How to Navigate the Ambiguity of Dating

Because dating is filled with ambiguity, and the tension between strong feelings and the reality of not being married, people can often move too fast towards marriage or end up destroying the relationship. In a Christian culture that often over-spiritualizes dating, where can you go to get sound advice about dating? In this episode, we talk about how to navigate dating well.


Transcript

Chris Grace:

Okay, welcome to the Art of Relationships, a podcast on all things relationships. I'm Dr. Chris Grace.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I'm Tim Muehlhoff.

Chris Grace:

And, we are so glad just to join you guys again. Thanks for listening in. Here's what we want to do today, Tim. I think this issue about dating and dating well and what it means to get prepared for marriage is a significant conversation that people have. All of the time they ask, "How do we do this? How do I do well?" Ninety percent of Americans, at some point, say "I'm going to get married."

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah.

Chris Grace:

And, people and students, even college students, that's a high percentage and they always the question, "How do I do this well?" Another question I get all the time is, "Where do I get the best advice? How do we get advice on how to date well? Who can I talk to? Who can I ask?"

Tim Muehlhoff:

That's right, if you Google dating advice, you get fifty-two million hits. They can be from anybody, right? These people aren't vetted necessarily. It can be ... remember Doctor John Gray?

Chris Grace:

Oh yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Oh, my word. You know his PhD is from a defunct university in the United States that was shut down by the State Department. Again, it takes nothing to write a book. It takes nothing to give advice. So, we need to get advice ... I think that's what's important about podcasts like this, from a reputable source, obviously, to say what does research show? Studying people's behavioral habits of what moves them quickly into relationships. So, let's talk to that. Those who are listening that are dating, and again, this could be ... age is really irrelevant when it comes to this. I mean, you could be in your 50s, 60s, and you could be in your early teens everybody is interested in good, sound dating advice. Where do we go? I suggest we go to the book of Proverbs, my number one principle.

Chris Grace:

That's a good one.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Here's what the book of Proverbs says in chapter four, verses 22 to 25: Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life, and let your gaze be fixed straight in front of you, watch the path of your feet. Your heart in Hebrew is your intellect, your emotions, your volition ­– it's a physical part of you. We are to watch our heart and not let it move at light speed where it can get us in trouble when it comes to certain kind of commitments.

Chris Grace:

That's right because this [heart 00:02:33] and this idea of heart, I think what you identified is that it's our whole being. It's everything about this, and one of the problems that couples, I believe, begin to experience right away is how to navigate this newness of this attachment, and this emotional connection, let alone the physical connection, but that idea that this is a powerful draw for us. This is something that I've sought and wanted, and now it's here. That could be a very powerful moment. One of the things, Tim, I guess I want to ask about and talk about is, how far is a person able to go when it comes to being emotionally intimate in a dating relationship? Are there boundaries? Are there things we should be careful of? If somebody is starting to date, they really like this person do they just let their guard down, and say, "This is so awesome, I just want to share everything with you, and let you hear my heart, and then have that reciprocated, and," or is there a time to be cautious?

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yes. Interesting phrase you used, 'let my guard down'. The book of Proverbs seems to be arguing the exact opposite, keep the guard up. In communication theory, we have what we call relational escalators. These are factors that influence movement towards commitment. Have you seen that YouTube video Chris, of it's like a JFK airport, you know those walking sidewalks?

Chris Grace:

Right.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Have you seen the YouTube video one broke, started to malfunction and was going incredibly fast, and all these people are on this walking bridge and they're being thrown on this escalator and they're all trying to jump off? What we're saying is your heart can be like an escalator, so here are some factors that tend, from a communication perspective, to make us move too quick. One is we absolutely, utterly hate one thing: ambiguity.

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

We hate that middle stage. I want to know, are we an item or not? Am I wasting my time, or not? Do you like me, or not? Are you marriage material, or not? We hate the ambiguity, therefore we just rush through it, and no you shouldn't rush through it. It takes time to answer those questions, are you marriage material, right?

Chris Grace:

That's right. I think that's it, Tim. Ambiguity, you can almost answer it this way, time I would say. If someone asked, I would say time is your friend. Go steady. Go slow. There are so many ways in which you just want to say, "But, I want to share these personal details, and these intimate things about this person, and even my darkest secrets. I want him to know me." But that notion of going slow, going steady, and live a little bit with ambiguity, you don't know right now what this is going to lead into. There is a way in which this may not be the time. This might not be the person, and so you really have to guard and be careful. What's number two?

