From First Date to Marriage: 20 Stages of Relationship Development

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People handle dating commitment in different ways. Some people rush into it and others avoid it all together. Culturally (in the church, and especially at church schools), we have major commitment issues. There are all sorts of reasons that we struggle with commitment, but regardless of the reason for our struggles, commitment issues can hold us back more than we realize. In this article we want to propose part of the solution to our commitment problems.

In a typical dating relationship (at least an LDS relationship), there are roughly 7 different relationship stages, or commitment levels, from lowest to highest:

  1. Hang out
  2. Go on a date or two (if you are lucky, 3 dates)
  3. DTR: Should we be exclusive? 
  4. Date exclusively
  5. DTR: Should we get married?
  6. Get engaged 
  7. Marriage
For many people, this process happens really fast. This is part of the reason BYU-Idaho is sometimes referred to as "BYU-I Do."  Flying through this process with little rational thought is often motivated by our desire to get to the "next step" in our progression toward marriage. We are concerned that if we don't move fast enough, we may miss out. This increases our anxiety. If we don't move quickly enough, others might misjudge us or even lose interest in the relationship (or assume we are not that interested). Therefore, too many people rush through this process, motivated by the scary combination of chemistry, anxiety, and social pressure. When that happens, many enter marriage ill-prepared with unrealistic expectations. Other people might move slowly at first and struggle to get past steps 1 or 2, but then fly through steps 3-7.  As you may have noticed, we are working under the assumption that moving quickly through the dating process is less healthy for your future marriage. Is that true? 

Consider this quote from Elder Dallin H. Oaks:
“The best way to avoid divorce from an unfaithful, abusive, or unsupportive spouse is to avoid marriage to such a person. If you wish to marry well, inquire well. Associations through ‘hanging out’ or exchanging information on the Internet are not a sufficient basis for marriage. There should be dating, followed by careful and thoughtful and thorough courtship. There should be ample opportunities to experience the prospective spouse’s behavior in a variety of circumstances.” 

How "careful and thoughtful and thorough" can we be when we rush the dating process? Rushing into marriage makes it difficult to establish realistic expectations of both your relationship and your partner. One survey of marriage counselors found that the number one issue facing LDS couples was unrealistic expectations. Even if you feel you “already know” the person you are dating is the one you want to marry, there are still so many things to learn about one another. Unfortunately, we naturally disengage our mind from the dating process once we've decided in our mind that we want to marry them. At some time or other, a serious price must be paid to get to know one's partner. Waiting to pay that price until after marriage usually leads to a lot of heartache.

In saying this, we are not suggesting that we should delay marriage unnecessarily. Delaying marriage for selfish or fear-based reasons would be unwise. Elder Robert D. Hales stated:
“Speaking plainly, please don’t date all through your 20s just to 'have a good time,' thus delaying marriage in favor of other interests and activities. Why? Because dating and marriage aren’t final destinations. They are the gateway to where you ultimately want to go.”

It's impossible to get to know everything about a potential marriage partner before you marry them. In fact, you will need to pay a regular price in getting to know them throughout the rest of your life together. However, we would be wise to take the time and energy now to get to know them at a deeper level. Delaying marriage until you can be “careful, thoughtful, and thorough” in your dating relationship is not faithless, fear-based, or selfish. It is wise.

Here is our current dilemma: If you are one who chooses to be thoughtful and thorough in your dating and courtship, taking a little more time than is normal, a prospective partner may believe you are not interested or not worth their time. Too many people are looking for a “quick fix” as it pertains to getting married and if you don’t fit that profile, some people might pass you by. In order to address this, we have to start normalizing the process of being thoughtful and thorough in our premarital relationships. We can do that be developing a shared language about commitment that reflects thoughtfulness rather than sprinting through the dating process, rushing to the next ordinance. It needs to become okay to say something like, “I think you are a really great person. What I know about you I really like. I just don’t know you that well yet and would like to continue to get to know you before we (kiss, date exclusively, etc.)” It needs to become normal to be able to go on a few dates with someone without the expectation that you will immediately move into an exclusive relationship. It needs to become normal to continue to get to know someone once you are engaged to be married. Unfortunately, right now it is not. 

In an effort to help this, we’ve put together a more detailed description of relationship stages, or commitment levels. Having a clearly defined set of relationship stages can make it a lot easier to be intentional. Earlier relationship stages indicate lower levels of commitment. Later relationship stages reflect higher levels of commitment. This description is not perfect or even ideal in every circumstance, but it is a heck of a lot better than what is currently happening in most dating relationships.

