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A Case for Casual Dating for the Marriage-Minded

Or, six reasons why casual dating is actually kind of amazing.


Art Credit: Taylor McCutchan

A few years ago, when a man I was very intrigued by called me to ask for a date, I was elated. So elated that I broke one of my cardinal rules of dating—I closed myself off to other men who were expressing romantic interest, but hadn’t yet asked for a date. It was a silly decision on my part, not because I was being unrealistic about my date’s overtures—I fully understood it was just a first date, not a marriage proposal!—but rather, because when it became clear a second date with this man wasn’t in the cards, I was more disappointed than I probably should have been.

You see, I have a policy in my dating life. As best as I can, I don’t put all my eggs in one basket until it’s clear that a dating relationship is headed to an exclusive relationship. Older, wiser, married women in my life have told me this is how dating was in their day—Wednesday you might have a date with Bob and Friday you might have a date with Dan, but so long as neither relationship was exclusive, this was considered appropriate, they say, and even helpful in discerning commitment and ultimately marriage. It also kept expectations in check.

This approach to dating seems more difficult in our culture, where the prevalence of hook-ups has complicated our understanding of male/female relationships. Today it can seem that there are two dating cultures—the “hook-up culture,” where physical pleasure dominates, and the “hanging-out culture,” where the decision to avoid hooking-up has left men and women bashful when displaying any romantic interest for fear of unknown expectations. Both of these approaches have skewed expectations, making dating far too serious than it sometimes needs to be.

In the hook-up culture, the entrance of sexual activity too early in a relationship can facilitate incredibly serious expectations. “Casual sex isn’t always casual,” reports Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist at Rutgers University. The hormones released in sexual activity can produce intense feelings of attachment, she explains, even if that’s not what either party wants.

In the hanging-out culture, the absence of intentions and romantic pursuit often leave women and men longing for more. So then, when a proper date finally is presented, the stakes are raised, with one or both parties expecting more answers and certainty during what is often simply a first or second date.

Many of us are missing something in our dating lives, and Professor Anthony Esolen of Providence College has a terrific explanation of what we’re missing:

If he says, “I’d like to take you to a movie,” what does that imply? In a more innocent time, it meant that he’d take the girl to a movie, and he might be brave enough to put an arm around her shoulder, or even steal a kiss. In a more innocent time, the kiss itself would be a delight. To walk home with the girl he likes best, holding her hand, would thrill him to the core of his being. A blushing kiss at the front door might’ve been the stuff of dreams; sweeter by far than anything that the bored addict can glean from a hundred pages of body parts.

What Professor Esolen describes might seem old-fashioned, but there’s a beauty he describes that is meant to stir hearts—the thrill of the present moment. The fact that a man you may like asked you on a date (and for him, the fact that you said yes) should thrill us for that fact alone, leaving the thrills of commitment and marriage for another moment.

In a “hooking-up” vs “hanging-out” culture, our insertion of serious expectations—whether physical or emotional—tends to make the first few dates more anxiety-producing and more serious than the romantic dating culture Professor Esolen painted. But I have found there are ways to foster a more hospitable environment for truly casual, romantic dating, and that begins with what I don’t do.

First, I do not hook-up (thanks for backing a sister up, Kelly Clarkson). I want a lifetime of love and commitment, not just fleeting pleasure; and research continues to indicate that sex before commitment and with multiple partners damages communication, sexual quality, and emotional satisfaction in marriage.

I also don’t “hang-out” with men. I think you know what I’m talking about—those non-date dates, where he asked you to drinks but somehow you ended up splitting the bill or he asked you to a friend’s party and you think it’s because he likes you, but he’s not being upfront with his intentions. There’s also the emotional relationships (with maybe some kissing thrown in) in which there is little-to-no intentional pursuit in the relationship and no commitment, yet each party is getting at least some of the “perks” of dating. These types of situations don’t encourage men to ask women on dates. And if you want to get married, hanging out doesn't help women or men focus on what it takes to get there.