Tim Muehlhoff:

Well, let me ... before we leave number one, a greater example of this ambiguity thing is remember the Rolling Stones song, what was it, Hello, I love you. Won't you tell me your name?

Chris Grace:

Sing a little bit for us right now, because I'm forgetting a little.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Okay, hit it, baby. Hello, I love you, won't you tell me your name. Hello, I love

Chris Grace:

Okay, let's don't.

Tim Muehlhoff:

But, that idea, we're so enamored by Hollywood. You know that moment when that person walks in the room and time stops, that narrative is so powerful. We're saying, "Hey, there can be attraction at first sight," but love at first sight ... so we hate the ambiguity part. "I want to know, am I in a relationship or not? I want to know if this is going somewhere?" We're saying that takes time. Let it take time. Give it time to breathe.

Chris Grace:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim Muehlhoff:

And, watch your heart if you think you're starting to move at way too quick a speed. The second one is this concept we call momentum. Most relationships grow by leaps and bounds rather than step-by-step. Momentum builds that is bigger than both of them, right? Sometimes people say, "I didn't intend for this to happen. I didn't intend to fall in love. We just kind of got swept up by it," and that to me is crazy that people are so caught in something that they feel like they can't resist. It's like a tsunami of romance, and so be careful of momentum. You want to push that car slow and steady. You don't want to push it over a cliff of romance or sex. Sex is a powerful momentum and so you just want to be careful.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, Tim, I think that is such an important point that people feel like oftentimes they begin to lose perspective guarding their heart is one thing, but all of a sudden when it just feels so right, when all of a sudden, you begin to realize ... and I think what couples are realizing, in this case, is that there is a uniqueness to our minds and our brains, and our hearts that we're designed to connect. We are beings that are relational beings, and so all of a sudden, now I'm beginning to sense and to feel this very powerful tug, and attraction towards somebody. In reality, that's when it becomes very hard to do this, right? Because I now want to tell them everything about who I am. I now want to be able to share my life with them, and man, to be able to say "Okay, hold on, this is natural. This is normal. This is almost how I've been made and designed, but it also causes a moment of saying, "Wait a minute. I need some perspective on this. I need to guard my heart." That's where friends can come into play and others can help you in this as you're going through this process.

Tim Muehlhoff:

So, there's guy in communication theory named Charles Bolton who came up with this idea of escalators, things that really propel us. He identified two that I thought were really important. One he just calls involvement. This is where you meet a person and suddenly you're coordinating each other's activities and plans with each other. We've all seen this happen, right? You have a great group of guy friends or girl friends and then suddenly one of them starts dating and they're gone, right? They no longer do anything with you. Pretty soon they're all walking to class together. They've synced up everything about their day together. They're so enmeshed that you simply can't pull them apart. That's a huge escalator because it really tends to pick up momentum, and so we want to talk about two different types of chastity at this point. Hey, it's great that you meet somebody that you're just jazzed about. I'm attracted to you and you're attracted to me, and this is fun and exciting, and we're getting to know each other, but we would really advocate two forms of chastity.

 

One would be what you were talking about emotional chastity, but avoid over sharing. Again, these couples tend to have these late-night talks where they talk about everything. What God's doing in my life, and my spiritual journey, my greatest hopes, my greatest fears, my greatest hurts. Man, if you start to do that, like right off the bat, there's nowhere to go and you really do become enmeshed with each other.

 

The second one would be obviously physical chastity, is that ... and again, and this is where we're going to sound like Puritans off the boat, right, in the most sexualized age in the history of humanity. When Noreen and I first started dating, this is so funny, I was pretty attracted to her. Still am. I wanted to kiss that woman so bad, and so we officially started dating. We had the define the relationship talk. I go in for a kiss, and we're both on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ, as I move in Noreen literally, puts her hand up to her lips and says, "You know what? I really think we ought to pray about this, Tim because this is going to take us in a different direction. This is going to up the ante." Now, I was embarrassed because I was on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ, so I looked at her and said, "Oh yeah, pray and fast. Yes," but Noreen was so wise to say, "Tim, this is going to be an escalator, and it's going to really move us quickly." So, we're saying to people, don't move through the stages so quickly. Hand holding is a commitment, right?

