Let’s Talk About Dating – Part 3
Dating Matters – Starting Strong
Healthy dating MUST be founded on a solid foundation of friendship. You are really going to get sick of hearing me say this, but I cannot stress this enough. Recently, one of the students that I mentor shared how thankful he was that I took the time to share this. Believe it or not, this is not common knowledge.
I referenced the recent phenomenon that many people are writing about called “The Twilight Effect,” which means different things to different people. For me, this phenomenon is about two things: a misguided idealism of the “perfect guy” and a misguided idealism of “perfect love.” Both are fantasy and both are damaging. Now, again, I must confess that I have not read or watched anything from the Twilight series so I am not specifically referencing the plot of this series so much as pointing out what I have seen communicated in modern media and fiction in general. We have idealized and romanticized the notion of “falling in love” to the point that students expect sparks of wild romance from the first glance or touch. The problem is, this is not love…it’s infatuation.
Now, I am not at all against infatuation. It is a wonderful, exciting, and completely healthy and necessary element to a romantic relationship. Infatuation is the stage where “that person” makes you feel like you’re walking on air. It is the time when every thought is wrapped around this person. It is also the time when many of our students jump headfirst into physical intimacy. Every urge of adolescence is pushing them in this direction, and these newfound feelings of intense infatuation make this seem like the “destined” path. Unfortunately, as we will examine, early physical intimacy in a relationship short-circuits God’s healthy plan for growing into true intimacy (not physical) in a way that allows those in a relationship to “know and be known” in a beautiful way.
The Science of Infatuation
Ok…just a fair warning, I’m going to dive into a little science for a bit. I recently read a tremendously fascinating book by Joe S. McIlhany Jr., MD and Freda McKissic Bush, MD entitled Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children. Essentially, the book is about how amazing modern technological advancements have shown how sexual behavior affects the human brain. Based on studies that involve mapping the human brain we have learned that it is impossible to detect the difference between infatuation and “true love” because both originate in the same brain centers. The two are so very much alike that not even all the wonders of modern technology can tell the difference! How on earth can a student thrust into the tumultuous waters of adolescence know the difference?!? The answer is, they cannot… At least not right away.
Infatuation is very different from love in that it has not yet translated into the intimate levels of commitment and bonding that can only happen with time and, yep, you guessed it, friendship. Studies have shown that once infatuation is combined with sexual behavior, chemicals in the brain (oxytocin in girls and vasopressin in guys) create a bonding effect that simulates love on a “commitment level” (chemically speaking). This is a very unhealthy bonding because when this bonding happens during the infatuation stage of a relationship, the other factors that lead to true relational bonding are not yet present. Things like true compatibility, spiritual and emotional maturity, relational stability, and interpersonal “chemistry” have not yet been worked out. Essentially, friendship and relational bonding have yet to be developed which makes the relationship unstable and prone to break-up. In truth, every relationship in it’s early stages is unstable and at risk of break-up. This is why love takes time to develop. When the chemical bonds that come with sexual behavior are introduced too soon in a relationship, the natural order that God intended for bonding has been “fast-tracked” causing damage to the relationship and incredible emotional and psychological damage to both parties (especially the girl) when a breakup happens.
Now, I know that was a lot of science. What does it all mean? God has designed us in a wonderful and beautiful way. He has created us to desire companionship and connection. He designed us to bond to each other emotionally, cognitively, and when His timing is right (i.e. marriage). He created us to bond physically through the act of sex, which seals the deal in our brains. It is really quite amazing. The reason I share this is because our students NEED to see why delaying physical intimacy is so important.
Though on a much different level, similar chemical bonding in the brain can happen with any intimate physical touch. For instance, a prolonged, meaningful hug lasting 20 seconds or more has been proven to release oxytocin (on much smaller levels than during sex) in a girl’s brain. This means that when teenagers jump into physicality in their relationship too soon, they are once again “fast-tracking” God’s natural plan. Many parents and youth ministries have a different opinion on what is appropriate physical contact in a dating relationship. Personally, I have no problems with things like kissing, holding hands, hugging, etc. as long as there are boundaries setup. However, studies have shown that even these physical interactions, though pure by my definitions and beliefs, still need to wait until after a solid foundation is created in the relationship (yep…there I go with friendship again).
The best advice we can give our students as we council them through the years of dating is “start slow.” Develop a solid friendship. Work on compatibility and like-interests. Laugh together. Play together. Cry together. Worship God together. Do everything you can to learn about that person you are so infatuated with. Then, when infatuation begins to deepen into something more, move into a healthy, Christ-honoring physical relationship. I know this makes a lot of parents and youth workers uneasy and possibly angry when I bring up physicality. I very much believe in sexual purity, abstinence until marriage, and honoring God with our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. I do, however, also believe there is a huge difference between affectionate touch and sexual touch. More on that one later.
In closing, I challenge you as a parent or youth worker to really pray about the idea of dating. How can we help our students start on the right foot? Far to often we are there to pick up the pieces when things go bad, but what if we were there to help them start strong?
Questions? Comments? Do you agree with the “start slow” plan? How do you think God wants us to pursue meaningful relationships?
previous posts in this series: