If the movies are to be believed, you’ll know who to marry at the moment you share that significant look and a shot of chemistry tells you—unquestioningly—that this is the one for you. You will look back and say “that was the moment I knew.” This conviction, of course, would be confirmed by a swell of music in the background (they call movie music a score for a reason, after all.)

In real life, however, the question of who to date, and how to date, in order to make your way to marriage is far more complex. In our day and age, dating is a bit like driving: it’s the customary cultural vehicle for getting from one place to another—in this case, from singleness to marriage, but like driving is itself morally neutral, although it can be done well or badly.

What, then, makes for “good driving” when it comes to relationships? As one in the trenches of “happily ever after,” I have some thoughts on this. I use the word trenches advisedly: the view on the horizon is gorgeous, but battles are being waged and the bunkers are full of critical company. So, how will you find a person with whom you want to hunker in a bunker? Dating is the process through which we discover who could be our long-term ditch buddy.

If dating is something like driving, I might suggest it is also something like buying a house. Some years ago, we started house hunting by making a list of all the things we felt were important to us (a yard! three bedrooms!) However, once we actually started going to open houses and walking through potential homes, we discovered that some things became more important to us and some things we didn’t like at all (which we hadn’t known we cared about beforehand). For example, we learned that we were surprisingly picky about how the kitchen and living area were connected: we wanted an open-plan space, not a closed off area. We didn’t know this was important to us until we’d actually been in the house.

We started house hunting thinking we were evaluating options so we could choose one, but what we discovered was that the process was, in fact, teaching us a lot about ourselves. The process of looking changed our priorities. It accentuated certain things, and made other things seem less important.

The same might be said about dating: dating is not just about finding the right person, it is also about getting to know who you are, since you will contribute half the chemistry to the atmosphere in those metaphorical trenches. As it turns out, who you and they are becoming while you date is as important as who you date. After meeting my now-husband for the first time, my mom said, “I like him. And I like the you you are with him.” Both aspects are critically important.

So what qualities, then, are we looking for in ourselves and the other person in dating? And how will we know if we are even asking the right questions?

A distressingly large amount of Christian material on male-female relationships has to do with what Scripture says about 1) sex and sexuality, and 2) who gets to lead and who has to submit. I discovered early on that the go-to passages on sexuality and leadership did not offer much help when we were navigating some of the significant challenges we faced in our first year of marriage. Colossians 3:18–19, for example, tells wives to submit and husbands to love, but this did not feel helpful to us as newlyweds who didn’t know how to talk through a difficult conflict.

However, the verses immediately before this, even though not specifically aimed at married couples, were immensely helpful. In the midst of our newlywed crisis, Colossians 3:12–17 offered profound practical wisdom:

“Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another… and over all these things put on love, which binds them together in perfect unity.” (NIV)

These verses were gold: direct, applicable wisdom for our marriage. It should come as little surprise to us that this ancient wisdom, which is central to marital happiness, is backed up by modern science. Psychologists and marriage experts Ty Tashiro (author of The Science of Happily Ever After) and John Gottman (author of multiple marriage books, including the critically acclaimed The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work) agree. In their article Masters of Love, they concluded after thousands of hours of working with married couples that the biggest indicators for relational success came down to two surprisingly simply things: kindness and generosity.

Scripture, science, and my own lessons in the school of life all agree: the best marriage advice is also the best advice for relationships in general: be kind and be gracious. In other words, our character makes all the difference. As it turns out, the biggest benchmark for relational success is the quality of how you treat people day to day, no matter whether it’s a one-time lab partner or an ever-after life partner.

This is profoundly good news for those wanting to date well, because it means that you don’t need to be married to find out whether you’ve got what it takes to make it work. And it means that you don’t have to wait until you’re married, or even until you’re dating, to prepare well for intimate, rewarding relationships. As it turns out, dating and marriage are micro-studies in the broader subject of healthy Christian living, and what this means for dating is that we already have the tools not only to start evaluating others, but also to evaluate ourselves and the quality of our own interactions.

