Relationships of the romantic variety can be complicated, messy, and confusing. They especially tend to be difficult when we don't communicate clearly, and when people aren't on the same page about where the relationship is or where it's headed. As I have discussed relationships with people over the last several years, walked my own path toward marriage with Jaimie, and read quite a number of books on the topic, a picture has slowly gelled in my mind.
This isn't prescriptive. I'm not trying to tell people how to date so much as I am describing what I have seen in healthy relationships. As I told a friend recently, I really don't even care what you call the stages in the chart below—you can call the courtship phase "munchkins"—as long as you and your significant other are on the same page, you're good to go.
Talking through these steps in the relationship, by whatever name, can help us present a God-honoring, Christlike picture of healthy romantic relationships to our friends and family and acquaintances. We take care of each other's emotions by being clear, not playing games, and making sure we're all on the same page—and that is significantly different from what we see in our culture at large.
First, a diagram, then descriptions of each stage, and finally some commentary:
Talking (1-2 months): the phase of friendship where both parties are indicating romantic interest in each other—by flirting, spending long periods of time talking (thus the name), and so on, but have yet to actually go on a date or formalize their interest in any way. Jaimie and I spent about a month in this phase before I asked her out the first time.
Dates (1-2 months): it is quite possible (and sometimes good) for people to be willing to go on dates without having a commitment to date only each other or to even go on another date. Jaimie and I went on one official date before we actual started dating, and it was helpful. (As it turns out, I asked her on a second date and she turned me down... but that's a story for another day.)
Dating (3-6 months): a step beyond going on dates (though you'll definitely still be going on dates!)—a solid commitment not to see anyone else. This is a good time for exploring your interest and friendship with each other, getting to know each other's friends better, meeting each other's families, and generally having a good time. Older generations might have called this "going steady." It's also a good time not to be too serious about the relationship, and to spend most of your time in groups. Jaimie and I didn't spend much time here, and honestly it might have helped a bit if we had spent a bit more!
Courtship (3-6 months): a time of intentionally seeking wisdom and counsel about whether you should get married. While the previous stages should definitely include feedback from friends, family, and spiritual leaders, this is the time when both people should actively seek input as to whether they should marry each other. Actively talk about what ministry together could look like, whether you can see yourself working toward the same goals (and indeed whether your goals are the same). If you get significant concerns raised by friends, family, or spiritual leaders—and especially if you get negative responses from more than one of those groups—you should stop and take those concerns very seriously. If you recognize that you are not going the same direction in life and ministry, and are unwilling to compromise (which may be fine!), you should stop and think very seriously about whether to continue.
You should be willing here most of all to break off the relationship. A successful courtship, as Josh Harris pointed out, is one in which you graciously and selflessly answer the question of whether you should marry each other. Even if the answer is no, you can have a successful courtship if you honor each other throughout.
Engagement (3-6 months): a time of preparation for marriage. If you answered the question yes in the previous phase, you get engaged—but in our culture, that has come to mean "planning a wedding." That's a terrible idea. Plan for your marriage instead. Take care of the wedding, of course—find ways to make it God-honoring and unique to you and your spouse—but remember that you will marry your spouse once, on one day. You will, God willing, be married to each other for the rest of your lives—many days. Don't waste this time.
Marriage (life): the final phase. There is, Biblically speaking, no turning back! That's a relief. As I noted in my last post, that permanence is an incredible relief. Commitment is at its highest, and it continues to grow over time. (You can read my views on divorce, and remarriage, over at Pillar on the Rock.)
These are very general suggestions. I know a couple in the midst of a two-year engagement, and there are good reasons it is so long. I have friends who have skipped dates and dating to jump right into a courtship phase, and I am acquainted with a people who simply jumped right to engagement. All of this is therefore a recommendation, but a loose one that acknowledges the great variation in how relationships progress.
For the record, Jaimie and I were "dating" for about three months, courting for about four months, and engaged for ten. We were talking for about a month, and in the "dates" phase for about two months. That long engagement was absolutely the most difficult part of the entire process.
In each stage of the relationship, there is increasing commitment, and between each stage there is an step upward in commitment to each other. That means that you will be emotionally closer to each, spending increasing time together, and spending increasing time alone together. In dating, much of your time should be spent with friends, but the more you move out of dating and into courtship, the more time you will be spending one-on-one. You will spend a lot of time together one-on-one during your engagement, and that is as it should be. Preparing for marriage is preparing for the most significant relationship of your life, and how your marriage goes will determine much of how the rest of your life goes, as well.
Because there is an increasing amount of commitment over time, breakups are increasingly painful and difficult—but they are also more important if they are the right decision. It is a terrible idea to continue dating someone if convinced you shouldn't: you will hurt the other person significantly worse by continuing to string him or her on over time.
Increasing commitment will also lead to increasingly emotional attachment, and increasing physical desire. Personally, I think that a year and a half is frequently a reasonable timetable for the whole process, with two years as a (very) general upper bound. First, a year is generally plenty of time to know someone well enough to make a wise decision about marrying someone, regardless of how the intervening months are broken down in dating and courtship (I have them equal in the graph). Second, engagements that are longer than six months can be incredibly trying because of the temptation to sin physically. It gets hard. And yes, you can plan a wedding in only three months! I was a best man in a wedding that was planned in three months while both people were either working full time or in school full time, so I know it can be done.
Now, those guidelines are very general, and there are plenty of good reasons to vary the amounts of time in each stage. Whether it is six months each for dating, courtship, and engagement, or three months each, or various combinations of amounts of time, is less of an issue than that the stages are approached intentionally and thoughtfully. Stringing out any stage too long can cause a great deal of confusion by dint of increasing ambiguity as to the direction the relationship is going. That is especially true of "talking" and "dates," as they are already so ambiguous. Jumping ahead can make the relationship feel rushed and make later stages difficult as you haven't laid a good foundation. Again, the particulars of timing for each couple will vary based on their circumstances and personalities.
Between each phase, it is helpful to have a conversation indicating clearly where the relationship is and where it's going. For the step between talking and going on a date, this is usually as simple as clearly asking a girl on a date. Between going on dates and dating, this probably looks like the classic "Define the Relationship" talk—DTR, in the lingo of my church-going generation—in which you sit down together and say, "Let's start dating." Between dating and courtship, there might be one or several conversations, but it should be clear to both parties that there is a definite shift from casually dating to seriously deciding whether to get married. Between courtship and engagement, there is one big question and answer session. (The guy gets one question, the girl gets one answer... at least, that's how it usually works!) Between engagement and marriage, there is a ceremony in front of church, family, and friends recognizing the final commitment.
I hope you find this helpful, and I would love to hear your thoughts and comments in response!