What is dating?
- Marriage is a voluntary, exclusive union between a man and a woman, entered into for life. (This is basically the definition from the Australian Marriage Act)
- Most people (still) want to get married, hope to have children, and be together with their spouse until separated by death.
- Therefore, marriage is a relationship which involves a high level of commitment.
- In our culture, parents take very little responsibility for arranging suitable matches for marriages.
- Therefore, the main way people get from singleness to marriage involves what we call "dating".
- Dating is a temporary arrangement for a man and a woman to get to know each other better in order to assess suitability for marriage.
- Since by nature dating is a situation where you don't know the outcome (if you knew you wanted to marry someone then you wouldn't need to date), many dating relationships can and should break up.
- Also, since dating is preliminary and entails the possibility of breaking up, it involves a relatively low level of commitment.
When I was growing up, neither my parents nor my teachers taught me how to date someone, and my friends had as little experience as I did (which was none), so everything I thought I knew about dating came from TV and the movies. Which of course was a rubbish way of learning about dating.
I learnt that dating means falling in love with someone, either at first sight or slowly but inevitably, not having any control over the process, and the stars aligning perfectly so that you are both put in a situation where you have no choice but to realise you are both in love with each other, and then usually without any warning one person will just kiss the other person and there will be a mutual understanding that this is the happiest moment of both their lives. Bleaugh.
What should we say about this view of dating? To begin with, no dating actually even happened in the above description! Movies are about falling in love, not about dating. But the assumption is that when two people fall in love, and then dating will inevitably lead to a happy marriage and family.
There's another assumption here about our inability to help falling in love, which does reflect something about what happens when we start liking someone, but does us no good service if we think that just because we are in love there is no need to do anything.
At this stage I want to make two assertions. The first is that since marriage is a high-commitment relationship, I think it is very helpful (though not necessary) to be in love with the person you are married to. The second is that since dating is a low-commitment relationship, falling in love is neither a pre-requisite nor necessarily helpful for dating.
Don't wait to fall in love
Waiting until you are both in love with each other before asking someone out has several disadvantages. Firstly, it might take a long time. How do you expect two people to fall in love if they're not deliberately spending time together like they're dating? Secondly, it's based on an assumption that you already know that they're the one you want to be with - in which case, there's no point in dating! Just ask them to marry you already. Thirdly, if you wait until you're in love, you're so emotionally invested that any sort of rejection will devastate you. It will be harder to ask, and harder if they say no, and harder still if you break up.
Conversely, if you get rid of the expectation that you will be mutually in love from the moment you start dating, that gives you freedom. You have the freedom to ask someone out even though you're not sure, because you're just getting to know them better. You might be a little pained if rejected, but not devastated. And you leave room in your relationship to grow closer together, rather than needing to have it all at the beginning.
I think you do well to date someone who you would consider a friend and who you want to keep building a friendship with. That means embracing the friendzone. Friendzone everyone. As in, be friends with them. Be nice to people. Hang out with them. Get to know them and let them get to know you. Who doesn't want to go out with someone who is nice to everyone? Or to put it another way, who dreams of going out with someone who is only sometimes nice and is sometimes mean to others?
There are some disadvantages of befriending everyone. For a start, it takes a lot of work, and by work I mean love. And in terms of asking someone out, it makes things more awkward. If they don't want to go out, sometimes the romantic undertones linger in the relationship and actually hinder your friendship. And it's harder to ask someone who knows you better anyway. If they have gotten to know you a bit, they have started to see your flaws and imperfections; there's more at stake because you cannot go back and now change their first impressions of you.
But friendzoning everyone has its advantages too. You get lots of friends! And lots of others get a new friend in you, too. It helps you to develop relationships that are deep rather than surface-level - and this means that you learn to think about people in deep ways, not just superficial attractiveness. It means you can be a bit wiser about who you want to ask out. And by the same token, they can make a wiser decision about whether or not to go out with you - and this is a good thing.
Rejection is good
Unfortunately, you're not that cool. Fortunately, the scenario I described above is not really an ideal anyone should ever shoot for. In fact, it sounds pretty horrendous as soon as you put a bit more thought into it.
