Dating: Preparing for a successful marriage

Bill and Nina met at church. Afterwards they went out for something to eat. “We talked for hours,” Nina says. “I’ve never met anyone that I could share with quite so fast. That first night I knew him better than all the other guys I’ve dated put together. I told him things about myself I’d never shared with anyone. We dated every night for a week and then Bill proposed. I knew it was right, and accepted.”

Bill also remembers that first week, “Nina was the most intelligent and beautiful girl I’d ever met. I could hardly take my eyes off her. I wanted to touch her and hold her. She had real sex appeal. We saw each other every day. I was hooked. I never loved anyone the way I loved her. I knew this was it. We had to get married.”

Bill and Nina got married—one month after they met. Four months later they separated and filed for divorce.

What went wrong? Two good people, honest in their feelings for each other, get married and then find their marriage shattered, their hopes collapsed. They just did not know each other long enough. They were victims of a dating tragedy.

Look before you leap

The biggest dating tragedy is to marry before riding out the wave of red-hot feelings and later finding oneself married to a totally unsuitable person. Society labels this another “marriage failure” when in reality it is a “dating failure.”

More than a million divorces occur annually in the United States alone. Most couples marry within seven months of meeting. The average duration of these marriages is seven years, with about half disintegrating within three years. Each of these couples stood at the altar, eyes bright with joy, promising love and faithfulness forever, never anticipating they were making the greatest mistake of their lives. What happened to their starry-eyed talks, the tender promises, lingering looks, close embraces, passionate kisses, and whispers of love?

Pulsating emotions overrule good sense and people rush into commitments that may be regretted in years to come. There is no such thing as instant love. Strong, lasting relationships must be paced over a long period of time when “getting to know you” is the major theme. This is why I stress slowing down, and looking carefully before you leap.

Stages of dating

Dating proceeds through seven stages. Each stage has a function and purpose in establishing a basis for the relationship. If any stage is rushed or skipped, there is a gap in the development of the relationship, and problems result.

Stage l: Friendship. During friendship, you get to know each other while participating in non-romantic social, recreational, spiritual, and intellectual activities. Most of these activities are group-oriented, as opposed to couple-oriented. This stage is more casual and less emotional than the later dating stages, since no romantic or sexual overtones exist.

Friendships are less stressful than dating relationships, because friendship is not dating, and there is no need to play games. Often friends are more honest with each other than are lovers, and it is possible for friends to become more emotionally intimate than lovers.

Becoming friends before becoming romantically involved makes a lot of sense. If you fall in love too fast and it doesn’t work out, you will rarely become friends again. If you take your time getting to know someone at the friendship level first and let love grow slowly and gradually, you are more likely to have a friend for life, whether you marry this person or not. Furthermore, love affairs that flare up instantly usually burn out just as fast. And it’s more likely that you will be judged on superficial qualities like your appearance or body build than your character.

It is harder to remain friends than lovers. The easy thing to do when you find someone you are attracted to, is to shift into high gear, give it all you’ve got, and gun it. It is infinitely more difficult to take your foot off the gas pedal and move slowly when there are no curves, detours, or roadblocks in sight. But choosing the fast, easy route rarely builds a relationship that lasts because when conflicts arise, the tendency is to choose the easy way—walking out.

Stage 2: Casual dating. Two friends now move away from the group to enjoy activities they have already learned they enjoy together. Since the degree of emotional involvement between them is low, both are free to date others. They do not consider themselves to be in love. Pleasant times are shared along with a friendship that may hold promise for the future.

A couple should remain at the friendship and casual dating stage for six to 12 months. This is the time to get to know each other’s likes, dislikes, backgrounds, habits, and behaviors. If what they learn at this unhurried pace checks out with what they’re looking for, they can slowly move into stage three. It is possible to remain friends for months and even years without becoming romantically involved.

Stage 3: Special dating. Special dating is an in-between stage. There is a growing emotional attachment between the couple, but they have not yet reached the commitment required in a steady relationship. They are spending more time together but are not yet dating steadily.

Stage 4: Steady dating. In this stage, there is an understanding between the two that they will not date others. They see each other more often than in casual dating. For the first time, words like commitment and exclusive come into play. Steady dating provides an opportunity to look each other over carefully with no commitment to marriage. The stage also tests the relationship quite thoroughly. It reveals if the two people involved are able to remain committed to one relationship—a vital fact to know before marriage is considered.

