative in invitations and clarifying his views, and also ensure that he doesn't inadvertently string girls along in hope when clear communication from him would enable them either to get on with developing the relationship or be free to look elsewhere.

Our cultural context throws into sharp focus the need to be ready to take risks in relationships, otherwise there is little scope for progress, and the sort of stalemate we have described is the result. The risks are not great at this level. The guy needs to risk being rebuffed due not only to how attractive he might be to the young lady, but also due to fears about his motives. The girl needs to risk an evening less exciting than hoped for, and later she may have to articulate and insist upon some firm boundaries. But stated thus, the risks are fairly ordinary and of the same order as in any relationships. No risk means no progress.

Undue eagerness
Another common situation is undue eagerness to embark upon relationships. This can be simply due to peer pressure and the desire not to be left out of the social scene. It is sometimes good to be content with being unattached for a while, not anxious about missing out on opportunities but relaxed in trusting God's provision of a soulmate and life partner in due course. In the early days of a relationship a few cold showers may help limit any excessive romantic ardour to avoid frightening away the quarry in some situations!

No man's land
The dysfunctional situation that we see too often is that many younger singles are frustratingly caught between those in exclusive 'going steady' dating arrangements, where no-one would butt in with a dinner, concert or movie invite, and those who seem to have a stand-off disinterest in any emotionally engaging encounters. So any expressed interest by a guy is seen as "serious" and virtually a proposal to "go steady", or it is simply out of order. Either way the possibility of rejection is a serious fear and disincentive - much more so than should be the case. Even the most attractive young women meanwhile yearn for some masculine interest of any sort from guys who are seen to have some potential. Any sense of social fun is squeezed out by these heavy and anxious overtones. To us it appears quite bizarre, almost as though the engagement milepost has shifted forwards, to the very start of the relationship!

This sort of situation gives rise to a lot of frustration among the younger single guys, and a feeling that the church maybe encourages a sort of spiritual misogyny, discouraging all romantic contact with girls short of exclusive commitment. Others have spoken of a church culture which effectively emasculates eager young guys. And as we have seen, the girls in those situations wonder where they can find a red-blooded male who will take some real interest in them.

Baling out
The implication sometimes drawn by people we know is that if you cannot be spiritually detached like this you might as well give up on Christian values and go and find someone congenial for sexual solace. It has probably always been true that Christian girls perceive a deficiency of red-blooded males in the church context, but the situation described is an unfortunately powerful incentive for 'alpha males' to socialise elsewhere, leaving the church balance tilted to less forthright types. Then the equivalent young women put up the shutters, as described above at the start of this section. To the extent that this male deficiency in fact occurs (rather than merely be alleged) it is disastrous for all concerned, both young men and women, because it means the males drift out of fellowship and find reduced constraints, while a lot of hapless females are abandoned in an already socially unbalanced church pool.

More rules
This broad picture is related to the school of thought that says one should not "date" or spend time socially with members of the opposite sex unless one is seriously and currently intent on finding a partner for marriage. That can be extreme and inappropriate, we suggest. Prima facie we are all - in those early years - on a trajectory towards marriage, and the more socialising we do with a little bit of hormonal charge the more we will be able to know ourselves, understand others and gain a greater maturity in romanticrelationships. This then puts us into a much better position to continue looking around intelligently and make a more sensible choice of life partner when we are ready to do so. So the main thing early on in a relationship is simply to relax and enjoy one another over weeks and months, not necessarily exclusively, while checking out and reflecting upon the longer term possibilities.

There is a great need for each of us to learn to manage our sexuality without yielding to every urge but at the same time enjoying the special excitement it brings to relationships. Especially for those embarking upon adult life without having grown up with opposite-sex siblings of similar age, the church family has great potential to nurture this maturing. It needs to do so without people feeling that it's improper to enjoy one another unless the contact or date is part of a earnest game plan angled towards marriage as soon as possible. Lighten up and enjoy singleness sociably!

The sexual buzz that one gets from encountering an attractive person is meant to drive us into social engagement with such persons. That interaction, starting along the continuum we have sketched, is appropriate, enjoyable and an essential part of growing our self-control, social skills and basis of understanding which eventually equips us to decide upon suitable life partner. The sexual charge which drives it is God-given for precisely that purpose. Invoking Jesus' hyperbole about adultery in the mind just because a guy gets hot and hard in the process is ridiculous.

There is a wide area of wholesome social engagement with the opposite sex which is driven by the excitement of one's sexuality at a level between repressed self-neutering and unconstrained lustful fantasy. Too many in the church react against the possibility of lust by effectively promoting the psychological self-neutering and thus severely limiting the potential for healthy relationships to develop. That is a bit like having a nice car and removing one of the spark plug leads because it goes too well. What does that say about appreciating its design and designer? Much better to learn to drive it properly.32a

Undue intensity
But having said all this, the final problem to mention is that of infatuation which leads to spending too much time with or on the phone to one's partner. If this has the effect of letting friendships decay and so downgrading other social contact that the romantic relationship becomes the be-all and end-all, then there is a problem. It means that both parties are not being a proper contributing part of the wider social and church circle, and are locked into that relationship unduly. It may then continue to marriage simply because other options are diminished, not because it is properly evaluated as the best way forward.

Some of those in the church's circle of young singles will be single because divorced. The church has sometimes taken a firm line on remarriage of divorcees, so is there any point in embarking upon romantic liaisons? We think so. First, in Jesus' teaching divorce is justified in the case of unfaithfulness (Matt 5:32 & 19:19), and at least some of those in the church may be the innocent victims of such. They are therefore just as free to marry as any other single person. Secondly, whatever the past faults of either party, God forgives those who are repentant, and so should we. Issues of church order may remain, and the church always needs to exercise discretion in allowing remarriage, possibly insisting on a period of singleness as penance.

But the good news of the gospel is about healing, restoration and new beginnings, as long as this is not taken to encourage irresponsibility and offer cheap grace for those simply opting out of commitments. Divorce is certainly wrong, but where it is a fact, and the marriage bond thus cancelled, remarriage is permissible. We have also argued that cohabitation is essentially the same as marriage, and the church has not taken issue with the marriage of ex-cohabitees. We would not wish to make a big distinction between divorcees and those who have terminated public cohabitation - both have relinquished the kind of one-flesh relationship which is the essence of marriage. However wrong that is, both should come before God and ask him for the grace to start again, mindful both of their past failure and of God's redeeming love.

