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What Should Dating Look Like?

Dr. Chris and Alisa Grace pose for the cover of The Art of Relationships Podcast.


Mandy Catto: Welcome to another Art of Relationships podcast. First dates, love notes, romance, there are so many different approaches to how it should be done. Christians are often told to avoid the hookup culture that is so common today, but beyond that, what should they do? What should they pay attention to? What does healthy dating look like?

Today we talk through these questions with Debra Fileta, speaker and author of True Love Dates, and Choosing Marriage. Let's listen to her advice for young couples.

Chris Grace: Well, welcome to another Art of Relationships podcast. Tim, we get an opportunity sometimes to talk to some great guests, and in fact we've had a guest on the program before, Debra Fileta, author of True Love Dates, author of Choosing Marriage and it went so well. We've always enjoyed her perspective that we invited her back.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, we loved having her and so glad that she carved out some time. She lives in Pennsylvania, so that's like crazy cold. So, she's probably been housebound forever. But, Debra, we're so glad you're with us.

Debra Fileta: Yes, it's always good to be with you guys.

Chris Grace: Debra, are you spending a lot of time now, I know your youngest is three and how's family doing for you?

Debra Fileta: Yeah, everyone's doing really well. We're a homeschooling family, so that kinda keeps life crazy and busy and full, but it's been a fun season.

Chris Grace: You were briefly mentioning a story of your youngest, Ezra, who's three. Tell us what you just discovered about him?

Debra Fileta: Yeah, this is the non-typical homeschool life, but the other day you know, my three year old is really into music and instruments and drums and guitar and he just loves all this musical stuff. So, we were trying to expose him to different kinds of music recently, and we were trying different things to see what he would like and what he wouldn't like. His number one pick was Van Halen. Interesting. It'll be interesting to see where that takes him.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh my goodness, as a three year old, could you imagine having ... [crosstalk].

Debra Fileta: Whenever we turned it off, he would just cry. Like, he was like [crosstalk].

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh. We didn't let our kids listen to non Christian music.

Debra Fileta: Yep. Figures.

Tim Muehlhoff: Don't you always have a friend who's like that? There's always one friend who says "Yeah, we give our money to missions" and it's like "Oh, okay. Well, thank you."

Chris Grace: Van Halen. I love it man. That's a great song, or group I guess. Hey, Debra, thanks for joining us. Tim and I have been talking a lot here on our campus over the last couple of weeks and months. We have a class that we teach together.

Debra Fileta: Yeah.

Chris Grace: On this podcast, one of the cool things that we get to do is bring in guests like you. You have written a lot of cool and awesome material. Just last night we were talking in a dorm and we recommended True Love Dates. Can I just ask you about that book? We've talked to you with it in the past, but it's really been an impactful book out there. What are you most encouraged by about that book and maybe give you know, the audience just a quick summary of why you wrote it and then the impact you're seeing it's making out there.

Debra Fileta: Yeah. Well, first of all, let me just say that I love your class. I had the privilege of attending and sharing in your class and you guys are seriously the best professors ever.

Chris Grace: Yes.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, thank you.

Debra Fileta: Fun course. It's a really fun course. But, you know, I wrote True Love Dates and as you can tell, it's kind of a play on words with the True Love Waits because that was kind of the message that Christians were getting, the don't, don't, don't, don't, don't. Don't do this. Don't do that. Dating is bad. Don't have sex before marriage. Don't, don't, don't, don't, don't.

Then, the world was giving you all the dos. You know, oh yeah, just sleep around and date around and enjoy the hookup culture and don't worry about commitment so you've got these drastic don'ts on one side and then these extreme dos on the other side and as a Christian, you know, it's like, "I don't fit into either side. How do I navigate the world of dating without these extremes?" Like, without the extreme of courtship and having chaperones and not going out with someone unless you know they're the one but then avoiding the extremes that the world was giving us and so True Love Dates was kind of birthed out of a desire to find a middle ground, to find a balanced approach, a practical approach when it came to dating and relationships.

