New relationships are exciting, but they can also feel overwhelming – like you are wading into unchartered waters, hoping to avoid sharks and jellyfish. It is not always obvious when to cross certain lines. Should I put my arm around her? Does he want to meet my parents? Should we wait a little longer before we start talking about marriage?
Never fear! PreEngaged is here with tips on when to tackle some firsts in your relationship. If we do not cover a first experience you have on your mind, feel free to contact us and let us know your question!
When should we first:
- Combine our finances? After the wedding. I repeat. After the wedding!!! ~smile~ No matter how in love you are, it is always best to wait until after you are married to combine your money. If you are splitting the cost of the wedding, then you can certainly each pay for agreed expenses; but, it is unwise to merge your accounts until you are legally married. When you return from your honeymoon, combine away! Until then, keep it separate. Consider this excerpt from Dave Ramsey’s blog: “First, though, keep this in mind: If you’re dating or engaged, now is not the time to combine. Yes, you may love each other. You may even have a wedding date set. But too many engaged couples have split before the big day. And if they’ve already combined their money, that’s one big mess to clean up.”
- Kiss for the first time? Kissing is a sweet and simple way to express affection, but it can also quickly ignite a fire. Let’s face it, kissing is fun – it feels good and easily leads to sex. And, because kissing can begin innocently and swiftly lead to the bedroom (backseat, woods, vacant Sunday school room, etc.), we recommend not jumping in with both lips until you have an established, committed relationship. Many relationships start after much kissing, hugging, and pawing – and such relationships often have little else as a foundation. Once the heat dies down (and it will), there is nothing left to hold it up the structure for the burning turned it all to ash. A relationship worth having is built on friendship, common interests, and shared goals. Focus on building a friendship first; and, once you both agree you would like to pursue a romantic relationship, kiss with great care and set boundaries.
- Have sex? Though not a popular answer in modern society, we believe and continue to strongly suggest that couples wait until they are married to have sex. Even those who would not consider themselves religious would benefit from waiting until the altar to enjoy sexual intimacy. Whether we say “no strings attached” or not, sex is an extremely emotional (and spiritual) act and it is virtually impossible for people – especially couples who already share an emotional bond – to have sex, break up, and remain completely unbroken. As a believer, knowing God designed sex for marriage is enough for me; but, when we see the heartache, unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, hasty marriages, and dysfunctional families which result from a lifestyle of pre-marital sex, it is clear that God was not trying to spoil our fun by setting boundaries; rather, He was keeping us safe.
“Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” (Hebrews 13:4, ESV)
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, ESV, emphasis mine)
- Move in together? After the wedding. Sixty years ago, it was almost unheard of for couples to live together before they were married; now, it is considered completely normal. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, we recommend waiting until after the wedding to move in together. Couples who have a healthy attraction and sex drive will want to express themselves physically while living in a shared space – it is only natural (and understandable). Some cohabitating couples have told us, “We are living in the same house but we do not share a room and we are not sexually active.” I just smile and wonder if they believe they are truly fooling us. ~smile~ Another reason to avoid sharing a space before marriage is that it sets couples up for failure. When dating someone, it is common to deal with behaviors you would not put up with in marriage. Girlfriend Heather would be less likely to say, “Um, please don’t lick your plate in public!” than wife Heather who would not hesitate to say it (and has said it ~smile~)! Though living together looks like marriage, it is actually an extended version of dating. What he or she does may annoy you, but perhaps not enough to say something. Because in the back of your mind, you know, “I have a way out of this relationship.” When couples move from living together to married, that sense of openness is fused shut. Now leaving the relationship is not nearly as easy and couples become far less willing to put up with their spouse’s quirks. Why are you on my case all the time? You did not use to be this way. The “trial run” does not give a true-to-life picture of marriage. (For more on this topic, we strongly recommend The Intimacy Cover-Up: Uncovering the Difference Between Love and Sex, by P. Roger Hillerstrom and Karlyn Hillerstrom.)
- Buy a house? If you are moving to a new city, Dave Ramsey recommends renting for at least a year while you learn your new surroundings and learn where the invisible tracks (dividing the good and bad parts) of the city. After some time in a new town, you get a better idea of the area and which neighborhoods are a good fit for your family and your budget. Because we do not recommend cohabitation or combining finances before marriage, it is generally better to purchase a home after the wedding. However, if you are engaged and pick out a house together, that is okay as long as one person purchases the house in his or her name and is financially able to pay the mortgage alone. Owning real estate together before marriage is a very risky idea. (One couple we worked with purchased real estate together and then [for legitimate reasons] seriously questioned their relationship – I do not envy the mess that can create.) After the wedding, the deed to the real estate can be changed to include both parties.