The male role
This requires further comment. While allowing for a wide range of female initiative and social competency it is appropriate for the guy to be a man in the relationship, meaning a gentle-man who is prepared to take a forward role without macho, brash, or sex idol connotations. He needs to model servant leadership in the relationship. In that connection he also needs to communicate and not lead girls on in a less than forthright manner. The female party of any romantic relationship reasonably looks for clarity on the part of the male, as well as comfort in being wanted. If guys are indecisive and don't (mostly) send clear signals to any girl they are interested in and spending time with, that is reprehensible and akin to (but of course opposite to) deceiving a girl by leading her on when there is no interest beyond social convenience.

Strong witness
The point is, we need to model decent, self-controlled, yet vigorous and good fun male-female socialising in the church as young adults explore one another's potential. This will provide a wholesome contrast with worldly expectations of steadily progressing sexual activity or readily getting laid. Not to mention increasingly normal cohabitation. The church social setting needs to show how relationships can develop by exercising head, heart and hormones in balance. Surely chastity before marriage is easier in the context of social fun and activity, acknowledging joyfully the sexuality of relationships.

3.4 Discussion questions:
Are you crowding out opportunities for romantic relationships? If, so, can you discern your almost subconscious motivations?
Do any of the scenarios canvassed at the start of this section possibly apply to you?
Are you guilty of spurning approaches thoughtlessly?
Are you so averse to risk in relationships that you spurn God's provision in your social circle?
How do you understand the difference between risk and recklessness in romance?
How would you explain the difference between being on a trajectory towards marriage and being relentlessly oriented thus in a particular relationship?
How are you joyfully growing your self-control, social skills and basis of understanding which will eventually equip you to decide upon suitable life partner?
Do you see examples among your friends of repressed self-neutering and its opposite - unconstrained fantasy? Are you enjoying the excitement of your sexuality in between these extremes?
To what extent are appropriate, vigorous and good fun relationships modelled in your church or fellowship?

3.5 Negotiating disagreements

Sometimes the feasibility study (as we have somewhat clinically called it) will proceed eirenically and steadily. Others however will find a few potholes in the road and fraught situations. They should be welcomed as part of the process of working out how far to take the relationship. Don't ever assume that even a serious disagreement is terminal, treat it as a challenge for growth.

Resolving differences
A perfectly normal (and often necessary) feature of developing relationships is facing up to disagreements and quarrels. These can arise for all sorts of reasons, related both to personalities and situations. There is no easy way out, both parties simply have to identify the real points at issue, discuss them, get them into perspective for each (are they so significant as to end a special relationship?) and then compromise. Such quarrels can be a real means of personal and relational growth. If either thinks that the other is being unreasonable then they simply have to fight it out and call the other's bluff.

While conflicts are potential occasions for growth, there is a lot of scope for mishandling them hurtfully. They are always a real test of humility, and we need to start by looking hard at how much we are in the wrong or simply being pigheaded, and admit that. In talking about it, avoid condescension or sarcasm - that is guaranteed to aggravate, not help. Also avoid as far as possible making your partner defensive. Sometimes you will have to choose between reconciliation in the relationship and resolution of the issue for the time being. Forgiveness heals.

Expressing anger can be good and constructive if it better exposes what needs to be addressed. But be careful how anger is expressed, there is great harm in being hurtful or nasty.

Hormones and harmony
Any young guy will initially be feeling his way as a testosteroned male, and perhaps asserting himself with more authority than wisdom or sensitive consideration, let alone experience and maturity. Something of that is built in to most guys, and it is certainly something for which the female party should be very grateful in the long run. But most girls are intelligent and thoughtful individuals, not simply compliant, and need to stand up for themselves. There is a place for them to be assertive with their views, and challenge the male to respect their personalities and gifts.

Ultimately both parties need to be prepared to recognise their own stubbornness, reassess the basis of that, and concede plenty to the other person. No doubt each will immediately feel that they are the one who has backed down and compromised most, but that will soon be forgotten if the relationship proceeds with a closer alignment of values and purpose, and a greater manifestation of grace by each. But if not, and a quarrel leads to reappraisal and each going their own way, then that is a positive outcome too.

When a couple has resolved a quarrel, and each changed or backed down a bit there will be a feeling of each having lost a bit of independence, dignity or stature. But in fact each will have invested what they have lost in the "growth stock" of the relationship, giving it a new lease of life. Relationships are primarily about giving, not getting, and nowhere more so than in one which leads to marriage.

Forming any romantic relationship involves some sacrifice of autonomy in order to fit in with the other person. Otherwise it is just an emotional indulgence, without cost or any giving. That sacrifice - at increasing levels as we approach what may become commitment - is basic to our being enriched by the other person and to growing joyfully though the relationship. It is a small counterpart of our taking up the cross and following Christ in that big commitment. Every sacrifice of personal autonomy must be seen as an investment in the relationship, so that it grows.

A Christian girl who is strong and assertive needs a guy with strong masculine characteristics. Of course he will sometimes be overweening, unreasonable, pig-headed and authoritarian as a result of his fallen nature and it will fall to the female to point that out! For their part, the female sinful nature will tend to be expressed in being overweening, unreasonable, pig-headed and stubborn too, as well as tending to confuse subservience with consideration.

But a question needs to be faced when disagreements ignite. To put it crassly: what are you each looking for? A benign bedmate and household drone, or an exciting and stimulating lifetime companion?

3.5 Discussion questions:
In retrospect, have you gained from setbacks and disagreements in your relationship?
Are there lessons you have learned from past disagreements, regarding how to handle them?
Have there been occasions when you have had to choose between reconciliation in the relationship and resolution of the issue?
Would you prefer these before commitment, or have them take you by surprise a couple of years after it?
Can you express anger without hurting your partner?
Can you see how testosterone and stubbornness often provide a challenge to grace?
What preferences and personal standards (eg tidiness, style) are negotiable in finding a good match on major aspects of your partnership?
Are you in danger of giving undue weight to minor matters of compatibility so that you don't allow yourselves to connect on major ones?
Discuss the last two paragraphs above. What are you looking for?

3.6 Unequally yoked? Flirt to convert??

The other perennial issue here is the wisdom of maintaining serious romantic relationships with non-Christians. Discipleship is not a matter of joining a club simply to pursue particular interests - it is a change of life. If a life partnership is the end point of a person's years of social exploration and courtship, as one assumes, and the beginning of a new unique partnership, the issue looms large. In particular, the serious inequality of life orientation and purpose, and possibly also values, makes marriage to a non Christian inadvisable to say the least.

That being so, then steady exclusive relationships at whatever level are possibly either wasting opportunity or sailing too close to the wind, in that they tend to set up a contest between commitment to Christ and commitment to an attractive partner. As time passes they become increasingly difficult to exit. There is wisdom in not sticking one's neck out in that way. However, socializing short of any steady exclusive stage is fine, as long as each side is clear and explicit and not leading someone on.

