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The Five Dating Levels
Dating Lie #1: Love just happens; you can't control it.
Christians spend a lot of time and energy trying to understand how to be more like Christ. Why is it then that the way we date looks so much like the way the world dates? I'm not just talking about sexual matters. Hopefully single Christians know better than to take at face value the sex advice offered in magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Esquire. But even if you do show more sexual restraint than the couple in the most recent romantic comedy, do you also resist the world's idea of what dating is for? Do you look at dating mostly as a means of getting what you want for yourself? Are you expecting a romantic partner to define who you are? Does "failure" in the dating arena make you feel like there is something wrong with you?
The fact that the divorce rate among professing Christians is the same as the divorce rate for everybody else (about 50 percent) suggests that our view of male-female relationships hasn't been transformed as fully as it needs to be. That's a problem. Our culture is out of sync with the reality of how healthy relationships actually develop. The result is broken hearts, ruined friendships, bitterness, and a lack of commitment. We have abandoned or forgotten some universal truths that are not only wise but extremely practical. In essence, we have taken an off-ramp from the highway of healthy relational development. This off-ramp is a wrong exit; it cannot lead us to our desired destination.
Let me tell a story about a Christian friend of mine who, for all his great qualities, still dated according to the world's standards. He was a good-looking guy, had a great personality, owned his own business, came from a good family, was on fire for the Lord, was active in serving others, and had leadership gifts. By all typical definitions, he was a "great catch" for any of the hundreds of single women in our singles ministry. As a result, he dated many of these women, but he quickly developed a reputation as an unpredictable and confusing heartbreaker. Women began to avoid him, his relationships suffered, and his witness was damaged.
The women complained that he confused them with his words and actions. For example, he would say very flattering things, which he believed, but were really not appropriate for where they were in the relationship. He often would stay up late with them talking about topics that were too emotional for their level of commitment. He also would arrange an excessive number of activities during the first month of dating, which didn't allow any time to gain perspective on the relationship. Kissing and lots of physical contact also began almost immediately, which made the women feel like he was exclusively interested in them. When they found out that he was doing the same thing with other women at the same time, or when he abruptly ended the relationship, they were deeply hurt and confused. There were even some interpersonal conflicts among the other members of the singles ministry because of his behavior. A few women began to take sides against each other, feeling like the other women had unfairly barged in on what they thought was a unique and special relationship. Gossip began and some women even felt so embarrassed and uncomfortable that they considered no longer attending the group. Several of the men felt like this guy was trying to create a harem and was manipulatively taking multiple women out of circulation in order to eliminate competition. As this story demonstrates, without clear parameters and expectations, even the Christian community can sink to the lowest levels of humanity and suffer severe damage. Unfortunately, this story is not unique.
If not for two things, this young man's life could have taken a very negative turn. He could have become discouraged, felt isolated, and wandered back into the world from which he had recently escaped. First, he was approached by a godly Christian counselor who had talked with several of the women he had hurt. The counselor lovingly confronted him about the negative impact he was having on the singles community and his own personal testimony as a believer. He patiently explained how and why the young man's dating habits were causing such pain and confusion. Second, this man had the courage to share all of this with his small group. This group of men, who were committed to helping each other become fully devoted followers of Christ, began holding their friend accountable and challenging him on his destructive dating habits. They all knew that he was ignorant of the Bible's view of healthy interactions between men and women. They also knew that transformation is a process that requires time and practice as well as support from others willing to encourage progress and speak the truth in love about failings.
This man was convicted by the Lord that he needed to go back to the women he had hurt and confess his sins, ask for forgiveness, and then reestablish his reputation as a trustworthy man of God by dating well from that point forward. Though this was a very difficult and painful process, he had the humility to do the right thing, trusting that God would ultimately bring great blessing out of his obedience. As he grew in understanding about communication, boundaries, commitment levels, and the process of intimacy development, he not only developed a reputation as a godly man but also as a safe, fun, and desirable man to date. From that point forward any woman he dated was protected, encouraged in Christ, and treated with the utmost respect. Ultimately, God used this experience to prepare him for a relationship with a wonderful woman who would later become his wife. Nineteen years of marriage and two kids later, this couple has an enviable marriage that has been a blessing to them and to hundreds of others. True to the Lord's sense of irony, God has used this man to teach and counsel countless younger men to live, date, and marry in healthy and productive ways.
