Navigating the Dating Wilderness

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The Family: A Proclamation to the World  teaches us that "marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God... Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan" (¶1, 7). Most young adults have a desire to marry and one day have a family of their own. However, the process of dating and seeking a marriage partner can be daunting, and sometimes finding your spouse can seem an impossible task. Don't give up hope! It is possible to successfully navigate the wilderness of the dating world and make it to the promised land.

Enjoy Being Single

Sometimes singles become too focused on their goal of marriage, and they don't enjoy their years on their own. While marriage is a righteous goal to be sought after, we should take time to enjoy our journey to reach the goal. Our years as a single can be meaningful and happy ones. You may be familiar with the counsel to become the kind of person you want to marry. In this way, you will attract that sort of person to you. Your time as a single can be a time of personal development and enrichment. Some of the most important areas in which to develop include our emotional and mental health, our self esteem, and our ability to control our impulses.9  Remember that we do not need to be perfect in order to have a happy life and a strong marriage. If we are aware of these areas and striving to be our best, that is enough. We should remember that we are worthy of love, and that other people are usually accepting and approachable.11 Taking this perspective will help us build healthy friendships and relationships with others in our lives, a valuable skill that is crucial to life beyond just the dating world.

What to Look For

While the idea of a soul mate is a romantic one, there is not one perfect person out there waiting for you to find him or her. Each of us probably has numerous people in the world with whom we would be very happy. None of them will be our perfect match. Some compromise is inherent in all dating. It is important that we remember this; if we focus too much on finding our perfect soul mate, we may be quicker to write off a dating relationship when conflict arises, instead of trying to work things out.6

Instead of looking for a soul mate, we should look for someone similar to us in background, values, attitudes, and beliefs about marriage. Research has shown that couples who are similar in these areas tend to have higher marital quality and stability.9 These areas are key to a person's identity, which means that when a couple differs in these ways, compromise becomes difficult. When you and your partner are similar in these ways, you will be able to understand one another better because you are coming from the same perspective.

With that said, realize that differences are not necessarily a bad thing. No one is exactly like you, so you shouldn't be looking for your exact clone. There will definitely be some differences between you and your partner. Remember that compatibility is not just about sameness, but also about complementarity. The Proclamation reminds us that some differences between men and women are built into the divine design of marriage and family stewardships.

While you are searching for your mate, remember that no one is perfect. Be careful not to keep a laundry list of required traits that your mate must have. While there are some things you should not compromise on, such as shared values or kindness, you can be more flexible with other things, like whether someone has your exact taste in movies, whether they are a certain build or have a certain hair color, or whether someone is a master chef.

Initial Attraction

Sometimes the most difficult part of dating is finding someone who you are attracted to and who is attracted to you as well. Attending social events such as dances, parties or singles religious activities can be a way of meeting other singles. How do you catch someone's attention? Start by being friendly. Eye contact, a big smile and a confident posture (no slouching!) can make you look more approachable.5

Don't be afraid to approach someone you are attracted to. You don't need a first class opening line to talk to someone. A simple "Hello" is often more effective than a cheesy pick-up line.5

How do you tell if someone is interested in you? Some signs you might notice include someone leaning towards you, smiling, making and keeping eye contact, staying near to you, orienting his or her body towards you, and frequent gesturing.1  Often people have a pessimistic outlook when trying to judge another's interest. That is, Mike may be too scared of rejection to ask Sally for a date, even though he is interested in her. Meanwhile, Sally assumes Mike must not be interested since he is not asking her, never stopping to think that maybe he is afraid. What is the solution for this? Choose not to let your fear hold you back. You may face rejection, but you may also find that your potential date has been anxiously awaiting you to ask her or him out. You won't know until you try. Ladies, remember, we live in a time where we are allowed to do the asking too.

If you are shy, the process of attracting someone, approaching him or her, and figuring out whether or not there is mutual interest, may sound like a difficult process to go through. Don't be afraid to ask your friends for help. Set-ups and blind dates are a great way to skip the stress of finding someone and go straight to a date|just be sure you trust the person setting you up. At social events like parties or dances, consider going with a more social friend, who can act as a bridge for you to meet others, by being the one to start conversations with those you meet.

Casual Dating

The dating climate of today may be different from the climate our parents and grandparents faced. Some modern researchers have argued that hanging out has replaced dating, making dating obsolete.4 However, dating is a valuable way for teens and adults to come to know someone on a more personal level. Dating can also help you develop a better idea of the traits you want in a future spouse (although those with limited opportunity to date can still make a wise mate selection).