Honestly, I would say that it really, it was birthed out of my own experiences of not having that practical approach taught to me when I was a college student, when I was a young adult. When I was in youth group and just needing some guidance and wanting to help people navigate this world themselves.

Chris Grace: You know, Debra, last night as we were talking, we recommended the book and what I did, and as I read one of your, on the back you had someone write in, an author named Joshua Harris and he wrote a book called, right, Kissing Dating...

Tim Muehlhoff: Kissed Dating Goodbye.

Debra Fileta: I Kissed Dating Goodbye, yep.

Chris Grace: Tell us what he wrote on the back of your book. I love it because he actually recommended your book and he said, the highest recommendation I can give is what?

Debra Fileta: He gave it to his daughter. So that was exciting because you know, in the world that I grew up in, I attended Joshua Harris' seminars when I was a high school student. I remember sitting there listening to him at a festival sharing the message that Christians should kiss dating goodbye, and I'll be honest, it never fully resonated with me, but I was intrigued. I was intrigued by the message and what could this mean and is dating really that bad and how does this apply to my life?

You know, a complete 380 is here we are with Joshua Harris, just a few months ago I was asked to be a part of his documentary where he was rethinking his views on I Kissed Dating Goodbye and basically, this documentary was just watching him think through and interview people and his conclusion was you know what, dating is not the enemy and this book was not a healthy message and he actually ended up taking it off the market. But the exciting thing was then he pointed people to True Love Dates as a resource, so that was a really exciting turn of events, especially for the conservative Christian culture.

Chris Grace: Man, that's really cool, Debra, that you have that kind of impact and this book is doing so well out there. What are you hearing as kind of a common question that's still out there? Dating has changed, concepts about it change and there's some cyclical natures to it, but are you getting the same kinds of questions and concerns? I know you have a call-in program, you have a podcast and you speak a lot to single people on this topic.

Are there things that seem to keep coming up though that consistently are out there about dating or singleness?

Debra Fileta: Well, again, one thing that I find and kinda going back to what I was saying earlier is that people are really stuck in the extremes. A lot of people are coming from really conservative Christian culture and they just a biblical approach to dating. You know, I just want to know exactly what the bible says about how I should date. But then, then there's the other extreme where Christians are kind of getting up in the cultural view of dating and the hookup culture and sleeping around having multiple partners.

You know, I'm kind of getting the aftermath of the negatives of both of these worlds and kind of having to sort through how to help people find a middle ground, how to help them understand that healthy relationships start when we get healthy and what it looks like to take inventory of our own personal health because we attract people on our level of health. I mean, that's the bottom line and that's the message really behind True Love Dates and so kind of helping people back up a little before they ask all these relationship questions, 'cause you know there's so many, but really like getting to the root of it and helping them recognize "How healthy are you first before you dive into these relationships ?" because that's going to impact your relationships in a big way.

Tim Muehlhoff: Debra, we just did a podcast on the Oscars. We asked the questions, what did the Oscars get right and what did they get wrong about relationships if we just looked at the eight movies that were nominated and what you just said really resonated. So, take a look at A Star is Born, you get Bradley Cooper who's an alcoholic and you get Lady Gaga's character who falls for him because she's unhealthy. She wants to escape desperately her situation, so you get Freddy Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody who has an un-satiable desire for connection and he's hanging out with people who have the exact same un-satiable desire for connection, so what a great point to get as healthy as you possibly can before you start this dating relationship. I think that's a really good point.

Debra Fileta: Yeah, it's amazing the type of relationships that we attract based on our disfunction, based on our family of origin issues.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh yeah.

Debra Fileta: Based on insecurities. I mean we attract the type of relationships that we believe we deserve and so our identity, our understanding of who we are and what's good for us, I mean so much work has to be done before we start dating and I think as we do that, as we engage in that process of becoming healthy, it changes everything you know. It changes everything about the kind of people we're attracted to and the type of people we allow into our lives.

Tim Muehlhoff: I thought it was interesting what you said, elaborate on this a little bit. I'm uncomfortable when we ask the bible to do something it's just not prepared to do. For example, when you said a biblical view of dating, I was thinking okay, I think that'd be, like what's that? Am I missing something in the New Testament?

