The Good and Bad of Casual



What does that word mean to you when it comes to romance and matrimony? Some people hate it. Some people love it. Some people think it’s downright wrong. There’s a lot of debate over what place casual should have in a Christian’s pursuit of romance and marriage. Some think it’s a good thing. Some say it should never be a part of our behavior. So what exactly is it? And what role can or should it have in a person’s journey toward lasting love?

Casual usually pops up in talk of romantic relationships when someone mentions “casual dating.” I think it’s important to stop right here and clarify what precisely dating even is. In our modern American culture, the idea of dating often carries the idea of meeting up with someone and proceeding to get into bed together several hours later. However, if you look in a dictionary you’ll see that the definition of a date is something along the lines of “a prearranged social engagement, especially with romantic interest.” Essentially, a date is nothing more than agreeing with someone that you’ll meet him or her at a particular time and place. We actually make dates all the time without thinking of them as such. If you agree to meet your mom for lunch you’ve, by definition, made a date with her. That’s where the second part of the definition comes in. The dates we really get excited about are the ones where there is romantic interest involved. And dating is simply making multiple dates with a person with whom you have some level of romantic interest.

So now let’s go back to the idea of casual dating. Casual dating simply refers to the practice of going on dates that only have a casual (low) level of romantic expectation. See, two people who are going on a first date won’t be as personally intertwined as two people that have been in an exclusive relationship for a couple years. The two on the first date will have no great expectations for what the other will offer or commit to. While the two in the exclusive relationship will probably have some serious expectations concerning the behavior and commitment of the other person. So casual dating really only refers to going on dates and getting to know another person without having a high level of commitment to or expectation from the other person.

So why do some people hate this? Well, a lot of Christians don’t look favorably on casual dating because many people have gotten into casual dating relationships that went nowhere, ate up time and energy, and often led to becoming emotionally over-attached or sexually immoral. One of Joshua Harris’ greatest criticisms of dating is toward dating relationships that are without direction or intent. He sees value in intentionally pointing any romantic relationship toward exploring marriage. While frowning on casual dating, Harris favors Courtship, since Courtship moves two people directly from friendship to an exclusive romantic relationship that intentionally explores marriage. Some Christians have gone so far as to argue that even to suggest interest in a person (even as little as flirting) without being prepared to commit to a romantic relationship with intent and direction is wrong. The argument goes that by making it appear that you’re interested without being prepared to follow through is to defraud because you’re raising a person’s hopes when you may very well just let them fall later.

So why do some love casual dating? Because it provides air in which to breathe.


The Good

Recently, I spoke with a woman who spent a number of years in a church congregation that taught and followed Courtship structure. She described how the Courtship structure would produce invitations for getting into a romantic relationship seemingly out of the blue. Some of the guys at the church, some of whom she didn’t even know very well, would approach her saying they were interested in Courting her and asking if she wanted to begin a relationship. She described how getting such an invitation was intense. It often meant a guy she hadn’t thought of beyond friendship, and sometimes didn’t even know well, was suddenly asking her to join him in an exclusive romantic relationship. The two of them weren’t able to explore romantic potential apart from committing to a Courtship because dating and even talking one-on-one with a member of the opposite sex was frowned upon. “There was no air in which to breathe,” she said, describing how there was no way to get to know the guy before committing to a romantic relationship with him. The intensity discouraged her from accepting the invitations. She turned down every invitation except one. The one she accepted was from a young man with whom she had felt chemistry and interest through previous social interactions. I asked her, “If those guys who asked to Court you had instead asked you to go get coffee, do you think you would have said yes?”

“Oh, yeah, definitely,” she replied.

I’ve heard a number of similar stories that reflect the concept that women who follow Courtship structure often make a lot of rejections. This is simply because the high level of intensity and commitment in a Courtship requires only accepting an invitation from someone you honestly think you could marry. As a result, the complete rejection of truly decent guys has to be frequent when they just don’t seem to be the type of potential husband desired.

So what does a casual date have that a committed Courtship doesn’t? It has a way to get to know a person without being obligated to serious personal investment. Many times in life we cross paths with someone we think we might be interested in but don’t know well enough to know for sure. Life often isn’t kind enough to let you be close enough to get to know a person based only on your daily routines. The only way to get to know the person well enough to know if you’re willing to make serious investment is to be intentional about spending time together. That’s where casual dates can be useful. They’re social engagements where each person knows they have a preliminary interest in each other. However, they both also know that they don’t know enough to decide if they will enter into a long-term relationship. Casual dating bridges the space between being strictly platonic and being romantically invested.