In this stage a couple may think they are in love, but still may not be certain. But there is the opportunity for them to develop confidence and trust in a person of the opposite sex over an extended period of time. Many personality traits can be observed during this stage—sense of humor, listening ability, manners, thoughtfulness, dependability, spirituality and maturity, handling differences of opinions, and communication skills.

Steady dating provides a serious trial period during which a couple can make intelligent decisions regarding their compatibility. It also means escalating a feeling of love as the couple spends more time alone. Sexual urges may be exploding and throbbing at an all-time high. Sex now will confuse the emotions and complicate the process of separating infatuation from real love. Steady dating calls for self-denial, patience, and discipline—traits that go a long way in building a relationship that lasts. It forms a natural bridge to pre-engagement and formal engagement.

Stage 5: Pre-engagement. Pre-engagement is the stage when a couple begins discussing the possibility of marriage. The couple talks about marriage—“someday.” Someday when we finish college, get a promotion, can afford it, or when circumstances become favorable. All talk and plans are tentative, but the couple is more sure they are made for each other. Their understanding is private and personal rather than final or binding.

During this stage, a couple can take an in-depth look at whether their lifestyles and personalities are compatible enough for marriage. Much of what used to be discussed only during the formal engagement period is opened here for scrutiny. This approach should make the engagement more meaningful as well as reduce the number of broken engagements.

Since effective communication is the single most important contributor to a stable and satisfying marriage, the most important goal of any stage 5 couple is to evaluate and improve their communication skills. This is the last chance to bail out of a relationship without making it uncomfortable for everyone involved.

Stage 6: Formal engagement. The formal engagement follows the “someday” talk of stage 5. It brings a deep sense of commitment and belonging that doesn’t come with going steady or pre-engagement. There are several things that separate the formal engagement from the pre-engagement stage. A formal engagement announcement serves as public notice to friends and family that a couple intends to marry. It provides an opportunity for others to adjust to the fact that a new family unit will soon form, and a new member will join the extended family. The public announcement also strengthens the commitment. The more people who know about the engagement, the more likely the couple is to follow through and marry. Thus a secret engagement is really no engagement at all.

Secondly, the prospective groom presents a gift to the prospective bride to solemnize the engagement. This gift is a symbol of their commitment to each other and further strengthens the couple’s commitment.

Thirdly, a wedding date is set and wedding plans begin. Engagement is not an end in itself. It’s a commitment to marry. Therefore, plans for a wedding need to proceed. An engagement with no wedding date in sight destroys the value of engagement.

During engagement, expressions of affection will become more intense because they are in transition from courtship to marriage. Because of this urgency to fulfill the natural desire for unrestricted intimacy, short engagements of six to nine months are ideal. If a couple have spent two years getting to know each other before the engagement, the short engagement period is sufficient.

This is the last opportunity to check out the future partner before being locked in for life. This is the time to bring out any unresolved differences or reveal any hidden secrets, checking and rechecking their evaluations.

An engagement is not a sealed contract that forever links a couple’s destiny. It is possible that an engaged couple may decide not to marry. This is hardly an unheard of phenomenon. As many as 40 to 50 percent of all engagements are broken. As difficult as it may be, a broken engagement is better than a broken marriage.

The most important task to be accomplished during engagement is not the planning of a wedding, but premarital counseling with a qualified pastor or professional counselor. Every couple should have a minimum of six counseling sessions before marriage.

Stage 7: Marriage. Marriage is different than the previous six stages in that it is final and binding with legal procedures and courts necessary to dissolve the relationship through divorce. It should be a continuation of the romantic phase of courtship, characterized by affection, respect, courtesy and fun together.

Getting the cart before the horse

Unfortunately, couples often go through these stages out of sequence. So eager are they to find love, that they skip the preliminaries and jump into romance. But all the romantic stuff does not necessarily produce lasting love if an enduring friendship has not first been established.

Most couples tend to act in haste and marry too quickly. Every couple need to date for two years prior to engagement. Ideally, a total of one year should be spent at stages l, 2 and 3, slowly and carefully nurturing a friendship first.

To win the love and respect of their partner, most people show only their better sides and attempt to hide their faults and shortcomings. They believe that if the other person knew about their faults or idiosyncrasies they would not be good enough or lovable enough. So they act a part, act as if these faults are not a part of themselves—for a time—allowing their loved one to see them only at their best. Such a behavior is nothing but masking.

