How Should I Approach Dating?

If you’re asking this question, you’re already on the right track because it means you’re putting thought into what you’re doing instead of just blundering ahead blind and hoping all will work out in the end. The more you think in life, the more you’ll mature. The more you mature, the greater your capacity for joy will become.

Now when you start asking around for advice on male-female relationships, it doesn’t take long to discover that a lot of people are very jaded about the other sex. Here’s a good psych principle to bear in mind: where there is hate, there is unprocessed pain. What this means is that a woman who speaks hatefully about men has probably been deeply hurt by men at some point in her life and she has yet to deal with those wounds in a healthy way. Or it could be that she feels intensely jealous of men and personally shafted by being female. Many women feel like it’s a terrible rip off to be born in a female body, and humans naturally hate those who they envy.

The same is true for men: a man who can only see the negative in women has a subconscious that has linked many negative concepts to the issue of gender. While humans always have valid, logical reasons for feeling the way that they do, you’re not going to get good dating advice from traumatized people who are obsessed with the issue of gender. You won’t get good advice from people who haven’t recovered from their own disastrous relationships, either. So you see, not all advice is worth listening to.

If your goal is to climb a mountain, you’ll get the best help talking to someone who really likes both mountains and the activity of climbing. You’ll do best of all talking to someone who has personally climbed mountains and had his share of problems doing it. Such a person will be in a much better place to give you some good pointers on how to prepare and what to expect. Most importantly, they’ll be cheering you on about the whole thing, not raining on your parade.

I genuinely like people. I’m very pro-human, and I see equal value in both males and females. Both genders have impressive abilities, both have difficult challenges that they have to contend with, and when they come together in relationships, it’s very true that something uniquely special can be born out of that union. While I understand homosexuality and have immense compassion for gays, same sex relationships are a different thing than the pairing of male and female. You could easily argue that it’s more challenging to blend male and female than it is to combine two partners of the same gender, because same gender partners will naturally identify with each other to greater degrees. But there is a very common theme in this world that the things which cost the most to attain have the greatest payoff. So I’m all for males and females pairing up and working together as a team to forge a healthy, functional, intimate relationship. That said, I’ll now explain some key principles that are very helpful for you to understand as you venture into the world of dating.

What’s Special About Dating

Human relationships can be sorted into different types depending on how much access (physical, emotional, psychological, etc.) that the partners allow each other to have. Intimate relationships allow for the greatest level of access. To keep all of your relationships well balanced, you should only ever have one intimate partner at a time, and that should be the only partner who you engage in sexual activities with. Because sex is a form of maximum physical access, it is only appropriate in intimate relationships. Let’s do a quick comparison of the different types of human relationships:

Most relationships begin in the Unknown, Professional, & Casual categories. From there, they might slide down into the Unsafe category, or they might begin to slide up the scale towards the rarer Safe and Intimate categories.

From here on I’m going to give advice that applies to people who are looking for a serious commitment, such as marriage. I’m not talking about casual sexual flings (which are always a bad idea because full access to your body should never be given to someone who is not an Intimate partner).

What’s so special about dating is that both partners acknowledge up front that they are in the market for an intimate relationship. In other words, the two of you are shooting for the highest star; the top tier of human relationships. It’s a worthy goal, but what is worth the most also costs the most resources, so making wise moves in this area does call for some sober thinking up front and a reshuffling of your priorities.

Know Yourself

The better you know yourself, the better you’ll do at picking a good intimate partner. All humans have fears, insecurities, passions and strong preferences. Humans also come in a variety of personalities and temperaments, some of which blend together much easier than others. When choosing an intimate partner, the goal is to set up a bond that will be mutually beneficial. By that I mean you want a pairing in which both partners help each other thrive.

You and your partner will have minor and major differences. You will also have different needs and different strengths. A good pairing is one in which the differences complement more than they clash. Don’t try to find a friction free relationship–it doesn’t exist. In any healthy relationship, fights will happen, and sometimes those fights will get ugly. But the right partner will work with you to resolve things instead of working against you by shutting down or refusing to own their part in the problem. With the right partner, those inevitable conflicts will actually strengthen your bond instead of weakening it.