Chris Grace:

Yeah, it is.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Going public with the fact that you like each other is a commitment, so we're saying each step along the way, go slow. That sounds crazy to a hookup culture who goes from zero to a hundred physically, but we're saying once you go slow ... and by the way, you can never take it back after that kiss, you do change it and you can never really go back, so let's be slow. He just called this involvement.

Chris Grace:

And, I think, Tim, what that does is the Scripture is full of places where we are taught and told different ways to treat each other, right, to honor each other. If you're in this place, if you haven't yet stopped, paused, prayed, given this relationship to the Lord, you can do that in a way that can be very profound and transformative when you begin to honor this person. Paul says, remember in Romans 12:10 you know he talked about, be devoted to one another in brotherly love, honor one another above yourself. It sounds like that's kind of what Noreen was doing. She was saying, "Hold on here. I want to honor this relationship and honor this thing as the most important thing, and so our relationship is going to be guided by that." What a great model and testimony.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I just wanted to kiss the woman, Chris. That's all, and by the way, you know what interesting thing happened? This is so embarrassing to say in some ways, we waited, I want to say we waited three months and then Noreen said to me after three months, she said, "If you still feel the same way, and you would like to kiss me, then I give you permission," Chris she never even got the words out. I was like, boom, in for a kiss, and it did change it in some ways.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, it does. That's right.

Tim Muehlhoff:

The second thing he talks about is this idea of idealization where we're so enamored by this person's positive qualities that that's all we see. Again, we would say hey that's natural. In the beginning, I define infatuation you love everything about that person because you know nothing about that person. To me, it's kind of like The Bachelor, the show The Bachelor where you know you're doing a performance. You know you're putting your best foot forward. Do you know of the 29 couples of the Bachelor that 27 of them have already split?

Chris Grace:

That's amazing.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Because you're caught up in the beginning of it. There's a communications scholar named Erving Gothman who came up with this idea, "front stage, backstage." Front stage you know it's a performance.

Chris Grace:

That's what you're seeing. That's right.

Tim Muehlhoff:

People are watching, but backstage, boy! I'd love to say to my students, "How long does it take before you actually get to see a person's backstage?" I ask them, how long before you're confident that you're seeing that person's backstage, and it's interesting the answers I get. Everything from, "Oh, I think you can do that in a semester," to "I think that'd take two or three years."

Chris Grace:

Yeah, and I think the problem also you're identifying, Tim is even when that does come out, sometimes our hearts have moved so fast in momentum, we're so far ahead that we can see it through a filter and a lens of, "Oh, this isn't that bad. Oh, I'm seeing a part of this person, but you know what? They'll change. You know what? This isn't that big of a deal to see that we're not compatible here." All of a sudden, now you are almost what we'd call, you have these kind of blinders on. The person can do no wrong, and you minimize that which is really going to be a key critical, maybe compatibility difference, different perspective on life that you're kind of tied into this.

Tim Muehlhoff:

You and I are both huge advocates of pre-marital counseling, you and I both do it with couples. Here's what we do: we sit down with a couple and we say, to force them to see the backstage, is we say, again these are couples who are engaged or are just on the cusp of getting engaged, that's why they're seeking pre-marital counseling, we say to them, "Give me five things you like about this person and three that are red flags." So, five things you really like about this person, three that are red flags, and Chris, we draw an end to pre-marital counseling if they can't give us three red flags. A red flag isn't, "Hey, I told you to get me a macchiato and you got me," right? I mean three things, because again, if they're not seeing those red flags, areas of concern, then I just wonder what they're doing and are they still in the idealization stage because I want them to see as much of the backstage as we possibly can get a person to see.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, and part of those red flags could also be your own red flag that I'm just not emotionally, or financially in the place right now and that can be a flag. It's not necessarily identifying the negative in the other person. It's in them both. It's in you. It's in maybe the way you two relate, or it's in your own way that maybe you're just not ready. Those are great ways of ... because it does help kind of overcome this idea of idealization.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Right. Yeah, I don't know if you ever think this. Do you ever wonder if you would have done at this stage you are right now, you and Alisa, if you would have done your pre-marital counseling when you first got married? Isn't that wild to think about?

Chris Grace:

Yeah, it is.