20 Relationship Stages (commitment levels):

  1. Go on date (short date)
  2. Just friends
  3. Casual DTR (to determine that you are NOT in a relationship, but you can still date each other; this happens when you sense that it would be normal to move into a relationship but recognize that you don't know each other very well)
  4. Going on multiple dates (gradually make the dates a little longer, focus on having fun together and learning from one another; if he continues to ask you out, you know that he is at least moderately interested in you. If she continues to say yes, you know she is at least willing to continue to get to know you)
  5. Initial physical contact beyond casual hug (e.g., hand hold, arm around, etc.)
  6. More serious DTR: stay the course, friend-zone, or date exclusively (courting)
  7. Exclusive dating relationship
  8. First sexless kiss (if you don't know what this is, read this)
  9. Acknowledgment of relationship publicly (e.g., social media, family)
  10. Intentional dating; dating with a specific plan to deepen learning and refine expectations for boy/girlfriend; begin to have deeper value conversations (parenting, money, etc.)
  11. Escalating physical touch (hand hold, appropriate cuddling, sexless kiss)
  12. Meet significant others (i.e., family)
  13. Say I love you (the men almost always initiate this)
  14. Talk about marriage (DTR)
  15. Engaged
  16. Completing wedding plans (date, temple reservation, etc.)
  17. Continue to date intentionally, have futuristic “we” conversations at a deeper level; commit to specific shared values
  18. Marriage
  19. Passionate kissing, first sexual experience together
  20. Ever increasing depth of sacrifice, love, and commitment in marriage
Typically we over-think the earlier stages and under-think the later stages, which is exactly the opposite of what we ought to be doing. We need to relax more in the beginning and be more intentional later on. No one should freak out about stages 1-4. They reflect very low levels of relationship commitment. On the other hand, no one should think that they've learned all they need to learn about the other person (i.e.., turn off their brain) once they've hit stages 7, 14, or 15. 

Do your part in addressing our cultural commitment issues by:

  • Not exaggerating the meaning of a first date (it is step 1 of 20)
  • Pace your relationship stages wisely by intentionally moving from stage to stage rather than rushing through them on the whims of emotion and chemistry
  • Don't throw away your kisses as if they are step #1; you shouldn't even consider it until after step #7. First dates are causal. A kiss isn't.
  • Encourage others to follow your example. Join us in starting a dating commitment movement by making it normal to #datewithyourhead.

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  1. Wonderful and well thought out. When I first started reading I thought, doesn't this all occur naturally? but then I understood what you meant by intentionally moving. That makes all the difference.

  2. So I have a question. I fully 1000% agree with this 20-step method, but that's obviously not the norm! I have noticed however, that I get caught up in thinking that dates mean more than they really do. What causes this perspective and how can I have a paradigm shift when it comes to dating? I don't want to get emotionally attached too soon, because it's heartbreaking. How can I change my mindset?

    1. Great questions! It's normal to think that dates mean more than they do. I think there are a lot of factors to why we do this, I’ll just mention two: We want them to mean more than they do, so we see what we want to see. Second: we are anxious. Because we place such a high priority on marriage (which is good), we tend to be pretty anxious during the dating scene. One effect of this anxiety is that it becomes pretty easy to rush into an emotional attachment. To combat this, you need to make sure your mind stays active and engaged in the process. If you feel like rushing into a relationship because you had one or two awesome dates and you totally “feel it,” remind yourself that it’s only been a couple dates (read our article: #justadate) and you really don't know this person that much. Even if you feel super connected with someone, try to match what you do in a relationship (how much time you spend together, commitment, physical touch, etc.) with how well you really know him or her. This is hard work, but it's worth it!

  3. I don't know as a 24 year old who never been on a date, it seems like hard work and complicated.

    1. I don't even think I want to start dating.

    2. I don't even think I want to start dating.

    3. Lisa: the dating scene can be rough. A lot of the problems we experience in dating have to do with problems from the dating culture (which is why we started this blog). Some of the problems come from within. We should work to improve ourselves in any way we can, while recognizing at the same time that not all things are in our control.
      We hope that you won't give up on your dating endeavors!

  4. What if you are in a committed relationship and have had some not-so-sexless kisses? I don't want our relationship to fail...have we already doomed ourselves by making out?

    1. Of course not! Making out is not the worst thing someone has ever done. Is it necessary? Some people say you need to "try out" certain physical things before marriage in order if things are going to work in marriage, and that's just not true.

      Two things. First, when you are choosing a potential spouse, you need to make sure that you keep your rational mind engaged (this may be the most important decision of your life!). Engaging in high levels of physical activity at one time (e.g., having sex) or engaging in a lot of lower level physical activity (frequent make out sessions) will compromise your ability to see things clearly and make wise decisions. Do you really like your boyfriend/girlfriend? Or do you just like kissing him or her?

      Second: the more people we engage with physically before marriage, the more difficult it will be for our minds to connect with an eventual spouse. Our minds simply aren't wired to have strong romantic bonds with multiple people. Fortunately, are brains are not in an unchangeable position and we can make decisions now that will make it easier for us to stay bonded to a future spouse later.

      So, your relationship certainly isn't ruined because you've had some "not-so-sexless" kisses. BUT, your future marriage (to whomever it might be) will greatly benefit from your decision to scale back your physicality in your current relationship.

  5. How many dates are appropriate in stage 4 before moving to stage 5?

    1. Honestly, there isn’t a set number (as this isn’t a set list). I would ask yourself this question: do I know this person well enough to move the commitment and touch up in our relationship? If the answer is “yes” then I would take a baby-step.
      If I were to speculate on a number of dates (and it would depend on how effective these dates were in the “getting to know” process), I would say 4-5 really solid dates would be a decent starting point for “multiple.”


We are excited to hear your insights or questions!