So then, how well do you know yourself? See how well you can answer the following questions about yourself:

  • Do you recharge by being social or by having alone time?
  • Do you find it satisfying to remain in a limited, familiar geographic area or do you long to travel?
  • What are your greatest passions in life? What are you really into?
  • What are your most important goals? Are there certain things you really want to accomplish or experience before you die?
  • How do you feel about kids? Do you really want them? If so, how many? Do you really not want them? If so, why don’t you?
  • What are your most shameful/embarrassing secrets? What do you think is stopping you from making peace with those issues?
  • What are your greatest fears? What strategies do you use to avoid having to deal with what you’re afraid of?
  • How do you behave when you feel very threatened or afraid?
  • How important is touch to you? How much touch do you think you would want in a marriage? If you feel threatened by touch and try to avoid it, do you understand why you feel that way and are you willing to work on overcoming your fears to allow for a healthy degree of physical contact in your marriage?
  • What kinds of things embarrass you? How difficult would you find it to tell your partner about these things?
  • How hard is it for you to calm down after you become very angry? What strategies do you use to help yourself calm down? What happens if you are blocked from using those strategies?
  • How hard is it for you to forgive and move on when someone says or does something very hurtful to you? How willing are you to accept apologies and sympathize with someone else’s motivations for treating you in a negative way?
  • How comfortable are you with conflict? What is your arguing style? Do you get loud? Are you violent? Do you use cutting words, clam up or storm out? These kinds of behaviors quickly form walls in intimate relationships. How willing are you to try to improve your conflict style?
  • What kinds of stereotypes do you have about the opposite sex right now? Are you open to the possibility that your partner might not fit those expectations? Are you willing to acknowledge that there are exceptions to every rule?
  • Respect is vital in a marriage. What kinds of behaviors do you find very difficult to respect?
  • Money is a common source of fights in marriages. How do you think money should be managed? Do you have strong opinions about who should work? Would you be comfortable with your spouse expecting you to work? Would you be comfortable with not working? Would you be comfortable if you both worked?
  • Every human has unpleasant traits–things which generally irritate other people when they are expressed. What are your annoying traits?
  • What is your apology style? Are you able to admit when you are in the wrong without plunging into guilt or getting defensive or groveling for days on end?
  • What are your spiritual views? Do you believe in God? If so, how important is God’s opinion to you? Is God a well-defined personality to you or a general concept? How do you attempt to develop your relationship with God?

The questions I just listed are very important and should be discussed during the dating phase. It would be unwise of you to commit to someone until you both know yourselves well enough to give detailed answers to these questions.

Suppose you’ve never attempted to chisel marble sculptures or any other kind of sculpture. Yet before you do any kind of experimenting to see if you even like that form of art, you go out and spend thousands of dollars on marble chiseling equipment. Is it wise of you to make such a big investment before you even know if you’ll enjoy the craft? Until you know yourself, you won’t be able to recognize whether or not someone is a good match for you.

Every human is a mixed bag. When you marry someone, you commit to accepting and working with the whole messy package that is the other person. Working with someone is entirely different than trying to fix them and that brings us to our next important principle.

Working With What Is

Who you marry is who you need to be able to work with. Don’t make the common mistake of thinking that your spouse will radically change some of their core traits in a matter of months, because that’s not going to happen. If you can’t deal with who they are today, then you shouldn’t marry them in the hopes that they’ll magically morph into who you wish they would be.

Now the wise goal to pursue in life is to continuously grow and mature, and that means you will be continuously changing. Who you are today is not who you’ll be ten years from now. If you’re pursuing the right priorities, you will be a better version of yourself in the future. I don’t mean you’ll have magically morphed into a perpetual ray of sunshine. I mean you’ll be more compassionate, more reasonable, more honest about your own shortcomings, more gracious, and better at boundaries. If your partner is growing, they will also be changing, and that means the person you marry isn’t going to be the same person you’re dealing with five years into the marriage. Your five year spouse could be quite different than the person you married, and it’s very easy to panic about this, especially if you’ve seen this sort of thing happen in other marriages and lead to disaster. And yet change is inevitable–humans are not designed to be stagnant beings. We are always changing, either for better or for worse, and over time those changes become more and more noticeable.

