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My Takeaway from Emotional Virtue by Sarah Swafford
In this book, which you can get here, Sarah talks about something all kids love hearing about- relationships. What they are, how to get them, how to keep them… What makes this book different though is it does not only focus on dating relationships. Sarah talks about the relationships that must come before someone is ready for a dating relationship- friendships and relationships with Christ. In order to break this down and teach it to a group of kids I barely knew, we broke it up into three main steps: looking inward, around, and forward.
Step One: Inward
What is your idea of perfect? Is it having perfect hair, muscles, and a nice car? Or is it being kind, loving, and virtuous? Our society paints a very specific picture of how we are supposed to look, act, and dress which often harms us because we feel that if we do not meet these expectations, we are not good enough and people will not like us. Women are supposed to be thin, pretty, have nice hair, like girly things, etc. and men are supposed to be strong both physically and emotionally. As you probably know though, this is often not the case. When we focus on achieving these unrealistic expectations we lose sight of who we are and what is important to us. So, the first step is to look inward. Before you can focus on relationships with other people, it is important to focus on yourself, who you are, and what is important to you.
Step Two: Around
One of the unique things that Sarah emphasizes is the importance of a good group of friends that can help you through the waters of dating, which is why step two is to look around! Who is in your squad (or fam, or whatever else it is called nowadays)? Think about the friends that you have and if they reflect your own values and priorities. This is important because it will allow you to surround yourself with people who help you focus on Jesus, who is the center of all relationships. Your friends should also love you for who you are and not expect you to fit into the idea of perfect that we discussed earlier. These friends will be your foundation and support system when it comes to dating relationships. Once you have established solid and strong friendships, you are ready to look towards dating relationships!
Step Three: Forward
Before telling you what to look for, I want to point out three things that Sarah warns against: the emoticoaster, the cycle of use, and the grey area.
The emoticoaster is an emotional roller coaster, similar to what this poor little girl is going through…
The main idea is that you get caught up in an imaginary relationship with someone and then end up crushed by something that never really happened. You see a cute guy in class, smile at him, and then imagine what your children would look like. Sound familiar? Then, when you text him and he ignores you, you are heartbroken. This must be avoided because it brings so much unnecessary pain and drama.
The cycle of use is self-explanatory. It is when one or both parties of a relationship is using the other one, whether it be physically, emotionally, or socially. You can use someone for more than sex! If you date someone because they are popular and you think being with them will make you popular, you’re using them. If you date someone you do not really have feelings for because you’re lonely and they pay attention to you, you’re using them. These relationships may seem good at the time, but because they are not built on real feelings they will end as soon as anything changes.
The last thing to avoid is the grey area, or “just talking”. I have a feeling we are all guilty of doing this at some point, you have been texting someone 24/7, talking to them on the phone until 2am, tagging each other in cute pictures on Instagram, but you’re not dating. You’re avoiding the awkwardness of defining the relationship. I can tell you from personal experience that defining the relationship is awkward, but it is so worth it. I had to go through this before the relationship that I am in now, and it was not fun! My now-boyfriend (who I was “talking” to) had to sit me down a couple of times and tell me that while he did have feelings for me, he just was not ready for a relationship. He told me that he wanted me to feel free to see other people, not wait for him, because he did not know when he would be ready and did not want to hurt me by dragging it out. That was awkward! Do it anyway!
Now, here are three big tips to figure out this dating thing…
- Take your time. Figure out who you really are, and then take the time to learn who they really are. This does not mean avoid defining the relationship, you can have conversations about wanting to stay friends so that you can get to know each other before dating.
- Be honest, with yourself and with them. Do not avoid defining the relationship, be clear about your feelings and intentions, and if you decide the relationship is not right for you do not hide it from them out of guilt.
- Keep repeating inward, around, and forward. Never stop learning who you are, who your friends are, and who Christ has set aside for you!
Bonus: One way that my boyfriend and I have repeated this process throughout our relationship is by reading devotionals together. One that we did was Devotions for Dating Couples, which is recommended for serious relationships. We both enjoyed reading it, and the discussion questions inside the text sparked some great, deep conversations.
Remember, the only relationship that will ever define you is your relationship with Jesus.
A note for the youth minister: Whether you are talking to a middle school group, a high school group, or even a college group (the actual target audience of this book) remember that all the kids will be in various stages of this cycle. In the small group that I had after presenting this book, we had a girl who had been in a relationship for six months and a girl who did not want to date until college! I strongly encourage you to be cautious not to shame any of them. If you preach a message that none of them should date until they are older, some may be hurt and feel guilty, causing them to miss the point. If emphasize the dating stage too much, those who are not ready or have not found anyone might feel like there is something wrong with them. Be careful, and let the Holy Spirit guide you!