There are many points that could be taken from that story, but I want to focus on two in particular. First, we all play a part in a complicated web of relationships. It was bad enough that my friend's dysfunctional attitude toward dating hurt the women he dated, but he also hurt other people in his relational web. Just within our singles group, there were those who felt the need to take sides in the romantic dramas he started. There were the men who later dated the women he had broken up with. There was the gossip that caused any number of people to stumble. Seeing the pervasive relational fallout that can result from bad dating practices emphasizes why it is so important to seek God's wisdom as we seek intimate relationships. Second, this story demonstrates that it's never too late to change. Whatever your history, God honors your efforts to walk in a way that is pleasing to him.
There is no reason why it shouldn't be possible for a dating relationship to end well if time and interaction reveal that a couple is not well suited for marriage. What does it mean to "end well"? It means you can look a person you used to date in the eye without pain or awkwardness. It means you can pray for that person—pray that his or her life will be blessed and happy without you. It means you have dated in such a way that the worst thing that can happen is that you have built a friendship that you can retain, even after one or both of you gets married to somebody else. That's not just wishful thinking.
An Overview of the Five Dating Levels
I've been in full-time ministry for more than twenty-two years, and for twenty of those years, I've been a pastor in a large church in North Carolina. I've performed over a hundred and fifty weddings and counseled countless couples about how to date well, how to move forward, when to not move forward, and how to be happily married. As I talked with people and helped them wrestle through the confusion of emotions and expectations of dating, it became apparent that we all need a clear, simple, realistic, and biblical way to navigate this thing called dating. I studied the Scripture, considered my own imperfect past, read research from Christian counselors, and even gleaned insights from the sciences of zoology and anthropology. What emerged from my study and prayer was the Five Dating Levels.
I've developed a system that categorizes dating relationships based on their level of commitment, progressing from lowest to highest. In fact, the highest level is dating in the context of marriage (you did know that dating continues after marriage, didn't you?). The Five Dating Levels gives you a plan for relating to the opposite sex in a dating relationship that is based on first loving God and then others.
God says that a man is to leave his family and be united with his wife to form a new family (Genesis 2:24). As I mentioned earlier, in other cultures and times there were clearer guidelines to help this process of leaving and cleaving. While our culture treats this process as a free-for-all, the Five Dating Levels offers a way to bring wisdom and structure to this important life stage. This dating system takes Paul's plea to consider others' interests before our own and applies it directly to dating relationships (Philippians 2:4).
Below you'll find a diagram of the system and a summary description of each level. We'll get into a lot more detail later, but this should give you a good idea of where we're headed.
Level One: Dating for Something To Do
This can be a onetime date or one of many "getting to know you better" events. No physical contact should occur at this level. Preferably, a Level One date is a group event. Absolutely no obligation to continue dating exists afterward on either person's part.
Level Two: Dating Because It's You
This is still not an exclusive relationship, but it does require one or both people to acknowledge a true interest or attraction that has grown over time. No kissing should occur at this level. Level Two dates should be mostly group events with some time spent alone. An obligation exists on each person's part to communicate honestly and clearly about how he or she is feeling along the way.
Level Three: Dating with the Future in View
This is an exclusive relationship. Kissing can begin at this level but is to be avoided if it stirs too much passion. There should be an equal division between time alone and time with groups for accountability and perspective. As always, both the man and the woman should communicate openly and honestly along the way. The focus is on clarifying life goals and true compatibility.
Level Four: Dating and Engaged to You
On this level, the focus is on clarifying roles, family boundaries, premarital counseling, and planning life together. Physical limits may need extra protection as desires will increase with commitments.
