By: Joseph Warren Kniskern
Author, Making a New Vow: A Christian Guide to Remarriage
How will you beat the odds against a successful remarriage? How will you go the distance, as others fall by the wayside? Are there ways to reduce the risk of failure and improve marital happiness in remarriage? How do you avoid unwelcome and unsettling surprises after it is too late to reconsider a relationship? The answers are simple (although living it out is not so easy): You must allow God to lead and guide you to find a suitable mate, as he provided for Adam (Gen. 2:18).
Getting acquainted with prospective remarriage partners through dating and courtship is a major key in determining the bond you will have in remarriage. This is why it is so important not to rush this critical phase of the relationship. Preparing for remarriage takes time for careful evaluation and prayer. If we seek God, he will answer. As Jesus promised, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened" (Lk. 11:9-10).
The dating process is the first step toward separating wheat from chaff in helping you make a responsible and wise choice before God about whom you remarry; someone with whom to share your vision and commitment to make the relationship work.
Here are some guidelines for widowed or scripturally divorced Christians to consider:
Work With The Lord. Unfortunately, Scripture doesn't give us specific guidance for dating. This is even more true for those dating after death or divorce of a spouse. Even so, we do see God's hand in leading people to each other. For example, God was active in opening the door for the servant of Abraham when he sought a wife for Isaac (Gen. 24). God was part of the process that brought Ruth (a widow) and Boaz together (Ruth 1-4). God was certainly involved when Esther married the king and, through that relationship, helped God's people (Esther 1:10). A careful reading of these accounts confirms that these people used personal responsibility in finding their mates. Abraham's servant traveled, prayed, spoke to Laban and Bethuel and made decisions that positioned him where God could introduce him to Rebekah. Similarly, Ruth and Boaz took actions that eventually brought them together. Esther's obedient choices also resulted in marriage.
What can we learn from these examples? They tell us that God does act in our lives to provide us with opportunities to find suitable mates. He opens doors and offers choices. But we still have personal responsibility to pursue the opportunities God gives us. Also, when God presents an opportunity, we must be willing to do whatever is necessary to receive it. You may have heard the old joke telling of how Adam complained to God in the Garden of Eden, "I'm lonely. I need to have someone around for company." God replied, "Okay, I'm going to give you the perfect woman. Beautiful, intelligent and gracious--she'll cook and clean for you and never say a cross word." "Sounds great," Adam replied. "But what's she going to cost?" "An arm and a leg," God answered. "That's pretty steep," Adam countered. "What can I get for just a rib?" Don't pass up a good relationship by protecting yourself and not paying the price for a suitable remarriage partner.
Above all, God expects us to listen for His guidance in Scripture and to use common sense. This means avoiding circumstances leading into sin or corruption of God's standards and values. To steer clear of trouble, associate only with other single individuals who share your faith and values. For Christians, this means circulating among fellow Christians.
Deal With Guilt And Fear. As you launch into new relationships, you may face one especially thorny matter: "survivor guilt" about dating. Some widowed individuals may feel dating is an unfaithful act against their deceased mates. Former Beatle Paul McCartney, whose first wife (Linda) died some years ago, talked about the struggles a widower feels in considering a new relationship. "I had all these questions," he explains, "like, `Oh, my gosh, I've had a wife for 30 years. Is this allowed?' But I soon felt, yeah, it is. Actually what I felt was that if Linda was alive, I'd be dead meat. She'd kill me! No way would I be getting away with this. But I felt that if she was around, this wouldn't even be happening. But, as she wasn't, she would want me to be happy."1
If you experience survivor guilt about dating, it's part of completing the grieving process. Counseling and many excellent book resources can help you work through this vital process before you begin dating. But if you are widowed, or divorced without no hope of reconciliation and scripturally free to remarry, then trust in God. Forge ahead without guilt or shame if and when you're ready to remarry.
