Why are dating relationships so hard to navigate?
Maybe it’s texting a friend of the opposite gender and wondering if you like each other or if it will ever be more than just friends.
Or you get home from that first date you’ve been waiting for, and it didn’t go as expected.
Or you’re finally dating your crush and it isn’t going like you hoped.
Or you’re in a relationship and you just can’t seem to get on the same page with what your relationship looks like.
The problem is, much of our ideas about relationships come from the media — whether we like it or not.
Relationships on TV and social media are usually fun, cute, carefree, exciting, and romantic. But the reality of most relationships is that they’re lived in the uneventful and monotonous moments of life, with a sprinkle of the romantic and exciting. We don’t watch uneventful relationships on TV. In fact, many relationships on TV end because they “lost the spark,” “fell out of love,” or “they aren’t the same person they started dating.”
As young people looking for how to date as Christians, there’s not much (ok, there’s no) media available to show us how to navigate it. Often, we take what we see in the media and decide our relationships can look like that, it’ll just be centered on Jesus instead. Or we may try to combine the things we see on TV with a Christian relationship we see in real life and decide that’s what we’re going for.
Even if we do have a relationship in real life we want to emulate, we only see the tiny 10 percent of what that couple shows around others. Even if you respect your parents’ marriage and want to follow in their footsteps, you can’t see every aspect of their relationship.
So, when we combine everything we’ve seen over the years through our lives and the media, what we get are a mountain of expectations for how relationships should be.
Now, try to date someone who also has a mountain of different expectations, and it becomes quite a mess.Uncommunicated expectations are the silent infection that’s liable to break down any relationship. Click To Tweet
Uncommunicated expectations are the silent infection that’s liable to break down any relationship. We all have expectations (whether we realize it or not) and when we don’t communicate them, we easily become confused, frustrated, hurt, angry, let down, and sometimes done with the relationship all together.
So, let’s get down to where our expectations come from, how to expose them, and how to communicate them clearly so our relationships have a better chance of flourishing.
Where do our expectations come from?
I touched on this earlier in the article, but much of our expectations come from what we see around us. One of the most prominent—but often unrealized places—is our parents’ marriages. Whether we respect and look up to our parents or want to be the complete opposite of them, growing up watching their marriage has given you ideas regarding relationships that have formed conscious or subconscious expectations.Whether we respect and look up to our parents or want to be the complete opposite of them, growing up watching their marriage has given you ideas regarding relationships that have formed conscious or subconscious expectations. Click To Tweet
From the way your parents communicate, to the way they handle their finances, to how they spend time together, to how they invest in the church—you’ve watched it all and developed expectations based on what you saw.
For example, my parents were very independent. If one was hungry for lunch, they went to make themselves lunch rather than asking the other if they wanted anything and offering to make something. They did everything independently. Now, I’ve followed their lead. I’ll get up to grab a snack for myself and never ask if my husband wants anything. He usually says: “You didn’t ask if I wanted some.” I’m usually slightly annoyed and think, “get it yourself.” My parents operated independently, so my expectation was that my marriage would be the same. I thought it was the norm. But my husband grew up where his mom would willingly do anything for anyone, so they were used to someone always looking out for them. We went into marriage with very different expectations because of it.
Our expectations are also formed by what we see on social media, movies, TV shows, etc., but what we see is often curated, edited, and created to entertain or pull on your emotions. Even Christian relationships can portray these same things. Take Sadie Robertson as an example. Many young women follow her and her relationship—but all we see are the chosen pictures, the edited reality, and the words she crafts.
Constantly consuming media about relationships can give us the idea that relationships are always fun, exciting, happy, and giddy. Part of us knows it’s not the reality, but we don’t realize we’ve let it form an expectation until we get easily let down in a real relationship. When we have these expectations, it can be alarming when we argue, misunderstand, or even hurt one another.
Lastly, we often get expectations from the church or Christian culture. We see marriages in our churches, we follow the wisdom of our chosen Christian teachers, and we try to make sense of what Scripture teaches on dating. The danger in this is that when we date someone who calls themselves a Christian, we assume we align on the same expectations for dating, intimacy, and all other parts of a relationship. But depending on what church you grew up in and what messages you’ve heard, two Christians coming together in a relationship could have very different expectations for what that relationship should look like.We see marriages in church, follow wisdom from Christian teachers, and try to make sense of what Scripture teaches. The danger is when we date someone who calls themselves a Christian, we assume we align on expectations for dating. Click To Tweet
Relationships get messy when we bring in our expectations.
How do you find out what your personal expectations are?