Church demographics
However, it must be acknowledged that that ideal is sometimes burdensome or problematic, for demographic reasons (i.e. significantly less of one sex in the church), because of previous relationships, or simply because romantic ardour transcends much else. This means that many otherwise faithful Christians find themselves in less than ideal relationships that will be fraught. The problems arising will not necessarily diminish over time and in fact are quite likely to escalate. One cannot assume commitment to Christ or the absence of it will simply become a difference of personal interests which takes second place to romantic fervour. Certainly the rationale of developing a close romantic relationship with a non-Christian in order to bring them to faith should usually be dismissed immediately - the mixed agendas conflict hopelessly. But situations do arise and must be handled with integrity, even though they involve risks and difficulties which in general are best avoided. However, socializing short of any steady exclusive stage is fine, as long as you are clear and explicit and not leading someone on.

Having said that, non-Christians can be greatly put off the Christian faith by a self-righteous approach to this principle. The most significant witness of a Christian is in the quality and integrity of relationships, hence sensitivity is required in close friendships with non-Christians of the opposite sex. Certainly, to date someone for six months giving rise to hopes or expectations and then abruptly to disengage because of suddenly professing some scruples on the matter would be very hurtful and a devastating witness. On the other hand, where one party in an initially non-Christian couple comes to faith this is a time of wholesale reassessment of values and priorities, and is likely to involve withdrawing from situations which are newly perceived as unhelpful and wrong. But if so, do it graciously!

Nevertheless, if a Christian puts her/himself in such a situation of continuing an emotionally-intense relationship with a non-Christian, as many sadly do, then there are some vital stakes to drive into the ground, or moorings to maintain. First, it is extremely important that they themselves ensure that God remains first in their life, and that church, fellowship and personal spiritual discipline do not suffer in order to accommodate the unequal relationship. They must make a special effort to spend time with Christian friends, be involved in church activities, pray for themselves and partner, and generally remain accountable for their life.37a

Persevering with principle
They must also learn to have strong moral courage which can insist on their own standards, particularly in sexual morality, and later perhaps in child-rearing - in effect they take on solo the accountability for two people before God. It is easy for a person in this situation to drift away from the church and meaningful relationships with other Christians, as the partner takes centre stage in their heart. The question of loyalty and keeping the peace looms large. They must remain vigilant against this drift. They must also be ready to accept that some Christians will be disapproving of such a relationship, and not to let that push them away from the fellowship, but rather to use it as a reminder of their special need to keep close to God and depend on his grace. But this is in no way a recommended course of action, it is only making the best of an unfortunate situation.

So where such a friendship seems to be heading towards a romantic relationship, it is important to be frank, open and upfront about what Christian discipleship means and the fact that one's loyalty to Christ is paramount. Talk thoroughly through what this means and why prima facie it rules out a serious romantic relationship, let alone more. If possible make sure that the friend is aware of other Christians and how they live and relate - joining you at church is one means of doing this. Pray for and maybe organize other Christians they know to talk to them with evangelistic intent. See what happens. If nothing, then be prepared to break it off sooner rather than later, before you move to the stage of a steady exclusive romantic relationship. Of course this can be characterized as "flirt to convert", and putting that disparaging spin on it is more often than not well justified. But also there are many testimonies to the positive influence of a faithful young Christian who is upfront about the issue and the priorities involved and thereby provides an attractive and ultimately life-changing witness which results in a dynamic godly marriage.

3.6 Discussion question:
How would you expound the issues involved with marrying a non-Christian?
Is it proper or sensible to approach marriage with a non-Christian simply on the basis of 1 Cor 7:14?

3.7 Why Christian marriages can fail

It is sad fact that the rate of divorce and separation among Christians is not much less that that in the general population. The reasons for failed marriages are many, and we will not attempt to cover them comprehensively. However this section does briefly address a couple that relate particularly to this chapter. A couple are peculiar to or exacerbated by the cultural conditioning of Christians or their church subculture.

Rushed or rationalised feasibility study
An obvious first reason for failure is that the feasibility study, as we have clinically called it, is rushed rather than thorough. After marriage, aspects of personality and behaviour become evident in the partner which are surprising and disagreeable. Reasons for inadequate prior consideration include the infatuation of being in love, with its partial suspension of rational judgment. This may be coupled with inadequate time taken on that evaluation of the potential partner, and inadequate acquaintance with their family and friends. Downplaying the significance of substantial spiritual differences can also cause a marriage to fail. (We have also made the point that any sexual adventures before marriage will further erode the rationality of assessing the long-term potential for actually living together for decades.)

Fear of subcultural stigma
Another reason is that the church (or other social) culture makes it such a big deal to get into a romantic relationship that getting out of it is seen as failure, and stigmatises both parties. Commitment is effectively advanced to what should be an exploratory stage of the relationship. So rather than run the risk of stigma and opprobrium, if there is any perceived prospect of being happy together, the relationship proceeds all the way to marriage, despite possible nagging doubts.

In relation to this, a survey of 1000 divorced US women37b showed that 30% of them knew that they were making a mistake when they got married. They had put aside the significant doubts and warning signs during their courtship, and ignored the gut feelings which in retrospect that all agreed were a surer guide. The researcher said "I want to clarify that the doubts were not the garden-variety nerves that typically accompany any life-changing decision. They weren't just 'cold feet' or 'wedding day jitters.' Rather, the women in my study talked about issues, concerns, doubts and other red flags that existed throughout the course of their relationship. Not just on their wedding day. The problem was that they had brushed their concerns aside. Instead of facing up to the red flags or exploring their gut feelings - they squelched them and stayed in the relationship anyway."

Of the (simplified) reasons given in this US study for marrying the wrong guy, the most common were:
1. We've dated for so long I don't want to waste all the time we have invested in the relationship.
2. I don't want to be alone.
3. He'll change after we get married.
4. It is too late, too embarrassing and/or too expensive to call off the wedding.
5. He is a really nice guy; I don't want to hurt his feelings. (The reality is, he may be a solid, good guy on his own. But as a couple, the equation does not add up.)

The researcher's comments on men who defied their gut instinct were that "They overwhelmingly cited a sense of duty, obligation and concern for their fiance's feelings as their reason for walking down the aisle anyway."

Three others
A third reason for failure in Christian marriages is that the relationship is based more on sympathy in one direction than mutual esteem. It then becomes an uneven match with much reduced potential. Sympathy is a hopeless basis for marriage.

A fourth is that too much physical intimacy in the relationship establishes an expectation that it should or is destined to proceed to marriage, despite lack of proper consideration, let alone feasibility study.

A more obvious reason than any of these is adultery, which becomes very much more likely actually to occur, rather than being a resistible temptation, if any of the above more basic reasons apply.