What about dating fears? "I'm too old--nobody will want me." "Can I make a new commitment?" After a divorce, finding a new partner also may rekindle memories of pain, rejection, and loss of personal identity. Put these fears to rest and trust God! Too old? There are more people over age 50 today than at any other time in history! Remembering the hurt, anger, and mistrust of a prior marriage partner before divorce? Learn to let go and look forward to a brighter future. Feeling defeated? Learn from your mistakes and move on with your life in God's wisdom and grace. As dramatist and poet William Moulton Marston observed, "Defeat strips away false values and makes you realize what you really want. It stops you from chasing butterflies, and puts you to work digging gold."2 Don't let yourself become a victim--take a chance again whenever you're ready.
What About The Children? By January, 2000, there were 12 million single-parent households in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Millions of those parents are dating. One common element among many of those dating millions is having 50 pounds and three feet of determined resistance--a child who wants you to stay home! NBC Today Show Host Katie Couric, widowed for several years, recalls how her young daughter once told Couric's date that Couric was a "compulsive gambler" and that she "had gambled away all my college funds."3 Dealing with children poses one of the most difficult scenarios faced by single-again parents. That resistance can sabotage a promising new relationship!
Children of single-again parents are naturally suspicious and jealous. Bridging the gap of resistance requires both the single parent and the dating partner reaching out to each child to affirm his/her worth and significance. How is this accomplished? The most obvious answer is to give children all the attention they need, instead of putting them on the back burner while being distracted by new love. Also, bridge the gap of juvenile resistance by helping children develop biblical love for others--including dating partners. Certainly single parents should delay introducing a potential suitor to the children prematurely. Exercising caution avoids potential rejection if the relationship doesn't work out. However, a dating partner doesn't need to be a stranger either! Gently including children helps them develop empathy for others, even as you calm their natural fears and anxieties.
Should You Engage In Casual Dating? Cartoonist Cathy Guisewite portrays her character, Cathy, listening to her friend run down a dating checklist with her: "Blind date?", the friend asks. "Ick," Cathy responds. "Personal ad?" "Ick." "Dating service?" "Ick." "Online chat room?" "Ick." "Coffee shop?" "Ick." "Gym?" "Ick." "Singles group?" "Ick." "Chance encounter while wandering around aimlessly?" "YES! That has possibilities! Yes!!"4 But how does this sound to you?
Casual dating has a flaw--it is temporary and does not emphasize commitment. Teenagers believe dating life is a series of one partner after another, with the accompanying heartaches along the way. Single-again folks who date can fall into the same trap.
Purely recreational and casual dating breeds disillusionment, inevitable breakups, and broken hearts. It often mistakes a physical relationship and emotional excitement for biblical love. It isolates a couple from other relationships. It tempts a couple--and particularly those who are single-again--into dissatisfaction with embracing singleness the way God intended. Casual dating is an artificial setting for testing another person's character and values. Too often it involves playing emotional games with others' feelings. The inevitable result of many instances of casual dating? Another broken relationship.
What About Friendship Dating And Courtship? Because of the possible flaws of casual dating, many Christians are moving toward using friendship dating and old-fashioned courtship. Why? Because this process encourages men and women to develop (emotionally and spiritually) significant brother-sister friendships first.
- What is friendship dating? "Friendship dating" is going out socially with someone you already know fairly well from church or Christian family contacts--not a relative stranger. Dating a friend from church, for example, is an existing wholesome, God-honoring relationship. There is minimal pressure, while considering personal readiness for remarriage. Many churches encourage reflection, prayer, and seeking the counsel of many competent spiritual advisors in guiding the couple to determine whether they are suitable for each other from a godly perspective. Brothers and sisters in Christ also help keep the couple focused on the truly important aspects of a dating relationship--commitment and accountability to God, to each other, and to the church.
In friendship dating, each partner asks lots of questions to evaluate his/her heart and motives: "Why do I want to be with this person more than others? Are there any issues I need to deal with personally first? Am I using this person to meet needs that only God can meet?" The goal is to evaluate and clarify the true direction of the relationship.
