I had a friend ask me recently if I had any advice for dating a nonbeliever. (I’m going to focus on a secular view of dating for this article, so don’t run away if you’re not a Christian.) There are many factors that affect Christian dating, but I have a one-word response to dating a nonbeliever: don’t. I’m not just saying that because I think it’s a bad idea, I’m saying that because scripture says it’s a bad idea. I do agree, however, that it’s a bad idea. Instead of trying to address everything in one article, I’m splitting it up into parts. This article specifically addresses the ideal progression through the four stages of a romantic relationship. It really doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or agnostic, male or female — this article is a general guide to creating a healthy romance. It’s how I landed my wife and anyone who’s met us will tell you that she’s too good for me (yep).
Let’s start with the concept of friendship versus courting versus dating versus marriage. Those are four completely separate stages of a romantic relationship. You shouldn’t take them lightly; take them to heart and you’ll create healthy relationships by following that order. Can you skip a stage? Yes, people do it all the time. Should you skip a stage? Nope.
I define relationships this way because I don’t see the point in dating someone unless you think they’re marriage material. If you don’t want to marry someone but you’re still dating that person, you’re probably just using the relationship for your own physical pleasure. That’s shallow. I hope that this post will help you understand why I split relationships into those four stages and help you get to the next step when you’re ready. Some people aren’t ready yet: they want the emotionally empty, physical relationships (I was there once), but that’s not how you should date, marry, or be awesome. You get to be awesome and have awesome relationships by following these four stages, so I’m going break them down and illustrate the recommended process for each.
The friendship stage is actually the most important stage because it’s when you get to know the other person. Let’s say you meet someone at your best friend’s birthday party. You’re attracted to them physically, but you didn’t have enough time to get to know them. Instead of asking your friend to set you up on a date, ask your friend to setup another social gathering with fewer people (suggestion: a game of ultimate Frisbee at the park) so you can get some more one-on-one time with your crush. Hang out with this person and see how things evolve. At this stage, it’s easy to determine if personalities mesh well. If not, no harm done… you still had fun with your friends. Assuming things progress in the right direction, suggest another social event, and make sure your crush will be there.
While this is happening, take a third-party perspective and see if your crush seems interested in you. It’s possible that you’re drooling over someone who has no immediate fascination with you. Don’t let that discourage you. I know plenty of people who had to prove their intentions before the crush considered them romantic material. In fact, that’s generally awesome. It shows a level of confidence and self-respect that is rare.
At the third gathering (suggestion: trip to a museum), make sure that you position yourself with enough time to talk with your crush on a more intimate level. Your friends should know that you’re crushing on this person so you don’t end up being the third wheel of someone else’s conversation. Assuming you’ve found ways to connect intellectually and everything feels like sunshine and unicorns — now is the perfect time to suggest a one-on-one activity. Make sure that they know it’s not a date — even explain courtship if necessary — and declare your intentions. Your crush should know that you are romantically interested and that you would like the opportunity to prove your worth. Ask for a phone number but don’t set up the next interaction just yet… leaving time for them to process everything is crucial to make sure they don’t feel smothered.
You’re now officially moving on to the courting stage. What is courting? It’s like dating without any “special privileges.” Your crush should know that you have romantic intentions but that there isn’t any need to move into a committed or physical relationship at this point. You’ll be surprised how much anxiety this takes out of the relationship. Give your crush a call and set up the next outing (suggestion: hiking). Don’t be in a hurry to get off the phone! Encourage conversation: ask how their day went, bring up funny moments from your previous interactions, offer them compliments, and encourage them frequently. Some people don’t like talking on the phone; I don’t suggest gauging the success of the relationship on this one conversation… but it’s okay to hope for awesomeness.
You should focus everything you do during the courting stage on establishing rapport (a relationship of mutual trust). Discuss everything they are willing to share with you — history, family, friends, enemies, challenges, successes, etc. Conversation is your best friend as you make your decision to move forward to the dating stage or end the relationship. Even if the relationship loses its romantic focus, you will probably gain a good friend from the experience. It may seem early, but the real goal here is to determine marriage eligibility. There is absolutely no point in dating unless you see enough good qualities in your crush that align with what you’re looking for in a spouse.
A common misconception — it’s really a conscious decision for most people — is that the courting stage should be short. In fact, I suggest that you make this the longest stage of the romantic process. I hear many reasons to shorten this stage: “It’s annoying that I can’t call you my girlfriend/boyfriend,” “I want to move onto the good (physical) stuff,” or “I know them well enough.” None of those is reason enough to advance to the dating stage. Call them your girlfriend/boyfriend if you need to: it can be difficult to explain the relationship to your friends and family if they don’t understand this whole concept. Gaining the physical privileges of dating is purely unnecessary to your romantic relationship: your goal is to get to know them; you’ll have plenty of time for make out sessions later. It’s impossible to know everything about anyone: they only tell you what they want you to know and you will only ask what you care about most. Admittedly, I only lasted about a month in the courtship stage. My wife and I talked for several hours every day, so we knew each other pretty well. The thought of kissing her was also a factor.
You’ve decided to move from the courting stage to the dating stage. This stage exists to solidify and test your relationship. Things you didn’t discuss in the courting stage come into the open and can sometimes cause problems. Literally, talk about everything you think could cause conflict. You should spend a lot of time with family and friends during this stage so there aren’t any surprises later down the road. If any issues arise, don’t give up, work through them. The ability to handle conflict and stress is crucial to the success of any relationship. There are certainly deal breakers in any relationship, but those should’ve shown up in the courting stage. If you’ve really focused on the courting stage, the dating stage ends up being short; the next section explains that.
Now for everyone’s favorite part… physicality. I have three simple words for this topic: don’t be stupid. We all know what is right and wrong with the physically romantic areas of a relationship. Your morals define that for you. Religious people tend to set a stricter limit on physicality but I always suggest taking things slow, regardless of religion. At this point, you’ve been holding off for a while… why rush anything? Practicing self-control is certainly difficult; giving in to temptation is easy. I certainly can’t tell your hormones what to do. Sex is not something I will address here; it’s a topic for a completely different series. Just remember those three words: don’t be stupid.
You like making out, you are intellectually compatible, everything about your crush makes you happy — you should probably pop the question. I lump the engagement stage of a relationship with the marriage stage on purpose. If you followed through with the other three stages and decided to advance to this final stage, the connection you’ve established with your crush should make the engagement extremely easy and very similar to married life. Since I want to keep this part of the guide secular, the whole point of the previous three stages were to decide marriage potential. Once engaged, there isn’t any emotional difference between that and marriage. Moving in together and sex are probably the only parts of married life that I, religiously, don’t recommend during the engagement. Engaged couples tend to do one or both of those things… but I think it adds so much more to a relationship if you can hold out.
That leads to the walk down the aisle and the honeymoon. Both are awesome. I won’t get into tips for a happy marriage in this article; I could write an entire book full of them. If you follow these four stages and are true to yourself throughout, you’re going to have an awesome marriage and don’t need any tips. I will say, however, that you probably shouldn’t compete in a couple’s trivia contest on your honeymoon — it only causes trouble.