"You just said that we ought to date a lot of people to learn and grow and all that stuff, but I really disagree," said a woman seated in the first row at one of my seminars. "I don't have time for that."

"What do you mean, 'You don't have time for that?'" I could tell the questioner was young and energetic. What could she mean that she didn't have time for dating? Usually you hear that from someone worried about his or her age in some way, such as a man worrying about putting down roots or a woman worrying about her biological clock. Maybe that is what she meant, I thought.

"I don't have time to waste on dating someone whom I couldn't see myself marrying. If he doesn't have the potential for a serious relationship that could lead to marriage, I don't want to go out with him."

"What's your hurry?"

"Well, I'm forty–two, I've been married once before, and I want to be married again. I don't have time to waste."

"I don't get it. You are only forty–two. It's not like your life is over. What's your hurry?"

"Well, I just don't have time for all this dating. I only want to go out with someone I could marry. Isn't that the purpose of dating? To find a mate?"

"NO! NO! NO!" I said, literally jumping up and down on the stage. If I could have screamed louder without breaking the microphone, I would have. "That is not the sole purpose of dating! Haven't you heard anything I've said?"

"Well, I just couldn't believe you were really serious about dating just for dating. I date to find a mate."

I did not know any of the facts of her life. But I did know a lot from what she was saying. She was in a hurry, and on the hunt. That was easy enough to see. And that always means something. But past that, she was showing something else. It sounded like she thought she knew what she wanted and needed. I seriously doubted that.

"So, tell me about the last ten years," I said, picking a number out of the air. I wondered how her dating plan of action was going.

"Bad marriage and divorce," she said.

This answer did not tell me a lot about her dating, so I pressed her. "How long have you been divorced?"

"It is not final yet. We ended it two weeks ago."

The crowd gasped.

"What? Your divorce is not final, and you are already 'in a hurry?'" I could hardly believe my ears, although I should have. I have seen this countless times. "So what you are telling me is this. The last time you chose someone, it ended in disaster. And you have chosen no one since him, right?" With only two weeks on the market, I assumed she had not been in another relationship.

"Right."

"So you have made one choice for a mate, and it was a bad choice. Isn't it obvious that your 'people picker' is broken? Now, with no further experience dating, you think you are ready to make another lifetime commitment with the same people picker you used to pick the last one. No, no, no! You are not ready to date to find a mate. You obviously do not know what you need, what is good and what is not good, and what your unhealthy patterns are. You are 0 for 1.

"The last thing you need is to date to find a mate. You need more than anyone to go out with many different kinds of men for a number of reasons. There is no way you are ready to think that you know what you need or what is good for you. The last ten years should have proven that to you. Make a commitment to not make a commitment. That is what you need to do. Go into divorce recovery. Get healing. Get therapy. But, please do not go out looking for another mate. That is the last thing you need."

This is one of the biggest problems I've encountered in my work with singles and dating. Do not let the questioner's recent divorce confuse the issue; I'm not talking about the need to avoid a rebound. The real issue here is what is the purpose of dating. One of the first steps people need is to be cured of the thinking that the purpose of dating is to find a marriage partner. This is often a result, obviously. But here is what I'm trying to say:

Dating is as much about learning what you need and want, and how you need to grow and change, as it is about finding the "right" person.

Look at it this way. Tiger Woods grew up with the goal of winning more major golf tournaments than anyone in history. He wanted to win more U.S. Opens, Masters, PGAs, and British Opens than Jack Nicklaus did. What if Tiger had said early on, "I will not play in any other tournament than the U.S. Open." Ridiculous. What if any other athlete said, "I will only play in the Super Bowl, or the World Series." That's crazy. Or what if a medical student said, "I will only take the ultimate job in my life's career? I will not work at anything less than that." I would not want to go to that surgeon.

Some people approach dating like that. They think they know what they need, what they want, or who they need to be. We will see specific reasons why this is not true in upcoming chapters, but for now I want you to join me in taking a hard look at your dating philosophy. If you have seen it as only a search for the love of your life, then I want you to make some shifts in your thinking. I want you to see dating in a very, very different way.

1. See dating as a wonderful time to find out about other people and what they are like.

The recently divorced woman at my seminar needed to date a lot of men to find out how "off" she was in her ability to see what is good and to pick a good man. Without dating for the sake of learning, she would not do that. She would just jump into another relationship where she felt "in love."

You might have no clue what is "out there" in the world of the opposite sex. I sent one young man out on a date with someone I knew he would not be attracted to. He was looking for a certain type, and she would not normally have been "on his list." Afterward, he told me he had the best four hours talking to her about her spiritual life; he had never experienced that depth with a woman before. This interaction with a deeply spiritual woman who was not his "type" taught him something. He would never have known that he could have that kind of connection if he had seen dating as only "finding a mate," because she would not have been one he thought he could marry. He would never have gone out on a date with her.

This experience has affected what he is looking for, and it has also caused him to avoid some shallow women. He found something he really needs in a serious relationship from just dating non–seriously. What he is attracted to changed as a result. He is now turned off by spiritual shallowness, and he looks for spiritual depth.

Another woman told me that going out on dates just to date taught her that a man could listen to her. She had been drawn to a certain type of self–centered man. When she followed this strategy of dating to learn, she discovered that more was available than what she had settled for and that not all men were like those she had seen. She learned about different kinds of men from "just dating."