One very important question to ask is: "How do I trust God about this person and a possible future together?" Seeking the Lord's leadership and guidance prompts each person to submit his/her heart, and decisions about each other, to him. "Is it time to move forward in this relationship? Would it be better to wait?" The Lord provides a sense of proper timing if both persons' hearts yield to him.
If a couple mutually agrees that they have the Lord's blessing to continue the relationship after an adequate time of "friendship dating," they may prayerfully decide to begin courting each other.
- What is courtship? Courtship involves a time of deeper fellowship. When courting, the couple makes joint decisions and sets boundaries and limits. Before entering into a more committed relationship, they agree in advance to use self-control and live within scriptural limitations (although boundaries really should be in place before dating even begins). Courtship isn't a game of conquest or manipulation, but of request and mutual submission in seeking each other's greater good before the Lord.
Courtship fosters an opportunity for deeper communication and learning more about each other. It helps build a good and wholesome friendship grounded in confidence and trust. Courtship maintains sexual purity and establishes godly control of normal sexual attraction. Knowing that raw sexual attraction only masquerades as "love," limiting sexual temptation may mean avoiding too much time alone and seeking group activities.
Courtship also promotes trustworthy behavior, sincere interest in the other's welfare, and good listening skills. Each partner learns to encourage and serve the other, without smothering each other. It is interceding for one another in prayer together. As a courting relationship deepens, there is purposeful intimacy with integrity, leading a couple to engage themselves for marriage.
During courtship, the couple earnestly seeks the feedback and advice of family, friends, and Christian counselors. Asking others lots of questions usually reaps helpful insight: "What do you think about our relationship? Do you see any potential problems? Is there anything you would recommend that we could work on together? Do you have any reservations about us getting married someday? How can we parent our children during our courting period?" In every way, you seek what is best for you and your beloved--not just serving your own interests.
Above all, make sure that you give the relationship enough time to breathe and grow. I recommend at least two years from the time you begin "friendship dating" until the date of any remarriage, depending on your circumstances. Why two years? That period seems optimal to discover how you and your beloved bond. You need to experience a wide variety of situations and circumstances, as you grow and adjust to each other. Dr. Neil Warren, author of "Finding The Love Of Your Life," counsels, "...[I]t's crucial that you spend time with your spouse-to-be early in the morning and late at night; in heavy traffic and on country roads; in times of stress and easygoing moments. Observe him/her playing with children, doing household chores and balancing the checkbook." In addition, Dr. Warren cites researchers at Kansas State University, who completed an empirical study of the subject and found "a strong correlation between the length of time spent dating their current spouses and current marital satisfaction." They further found that "couples who had dated more than two years scored consistently high on marital satisfaction, while couples who had dated for shorter periods scored in a wide range from very high to very low."5 But the most important point here is that if a relationship doesn't stand the test of time, it may not be a good foundation for a remarriage lasting for the rest of your life. Don't rush!
Let the Lord lead. In discussing dating options, we certainly don't mean to imply that you should have the mindset, "Lord, I'm out here beating the bushes for a mate. When I find one suitable for me, please bless us." Obviously, this is backwards! Keep in step with the Holy Spirit as you meet others. There is a big difference between waiting with expectancy for the Lord to open some doors, and focusing on our own expectations. Is your partner keeping pace with you spiritually and emotionally in the relationship? This could be a sign that you are spending time with a person who isn't suitable for you, or perhaps isn't ready for remarriage (or even parenthood). Seek the Lord's guidance through prayer and advice from competent counselors. Ask, "Lord, is this person someone with whom you want me to spend my life? Would he/she be a good parent to my children? What should I be doing? Show me your will for my life, and help me live it out today, trusting you for tomorrow. Help me be content and seek your wisdom and discernment." Let Him lead in your dating life.
