This blog post and the following comments at Conversion Diary got me thinking recently. Single-and-searching folks ask this question a lot (it's one I sure wondered about!).

I personally take the perspective that there is no "one" for you. No "soul mate"... at least not before your vows. God certainly knits the two together in a very beautiful way after the vows. But that's something to explore more deeply on another day.

I am more interested in the method of discernment. We all want answers right? I know as a single woman, I wanted a formula, a sure-fire way to figure out how to decide if I should marry a person. It's a huge, scary decision.

I noticed in reading comments that people often discern using their natural strengths and bent. I think we need to remember that, just as anything else in life, what worked for me may not work for another. Here are the three "discernment bents" I've casually observed:

Discernment by Thinking. This is the person who values thought above emotion. They make a list and talk things through thoroughly with their dates. They try to keep dating practical and tend to appreciate more formal courtship models. I suspect this person approaches most of life as a "thinker"... perhaps he or she does not even trust emotions to help them make a sound decision.

This is often the method promoted by Christian dating experts. It is a good way to cut through all the craziness of dating and keep your head clear. There are some pitfalls here, though.

  • You can lose sight of the "human element." In other words, you can find yourself treating another with cold calculation instead of the love they deserve.
  • You can buy into the illusion that if you just think things through hard enough, you will have control over your life. That you will be able to predict outcomes. You develop a false sense of security in knowledge alone. I speak from experience. I try to control by thinking... and analyzing... and thinking some more.
  • You can become a relationship perfectionist, demanding a person meet every single criteria on your list or even cooking up issues that may not be present in an effort to anticipate

In short: You could rationalize yourself into a bad situation or out of a good one. The thinker may need to learn to relax and just feel occasionally.

Discernment by Feelings. This is the person who says they "just knew" he or she was "the one." They "felt peace" and could tell "in their gut." This person (I suspect) often trusts their feelings in making other decisions as well.

This method is often criticized because it's less empircal. What if you are just infatuated and not really feeling God's peace? What if you feel differently after the wedding? What if you are just experiencing chemistry and not compatibility?

These are genuine dangers. Feelings can be painfully fickle. Scripture reminds us, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9) We've all met the person who, fueled by intense feelings, destroyed their life. In Love & Responsibility, Fr. Karol Wojtyla emphasizes that intensity of feeling has little to do with how much true love is present in a relationship.

That said, there is validity to this method. Again, in Love & Responsibility, Fr. Karol Wojtyla writes that love without sentiment would be cold and calculating -- not love at all. As humans, we need warmth and good feelings. They give us motivation to get to know another person better, to bond with them, to overcome obstacles, and they soften the sharp edges of married life.

And our "guts" often do "speak truth to us." Sometimes a "peaceful feeling" is the piece of the puzzle we really need most, especially if you are the sort who really can trust your feelings a good portion of the time (I personally can't).

Discernment by Prayer. This form of discernment really is for everyone.  Even if you are not sure if God exists, I recommend shooting a few prayers to the heavens to ask for guidance just in case He's there. I have to say, this was the only method that "worked" well for me and my husband.

My husband and I are both highly emotional and analytical. Oh my! We can easily find ourselves in analysis paralysis.... picking apart every feeling, every factor, every thing.  For a time in our dating relationship, we were quite gifted at spinning our wheels. At one point, we ended our relationship because we simply could not move forward.

It wasn't until I re-dedicated my vocation to God and my husband sought spiritual direction (as well as let go of us) that doors began to open. It's not that God didn't want to make things easier for us earlier. We just weren't in a position to receive that kind of help. Even though we felt we were, we weren't.

Honestly, I had been resisting the spiritual side of discernment because I was afraid of the pitfalls of over-spiritualizing. I remember an acquaintance who got engaged to a girl he barely knew because he said he "saw" two rings floating in the air while praying. Um, yeah.

And recently, I was sad to hear of a broken engagement by a young couple. I am not surprised at the break-up. They were very hasty in claiming marriage was "God's will" for them in spite of the very brief time they had known each other.

But when we finally started acting in faith (breaking up, seeking godly wisdom, praying more purposefully), I was not looking for the skies to open up and neither was my husband. We just wanted to be better Christians, better people, and to focus on being open to what God had in store for us. I truly had no expectations of us riding off into the sunset as man and wife. But under the guidance of this wise priest and in our growing relationship with God, we really began to grow as human beings.

This laid the foundation for when (to my shock) I received some "signs" that said "go ahead; it's time" (and I tend to be extremely skeptical).

I know I am not sharing rocket science here on the discernment front. I think it's safe to say that when discerning anything, we need to use all three here. We need to step back and think. We need to examine our feelings. And we need to take our time to really pray and be open to whatever God wants. Sometimes God gives us what we envisioned. Sometimes He surprises us. Usually it's a mix of the two.

Resources for discernment:

A Closer Walk with Christ: A Personal Ignatian Retreat by Raymond Thomas Gawronski (Our Sunday Visitor).

Are You Waiting for “The One”? by Margaret Kim Peterson and Dwight N. Peterson (IVP Books, 2011).

The Temperament God Gave You by Art and Laraine Bennett (Sohpia Institute Press).

Sarah Phillips, Crosswalk.com’s Family Editor, embraced faith in Christ at an unlikely phase in her life: as a skeptical undergraduate at Virginia Tech. She now enjoys putting her VT English degree to use at the Salem Web Network by observing and reflecting on cultural trends, marriage, family life, and the human condition through the lens of Christianity. When she’s not writing or editing, Sarah enjoys spending time with her husband, Corey.