I am 27, dating for the first time in the Kingdom, and if I could boil down the relationship advice I received before I started dating, it would be this: "Don't have sex before you're married."
I'm kind of kidding, but mostly not. All of the advice that was passed onto me from sermons, lessons, discipling times, devotionals, or anything else in church culture that had to do with relationships completely revolved around purity. It seemed like by the church's standards, if there somehow existed a couple who only sat next to each other for stretches of time, didn't talk to each other, didn't look at each other, but could manage to just sit there and not have sex, then that was a healthy relationship.
And I'm not saying that purity isn't essential. But I am saying that there is so much more to healthy relationships other than physical purity. And now that I've been dating a wonderful man for 11 months and have picked up a thing or two in the mess of figuring it out on our own, I want to draw our attention to 3 things that I wish I was taught about dating, besides purity:
1. How to Navigate Your Childhood Affecting Your Relationship
From attachment styles to conflict resolution to how effectively someone can ask for what they need – there are so many factors in a relationship that come directly from childhood. And to be frank, some warning would be nice.
It has actually been a beautiful process to witness deep healing for both of us within the context of our dating relationship. We have grown so much in trust and our abilities to ask for what we need and in meeting each other's needs.
But it has also been painful at times. We have unknowingly triggered deep wounds within each other, we have held back in unhealthy ways based on fear passed down from our parents and acted out subconsciously just because it's all we've known.
My insecure attachment style has led me to "lose it" on more than one occasion. At any sign of our relationship being imperfect, my natural inclination is to run in the other direction out of fear and shame. This, of course, causes a reaction on his part, and it derails into a morbid cycle of who can freak the other out the most.
But I just wonder how different it could have been for us if the church had more of a hand in compassionately teaching us about these deeper waters.
So much of relationships rely on unspoken – and very easily misinterpreted – cues and beliefs. And if we'd had the background knowledge about how our parents' marriages will affect our relationship, how our own concepts of our self-worth will affect our relationship, how what we think relationships even are will affect our relationship, we'd have had a much stronger foundation from the beginning.
Of course, God is gracious and has taught us both so much. He will work regardless. But how many marriages could be saved if language was given to these unspoken beliefs, and the power of confusion was taken out of the equation?
2. How to Spiritually Partner with Someone
If anything besides purity was repeated over and over, it was that you and your significant other need to "help each other spiritually" if it's going to be a good relationship. But, what in the world does that mean?
Or, even more vaguely for the men, "you need to lead her spiritually." Again, what does that mean? Does that mean to be making sure she spends time with God? To write out bible studies for her? To pray every single time you're together so you make sure she can check that box off?
Of course, being beneficial for each other spiritually is valiant advice. One of the greatest purposes of marriage is to strengthen each other spiritually. But the church can set this high expectation and then leave you feeling defeated and ashamed when you try to do this on your own strength.
One of the best pieces of advice we've received about how to partner spiritually is to pray for just a few minutes before spending time with each other, so we can ask God for wisdom on how to best encourage each other spiritually. It's simple, practical, and helps us enter the spiritual realm on each other's behalf, without overstepping any boundaries.
But even getting this piece of advice was difficult–it was months after we'd already been dating, it felt like pulling teeth to receive a practical action, and it almost felt like we were doing something wrong by asking how to be "partners" even though we weren't married.
In my opinion, if the church focused more on emotional and spiritual maturity in Christ, rather than on telling people what to do or focusing on sin, then we would naturally include practical advice on how to help each other spiritually. And not just in romantic relationships, either.
3. How to Hold Space for Someone Instead of Fixing Them
This ability is so nuanced and mature, and I have not even come close to mastering it. But I didn't even know it was an option until I had been dating for over eight months!
I'm sure I am not the only woman who has ever tried to fix their partner. Despite my best efforts to stay away from codependency, I found myself feeling overly responsible for my boyfriend's healing, character, and relationships. But I also found myself very confused, because it felt like God had given me this close-up perspective into his life so that I could help him.
I do think that the latter is a true statement. But holding a safe space for someone to come to their own conclusions about their wounds, desires, beliefs, etc., is a very far cry from doing all of that work for them. And I just didn't even know there was a middle ground until receiving some constructive advice while in the middle of a conflict.
The advice was to ask a ton of questions. To offer yourself as a safe space to say, "Hey, this is something I've noticed. What do you think about that? Is it okay if that's something we explore together? Tell me how I can best be of help."
That, to me, sounds like a cheerleader, like a true ezer kenegdo that God designed women to be. But I desperately wish I had been coached on how to do this before it got to the painful point it did.
I wonder if people view these things as "marriage advice" and not "dating advice," and therefore inappropriate to share with a dating couple out of the desire to not get their hopes up (or "guard their hearts" as the infamous phrase goes).
But I really wish I was taught these things even before I started dating. It isn't just relationship advice, it's life advice! We should all be growing in self-awareness of how our childhoods affect our relationships, how to spiritually encourage those around us, and how to hold space for each other.
Purity is important. But just like there is much more to marriage than just sex, there is much more to dating relationships than just not having sex, and the church can be instrumental in filling in those gaps.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines. Used with permission.
Photo courtesy: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Motortion
Kelly-Jayne McGlynn is a former editor at Crosswalk.com. She sees the act of expression, whether through writing or art, as a way to co-create with God and experience him deeper. Check out her handmade earrings on Instagram and her website for more of her thoughts on connecting with God through creative endeavors.