3.7 Discussion questions

In your situation, what are the principal matters to address in your feasibility study?
In your social circle, is there a stigma related to breaking off a romantic relationship? Why?
Among your friends, is there a clear sense of needing to be thorough in assessing what the future might hold in a relationship if it proceeds to marriage? How much of a role does chemistry play?

Towards commitment

3.8 Foretaste of physical intimacy, eros within boundaries

Physical intimacy within marriage is appropriately uninhibited. Any foretaste of this must be restrained, and should follow on from the level of social and emotional intimacy, not run in front of it or lead it. Hence setting clear boundaries on physical intimacy together in the courtship continuum is essential. These boundaries are in order to preserve for marriage that sexual behaviour which is best experienced as a sacred and special activity between husband and wife. It is also to help keep the balance on rational thought and consideration, rather than letting the feasibility study be too hormonally driven.

Boundaries and behaviour
It thus follows that the boundaries are also to avoid behaviour which will lead to regrets after a relationship ends, because that intimacy has been broached and too much given away. And most importantly, the boundaries should also avoid sexual behaviour driven by animal instincts which emotionally overrides rational consideration of prospects for making the relationship very long-term in marriage. That needs to be the main game!

In the Bible's Song of Songs 32b is the repeated charge from the beloved: "Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires", don't get ahead of the game, don't get the hormones revved up before marital consummation is possible. Wise advice! It also makes the point that the main premarital boundaries on eros are not physical, but relate to communication, space and timing.

"No" is an important word to learn the meaning of! Sadly, many emerging from teenage years have not really perceived the importance of doing so, and all of us struggle with it when it impedes our strong desires. "No" is also important to learn to say graciously.

But the boundaries should not be set so tightly that a couple in an exclusive relationship without being committed to marriage cannot express their love and feelings physically, with some degree of tactile and visual intimacy. Post-teenage, this may be such that it is normally in private - the closed door (or not) is a major factor in defining the boundary. A conservative boundary would be to avoid doing anything in private that you wouldn't be happy to be seen doing in public. In any case, boundaries in mid teenage years need to be more conservative than later, when there should be a track record of restraint and self-discipline, not to mention a better-developed conscience, greater independence from peer pressure, and hopefully much more wisdom.

A common anatomical boundary is the waistline. Visual and even tactile familiarity below the waist is not necessarily wrong, but in an ongoing courtship relationship it's likely to be unhelpful, often very unhelpful. In our view it is definitely better to stay out of one another's pants, at least until late in the progression as adults. Crossing that boundary will tend to skew things away from what is needed to build the more important and long-term aspects of the relationship. Related to this, in an era of pervasive and easily-accessible pornography with appeal (in the Christian context) at least to innocent curiosity more than prurience, the question of visual boundaries within relationships arises more strongly. Arguably the boundary for sight can be more open than that for touch - is a one-off private viewing (out of arm's reach) in order?

Phoney sex
In the last few decades oral sex has gained a much higher profile and become fairly mainstream premaritally. Apart from foreplay within marriage, it is sometimes a precursor to people's first experience of normal coital sexual intercourse, and is widely seen as a halfway house to that.32c But in a Christian context it needs to be said clearly that oral sex is physically very intimate to a degree that is much more appropriate within marriage. The fact that it is less than the full "one flesh" aspect of coital sex does not mean that it should be seen as normal premarital intimacy in the context of any Christian understanding of marriage.33 For Christians, it really amounts to 'having sex' in a significant but nevertheless phoney sense extramaritally.

Much the same applies to mutual masturbation, though it is clearly less intimate. In Ian's pastoral experience, mutual masturbation (before or after engagement) is almost always profoundly unhelpful in the progress of a relationship, and particularly in being able to decide sensibly on its progression or otherwise. And as a few Christian couples have found, with semen squirted around there can be major unintended consequences. It's best to set the boundaries more conservatively.

If any genital sex is part of a relationship before marriage commitment then it cannot be special and unique to the eventual marriage, as it is designed to be. This means that both partners have to work harder on other aspects of the marriage relationship to set it apart from all other experiences and to make it enduring. While we are not recommending it, the public commitment of engagement is the earliest defensible threshold for any coital sex, and marriage is that threshold for Christians actually living and sleeping together.

Skewing judgment, counterproductive
If you just push the boundaries out too far you will find yourself focusing unduly on that physical stuff as you approach each period of time spent together in private, and this will seriously hinder building the real personal relationship of tuning in to one another. It is just another area where too much sexual intimacy pre marriage achieves the opposite of what that sexual intimacy is designed for. Build the close relationship first, then when you commit to it, let sex be the sacrament of that within marriage.

If in doubt about any physical intimacy, keep it until marriage. Then it will be special, not ordinary!

Physical acquaintance in all genital respects can be deferred without any deprivation - some anatomical matters can be taken for granted. Heavy snogging which results in guys' starched underpants can express passion without crossing the boundary of physical genital intimacy or engaging in "dry humping". And church staff are all too well aware of the "unprepared evangelical syndrome", where you both get a bit carried away and the guy cannot resist the urge to pop it inside an eager partner, so that a month or two later there is an unwelcome surprise becoming evident.

So, be restrained and careful in expressing erotic physical intimacy, and set boundaries accordingly. Be frank and open with accountability partners.

Many have found the exhortation: "Don't touch what you haven't got!" a helpful guideline at least for much of the course of a developing relationship, defining the boundary short of fondling breasts. Others make the waist the main boundary - short of anything further down. Guys need to make sure that the girl's reservations are respected, and perhaps vice versa.

In general the further things progress, the harder it is to maintain self-control and keep the focus of the relationship on mutual respect and love in the normal Christian sense of that term. Also the more potential there is for regret later. It is really very hard to avoid fudging the boundaries, but in order to honour God and one another beyond the very short term, it is worth the effort.33a

Meaning of behaviour
Also be very aware of the feelings one is conveying by any physical expression, whether it is passionate kissing, cuddling on a sofa, physical intimacy above the waist, or whatever. Any such expressions need to be more considerate than just self-indulgence and gratification, and must be appropriate to the stage of relationship. Very little erotic behaviour is appropriate early on - it will simply detract from getting to know one another in more important respects.

Having set boundaries, to go beyond them even occasionally (eg to visually check out the equipment) is likely to give the relationship more emotional impetus than either party may want. Rules can be petty, but the absence of them is likely to lead to major compromises, with enduring effects. Any boundary changes need to be thought out, discussed and agreed well in advance of them being tested. Changes should never be made in the heat of the moment.

