Dating is a process, and within the process are expectations. The first expectation is that both persons are positively open to finding their future spouse and they are spending time with each other specifically because they want to determine if the other might be that person for their future marriage. The second expectation is that both persons are serious about staying close to God and having a chaste dating experience. That means both persons are interested in making sure the relationship develops without having sexually related things happen that are reserved only for marriage. What are those things? Obviously, intercourse is the big one. But also any physical actions that would stimulate or cause arousal. For example, kissing on the lips for a few seconds can be a nice sign of affection and does not typically stimulate or arouse. But a “French kiss” (a kiss with the tongue) or prolonged kissing on the lips along with pressing the other against you will naturally stimulate and arouse.
So the rule of thumb is to avoid anything physical that can stimulate and arouse you or the other person to desire something more sexually. You don’t want to put each other into an occasion of sin, and you want to respect each other. However, as fallen human nature will have it, people fail in this area and they either try to get the other to do more than they should, or both concede to do more. Scrupulosity would cause one or both persons to see these failures as a sign that the other person is no good for them and to end the relationship. Or one of the persons might see the other’s desire for them sexually as a sign that this person is no good for them because of their sexual interest in them outside of marriage. It’s good to not be too hard on each other. It’s a challenging age we live in, so we should be quicker to give people the benefit of the doubt and not quick to make them feel bad. Just something to think about.
The heroic goal, however, that all good people of faith should strive for is that they never give up the gift they have to give their spouse on their wedding night, which is their body, given to the other in sexual intimacy that bonds the two in marriage and is open to children. For older single persons who might not be able to have children, this purpose is still the same. Sexual union is meant to bond the two in mutual love and to be open to life. That openness to life might not come from natural children, but their love will desire to reach out to the children of others and touch their lives.
You asked about romance, friendship, and intimacy. All of these things can be expressed chastely before marriage. And what we are really saying is that to be chaste is to not allow those things to happen that pertain to the bodies of each other that only a husband and wife have the “rights” to give each other in marriage. In marriage, a woman gives one man “rights” to her body for a lifetime, and the man does the same for that one woman. It is an exchange of rights to their bodies for those purposes in marriage.
Romance and friendship build intimacy. They can also build sexual desire. Once sexual desire is aroused, that is when new things have to be addressed, including preserving chastity and determining marriage. Romancing during dating is simply the process of making the other feel special and uniquely loved. Some people overdo it with what romance is and what they expect romance to be during the dating process. It does not have to be expensive dates and unusual or exotic places to spend time, or love songs or poems written, etc. But whatever it is that can be done to make the other person feel special or make them smile is romance. Nothing is wrong with any of that in dating.
Building the friendship is much more important than romance. To marry someone you can count on, feel secure about and with, whom you can trust, and whom you just can’t imagine spending your life without is a precious gift. Friends do still hurt each other, we must not forget. But friends are always “there” for you. They can be counted on. They do not come and go based on moods or feelings. They can be trusted to be your friend, even when you might not be that good of a friend. When you marry someone, you almost want it to be more important to hear “I trust you” than “I love you”. Anyone can just say “I love you”, but it’s hard to say “I trust you.” And if you do, you better mean it, and the other person better step up to being trustworthy.
This is why I strongly believe that a man and a woman cannot be “close friends” without there being romantic developments. Friendship that grows leads to intimacy. You would be hard-pressed to find a woman who is married or serious with a man who will be comfortable with her fiancé or husband having a close friend of the opposite sex. Friendship is powerful, and it is so special. Men need other close male friends, and women need other close female friends. Those friendships have an intimacy that is important for their well-being. Same-sex friendships are critical. But opposite-sex friendships have to be very careful.
So what I really want to advise you here about friendship during the dating process is 1) encourage each other to have same-sex friends and spend time with them, and 2) be very careful about how you both handle opposite-sex friends. So many terrible things happen to ruin good relationships based on these two things alone. Having same-sex friends is so important, even in marriage. A man needs to have his time out with other male friends and so does a woman need her time with her girl friends. It makes the marriage much healthier. Sometimes you see a person give up their friends because they want to spend ALL their time with the person they are dating. That is not good, nor healthy, and it is a sign that there might be other problems. And sometimes a person gets jealous of a friend that the person he or she is dating has. For example, a woman who gets defensive or insecure about a woman her boyfriend is very close to and the way they interact. That boyfriend would do well to understand he has to be mindful of how his opposite-sex friendships can affect a dating relationship. It’s never good or healthy to feel threatened by the relationship of your fiancé or spouse with a person of the opposite sex. But it is also dangerous to get “too close” to someone of the opposite sex when you are serious with someone else, or engaged, or married.
What people need to realize is that “intimacy” does not mean “sex” or intercourse. Physical, genital expression is a kind of intimacy that is reserved for a man and a woman who are married. It is a fulfillment of something begun in their relationship that is now able to be fully expressed in their marriage. But it is one kind of intimacy. There are other kinds of intimacy. Romance and friendship help develop intimacy. Intimacy affects the whole person. It is emotional, psychological, physiological, and spiritual. People who are dating have to develop intimacy. But they must never allow their intimacy to get expressed sexually. There can be signs of affection, but they cannot go too far, for the intimacy that is reserved for a man and a woman in marriage is too sacred to be abused. The dating process is time of mystery that builds up toward a great unveiling. Marriage is a lifetime of unveiling.
You also want to be careful about your dating time going on too long. For older singles, there should not be the need of as much time dating as younger people might have to do. Most older people know who they are, what they have, and what they want. They should have a maturity level that can allow for a reasonable amount of dating before entering exclusivity (courtship), and then shortly after that, engagement to be married. If you are able to see each other for several days at a time at least a couple of times per month, you should both know if you want to be exclusive within three months or so. After another three months or so of exclusivity, which is a time period used to determine a reason why you both should NOT get married, there should be engagement. Then, of course, marriage should take place six months or so after that. This timeline depends on spending your time together (and apart) wisely.
What is a “wise” use of this time of dating and courtship? Getting to know each other, spending time with each other in person and with each other’s family and friends, asking as many questions as necessary, and discovering love. There will be a point when you both discover that you really can’t see living your lives without the other. That is the time to get engaged to be married.
Be careful of men that prolong dating and will not go exclusive. You need to see a man making “commitment moves” all along the way. These commitment moves will be a sign to you that this man is serious about the process of finding a wife. If he is already not interested in seeing other women, then, in a way, you are already exclusive. But the courtship period should be accepted by both “officially”. You will want to hear him say that he is not open to any other women during this time of discovering a reason why you should not get married. So to go into courtship means that marriage should already have been talked about.
There is no need to get obsessive about how all these things will play out. All I am doing is giving food for thought. Things should and will happen quite naturally. What I want to make sure you avoid is investing too much time in a relationship that goes nowhere. In other words, you should not be just “dating” after six months. That’s too long to not be committed to a serious phase of your relationship and moving toward engagement. Otherwise, you not only may be wasting your time, you might invest your heart to the point of really getting hurt unnecessarily.
That brings me to the word “love.” Don’t use it unless you mean it in a way that desires permanence. A man will use the word “love” much more quickly and loosely than will a woman. Your job is to make sure you don’t use that word until you know he is the man you want for the rest of your life and that you are pretty certain he DOES love you and is not just saying it at an emotional level. Saying “I love you” too early can cause confusion as you go along. So be careful of this.
There is so much more I could share with you, but I think this should suffice for now to help you along. I hope you find it helpful.