A married couple sits on the edge of a pond at sunset, wearing their wedding garb.

Do We Believe in Marriage Anymore? What Our Dating Habits Say About Millennial Beliefs in Marriage

For the last two weeks, this concept of covenant has dominated my thoughts. (Some of my friends are ready to beat me over the head if they hear the word “covenantal” one more time.) Two weeks ago, covenant rocked my world, completely reshaping the way I relate to God and understand my history with him, and covenant has radically altered the way that I practice faithfulness to God in dating.

Covenant is a promise without an exit. It binds two or more individuals together, but because our culture has come to focus so much on individual freedom, the concept of covenant has all but disappeared from our habits and practices, and as I’ve reflected on both my dating history and the way our culture practices dating, I’ve come to see how an absence of covenant from our dating habits and practices is robbing us of God’s highest and best for romantic relationship.

Because covenant is a promise without an exit, it carries with it the potential for great pain and cost to the one who enters it. The ancient cultures of the Bible understood this. In fact, so seriously did these cultures take covenant that to solidify their covenant, the parties would take animals and split them in two (gross, I know). They would then walk in between the halves of the animals, symbolically saying to one another, “If I break my covenant promises, let it be done to me as it’s been done to these animals.” They understood that a covenant was supposed to be a promise without an exit, and their practices for making covenants (gross though they may be) reflected this.

So, in Genesis 15, when Abraham asks God how he knows that God will really give him the family that God’s promised him and God says to Abraham, “Take these animals and split them in two,” Abraham knows what’s coming. He and God are going to make a covenant together.

But then something unexpected happens. God takes the form of the smoking cauldron and a fiery torch not unlike the pillar of cloud and fire that would lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and God moves among the halves of the animals, symbolically saying to Abraham, “Even if I have to be torn limb-from-limb, I will make good on my promise to you.”

God doesn’t hesitate to make covenants with his people. As I discovered two weeks ago, covenant is the overarching theme that ties together the entire biblical narrative. Faced with our unfaithfulness, God remains faithful to his promise to Abraham, being torn limb-from-limb himself on the Cross to give Abraham the family he’d promised him 2,000 years before.

That is the kind of devotion, the kind of covenantal faithfulness, that forms the bedrock for God’s relationship with his Church through Christ, and it is that relationship that serves as the model for the way husbands and wives should relate to each other. (See Ephesians 5.)

But whenever I make time for dating in the insanity of my world, I encounter women who don’t seem to believe in that Ephesians 5 covenantal relationship between husbands and wives. Instead of progressing from dating to seriously dating to engaged to married, these women (and the men they’re dating) have settled for relationships that progressed from dating to seriously dating, but stagnated at “living together.”

The men and women who find themselves in these stagnant relationships are, in a lot of ways, “married.” They’re (presumably) having sex, and are thus physically “married.” They’re living in the same house or apartment, which makes them geographically “married.” They’re probably sharing some expenses like rent and groceries, making them financially “married.” And depending on the laws of their state, they may even be legally “married” (unbeknownst to many of them, I’m sure).

In many ways, the men and women who choose to settle for these stagnant relationships are enjoying a lot of the benefits of marriage, but they lack the one thing that makes a marriage a marriage: they lack a covenant. At no point in these relationships have they promised to one another before God, their family, and their friends that they’re not going anywhere. At no point have they made that “till death do we part” covenantal promise-without-an-exit that is the very essence of God’s highest and best for their relationship.

If asked, some of them may say they believe in marriage, but their behavior says otherwise. Their behavior says that they prefer the personal freedom of “try it before you buy it.” They probably like the idea of a promise that they’re not going anywhere, but they don’t like the potential pain and hurt that come along with that.

Because a covenant is a promise without an exit, it puts those who enter it in a position of enormous vulnerability with each other. By promising that they’re not going anywhere no matter what, those who choose covenant are opening themselves up to the possibility of enormous hurt and pain at the hands of the other.

Our culture’s answer is simple. Instead of making covenantal commitment the bedrock for marriage, we’ve replaced that covenantal commitment with the values of individual freedom. We’ve told ourselves that dating and marriage is really about knowing each other, having “chemistry,” and personal gratification. Is it any wonder, then, that at the first bump in the road, at that first moment when married couples begin to encounter difficulty, they begin to wonder to themselves if they married the “wrong person”?

By replacing covenantal commitment with the ideals of individual freedom as the bedrock for “marriage,” we’re saying with our behavior that we don’t really believe in marriage anymore. But for those of us who still want the covenantal commitment that accompanies biblical marriage, how should we approach dating? Should we toss dating out the door altogether, as some in the Church have suggested—dating is, after all, based entirely around the ideals of individual freedom—or might there be some way that we can integrate the concept of covenant with our culture’s dating practices and norms?

Dating Covenantally

I still remember a conversation I had almost five years ago with a very dear friend of mine named Ashley. So dear is Ashley to me that she’s like a sister, and on that fall day in 2011, she and I were sitting in my car in the parking lot outside her apartment building. We’d spent the afternoon getting lunch together and catching up on life, and I’d shared with her my latest dating interest in a girl who was a checker at Whole Foods.

I told Ashley how I’d gotten coffee with this Whole Foods girl a few times, how she had a boyfriend that she lived with, and how I was thinking of telling her that if she wanted to continue our relationship, she needed to break up with her boyfriend and be with me. Ashley quickly scolded me. She shared with me that there were only two men in her life who’d had romantic interests in her and upon learning that she wasn’t interested, had told her they were going to stick around anyway. The first was her husband. The second was me (her adopted brother).

