Intentional Dating

For many years I’ve actively advocated for sexual purity. Experiencing sexual love both the world’s way and God’s way turned me into a riotous supporter of God’s kind of romance. When I first turned from the siren song of lust to the more excellent way of Jesus, I felt confident that “courtship” constituted the perfect replacement for dating. I myself courted and married, as did others I knew. But over the years, little red flags began to dot the map of my perfect route to marital happiness: a pitfall here, a gaping chasm there. I saw couples court and marry too soon. I watched promising young people move hastily from joyful singleness to energy-sapping enmeshment. I saw a few “perfect” courtship-based marriages end up in divorce. Now I’m beginning the process of reforming my philosophy of how good, godly marriages are formed. This is my first attempt to provide a third alternative to dating and courtship. I’m calling it “intentional dating.”

First, let me establish some definitions:

Dating as a common practice among Christians involves pursuing someone the pursuant finds attractive; typically physical attraction ranks very high in this process. Usually—but less and less so—the male initiates this process, asking the female out on “a date.” If accepted, the two dress attractively and spend time together, usually engaging in a romantic activity such as a candlelit dinner. A date insures as few irritations and interruptions as possible.

If the dating continues, the couple may or may not become physically involved. Christians typically feel guilty about sexual intercourse before marriage, but may indulge anyway. Or they may stop short of sexual intercourse, engaging in deep kissing or petting.

Courtship involves more restraint than dating. Ideally, qualities of character rank higher in importance than physical attractiveness. The male most often initiates, asking the female to “court,” but not before consulting with trusted leaders and mentors, as well as those who know well the character of the female. The female respectively counsels with others about the male before she makes a decision. If the answer is “yes,” the male and female spend time together for the purpose of ascertaining their compatibility. They most often “court” in the context of their active lives, as opposed to idyllic surroundings. Courting couples ideally avoid physical involvement until they become certain of their future together. If courtship leads to engagement, the couple may or may not show physical affection, but usually it is of a retrained nature, avoiding sexually arousing forms of touch.

Even as I write this, I see that courtship improves greatly upon dating. My intention here is to improve on what’s good rather than discard it. In 1997 Joshua Harris published his famous courtship book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Since then a plethora of books have advocated his position; I agree with 99 percent of them. I would simply like to suggest a few improvements that I think would correct some of the extremes and pitfalls that can develop in courtship.

1. Let’s change the name. Courtship summons up images of men in tights and women in pointed hats. Dateship, maybe? Or Dourting? Hummm. . .  How about something like intentional dating? “Intentional” provides distinction from generic dating. In common with most people, disciples of Jesus want to find the love of their lives. We’re just proposing a “more excellent way.”

2. What about a prelude to an intentional relationship? Why not give young people permission to have short, light-hearted, “dates” without any romantic or physical involvement, or even serious commitment? Courtship began when people lived in small, tightly-knit communities. Today’s world is far more large, transient, and complex. People need a chance to get to know one another apart from the serious near-engagement of courtship. So perhaps we could encourage a time of “friendship dating” where both parties purpose to become acquainted, and nothing more?

One objection to this goes something like: “For those with strong sexual drives, especially those with previous sexual experience, even spending time alone with a member of the opposite sex presents an irresistible temptation.” First, I let me opine on that a bit. If we imply that we can’t possibly resist sex the first time an opportunity presents itself, aren’t we implying that people are basically animals in constant heat who operate by instinct rather than reason and choice? Aren’t we belying the gospel truth that God made us in His very own image?

But as a concession to those who may need greater physical barriers to temptation; this “friendship dating” doesn’t have to be dating per se. It can be forming friendships within the canvassing program, the summer camp staff, or any other work or ministry situation. In fact, much of Christian friendship formation can be done in groups. It’s just that because of geographical distance, jobs, school, and other circumstances, group forums aren’t always available and one-on-one outings become necessary. Then proper boundaries, such as avoiding late-night meetings and time alone behind closed doors, will help ward off undue temptation.

