What are the purposes of dating? The reason many singles have failed in the dating game is that they have never clearly understood their objectives.
If you ask a group of singles, "Why are you dating?" the answers would range from "to have a good time" to "to find a mate." In some general sense we know that the end of all this may lead us to marriage, but we are not clear as to other specific objectives. Let me list a few and suggest that you add to the list as you give thought to your own personal objectives.
Developing Wholesome Interactions with the Opposite Sex
One of the purposes of dating is to get to know those of the opposite sex and to learn to relate to them as persons. Half of the world is made up of individuals of the opposite sex. If I fail to learn the art of building wholesome relationships with "the other half," immediately I have limited my horizons considerably. God made us male and female, and it is His desire that we relate to each other as fellow creatures who share His image. Our differences are numerous, but our basic needs are the same. If we are to serve people, which is life's highest calling, then we must know them – male and female. Relationships cannot be built without some kind of social interaction. In Western culture, dating provides the setting for such interaction.1
One of the problems is that we have been trained to view each other as sex objects rather than as persons. Almost fifty years ago psychologist Erich Fromm wrote, "What most people in our culture mean by being lovable is essentially a mixture between being popular and having sex appeal."2 With a proliferation of cable TV, movies, and now the Internet, this perception of others as sex objects has become deeply ingrained in our thinking.
For some single women their unspoken lifestyle objective is to "turn the heads" of the men they encounter. And many single men are happy to turn their heads. Those who proceed further and give their attention to the production or purchase of skin magazines often find themselves addicted to this impersonal, disconnected perception of members of the opposite sex. When this becomes a fixed perception, then one ceases in the truest sense to be human. He or she becomes like an animal playing with his toys or allowing one's self to be a toy with which another animal plays.
Learning about the Person, Personality, and Philosophy
Dating provides an opportunity to break down this perception and to help one learn to see others as persons rather than objects. It is in dating that one discovers names, personalities and philosophies. These are the qualities of personhood. The name identifies us as a unique person. The personality reveals the nature of our uniqueness, and the philosophy reveals the values by which we live our lives. All of these are discovered, not as we stand back and view each other as objects, but as we come close and begin to interact with each other.
It is in dating that we discover that every woman has a mother and a father, and so does every man. Known or unknown, living or dead, our parents have influenced us and thus profoundly affected who we are. The popularity of Alex Haley's book "Roots" and the television series based on it give evidence that we are all connected with our past. In the dating relationship we have the potential for excavating these roots. Every person has a personal history that has also greatly influenced him or her. In the context of dating, these histories are shared.
Why is dating important? Because it gives us a means of connecting with others as persons. Our society increasingly pushes us to live in cocoons, but our isolation has brought us to growing levels of loneliness, emptiness, and sometimes desperation. However, this isolation need not be a permanent prison. Dating is an acceptable way of breaking out of isolation and connecting with others.
Jenny, a very reserved, almost shy single, did not date in high school and only dated twice in college. However, upon graduation and landing her first job, she began to attend a singles group in a local church. She took the opportunity to go out for dessert with a smaller group and in this context met Brent. They had been dating for three months when Jenny said to me, "I don't know why I waited so long to start dating. It feels so good to be getting to know someone else and letting him know me." Jenny has taken a giant step in getting to know people as persons.
Seeing Our Strengths and Weaknesses
A second purpose of dating is to aid in the development of one's own personality. All of us are in process. Someone has suggested that we ought to wear signs around our necks reading "Under construction."
As we relate to others in the dating context, we begin to see various personality traits exhibited. This provokes healthy self-analysis and brings greater self-understanding. We recognized that some traits are more desirable than others. We come to see our own strength and weaknesses. The knowledge of a weakness is the first step toward growth.
The fact is all of us have strengths and weaknesses in our personalities. None of us is perfect. Maturity is not flawlessness. However, we are never to be satisfied with our present status of development. If we are overly withdrawn we cannot minister freely to others. If, on the other hand, we are overly talkative we may overwhelm those whom we would help. Relating to those of the opposite sex in a dating relationship has a way of letting us see ourselves and cooperate in God's plan for growth for our lives.
A number of years ago a very talkative young man said to me, "I never realized how obnoxious I must be until I dated Sally. She talks all the time, and it drives me batty." The light had dawned; his eyes were opened. He saw in Sally his own weakness and was mature enough to take steps toward growth.
For him this meant curbing his speech and developing his listening skills, a prescription written in the first century by one of the apostles in the Christian church. "My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry."3 What we dislike in others is often a weakness in our own lives. Dating can help us see ourselves realistically.
Changing personality weaknesses is not always easy. Jenny, whom we met earlier, realized that her shyness was detrimental in building relationships with others. Upon graduation from college, she decided to get personal counseling. It was here that she gained insight and encouragement to take steps in the right direction. The first of those was to attend a singles group at a local church. The second was to push herself to go out with a smaller group for dessert. What was more difficult for Jenny was learning how to share her ideas in that small group, to talk about herself and let people know about her college experience and her present vocation.