Ashley told me that by telling Whole Foods girl, “break up with your boyfriend and be with me or I’m out of here,” I was telling her that if I couldn’t “get in her pants” (Ashley’s words), I wasn’t interested. In other words, by giving this girl that ultimatum, I was conveying to her that I wasn’t interested in her, but only in what I could get from her, and this sister of mine knew me well enough to know that wasn’t where my heart was at.

That conversation has stayed with me to this day as one of the most powerful conversations I’ve ever had on dating. Nevertheless, I’ve failed on more than one occasion to practice what Ashley shared with me that day because I didn’t understand the concept of covenant.

But since that moment two weeks ago when covenant completely rocked my world, I’ve thought back to that conversation with that sister of mine, and I’ve come to see how what she was really getting at was a call to date covenantally instead of contractually.

Contracts are tit-for-tat. In the United States and many other Western countries, there are two things required for a contract to exist: an objective manifestation of mutual assent, and what us law-folk call “consideration.” (No, it has absolutely nothing to do with being thoughtful.)

What is “consideration,” you ask? Well, consideration is what makes it so that your mother can’t sue you for failing to call her after work like you promised. It requires mutuality to promises (tit-for-tat), and it’s a concept that’s rather unique to the West. In countries like Japan, for example, your mother can sue you for failing to call her after work like you promised, because in Eastern countries, your word is your bond, regardless of the presence of “tit-for-tat.”

(Eastern countries are also much more focused on the collective community rather than the individual, so it’s no surprise that concepts like consideration, designed as they are to protect individual freedom, don’t exist in Eastern legal systems. As Christine Pohl mentions in her bookLiving into Community, promises make or break the collective community, so it’s no surprise that countries that put the emphasis on collective community also make their word their bond, regardless of “tit-for-tat.”)

To date covenantally, then, means that you and I are forgoing any notion of “tit-for-tat” or “quid pro quo” in dating. It means that you and I are committing to see a pursuit through, wherever it may lead and whatever that looks like. For men, it means we’re choosing to commit ourselves to pursuing one woman and seeing that through to the end. What is that end? I don’t know. It’s never clear, and that’s the point. If there were a clear exit, it would be a contract, not a covenant. Covenantal pursuit means that there is no clear end to that pursuit. There isn’t a clear point at which you can say, “I’m out.” There are no ultimatums.

Practically speaking, dating covenantally means that I choose to pursue a woman with marriage in mind, I set my sights exclusively on her, and I’m willing to stick around and be her friend if she has a boyfriend or if she’s not interested. Dating covenantally means that I’m committing to stick around and get to know her well enough to know whether she is (or isn’t) God’s best for me, and I for her, even if we don’t get to do that terribly awkward dance called “dating.” It takes time. It takes investment. It means that I’m more concerned about her as a person than I am about her as a wife or a sexual partner, and it means that I might get hurt.

But I think this mirrors God’s pursuit of us. God was faithful to us, invested in us, long before we ever committed to Him. Alone and deserted, Christ cried out, “Forgive them!” investing in us with his very blood. God’s vision for romantic relationships puts the man in the role of “pursuer,” mirroring Christ’s pursuit of us. Dating covenantally requires that same Christ-like pursuit, and it opens us up to the possibility of feeling the same kind of pain that Christ felt (and feels) when those for whom he died, those in whom he invested himself, reject him. But it also opens us up to the possibility of experiencing the profound joy that comes when the one in whom we’ve invested so much of ourselves chooses us in return. By dating covenantally, we are, in fact, mirroring Christ’s relationship to his bride, the Church, and thus stepping into God’s highest and best for our romantic relationships.

Dating Covenantally as a Woman

Now, because I’m not a woman (obvi), I can’t say for sure what dating covenantally looks like for a woman. I’ve thought a lot about it and had some great conversations with some really smart women, but I’m still unsure. I’ve punted this to a few women in my life and I will update this post when I hear back from them. I know that all of us, but especially women, need to guard against an attraction to unhealthy or abusive relationships. God’s best for a woman is a man who earns her trust through acts of sacrificial love (including his covenantal pursuit), not coercion and control, and dating covenantally means that women shouldn’t settle for anything less.

But God’s best for women also means that women shouldn’t settle for “living together.” They shouldn’t settle for a man who’s happy to enjoy the benefits of a “marriage” without first promising her that he’s not going anywhere, without first investing himself in her in the same way that Christ has invested himself in us.

Whether man or woman, if you’re in such a relationship, practicing faithfulness to God in dating means one of three things: breaking up, living separately, or promising each other before God and all of your family and friends that you’re not going anywhere (i.e., marriage).

The Fear of Pain

God’s covenant promises to us exposed him to a whole lot of pain, and when we, the Church, make covenantal promises back to God, we’re opening ourselves up to a whole lot of pain. No where in the Bible does God promise us that when we commit ourselves to him, life gets easier. In fact, Jesus promises us that life only gets a whole lot harder when we do. People’s fear of dating covenantally often boils down to a fear of pain, but if we really want God’s highest and best for our marriage, if we really want that Ephesians 5 relationship modeled after Christ and the Church, then pain—or at least the possibility of pain—is something that goes along with that.

So, yes, dating covenantally means that we’re opening ourselves up to the possibility of a whole lot of pain, but we’re also promised that if we love God, if we practice faithfulness to him in dating and in everything else, he works all things for our good, turning sorrow into dancing, crucifixion into resurrection. Pursuing God’s highest and best for us in dating and in all else, wherever that may lead us, might result in pain, but it always results in the new, abundant life that God has in store for us.