Monday, June 4, 2018

Letters to a Romantic: On Dating

Letters to a Romantic: on dating, Sean Perron and Spencer Harmon

As we prepare couples for marriage and run marriage enrichment, we’re often asked if we know any good resources for couples who are dating or pre-engagement. To this point there has been little I have been able to recommend. 101 Questions to Ask Before You Get Engaged is a good option for couples who are getting serious and want some prompts to ensure they have talked through most important topics prior to marriage.

However, I been stumped for resources for people considering a godly approach to dating. Thankfully that is no longer the case, for friends Perron and Harmon (with their wives) have teamed together to create a resource for those who are in the dating stage of life. They openly state that “the point of this book is to start a conversation, not to have the whole conversation for you” (p15). As such each chapter is pretty short, raising each issue clearly and with biblical support, and leaving questions at the end for you to think though for your own situation.

It covers 20 different topics including:

  • Marriage and singleness and considerations of both
  • Practicalities of dating - the purpose of dating, how to decline a date and considering whether to be in a relationship
  • Warning flags to consider in a dating relationship including use of pornography, and signs of obsession or abuse 
  • How to break up well and analyse an ended relationship
  • Considerations of a physical relationship including past sexual sin, dealing with sinning sexually in the current relationship, and how to think about physical affection 

I liked its gospel and biblical focus, it keeps drawing the reader back to the grace of God for salvation and reminds that in all stages of life, serving and worshipping God is our priority, whatever stage of relationship we are in.

One of the most helpful chapters was the one on preparing for romance, which encourages the reader to consider the following:

  1. What is my foundation?  Am I operating out of fear (eg fear of loneliness or of commitment) or am I operating in faith that God provides all we need in every situation?
  2. What is my vision?  Do I value man’s world or God’s word?  Do I value outward appearance or the inner heart? Do I care about pleasing them vs pleasing God?
  3. What are my expectations? Am I always comparing against other relationships or situations, or I am seeking contentment in my own situation and who God made each of us to be?

I also appreciated the more ‘realistic’ chapters, the ones that frankly dealt with how to say no graciously to a date request, how to break up (with charity and clarity) and how to talk through sexual sins of the past and present.  There was an acceptance of the reality of differences between two people and also the reality of sin, and both were dealt with well. There was a strong message to avoid pornography and to seek help if you struggle with it.

The chapter on whether to date a non-Christian was direct and honest, with the clear answer being no. Their reasoning brings a helpful corrective to the issue: if you date a non-Christian, even if you are hoping to bring them to Christ the act of dating them says “I value you more than I value what Christ says” and so you undermine your own message.

There was an encouragement to see that dating should have a purpose, for too often these days it’s “an escapade aimed at nothing”. It should actually be a way to find out more about their character and Christian growth, and keep open the possibility of knowing more. But if you know you could not or would not marry them, do not keep dating.

There were a couple of areas that weren’t as strong. Unfortunately, the first chapter was one of the weakest, particularly the discussion of the gift of marriage and singleness. It seems simplistic to me that if you are content being single, you have the gift of singleness.  While this is true, what about people who are not content with singleness? It doesn’t mean they have the gift of marriage either. I think it’s more helpful to see that the current life stage you are in is what you currently have the gift of, so if you are single you currently have that gift but perhaps in time (if you marry) you are given the gift of marriage. It irked me that they encouraged people who hope to be married to do cooking courses or learn a trade so they can manage a household in the future. Those are skills all people need whether married or single.

Having said that, they later addressed well the sorrow and joy of singleness, acknowledging that it’s not sinful to feel the sting of unwanted singleness, but it is sinful to let that become a heart that grumbles against the Lord and others.  Also timely was the warning that if you are discontent as a single, marriage won’t change that for “discontent singles become discontent marrieds”. We are to seek contentment in all circumstances as we follow Christ.

The chapter on declining a date was aimed at women, and I’m OK with that, although I don’t think all Christian relationships have started with the guy making the first move. What I would have liked to see was a matching chapter to the men of how to ask a woman on a date. There was one comment to the women “if a guy doesn’t have the courage to ask you out in person, he’s not worth your time”. Boy is that true, but I’m not sure in this era of texting that all young men have got that message. I do often point out dating couples to my kids - the ones that are sitting together at a food court but both on their own phones - and suggest to them that’s not how a relationship is supposed to work. If they don’t put down their phone and talk to you, they are not worth it!

The chapter of gauging parents’ reactions to a relationship was helpful, but dealt mainly with when parents have concerns. There is wisdom in advising people to listen to their parents’ concerns, but to also find ways to evaluate what they are saying. I would have liked to see an encouragement to the dating couple to take time to get to know both sets of parents well.

There was a strong emphasis throughout the book to have wise older mentors/ couples that you can talk to about things. They even suggest having a mentor present for discussions about past sexual sin. I wasn’t sure about that; these difficult conversations are the things that couples need to learn how to manage together and on their own. Having said that it does give the couple permission to seek help if needed.

The advice most likely to challenge dating couples is the suggestion to consider not kissing prior to marriage. They present a strong case for their opinion and are clear it’s not a rule. These are good conversations for couples to have and to make wise decisions about, rather than just assuming you do what everyone else seems to be doing. I would have liked to know what they thought about holding hands or hugging; it wasn’t clear.

It’s worth mentioning this book is clearly aimed at younger people. While much of the advice is wise and applicable for couples dating into their thirties and perhaps forties, the inclusion of a chapter on ‘are we too young to get married?’ makes it clear who their intended audience are. Also, it doesn’t deal at all with dating after a failed marriage (which can still happen for people in their 20s and 30s), or even a failed long term relationship prior. Even the discussion about breaking up suggested a relationship of months not years. 

While I’ve written quite a detailed review outlining lots of things I wanted to think about more, overall this book is very, very good.  It fills a much-needed gap and provides solidly biblical, Christian advice which doesn’t skimp on saying hard truths when needed. I would happily recommend it to anyone in the ‘dating’ phase of life. Many couples fall into relationships without really considering what they are there for and why.  As the forward by Heath Lambert says “Dating relationships are complicated because they come at the intersection of four realities: sin, inexperience, high stakes and a lack of familiarity.” The conversations this book raises would help many people who want to serve Christ as they date, and help them to make wise decisions as they proceed through this tricky stage.

As a side note, I didn't love the title either.  However, considering the quality of this book, I may in time move on to their next similarly titled one - Letters to a Romantic: On Engagement.

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