So if you and your partner are going to change on each other, how do you choose wisely? The key here is to try to get someone who is a close match to you in their core values.

Matching Core Values

If your spouse changes their mind about what foods they like or how they like to decorate the house or what kinds of movies they like to watch, those things are pretty easy to roll with. But if your spouse decides to go from ignoring God to pursuing God, or from not wanting kids to desperately wanting kids, those kinds of changes can put some pretty intense strain on the marriage. There is no way to guarantee that you or your spouse won’t change their core values, but there are things you can do that can minimize the chances of those changes happening.

For starters, you need to know what your own core values are. I know I’ve already talked about the know yourself issue, but it is so important. During your teens and twenties, you undergo a massive shift in self-perception as you start letting go of who you were as a child and figure out who you are going to be as an adult. It takes many years to complete this transition. Those who are naturally more serious and introspective move through this transition faster than those who try to avoid self-reflection. Hormones also rile up in the teens and twenties, which causes an intense desire to start pairing up before you have had a chance to complete your transition into adulthood. Getting married before you and your partner have both individually finished your transitions increases your chances of the marriage tanking. This is because you need to complete the transition before you can have a clear understanding of your core values, and until you understand your own core values and are able to explain them to your partner, the two of you won’t be able to tell if you’re a good match or not.

Core values feel like very strong preferences and defining traits. Perhaps you’re dating a man who says he wants to be a doctor. If you’re smart, you’ll ask him why. “Why?” is one of the most important questions that you need to be asking when dating, and you pretty much need to ask it with the same frequency that a two-year-old uses the word “no.” Asking why prompts your date to give longer, more detailed explanations of why they feel or think a certain way. It is by asking why that you learn how self-aware your partner is and what really matters to them.

Now then, your date says he wants to be a doctor. You ask him why that career interests him. He might say “Because doctors make a lot of money.” This answer indicates that it’s not the type of work that attracts him, it’s the fat paycheck. Being married to a doctor is extra challenging for many reasons, and it takes special equipping to be able to handle that kind of life, so an internal alarm should be sounding when your date announces that he wants to engage in such an intense career. You should also note that he is saying money is a high value to him, because people who care about money often care about looking like they have a lot of money by living in large houses and buying expensive things. I’m not judging here, I’m just pointing out implications. When your date starts telling you that money really matters to him, that has important implications about what he’s willing to sacrifice. You can’t be home for a bunch of date nights and climb the career ladder. You can’t work only 40 hours a week and rise to be a CEO. If you are dreaming of a husband who is home with you every night and going to bed when you do and being satisfied with purchasing store brands instead of name brands, you are not a match to a man who puts a high value on wealth. The two of you will just frustrate each other.

Core values strongly influence a person’s choices and behaviors. If it is critical to you to look like a success to other people, you are going feel driven to associate yourself with the external signs of success that your culture promotes. If instead you only need to look like a success in your own eyes, then (depending on how reasonable you are) you might be a lot more relaxed about things and not feel bothered by walking around in cheap clothes or living in a small flat. But suppose that instead of these two options, what you really care about is looking like a success in God’s eyes. In this third situation, you will be willing to do things that you wouldn’t be willing to do in the first two scenarios. In this third situation, your behavior will be controlled by what you believe God is saying to you in the privacy of your own soul. In the second scenario, your behavior will be controlled by your current definition of success. In the first scenario, your behavior will be controlled by what you think other people define as successful. Do you see how different these scenarios are?

Core values are critical, and the more of a match you and your partner are in core values, the more identity you’ll have, the less fights you’ll have, and the better chance you’ll have at a lasting marriage.

Some people really care about helping the downtrodden, and this core value sends them rushing off to get involved in time consuming charities and spending a lot of their own money on helping the less fortunate. Such behavior could really exasperate a spouse who really doesn’t want to be hands on with charity work, but does care about being financially secure or spending a lot of quality time together.

Some people desperately need to be parents. Other people are willing to endure parenting, but they’d prefer to get out of it. Still others find the idea of parenting very threatening and stifling. If you don’t match with your spouse on your views of parenting, you will end up with some very intense clashes.