(These comments on boundaries are all practical considerations, to avoid behaviour which may be unwise. While some guidance from church leaders is necessary, replacing personal responsibility with a set of legalistic strictures will have more to do with the prejudices of leaders than the individuals concerned. Advice and guidance on boundaries that is more specific than we have sketched here needs to be tailored to the individual. The only boundaries with scriptural authority are: no coital sexual intercourse outside of a committed marriage relationship, and no adultery in the mind and heart. The practical outworking of lust control will vary widely.)

Ascetic or not
Feedback on this section prompts us to comment that there is an ascetic streak in evangelicalism which gives rise to what might be called a sense of pleasure guilt. In other words, if it is unusually enjoyable, it is likely to be wrong! Certainly we do not want to suggest that the conscience be quenched, or worse, that Christians should embrace the worldly principle of "if it feels good, do it!", on the basis that instinct for pleasure leads to making it right.

But within sensible boundaries which are openly discussed and agreed with godly peers, and inflexible on the occasions of their testing, pleasure is a very proper part of enjoying private times as part of developing relationships.

No test drive!
The widely advocated "Try before you buy" in this context is to misrepresent the whole marriage relationship. Physical expression of sex is not something that requires training, it is sacramental of the marriage relationship. Marriage is very much more about living with a partner than sleeping with him or her. The criterion needs to be what a person is like to live with in the light, not just to sleep with in the dark. If everything else lines up, and part of the decision to proceed to marriage is the delicious prospect of being intimately naked and horny in bed together, then the rest will follow. Compatibility can be assumed and you have years to learn technique, each coaching the other!

Pre marriage, there is abundant opportunity to enjoy the buzz of social involvement with sexually-attractive people, and coupled with that but avoiding lust, perhaps enjoying the intense pleasure of solo masturbation. These two together have allowed countless people to bridge the gap to matrimony without recourse to coital sex, and therefore maintain the uniqueness of that for their marriage partner.

Role of friends
Of course falling in love is an intoxication, a 'dis-ease' accompanied by a pronounced diminution of intelligent behaviour, and one must beware of making serious commitments while the temperature is high, or one can be let down with a bump when rationality finally intrudes! That's where friends are important - to check your rational judgement and sometimes tell you to cool it for a bit. Never underestimate the sheer irrationality of being in love! Most of us will fall in love several or even many times over our lives, and that fact alone indicates the need for objectivity, self control, and never just following our instincts alone. (In later life those instincts are often adulterous - natural inclinations of fallen humanity, but obviously temptations to be resisted at all costs.) So anyone considering setting up a life commitment needs to let the peak temperature of passion diminish, lean on the judgement and love of their friends for a reality check, and keep a bit cool.

Please don't misunderstand, falling in love is great! Being totally besotted with someone is quite euphoric, and the epitome of eros. But it must not be the main, let alone the sole, guide in decision-making about a life partner, simply because it is basically irrational. It is there to give joy, excitement, and even rapture to a relationship which has some rational basis. And the genital aspects of sex should follow, not lead. When we are being borne along by romantic fervour we are capable of saying and doing things which are monumentally stupid! Never underestimate the irrational power of eros.

The public profile
Considerations of physical intimacy are merely ancillary to the conversational and spiritual, the banter with shared humour and experiences, the shared friends, the social fun. They also focus on what happens substantially in private, and we need to emphasise that durable relationships are best built with a major ingredient of public socialising and also shared ministry.

So, work out what is a good and appropriate physical expression of any relationship, while reserving genital sexual activity for marriage. However, an agreed level of physical intimacy clearly short of this is entirely appropriate for a relationship short of marraige which has reached an exclusive stage of faithfulness. It enables you to delight in one another, without rushing ahead into what is only appropriate within marriage. Whatever the level of this physical intimacy, it should be seen as sacramental of where the relationship is up to, not just an exciting indulgence. In other words it should be about expressing affection, not simply gratification, and match the context of personal and social interaction. During engagement restraint is needed, but the intimacy may be greater.

In the week or two before marriage it may be appropriate to phase in some greater visual and tactile intimacy (but not physical activity).33c From here on the physical destination is the penetrative one-flesh intercourse, for which the default timing is the wedding night. Any physical intimacy at this stage should be in tune with the Song of Solomon rather than animal instincts.

So, to summarise regarding the physical expression of romance:

  • restraint and self control are needed, boundaries must be set.
  • some physical expression of romantic (and even passionate) interest is appropriate and necessary.
  • this expression will likely progress with development of the relationship.
  • any foretaste of physical intimacy needs to be restrained.
  • "don't touch what you haven't got" is a handy default at least for most of that progression.
  • falling in love is best understood as short-term intoxication, not itself a guide to long-term prospects.

3.8 Discussion questions:
Have you set clear boundaries with your partner regarding physical intimacy in private?
Do these result in your focusing too much on the physical interaction when you are together? If so, should they be brought back a bit?
Would you agree that too much sexual intimacy pre marriage might achieve the opposite of what that sexual intimacy is designed for? Explain.
Do you discuss what you are actually communicating to each other in and by your physical interaction?
Do either of you feel guilty about the pleasure of physical interaction within your boundaries? If so, is this conscience speaking, or after discussion with others and reflection, is it simply asceticism?
How can you transcend the intoxication of being in love to ensure retaining some rationality in your decision-making?

3.9 Shaping up to a commitment

If - as we suggest - your eventual life partner needs to be one who stimulates your head, heart and hormones, then in looking around a major focus needs to be on the brain - shared interests, similar ways of approaching things and people, similar sense of humour and spirit of fun, being tuned in spiritually, a compatible circle of friends, edifying interaction on social and political matters, etc. We say to focus on the brain, because we fall in love easily enough - that is the heart part, and if that and the head agree it can be assumed that the rest further down readily follows.

Maturity and social dynamic
Most people today are sorting out personal identity, values, direction in life and faith issues until they are about 25, and where this is the case it is unlikely to be appropriate to find and commit to a life partner before about then. St Paul exhorts men to "love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Eph 5:25). That is an awesome commitment! It could hardly be further removed from notions of marriage based on convenience and selfish comfort.

Also, in a social context such as church, many of the ways someone comes across to others is determined by the peer group early on, but much less so by mid 20s. Where the peer influence is strong this can lead one to perceive greater compatibility than is actually the case long-term. Conversely early commitment can make a marriage so all-absorbing that some social isolation results. Having said that, early marriage is certainly not wrong, we simply suggest it is often not optimal.

In tracking towards engagement, it can be really important for both parties to have moved out of home and gained at least a year's experience of independent living, eg in a share house, before marriage. This is on account of exercising responsibility more than just enhancing domestic skills.

An important point is that a guy should not pop the question until he is sufficiently stable, sorted and strong enough not to feel he really needs to, on emotional and hormonal grounds particularly. Then he can offer himself to her, rather than need to lean on her.