Dating is an opportunity to meet and get to know many different kinds of people. Expect dating to expand your view of what is good and what you find attractive in the opposite sex. Stop evaluating women and men by some criteria they have to pass or fail, and just observe, notice, and get to know them instead. You will find valuable things you may never have seen before.

2. See dating as a wonderful time to find out about yourself and how you need to change.

When you are dating to learn, you can monitor your feelings, reactions, and character as you meet different kinds of people. One woman I know was always drawn to passive men who were kind; however, her dating experiences with these men were frustrating. She realized that her tastes in men were coming out of a wounded place inside of her: Her father had been overly aggressive, and she was afraid of strong men. She needed to get to a place where a stronger man would not feel like her aggressive father and push her buttons. She did this by dating stronger men and making the changes inside to where she could actually like a man with a sense of backbone instead of going for a wimp to feel safe.

As you date for fun, you will be in many different situations that will give you feedback on yourself that you need to know. How do you respond with a certain kind of person? Why? Are you threatened by a certain kind of person? Why? Do you go brain dead with a certain kind of person? Why? Do you feel more "alive" or "dead" with a certain kind of person? Why? Those are good things to find out. As you figure out who you are in relation to others, you will be more prepared to pick someone good.

3. See dating as an end in and of itself.

How do you know if marriage is in the cards for you, and, if it is, how do you know when it will happen? I, for one, did not marry until well into my thirties. I loved my dating years. They were a lot of fun, and I had wonderful experiences getting to know some really good women.

Dating is an activity where you do fun, meaningful things with interesting people. This is a great goal in and of itself. If you are not having fun dating, then something is wrong. You might be judging each person you go out with by whether or not he or she is "marriage material." If you decide he or she is not, then you deem the date of no value.

What's wrong? Didn't you enjoy the movie? Or the conversation? Or the food? Come on, have a good time! Don't spoil a meaningful experience just because you did not find the love of your life. Tiger Woods enjoys not only the U.S. Open, but also a round of golf on Tuesday afternoon with his friends.

Date to have fun. Date to learn. Date to experience things. If you are only dating to marry, you are not experiencing life, and you are missing out on knowing a lot of good people along the way.

4. See dating in a way that takes the pressure off.

One woman I worked with was so afraid of rejection she sabotaged her dating life. She worried so much about whether or not a guy was going to like her that she could not enjoy the date. As a result, she was always less than herself, and the guy never got to see who she really was. She actually experienced much more rejection because the guys she dated never really saw all she had to offer.

I advised her to look at a date as an activity to get to know someone and spend some time doing something fun, with no pressure. She stopped looking for a potential mate or serious relationship, and it all changed. She finally learned how to be who she really was with a man. Her dating increased, her anxiety went down, and she started taking baby steps down the path to finding what she wanted.

If every date is the Super Bowl, you will put too much pressure on yourself to win. Just enjoy the game!

5. See dating as an opportunity to love and serve others.

Just as you learn as you date, so do the people you go out with. When you treat your dates as you would want them to treat you and show them what a good man or woman is like, you have served them. When you have relationships with people, you leave a wake behind, similar to the backwash a boat leaves behind. When you date, leave a wake where the person is better off for having known you.

Dating is a give and take. If you only see it as "taking," you are not getting it. See dating as a time to show others what being treated well looks like; then you help them see what is good in life, and you love and serve them. You never know where someone has come from—to be treated well might turn them around for good. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Help them to see what "good" is, and show them God's design for good relationship. All of life, including dating, should be a place where you are learning to love others better.

6. See dating as an opportunity to grow in skills.

Dating is a place to practice how to relate to other people. If you know you need to be more direct, for example, practice with your dates. If you need to learn how to open up and talk about yourself, your feelings, and your wants, practice it in dating. If you need to learn how to confront others and deal with conflict, practice it in dating. Or maybe you need to learn how to deny yourself, listen to others, or be less self–centered. Dating is a place where you can bring all the parts of you that need spiritual growth.

If you never learn basic relationship skills before that special someone comes along, you are in trouble. You will not be able to do what you need to do in the relationship that matters most, and you may ruin it. In addition, if you don't learn mature relational skills, you will probably fall in love out of your dysfunction. So, use low–risk dating as a place to practice being a more mature person.

7. Perhaps promise yourself that you will make no serious commitment for a certain length of time.

Make a commitment to try this approach for a certain period of time. I recently made a friend promise me that he would not get into an exclusive dating relationship for six months. Even if he found a woman he really liked, he had to stay unattached, or nonexclusive, for six months. I gave him this assignment because I knew he did not know what he needed and wanted, and I wanted him to grow in self–knowledge.

Interestingly enough, he did meet a woman with whom he wanted to get serious, but he kept his commitment to see other women as well. This helped him to evaluate the one he really liked. It looks like he might commit to her. That is great, but if he does, he will be coming from a much more complete place than he would have if he had not dated others.

Changing your goal and expectations of dating from looking for a mate to learning and experiencing will do wonderful things for you. You are probably not ready to marry if you have always demanded that dating was for serious relationships only. Begin by taking the following pledge:

I will date as an end in and of itself. I will no longer see dating as a place only to find a mate, but as a place to learn, grow, experience, and serve other people. It is my new laboratory of learning, growth, and experience.

That is the first step in this program. See dating as a place not to find a mate but to learn and have fun.

Excerpted from How to Get a Date Worth Keeping. © 2005 by Dr. Henry Cloud. Used by permission of Zondervan.Copyright © 2005 ChristianityToday.com