Author Gary Thomas discusses several issues within the modern dating scene – character vs. romantic attraction, the neurological impact of infatuation, the idea of soulmates – while encouraging singles to be intentional in their pursuit of a godly spouse. (Part 1 of 2)
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John Fuller: Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Now you perhaps have heard that saying and if you’re single, I wonder if you’ve ever kind of applied that to your relationships, particularly to finding a good, godly spouse. That’s our subject on today’s Focus on the Family, hosted by Focus president and author, Jim Daly and I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly:John, I’m excited today about this conversation, because I love it when we get to talk to singles and on behalf of singles about family formation. And those decisions in your 20s, early 30s now, as this is being delayed, who do I marry? Uh ... you know, it’s the ... I think the biggest decision that you’ll make in your life . And uh ... today, if you’re not single, you’re married, but you have kids, you’re gonna want to listen. And if your kids are in that 20, 30 zone, I think it might be something you’d want to pass along to them.
John: Well, this is me, Jim. I mean, that’s right (Laughter) where I’m at.
Jim: How many kids--
John: So ...
Jim: --do you have over ...
John: Well, I’ve got three adults, uh ... all single and so, I’m really listening intently and I so appreciate our guest and the wisdom that he brings to this kind of topic.
Jim: It’s true. Gary Thomas, of course, is a well-known author and speaker on this topic. He’s written a book, The Sacred Search and Gary, you’ve been on the program so often, you’re like a comfortable suit. (Laughter)
Gary Thomas: Oh. (Laughter) Well, it’s always great to come back. It’s a highlight of my year whenever I see “Focus on the Family Welcomes Gary Thomas.” (Laughter)
Jim: Well, that’s fun. Let me ask you a question. Let’s get right into it. Uh ... you shared that you felt almost hypocritical when you wrote this book, because you did a (Chuckling) miserable job practicing what you preach. I love that vulnerability. I feel sometimes as a dad, I’m not doin’ it as well as I should as president of Focus on the Family (Chuckling).
Jim: So, I share in your uh ... your sorrow. But tell me why. Why did you feel you were being a hypocrite uh ... when you were seeking your mate in Lisa?
Gary: Well, when we were raisin’ our kids and we’re, like John, we have three adult children from 26...
Jim: You guys are old men here.
Gary: Yes (Laughing). And ... and when I look back at my high school and even college dating years, there’s a lot I would rather my kids not do. And I think back to those old bracelets, WWJD, “What Would Jesus Do?” And I would joke with my kids. I want you to think back on what did dad do when he dated and do the opposite.
Because I was ... I was driven by infatuation. I think I was driven by other concerns that weren’t spiritually based. Now God in His enormous grace and kindness, provided a ... a woman that has been a blessing for 28 years, that I couldn’t have dreamed of. But certainly, the process to get there was broken.
And I’ve seen so many people that went through a broken process and didn’t end up with a mate that is an encourager, that is a godly person. And ... and the challenge is, as you hinted at, this is such a consequential decision. A ... a good marriage is like the gift that keeps on giving. I have been blessed literally every day of my life because of one decision I made as a single man that I wanted to marry Lisa.
And I’ve seen others that have to carry a burden literally every day of their life because they made a foolish marital choice.
Gary: Youknow, if you buy a house you don’t like, well, you’re take a financial hit, but eventually you can save up and move into another neighborhood. If you get a car that’s a lemon, you trade it in and you ... you count your losses.
Marriage isn’t like that. It changes who you are. It becomes a part of your history, a part of your life. And if singles want to make one wise decision in their life, next to becoming a Christian, this is the one that has to be thoughtful, with their eyes wide open, with counsel, driven by the truth of Scripture and not, frankly, I think the many ridiculous and misleading message that the world gives us.
Jim: Well, uh ... you know, in part, you’re talking about the distinction between covenant and contract, which you talk about with marriage. And unfortunately, we treat marriage like we’re buying a car or like we’re buying a house, that if we don’t like it, we can sell it. And that’s not how marriage should work according to God’s design.
