How do you know when you’re ready to date / marry someone?

relationships-logoRELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS (#7 in a series)
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How do you know when you’re ready to date someone or marry someone?

When my wife and I were in graduate school, we wondered together about when to start having kids. “When would be the best time?” we asked each other. It didn’t take long before we concluded that there was no such thing as a “best time,” if that meant “convenient.” You just counted the cost as best you could and took the plunge.

In other words, in the question above, a lot hangs on the meaning of “ready.” To date or marry intrinsically involves vulnerability and risk. If “ready” means somehow removing risk or relational effort from the equation, that’s not going to happen.

But if it means something more like “mature enough to not make a complete hash of it,” that’s different. Readiness as a matter of maturity isn’t a yes/no, either/or binary distinction. It’s neither, “You’re ready, so do as you please,” nor, “You’re not ready, so run away.” Nor is readiness all-or-nothing: you can be more ready in some ways than in others. It’s good to know what your hot-button areas of sensitivity are, and to be ready to deal with them humbly and honestly when they get triggered in a relationship.

That said, the question of readiness to date is not the same as that for marriage. Dating is a highly variable and culturally relative phenomenon, and the rules seem to be changing all the time. As a point of reference, think Jane Austen. In America at least, gone are the days in which relationships began with young ladies welcoming gentleman callers for polite conversation in the parlor — under their parents’ direct supervision.

The demands of dating one-on-one are different from hanging out in a mixed group of friends. And you may both have different expectations. I remember a conversation with one young woman who approached me during a break in my lecture. She hemmed and hawed, circling around a question she wanted to ask but couldn’t put into words. “Let me see if I can make this easier for you,” I said, catching her eyes. “You’re asking me if you’re obligated to sleep with a guy who’s taken you out to dinner.” She looked down at the floor and nodded silently. “No,” I said firmly. “If he doesn’t accept that, I’d advise you to stop seeing him.”

And that’s a relationship between seminary students — people who are supposed to be training for the ministry. No wonder people are confused.

At a minimum, then, readiness to date one-on-one means knowing what you expect from the relationship, and having the ability to both manage your own boundaries and respect the boundaries of others. Beyond that, you should be able to not make every conversation about you, but to take an active and genuine interest in the other person.

Readiness to marry involves all of this and more. It’s still not an either/or, all-or-nothing distinction — but the stakes are higher. Here, the fundamental questions are: do you know this person for who s/he really is? Have you honestly and realistically considered the challenges? Knowing this, can you commit to this person and to the relationship for better or worse?

Before you marry, I strongly recommend going through some form of premarital preparation, preferably something inventory-based that involves conversation with a trained facilitator. Don’t settle for watching your pastor’s sermon series on marriage, as good as it may be. Inventories designed for this purpose will help you get at the concrete issues over which you are likely to struggle in your early years. In some cases, couples have actually decided that they weren’t ready, and called off their engagement or wedding.

A final note: don’t try to rush through the premarital process at the last minute. That won’t help you. As some premarital experts recommend, you should aim to finish the process before the invitations go out. Once people have started making plans and plane reservations, you’ll find it harder and harder to call it off, even if you think you should.