Another post here shows how love relationships work a lot like other living things—children, pets and houseplants. Like fruit trees, they grow through the cycle of seasons, and the time before marriage seems to me a cycle of four seasons.
A problem in most relationships is that the partners are in two different seasons of readiness for love. A good future for such couples requires one to speed up growth while the other slows down, so they can get into the same season. Notice the progression in each season toward greater purpose, sacrifice, openness, and romantic affection.
In winter you are not ready for love, because you are getting over past love relationships (perhaps you’re just leaving home). The purpose is to become healed from the wounds of loss, rejection and abuse suffered in past relationships. The sacrificial commitment is to avoid the anesthesia of drugs, alcohol, compulsive habits, and a premature rebound relationship. It’s time to let go of the old lover, and feel the pain. The personal disclosure is to take inventory of what went right and wrong in the old relationship. For romantic affection, we are best sustained by the hugs and tenderness of friends, family, and the family of faith, but not from other single adults of the opposite sex.
Here the purposes are to have fun, pick out a potential partner, and discover if he or she is lovable. The sacrificial commitment is to stay in spring: coming out of winter hibernation, and avoiding prematurely going steady. Both of us can and should date other people. The personal disclosure is to put your best feet forward, focusing on who you both are now. Show the particular friends, family, activities, groups, feelings, beliefs, habits, personal history, and future plans that you think the other would most enjoy. This should include some light (nonseductive) flirting. Romantic affection should be light and easy at this stage, expressing warmth with brief hugs and kisses, such as at the end of the date.
Your purpose here is to deepen the commitment and to know each other better. Sacrificial commitment requires exclusive dating, giving up the freedom of going out with anyone else of the opposite sex. Togetherness at this stage should be punctuated by evenings alone, time with same‑sex friends, or in separate trusted groups of mixed company. Suggested guidelines for friends of the opposite sex are no private or after‑hour rendezvous, no intimate touching, and no talking about each other’s current love life or relationship.
Personal disclosure involves going deeper into your past and approaching the more secret and unacceptable sides of who you both are, including problems with disease, mental health, genetics, and fertility. You begin to admit mistakes and character faults, and show efforts to correct them. For romantic affection, light petting is still the best, not yet exploring erogenous zones.
Here the purpose is to work through final reservations about marriage. Sacrificial commitment requires that nearly all evenings are shared together. Limits must be established on intense outside relationships that would threaten your marriage. Some couples will need full disclosure of certain finances, conversations or whereabouts toward the end of this phase. A major purpose is to close the door on old flames and to limit anti-marital influences.
Personal disclosure involves focusing now on the future, the selves you want to become. The ideal is to know each other as well as you know yourselves. Establish goals and priorities for the future. Especially if in doubt, it is always a good idea to get a premarital evaluation from a psychologist, marriage counselor, or pastor. For romantic affection, somewhat heavier forms of touching can now be enjoyed. To keep things in balance, I believe the physical union in intercourse is best saved until the personal union of marriage.
I discuss at some length this last point in the book, Growing Your Love Life, available on amazon.com.