Tim Muehlhoff:

We got in trouble because Noreen is a business major. She was a business major at the University of Connecticut. I was a theater major, Eastern Michigan University. Don't laugh. She was pre-law. I was pre-unemployment. She asked ... I've got an intrusive question Chris, intrusive, she asked: "How much money do you have in savings?" Chris, I'll be honest with you. I had nothing. I had books, hardcover books, right, and I had a tennis racket to die for. A graphite tennis racket that improved my backhand tremendously. Well, if I was doing our pre-marital counseling, what would you have said, at that point? You would have said ...

Chris Grace:

I would have said, "Noreen, you might want to go ahead and keep walking on walking baby."

Tim Muehlhoff:

Keep on walking.

Chris Grace:

One word. Run. No, I wouldn't have said that.

Tim Muehlhoff:

But, you would have said, that's a red flag.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, it is a red flag.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Because Noreen, "Do you value savings," and she did. I didn't. Do you know what I told her? This is so funny. I philosophically believe in it. It didn't help the situation, but that would have been a red flag, just to know that you have these differences. How big of a deal is that? It's as big of a deal as you're going to make it. If you say these are super important, then it's a big deal.

Chris Grace:

So, real quickly, Tim, give us what you would say ... give me the top red flags that you have heard. If you're going to hear this red flag you're going to say, "You know what? You need to take a little bit of time. You need to take a little break. You need to start praying." I'll give you a number one red flag for us. If it becomes, and if you find out that this relationship has turned physical, it then, to me, it is the single biggest indicator that this relationship is not going to be accurately understood or evaluated because you can't see clearly if you're in the midst of a deep physical, and by physical, let's just ... what that means is, for college students, some of them here at [Biola 00:17:54], they're like, "Oh, you know there can be a variety of different ... I'm talking about people who are sexually intimate. They may not necessarily even be sleeping together, but in that capacity when they are, and they're doing a series of ways in which they are now primarily connecting with each other physically -

Tim Muehlhoff:

Clothes are coming off, hands going where they shouldn't.

Chris Grace:

Yep. To me, you are now in dangerous territory because you are probably unable to accurately understand and evaluate and see any other red flags. You're just going to miss them.

Tim Muehlhoff:

So, Chris, not only do I agree with that, let me tell you what we do with a couple who's in that situation, and again, we never attach shame to it. We never say you're lesser as a couple. I mean these are very common struggles in the most sexualized age in the history of humanity. Here's what we say to them, "If you're sexually active, you need to go three months with no physical contact. No physical contact." Now they look at us like, "What? We can't hold hands?" No. For three months, we advocate, now listen, I didn't say you can't date each other. I didn't say you couldn't compliment each other. I didn't say you couldn't get each other gifts and stuff like that, but right now, you're so clouded because you're physically active, you need one month just to get a little bit unclouded. Two months to start asking some hard questions and three months to say, I think I can really evaluate this relationship with the sexual part taken out of it. That may sound crazy to our listeners, but listen, you're making a decision that's going to last sixty, seventy years of your life. Being clouded physically, you need to make really good decisions at this point, and I'm afraid that the physical is just clouding your perspective and we've got to get you unclouded.

Chris Grace:

Okay, so that's one that we both agree on. How about the lack of spiritual compatibility. That one person is maybe in a different place. How important is that or any other that you because ... here's one of the things that I worry about. There are sometimes there are couples that are beginning to date where one is clearly called, or God has been speaking to them and they have a heart and a passion in an area that they know this is what they want to do. This is how they're going to seek God. The other person maybe just isn't there. The other person is just struggling a little bit in this area. That can be, but is that one of the biggest red flags or are there others for you?

Tim Muehlhoff:

No, I think it's a red flag Chris, and here's how I would describe it. I don't care if one person knows the Bible better than the other person because that happens.

Chris Grace:

Right.

Tim Muehlhoff:

But they both have equal passion for God. They both want to get to know God. They can be at different levels, but that passion is there. Here's what I always say to our engaged couples, pre-marital couples, "I don't care what that person says. What they say is completely irrelevant, because if you were to ask a Christian guy, do you think the Bible's important?"

Chris Grace:

They're going to answer it. It is.

Tim Muehlhoff:

He's going to say, "It's the Word of God, and of course," "Do you think church is important?" "Oh yes, the gathering of the saints," you know what I mean? What do you want this guy to say? You're getting front stage. So, I say the passion needs to be the same and watch what they do.

Chris Grace:

Watch what they do.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah, watch what they do. DO they go to church even when you can't? Do they talk about the Bible? That kind of stuff, Chris, I think is ... that's being unequally yoked together. That passion is going to just drive you crazy if you're not wanting to pursue it at the same kind of level.