Matching core values is far more important than matching hobbies or entertainment styles. Suppose your man loves to hunt, but he has a strong core value that spouses need to spend a lot of quality time together. His core value will curb his hunting activities. Sure, he’ll spend some time out in the wild, but his own values will bring him back to you without you having to nag him. Another man who loves to hunt and does not feel a need to make time with his spouse a priority will want to venture off on hunting treks for weeks at a time and will likely grow resentful if you complain about his long absences.

A spouse who cares immensely about pleasing God is naturally going to be very upset by you acting in ways that they feel God views as wrong. Such a spouse will also frequently talk about God with admiration and respect–behaviors that can easily spark jealousy and anger in a spouse who does not believe in God or care about what He thinks. Matching core values is critical. Partners with the same core values are likely to mature in the same direction, which will make keeping the bond strong much easier than when different values motivate spouses to mature in ways that increase the differences between them.

Matching Core Needs

While core values are about who you need or want to be, core needs are about what you desperately want to receive.

Some people view embraces as pleasant things. Other people begin to panic and feel painfully rejected if they don’t get embraced several times a day.

Some people are satisfied with shallow conversation and only want to go deep in short bursts very occasionally. Other people crave deep conversations and grow restless and impatient with superficial chitchat.

Some people really need comfort and closeness when they are upset. Other people really need isolation and distance when they are upset.

Some people are fine with occasional sex. Other people feel like they are being pitched into a terrible internal crisis if they don’t have frequent sex.

What are your core needs? There are things that would be nice to have from your spouse, but other things feel crucial to you. It’s during the dating period that you and your partner explore these issues and try to figure out how well matched you are.

It needs to be stressed that matching core needs and core values still leaves plenty of room for variation in personalities, styles, activities, and other preferences. No spouse is going to be everything you want, but that’s alright because learning how to deal with disappointments can really push you down the road of maturity. Some frustration is beneficial (and unavoidable). Too much frustration leads to division. The closer you match core needs and core values, the easier you will both find it to accept what isn’t available.

Talking Is Required

In general, women are more verbal than men (although there are exceptions to every rule). But in any relationship, you must use words to communicate when conflicts happen. Expecting your spouse to correctly interpret body language, facial expressions, actions and silence is only going to result in more conflicts. While similar temperaments and personalities will have an easier time interpreting each other, in real life, everyone enters a marriage carrying emotional baggage from their past. The stuff that is hidden away in your personal bags greatly influences what you’re touchy about, when you get defensive, what you expect, and how you interpret your spouse’s behavior. Simply put, the two of you will misinterpret each other…a lot. The only way to truly resolve these kinds of clashes is to use verbal communication.

Words are the best tools you have at your disposal when it comes to trying to describe your complex emotions to another human being who cannot see inside of your head or feel what you are feeling. When a few words don’t work, you need to keep using more and keep rephrasing things until your partner has an “aha” moment and is able to grasp what you are trying to say (which is often quite different than what you actually say).

The better you know yourself, the better you will be at explaining yourself to your partner. (Are you seeing how important it is to know yourself?) If you’ve never seen a forest, you’ll do a very bad job of describing one. But if you’ve spent a lot of time in a forest, you’ll at least have a clear picture in your mind to work off of. You don’t need to be eloquent to be a good communicator–you just need to be willing to persevere and keep using examples until your partner is able to grasp your point. Repeating the same statement over and over while you raise the volume of your voice is not going to be helpful. Humans do much better with examples and metaphors that they can personally resonate with. For example, when you’re trying to explain to your video game loving boyfriend how frustrated you are at work, you might remind him of a game he played in which he became impossibly stuck on a certain level and ended up shouting obscenities at his monitor. If you are willing to put in the effort to help your spouse understand you better, you will have a greater chance of receiving empathy and affirmation from them. If instead you insist that they read your mind and then get huffy when they don’t give you the response you were looking for, you will spend a lot of time feeling frustrated and isolated.

Crossing Gender Barriers

There are some areas in which men and women do not naturally identify with each other, thus they seem mysterious to each other. Men have never experienced a menstrual cycle and they don’t have uteri, so it’s quite reasonable for them to feel in the dark on the “cramps” and “PMS” issues. At the same time, women have never experienced what it’s like to have a penis, they don’t experience sperm pressure, and they don’t know what it’s like to be involuntarily aroused by much of what they see around them. When you come across gender barriers with your partner, there are two ways you can react. You can either strengthen the barrier by not even attempting to help your partner understand your world, or you can use those ever handy words to try to help them dial in.