And later, I do want to dig into the infatuation aspect, because I’ve found your book really intriguing in that area. We’ll come back to that in a few minutes. But ... but you suggest that singles should ask themselves, why they want to get married before they consider who they want to get married to. Um ... (Laughing), you know, that takes a lot of maturity. I’m thinkin’ of myself when I was 23, 24. I don’t know that I would’ve thought that through quite that--
Jim: --that way. Tell me why that’s so important.
Gary: Because most Christian singles today, I believe, value the same things about marriage as non-Christian singles. They haven’t connected their faith with their romance and their view of marriage. So, for them, the “why” of marriage is sharing an infatuation, sharing sexual chemistry, enjoying each other’s company on a date. Those are the things that most people are drawn to. And if those three things are present, they think, well, this is a ... a great match. And if they’re a Christian, then what’s the problem? Well, there’s no other question.
But those things have been proven not to hold a marriage together. You have to understand the “why” of marriage. Infatuation we’ll get into, neurologically is proven to always fade rather quickly. Sexual chemistry, though it’s an important part of marriage, it doesn’t hold a marriage together.
I ... I think of a Hollywood actress who was involved in a cable television show. In the height of her fame, [she] released a book, a sex manual for couples. And in it, she described her husband as an artist. She said, he had this virtuoso move that would send her over the top. Within weeks of that book coming out, they announced their separation. Within a year, they were divorced. So, apparently being good in bed doesn’t mean you’re good in marriage.
And the fact that you get along well on a date, that you like the same movies and the same kind of pizza, it ... it just doesn’t factor in when you’re going through raising kids together, suffering cancer, unemployment, building a life together. Those things that our culture values, that’s not the “why” of marriage. Those things are passing. And so, if we don’t know the “why,” we can’t know whether somebody qualifies as a good “who.”
Jim: Gary, with that in mind, should a couple wait a couple of years so that infatuation stage passes them and their clarity comes and the fog of the moment uh ... you know, dissipates?
Gary: I’m asked that all the time, Jim and here’s the thing. The Bible doesn’t give us a calendar and so, I don’t want to create one. Here’s what I’m more concerned [about] as a pastor when I meet with a couple. Are their eyes opened?
For instance, if they can tell me the three major weaknesses of the person they want to marry and I think that’s an accurate depiction of what they’re facing, then I think despite the fact that they’re infatuated, they’re making a wise decision. They’re saying, you know what? I realize this is a challenge. This’ll be a challenge and this’ll be a challenge and this is his strength and this is his strength and this is ... I just want to see that they’re living in a world called “reality.”
Gary: And if they’re there, I think they can make a wise decision. Where I’m concerned is when I’m ... it’s clear the couple really doesn’t know each other. They don’t even know their weaknesses and that’s when I’m thinkin’, they’re not ready.
Jim: Well, and ... and in that context, Matthew 6:33, which John opened with, which is seeking God first, which is the bottom line, you use that thread throughout your book to kind of bring people back to the anchor. I ... I actually, interestingly enough, that’s what I applied when I was single. That was the very verse about wanting to do it God’s way. And uh ... it was fabulous and I met Jean in a very, I think, God-centric way. You’re striving for that, but is there only one person out there for me?
Gary: No. And I think that’s one of the most destructive myths that Christian singles are holding onto. Now we sort of Christianize it as if God created one person just for us. But I’ve found that leads people astray more than it’s helpful.
And the key verse in this, I believe, that’s pretty definitive is 1 Corinthians 7:39, when Paul is talking to widows. But it also refers to single women and at first, he discusses that singleness is an option. And they might want to consider that.
But then he says, if she wants to get married, that’s fine. And you ... this is a quote, “She is free to marry anyone she wishes, only in the Lord.”
Gary: So, Paul’s saying, we’re not to seek some fulfilled destiny. We’re not supposed to try to second guess God. We’re supposed to look on things like character. And that’s where Proverbs comes in and Scripture is so helpful, because Proverbs 31 lays it out entirely on the basis of character. It’s telling men, “A noble wife, who can find?” It says, you look for this, this, this and this, not a sense of destiny, not trying to second guess God, but this is what a good woman is. This is what you do not want to be led astray with.
