Before you make that lifetime commitment, you want to make sure you are marrying an authentic and loving person who will always be true to you. How do you do this? The answer lies in the length of your dating relationship.
It’s a perennial question for romantics and rationals alike: what is a reasonable time frame to get to know a person well enough to make them your spouse for life…and at the same time not uselessly or dangerously dragging out a dating or engagement period?
I have friends who’ve gotten engaged two months after their first date and married less than six months later. I know other couples who’ve dated for three, four, even five or more years before walking down the aisle.
As I continue to investigate what relationship experts have to say on the subject, it becomes more and more clear that just about everyone has a different answer to this question—and they all think they have the right answer.
How long should you date?
Probably the best answer I’ve heard to the “what’s the best time frame” question is “it depends—it’s different for every couple because of the unique situation and circumstances of every relationship.”
This answer seems to makes a lot of sense.
Couples in long distance relationships, for instance, have the difficulty of getting to know each other well enough to make a marriage commitment across miles of separation. For them, a dating period might necessarily be longer.
On the other hand, couples in LDRs also carry additional time, travel and financial stresses to make the relationship work…so they may come to the quick decision to move closer to each other or get engaged.
The age of the couple may also be a major factor in determining the ideal length of the dating period. Couples who were high school sweethearts, met early in their college career, or even early twenties, might need considerably more time discerning their relationship since they may be simultaneously discerning their career, life goals, and doing quite a bit of self-discovery while they are dating.
Couples who begin dating a little older will have had more opportunity to get to know themselves, their life goals, what they are looking for in a spouse, etc., and thus may find their relationship naturally somewhat accelerated.
For many couples, other factors outside the couple’s control play a huge role in determining the length of a dating relationship. Those in military service, for example, cannot always be 100% picky and choosy as to their perfect timeframe for getting hitched.
Financial, educational, or career concerns can also deeply impact timing in a relationship.
Even though various circumstances and situations can significantly impact a couple’s “time frame,” the question still persists for most couples in relationships: what exactly is the ideal time frame to discern a relationship?
I don’t pretend to have the perfect answer, or even a nearly perfect answer, to this question. However, in the past year I’ve been given some excellent advice about dating time periods that I believe we can all benefit from implementing in our dating relationships—regardless of age, career, and situation in life.
Why you should wait at least 3 months
I read a fantastic book by relationships expert Dr. John Van Epp called How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk: The Foolproof Way to Follow Your Heart Without Losing Your Mind. (You can attend a talk by Dr. John Van Epp at the National Catholic Singles Conference in Dallas October, 2016).
The book was excellent—I highly recommend it to all of you. One of the most helpful pieces of advice I gleaned from Dr. Van Epp’s work was his advice about giving yourself adequate time to really get to know the person you are dating before escalating your commitment level in the relationship.
Van Epp recommends that at the beginning of a relationship a couple give themselves a period of at least three months to really get to know each other before escalating their commitment (such as talking about marriage or getting engaged).
He calls this his “Three Month Rule.” Van Epp reminds his readers that during the initial dating period, there are many walls existing between the couple: you are dressed your best for dinner out on a Friday night. You have your best face, best attitude, best version of your personality, etc. etc. etc., all in place. The author claims that it takes about three months for those natural barriers to come down so that you can really and truly get to know the person you are dating, inside and outside.
Van Epp also says it takes about three months for the soaring emotions of a new attraction to die down enough to think and analyze clearly. He writes:
The newness of a relationship is a natural inebriating effect accompanying attraction that typically begins to wear off around the third month. We put our best foot forward until we feel a bit more secure in a new relationship. Then we slack off a bit and let our imperfections surface. That is why it is so difficult to be sure what someone is really like in the first three months (Jerk, p. 71).
Furthermore, and most importantly, it takes at least three months to be able to recognize patterns, both in the relationship and in the personality of the other person. Dr. Van Epp says the following about why giving ourselves enough time to recognize “patterns” is so important:
Three months is the “magic number.” Not until around three months into a relationship do deep-seated patterns start to become evident. By definition, a pattern is a behavior that repeats in a sequence over time. Without time, there is no such thing as a pattern. Therefore, if you are always living in the moment, you are seriously disadvantaged when it comes to understanding a prospective partner. The three month rule states that “it takes three months for many subtle but serious patterns to begin to surface” (Jerk, p. 70).
Three months will give you time to develop your friendship with the other person. It will give you the opportunity to learn what he or she thinks about important issues such as faith, finances, sex, children, parenting concerns, and the like. You will also learn important information about your boyfriend or girlfriend that could deeply affect your relationship with each other, such as family background and relationship history.
The proverbial question still stands
I’m fairly convinced that the “ideal length” question truly does require an individualized answer for each couple. However, if you and your partner give yourselves a minimum of three months to get to know each other before escalating the relationship, you will be making significant deposits in your relationship bank.
You’ll learn the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beyond great—the whole enchilada. These months of learning and growing in friendship and knowledge with each other will reap immense benefits in your dating time.
It will give you a strong foundation to stand on as you discern God’s will for the next step in your relationship.