While men don’t experience menstrual cramps, they do experience muscle cramps, and that’s what menstrual cramps really are. The uterus is one big muscle and when it is cramping, it’s like feeling your fists clenching painfully tight and being unable to relax them. With a little imagination and some communication, women can help their men relate to them.

Women aren’t visually aroused as easily as men, but they do understand what it’s like to see something so striking that they can’t pull their eyes away. Just as a woman can become temporarily captivated by a statue or a sunset without losing all interest in her husband, men can and do get temporarily captivated by bouncing butts and boobs without losing all interest in their wives. With a little effort and creativity, partners can help each other understand how the other gender perceives things. Rather than feel threatened by natural differences in perception, anatomy, and wiring, you and your spouse can work together to help each other deal with the challenges that you each face.

Respecting What Could Be

Earlier I talked about the importance of being able to accept your partner as they are right now, instead of marrying them on the condition that they make major changes to who they are.

Well, every human has multiple identities. Who you actually are today, who other people think you are, and who you wish you could be are three important identities that greatly influence your behavior. We all have an “ideal self”–someone who we aren’t yet, but who we’d like to morph into some day. During the dating period, you need to get familiar with who your partner’s ideal self is and make sure that person is someone you can respect and deal with.

John’s ideal self is a successful surgeon. But when Mary meets John, he seems like an average guy working at an office job who doesn’t have the chops to conquer med school. So Mary inwardly scoffs at John’s dreams of who he wants to be. She knows that she would hate being married to a surgeon and feeling tossed aside for a job that keeps him on the go 24/7. But since she just can’t imagine John ever reaching his personal dream, she marries him secure in the knowledge that he’ll always be an average guy.

After the marriage, Mary is surprised and alarmed when John applies for med school and gets accepted. She instantly starts discouraging him, which he deeply resents her for. In spite of Mary trying to hold him back, John doggedly chases after his dream and does indeed become a successful surgeon. Instead of being ready to embrace her new life with a John who reached his personal goals, Mary becomes bitter and soon both partners are feeling justified in cheating on each other.

In this scenario, Mary made a big mistake by marrying a man who wanted to become something she didn’t like. Every human has dreams and goals. Whether they are reached or not, they will greatly influence the kinds of decisions your partner will make. You need to pick a partner who you can sincerely encourage to pursue his personal dreams and goals. Encouraging people to be who they need and want to be greatly strengthens the bond. Trying to stomp out their dreams and block their personal pursuits only results in great bitterness.

A Team of Two Individuals

In a healthy intimate relationship, there are two individuals, not two codependent halves. Marriage should not be viewed as the end of personal growth. Instead, the goal is to speed up personal growth and help each other overcome personal obstacles by cheering each other on and being affirming.

Ted has no use for painting, but he knows his wife loves it, so he buys her painting supplies and proudly displays her work in their home. His support and encouragement of her personal passions makes Ted’s wife feel even more bonded to him and eager to support him as well.

You can’t sincerely cheer your spouse on if you think what they want to do is a bad idea or if you feel it will harm you in some way. It’s during the dating period that partners need to talk about their individual passions and start practicing ways of encouraging each other to see how well they can work out a positive rhythm. A marriage is a team in which two individuals work together without either one feeling cancelled out.

Giving Your Date A Chance

The dating dance is loaded with symbolism for each partner, and those symbols have a way of causing conflicts when the two dating partners don’t communicate. In many cultures today, males and females are being encouraged to view each other as enemies instead of allies. Not long ago in American society, men were taught to take pride in the roles of protector and provider by opening doors for their dates, paying for meals, and keeping their women safe in public by walking on the traffic side of public sidewalks and taking care to remain at her side instead of striding on ahead. These symbolic acts were a man’s way of showing the woman what kind of support she could hope to receive from him in the marriage. At the same time, the woman was supposed to model for the man what kind of support and loyalty he could expect from her by vocalizing her appreciation of his efforts, praising him in front of others, and treating him with respect. But in recent times, a warring attitude has been encouraged between the genders, and today many women are taught to view men’s protective efforts as condescending insults and react with hostility instead of appreciation. Men have responded to this by viewing women as impossible to please and not worth sacrificing for. At the same time, both genders are being pressured to view males and females as clones of each other with no significant difference in abilities or traits. And yet denying that there are many intrinsic differences between males and females doesn’t make those differences go away–it only causes us to fight over them instead of turning them into strengths.