1 Corinthians 7, going back to that, Paul says, we want to marry for the sake of righteousness. If a guy is in a dating relationship or he’s got a series of dating relationships, he’s not behaving himself sexually, he says to him, go ahead and get married. In other words, get married for the sake of righteousness, because you want to live a righteous life. Nowhere in Scripture is the sense that there’s just ... we’ve gotta find the one out of 7 billion people on the face of the earth that God has created just for us.
Jim: Okay, but we’ve got this infatuation now. Let’s come back--
Jim: --to that, because it seems so natural.
Jim: Uh ... when you’re single and you’re saying, Lord, okay, I feel like You’re allowing me to seek a mate and that’s what You want me to do and I certainly am grateful (Chuckling) for that, Lord. And you start looking. How again, do you get the handle on this distinction between an infatuation and doing it in such a way that is uplifting righteousness? It seems to me those can be in conflict at times, because infatuation, that’s the ... the mechanism that God has put in us to draw us together. And then, we’ve gotta move it quickly to something else. In fact, you say in your book, that infatuation only lasts maybe 12 to 18 months. Describe that. I mean, most of us won’t even understand that, but that’s what’s happening to us biochemically, right?
Gary: It is actually and for some, it would be less than that. We’re all a ... we all have different brain mappings, I guess would be the best way to describe it. For some, it might not even last that long. But even then, if you look at a brain under a scope and infatuation, at say, 13 months, is demonstrably different than one at six months.
And if we’re not aware of this, see, we spent so much time teaching singles to be good stewards of their sexual purity, which we need more of, not less. I’m a big fan of that. But I don’t believe we’ve taught Christian singles as much to be stewards of their emotional health. They--
Jim: I would agree.
Gary: --don’t understand how transcendent infatuation feels. It carries you away. And yet, neurologists now, because we know so much more about the brain in this generation than any previous age, that it literally makes us blind. That statement, “Love is blind” is true. We literally start to relate to somebody who doesn’t exist. The--
Gary: --term neurologists use is “idealization.” And ... and so, we see strengths that others wouldn’t pick up. You know, somebody does something innocuous, a guy and a gal are in a college cafe. She drops a fork. And he picks it up instead of just leaving it there. And she’s overcome. Look, he picked up the fork! (Laughter) He’s so kind and thoughtful. He doesn’t leave it for other people. And I ... you know, next to Jesus Christ, I don’t know anyone with this character that has ever walked the earth. And everybody else is like (Laughter), he just picked up the fork. What’s the big deal? (Laughter)
And ... and then, this is just as destructive, they miss the negative clues. He’s an angry person and she redefines it as passionate. And what every pastor and counselor has heard so often when somebody’s been carried away by infatuation into a long-term commitment, it’s five, six years later. He’s not who I thought he was.
Gary: And that’s a true statement. They related to somebody who didn’t exist. They created somebody else in their mind and ... and that’s what singles have to watch out for. There has to be sufficient time till you get through that brain fog and you can have an accurate picture of who really am I relating to?
Jim: We’ve described infatuation, but I’m still not sure on what the definition is. What does it mean to be infatuated?
Gary: Dr. Helen Fisher is a biological anthropologist and she’s actually studied this. And here’s some key markers for somebody who’s head over heels in an infatuation. Part of what I just said, that you tend to focus on your beloved’s better traits and you minimize their flaws. You can have extreme energy, even hyperactivity and sleeplessness. One or both partners develops a goal-oriented fixation on winning the beloved. In vernacular language, what I would say, is you’re so focused on getting and keeping the person, you don’t have any neurological energy left over to think, are they worth getting? Are they worth keeping? It’s just, I want to get the goal.
Relational passion is heightened by adversity; it’s not weakened. If people challenge you, that tends to draw you closer together. You become emotionally dependent on the relationship. You reorder daily priorities so that you can always be together. Uh ... you think about this person to an obsessive degree. You might have known them for only a ... a few weeks, but you can’t get them out of your mind. You want to ... you want to be with them the entire time.
And so, it really just basically, takes over your neurological processing. It takes over your mental thoughts and you become obsessed with this person. And really what I think, another way to describe [it] is, it makes you feel desperate, fearful and clingy. (Laughter) Now put all--
Jim: It makes you write--
Gary: --the research aside ...