With this in mind, here are some questions to consider when you’re asking, “Should I date this person?”:

  • Is this person kind, and growing in kindness? How do they treat their friends? Their family? How do they treat “everyday” people who they don’t need to impress: restaurant servers, cashiers, janitors, telemarketers? These are telling indicators of kindness.
  • How do they handle anger? Are they able to express anger appropriately? Can they talk about frustrations, or do they stuff feelings, or seethe? Does their room have punch holes in the wall? Do they know the difference between healthy and unhealthy anger?
  • How do they handle conflict? Colossians 3 calls us to let the peace of Christ rule. Do they need to be right, even if it’s at the expense of the relationship? It’s possible to be right about an issue but still handle it in the wrong way. Conflict is guaranteed to come up in your relationship, so date someone who knows how to apologize.
  • Is this person aware of (and patient with) weakness? Colossians 3:13 doesn’t say “fix one another with all your wonderful suggestions”; it says “bear with one another’s weakness.” We all have sin pressure points and weaknesses that rub against others. No matter how long we are married or how great our communication skills are, we will never outwit, outsmart, or outmaneuver sin. This calls for patience and grace with ourselves and one another.
  • Is this someone I can work alongside? If marriage could be summarized in two words, I might suggest “life together.” Once all the initial euphoria subsides, the question is whether this is someone alongside whom you can do the regular tasks of life: can you complete your schoolwork? Can you still be a good friend to others? Is this someone with whom you can enjoy a healthy “normal”: doing laundry, planning your year, working at your job?
  • Are they trustworthy? Are they faithful to do what they say, to keep a confidence? Is their yes ‘yes’, and their no ‘no’?
  • Does this person show sexual integrity? And are they faithful with their (and your) sexuality? Dating is a terrible time to test sexual compatibility, since great sex has so little to do with biology and so much to do with established intimacy in other areas: something increased by trust and time. Dating is, however, a key time to test sexual integrity, since critical factors in long-term sexual health and satisfaction have to do with how well we steward and express our sexuality.
  • Do they say thank you? Do they practice thankfulness in small and big ways? Colossians speaks about habits of gratitude. Date someone who thanks God and others. It’s a gateway to joy.
  • Do they know who they are and whose they are? Colossians 3:12 starts out by saying “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved… put on compassion…” Knowing that our identity is found in being unconditionally loved by God is the foundation for healthy love relationships with people. No person, no matter how wonderful, can fill the deep need we have to find our identity in being loved. This is a God-shaped hole in our hearts, and we need to be people and date people who let God fill the God-shaped hole.
  • Is this a person with whom I can grow in my faith? Colossians 3:16 says we are to let the message of Christ dwell richly among us as we teach and admonish one another. So ask: Is this someone with whom God’s Word has a place between us, and with whom I can share God’s wisdom and encouragement?

Colossians 3 is about the basic bedrock for good relationships, and our marriage relationships should at least meet this standard. Great marriages are made of the same stuff that great dating relationships and great friendships are made of. This means, of course, that the popular advice on “getting a girl” and “finding a guy” which focuses on fine tuning your appearance and social etiquette really doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Being smaller, bigger, smilier, more ripped, bustier, more confident (or whatever it is you feel you need to make yourself more attractive) has little or no correlation to actual dating success, which is about figuring out whether you could really live life with this person. Ultimately, we marry someone to live with them, not to go to parties or look good in Instagram vacation shots.

Dating well, then, means dating someone who is becoming a person you trust and respect, and with whom you can partner lifelong to live for God. And it means discovering more about yourself so you can become such a person yourself. It has nothing to do with someone’s résumé, BMI, GPA, 401(k), or their hotness score; it has everything to do with discovering one another’s character, even as you’re developing your own.

So, perhaps this means it’s time to call it quits on that relationship you’ve been in for a while, because this partnership is not showing the signs of character growth in both of you. Or perhaps it’s time to consider dating with a bit more of an open mind. Even if you don’t know where this will ultimately go, why not see if you can be friends and take it from there?

Remember Colossians 3 and its profoundly good news for dating: the better we are at relationships in general, the better our dating, and ultimately our marriages, will be. There is no mystical “x” factor we need to uncover as the secret ingredient to a perfect marriage. Rather, it’s the stuff we already know and appreciate about others—the tools we already use for finding good friends and reliable roommates—that we need to put into practice.

So date, friends. Be kind, be generous, and date.

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