The difficult thing about expectations is that they truly take time to unearth and most of the time we discover them in real-time amid a relationship. Like my example before—I don’t think I would have noticed how much I only look out for myself if my husband and I didn’t (constantly) run into situations where it comes up.
But there is some digging you can do before you head into a relationship or even as you are dating now.
Here are some practical questions to ask yourself. Answering these questions won’t help you one bit if you don’t answer them honestly.
1. What are you looking for in a relationship?
2. What is your idea of quality time?
3. What does it communicate to you if your significant other is on his/her phone while with you? Is there a scenario or amount that’s acceptable in your eyes?
4. What do you admire about other relationships/marriages in your life?
5. What do you disagree with about other relationships/marriages in your life?
6. How do you feel most loved?
7. How often should you and a significant other talk? (You should answer this at every stage of the relationship because it will probably change)
8. What are your physical intimacy boundaries?
9. What other relationship boundaries do you have? (i.e., boundaries for time spent with just that person versus with a group/family).
10. What qualities do you want in a significant other?
11. What is considered a date to you?
12. What relationships with the opposite sex (that aren’t your significant other/family) are acceptable when you’re dating someone?
These are general relationship questions that will help you start to understand what you may be expecting — whether you realized you were or not—but you’ll need to consistently ask questions throughout a relationship in order to understand your expectations.
For example, if your boyfriend says he’s planning you a surprise, what are you expecting? If you don’t know what you’re expecting, another way to think about it is: what are you hoping for? Maybe still you’re thinking, “I have no idea what to expect or hope. It’s a surprise! I’m just excited for it.” But he ends up taking you to see a movie he loves and thought you also loved. You may find yourself let down because you were actually expecting it to be a better surprise.
Once you have a good grasp for what you expect, it’s important to learn how to clearly communicate your expectations and understand your partner’s as well.
How do you communicate expectations?
This may be the most difficult part for most people, but this skill is one of the most important if you want a flourishing relationship. No matter how long you’ve been together, you’ll always benefit from communicating clearly.To clearly communicate expectations, you both have to decide you are willing to share and talk about things, even if it seems weird or unnecessary. Click To Tweet
For example, this year I openly asked my husband if he had anything planned for my birthday. I then shared what I was hoping for, he shared his thoughts on a plan, and we made a plan together. I was tired of wondering what he was going to do for my birthday year after year and setting up expectations that weren’t communicated. I was usually let down and unable to fully enjoy my birthday because I was always expecting something too elaborate. But when we communicated our expectations, I knew what to expect and anything extra was a nice surprise I could enjoy.
If you’re going on a date, openly ask questions to know what to expect. It doesn’t mean you have to ruin any surprises, but it does mean both of you can go into the date knowing what to expect. You can say something like, “I’m excited for this date! Without ruining any surprises can you tell me some details about tonight?” When you know what to expect, you have the freedom to have fun instead of anxiously wondering, getting let down, crossing boundaries, or getting hurt.
If you’re talking to someone and it seems like it’s leading to a relationship, then start asking questions so you know what to expect. It could sound something like this: “Hey, I’m really loving the time I get to spend with you, and this feels like it’s going somewhere. What are you thinking?” Or “Just so we’re on the same page, how often do you want to talk?” This can feel awkward, but it creates security and confidence so you’re both on the same page. This kind of communication helps build you into a team that can be centered on Christ instead of each other, because if you’re communicating well, it will free you up to focus outwardly together instead of inwardly apart.
It’s always important to share physical intimacy boundaries early on in the relationship. We can easily fall into temptation, and we can’t assume all Christians have the same boundaries. This might sound like, “Hey, we don’t have to go into depth about this, but I did want to say that my boundary stops at holding hands. I don’t want to go past that. What is your boundary?”
It may feel exhausting to you to always be asking questions, seeking clarity, offering honesty, and being open about expectations, but it can truly make or break a relationship. Communicating expectations early and often can help you decide if the relationship is worth it or not.It may feel exhausting to be asking questions, seeking clarity, and being open about expectations, but it can truly make or break a relationship. Sharing expectations early helps you decide if the relationship is worth it or not. Click To Tweet
Lastly, this isn’t just for dating relationships. We would all benefit from openly communicating expectations with friends and family. It is truly a way to love others and open the door for others to love you well.
The good news is that relationships are a constant learning experience. I’m six years into marriage and learning how to communicate clearly now that we have a baby seems to be one of our biggest communication hurdles yet. But when we do communicate clearly, we have more fun, argue less, and hurt the other person way less.