Gary: Yeah. (Laughter) You’re afraid that they won’t love you back. You feel desperate to win them and clingy to make sure they don’t get away.
Jim: But again, it doesn’t have to be a ... kind of described all negatively, because God has put that mechanism in us to draw us to each other, that infatuation. There’s got to be a healthy element to it.
Gary: Well, God designed infatuation. He designed our brains. It has a good creational purpose. It’s just we have to know it’s not a good enough reason to marry someone. If you know it can’t last more than 12 to 18 months, why would you connect yourself to someone for five or six decades?
One of the saddest things I’ve heard as a pastor is a woman who admitted she got married primarily on infatuation. They got married too quickly. She said, “Gary, we had a great nine months. We haven’t had a good nine weeks since.”
Jim: Wow. Let me drill into that, because there was a statement in your book that really caught my attention and it fits right here. You said, just because you’re in love with someonedoesn’t mean you should seriously consider marrying them.
Jim: That sounds (Laughter) so contradictory. What in the world are you talkin’ about?
Gary: It ... I know it sounds bizarre, but just let me tell the singles, here’s a woman who had been through two divorces already and they were painful divorces. I mean, the guys had cheated on her, they’d gotten a little rough with her, I mean, just horrendous situations. She’s with a third guy, worried that maybe he wasn’t as committed to her as she was to him. And she wanted my advice.
And she began to describe some things that alarmed me. One, she caught him on the phone telling another woman, not his sister and not his mom, that he loved her. That’s a big red flag. He could be somewhat emotionally abusive in a way that would send her into crying fits. And as she’s just describing the dynamics of this relationship, I’m thinking, why are you in this relationship? I’m ... yeah, I just said, he seems to me very similar to the guys that you had this problem with before.
And she [said], “Gary, you don’t understand. I am deeply and passionately in love with him.” So, I took a deep breath and I said, “Were you in love with your first husband?” “Well, absolutely. I was devastated when he left me.” “Well, what about your second husband?” “Oh, yeah, it ... it was different, but yeah, very much so.”
And I said finally, “Maybe you need to find a reason other than being in love to marry someone, because it’s led you to two bad relationships. It might lead you into a third. It’s leading you to men that aren’t healthy for you, that aren’t good for you.”
But because it’s so engrained in our mind that if we feel this head-over-heels in love, we don’t even question whether we should marry him. That’s what we value most and even a woman who had been burnt twice living by that philosophy, was ready to make a third decision on the same basis. We just can’t let it go.
John: Hm. Well, you’re listening to Gary Thomas on Focus on the Family hosted by Jim Daly. Stop by www.focusonthefamily.com/radio to find the book that we’re talking about and downloads of the conversation as we continue here. Uh ... Gary, you talked about a study that really showed the value that women in particular, place on romantic love. And it seems like there’ve been some changes over the years in that regard.
Gary: Uh ... there have been and when you look historically just a few gen ... a couple generations ago, if you presented to a woman, a guy has this trait, this trait, this trait and this trait, but you don’t have that over-the-top weak-in-the-knee feeling of infatuation, would you marry him? And I don’t remember the exact number, but it was over 80 percent that said yes. Nowadays, less than 10 percent--
Gary: --would say yes.
Gary: Yeah and I’ve been pushed back on this. It’s interesting at a college setting a woman said to me ... young woman said to me, “Here, let’s be honest. Don’t you want your daughters ...” ‘cause I have two daughters of marriageable age, “Don’t you want them to be in love with the man on their wedding day?”
And I said, “You know, I get what you’re saying and in a perfect world, romance is a wonderful thing. I think it’s good that we celebrate it. But here’s the thing. I want to be walking my daughter down the aisle toward a man that she respects, because respect is something that grows. If he’s a respectable man, her affection for him will increase.
“Iwant her to walk down the aisle toward a man who’s pursuing God because his wisdom will grow. His character will grow. There’ll be more of him to love and appreciate. I want her to walk down the aisle toward a man who will die for his family, who will be engaged with their kids, because when she has kids, she’s gonna care for them in a way she can’t even imagine caring for those kids now.
