Before I started dating, I thought I’d already mastered it. I’d read the right books, so I knew how to avoid making all the mistakes. I was only going to have one boyfriend. My first kiss would be at the altar. Since I was going to exhibit stellar judgment, I would never experience—or cause—heartache.
My story played out differently. A few guys I turned down became obsessive and unstable; one of them hurt me physically. Later, my first boyfriend broke my heart. I broke other hearts. My first kiss took place in a driveway.
I’m in my second serious relationship now, and God has taught me so much. Here are three things I didn’t learn from books:
1. You aren’t damaged goods.
After I was hurt, I felt dirty and soiled. After my ex-boyfriend’s first kiss was planted on my mouth, I felt like I had to marry the man who kissed me. After I loved fully once (and lost), I felt cheapened. I was told that if you “give your heart away” but you don’t marry the person you gave it to, the heart you give your future spouse will be less than whole; the specter of the man you loved before him will always linger, even on your wedding day.
Sister, it isn’t just that you aren’t damaged goods. The truth is even more freeing: you aren’t goods. You’re a person, not a commodity. The girl whose first kiss takes place at the altar isn’t worth more. The girl who has never been hurt isn’t “purer.” The girl who marries her first love doesn’t have a better heart to give her husband. Where did these ideas even come from? I can assure you of this: you won’t be able to find them in your Bible.
God is in the business of redeeming all things
What you will find is that none of us come to the altar “perfect.” Because we live in a fallen world, we can never be perfect women, perfect girlfriends, perfect wives. Maybe you’ve been sinned against, and maybe you’ve sinned. Either way, we don’t see a commandment against “emotional baggage” in Scripture. What we do see is the clear message that God is in the business of redeeming all things (Rom. 8:28), and He is ready and willing to make us more like Him (Phil. 1:6). Following “the rules” is no guarantee of a perfect marriage, because again—perfect is unattainable.
God heals. Do you believe this? God restores. Our physical experiences don’t define our worth. And if you’ve “given your heart” to someone in the past, you haven’t signed up for a lifetime of shattered intimacy in the future. You will love again, and you will do so with a whole heart. That’s the way love works.
2. Boundaries are important—not just the sexual kind.
The only boundaries I’d heard about were strictly sexual, but other boundaries are equally important to establish. Does the guy you’re dating respect your thoughts and feelings? Is he controlling or manipulative? What is his temper like when you disagree with him about something? Do you feel safe with him? Does he listen to you when you say no?
This applies to the pre-dating phase, too. I’ve experienced my fair share of pursuit from “pushy” guys. Pushiness is not leadership. It doesn’t matter if he’s a pastor, if he’s in seminary, or if he can quote the Bible backwards and forwards. If you don’t feel comfortable with a man’s pursuit for any reason, and you clearly tell him “no,” he needs to respect you enough to listen.
3. Healthy relationships require listening—and vulnerable, honest, hard conversations.
Facebook photos and dreamy engagement stories don’t tell you the full story; healthy relationships don’t just happen. They’re sustained. We have scads of attention (and books) focused on what not to do in dating. The advice on what to do is more scant.
Listening well may be the cardinal rule of loving communication. James 1:19 seems to agree: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
You can’t deal with something unless it’s in the light.
Coming together with another individual—an individual with a different past, different family, different personality, different profession, and any number of other differences—means the perfect cocktail for misunderstandings, even with the best intentions. While an immature communicator may resort to passive aggressive conflict management techniques, a wise listener asks for clarification instead of making harmful assumptions. Wise people ask questions before drawing conclusions.
After listening attentively, direct communication, motivated by love, is one of the most singularly helpful practices my boyfriend and I share. We prefer straightforwardness (even when it hurts) over mind games, guessing at motives, eggshells, avoidance, and excessive tact. You can’t deal with something unless it’s in the light. Ephesians 4:25 says it like this: “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”
What about you? Have you learned any lessons about love and dating in the laboratory of life instead of in books?