As a woman, you don’t need a man the way you need oxygen. But the right man will greatly enhance your life and help you reach levels of maturity that you simply won’t have an opportunity to explore if you spend your whole life surrounded by other females.

As a man, you don’t need a woman to complete or take care of you. But the right woman will enrich your life and satisfy you in ways that another man simply can’t.

How you currently view the other gender is being influenced by opinions that other humans have shared with you. When you go on a date, you will carry those opinions with you and be quick to judge your partner by how well they do or don’t meet your expectations. Remember that your date has also been prepped by other humans on how they should interpret your behavior. With the two of you loaded up with expectations and stereotypes, you are very prone to misinterpret each other and possibly even kill the relationship before it can thrive.

Sarah was raised by a father and brother who treated her with respect and emphasized that it is a man’s job to provide for and protect his woman. So when Sarah goes on a date with Tim, and Tim doesn’t hold open the door for her, she is immediately offended. Instead of considering that Tim is coming to her from a different background and was never taught that opening doors was a polite gesture, Sarah decides that Tim will never be a good partner and dumps him after only one date.

Wendy was raised to expect that her date will always pay for her. So when she goes on a date with Bill and Bill asks the waiter to split the check, Wendy is repulsed and assumes that Bill is cuing her he would be a lousy provider. What she doesn’t realize is that Bill’s last date bit his head off for trying to pay for her meal, and Bill was very hurt by her lack of gratitude. Bill is trying to improve on how he treats women, but he can only go by his past experiences. Unless these two communicate about what bill paying symbolizes to each of them, they are going to lose out on what could be a very positive match.

When your date does something that upsets you, try to politely explain why you don’t like whatever it was instead of just writing the person off. So often you’ll discover that no malice was intended, but that your date simply viewed the situation differently than you do. Also realize that many behaviors can be adjusted by using positive rewards. This means that when your woman compliments you in front of your guy friends, telling her later how much you appreciated her comment will encourage her to do it again in the future. When your man opens the door for you or offers to carry your heavy bag, thanking him out loud will let him know he is on the right track.

On a date, everyone wants things to go well, everyone is nervous, and everyone is searching for clues about what the other person wants and likes. By being communicative, you not only give your date a chance to please you, you also practice being someone who is easy to work with in the future. Don’t write someone off just because they don’t come with some of the surface sparkles you were hoping for. Instead, give them a chance by taking the time to get to know the person inside. Core values are so much more important than social manners and fashion sense. Just as two people can be taught to stop stepping on each other’s toes in a dance class, you and your date can teach each other how to fix some of the superficial clashes. But core values go deep, and those things aren’t going to be changed by a few smiles and compliments. In dating you are trying to find someone whose inner person is a good match to your inner person. You need to focus on the contents rather than the surface packaging.

Digging Deeper

The goal of this post was to help you focus on what really matters when looking for a life partner. There is so much more that can and should be said, but a blog post just isn’t the right venue for digging deep on relationship mechanics. For that, I’d need to write a book, which I have, and if you’re serious about wanting to succeed at relationships, I’d encourage you to read my book What’s Wrong With My Relationships? You can read it for free if you have Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, otherwise you can get the ebook for just a few dollars. I didn’t write the book to get rich, but to help people understand essential principles of developing and maintaining functional relationships. Those principles will really help you understand how to balance power in your relationships–something that is critical both in the dating period and in marriage. It will also help you understand how to graduate from sharing casual to highly personal information in a safe way. The book contains exercises that you can use to figure out what’s going wrong in any difficult relationships you’re dealing with today, and those insights can be a big help in becoming more self-aware.

In the complex dance of trying to relate to other human beings, we all have our strengths and weaknesses. Understanding your own style of relating better will help you catch warning signs earlier and resolve problems more quickly.

This post was written in response to a request.

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