“Casual dating bridges the space between being strictly platonic and being romantically invested.”

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It allows both people to make a low investment in each other in order to gain enough information to choose if they will commit to more. If so, they’ll begin an exclusive romantic relationship. If not, they haven’t invested so much that parting ways is heartbreaking. In fact, some people who casually date and realize they’re not right for each other still remain friends. The good of casual dating is that it provides space to get to know a person who seems to have long-term potential without requiring so great an investment that the risk outweighs the potential good.

So what’s the bad?

The Bad

It can be disappointing. If you casually date a person your feelings for him or her might grow while his or hers don’t. You might want to take the relationship further. He or she might decide to part ways. If you’re going to date, even casually, you have to be prepared for the possibility of disappointment.

You might have to share. Casual dating doesn’t involve exclusivity unless you’ve had a discussion to that effect with whomever you’re dating. A coffee date, dinner date, or any other kind is by no means an offer of exclusivity. If you get coffee with someone, that doesn’t mean he or she isn’t getting coffee on other days of the week with other people. Neither of you has an exclusive claim over the other until you both commit to an exclusive relationship. If you’re not comfortable with this, it’s by all means fine to have an honest discussion about it with whomever you’re going out with. But exclusivity increases intensity and personal investment. A person may not be willing to do that if he or she is still uncertain about you.

Some people abuse casual. Remember how we talked earlier about how some Christians are critical of casual dating? Well, their points are valid. There are some people in the world who want to casually date for the fun of it and don’t want to become serious or committed…ever…or at least not for a long time. Add to that the fact that a lot of people like to start adding kissing and physical contact to casual dating and you start to get a recipe for some very self-serving, destructive, and ungodly dating behaviors.

The Tool

Casual dating should be a tool for bridging the space between platonic friendship and committed romance. It’s not supposed to be a place people camp out for a good time. In my own life, I use casual dating to seek a person to whom I desire to commit to an exclusive relationship, a person who may ultimately become my wife. I’m passing through casual dating. I don’t want to stay permanently. Beware the person who does. His or her motives may not be admirable.

And since casual dating is a place of low commitment, it’s a place where something else needs to be low: physical contact. Yep, I’m saying if you’re casual then you should keep your hands off. My honest persuasion? I don’t believe in the kiss at the end of a first date, even if it went well. A single date doesn’t reveal how much of a future you have with a person. It can get your endorphins swimming, sure. But since more time is needed to see if the relationship will last, I see little benefit in adding to the rush through kissing, etc. I recall observing amusing college romances among my friends that involved starting to date, quickly advancing to making out, and then just as quickly advancing to breaking up. And all this within a couple weeks! Physical connectedness is thrilling, but it makes a poor foundation for a relationship. Get what’s important right first. Then you can truly enjoy dessert when it comes in its proper course.

So do you want to find a lasting love but can’t seem to find the right person? Take a look at whether it might be because you’re too determined to jump straight to a serious level. You don’t have to feel like you want to get into an exclusive relationship before going on a date with someone. Love has a funny way of sometimes growing as you get to know a person. The longer I live the more I hear stories to the effect of “my husband asked me out a bunch of times before I said yes.” In How To Get a Date Worth Keeping, Dr. Henry Cloud gives the curious advice, “go out with anyone at least once.” Anyone?! Anyone. Cloud says this because he realizes that, even if the date doesn’t lead to marriage, any social experience and greater knowledge of another person can be a positive thing. Even bad dates can teach us things. If nothing else, they teach us how to treat well a person we’re not fond of. And maybe, just maybe, that person you didn’t find impressive at first will turn out to be your future spouse.

So guys, if you know a young woman whom you’re not necessarily enamored with but has attractive qualities, maybe you should ask her to get coffee. And girls, if you get asked out by a guy you’ve never really looked at romantically, why not go out with him at least once? Casual provides the space to take a deeper look at someone without major commitment. It’s a tool. Learn to use it with skill and wisdom and it may help you build something wonderful.

What do you think? Do you view casual dating as a positive thing? What has your experience been? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section!

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Photo Credit: Jonathan McIntosh. Title: Cappuccino at Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco. Source:

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