Debra Fileta: I know. Seriously.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's where, you know even things like a biblical view of masculinity, femininity, sometimes I'm a little bit leery that we're asking it to be so specific in areas that it just doesn't seem like it does that so we have to draw general principals and that's what your book is so good about doing is general principals via God's general revelations even.

Debra Fileta: Right.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, so let's not ask the bible to give us a blueprint for our modern of dating when that just was not a New Testament concept at all.

Debra Fileta: You know what's funny, when we do look at the biblical approach to dating, like you know, there's usually a herd of cows involved, a herd of donkeys, there's a dowry.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yep. Yep.

Debra Fileta: I mean, it's not what we want anyway, arranged marriages, like that's not actually what we want.

Tim Muehlhoff: Right.

Debra Fileta: We know that. We see the cultural implications of that that you know, even today in the middle east, like dating is not a thing and it's finally brought, slowly becoming more of the norm, but even today, like, it's just, like you said, we're asking the bible to give us way more than it can when it comes to these type of details. But, but with that in mind, I mean, God's word is so rich and so timeless when it comes to the principles and the concepts of a healthy relationship and honestly, my favorite verse, when people ask me to give a verse about dating, I love in 1st Corinthians where it says encourage and edify one another, you know?

If we could just view dating within that framework, encourage and edify one another, and of course you know, in the biblical passage it's not talking about dating, but really, in how we engage with other Christians and if we could see dating through that lens, of encouraging and edifying one another and glorifying God in everything that we do then I think it would help us kind of approach it with different eyes, with different perspective.

Chris Grace: Debra, that's really a good word and it's a great verse. I love the way you're tying the connections to it. You talk a little bit about dating upward and inward and outward, right and part of that is then learning this outward, the way we treat other people, but what do those mean when you talk about them briefly to date in those ways?

Debra Fileta: Yeah. Well, I start True Love Dates with, there's three sections that True Love Dates is broken up into and the first section is Dating Inward and you know, Tim, like you mentioned there's always that friend who's going to say well why didn't you start with God? Why didn't you start with Dating Upward?

Tim Muehlhoff: Yep.

Debra Fileta: But, I started with dating inward, which is getting to know yourself and understanding who you are and how you're made, understanding your past, understanding your struggles, understanding your identity, understanding your future because I really believe if we don't know ourselves, we don't really understand our need for God, you know? Until we really grasp who we are with our issues and our deficits and our flaws and our needs, it opens our eyes then to, man, we are truly in need of God and I also started there because I feel like there's a lot of people who are going to open True Love Dates who may not be Christian.

Tim Muehlhoff: Mm.

Debra Fileta: I want to start at a place that they can connect with and kind of take them to the next step. So, dating inward is all about getting to know yourself and getting to know your baggage. Dating Outward is the next section and that's all about healthy, interpersonal relationships, how to set boundaries, why you attract certain kind of people, what are the red flags, the yellow flags, the green flags to look for in a relationship. How can you set physical, emotional, spiritual boundaries and all that stuff that has to do with you know, outward relationships and then lastly, the last section is called Dating Upward, and really that's all about our relationship with God as individuals and as a couple and how that impacts a dating relationship, why it matters and what does it practically mean to include God in a relationship because it's not just you know, popping a devotion open and reading it together every morning.

There's a lot more to having a Christ-centered relationship and so, that's kind of the big picture themes within True Love Dates.

Tim Muehlhoff: We have a few minutes. I want you to fix Biola in the next five to 10 minutes.

Debra Fileta: Oh, okay.

Tim Muehlhoff: We are concerned that there, very little dating happens here at Biola.

Debra Fileta: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: From multitude, which is, think about that Debra, it's such a shame that we're missing such an ability to both get to know ourselves, the inward part by Dating Outward, by just getting to know people and how do you set boundaries. But, at Biola University, it doesn't happen for a multitude of reasons.