- Meet each other‘s parents? Ideally, I would say wait until you believe your relationship has a future, but do not wait until you are already engaged if at all possible. Meeting the parents too soon can put unnecessary pressure on a young relationship. I met one young man’s dad, step-mom, and siblings on the second date! That was far too soon and it was unbelievably awkward.
- Start spending (significant) time with each other’s friends? After dating for a few weeks, friends (especially girls) are going to be curious and want to meet the new love interest. It is perfectly appropriate to meet each other’s friends early on, but I would wait until the relationship is solid and has potential to be marriage-bound before spending significant amounts of time with them. The reason is two-fold. If you become close to your boyfriend or girlfriend’s friends before the relationship is grounded, it will be hard to lose them if you break up. Also, when a relationship is new, friends often get put on the back burner. Encourage your new boyfriend or girlfriend to spend quality time with his or her friends (without you) so you do not run the risk of being the couple who ignores everyone. Some time apart is healthy, especially in the beginning.
- Start talking about when to get married? For most couples, I would suggest giving your relationship about six months before talking about the possibility of marriage. In the meantime, get to know each other and decide: Is this the someone with whom I can imagine spending the rest of my life? Notice details, ask questions, and have fun.
- Seek pre-engagement/premarital counseling? We usually recommend couples wait until they have been dating for at least six months before working with us. We strongly promote pre-engagement counseling instead of only premarital counseling because pre-engaged couples are often more objective about the relationship and better able to view their strengths and weaknesses realistically. However, if you are already engaged, pre-engagement counseling will provide much clarity and will improve your relationship significantly!
- Go on our first trip together? Well, it depends on the trip. If you are going on a trip with family or friends, I recommend waiting until you are officially a couple. If it is an overnight trip alone, we recommend being married simply because it is difficult to travel together, especially if you are sharing a space, and not give in to temptation. It is not impossible, but it is better to stay away from the edge than to see how far you can go without falling. If you do go on an overnight trip together before you are married, get separate rooms (or even separate hotels), agree on some boundaries, and be open to accountability from others.
- Take the relationship from dating to exclusive? If you get off to a good start, have a lot in common, have similar life goals, and are spending time together weekly, I think three months is probably the earliest I would make that declaration. If you had a shaky start and are not comfortable dating exclusively, do not feel pressured to become an item simply because you have been dating for a while. However, if your discomfort lasts more than six months, this relationship might be not a good fit.
- Exchange keys? I would not exchange keys until you are engaged or extremely close to it. When relationships end, getting back belongings and keys can be a nightmare and it is better not to blur boundaries too quickly. Do you want a man or woman you have only known for three weeks having full-time access to your home? When you do exchange keys, discuss ground rules (e.g., do not go into the house without telling me first, never bring someone over without discussing it with me, etc.).
- Start talking about long-term goals? You can discuss long-term goals and short-term goals as early as the first date. I would not force the subject, but if the conversation leads there, it is fine to talk about your plans for the future. In fact, it may help you both decide if you want a second date.
- Discuss children? Believe it or not, I say talk about this relatively early in your relationship. You do not have to know every detail of his or her parenting philosophy, but it is a good idea to find out expectations such as how many children he or she would like, how he or she feels about discipline, and beliefs about parenting roles. What we want does change over time, but a conversation as important as this should not wait until a couple is deeply connected.
- Start cooking and cleaning together? I think this mostly depends on the couple. Most ladies would not be impressed by a cleaning date early on in the relationship. ~smile~ But, once you are comfortable with each other, it is fine to help each other with some chores. Once, when Eric and I were still just friends, I decided to clean his apartment bathroom and he thought, “That girl must really love me.” ~smile~ (I did!) The bigger concern is spending a lot of time alone in secluded houses or apartments (even vacuuming can be a turn on! ~smile~). But, in general, couples do not need to be engaged or even in a committed relationship to cook or clean together. Some people cook together on the first or second date.
- Share personal experiences from the past? If you have been friends for a long time and you fully trust each other, it is okay to discuss emotional memories. If you are still getting to know each other, wait until you build (what you would consider) significant trust. How long would you need to know a friend before sharing intimate information? Be at least that wary plus a little more when sharing your heart with a boyfriend or girlfriend. If you cannot trust that he or she will hold this information in confidence even if your relationship does not work out, it is best to wait.
- Discuss insecurities? The same goes for discussing insecurities. If you have an established, fully-trusting friendship with the person you are dating, share your heart little by little. If not, wait until trust has grown organically before sharing too much of your heart.
- Have the “past” talk? Discussing the details of your sexual past with your significant other can be painful. Unless you are planning to get married, it is better to wait and be discrete. When you share stories about your past relationships, it is impossible for your boyfriend or girlfriend not to paint a mental picture – and those pictures remain for a lifetime. If marriage is on the horizon, you should be upfront with each other about your pasts (e.g., I am not a virgin, I was pregnant in high school, I was a victim of…, etc.) If you request further information, do so understanding that your life will change once you know it. Sometimes basic facts are for the best. However, if your past talk includes information such as I have children in another state or I am divorced, those conversations should happen during the getting to know you process.