The upshot is that you neither need nor want everyone to go out with you, or even like you. You don't want to marry everyone - you want to marry only one person. On the flip side, you might start liking more than one person, or your preferences might change as you grow up. All this means that if someone says no, that's okay. They haven't ruined the plan by saying no. You probably know someone else you might want to ask out. You will probably meet someone else worth asking out. Even if they had said yes, the relationship may or may not have worked out. And if they didn't want to go out with you, that's a pretty good reason to think the relationship wouldn't work so well.
Rejection makes things clear. It is often a painful clarity, but clarity is still good. If you want to change someone's mind, I'm all in favour of trying to convince them otherwise. But just remember that they need to be able to decide for themselves. And if you give it your best shot and they say no, then it's a good thing because it gets you closer to figuring out who you might marry.
Maybe you would say something like, "Hey, I find you really attractive, and I would like to go out with you."
Or, "I really like you as a person. Can I take you on a date?"
For some it will be more like, "Heeyy.. um.. *ahem*. Yeah. um.. I really, uh - I think you're really cool. I mean like a nice person. I like hanging out with you and stuff. Um. And I'd like to go out with you."
If nervousness is what stops you, the trick is to do it before the nervousness takes over. Be a little overconfident - not in the sense of presuming what the answer will be, but just make sure you manage to open your mouth before the opportunity passes and you're too chicken to try to open it up again! Well - at least that's what has worked for me. Don't overthink it.
You don't have to be super impressive. My experience is that most of the time the lady (if you're a man) is happy to hear it and will be impressed just a little by the fact that you asked, even if she says no - and the same is probably true if you switch the gender roles.
Do be clear, however. In today's world, "Do you want to see a movie with me?" can either be interpreted as a date or as a "just friends thing". Same goes for coffee, dinner, "hanging out", or pretty much most activities I would think acceptable for a first date. So if you want to ask someone on a date, my advice is to actually call the activity a date. Sure, be specific if you have an activity in mind, but also be clear. "I'd like to take you on a date. Could I buy you dinner some time?"
My suggestion is to clarify a few things very early on - like maybe on the first date. It might feel unnecessary, but I think over-communicating here is probably a good thing, because the reality is that the two of you might be coming from very different assumptions about what is about to happen. The two things I think are helpful to clarify early are (i) what the relationship is, and (ii) what some of the boundaries are.
I used to assume that the "pathway" to marriage was like this:
Single --> Dating --> Engaged --> Married
But I discovered that for some, it had extra stages - more like this:
Single --> Going on dates --> Going out/"In a relationship" --> Engaged --> Married
Whereas I thought asking someone on a date was the same as asking them to be a girlfriend or boyfriend, others thought that you need to ask a second question, after a few dates, to confirm that you were "official". So it might be worth just making sure that you're on the same page about how this works. When do you call each other boyfriend/girlfriend? Are there implications for your Facebook profile? I feel like it's better to be safe and clarify than to assume too much of the relationship too early.
Along with clarifying the "stages of dating", it also makes sense to have a discussion early on (and then at regular intervals) about what you are comfortable or uncomfortable with physically. Some people like holding hands. Some people don't. Some are happy to kiss as soon as they are "officially going out". Some would rather save it for a later stage in the relationship. What level of affection are you happy to show in public or in the presence of friends?
With physical boundaries, it is good to clarify early and clarify often, as the relationship progresses. Keep asking, "is this okay?" and saying, "let me know if this is unhelpful", and respect each other's gut reactions.
The boundaries to be clarified might not only be physical - for example, when is it okay to call each other boyfriend/girlfriend? Are you the kind of person who wants all their friends to know straight away, or would you rather not make a big thing of it? If saying the words "I love you" are special to you and mark a special point in the relationship, then it's helpful to flag that.
The point of this is not to say you need to have a lengthy contract about what you are each supposed to do or not do - it's all about just making sure that you're on the same page about boundaries and transitions in the relationship. It's a conversation that will probably happen again and again as the relationship progresses, but it's helpful to get in the habit early and get good at having it.
At the end of the day I think it's helpful to be thoughtful, prepared, and relaxed. For me, it is the knowledge that God loves me and is in control of my life that allows me to be most relaxed about what happens - from major life crises to little things like asking someone out.