One, we are kind of a smaller university. We're about 6,000 undergrad.

Debra Fileta: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: What I like about a smaller school is you actually do run into people on campus and you get to say hi to people, but also, that means if they see two people together for any amount of time.

Debra Fileta: Word gets around.

Tim Muehlhoff: Right. Right. So, so what in the world do we do to get people to relax a little bit to just say hey, if you want dating to happen on Biola's campus, which a lot of people say they do, we're going to have to allow people space to get to know each other and not overreact. But, how do you change a culture when it comes to dating that's so conservative and there's still a lot of Joshua Harris around and the fact that I need to be sure that God is leading me toward you to even ask you on a casual date, so what do we do?

Debra Fileta: Yeah. You know, I honestly think part of the problem is, let's even back up a step from dating. We're not even comfortable having healthy, normal, interpersonal relationships with people of the opposite sex.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, that's good.

Debra Fileta: We're just not and I think again, bringing in that verse encourage and edify one another, we don't know how to do that fully within the church because we're so scared of the opposite sex and I think part of it is we live in such a sexualized culture and such a sexualized world, it sort of sexualizes everything and as Christians we get so scared to even approach that type of a culture that we just stay from it all together instead of trying to see how we can redeem it. How can I have a normal, healthy, God-honoring interaction with someone of the opposite sex?

I think it's really gotta start with us in Christian college, in churches, in ministries, just helping people realize that it's okay to interact with someone of the opposite sex and there's nothing ungodly about it and really, we don't have to sexualize everything to that point. Like, we've got to be able to see men and women as our brothers and sisters in Christ and get comfortable on that level before we can even approach the next level, which is you know, taking it a little bit further and getting to know somebody with which you have some sort of romantic interest. But, I'm telling you, I'm hoping that these conversations and...

Chris Grace: Yes.

Debra Fileta: Conversations that you guys are having with your students, the conversations I'm having on the blog and the podcast are slowly changing culture, because words are powerful and as we speak, we change culture. We create culture. We transform culture, so another reason why we have to be very careful with our words and the things we put out there, but I believe that even having these kinds of conversations are helping us to change culture.

Tim Muehlhoff: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, I hope so.

Chris Grace: Well, when you look at relationships that have impacted you the most, we point back to family. A lot of people report back that you know, their views have been set and influenced by a lot of different things, but one is that if they're not used to dating or they don't come from that maybe culture or they just, it's been for some an extremely intimidating process.

If someone is out there listening and they're just not confident in this, they've never really dated before, they want to. How could you help or what advice would you give them to help them feel more confident, especially if they're saying, "I just don't know what I'm doing or how to go about doing this?"

Debra Fileta: Yeah. Well, you know, I wish we would approach dating kind of like we did other aspects of life, whether it be a sport of a job or something that you're training for that's new. I wish we could kind of approach relationships in that perspective of in order to do well, in order to be good at relationships, we need to get proper training.

In fact, you know, the most recent book I wrote called Choosing Marriage, that's kind of one of the premise, is that we train for everything else in Christian culture. Like, when my husband got his medical degree, he had over 20,000 hours of training and even for something as basic as a driver's license you have at least 100 hours of training. But, with relationships, with marriage, we don't really get training.

I mean, you go walk into the courthouse, they give you your license and you haven't trained for a minute, you know? There's no requirements. So I wish that when it came to dating and relationships, we kind of took the approach of you know what, "I'm not good at this because I don't have a reason to be good at this. I've never done it. I don't know anything about it. Why would I be good at this" and sort of normalize it as "Yeah, you probably aren't good at this and here's what you need to do..."

You need to train, you know. You need to take courses and seminars and read books. I mean, books are so powerful. Like you know, to get any degree you've got to read so many different books and I think we should kind of tackle relationships in that way where we're downloading as much information as we can and then number two, after you've downloaded all this information, you got to get on the job training. You've got to go out there and practice interacting with people and practice those opposite-sex friendships and conversations and with the expectation that you aren't good at it because you haven't used that muscle and it's just got to be practiced and strengthened, you know?