Level Five: Dating After Saying I Do
After marriage, sexual intimacy brings a whole new dimension to the relationship. Weekly dates are critical to keep romance alive, maintain open communication, and mature the relationship so that it is prepared for possible children and eventual empty nest syndrome.
The Five Dating Levels are a progression toward wholeness and holiness. Each level is designed to develop an appropriate degree of bonding, which makes it possible for the relationship to handle the weight and stress of the next level without being crushed. The limits established at each level protect the relationship from going where it shouldn't go. But progressing to the next level is not the only purpose of this process. Hopefully, at each stage you will notice and experience the God-designed gift that is specific to that level. It is also worth noting that the "rules and regulations" of the Five Dating Levels aren't intended to squelch intimacy. Instead they should create a safe environment where healthy dating and true intimacy can take place. People don't date when they don't feel safe, and safety is what fosters true intimacy. Isn't intimacy what we're looking for when we date?
Each dating level represents a level of commitment that should be accompanied by appropriate physical and emotional boundaries. What should you be doing? What should you be feeling? What is appropriate to devote your mental energies to? What plans should you be making? Most of this book is devoted to answering those questions.
Admittedly, there is a lot that is mysterious in attraction and love, but thankfully God's Word, human experience, and even scientific research reveal a clear design in relational development. This design points to practical things we can do to greatly increase our chances of being happy in our relationships. It also clearly shows us what not to do.
Obviously, there are cultural factors that influence the way we understand the physical relationships between men and women. You don't often see a man kissing a woman's hand these days. In other cultures, ideas of modesty are different from ours. Nevertheless, there are universal standards that govern the way men and women relate to one another physically.
In his book Bonding, Dr. Donald Joy discusses a remarkable anthropological study that discovered twelve "bonding stages." These stages mark the development of relationships between men and women—from less intimate contact to more intimate contact—across all human cultures. As diverse as human cultures are, and as different as their sexual mores can be, these stages seem to be the normal progression of physical contact throughout the world. In fact, the study didn't find any culture where it was normal for a man to put his arm around a woman's waist before he put his arm around her shoulder, or where it was normal for a man to touch a woman's face if he had never touched her hand. While there are abundant examples of individuals who ignore or skip steps in this progression, the point is that these stages are the norm.
When these stages are respected and followed, Joy argues, the result is healthy relationships and a stable society. However, when these stages are ignored, skipped, or rushed through, the result is a marked increase in violent sexual behavior, dysfunctional bonds, and broken marriages. Many other social ills flow out of this type of environment as well, such as increased poverty, crime, and isolation. You only need to read the front page of any newspaper in America to see the proof of this research. If we're going to establish physical boundaries for the Five Dating Levels, the Twelve Bonding Stages seem like a good place to start. The chart below lists the Twelve Bonding Stages and shows how they map on to the Five Dating Levels.
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Dating Level 1:
Dating for Something to Do
Basic Description of Interaction:
This can be a onetime date or one of many "getting to know you better" events. There is no physical contact allowed, preferably a group event, and no obligation exists afterward on either person's part. The risk level is low.
Dating Level 2:
Dating Because It's You
Basic Description of Interaction:
This is still not an exclusive relationship but does require one or both people to acknowledge a true interest or attraction that has grown over time. There is no kissing allowed; it should be mostly group events with some time alone. An obligation exists on both persons' parts to communicate honestly and clearly about how they are feeling along the way. The risk level is medium.
Dating Level 3:
Dating with the Future in View
Basic Description of Interaction:
This is an exclusive relationship. Kissing begins at this level but is to be avoided if it stirs too much passion. Equal time alone & with groups for accountability and perspective. An obligation exists to communicate openly and honestly along the way. The focus is on clarifying life goals and true compatibility. The risk level is high.
Excerpted from "We're Just Friends" and Other Dating Lies by Chuck Milian. Copyright © 2011 Charles E. Milian. Excerpted by permission of New Growth Press.
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