Take a very important broken-heart prevention measure: Be clear about your intentions! I mean utterly, completely up front, as in, “I’m not interested in a committed relationship yet. I’m getting to know you as a friend,” or the harder-to-say, “We’ve spent some time together and although I like you, I’m not interested in anything more than friendship.” This kind of transparency can be tough, but it’s worth the discipline!

3. Once two individuals wish for more than friendship, they can begin to pursue a more serious, committed relationship. This should be done with prayer and counsel, similar to the courting model. If a person prays twice a day, they should pray four times a day when pursuing a committed relationship. They should gather all the information possible about the other person—even the “dirt.” Jesus said count the cost. Go into a serious relationship with your eyes wide open.

If the lights are green, you must begin the messy business of seeing if the other person is interested. In the courtship model, the man typically initiates this process. There are merits to this: men’s self-confidence tends to be more resilient. Men often support the family when the children are small and need to have sufficient drive and courage to pull this off. A man’s drive to acquire a relationship can indicate that he possesses sufficient strength of personality to make it in a very dog-eat-dog world. But all this man-doing-the-initiating thing can be overdone. Godly romances often unfold with much mutuality. True, men tend to be initiators and women responders. Okay. But while you respect gender differences, try not to exaggerate them.

This period of intentional dating has an intention (how ‘bout that?)—to ascertain whether the couple would compliment one another sufficiently to form a synergistic marriage, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And just as importantly: could they love one another for a long, long time? Could they make each other happy? Could they have fun together, solve problems together, and just generally do life together? Remember, it’s not marriage yet. The purpose of intentional dating is to see if you’re meant to be together. If the answer is no, and you go your separate ways, then intentional dating served its purpose and was a success!

Because of potential for breakup, I think it best not to become physically involved during this phase of the relationship. If physical involvement occurs, keep it to a non-sexual nature. Your self-restraint before marriage preempts your self-restraint after.

4. The third and final phase of godly marriage formation is engagement. During this period individuals are fully committed to one another but not officially a married couple. Engagements may still be broken, but with considerably more grief than dating relationships. One important tip: Keep the engagement short so as not to tempt yourselves.

The only really new concept here is that I’m encouraging non-committed relationship formation, called “friendship dating,” as a preface to a serious, more committed relationship. I’ve seen too many young people rush into a serious courtship before they’d even fully developed as individuals. I respect the need for restraint, and the danger of casual dating and playing with hearts, but in my estimation some who believe in courtship have gone too far in avoiding these things and have missed out on healthy, social-skill-building interactions with the opposite sex. It’s as if they’ve skipped a step in the process and gone straight from Rapunzel’s tower to the arms of the Prince.

To minimize the danger of “friendship dating” going bad, here are three simple guidelines:

1. When possible, do it in groups.

2. Avoid late nights and long-term isolation.

3. Be honest and up front about your intentions. Verbalize the fact that you’re just friends and make sure the other understands this.

Okay, now, get out there and have a blast!

13 thoughts on “Intentional Dating

  1. Jane Reply

    Great article Jen. I thought your ideas were helpful for men and women of any age. Excellent! Thanks

  2. Glen and Catherine Jackman Reply

    Hi Jill,
    Living in the adulterous world sums up the field of promiscuity.

    Check the stats. Christians are equally into porn, and divorce, and “if” unconverted, will give it up. Why? Man is desperately wicked, depraved, and daily in need of Christ. Adventists need to study some Reform materials written post reformation by the Dutch. I know, we know it all, already. Smile.

    Most youth get blindsided by sexual confusion, as emotions run wild. And clueless regarding purity.

    Counselled meetings are best or Romeo/Juliets will unite. I’ve grown to believe it takes Godly parents to initiate unions as Abraham did for Isaac. The rest is a hoax.

    Be careful. We have 5 daughters and one son, so we know by experience. And half of the other half are not committed to Christ let alone another they lust after.

    Sorry. Have a blast sounds worldly.

    Glen and Catherine Jackman

  3. Bert Williams Reply

    Hi Jennifer,

    Thanks for the work you’ve done on this. I certainly do think it’s useful.