Don't be too disappointed each time you discover that the other isn't perfect! They will be finding the same! It underlines the need for time in a relationship to really discern a person's values and to experience their various moods and dispositions in a wide variety of circumstances.

In assessing long-term compatibility for possible marriage, one needs to have regard to a few matters beyond what is immediately obvious. First, there needs to be some matching or at least compatibility of maturity, intelligence and life experience. Then character, values and interests are also basic in assessing compatibility. A similar sense of humour and emoting similarly are good pointers. But complementarity of gifts is more likely helpful than absolute similarity. Interaction on matters of disagreement and how differences are resolved is revealing, and the family context of a potential life partner can tell you a lot about what that person may be like a few decades hence.

Other things to explore are ambitions, general life and career plans, attitude to "the home" and prospective progeny within it, how they react to new opportunities, their spending habits and broader perspective on stewardship and finances. Also consider carefully the kinds of long-standing friends they have are you keen to join them? It is important to allow time, with plenty of communication, to explore these and many other matters relevant to a possible life partnership, including one's life experiences so far. Are they adaptable, or is all the adapting expected to be one way? What does the idea of marriage mean to each? Later on before engagement the question of timing and number of desired progeny needs airing (though actual decisions are not needed then!). Keep in mind that you are looking for a suitable parent for your children!

Ticking boxes?
Understanding that a loving God guides us in our search and feasibility study for a life partner can lead us to develop an idealised notion of a perfect match for each of us. But this is likely to overlook the extent to which the Lord has in mind for that partner to change each of us!34 So we need to hang a bit loose on our wish list. If the idealised perfect partner doesn't come into view or isn't accessible socially, we need to emphasise that apart from the fervour of falling in love (which makes one blind to even major incompatibilities!), making a match is likely to mean compromise on some settled traits of singleness. We can too easily forget that a marriage relationship involves lots of give and take, and we do better to consider more what we can give to the partner than what we expect from them. The "tick boxes before getting to know you" approach is widespread and generally wrong, most fundamentally because it is ignorant. Looking for Mr/Miss Right in this sense - the perfect partner - is ultimately based on a misunderstanding of marriage.

How many people remain single because they never relax their preconceptions of how perfectly a future partner must match up to what are relatively unimportant aspects of their own style? And who forget that there are years of growth and change ahead in the marriage? This situation seems more likely for Christians because the genitally-oriented passions are not given free rein to carry one past those blocks pre-marriage. So there needs to be a sensible preparedness to compromise on minor matters in order to forge a relationship built on major compatibilities, shared interests and mutual enjoyment. Little irritations can then be subsumed in the developing relationship. A marriage is ultimately a commitment to make a relationship work at a deep level - some compatibility is certainly necessary, but idealistic notions can over-emphasise that. Each partner needs to learn to overlook some things that are, in reality, trivial.

Rule out sympathy
Conversely, a partnership based unequally - in one direction - on sympathy more than admiration and respect is likely to be stunted and ultimately frustrating and stressful. Christians with hearts bigger than their heads (so to speak) may be more prone to such. Generous sympathy is a great basis for ministry but not for marriage. Rehabilitation is a ministry task, not normally a marital one.

Elbow room
Many people enjoy close and intimate same-sex friendships and these are very important, especially for guys - along with hobbies. A marriage relationship needs to allow for these close relationships and intense interests to flourish and not see them as competition. Of course some adjustment will be appropriate when embarking upon marriage, but substantial abandonment of other relationships and interests is likely to strain both the individual and the marriage.

Marriage means relinquishing some freedom and independence for something better. However, different marriage relationships accommodate different degrees of independence. Often those embarked upon later - in 30s - have more. Parental models have a major influence on the expectations of each partner in this respect.

In a particular relationship, if you don't feel you are on converging courses after many months, then review the situation and maybe decide that your romantic endeavours are best pursued with others. In this regard it is important to pray for increasing confidence, or clearly-identified and understood doubts. The latter then need to be addressed and either laid to rest or maybe understood as contributing to a sense that this match is not to become a life partnership.

It needs to be said that the focus of attention needs to be on the marriage, not the wedding! One aspect of our culture is that weddings are overemphasised compared with the actual marriage, and are correspondingly extravagant. Certainly they do need to be a special occasion for celebration and confirmation, and can have a transcendent quality, but keep the occasion in perspective!

3.9 Discussion questions:
How do you weight such considerations as: shared interests, similar ways of approaching things and people, similar sense of humour and spirit of fun, similar values, being tuned in spiritually, a compatible circle of friends, edifying interaction on social and political matters?
Do you and your partner have a similar level of maturity? A comparable amount of life experience?
In what ways are you similar? In what ways different and complementary?
Have you explored in discussion the home front and children prospects?
Is your relationship based on sympathy in one direction more than admiration and respect?
Have you talked about how much independence you each expect and want in a marriage?

3.10 The role of others

Of course no-one else can be a matchmaker for us, though it is worth noting that in other societies this happens successfully! However, in our society and even more in the church context, other people do have a role which we (and they) would be very unwise to ignore.

First, prayer is central to the whole process. Simply to highlight a couple of areas:

  • we need ourselves to pray for strength to resist the temptation to reach for gratification and premature physical intimacy in the developing relationship, and be supported in this by prayer and accountability partners.
  • we need to pray for patience in not rushing any relationship, and be supported by close friends who are tuned into its unfolding.
  • we need to pray for guidance so that we meet suitable people and then home in on one who will be our life partner, perhaps among other exciting possible candidates. In this we need to be supported by friends who love us and can sometimes see the possibilities or lack of them better than us.
  • We need to pray for courage always to do the right thing and not just be swept along by a partner's or other people's expectations.

Note that when our emotions are apt to be highly charged, often the most reliable answer to all those prayers (beyond circumstances) is through others. Nothing is too complicated or demanding for the Holy Spirit, but expect him to work mostly through what seems ordinary and through common sense.

Due diligence
Part of any feasibility study which involves buying into a new relationship in business is due diligence - checking for what may be hidden, or at least not obvious. So too in romantic relationships, the focus is inevitably on the positives, but it is the negatives which are likely to lead to difficulties later. So how does one check for these? One good indicator of what a potential spouse will be like two or three decades ahead is their parents.

Beyond that, their long-standing friends will often know them well, and be able to draw attention to possible issues. On a negative note, gossip is deadly. Gossip is passing on information about people when it is none of your business, especially when the information is unflattering or uncertain. We need actively to counter our own tendency to gossip, and challenge others also.

(In a non Christian context of course due diligence - however described - is the chief justification for premarital sex and even cohabitation on an uncommitted basis. We disagree with this and don't think it is anywhere near as helpful as other ways of getting to know one another.)