“And the thing that will thrill her heart the most is if he’s involved and there for her family.” And I said, “I want her to marry a man who is so strong and selfless in his love, that if she gets cancer and loses all her hair, he will kiss her bald head and make her believe she is the most beautiful woman on the face of the earth.”
Gary: And I said, “If she’s walking up the aisle toward a man like that and doesn’t have a lot of feelings, I’m gonna say, “Honey, it really doesn’t matter.” But if I’m walkin’ her up the aisle toward a man who has none of that, but she says she’s head-over-heels, I’ll be doing my best to pull her out the back door. Because those are things that don’t last. Character is something that lasts.
Gary: I tell college guys, “I know you can’t believe this when you’re just enthralled by this woman in her 20s.” But I said, “But the day will come sooner than you can believe when she will look not that unlike her mom.” It’s what happens.
Jim: Gary, I’ve gotta ask though. I’m the single and I’m again, seekinga mate and what you’re saying theoretically, it ... it’s resonating with me. I get it. I understand it. But how do I truly learn to develop that ability to place character over infatuation, when you just told me a little while ago that infatuation makes me blind and stupid. (Laughter) I mean, wh ... how am I gonna learn to do that? What are the hooks that I can say--
Jim: --”Okay, I’m 25. I’m falling in love. I’m not sure if he’s got the character that I want.” How do I learn to put character above infatuation?
Gary: One, recognize what infatuation is doing to you. It makes you vulnerable and stupid. And so, just enjoy the feeling, but recognize I’m very vulnerable to my feelings. I’m really literal ... I don’t mean this negative[ly], but I’m ... I’m acting kinda stupid. I’m not ... I ... I don’t see things. So, seek counsel. Uh ... seek those character-based traits. And I hope we have time to get into it. I’d like to say, I think eight character traits that are essential for us to be and for us to look for for a successful marriage and we’re talking about the “why” of marriage. If infatuation isn’t enough, what can we look for?
And then, you go through that list and then you can begin to see, okay, this makes sense. Because it’s perfectly possible to become infatuated with somebody who would be sterling marriage material. But you’re just not marrying--
Jim: Well, it’s not ...
Gary: --him because of the infatuation.
Jim: It can happen that way.
Jim: Uh ... Gary, let’s also come back to this idea of finding the No. 1 person, that God has selected one person for me and I gotta [sic] find that girl or that guy. You kind of do a little shift on the acronym, the SOLE MATE. You move from S-O-U-L to S-O-L-E. What do you mean in your book about the sole ... S-O-L-E , mate?
Gary: Well, the reason I debunk the soul mate, S-O-U-L is that it comes from Plato, not Scripture. He really is the one who surmised that, wh ... what he says in his book, Symposium , he has a character names Aristophanes, who said that there’s this ancient prototype human that was male and female together. They called them “round people.” And the problem is, that they were becoming too powerful and threatening the gods.
So, Zeus came up with the plan, I’m gonna cut ‘em in two, separate the two halves. They’ll be so desperate to find their missing half that they won’t have anything left over to challenge the gods. Then once they find each other, they’ll be so clingy and desperate to stay together that they’ll leave us alone and that’s what Zeus did and thus, the gods were saved.
And nobody believes that worldview now, but we still have this sense that there’s this one lost person that will connect us. The biblical worldview couldn’t be more different. The biblical worldview is not that I’m incomplete because I’ve been separated from an ancient half-human. It’s that I’ve been separated from God by my sin.
Gary: And so, I’m not finding someone to complete me. I’m finding someone with whom I can share my love with God, with whom I can share the journey toward learning to love other people, with whom I can share Matthew 6:33, seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. And so, SOLE MATE, S-O-L-E is just walking out the biblical commands of loving, walking out the biblical command of serving God in His kingdom.
The richest marriages I have seen and this is what I would tell singles, the most intimate, fulfilled marriages I’ve ever witnessed are marriages that exist for something bigger than themselves. They’re passionate about the kingdom. They worship God together. They serve God together. That just staves off the boredom that affects so many relationships that are self-centered.