If you are in a serious courtship, you should receive some confirmation from the Lord as to whether the relationship is pleasing to Him within six months from the time you and your beloved first consider marriage. If, after six months, you don't receive this confirmation, then perhaps it's best to move on--gently, and with biblical love, but move on nevertheless. Don't let a romantic attachment to a person unsuitable for you, or your children, linger.
Prepare yourself. More than anything else, this means wrapping you and your children in prayer and sensitizing your family to the Lord's direction. You are ready to date when your attention and focus are on the Lord and His will for yourself and your children. If you feel trapped in any way by the past and earlier relationships, you need to complete your grief recovery work from your prior marriage.
Prepare your children. Depending upon the age and maturity of each child, let each one know you will be spending time with certain people, so they will not be overly concerned. Assure them no one will take their place. Accept the fact that there will be at least some jealousy and resistance, and that your children may not be happy with your choices. Be honest with them. Don't hide the fact that you are dating. But you need not go into specifics--just say that you are "going out with friends." Also, use caution when expressing your feelings for a dating partner. "I had the most wonderful date last night," can create pressure for children. Limit the time you spend with a dating partner, while making sure not to ignore your children. Introduce change gradually. Always maintain a healthy sense of balance between your interests and those of your children, making sure the needs of your children always remain a high priority. Above all, it is wise to avoid introducing dating partners for any extended interaction with your children until after the relationship enters a serious courting stage. When introduction is timely and appropriate, make all such interactions gradual. Try to arrange initial meetings on neutral ground--rather than the home--until everyone feels comfortable with each other.
Be warm, relaxed and confident. Let your date know you are having a good time by being expressive and sincere in your conversation, if you enjoy his/her attention. Use humor and laugh with your date. Be other-centered, focusing on your date's needs and interests. Be positive and encouraging. Remember that everything good will occur in God's timing, so you do not need to push or rush. Show your date that you are comfortable with yourself.
Act in a godly manner. Live and act in a pure and godly way. Don't lie about yourself. Don't compromise your beliefs or allow yourself to be pressured into doing anything that would violate those beliefs. Reveal yourself slowly, guarding your heart. Be courteous and understanding. Take communication at your own pace. Above all, pray about how you will act with this person before you meet!
Make dates a meaningful experience. Encourage fluid conversation. Listen and pay attention to your date without being distracted. Be alert and responsive. Avoid dominating the conversation. Dating experts tell us there are three primary "conversation-stoppers" on dates: (1) What do you do for a living? (2) Where do you live?, and (3) Just how old are you anyway? Why? Because people often use these questions as excuses not to dig a little deeper and get to know someone better. Try more interesting questions, such as: "What is your idea of a great date?" "Where do you see yourself in three to four years from now?" "If your house was on fire, what would you take out and why?" A key is to get to know a potential partner on a deeper level, allowing both you and that person to be yourselves, before any automatic defenses kick in. You have to feel safe, so you can be who you truly are. You also need reliable information about the other person.
Matters to avoid on dates:
- Don't date to look for instant parents for your children. Use friendship dating and courting to find someone suitable for you, as God guides you. Once you find that person, then you can move on to see how well that person will be able to co-parent with you. Remember that the Lord faithfully serves as "a father to the fatherless...(and) sets the lonely in families" (Ps. 68:5-6). One of the primary goals of friendship dating and courting is to better discern God's will for a godly marriage partner, and a spiritual, sensitive, and compassionate stepparent to your children, if Scripture permits you to remarry.
- Avoid talking about problems. Remember Paul's admonition in Philippians 4:8: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Share the blessings of life, so you don't sound like a complainer.
- Don't push the relationship. Don't be too desperate to please. Don't interrogate your date beyond asking general and neutral questions of interest. After all, a date shouldn't be a job interview. Most importantly, avoid making commitments you don't intend to keep throughout the relationship. The old adage is, "What you do to get him, you will have to do to keep him" is true.
