Dating is hard. It consists of constantly putting yourself out there, trying to figure out if you are being too picky after a couple dates, not sure if the relationship is progressing well, and a general fear of commitment. To navigate the dating process, it can be helpful to start by gaining a better understanding of those questions through the lens of faith. By doing so, you will develop a better way of approaching the dating scene and some concrete ways of assessing the quality of your relationship. You also will know what to look for when considering a break-up.

Dating is Discernment

Take a moment to remember why you are doing this whole dating thing. Dating is something more meaningful than a means for hooking-up and casual flings. Dating is primarily about discerning God’s will in your life — not the maximization of pleasure. The fruits of dating done well are learning to love another person and growing in your own personal development. With each relationship, we gain a better understanding of God’s plan for our lives.

Young adults will often say that discernment feels mysterious and tricky, mostly because we often forget that discerning God’s will is a practical endeavor as much as it is a spiritual one. Every aspect of our lives can be used by God for our personal growth in holiness. How we manage the fear and anticipation of going out with someone new, how we develop chastity when there’s chemistry and attraction, and how we grow in consideration of the other person’s needs are all ways God can form our sanctity. To this end, there are three helpful keys to approaching dating as a discernment process: prayer, reflection and action.

Prayer

Prayer in dating does not mean you commit to praying a novena and expect to serendipitously walk into your future spouse at a coffee shop. Rather, it is a prayer as a vehicle for dialogue and bringing your experiences before the Lord. Pray before your dates. Pray about what you experienced during them. Pray about your attraction and desire for the person you are dating. God wants to sort all those things out in our hearts, and prayer is the primary way that can happen.

Prayer in dating also means praying with the person you are dating, too. Early on it is good to establish that having a shared faith is an important aspect of the relationship. This doesn’t mean that every date needs to end in the adoration chapel, but just that you two are willing to bring God into the relationship and let him guide the relationship from the start. This also doesn’t mean that just because you pray that everything will work out. Shared faith is a foundational element in a relationship but not the only important quality.

Reflection

It is good to reflect on our own experiences in a relationship. What did we like or dislike in the first few dates? Is there a connection? Are they respectful of my boundaries? These are things that would be helpful to journal about (not necessarily every day, but certainly on occasion).

It doesn’t take much for reflection to become rumination, however, so we also need trusted folks in our lives to converse with to get ourselves out of our heads. Consider processing with friends and family the dates you’ve gone on. It shouldn’t be gossip or “kiss and tell,” but a way to make sense of your experience. These types of conversations can help us answer very important questions about our motivations and fears: Are you being overly critical of the date? Did you feel comfortable in his presence? Was conversation easy? What happened the last time you dated someone like that? Again, all of this is part of the practical way to discern.

Action

Now that you’ve prayed and reflected, you are freer to act and make decisions that support where God is leading you in marriage. For example, maybe you learned that dating co-workers makes things awkward at the office. If so, don’t date co-workers. It’s OK to have that boundary. God works within such experiences and boundaries. Engage with what you learn about yourself and see how God will guide you.

Dating done right will force you to grow. It’ll help you see God’s plan unfolding in your life. Through it, you’ll develop the virtues of courage, chastity and love, which are all needed for a lifelong marriage.

Dr. Mario Sacasa is a marriage and family counselor and associate director for the Willwoods Faith and Marriage apostolate. He hosts the Always Hope podcast. Read more on the Catholic Dating 101 series here.