- Bring each other in on big decisions – like buying a car or going back to school? While you are dating, it is fine to ask each other’s opinions, but at this point, you are under no obligation to follow their advice. You look to them as you would any friend. Once you are seriously dating or engaged, how you spend your money and time affects your partner more deeply, so you should discuss large purchases or life changes. If you are considering marriage, his or her opinion should be of great importance to you. (If it is not, marriage is probably not a good idea.) Since you are not yet married, you are also not “married” to his or her opinion. You can choose your path. However, he or she is watching and noticing how much you care about his or her thoughts and feelings. If you do want to marry this person, you are wise to involve him or her in the choosing process.
- Introduce each other to children (your children, nieces or nephews, or other children with whom you are frequently in contact)? Once you are comfortable introducing your new love interest to friends, you can also introduce him or her to your friends’ children. If you have children of your own, or nieces and nephews with whom you are extremely close, it is better to wait until the relationship has a strong foundation and shows promise before acquainting them. Children can become attached quickly to others who are associated with the people they love and can be heartbroken if the relationship does not work out – sometimes even blaming themselves. It is harder to end a relationship when children are attached.
- Have a disagreement/fight? Before marriage! Preferably before engagement! Our college Marriage and Family class professor told all of us to fight before getting married. Why? Because it is important to know how someone fights before tying the knot. It is also good to get problem-solving practice before promising yourselves to each other for a lifetime. Not only that, but if you have your first fight after marriage, you may feel panicked and helpless. Oh no! We have made a huge mistake! However, if you have experienced the fighting and resolving process beforehand, a newlywed fight will not seem nearly as earth-shattering and you will be less likely to run home to Mom.
- Talk about politics? If politics are important to you, do not wait too long to discuss your beliefs. If you have significant political differences, it is better to find out before forming a deep bond with each other. Political views are worldviews and go deeper than our political party or presidential candidate of choice.
- Start attending the same church? If you are not already attending the same church, I would recommend waiting until you are seriously discussing marriage to start attending the same church, unless one of you is already looking for a different church. A person’s church is like a person’s family and it is unwise to drop your individualism too soon. Changing churches, moving, rehoming pets, and other significant life-changes should come when marriage is on the horizon. Not only will you be extra frustrated if the relationship does not last, but you might put too much pressure on yourself to make the relationship work. Look how much I gave up so I could be with him. I sold my furniture, switched apartments, gave away my cats, and left my home church. We have to make this work. Giving up too much too soon may also take a toll on your self-respect. You are worth waiting for and do not need to rush.
- Prioritizing each other over friends and family? This transition should begin taking place a few months before the wedding. Before engagement, be vigilant to make time for your family and friends. Enjoy each other, but do not get so lost in your own world that you leave out the people who have loved and cared for you over your lifetime. Go out of your way to keep those relationships strong. When your single days start drawing to a close, begin going to each other to discuss matters before going to Mom or Dad. Get used to putting each other’s needs above friends’ and family’s needs. Once you are married, your spouse becomes your priority; and, if you begin that shift in the months leading up to the wedding, it will not be such a shock to the family when you say, “No, I cannot come over. I am spending the evening with my wife.”
- Say “I love you”? When you know this is the person you want to marry. When I was young, I threw this phrase around like it was nothing. I like your shirt. This burrito is amazing. I love you! When I was eleven, I remember saying, “I love you too” to a boy as I was getting off the phone. Just then, my mom ran into the room and emphatically stated “No you don’t!” She tried to teach me the value of the phrase, but alas, I did not listen and I threw I love yous here, there, and everywhere. There is no more powerful phrase in the English language than “I love you” and when we use it so freely and quickly, we cheapen it. Breaking up is much harder after saying, and/or hearing, I love you. By the time I was eighteen, I love you did not seem powerful anymore. It was just what you say when you are dating someone. In retrospect, I wish I had held the romantic I love you sacred and saved it. Want to feel like a complete slimeball? Look someone in the eyes and say, “I love you” when you know you do not mean it. Trust me; you want to avoid that feeling.
Enjoy the firsts. Record your memories. Though I am happy to have been married to Eric for thirteen years, sometimes I do miss the excitement of all the firsts – the first date, kiss, I love you, and house hunt. Even if all the change seems somewhat nerve-wracking now, you will miss it someday.
To quote Trace Adkins:
“You’re gonna miss this.
You’re gonna want this back.
You’re gonna wish these days hadn’t gone by so fast.
These are some good times,
So take a good look around.
You may not know it now,
But you’re gonna miss this.”
Are you comfortable with the current speed of your relationship?