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  • The insecurity inherent in contemporary dating models prepares singles more for divorce recovery than for marital success. Tweet This
  • Resolving to stay committed until the end date is the foundation that makes all the other benefits of a time-bound commitment possible. Tweet This
  • I suggest replacing the vague expectations of current dating practice with a time-bound commitment and a clear game plan for mutually beneficial experiences. Tweet This
Category: Dating, Single Life

In my early 20s, I received two stressful phone calls in a row. The first was a close friend telling me he had just broken off his engagement. His now-former fiancée called a few minutes later, predictably distraught. She felt he had betrayed her trust. He felt terrible for hurting her. But was anyone really to blame? They had met, fallen in love, and dated, but it wasn’t until he was under a serious commitment that he realized he didn’t want to marry her. 

Worse, this was the fourth similar story I had heard that year from one friend or another, and I was dealing with my own relationship struggles. I knew that I loved my girlfriend, but she was getting tired of waiting for a ring. I honestly had no idea if getting married was a good idea. Everyone involved (including me) had been trying to follow a respectful, charitable dating script—find a good partner, be a good partner, and stay faithful until it feels right to commit for life, or it doesn’t. But this wasn’t working; emotional casualties were usually the result. I remember thinking, “People have been dating since forever! How have we not figured this out?!”

My frustrated questioning that day began a personal quest to find a better way to date. A quarter of a century later, believe it or not, I’m encouraged. My wife and I have served as relationship mentors now for 10 years, and as a family scholar and professor, I’ve paid attention to every nugget of wisdom I could glean—not only from academics but from many of my students. I have been able to craft a better approach to dating that I believe improves the chances of success for singles desiring a lifelong monogamous relationship. Perhaps most notable is that rather than requiring maturity at the onset (a rare commodity at the age many begin dating), this approach helps to build maturity into people who are willing to give it a try. But before explaining this approach, it is important to consider what’s wrong with dating today.

Consumerist Dating Breeds Insecurity

A landmark study from the National Academy of Sciences in 2020 used machine learning to discover what features of romantic relationships predict high reports of satisfaction. Analyzing previous findings from 84 researchers using 43 data sets, the study found that the top two predictors of relational happiness were “perceived partner commitment” and “intimacy.” In this case, intimacy is not a euphemism for sex but rather refers to emotional and intellectual closeness—knowing and being known by a partner. Feelings of love and passion run deepest in this context, so it’s no wonder that intimacy predicts relational satisfaction. But what about “perceived partner commitment?” This could more simply be called “security.” There is no intimacy without security, because intimacy requires that men and women be vulnerable with one another, and without some measure of security in a relationship, most people simply won’t risk it. Conversely, insecurity is the great wrecker of intimacy. 

Sadly, modern dating is structured to breed insecurity. Rather than knowing and being known, potential partners are “shopping” each other and being shopped. (It’s well observed that modern dating methods are deeply influenced by consumerism. Transitioning from the ambiguous stage of semi-commitment that my students call “talking” to the more serious “being in a relationship” is still no guarantee against a shocking breakup. You could be traded in for an upgrade at any time, or simply returned because your partner is no longer 100% satisfied. 

Perhaps most vexing about this system is that it’s the person who is least invested who has the most power in the relationship (after all, consumers have the most negotiating power when they know they could walk away from the deal). The person who feels the least affection, then, enjoys the most control. Of course, feelings change every day, so partners sometimes swap places as they gain or lose relational power. No wonder some romantic relationships devolve into mutual manipulation, with intimacy and security becoming bargaining chips rather than bonding agents.

Can Dating Make You a Better Person?

Many people enter dating looking for someone who displays a certain level of trustworthiness and strength of character. But what if the dating process itself not only revealed these traits in people, but also helped to introduce and reinforce them? 

Since habits have momentum, making and keeping promises is something we get better at the more we do it. Breaking our promises can have the opposite effect, depleting our own relational fortitude. When promises that were made to us are broken (even implied promises), this can be internally devastating. We could essentially consider the modern dating model, as described above, a kind of “divorce training”—building skills needed for coping with a future divorce rather than for keeping a marriage alive.

Time-bound commitments replace casual hookups with clear promises, transform “talking” into making progress, and remove the ever-present threat of breaking up.

I am convinced that only a true structural shift can address modern dating’s crippling problems. Some subcultures already have alternative practices that work well for those involved in their communities. What I’m suggesting could supplement already healthy subcultural practices or entirely replace the toxic popular model. The structural shift that addresses modern dating’s insecurity problem is surprisingly simple. The key is making clearly communicated promises with fixed expiration dates. I call these game changers time-bound commitments.

