People are pursuing marriage in more ways than ever before. With developments in technology and communication, dating is changing as well. The goals and principles for dating remain the same, but sometimes the players are farther part, meeting each other through websites, like eHarmony, or social media, like Facebook, or just through long-distance networks of friends.
My wife and I dated long distance for two years — 1,906 miles and two time zones apart.
Any dating couple — whether they’re next-door neighbors or international heartthrobs — should pursue clarity and postpone intimacy. The great prize in marriage is Christ-centered intimacy; the great prize in dating is Christ-centered clarity. We all do well to make decisions in dating with that reality in mind. However, since long-distance relationships bring special challenges, they require special wisdom.
Long-Distance Dating Is the Worst
If you have friends that have dated long distance, you have friends who have complained about dating long distance. In long-distance dating, you will not have the regular, everyday time together that same-city relationships will — fewer nights out, fewer errand trips, less time together with mutual friends, fewer shared experiences that feel like normal life. It’s hard because you want to be with this person, but it also makes discernment especially difficult.
Long-distance will not feel as real as same-city dating. You’re connecting in the cracks of life, often debriefing after all the action of the day is done. You’re trying to make the headlines — exciting and discouraging — feel real for your boyfriend or girlfriend, but as much as they care about you, they aren’t there.
How can you develop clarity about doing everyday life with them for the rest of your days if you never get to taste everyday life with them now in dating? The partial integration of a boyfriend or girlfriend into your life is undeniably helpful for imagining what the complete integration might be like.
Long-Distance Dating Is the Best
That being said, I wish everyone could date long-distance. I’m not in any way taking a stand against same-city unions, but I am commending long-distance dating whenever God connects the dots, especially in our day. The costs were real and felt for us, but the benefits, especially for Christians, are as real and lasting.
If you have friends that have done same-city dating, you likely have friends who have wrestled against sexual impurity. It may not be every couple’s battle, but anyone in premarital counseling will say it’s extremely prevalent. Long-distance dating doesn’t eliminate temptation in this area (presumably you’re spending at least a few weekends in the same town), but it limits it tremendously.
A lot of energy in same-city attractions is expended in the daily fight to restrain the impulses toward sexual intimacy (sex is, after all, the right culmination of all Christian dating when the dating ends in marriage). That fight is much more focused and occasional when the relationship is long-distance. In a day and age in which sexual immorality is excused, celebrated, and even legislated, these benefits could not be sweeter.
Another great blessing in long-distance dating is lots and lots of forced communication. In these relationships, spending time “together” typically means talking to each other on the phone. It removes the need to dress up and impress one another. It eliminates nights and nights of just watching television or movies. You actually talk — and talk and talk.
If clarity is your shared aim in dating, and if healthy communication is a priority for your marriage (and it should be), then there’s nothing better for you to do together than just talk.
From my experience, then, and from talking with several others who’ve recently dated long distance, here are three pieces of counsel for those pursuing clarity toward marriage from far away.
1. Be more skeptical of your feelings.
Long-distance dating is easier in some ways (less intrusive, and often less demanding in the day-to-day). That shouldn’t make Christians relax in dating, though, because there’s just as much at stake. Ironically, we may need to be more intentional and vigilant. In pursuing a marriage between sinners, be wary of anything that comes too easily.
You probably will learn more facts about one another than you would have if you were living in the same city, because you’ll talk more. It’s also easier to hide, though, in long-distance dating. In a same-city relationship, you would likely see things about one another that you might not readily admit over the phone. If you get married, you’ll realize you didn’t know each other as well as you thought.
My advice: Be slower to declare clarity about the future in a long-distance relationship. The hurdles should keep us from hurrying to a decision to marry.
Be skeptical of the romantic euphoria you feel after a month of late-night talks or your first couple weekends together. Give yourself more time to get to know each other. Plan for trips to spend time with people in each other’s lives. Be honest about the limitations of technology alone — as great as technology can be for dating — in developing a relationship and discerning each other’s readiness to wed.
2. Work harder to get to know each other’s friends.
Community is absolutely, undeniably critical in Christian dating (or any other calling in life). Just as in every other area of your Christian life, you need the body of Christ as you think about whom to date, how to date, and when to wed.
If you’re deciding how to serve, where to work, or whom to marry without Christian brothers and sisters helping you make those decisions, you’re doing so foolishly (Hebrews 3:12–13; Proverbs 3:5). An essential part of God’s means for confirming the desires of our hearts — for confirming what the Spirit is doing in us and in our relationships — is the church, the community of believers in our lives.
Long-distance dating really complicates this dynamic in dating. People are already reluctant to go out of their way to include other people in their love life, even in a same-city relationship. It’s inconvenient, but it’s also crucial. And it’s much more challenging when your networks of friends are miles and miles away.
Be creative, and “date” a few people in each other’s lives, too — not necessarily one-on-one, but work to get to know them, and to be known by them. Someone who loves you and Jesus should know you both (individually and as a couple) well enough to agree with you that you should get married. Prioritize and initiate this in your long-distance dating.
3. Don’t think you don’t need boundaries.
Boundaries are important in any not-yet-married relationship, because God loves you and wants what’s best for you. He did not create you to recklessly give away your heart without a covenant. While spontaneous plunges into intimacy look great in chick flicks and feel great in the moment, they breed shame, regret, distrust, and emptiness. Boundaries are necessary because on the road to marriage and its consummation, the appetite for intimacy only grows as you feed it.
Distance does not remove sexual temptation. In fact, for many, the temptation will be much stronger when you are together. We foolishly try to make up for lost time physically, as if we owe each other something. Anticipate that, and talk before the trip about how you’ll avoid temptation and confront it when it comes. Also, beware of trying to experiment with sexual intimacy together through technology. Pictures and words can be just as dangerous to our hearts as touching.
Boundaries, though, are not just for guarding against sexual immorality. Boundaries build trust. When we set clear standards and expectations in dating, and then fulfill those standards and expectations, we say we will do the same in marriage. That’s true in sexual purity and in a hundred other ways.
Other questions to ask ourselves about boundaries include:
How often is it healthy to talk?
How long is it healthy to talk each night?
What kinds of conversations should we have at each stage of the relationship?
When is it loving to say, “I love you”?
When is it safe to talk about marriage? How will we guard each other when talking about marriage?
How often should we visit each other?
How will we protect our purity during those short and often more romantic days together?
By getting out ahead of these questions and others, you will sacrifice some of the adrenaline of spontaneity, but you’ll also protect one another in dating, and you’ll cultivate the treasure of trust.
With patience, you’ll preserve and multiply your pleasures in marriage. Spontaneity is one important flavor in dating and in marriage, but marriage is fueled by faithfulness and reliability, not surprise. Agree on some real, objective boundaries, even if they feel arbitrary at first, and follow through together.