    Our son endured two failed engagements with nice Adventist girls—the second “fail” occurred after the announcements had been mailed and a lot of money spent. He eventually married a nice girl who is not an Adventist, and they have now produced our two wonderful grandkids. It’s a delightful little family and seems to be a strong, positive marriage, but you can read between the lines and imagine considerable stress and heartache along the way. I don’t know that “intentional dating” would have prevented all of our son’s heartache but the traditional dating model didn’t work very well for him.

    Curiously, four decades ago my wife (she is now, that is) and I wandered unknowingly through something much like you describe. While we were in academy Donna agreed to “go steady” with me “just as long as we not get serious.” I, of course, agreed (I sometimes observe, if in a setting where I think people will take it in the light-hearted way it is intended, that we haven’t gotten serious yet). There had been a revival on our academy campus a few months earlier, and it actually “took” with quite a few of us—including Donna and me. I can point to a number of people who, even now, trace the genesis of their spiritual commitment to that year at Modesto Academy.

    Not everyone has believed me when I claim that Donna and I did not engage in serious physical involvement for the next four years, but I do claim it and it is true (and this was in the 60s, less than two hour’s drive from Haight/Ashbury—decidedly not the Victorian era). We did a lot of our dating with groups, and though we did spend time alone, we did not engage in intimate physical activity beyond a goodnight hug and kiss. We got engaged about four years after we had agreed not to get serious, and married six months after that. That was 39 years ago as of this past weekend.

    Now we do not suggest that high school romances usually have this happy outcome. Donna and I worked on academy campuses as faculty members for more than twenty years, and have often cautioned our students in this regard. While I certainly give the Lord a lot of credit for the success of our relationship, I also think we were just flat out lucky that our initial attraction occurred between two people who are naturally very compatible. It is an exception; not the rule. However, I think our experience does suggest—at least in some respects—that the model you describe can be a blessing to young people at the stage in life where serious and potentially permanent relationships are formed. Humans are not animals controlled by instinct. We do have brains and the God-given power to make decisions and abide by those decisions.

    By the time Donna and I finally got to engagement—I did ask, and she did say yes—it was just obvious that our lives would be entwined together for good. I guess Donna may have been slightly surprised at the timing, but certainly wasn’t surprised that I asked, nor was I the least bit concerned about what her answer would be. And yet we still had not experienced each other physically beyond a goodnight kiss. I certainly don’t claim any special form of godliness; I only suggest that Donna and I are an example (though a less carefully organized one than what you have described—and the “going steady” part does not apply) that the model you offer has great potential for good.

    Well, I’m not sure why I felt constrained to pass that on. Perhaps I’m just feeling the warm glow of reaching the 39-year marker and eagerly anticipating more.

    Thanks, Jennifer, for your good work.

  4. Troy Montana Reply

    Hi Jennifer,
    I don’t always agree with everything you write but I believe there is real merit in this intentional dating concept you are advocating. I see many patriarchal type family structures in the area where I live (southern Missouri) and I see many young girls who have virtually no say in their futures. The courtship system leaves them igorant and very limited in their choice of a lifemate. Many of them have no real concept of what the world is all about. One 19 year old that I recently became acquainted with rebelled against super-control and was disowned by her parents. She ended up in a live-in relationship with a 40 year old man that doesn’t love her. How sad. I pray that your suggestions catch on and get further fleshed out.

    God Bless,
    Troy Montana

  5. Anon Reply

    In studying biblical marriage, I learned that I should get the support of parents before beginning a courtship. This seemed honorable and I had the best of intentions, so I contacted the parents of a girl I had noticed and began communicating with them. They knew and trusted me; they were interested in helping me get a courtship started with their daughter. There were quite a few phone calls, plus a visit, between her parents and me, before she knew anything about my intentions.

    When she finally found out, the whole thing backfired because she felt betrayed by her parents. But she did agree to try. In the process of time, we discovered we didn’t have enough in common to make a marriage. We ended it before any engagement could happen.

    I learned that respect for parents is important, but so is respect for the woman herself. There is more to courtship than blind adherence to rules, as good as they are.