Marriage prep
When the decision is made to proceed and an engagement is celebrated, use a reputable marriage preparation course or counselor to draw on the wisdom of those that have learned a great deal the hard way and to help you explore what is in front of you both. It may also perhaps flag matters which still need addressing - the earlier exploration of long-term compatibility may have left some stones unturned. One matter well worth exploring is the way each expresses (and hopes to receive) love - the so-called love languages35. If a couple cannot communicate and interact in the same "language" it makes the relationship fraught.

So such a preparation course can be seen as the last lap of the feasibility study as well as induction training and specific preparation for what is ahead36. Everyone is conditioned by their own family background regarding what to expect or what to avoid, and all this needs talking over. Expectations need to be unpacked and explored.37 Sometimes one or other will have a good deal of baggage from the past - maybe traumatic relationships, divorce, being a single parent, etc. Nothing need be a show-stopper, but all of it must be sensibly confronted, understood, dealt with and accepted.

Role of oldies
This raises another issue: the role of older friends and parents in making introductions, usually in a wider context than one to one! This has always been very important and remains so, though it is sometimes disparaged as "matchmaking", with the implication that it is aimed at making particular matches, rather than assisting introductions. But the activity of bringing younger singles together so that they meet at least briefly in an agreeable social situation, with some implied assessment of potential suitability related to parents, social context, etc, is very important. If parents and others are dissuaded from it because of the asserted independence of their progeny, or if young singles avoid it because some older person is presuming to think about their romantic prospects, then we all lose. Forming relationships can often do with a bit of wise objective help.

Role of peers
Both parties need to keep their wider social contacts alive at the "exclusive" stage of progression and also later in marriage. Marriage is a special and exclusive relationship, but not in the sense that a couple should become socially detached let alone isolated from respective and joint circles of friends. It is important to find a partner who does open up and expand one's social interactions, not one who is so possessive that he/she is determined to monopolise and effectively close them down. See also chapter 7 on Hospitality.

3.10 Discussion questions: How much help have others been to you in bringing you together?
Of the four prayer areas mentioned, which have been most important for you? How are you drawing upon others in respect to the due diligence?
Are you planning to use a good marriage preparation course?
What do you see as the importance of maintaining good contact and communication with a wider circle of friends after marriage?

3.11 Some final comments

Character-building first
Stepping back from the question of how Christians work out their discipleship in sexual relationships, we can discern a natural law principle built into creation and hence relevant to both Christian and non-Christian. This is to work back from the desideratum of finding and attracting a life partner who will be a continuing joy long-term, and who therefore needs to have more than just superficial qualities. To be a match for such a person who is going to be tuned in to us, our own qualities need to be developed and become evident.

It is a truism that every decision and every action contributes incrementally to making us the sort of person we will become, so it is important that those decisions and actions are thoughtful of the consequences, including those for our reputation. It becomes a question of whether we are going to follow our regenerating nature or our animal instincts - our nature as we would like it to be, or our more immediate sexual and other appetites. Both options have implications for our reputation and moral status, not to mention what we can bring and give to a marriage partner.

Some distinctives of marriage

This is a vast topic, worthy of at least another book - and many have been written. But it does seem appropriate to mention very briefly a few points of sexual eschatology- the fulfilment of some of the frustrating time of preparation and lead-up to marriage which we have covered in the last two chapters (and in 4.3).

First and most obviously, in marriage you are joined in a one-flesh relationship which both fulfils your biological destiny and is a living human-level representation of Christ's relationship with his church! It is the ultimate human intimacy for which we are wonderfully designed, and procreation arises from that.

The one-flesh relationship of marriage set out in Genesis 3 has three aspects to note here: it is exclusive, hence singular and also it's no-one else's business what you enjoy together; it is intimate, the physical aspects of which are properly unique to marriage; and it is uninhibited, hence let yourselves go subject only to pleasing your partner.

It means that you move increasingly into the realisation of your bodies belonging to one another as St Paul very clearly puts it in 1 Cor 7:3-5. Guys, that equipment you have been carrying around self-consciously since puberty now belongs to your wonderful wife, and reciprocally her body belongs to you, to worship physically. Guys, it's not yours any more, so any exercise there needs to involve its new owner. The point is not ownership though, it is the opportunity for self-giving in bed as a sacrament of life together generally.

If your bodies belong to one another, then for this reason as well as the obvious, solo masturbation quickly becomes a faint memory as you live together, though sexual union is always depends on the partner's enthusiasm. Prolonged self-giving one-fleshness is in marked contrast to self-pleasuring and orgasm-focused wanking, and needs to be seen as such. See also chapter 2.

All this means that as a couple you have a secure base for being open to others in hospitality of all kinds. Because your marriage is exclusive and central to both of you, your life together and your home can and should be generously inclusive.

Married life together
Most of the energy and activity of a marriage relationship is relatively little about sex - even though that has a central place it actually consists largely of living together. This means supporting and affirming a partner, being open and honest, sharing time and recreation, giving precedence to the partner's interests, reining in pride, aligning priorities in use of time and money, and so on. And the way you find the right person for you is to spend time socially, to hang out together. That's what you will be doing for fifty years or so (plus a few testing distractions like raising kids!). Of course you need to add a strong commitment, and then on top of that you have the sacrament of ongoing sexual union which if unique to that person becomes a big help in holding things together and on track.

Don't try and find the perfect life partner, or they may do the same and reject you! Find someone plausible with a good deal in common, and build from there. It is not a question of finding someone who represents a pre-cast template for yours, it is a matter of growing something together.

Singlemness is good
On that note it is appropriate again to affirm singleness. If one is not in sexual relationship or having the prospect of that, it doesn't mean you aren't fully human. One does not have to be looking for relationships which may lead to marriage in order to be "normal". One can be enjoying one's sexuality, in the sense of getting a buzz out of interacting with people you find attractive, without necessarily desiring the commitment of marriage. Also, it is OK to be social without any focus on sex, and we all need to accommodate such people in our own social circles if only to remind us that richness in human and especially Christian relationships can be abundant quite apart from marriage.

A related matter is that Christians in their thinking ought to be reasonably positive about masturbation that is not driven by lust, and to feel free for godly enjoyment of that. See also 4.3.

Peer accountaility
Sexual aspects of our lives are a prime area where we need to have an accountability relationship with a trusted friend and prayer partner (or two). In these we commit to opening ourselves very fully, unburdening regarding our lapses, and being open to interrogation regarding our points of vulnerability and potential or actual stupidity. This is a powerful deterrence to sin. More positively such a partner will then be able to give us strong encouragement and support from a unique depth of understanding. Any lapses into viewing porn or bending the boundaries we have set can be confessed so that we proceed in the assurance of God's forgiveness, reinforced by the accountability partner's encouragement. (Doubt about forgiveness and renewal can affect self esteem so that it feeds back to further sin.) Accountability partnerships are outlined more fully in chapter 1 (1.4).

