Navigating the early waters of a relationship
Growing up in a Christian community, I would scour books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and When God Writes Your Love Story, looking for clues into how I should do this whole “relationship thing.” Romantic relationships seemed mysterious and exciting, particularly since I had not been in one. I had always wondered about: Who will this girl be? How will we meet? What would it feel like holding her hand? I dreamt about all the romantic escapades we would have.
As I read these books, I learnt about the gender roles within a relationship and the godly manner of growing one. Soon enough, I built up an ideal in my mind. I made a list of characteristics I wanted in a girl and I mapped out how our relationship would evolve, with all the requisite steps found in those books. However, the more I observed the couples around me, I realised that because people are not perfect, every relationship would have its shortcomings. There is no magic formula and I should not be rigid about achieving the ideal I had envisioned. Marshall Segal points out that the basic framework in choosing a spouse is: (1) they must be Christian, and (2) they must be of the opposite sex. The rest — chemistry, personality, life goals, etc. — are secondary; we are given the chance to exercise our choice in these matters.
Sometime last year, I made a choice to pursue a girl. I knew her from a course we took together in a bible school. For over two years, I only knew her as a friend, without having any intentions of a relationship. But one day, my eyes were opened to her loving character and sunny disposition. The energy she had was infectious and her heart for people was so attractive.
After prayerful consideration, and with the support of our families and close friends, we entered a relationship. We are thankful for the watchful eye provided for by our parents and the support among our community of friends. In being together, we experienced the exhilarating rush of mutual attraction and the jubilation of desire fulfilled. Having journeyed through a fair share of good calls and poor mistakes, I would like to share some axioms our relationship is now built on. They are not meant to be doctrinal or prescriptive, as your circumstance might be different from ours.
Talk first, do later
Early on in our relationship, we set clear boundaries for ourselves. Boundary setting is not just about “no sex” or “no intimate touching.” It goes way beyond that. The heart of it is found in mutual respect and honouring of each other’s purity. The Bible teaches husbands to love their wives and to make them holy and clean (Ephesians 5:25–27). The men have a role in guarding the purity of the relationship.
Having marriage as a goal for our relationship, we felt that it was important that we paced ourselves, lest we inadvertently cross any lines. We talked openly and candidly about some dos and don’ts. For the “dos,” we would only initiate them after having established it clearly. For example, while we were still dating to know each other better (before we “officially” entered into a relationship), we stayed away from any physical contact — no holding hands, no “accidental” brushes. We felt that this was overly intimate for the current stage of our relationship. We also talked about which parts of our bodies were appropriate to touch and which were not, and when these boundaries would be lifted. It might be an awkward conversation to have, but nevertheless an important one.
While it could appear like we killed the spontaneity of the moment — of a stolen hug or an unforeseen kiss — we thoroughly enjoyed the freedom as we kept within those boundaries. There were no unwarranted advances because we had safely taken it out of the equation. Talking about boundaries early helped set a foundation that avoids ambiguity and plausible compromise. Crossing those boundaries, only in its proper time, helped us enjoy the fruit of patience and restraint. These enabled us to preserve the integrity and purity of our relationship.
Empty the tank
Arguments and frustrations are unavoidable in a relationship. After we got attached, some of the questions on my mind were, “Would we ever get angry with one another? How would we ‘fight’?” We resolve conflict in different ways: I am slightly more confrontational, while she usually tries to avoid tackling the problem head on. (Both ways have its strengths and weaknesses.)
Once, she made a particular decision that made me feel angry and unwanted. In trying to preserve the peace in our relationship, I kept silent about it. However, it vexed me greatly and soon I felt frustrated with her; it went on to affect the way I treated her — I distanced myself from her, as I did not feel like talking to her. The growing pent-up frustration I felt in me was like having air pressure build up inside a steel tank, possibly leading to a huge explosion.
Before my emotional tank exploded, we took some time out and shared about what we were feeling. We managed to reach a compromise that both of us could agree to. In sharing our emotions, we were enlightened to each other’s perspective. Doing this early and intentionally helped to chafe away the difference in expectations and brought us closer together as a couple.
In dealing with conflicts, we have learnt to empty our emotional tanks quickly. This means that we would try to share our negative feelings early, instead of waiting for one dramatic outburst. Oftentimes, the root cause for these disagreements is misaligned expectations. We would think about a particular topic differently and behave in a way that the other person does not expect.
Obligation and concession
One example of a difference in expectations when we got attached was our availability to one another. I would like to bring my girlfriend along to every supper I have with friends and every extended family gathering. But it is impossible for us to be present at every occasion. Sometimes she would be busy with her other activities and commitments; other times, I would not feel like going to meet her friends. Surprisingly, this has turned out to be one of the sources of our misaligned expectations: I want her here, but she just doesn’t feel like it, or vice versa.
To help ourselves, we worked out two types of situations:
Obligation — when we are expected to bring our significant other to the event. For example, if my family were going to celebrate my mother’s birthday, I would text her, “Please come for my mother’s birthday celebration. #obligation.” Then she would make it a priority and set time aside to be present.
Concession — when bringing our significant other is optional. For example, if she were going for a meal with some of her friends, she would invite me saying, “Want to go for lunch with so-and-so? #concession.” Then I could choose to go or not, absolutely #nopressure.
This distinction between obligation and concession has helped us navigate the squally waters early on in our relationship. Sometimes, when our introverted side is calling out for “me-time,” it can feel quite sian needing to show up and be cordial; this is when knowing it is a concession helps. Of course, we do not show up only when it’s an obligation!
In the months that we have been together, I have come to realise that there is no ideal relationship — there are only better and worse ones. We all have to work at improving our relationship. The above axioms were developed along the way.
As I look back on the journey we have taken thus far, I am so thankful that we are both Christian. Our faith in Jesus has been central to how we perceive our relationship. It is the starting point of our love and desire for each other. In experiencing His love through meditating on His Word, I gain awareness of my deficiencies in loving her, and He becomes my example. On some days, I just cannot bring myself to express my love to her; it requires too much effort. However, as I tap into the love that I experience in my quiet moments with Jesus, I find the strength to continue investing into her life and our relationship.
In feeling increasing desire for her, I appreciate His strong and jealous longing for me, and it compels me to adore Him. I catch a greater glimpse of His immense yearning for deeper intimacy with His bride — the Church. Indeed, earthly relationships between a man and a woman provide a unique picture of the intimacy the Bridegroom desires to share with His bride.
Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
(Song of Songs 8:6 NIV)