- Don't wear your wedding ring. If you are a widowed person, you may be wearing your wedding ring for sentimental reasons. If you're ready to date, take the ring off. It will be an uncomfortable distraction to those spending time with you. If this is too difficult an adjustment to make, then it would be wise to postpone dating until it is no longer a problem for you.
- Limit discussion about former mates. Don't tell your date that your deceased husband was a saint. Avoid talking about how your divorced ex-spouse created problems for you and your children. If the subject of past relationships comes up, be careful to tread lightly and limit any negatives. The Lord wants us to love those who mistreat us, and to speak well of others! Especially avoid gossip. As James warns us, "Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark" (Jas. 3:5). Instead, focus on your current life--what you are doing now, and where you hope the Lord will lead you in the future. No one wants to listen to betrayal, misery, or anger themes on a date.
- Avoid getting overly physical before remarriage. It goes without saying that a Christian dating relationship should remain pure and holy for the entire term. As the relationship and intimacy grows, it's appropriate and good to express physical affection with restraint. But God expressly forbids engaging in sex before marriage (1 Cor. 6:12-20; Gal. 5:19-21; Rev. 21:8, 22:15). This is a very serious matter that should be avoided at all costs! Also, "sleepovers" are not prudent, since they can be very tempting situations for adults, and very confusing to children.
Don't let the "Don'ts" of dating unduly upset you. The most important thing to do on a date is to relax and have good, wholesome fun in a spiritual context!
The best way to find a suitable remarriage partner is...to just let go! Time after time you hear it: "I found the person who is right for me in marriage...when I stopped looking!" It is true in the world, as you read about person after person writing to advice columnists Dear Abby and Ann Landers with a common revelation--"When I gave up looking for `Mr. Right' and decided to make new friends, I discovered a great guy."
Kelly summed up her experience this way: "I had trouble finding a decent relationship. I spent a lot of time looking, dating the wrong men, and feeling sad, lonely and left out. One day, I realized I might NEVER get married. I took a good, long look at my life and decided it wasn't so bad. I stopped yearning for what I didn't have and focused on what I did have, and concluded that I had more than most people. I filled my life with friends and fun activities. At one of those fun activities, I met the most wonderful man in the world. We were married two years later."
Certainly no one will tell you that you will meet a remarriage partner suitable for you if you stop looking. You may not. But do you trust God to lead you into green pastures of a fulfilling and rewarding life no matter what happens? Stop worrying about all the "what ifs" and just relax. That instantly makes you more attractive to others! The Lord knows what you need, even before you ask him (Matt. 6:8)! If no prospective partner comes into your life, perhaps God believes the time isn't right, or a relationship isn't suitable for you in your current circumstances. But be content enough to go with the flow of your life and just let the Lord lead. You may be surprised to find the person of your dreams revealed at the most unexpected time!
There is goodness in letting God take over. If you are caught in one of life's traps from which there is no reasonable way of escape, just do it. Let go...and seek His face.
Taken from "Making A NEW Vow: A Christian Guide To Remarriage" by Joseph Warren Kniskern (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003). Used with permission.
1 Readers Digest, November, 2001, P. 84.
2 As quoted in Investors Business Daily, February 15, 2002, P. A3.
3 NBC Today Show, March 6, 2002, as part of interview with NBC Today Show Consultant, Dr. Gail Saltz.
4 Cathy (c) 2000, Cathy Guisewite. Reprinted with permission of Universal Press Syndicate. All rights reserved. Miami Herald, February 3, 2000, P. 6D.
5 Dr. Neil Warren, "Finding The Love Of Your Life: How Not To Choose The Wrong Mate," Focus On The Family Magazine, November, 1992, P. 2.
Joseph Warren Kniskern is a Christian attorney, mediator, and author of "When The Vow Breaks: A Survival and Recovery Guide For Christians Facing Divorce," and "Making A NEW Vow: A Christian Guide To Remarriage," both available from Broadman & Holman Publishers, Inc. in Nashville, Tennessee.