Chris Grace:

Any other red flags that you'd say, this is one that I worry about a lot, or we see a lot, or it's growing a little bit more? Anything else stand out as far as that?

Tim Muehlhoff:

Well, something really practical. What is your philosophy of debt?

Chris Grace:

Financially.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah, you could have a person who says, "I don't think that's a big deal. I don't mind that my credit card is in debt, and I have to pay the overcharges." Again, what we're talking about is core compatibility on the big issues. Finances is a pretty big issue. I would want those people on the same page about spending, savings, a spender and a saver marrying each other is going to be rough. It's not impossible, it's just going to be rough if those two individuals ... I think another one would be the same general vision for the future. Like Noreen greatly valued higher education. When we got engaged, I said, "Hey, by the way, I see a PhD in the future which is a lot of sacrifice." Noreen, imagine if she didn't care about higher education. She said, "Why do you need to get more education? You've got a ... you graduated from high school. What do you need more for?" Generally, the same kind of vision, and it's okay if you're in your early 20s and you don't know exactly what that is, but generally speaking where do you see yourself five, ten, fifteen years down the road?

Chris Grace:

Yeah. In this concept and what we've been talking about then, are different ways and different things we need to pay attention to and where somebody can date well and how they do it. Just as the general questions, Tim. Tell me about, what do you feel, what are you seeing in this culture today about dating? What's going on there? What's happening and what are the pressures that we didn't face, back then that they're facing today?

Tim Muehlhoff:

Well, you and I both are just greatly concerned about what they call the hookup culture.

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

That technology has just made it so easy to connect and with complete strangers. I think the sexual revolution of the 1960s has gasoline poured on it by today's technology and that's everything from pornography and ... by the way, that should have been one I should have mentioned with the red flags. If a person is consistently looking at pornography he, or she, we're seeing great rises in females being addicted to pornography. They always say to me, "Well, how much is too much?" I would say if you're looking at pornography once a week, I don't think you're ready to get married. I think that's a big [prompt 00:24:00]. That's a big red flag for me.

 

Here's what I see, Chris, is, I see culture still experiencing the sexual revolution of the 1960s, I see Christian culture over-spiritualizing dating. Like we teach at Biola University, many Christian universities that we travel to, they'll say, there's no dating at these Christian universities, that you have to know ahead of time. So, "I have to pray about it and be convinced that God wants me to get to know you better before I actually ask you out on a first date." I want to say, "What? How did you know that? Tea leaves? I mean, how did you know this person?"

Chris Grace:

Yep. Yeah, yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

So, there's no good, healthy, casual dating in Christian circles. I'm afraid that we've hyper-spiritualized it on the Christian end of things.

Chris Grace:

Yeah. Well, just that last thought and this idea, Tim, as we're talking a highly sexualized culture, and this notion of hooking up, and the pain that that can cause because it is a false sense of intimacy, right, we begin to believe the more physical we are, the more we believe we're compatible and intimate. But, it really is a false intimacy and I believe that is a struggle for this culture today, that I've seen is that too many people are just figuring out, "This is the way I can relate to people. This is the way I can be attracted to other people, and this is how I can attract people to me," and it just causes so many significant concerns. I want to talk about that. You know Tim, this won't be the last time we're going to talk about this topic because it is a central driver. It is an important thing in our culture, and people are asking questions about this all the time, not just young, not just in college, people that are dating and single again have some issues.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah. Yeah.

Chris Grace:

Let's keep talking about this because it has, I think, a lot of listeners out there intrigued and wanting to know some information and so, let's do that again. We'll cover some topics like this soon.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Sounds great.

Chris Grace:

For the Art of Relationships, I'm Chris Grace.

Tim Muehlhoff:

And, I'm Tim Muehlhoff.

Chris Grace:

Thanks for joining us.


The Art of Relationships Podcast

The Art of Relationships podcast, hosted by Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff, is centered on helping you build healthy relationships and marriages. In this podcast, Chris (director of Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and professor of psychology at Biola University) and Tim (professor of communication at Biola University and author of I Beg to Differ), weigh in on how to navigate the complexities of relationships in our culture with biblical wisdom and scholarly research. Listen to get practical insights on relationships, dating and marriage that can be applied to all relationships  — family, friends, co-workers and others.

 

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