Stacy’s dating career could be described as “casual.” She would meet a man and throw herself into getting to know him while, in her heart, simultaneously keeping her options open. The rush of meeting someone new and connecting through physical touch made her feel wanted and important, but the idea of being tied down to someone made her nervous. She often found herself caught between hope and doubt, between the accelerator and the brake, between sex and the hope that he would want to leave her apartment afterward. After a while, her relationships would fizzle; she would lose interest because the relationship “just wasn’t going anywhere” or the guy would tire of waiting for her to “make up her mind” about their future.

After being tossed aside by his wife and the mother of their two children, Caleb declared to friends in his divorce recovery group, “Never again will I be hurt like that. Never again will I fall in love.” Bitterness and fear built 20-foot walls of self-protection.

Fast-forward life a few years and, to his surprise, Caleb found himself attracted to someone. He wondered if he could love and trust again. As quickly as hope would say, “Yes, you can,” fear would shift his heart into neutral. Just imagining being vulnerable made his heart tremble. The combination of Caleb’s passion for his new girlfriend and simultaneous fear of being hurt again found expression in a stayover arrangement. A few nights a week he would stay at her apartment, and occasionally she would stay at his, but both kept their separate residences, separate rent responsibilities, and ultimately separate lives.

Stacy and Caleb are in a dilemma: They want to be in an intimate, committed relationship but don’t want to take on the risks of marriage. Their solution? Strive for independent togetherness.

Commitment is a tough sale these days. Americans prize our national and economic independence, but now that mentality has dramatically invaded our social psyche about marriage, and it’s confusing us. We want to be with someone, but don’t want to be really with someone.

Typical arrangements

The dark hole inside independent togetherness is fear. Sex becomes the hiding place, an external behavior that gives the appearance of intimacy, but is really striving for self-protection.  And so unmarried couples end up in different types of arrangements.  These arrangements have varying degrees of vulnerability and commitment, but each seeks an independent togetherness.

Captive hook. Hook-up relationships often begin and end with a sex-without-strings mentality. No self-sacrifice required.

Yet these relationships have been defined by American culture as legitimate relationships. They aren’t. They are no-cost, shallow, empty-calorie thrills that have no nutritional value whatsoever.

People who engage in hook-ups rely on taking their clothes off to keep them from having to be emotionally naked. It’s a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” collusion between two people that ultimately leaves both of them hungry, malnourished, and for the most part pathetically looking for the next hook-up high hoping that one day they will finally discover something nourishing.

Living together. Somehow cohabitation—the halfway house to commitment—is now viewed as real commitment. Yet many people intuitively know what a decade of research has confirmed—that cohabitation is light-beer marriage: It tastes great, but comes at a great cost—it is less filling.

Despite the popularity of cohabitation, and eagerness of pop culture to glamorize it, marriage is still the ultimate “you’ve arrived” relationship. And yet to many in our divorce-fearful society, it is better to have “less filling” than more vulnerability to rejection, sadness, and heartbreak.

Really? I frequently tell cohabiting couples, who justify their trial marriage as a process to help them decide if a real marriage would work, that “trial marriages have trial commitments.” You really don’t know how much you could love or what you would be willing to give (read risk), and therefore, how intimate your relationship could be unless both of you jump into the deep end of the commitment pool with both feet. Sitting on the side and dipping one toe into the water to test the temperature isn’t swimming!

I stay, you stay. A more recent trend on the rise is stay-over relationships. This risk management strategy allows each person to maintain a separate residence to go home to.  I think this is the halfway house to the halfway house of cohabitation (which, if my math is correct, makes it about one-fourth of the way to commitment!). Again, another independent togetherness arrangement meant to protect the self-interests of each person and reduce their risk.

Married without the blend. Another recent trend among married blended family couples is maintaining separate residences even after marriage and not even attempting to “blend” the family. As one man asked me, “Most people only think there are two options: marry and blend or stay single and break up. Can’t there be an option C where couples marry but don’t try to merge their households until the children are older?”

Merging households, children, parenting styles, traditions, etc., is a significant adjustment for most blended families and brings a great deal of stress, but trying to avoid togetherness is not a solution. I would much prefer you just stayed single until the kids were launched from the home and then marry, than pretend like you’re blending.

All of the above independent togetherness arrangements make risk management the primary guiding force behind their level of investment in the relationship. Noted family psychiatrist Frank Pittman once said, “Marriage, like a submarine, is only safe if you get all the way inside.”

I say it this way: When I am protecting me from you there can’t be an “us.”

The safety of permanence

Let’s consider this observation by comparing it to marital sex. One function of marital sex is renewing the emotional bond of the couple and reminding them of their covenant to one another. From within the safety of permanence, the couple is free to engage in sexual touch that sustains and reinforces the specialness and safety of their relationship.