Here it is appropriate to add that since the marriage relationship is something to be nurtured and worked on, it is not necessarily appropriate to share with the marriage partner in the same way as with the accountability partner or other counselor. Some things are best discussed outside the relationship and applied within it. The issue is understanding rather than trust, and in a marriage there can all too easily be misunderstanding, in part because of the intensity of the relationship. So cultivate the accountability or at least open confessional relationship(s) as well as the belonging and trusting one!

3.11 Discussion questions:
Do you find it easy to be counter-cultural in relation to sexual matters?
Do you relish the prospect of your body belonging to your partner in marriage?
How do you expect the distinction between self-giving and self-indulgence to be experienced in bed and in life?
Are you intending to maintain your accountability partnership(s) in marriage, with minimal change?

Ten summary points for chapter:
1. Expect to have (ie. in your thinking allow for the strong possibility that you will have) some 3 or 4 significant faithful romantic relationships before you find, and are confident in deciding upon, your life partner.
2. As well as socialising as much as possible in mixed groups, seek 1:1 opportunities with attractive members of the opposite sex simply to get to know them better, and without either party having any expectation of it turning into a relationship (hopes are OK, not expectations!). Avoid trying to tick a lot of boxes at this stage.
3. Relax and enjoy these evenings or days simply for their own sake, while keeping under control within boundaries. To some degree you make such a relationship as you enjoy it - it's not just a matter of matching up characteristics.
4. Boundaries on physical intimacy need to be established by each person, and when in relationship, by each couple, but default is the waistline. At the same time, don't over-react to the norms of non-Christian peers. Sex is not dirty or merely sensual, but enjoying/ indulging prematurely is unwise, and often fraught. (cf chapter 2)
5. If you and your friend become keen on one another, feel free to make it openly an exclusive faithful relationship, without commitment.
6 As this proceeds, make a rational evaluation of your prospects together long-term - in effect, a feasibility study. Socialise as 'an item'.
7. If, after a while, you decide that your future long-term is not together, break it off. You and your friends should see this as a positive step, not a failure. Move on.
8. Overall see the whole process as a progressive relaxed continuum from nothing to engagement, not as very few big and daunting steps.
9. Beware of reading too much into any conversation or invitation!
10. Relax and pray!

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29 In a church or social context, being bedraggled or slovenly in appearance or behaviour is just plain dumb if finding a quality partner is anywhere on the agenda. cf Body section 4.1.

29a Masturbation is a time-honoured means of taking the heat out of this situation. cf Body section 4.3.

29b In a Dating course at a major London church they put forward a simple construct: a romantic relationship properly starts with attraction, and needs to move to connection in about seven hours one-to-one (over some days or weeks). The reported line was that if after one hour it doesn't seem promising, don't feel you have to give up. Persevere to seven hours. If then you are not really connecting then give up and move on. That seems a good model, though of course the timing is a bit arbitrary.

30 Eg,,

31 Of course sometimes couples do go their separate ways and in effect take time out and then find that they want to come back together. The time apart is quite healthy in terms of realising a mutual interest in each other and a good chance to think through issues without the implications of a relationship being in the way while doing so.

31a See Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages and two later books: Five Love Languages for Singles and Five Love Languages for Teenagers.

32 Typically where a relationship doesn't exist, it is the girl 'waiting' for the guy to realise she fancied him, and for it to dawn on him that he fancied her.

32a For guys with high libido who find spending time with attractive girls hypes them up unduly, unload the gun beforehand! Quietly getting your rocks off with a prophylactic wank before the social engagement can allow you to focus much better on the personal and social aspects of time together, and greatly reduce the intensity of temptation to go too far.

32b Song 2:7, 3:5, 8:4.

32c In the 2014 Australian Study of Health and Relationships aka 'Sex in Australia' surveying 20,000 adolescents 16-19 yo, some 63% of males and 57% of females had experienced oral sex, and about one fifth did so before first intercourse.
The La Trobe National Survey of secondary school students 2018 found just over one half of about 3200 in years 10-12 were active participants in oral sex, this increasing with age, while 44% had engaged in vaginal sex. Oral sex was not included in the definition of 'sexual intercourse' or being 'sexually active'. This survey was on the basis of voluntary participation from Facebook advertisements so has a clear and acknowledged sampling bias.

33 Among Christians who have a commitment to delay sexual intercourse until marriage, oral sex can be a serious temptation where they are pushing the limits of behaviour and being sexually active without (technically) abandoning virginity. "Hey, we're enjoying this great level of intimacy but we are not having real sex!" Hmmm. Jesus had a habit of pricking that kind of illusion. But in fact oral sex is effectively a kind of sexual intercourse in a very meaningful (if not a full coital) sense, and mutual masturbation is not far short of it. That degree of intimacy, as with conventional sexual intercourse, really belongs within marriage. While there is a real difference between oral and coital sex, making too much of it for unmarried Christians amounts to casuistry. (Over half of the students who had taken - and avowed that they had kept - pledges of sexual abstinence at a US university in 2003 said they had had oral sex and did not consider it to be 'sex'. Other studies and pastoral experience confirm this legalistic approach, which seems to us very much what Jesus condemned in the Pharisees.)

33ca According to a sexologist, abstinence from sexual intercourse on the part of unmarried individuals is "amazingly good" for building communication and trust between couples, plus stronger character and higher self-esteem. (Gabrielle Morrissey, Bond University, quoted in Sunday Life supplement to Sunday Age, 2/4/06.)

33c This could mean that you proceed having mental images of one another rather than of what you are likely to have seen in porn (however brief that acquaintance).

34 The adage that wives expect the man they marry to change, whereas husbands expect their spouse to stay the same has a germ of truth!

35 Quality time, words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, physical touch are those expounded helpfully by Gary Chapman (see reading list in Appendix 4).

35aSee comment on premarital intercourse in 2.4.

36 Various marriage preparation and similar courses can be valuable anytime, but something at that final stage is particularly valuable - more so than what can really be transacted earlier.

37 The last part of Joshua Harris Boy Meets Girl has some very useful material here: Courtship Conversations - Eight Great Dates (see reading list in Appendix 4)

37a It is salutary in this context to be reminded of the very basic differences between an understanding of life based on faith and understanding of God and one which leaves all that out. C S Lewis's book The Great Divorce is a marvelous exposition of this.

37b Jennifer Gauvain and Anne Milford, 2010, How Not to Marry the Wrong Guy