In third gear, you mutually agree to pursue the possibility of marriage. Seek advice from mentors; read books about marriage; pray together; get to know each other’s families; open up about your life, hurts, and dreams; and talk about your possible future. But keep in mind that while you’re exposing your heart, you must still guard your sexual integrity. Pray regularly for God’s help to do so. Pay attention to whatever warning signals you see that could cause significant problems in marriage. Be willing to either break up or tackle the challenging work required to deal with baggage – both your own, and that carried by the other person.

Once you both agree that God is directing you toward marriage, you can enter fourth gear: engagement. During your engagement, focus much more on planning your marriage than on simply planning your wedding. Discuss such important topics as: career choices, living arrangements after marriage, financial management, bearing and raising children, choosing a church in which to serve, and how you each hope to grow spiritually together. Be sure to keep guarding your sexual integrity, so you won’t have regrets once you’re married. At the right time, enjoy proceeding to fifth gear: marriage.

Guard your sexual integrity. Protecting yourselves sexually before you get married will help you enjoy the best sex life once you’re married. Consider the physical and emotional damage that occurs with premarital sex, and resolve not to suffer the spiritual damage it brings: the loss of God’s blessing. Consider the many benefits that can come from waiting until marriage to have sex, including: learning to be faithful (if you can keep your promise to God, you’re likely to be able to keep your marriage vows to your spouse), honoring your future spouse, learning how to enjoy sex without an element of danger, and writing an inspiring love story to share with others. Set boundaries to help you and the other person avoid compromising your sexual integrity: no sleepovers, no undressing, no deep conversations late at night, etc. Pursue God’s healing for any emotional wounds you might have suffered in any previous relationships that weren’t healthy. Guard your eyes, capture sinful thoughts, run from temptation, invite others to hold you accountable, state your standards upfront in dating relationships, spend time with people who are honoring God, and repent quickly after you fail in any way in your quest to guard your sexual integrity.

Don’t play house. If you think that moving in together may improve your odds of a successful marriage, you’re wrong. Statistics show that only 40 percent of people who live together actually get married, and the divorce rate for people who live together before marriage is at least 33 percent higher than for those who don’t. Don’t compromise your standards by living together before marriage, or you’ll end up compromising your relationship. If you’ve already moved in together, move out and stop having sex right away. Understand that sex affects your emotions so powerfully that it clouds your judgment, making it possible for both of you to feel like your relationship is right without it actually being right. Take a cooling-off period and use that time to have God reclaim your mind and emotions, helping you discern whether or not your boyfriend or girlfriend is truly right for you. Promise each other that you’ll never ask each other to compromise, you won’t hurt each other’s relationships with God, and – if God leads you to – you’ll commit to a lifelong marriage together. Keep in mind that being involved and being committed are completely different. Pursue only God’s best for your relationship.

Break up when you need to do so. Don’t avoid or delay breaking up when it becomes clear that a person with whom you’re in a relationship you’re in isn’t God’s best for you. If you’re worried about hurting the other person’s feelings, just remember that it’s far kinder to break up now than it is to have him or her continue to invest time and emotions in a relationship that won’t lead to marriage. Look for warning signs that let you know it could be time to break up: like someone who lives consistently without integrity, someone who draws you away from God and into sin, someone who your friends and parents are opposed to you dating, someone who has bad relationships with his or her own parents, someone who doesn’t maintain any long-term friendships, someone who is obviously drifting away or running from God, someone who’s overly jealous, someone whose finances are a mess, someone who often tears you down instead of encouraging you, someone who’s prideful, and someone to whom your attraction isn’t growing. When breaking up, talk in person rather than just over the phone or in writing. Tell the truth, lovingly. Afterward, limit your contact so you won’t be tempted to restart a relationship that isn’t best for you. Make time to grieve the relationship, stay active, and expect that, in time, you’ll heal.