A little while ago, Tikva4eva emailed me with a great question: “When do you think one should start dating? How can one assess if she is mature enough to start? What should be the criteria? When is too early?”
In addition to being a good question, it was also a well timed question. It was around this time of year (give or take a few weeks) three years ago that I started dating and went on my first date. It’s always around now that I start thinking about what things were like when I started dating- how I have changed, how my attitude has changed. I am definitely not going to pretend to be an expert on the topic of when the right time is to start dating. I will be happy to share some ideas that I have heard and my thoughts on the subject, and more importantly, throw the question to all of you out there to hear your thoughts on when a person should start dating.
When I first read Tikva4eva’s question, a number of typical answers flew into my mind of things that have been tossed around. The main one was, “When you’re ready to give.” That is very vague and kind of leaves me feeling, “Well, what does that mean? How do I know if I’m ready to give? I like to give and do chessed, but I also did when I was in high school and clearly I was not ready to get married then.” The second one was the answer I heard from a teacher in seminary who said that she knew she was ready to get married when she felt that there was something missing in her life. While this is true in the sense that it ties into the previous answer- there is a missing relationship and you want to be giving to someone- it is not good to approach this situation from the angle of “marriage will fill in what I am lacking.” The answer of “to give” is so typical and cliché, but if you take a closer look at what that really means, it is right on target. Marriage is about giving to another person, so it makes sense. How do you get there?
I would like to suggest two steps to figuring out if you’re ready to start dating for marriage. Step #1 look at yourself, and step #2, look at your life.
Step #1- look at yourself
Marriage is the ultimate, deepest relationship. All relationships begin with your relationship with yourself. Who are you? What are your likes and dislikes? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are your positive traits and your faults? What are your goals? What do you strive for? Before you get married you need to figure out who you are and how you feel about yourself. This is true for all relationships, but for marriage especially. If someone doesn’t like who they are or is not OK with themselves, then it affects all of their relationships. You can’t give to someone else if you can’t even take care of yourself. Your cup must be full before it can overflow into others. When you take a deep look at yourself, look at your role in your relationships with others. Which people in your life do you get along with effortlessly, and which relationships require more work?
For this step, don’t feel shy talking to others in your life. Parents and siblings or roommates/those who you live with can often be particularly insightful when it comes to figuring out your strengths and weaknesses. One additional point that is important to mention is that you don’t need to be perfect to start dating. Knowing your faults does not mean that you need to fix all of them before you begin dating. You just need to evaluate that you are in a place where you are comfortable enough with yourself. This is not an objective evaluation, but rather it is something that each person needs to decide for themselves.
Step #2- look at your life.
I have never heard teachers or speakers mention this step, but it is important. What is your occupation and financial situation? To illustrate obviously- if you are a high school student, you are not ready to get married. If you are in college and have no income and your parents are not going to support you if you get married, then maybe either you need a plan or you should wait to start dating. If your parents will support you, make sure you know exactly what that means and how it is going to work. If you are in a job or school where you are busy for most hours of the day, then consider the fact that dating takes up time and it needs to fit into your schedule. Make sure you are at the right stage of life and ready for dating and marriage.
I started thinking about dating, around the time that I think most people do, when I came back from seminary in Israel. I knew I was not ready to get married at that point, from either of those steps, but I started thinking about it. Around three/three and half years ago I began to think about it more seriously, and I decided to do sit down and talk to my parents about it. I am very, very close with my parents and I consider them my mentors in all areas, be it emotional or spiritual. Since I seek their advice before most major decisions, it was natural for me to turn to them about this. For most people I think this is not the case, but sitting down with a teacher or friend or sibling or someone who can be a good bouncing board is a good idea. Anyway, after that conversation, I realized I was ready to start dating.
At the time, in the back of my mind, I had this picture that the way life goes, you’re born, you go to pre-school, then elementary school, then high school, then college, then you get married. Marriage was just the next step after college and I just figured I would magically meet the right person by the time college was over. Needless to say, that did not happen. I still have that template molded in the back of my mind, even though I know it is ridiculous. In retrospect, although I thought I was ready to get married at the time, I was just trying to make my life go the way I thought it should go, and I am glad that life worked itself out so that I did not get married right after college. Living on my own has been an amazing learning experience in so many ways. So many things that I always thought, “I will do that when I am married” I am doing now- such as cooking dinner every night. Even though I still believe I was mature enough when I started dating, there is so much that I have learned since then, about the world and about myself, and about dating, and I value that learning experience greatly.
Starting to date was at first just weird. Having been in a single sex environment for most of my life, the first time a guy called me to arrange a date was so nerve-wracking. When I heard my phone ringing at the time the guy was supposed to call I was panicked. Luckily, when I picked up the phone, the guy sounded way more nervous than I was so that put me at ease and I quickly became comfortable, especially once conversation started flowing. However, feeling calm didn’t change the fact that the entire time it was as though a loud voice was shouting frantically in the back of my mind, “I am on the phone with a guy! I am on the phone with a guy! Aaaahhhh!” Ok maybe I’m just weird, but what do you expect when I’ve spent my entire high school and seminary being told not to talk to guys? I was the most nervous in the time between when he called to say he arrived (I was in the Stern dorm at the time) and when I actually met him. Once I was on the date, I was fortunate enough to have a positive first date experience that was not awkward or filled with silences. Since that very first first date, I tend not to get too nervous, which I hear is rare, but I still find it oddly calming when guys are nervous.
To end off- advice for those who are about to start dating for marriage? Don’t rush into it. Take your time. Get to know yourself, think it through, talk to mentors to help you make sure you’re ready. Don’t let social pressure get to you. If you’re not sure if you’re ready, my experience is that you fall into two categories. The first describes most people, which is that you are really not ready, which is why you’re not sure. Don’t start if you’re not sure. The second category is those who are ready to start dating, but they are just scared. They are scared for any number of reasons- fear of rejection, fear of the unknown. In that case you just have to jump in.
That’s pretty much all I have to say on the topic, so I throw the question out to you: How does one know if they are ready to start dating? How did you decide? What factors played into your decision to start dating?