Really taking the pressure off and helping people to realize you know, it's okay if you're not good at this. But the worst part is to use that fear and that insecurity and just allow it to isolate you, you know? Which is what a lot of people end up doing.

Tim Muehlhoff: See Debra, I love that because that metaphor, talk about using language in a way that is powerful. That metaphor that this is a training ground would be great at Biola University. We did a survey with the alumni association and I forget what it was, it was like eight percent meet their spouse at Biola University. Just eight percent.

Debra Fileta: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: If we had that attitude of like, your most likely not going to meet your future spouse at Biola, but here's a great place to train and get [crosstalk].

Debra Fileta: Totally.

Tim Muehlhoff: Get good at interpersonal skills and even what you like and don't like and we're also a big fan of people reading. So, in this class that we teach together with another couple, we have them read sections of your book True Love Dates, we have them read Gary Thomas' book on Sacred Marriage, what's the theology of marriage and some Gottman books and stuff like that.

Debra Fileta: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: You're preaching to the choir here and I love that metaphor of let's make this a place where we can safely experiment and become proficient at dating knowing you're most likely not going to meet your spouse here. I love that attitude.

Debra Fileta: Yeah, and I love that you guys are doing that. I was just at a Christian college a few weeks ago actually where I've been doing a lot of work with their students and one thing that came out in one of the meetings we had is like we want to make this college a place where if people leave here ill-prepared, it's their fault. Not the college at all because we have offered them every possible opportunity to train and to practice and to learn and to grow in this environment, and again, you know when you look at it from an educational perspective, like this is one of the top priorities when it comes to the things we're learning and the things we're downloading and the information we're taking in so I just love what you guys are doing at Biola with relationships.

Chris Grace: Yeah, thanks Debra. If you have any good articles about how to do a podcast well that Tim can read as a cohost, he needs to do some training. I just, I've been working with him, but it's going better. He's learning on the job.

Debra Fileta: He just needs more hours.

Chris Grace: You just need hours. You got to practice [inaudible].

Tim Muehlhoff: Pray for me, Debra. Pray for me, would you just.

Debra Fileta: I will. I will.

Tim Muehlhoff: Thank you so much.

Chris Grace: Debra, when it comes to dating, some of the bigger obstacles we face out there, or one of them that seems to be creeping up a little bit more with younger people, college students in general is the impact of mental health issues, so depression and anxiety. Tell me how that impacts maybe dating today. Does it seem to have in your world out there, are you concerned with that or what advice would you give when someone says, like someone was in my office the other day saying I'm dating somebody, he really struggles with anxiety and panic attacks and I don't know how to help him. What advice would you give for that?

Debra Fileta: You know, that's when we really have to learn how to date inward before we date outward and I think the problem is not the anxiety or the depression. That's the common stuff. You know, that's the stuff that we're going to deal with and it's just as common as getting a virus or having diabetes or dealing with some sort of an illness in another area of your life. So that's not the issue. It's the unaddressed anxiety and depression. It's like someone who's got diabetes but they're not dealing with it, they're ignoring it. They're not getting medical attention. They're not in counseling. They're not working on themselves from the inside out and so that's when it starts to impact relationships because there's plenty of wonderful people who are in amazing relationships and anxiety, depression, and other issues are a part of that because that's just a part of life.

Then, learning okay, I have this problem, I have this illness, I have this struggle, how do I deal with this in my own life? Do I have it under control because when it's not under control, when it's unaddressed, when it's not managed, that's when it has the potential to wreak havoc on relationships and so I think it's important to make sure when you're dating somebody that you don't become the medication, the therapy.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh that's good.

Debra Fileta: You know, that they're the ones that realize this is their issue that they have to take responsibility and to me, if you're dating someone who is dealing with those things that they're not getting help with and they're not addressing and they're acknowledging, that is a red flag, but it's not the actual anxiety and depression in and of itself.

Tim Muehlhoff: Do you, let me ask this question. You sort of kind of just answered it though, I thought that was really good in handling depression. So, we had a gentleman come into our class who is wrapping up his Ph.D., but his Ph.D. is on Christian usage of pornography.