Consider dating to build friendships and have fun, instead of focusing just on finding someone to marry. Casual dating allows dates to be laidback and fun, without commitment attached from the get go. Seeking friendship first results in lower pressure in your dating experience. When you are more relaxed, it is easier to be yourself, have fun, and get to know the other person better. Friendship dating may also lower your chance of facing heartbreak and disappointment, since you are not quickly becoming emotionally involved.17  A romantic relationship may evolve from friendship dating, and its base of friendship may be stronger than a relationship built only on mutual attraction.2

Although you decide to date casually, you may still encounter pressure from parents, friends, or even your dates to define your relationships early on, instead of keeping things casual. You cannot control the reactions of people around you, but that does not mean you should avoid casual dating. As with other areas in your life, in dating just do the best you can, even if at times it goes against the norms of modern society.

The Decision to Become Serious

So you have been dating for a little while, and you are wondering whether or not to get serious. How can you know when you are really in love? Noller describes the difference between immature love and mature love.9

Immature love is possessive, easily provoked to jealousy, and anxious that the relationship might end. A person experiencing immature love may be obsessed with his or her partner. Immature love includes a belief that love is something beyond your control; an external force like Cupid's arrow causes love. Immature love is selfish and focused on satisfying one's own needs.

In contrast, mature love involves a lasting passion, a strong desire for companionship, and contentment with the relationship. A person experiencing mature love knows it is something you must decide. Mature love means commitment, trust, sharing, and sacrifice. It allows space for a partner to grow and change.

Unhealthy Dating

While we should not have unrealistic expectations for our future spouses, we should also be careful not to settle for an unhealthy relationship. Below are signs of emotional, psychological, and physical abuse in a relationship. If your relationship has some of these characteristics, you should seriously consider ending the relationship. You deserve to be with someone who values you and treats you with respect.

Emotional and Psychological Abuse

 Saltzman, Fanslow, McMahon, and Shelley give the following list of behaviors which constitute emotional and psychological abuse:18 

[H]umiliating the victim, controlling what the victim can and cannot do, withholding information from the victim, deliberately doing something to make the victim feel diminished or embarrassed, isolating the victim from friends and family, and denying the victim access to money or other basic resources.

This list is not comprehensive. Your partner may do or say other things that hurt you psychologically or emotionally. The important thing is to notice how the way you are treated makes you feel.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence involves "the intentional use of physical force with the potential for causing death, disability, injury, or harm".18 Any physical force can qualify as domestic violence, but some examples of violent behaviors include:

[S]cratching, pushing, shoving, throwing, grabbing, biting, choking, shaking, poking, hair-pulling, slapping, punching, hitting, burning, use of a weapon (gun, knife, or other object), and use of restraints or one's body, size, or strength against another person.

Some potential warning signs that violence can occur later on include extreme jealousy, controlling behavior, or verbal threats (Choose Respect). If you notice these in your relationship, you might be wise to end it now before things escalate into a worse situation.

If you are in an abusive relationship, you should know that many resources exist to help you:

  • The National Domestic Violence hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) anytime day or night, 365 days a year. The hotline also has a helpful website at This website features a red panic button that automatically directs you to a non-related page at a moment's notice. In this way, you can protect yourself if your partner walks in while you are visiting the site.
  • The Center for Disease Control offers information on intimate partner violence and prevention here.

When a Relationship Ends

If you are the one ending the relationship, remember to be gentle and kind when you do so. Holman et al.9 recommend bringing up the subject with kindness, meekness, and love. They also recommend being clear that the relationship is ending, so your partner is not confused or left with false hopes.

If your partner initiates the breakup, take care not to try to force him or her to keep dating you.9 Be respectful and allow the relationship to end. Breakups hurt, but don't lash out and take out your hurt on your ex.9

After the breakup, give yourself time to heal. You may find it helpful to vent your feelings to a friend or family member. Journal writing can also be helpful. Young adults often rely on media (like music, movies, and television shows) to help them process and reflect on their breakups.8

While this isn't necessarily bad, be careful what media you consume|it may prolong your sadness if you fill your days with depressive media.

Immediately after a breakup, you may find it painful to contemplate dating someone else in the future. Or perhaps you feel that you will not meet another potential mate.  Give yourself time to heal from the breakup. How much time you need will vary from person to person. But realize that someday, you will meet someone new. This was not your one and only chance for love. An optimistic attitude that you can find someone else will help you move on.20

 Dating can seem a daunting task at times, but never give up! Enjoy your time being single. Enjoy dating, and consider friendship dating to take off some of the pressure. Do what you can to seek dating success, and don't worry about the rest. Dating can be a fun experience rather than a stressful one, if you choose to make it so.

Written by Shelece McAllister, Research Assistant, and edited by Jason S. Carroll and Stephen F. Duncan, professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.


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