Many people can successfully mask negative tendencies for a year. Only rarely can such game-playing go beyond that. Therefore, when a couple rushes into marriage too quickly, they have not allowed sufficient time for the masks to slip. They are marrying a virtual stranger, someone who will likely turn out to be stranger than they ever wanted to know. Rapid acceleration of relationships is so exciting that romantic feelings stay alive when they should begin fading. As the euphoria intensifies, the thrill of being a twosome and doing enjoyable things together blinds the couple to reality. Marrying in haste, without taking sufficient time to check a person out, is jumping into a relationship based on assumptions. Assumptions make appalling marriage partners.

Researchers at Kansas State University found “a strong correlation...between length of time spent dating their current spouses and current marital satisfaction.” The researchers noted that “couples who had dated for more than two years scored consistently high on marital satisfaction, while couples who had dated for shorter periods scored in a wide range from very high to very low.”*

Bill and Nina could have perhaps saved their marriage if their dating included this two-year frame. Nothing gets my attention faster than hearing a couple talk about marriage who have not dated long enough. They are about to pledge “till death do us part” and have seriously underestimated the need for a strong relationship and the communication skills necessary to weather financial crises, bouts of sickness, and misunderstandings.

The two-year rule is applicable to the previously married also. Some of the biggest fiascoes involve previously married individuals who think because they are “experienced,” they can skip all the “kid stuff.” “After all,” they declare, “we’re not teenagers.”

Every couple, regardless of their age, circumstances, or experience, should take two full years to evaluate their readiness for marriage. When they do, they will have a significantly higher likelihood of making a good choice. The most important advice I give to couples can be summed up in three words: Take your time!

Pacing relationships

Progressing too rapidly in a relationship causes two problems. First, there is a strong possibility that the couple will not slow the pace sufficiently to develop the skills necessary to maintain a long-term relationship. Relational skills, such as communication, settling conflicts, or negotiating power struggles, will likely be untested. Immature couples tend to resolve their conflicts in bed, especially if this pattern was learned in the past. Their relationship lacks depth, and the first hint of difficulty signals a serious threat.

Second, developing a relationship with a person of the opposite sex is so electrifying that it is necessary to spread intimacy-building over a time period for real depth to develop. A compelling desire to spend as much time together as possible immediately propels the couple toward physical intimacy and commitment.

When a couple experiences a strong sexual attraction, they assume that they are in love and marry on the basis of sexual excitement alone. They ignore facts, thus indicating their values, goals, and belief systems are at odds. After they marry they discover they have few common interests and incompatible personalities. They differ on many aspects of life, from what to do on a day off to how to spend money. In the midst of such chaos, they find their sexual interest also declining. When they wake up to what everyone else could see all along, they divorce. They weren’t in love, they were “in lust.”

Developing physical intimacy is more exciting and less work than developing intimacy at the emotional, spiritual, and friendship levels. This makes physical intimacy more difficult to control. But it can be controlled if you choose your dating activities carefully. Some activities build relationships slowly but surely at the friendship level; others rapidly hurl couples toward physical intimacy. An afternoon spent exploring a historic town is more constructive than a day spent cuddling on a blanket at the beach.

Cathy Guise from the Cathy comic strip says, “I’m beautiful, bright, charming, talented, and ready to share my life with someone, Charlene! I want to dream with someone…plan with someone…I want to be there for someone, and I want someone to be there for me!”

Charlene responds, “My husband has a really cute friend who…”

“Aack!!” Cathy screams, “A fix-up?? No fix-ups!! I’m ready to be married. I’m not ready to date.”

Many people are like Cathy. Marriage is their goal, but they don’t want to have to go through the process of preparing successfully to achieve their goal. They want the prize but aren’t willing to pay the price.

Be smarter than such people. Rather than becoming sexually involved and later attempting to build a friendship, go forward through a relationship, not backward. And take your time!

Nancy L. Van Pelt is a family life professional who has authored 22 books. This article is adapted from her book Smart Love (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Fleming H. Revell, 1997). This book was reviewed in Dialogue 11:1 (1999), p. 32. Mrs. Van Pelt’s address: 493 Timmy Avenue; Clovis, California 93612-0740; U.S.A. E- mail: Her web site:

* Quoted in Neil Clark Warren, Finding the Love of Your Life (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Focus on the Family, 1992), p. 9.