Jim: Gary, we’re comin’ in for a landing and uh ... when I think back on this conversation thus far, some people could think, that is a really unromantic (Chuckling) approach to marriage. You’ve told us basically, the person you love doesn’t necessarily need to be the person you marry, that uh ... you know what? You gotta be [sic ] aware of infatuation, ‘cause it makes you blind and stupid. (Laughter) And ... and then you get down to it and you’re goin’, seek out character over attraction really. That’s the bottom line of what you’re saying. Uh ... speak to that person, why what you have said it ... it seems counterintuitive to your emotions, but it is right on the mark when it comes to what God wants in your life.
Gary: Jim, it goes back again, to the “why.” I think of the Mother’s Day card that I wrote for my wife the last Mother’s Day, just thanking her for what she’s invested in our kids. My anniversary, thanking her for how she’s stood behind me and beside me and with me all those years. Marriage is very difficult.
Gary: There are aspects of life that will break your heart. It could be a sick kid. It could be a rebellious kid. It could be infertility. Life has unemployment. It has disappointment. It ... your own parents might have problems. Your friends have problems. Your life throws stuff at you every day and romance can’t survive that.
But when you have a strong sister or brother in the Lord, that ... that is there beside you, that has your back, that is a rock, I think of a woman I’ll never forget. She had gone through so many medical crises in her life, it would make you want to cry, that one woman had to go through all of that in one lifetime.
And she said, “But Gary, I can’t tell ... I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through this without my husband. He held my hair back while I was vomiting. He made me feel like I was the most beautiful woman on the earth, when I felt like I was the ugliest because of the treatments I was going through. Next to becoming a Christian, marrying him was the best decision I ever could’ve made.”
And what she said is that life has been very, very difficult, but it’s been better because she chose a good man to walk through this life with. Singles have no clue what they face up ahead. They don’t know the trials or the challenges.
But here’s what God says. I’m gonna let you choose who you face those challenges with. I’m gonna let you choose who you walk through those trials with. And what will matter most is faith and character, being filled with the Spirit, having the wisdom of Scripture, invested inyour family. In the end, that’s what creates the most rewarding life. Jesus knew what He was talking about with Matthew 6:33. If we seek first His kingdom and His righteous[ness], all these other things that we desire, those will be taken are of--
Gary: --if we keep our priorities first. The “why” really does matter to answer the “who.”
Jim: Well, Gary Thomas, author of the book, The Sacred Search , this has been a great start to the discussion, but uh ... we’ve got more questions. In fact, I want to start next time with this one, winning the romance lottery. And uh ... let’s go there and can you just stay with us and--
Jim: --we’ll go on.
Gary: --would love to. Would love to.
Jim: Okay, let’s do it.
John: And we trust you’ll be with us then, as we continue the conversation with Gary Thomas. And meanwhile, get a CD or a download of our discussion today. We’ll include the next broadcast on that as well and get a copy of The Sacred Search for yourself or to pass along to a single that you know.
You’ll find these resources and other helps at focusonthefamily.com/radio or call 800-A-FAMILY. And at the website, we’ll link over to our Boundless website, which is an entire portion of this ministry dedicated to help singles live out a fulfilling life and to prepare well for marriage relationships.
In fact, one Boundless show listener recently told us this: “Brio Magazine guided me through high school and now Boundless is accompanying me through young adulthood. Every Thursday when the podcast releases, there’s something I need to hear that I wouldn’t have thought to look into myself. Boundless is helping me to become a better person in all the roles I fill; as a sister, employee, Christian; daughter and friend.”
Now, we love hearing comments like that and being part of the journey every step of the way. And if you’d like to help us in our efforts to encourage and strengthen single young adults, make a financial gift to this ministry today. In fact, when you contribute generously today, we’ll send a copy of Gary Thomas’ book The Sacred Search and a CD of this conversation as well. It’s our way of saying thank you for being part of our support team.
On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening to Focus on the Family. And be with us again next time as we help you thrive in Christ.
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Gary ThomasView Bio
Gary Thomas is an international speaker and best-selling, award-winning author whose books include Pure Pleasure, Holy Available and Sacred Marriage. He has also written numerous articles for several prominent national magazines. Gary and his wife, Lisa, reside in Texas and have three children. You can learn more about Gary by visiting his website, www.garythomas.com.