Outside of marriage, sex has a very different function: It creates a pseudo-bond between the couple that blurs the definition of their developing relationship and confuses physical closeness for emotional safety. Couples with little foundation to their relationship can be fooled into thinking they have more in the bank with one another than they really do.

In short, it makes you feel connected even when there is no substance to a relationship. Couples having sex outside of marriage are quite possibly writing checks with their lives based on a bankrupt account. In the end, they get hurt and waste a lot of time on a quick but shallow high.

In a blind act of self-sabotage, sexuality in dating is not viewed by today’s culture as something that contributes to vulnerability, rather, the assumption is that you can enjoy it while maintaining your separateness. You can have your cake and eat it too.

  • You don’t have to reveal yourself to another
  • You don’t have to accommodate your preferences while living in intimate relationship with another
  • You don’t risk your accumulated wealth
  • You don’t have to lose your independence or identity by getting married
  • You don’t have to risk having your child(ren) being raised by a stepparent
  • And you don’t risk being hurt … again.

In short, you can hide naked without consequence.

But this line of thinking is completely faulty. Independent togetherness strategies actually foster pain when what seemed to be real turns out not to be. Sometimes dating couples figure this out and break up (because “he just wasn’t the one”), while other couples don’t realize what has happened until they have already married and discover they really don’t know—or like—each other. Either scenario is completely avoidable.

Courageous dating

What is needed is the courage to date well (intelligently and romantically) and make a clear decision for marriage so that each person takes responsibility for leaping into the deep end of the pool. There are, of course, no guarantees of long-term marital success. Intimacy is inherently risky. But without the courage to take risks, love will remain a distant dream.

Here are some quick tips to help you avoid an independent togetherness dating arrangement.

1. Date with an eternal purpose in mind.

Recognize that one ultimate purpose of marriage is to further disciple us into the image of Christ. This reality should change everything. Pursue relationships that keep you connected to God, not withdrawing from Him in shame.

2.Get healthy.

Does your relationship history testify to the presence of fear in your life? Have you settled for independent togetherness relationships in order to “play it safe”?  Take it before the Lord and ask the Spirit to help you to get healthy. Peel away the layers of your emotions and see what Lord wants to redeem in you so you aren’t paralyzed by it any longer.

3. Take off the blindfold.

If you have been hiding naked in sexuality, it’s time to move back to sexual purity until marriage. Even if you’re in a cohabiting situation and regularly engaging in sex, it’s time to stop. The only way to recover an objective perspective about the health of your relationship—and more importantly, about your true priorities—is to remove the mirage that sex before marriage produces.

Maintaining a desire for the best in your dating life—and in your future marriage—starts by trusting that God has your best interest in mind when it comes to His boundaries around sex. God knows what a powerful force sexuality is in our lives. After all, He designed it. By declaring sexuality before marriage a sin, He is not being a simpleton or a killjoy; He is trying to protect you from a shallow relationship and personal pain.

The only question is, do you trust His motives and His insight? Saving sex until after marriage protects the objectivity of your dating, ripens your commitment to each other, and then after marriage, as a symbol of marital oneness blossoms in a pleasurable celebration of love. That’s worth waiting for.

4. If you are a single parent or are dating a single parent, you should date with awareness that marriage forms a couple relationship and creates a family.

In my book Dating and the Single Parent I point out that when you already have children, the dating relationship inherently creates a competing attachment to the parent and child. The choice to be with the dating partner or children generally means the other is left waiting … and wondering how their relationship with you is being influenced by your relationship with the other.

In addition, children commonly feel some insecurity about their mom or dad’s relationship with another person. Wise singles recognize this important dynamic and don’t assume that becoming a couple necessarily means that they can become a family. They attend to both and take time assessing how the potential stepfamily relationships are developing.

5. Choose to risk, choose to love.

At the end of the day, there are no guarantees on love. We live in a fallen world and you and I are fallen, imperfect people. Because of that, being in a loving relationship sometimes hurts. Marriage, to be successful, needs to be an “all-in” experience. Dating, on the other hand, is a progressively “moving toward all-in” experience. Each new depth requires a little more openness, a little more trust, a little more risk.

To pull up short of the risk required is to revert back to hiding. If you find the relationship unsafe at the new depth, then by all means, pull back. But then again, maybe it was your lack of risk that made it unsafe.

Knowing when to risk, and when not to, is never easy. One thing is for sure: A love that is motivated by self-preservation never matures into selfless love, and independent togetherness dating relationships never find oneness.

Copyright © 2013 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.