Debra Fileta: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: Particularly men and what he said was fascinating Debra, he said, so if you were to do a scale, non-Christian guys using porn let's say from zero to 10, they're at like an eight and don't feel a ton of remorse. Christian men would be at like a two compared to usage of non-Christian men, but they would feel four times the amount of shame and guilt based on their limited usage of porn. I thought that was an interesting way that Satan may be getting involved to heap shame on Christian men, but what would you say.

Debra Fileta: Yeah, that is interesting.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, isn't that, I thought that was really well done on his part.

Debra Fileta: I see where you're going with this, Tim.

Tim Muehlhoff: What do you, what would you say to a couple that this is an issue, that one of the individuals is struggling with porn? What kind of guidelines do you give and I like what you just said about depression, but what would make you uncomfortable with a person with this issue that you look at the couple and say maybe it's time for you guys to take a little break from this?

Debra Fileta: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: What are some guidelines?

Debra Fileta: You know, this is a topic that comes up a lot. One of the questions that I see on a regular basis has to do with pornography, lust, masturbation.

Tim Muehlhoff: Mm-hmm.

Debra Fileta: What to do about it and how to navigate it and I think with this day and age with technology I mean, you have porn in your back pocket you know everywhere you go because of your phone and just the access today is unbelievable. But again, how I see it is even just like we were talking about mental health issues, it's not the presence of the struggle that's the problem, but it's how that struggle is managed because struggle can turn into stronghold.

Tim Muehlhoff: Mm-hmm.

Debra Fileta: A big difference between the constant battling of something and achieving victory in your life more times than not and then the point in your life where you're achieving loss more times than not. You're not achieving victory. You're drowning and I look at mental illness the same way. You know, if somebody is struggling to feel sadness and hopelessness and anxiety more days than not, then they need to do something about it.

You know, that's kind of how we calculate it in the counseling world, right? More days than not. Like, let's take a look at this and let's take a look at your life and the victory that you're having in this area, not the struggle itself because we've all got struggles and it is a constant struggle, but what are you doing with that struggle? Are you allowing yourself to get help? Are you acknowledging it? Are you setting up things in your life to show that you're serious about dealing with this struggle or is this struggle just going to become a stronghold, become a part of your life and your identity and your relationship and that's really what I tell couples is, "Do you see that the person that you're dating is working toward dealing with this issue in their life?"

That is the key and there's so many ways that you can have practical evidence that someone is dealing with the issue of pornography and addiction and lust and there's levels of this, you know? Like obviously we're talking about porn, but there's levels and you can be just as guilty of lust without looking at porn. Like there's so many levels to this and ways that we just need to make sure our hearts are in the right place and our individual health is in the right place.

Chris Grace: Debra, it's really good advice and helpful and thoughtful. We love that idea. We want to evaluate and we talk to our students a lot about, is their heart open to God, is their heart closed and that's a key indicator that someone's who is trying to work and the idea I love the mental image of when a foothold can become a stronghold. Footholds are no problem so long as you fight them, battle them, and you work towards that.

Debra Fileta: Right.

Chris Grace: It's a great way. It's a great picture and what a great way to end our time together with you is just encouragement that way for those that may be dealing with an area like this to realize that they can find victory and hope in something like this because it's not necessarily the struggle, it's this ability that you have to keep your heart open to God and to keep working on it.

Debra, it's been really good to visit with you.

Tim Muehlhoff: Thank you, Debra.

Debra Fileta: Yes. Thank you so much.

Chris Grace: Here's what we're going to do. We're going to end our time now and just Debra thank you for joining us and we would like to have you back very quickly on another thing because you're writing on marriage and we want to hear some of your other writing as well and some thoughts on that. So, thanks for joining us today.

Debra Fileta: Yes, thank you so much.

Mandy Catto: Thanks for listening to The Art of Relationships. This podcast is only made possible through generous donations from listeners just like you. If you like it and want to help keep the podcast going, visit our website at and make a donation today.