The dating scene for couples today can be downright demoralizing, and for some, perhaps even dehumanizing. Especially amidst the hook-up culture on college campuses, it can be challenging to live and love virtuously. We need a better approach to relationships than the one our culture offers.
When I met Karin (the girl that would later become my wife) at Duke University, we both wanted to progress through a romantic relationship in a healthy—and even holy—way. Although we made mistakes, we took some intentional, concrete steps that assisted us tremendously. My hope is that other couples today might find them helpful. I unpack these counter-cultural acts, as well as the counter-cultural story that motivated them, in my book In Love: The Larger Story of Sex and Marriage.
Here, briefly, are 5 steps that can help set your relationship apart.
1. Avoid “falling in love” or “love at first sight”
The quotation marks don’t mean to avoid this experience, but rather to avoid using these phrases. Although common, such expressions imply that love is simply a feeling. That is, love is assumed to be an emotion that we can accidently (without any conscious decision) “fall into” or experience from across a room. Such emotions can be good and exciting, but they aren’t love. And that sort of love-as-a-felt-emotion is a poor basis for a relationship. If using phrases like “fall in love” subtly influences us to think about love in this way, we should adopt a better vocabulary.
Scripture presents love more as an action than an attraction. For example, in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, each word that Paul uses to describe love is a verb. To remind us of this notion, Karin and I tried to speak about love mainly as a verb: an act of working for the other’s good. Don’t get me wrong; I’m very glad that I experienced what I now refer to as “infatuation at first sight.” That feeling prompted me to get to know Karin better, so that I could get to the point of making a conscious decision to actively serve her good—that is, to truly love her.
2. Write down specific acts of love to commit to
If love is simply an emotion, it’s not the sort of thing we can commit to or control. But we can commit to actions.
Due to study abroad programs our junior year, Karin and I faced the daunting reality of a long-distance relationship. Knowing that our feelings for each other would likely change, we wrote down seven specific acts we would devote ourselves to during our time apart. They included praying for each other, communicating our thoughts and feelings regularly, and honoring the other in their absence as we would in their presence. This became known as somewhat of a relationship “Constitution,” and I still carry it in my wallet today. Sure enough, when the miles between us began to deflate the intensity of our romantic feelings, it was reassuring to pull out that small piece of paper and know that the other was committed to love in those seven concrete ways.
3. Fast for your relationship
At some point along the way, many dating relationships succumb to an unanticipated lapse in self-control. Even couples who want to save sex until marriage can get carried away in the moment and cross their self-defined boundaries. To help avoid this, couples might benefit from practicing saying “no” to desires in other areas of their lives.
Something to consider along these lines is fasting from food on a regular basis. (The details can differ depending on your situation; consult a doctor to determine what would work best for you.) In college, Karin and I decided to fast every Thursday for our relationship. I remember it clearly, for somehow it always happened that Thursday was the day when some campus organization decided to offer free goodies! We found that, because we trained ourselves to tame our natural bodily urges for food, we were better able to exercise self-control when it came to romantic urges. Ironically, practices like fasting helped us to have a healthier physical relationship; rather than suppressing our desire for touch, we were able to walk through the various stages of physical affection in a slow and healthy way.
4. Consider pre-engagement counseling
Today only about a quarter (25%) of couples seek some sort of relationship counseling before marriage, and those that do average only 2-3 hours in those counseling sessions. In other words, people typically prepare more for school exams and sports competitions than for marriage! And pre-marital counseling often takes place after engagement and right before the wedding. That means the couple enters counseling after the wedding date has been set, after they’ve made the news public and sent invitations to their family and friends, and after she’s seen herself in the dress! That’s a lot of subtle pressure to gloss over unexpected conflicts and have the counseling sessions turn out successfully.
Might it be better for dating couples to hold these sorts of intentional discussions about marriage before he gets down on one knee? Karin and I asked our pastor to lead us in pre-engagement counseling. We discussed with him everything that is addressed in pre-marital counseling, but we did so prior to popping the question, setting a date and making the news public. That allowed us to devote however much time was necessary to working out any issues that emerged during the sessions. This sort of intentional preparation was invaluable for us, and it made our months of engagement (not to mention our first year of marriage) a lot less stressful.
5. Seek accountability and third-party input
Let’s face it, relationships can be difficult. Giving oneself to another person often doesn’t come easily. Dating couples need help, especially the kind of support that older married couples can provide. In marriage enrichment programs that connect dating or engaged couples with older couples and encourage them to eat dinner with their families, divorce rates have decreased. Perhaps this is because experiencing such a meal in one’s home can help establish more realistic expectations for what married life is like. When we were still dating, Karin and I also benefitted from attending a weekend-long marriage renewal conference. Just hearing husbands and wives describe how they wrestle with their biggest challenges helped us immensely.
Relationships have the power to make us happier or more miserable than almost anything else in the world. Thus, couples who are journeying toward marriage should take the time and effort to prepare well. It’s worth being intentional and counter-cultural.
Dr. Ryan Messmore is the founding Executive Director of the Millis Institute, a liberal arts program housed within Christian Heritage College in Brisbane, Australia. Originally from the U.S., Messmore received a Bachelor of Arts from Duke University, master's degrees from Duke Divinity School and Cambridge University, and a doctorate in political theology from Oxford University. He has also served as a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. His latest book is entitled "In Love: The Larger Story of Sex and Marriage." Visit www.RyanMessmore.com.
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Publication date: June 6, 2017