    Some time later I went on a mission project in which a local girl half my age took an interest in me. My first impression was that she was one of the silliest, air-headed girls I had ever met — definitely not into “principles” and not the right age — but as the days went by, I began to enjoy her attentions. In a short time she got very attractive. I was surprised at my reaction since I had in mind how relationships were supposed to develop and this did not fit my picture. Nothing romantic happened, but by the time the project was over and it was time to leave, she had really gotten under my skin. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I returned to USA and tried to forget her.

    Time passed and God helped me to put the experience in perspective. Again I learned…that while rules and principles are important, the natural spontaneous feelings of attraction are important too and you can’t have a healthy relationship without those feelings. I had believed that love is a principle, and it is; but I learned that it is also a feeling.

    All this was part of God’s plan to prepare me for marriage. When I finally did meet the woman God chose for me, we talked about goals and standards; but we also felt good together. Our hearts bonded as we got acquainted. Now we are married and have a family and I thank God every day for way He led me.

  6. Mark Post authorReply

    Very good thoughts and a good essay. Couple of questions. How many friendship dates in this model before you have an idea if you want to proceed to intentional dating?

    Where would parental counseling come in? I have already thought about 5 or 6 short talking times I would like with my child and the other once they are serious. To me this needs to happen before engagement rather than after.

  7. Jennifer Jill Schwirzer Post authorReply

    I don’t think there’s a specific number of friendship dates, but if that’s all a person is doing into his 30s and 40s, we can assume there’s a fear of intimacy/commitment at work!

    So you’re suggesting 4-5 counseling-type sessions with your child and the person they’re courting? That sounds great. I’ve done that with my adult kids with great benefit. Parents, unless they’re really sick, are the best counselors. If possible, I would suggest bringing mom into the process too . . .

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  9. Melinda Skau, M.D. Reply

    Just wanted you to know that both of my young 20s offspring enjoyed this topic and responded to me with chipper emails on it! Thanks.

  10. Kelley B. Reply

    Hey, Mrs. Schwerzer, I really enjoyed what you wrote about the dating process. It sounded very good to me. I’m 35 and single, but I started out a teenager dating older guys. And always had an unhealthy relationship with different guys until my early thirties. So to me it’s great advice cause it’s just like I need to learn these steps that I unfortunately never did before. Thank you so much. Kelley

  11. Jennifer Reply

    Kelly thanks for your post. Never too late to learn. When I get to heaven I’ll ask God why He gave us the most sex drive when we had the least wisdom!

  12. Donna Reply

    Hi Jennifer,

    Thanks for this practical article! It sounds like our story, especially like the prayerful start to our 27 year happy marriage. I also appreciated Bert’s testimony.

    The ‘Courtship’ style of asking the parents for permission to ‘court’ is fine for some, archaic to others–and tends towards prematurely serious relationships. Intentional Dating pulls together the best concepts on Christian dating. I plan to share the article with my young adult children.

    I would just add the component of parental counsel. I believe that loving, Christian parents can, with God’s help, establish an open friendly rapport with their young adult children, in which discussions on qualities to look for in a spouse / relationship advice = the norm. We have deep, heart-to-heart, and often very humorous discussions with our young adult children on these topics, and they seem to enjoy seeking out our advice, because they’ve learned to trust that we desire their good and will prayerfully advise them based on experience and love–without commanding them to suddenly break off a somewhat unwise relationship (eventually, with prayer and counsel, they see the ‘light’). Fun / casual activities can be done with the parents or families of the couple during the phase of friendship dating, so the parents can knowledgeably give counsel on whether they think the couple are compatible and have the qualities to be happy together.

    So I would add the component of Christian parental advice (if the parent is ‘normal’–their experience and wisdom will be beneficial). However, I’ve known overly-controlling parents who consider even the most self-restrained Christian romance with adult kids to be evil. Since ‘normal’ doesn’t always happen, perhaps we need another article on how to be a normal parent! 🙂

  13. Jennifer Jill Schwirzer Post authorReply

    Donna, true, that. I like how you’re not autocrats. but you are a strong influence. What would you say to people without Christian parents? I run into that often.

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