Editor's note: A version of this article was originally published on Relevant Magazine. This version has been published here with permission.
I've had the privilege of being mentored by a marriage and family therapist for the past 14 years. Mentoring is a huge understatement and is probably only a euphemism he uses to soften the fact that I've actually been receiving free therapy all this time! Meeting with professionals like him would normally cost a truckload of money, so I'm very thankful he's never sent me a bill. If he did, I'd probably owe him at least $20,000 - no joke.
Through hundreds of our unofficial counseling sessions, I've gleaned at least five key aspects of dating that are relevant to both singles and those who are in a relationship.
1. Search for a spouse like you would a calling
Some people had their vocational calling revealed to them from an early age. Whether it was a doctor, school teacher, or an artist, these individuals knew their ideal career since they first listened to a heartbeat through a stethoscope or sketched with a pencil. The majority of others, however, have probably hiked more ambiguous career paths, placing effort into searching for their God-given vocational passions by trying at least a few different venues.
Likewise with finding a spouse: Some people married their high school or college sweetheart while the rest of us will probably need to go on at least a few dates to find Mr. or Mrs. Right. The point of searching for a spouse like you would a calling, therefore, becomes twofold. First, resting in the fact that God knows our hearts, and we can trust He will bring us a spouse as part of our overall calling. Second, it is His responsibility to reveal this person to us as we put effort into finding him or her.
2. Rethink your list
A lot of us have created a mental or physical checklist of qualities we seek in a spouse. These traits are based on the values we hold or what we find most important. The first list I created many years ago contained over 30 obligatory qualities for my future partner! (Any wonder why I'm still single?!)
However, it is important to remember that lists will always reveal more about us than they ever will about someone else. Whenever we label something (or someone) we are essentially only defining ourselves. Understanding this concept helps us hold on to our list loosely, writing most items in pencil, not in pen. If, however, we clutch to an ironclad, stagnant list, we could very easily miss a potential mate. Our future spouse will be far more colorful and dynamic than a list will ever encompass, so give God permission to add, subtract, and modify it frequently.
3. Regularly visit the spiritual gym
I believe the type of effort required to create an amazing marriage will be similar to the work required to win the Super Bowl. Professional football teams spend countless, dedicated hours at the gym and endure many grueling practices during the regular season. They fully expect their hard work and discipline to pay off. If the team becomes the champions, you would expect words like endurance, sacrifice, and preparation to be used by the players in postgame interviews.
Likewise, the time we invest during our single years becomes our own regular season and the optimal training ground for marriage. Marriage will undoubtedly challenge all of our selfishness, pride, and ego, so why wait until the playoffs (dating) and the Super Bowl (marriage) to begin training for the most daunting human-to-human relationship? It is true that Christ doesn't ask us to refine ourselves for our future spouse; instead, He commands us to transform for His sake (1 Timothy 4:8). A healthy marriage will just reap the benefits of spiritual fitness.
4. Clarify meaning often
Miscommunication and strife often occur in relationships when two people place different meanings on the same event or circumstance. For example, I could ask a woman out for coffee instead of asking her on a date. In my head, I meant coffee-date, but left unverbalized, she could very well be receiving mixed signals. Then, when we are sipping lattes together, we have to deal with the unnecessary and awkward vagueness of trying to guess the meaning the other person is placing on the outing.
Even during steady dating relationships, differences in meaning also occur with regularity. If Rebekah wants me to meet her parents, I might believe the relationship is getting serious, but she may consider it just another fun date. This is totally normal. Mixed meanings like this occur in all aspects of guy-girl friendships and dating relationships, whether it is placing a hand on a hip, going on a road trip together, or meeting siblings.
The bottom line is that when you feel there could be a discrepancy in the meaning of a circumstance, it is important to communicate the significance you place on it. Habits like this from the get-go will produce an honest and healthy relationship.
5. Lead your heart. Don't let it lead you
Scripture commands us to "Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life." (Proverbs 4:23) Following this wisdom will protect us from unnecessary pain if the relationship ends before marriage. The primary way we lead our heart (and not let it lead you) is by taking the relationship S-L-O-W.
We can deliberately take an unhurried approach to a new relationship by following three principles. First, center the conversations on mutual interests and minimize deeper conversations until higher commitment exists. Second, focus the relationship on fun, shared activities such as jogging, playing board games, or attending a concert. Third, place a moratorium on physical touch until you are confident in the direction of the relationship. This may seem extreme, but enticing activities like holding hands and kissing become tantamount to emotional Super Glue. And if you've ever accidentally glued two fingers together, you understand how painful it is when you tear them apart.