Time-Bound Commitments: Promises You Can Keep

I suggest replacing the vague expectations of current dating practice with a time-bound commitment and a clear game plan for mutually beneficial experiences. No matter who is the more “in-love” partner, both persons know what to expect and what is expected of them. This not only reduces anxiety, but it ends up offering the couple something very valuable: a shared project to accomplish, which naturally brings people together. A good time-bound commitment will be written down and somewhat specific, beginning with a jointly chosen end date

Resolving to stay committed until the end date is the foundation that makes all the other benefits of a time-bound commitment possible. In ordinary dating, breakups can occur out of the blue, so modern dating singles carry a tremendous burden of decision fatigue as they constantly evaluate whether or not to stick with their current relationship. In a time-bound commitment, even if one person (or both) wants to quit, they don’t.1 They have decided to trust the process and put their own personal integrity above the mood of the moment. Chances are good that the couple might have an argument during the time period, or one partner might begin to lose interest (or gain interest in someone else). But it’s not their attitude or interest-level that’s being tested here. It’s their ability to make, keep, and value their promises. The first time a couple in a time-bound commitment realizes that if they don’t find a way to make up soon, then next week’s date isn’t going to be much fun, they are actually getting a little taste of married life. Resisting the urge to flirt with that cute coworker, choosing instead to stay focused on one’s committed partner, is like strength training for promise-keeping.

Couples should make promises they can keep, erring on the side of shorter timeframes, keeping in mind that a new time-bound commitment can always be established after the end date. Three weeks is a good starting point for new love interests, while couples considering marriage should employ longer commitments (six months, max) as a serious trial of their readiness. Couples date exclusively during this time period, so they should also decide together what this exclusivity looks like for them (including being crystal clear about what constitutes cheating, whether in person, via text, or over social media).

The pledge to stay exclusive until the end date is like a container—necessary but not exciting. It’s what fills the container that keeps us interested. A time-bound commitment includes positive promises of what a couple will do for one another. For example, 

We will go on two dates each week, taking turns planning them. We will respond to each other’s texts as soon as we can, and we’ll talk on the phone every Tuesday evening, encouraging each other in whatever we’ve got going on. 

Couples who think they are headed toward marriage might agree to meet regularly to talk through difficult questions, perhaps with a trusted mentor. But a time-bound commitment can also be quite lighthearted: “For six weeks, we will get together for lunch every Monday and bring a new funny joke to tell.” 

The final meeting on the end date of a time-bound commitment is totally different from any of the other “dates.” Each person comes to the table prepared with a clear answer about what he or she wants next: 1) to enter into another time-bound commitment together—the same kind again, or maybe more or less serious this time, or 2) to not enter into another time-bound commitment together right now. If both partners desire the first option, great! They can talk about how they want to move forward. But if they don’t both want it, it’s not happening.  Either way, the previous commitment is over—no harm, no foul, no shame for either side. Both people should be proud of themselves for honoring their promises out of love and respect for the other person. 

This means that the final meeting might be difficult, and heartache can still happen (this method is break-up free, not risk-free). However, even when someone ends up wanting more but not getting it, the experience will have been valuable. Time-bound commitments offer couples a chance to discover their own feelings and what they want long-term, but also valuable practice in trusting another person and earning that person’s trust in return. Instead of divorce training, this is marriage training!

A Better Way to Date

Rather than contributing to growth in emotional and relational maturity, modern dating facilitates a consumerist mindset that undermines the efforts of even sincere seekers of committed love. Emotional intimacy built on a foundation of mutual commitment predicts relational satisfaction. But the insecurity inherent in contemporary dating models instead prepares singles more for divorce recovery than for marital success.

Time-bound commitments, however, offer a wiser, research-informed strategy of dating that can supplement healthy subcultural practices or replace toxic popular models. Time-bound commitments replace casual hookups with clear promises, transform “talking” into making progress, and remove the ever-present threat of breaking up. Most importantly, time-bound commitments encourage growth in valuable habits that will serve singles well later in life, building better future spouses, parents, and friends.

Charles E. Stokes is Professor of Sociology at Samford University and a senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies.

1. Time-bound commitments require good intentions from both parties. Any abuse or infidelity clearly invalidates the agreement, and no one should feel obliged to continue dating under these circumstances.