As women, we’re not helping our girlfriends out when we “hang out” in situations where a man is clearly not being intentional in his actions and words. Frankly speaking, we're also not helping the men in our lives reach their fullest potential when we’re not challenging them to a higher standard (Verily writer Isaac Huss has a great thoughts on this here). That’s why my girlfriends and I try to hold each other accountable to end flakey situations with guys rather than wait around. The result in our community has been less confusion, more clarity, and yes, more casual dating.

True to the experience of my wiser female friends, casual dating has been extraordinarily helpful to me in my pursuit of marriage and here are six reasons why.

01. Casual dating takes pressure off of any one situation.
Let’s face it. Many of us—women and men—can get psyched out when it comes to dating. We find ourselves running through hypotheticals. What if I don’t like him? What if I do? What if he’s “the one”? The “what-ifs” of dating can either paralyze us or they can cause us to put too much expectation into the first few dates or even months of a relationship. Both of those responses can spell bad news for the hopes of “happily ever after.” In my experience, the hypotheticals are exaggerated when our opportunities for dates are few and far between. Your date may be “the one” and he may not be, but when you consistently go on casual dates, you tend to realize there will be another date—and time will tell if that other date will be with this man or someone else. Either way, this understanding helps us just enjoy the current date for what it is.

02. Casual dating helps us display a greater openness to men.
Conversations I’ve had with men over the years have confirmed that many can sense if a woman is open to an invitation for a date or not. For me, I found that going on more dates has helped me to be more relaxed in social situations and therefore more approachable to men. It’s as if men can sense that a woman has other options, which is both a relief that she won’t put all expectations on him and a challenge that to not ask her out is to risk she will move on.

03. Casual dating can boost confidence.
Our understanding of our inherent dignity and worth is what keeps us from unhealthy relationships and behaviors, it's also what points us toward healthy relationships and behaviors. As my mom has told me countless times, “You have to teach people how to treat you.” But you can’t teach unless you know. Of course, we should never draw our understanding of our worth from our romantic interests, but it is true that human interaction can reaffirm interior beliefs and in turn boost our confidence. When we accept an invitation for a date, women (and men) can’t help but feel flattered that someone else is acknowledging our goodness.

04. Casual dating helps us become better at dating.
Dating is an art. It’s important to show a man appreciation on a date and to affirm his overtures if indeed you’re romantically interested. It’s equally as important that you’re more relaxed than tensed up—go ahead, have fun! That can feel like a lot to juggle in a short conversation over coffee or dinner. But the more dates you go on, the easier that balance will come. This balance is important to strike, as it signals to men you aren’t looking for him to “put a ring on it” on date two. And if more women adopted this casual tone, we likely would see more men asking women on dates.

05. Casual dating gives you the opportunity to meet new people whose view of the world is different than yours.
“Don’t look at men as just a potential romantic interest,” a friend told me once, “but look at them as the other half of the human race who have something to teach you about life, the world, and yourself.” Sure, you may not have pictured yourself marrying a farmer, or someone who loves heavy metal music. But when you’re in the conversation to understand rather than to be understood, you’ll often be pleasantly surprised to find that a date will feel less like an interview and more like, well, a date.

06. Casual dating helps us remember the ultimate goal of dating is marriage—instead of marriage to this person.
It’s important to remember that attraction does not equal compatibility. By opening ourselves to getting to know people who are outside of our “type” we may be surprised to learn that certain personality or character traits are actually more compatible with us than we realized. Further, nearly all of us have found ourselves in a situation where feelings aren’t reciprocal. It can be tempting to believe the mantra, “if it’s meant to be, it will work out.” While in some circumstances that may be true, the acknowledgement that “there are other fish in the sea” can help a practical woman remember desire for commitment is at least equally as important as compatibility. If marriage is our goal, then we should pursue relationships with men we’re attracted to and compatible with, yes, but who also want commitment and marriage, instead of waiting for the man who can’t seem to commit.

A final word about casual dating: There will come a time in every woman’s life when we will have to choose. We should choose wisely, but we should not become so overcome with choices that we’re unable to commit. So let’s not psyche ourselves out—just enjoy the ride.