It took about six months for her to develop the courage to ask Brent over for dinner, which was the first step in developing their relationship. Once they started dating, Jenny sensed that Brent was someone she could trust. With encouragement from her counselor, she began to share with Brent the details of her history. His interest in listening encouraged her to proceed. In the early stages, her counselor encouraged her to write down the things that she would tell Brent that night and the questions she would ask him about his life. By writing it down beforehand, Jenny had the courage to follow through. Change takes effort, but it is effort well invested.
Practice in Serving Others
A third purpose of dating is that it provides an opportunity to serve others. Service is life's highest calling. History is replete with examples of men and women who discovered that humanity's greatest contribution is in giving to others. Who does not know of Mother Teresa? Her name is synonymous with service. In Africa there are Albert Schweitzer and in India, Mohandas Gandhi. Most people who have studied closely the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the first-century founder of the Christian faith, agree that His life can be summarized by His simple act of washing the feet of His disciples. He Himself said, "[I] did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give [My] life as a ransom for many."4 He instructed His followers, "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant."5 True greatness is express in serving.
I do not mean to convey the idea that dating should be done in a spirit of martyrdom – "Poor ol' me. I have to do this service as my duty," or "If I serve this guy, maybe he will like me." Ministry is different from martyrdom. Ministry is something we do for others, whereas martyrdom is something others bring upon us.
Dating is always a two-way street. Certainly we receive something from the relationship, but we are also to be contributing to the life of the one whom we are dating. Unmeasured good could be accomplished if we could see service as one of the purposes of dating. Many a reserved fellow could be "drawn out" by the wise questions of a dating partner. Many a braggart could be calmed by the truth spoken in love.
Taking ministry seriously may change your attitudes toward dating. You have been trained to "put your best foot forward" so that the other person will be impressed by you. Consequently, you may be have been reluctant to speak to your partner's weaknesses, fearing he or she would walk away from you. Genuine service demands that we speak the truth in love. We do not serve each other by avoiding one another's weaknesses.
Serving by Listening
Fortunately, not all of our service involves pointing out the weaknesses of our dating partners. Often we help them simply by listening as they share their struggles. Empathetic listening is an awesome medication for the hurting heart. Jim was dating Tricia when her father died of a heart attack. They had only been dating a few weeks, but Jim sensed that she wanted him to be with her. So he sat with the family for the memorial service and accompanied Tricia to the burial. The next few weeks he often asked her questions about her father and let her talk freely of her memories.
In so doing, he was helping her work through the grief that so deeply pained her. Had they not been dating, he would have not had this opportunity of service, which was extremely helpful to Tricia.
Discovering the Person We Will Marry
Another obvious purpose of dating is to help us discover the kind of person we will marry. As noted earlier, in some cultures marriages are arranged. Contracts are drawn up between respective families. The choice is made on the basis of social, financial, or religious considerations. The couple is supposed to develop love once they are married. In Western culture the process is left to the individuals involved. Frankly, I prefer this process. Dating is designed to help us gain a realistic idea of the kind of person we need as a marriage partner.
Dating people with differing personalities gives us criteria for making wise judgments. One who has limited dating experience may after marriage be plagued by the thought, What are other women/men like? Would I have had a better marriage with another type of mate? Those questions may come to all couples, especially when there is trouble in the marriage. "But the individual who looks back on a well-rounded social life before marriage is better equipped to answer the question. He is not as likely to build a dream world, because experience has taught him that all of us are imperfect."6
What could be more difficult than finding someone with whom we can live in harmony and fulfillment for the next fifty years? The variables are great. The old idea is that opposites attract. There is truth to that, but opposites also may repel. That is why couples can be so attracted before marriage and so disillusioned afterwards. The reality is that the more similar we are, the less conflicts we will have. Similarity is especially important when it comes to the bigger issues of life, such as values, spirituality, morals, whether or not to have children and how many, and vocational goals. Dating provides the context for exploring answers to these questions and determining our suitability for marriage.
What About Love Languages
You have perhaps noticed that to this point we have not discussed love as an element in the dating process. The reason for that should be obvious. Genuine love interfaces with all of the ideas that we have discussed about dating. It is an attitude of love that should motivate one to want to relate to others as persons rather than objects, to develop your own personality so you can reach your potential for good in the world, and to serve your dating partner and seek to encourage that person to reach his/her potential. In seeking a mate, love is the foundational motivation, which not only leads to marriage but to a successful marriage.
If this is true, then learning to express love in a language my dating partner will feel becomes extremely important. When the dating partner feels loved, he or she is much more likely to open to an authentic relationship in which we can each help the other. Therefore, your dating relationships will be enhanced if you learn to speak the primary love language of the person your are dating.
From "The Five Love Languages for Singles." © 2004 by Gary Chapman. Used by permission Moody Press. All rights reserved.
Gary Chapman is the author of the best-selling "Five Love Languages" series and the director of Marriage and Family Life Consultants, Inc. Gary travels the world presenting seminars, and his radio program airs on more than 100 stations. For a free small group study guide, visit www.fivelovelanguages.com.