The Lost Art of Discernment

I smiled at the face on my computer’s screen—a MySpace profile pic of a Christian boy with bright eyes and a bass guitar. He was 21 and part of a band made up of a handful of my friends. I was 19 and had seen enough to come to a quick conclusion:

I should date him.

We texted and talked, and felt tethered to each other before we ever met face to face. I chose him, and he chose me, and we forged onward, determined to share life without discerning whether we should.

This is because discernment is a lost art. We cross paths with a person whose gaze raises our heart rate, whose humor gets us every time, or who gets us. We are physically attracted to him or her, and mentally distracted by his or her presence (or absence). We decide with haste to date him or her based mostly (if not solely) on what we feel when we first meet, without acknowledging dating’s purpose: to discern marriage.

The result? We aim in dating to maintain the warm, fuzzy feelings that brought us together. We date without discerning. But discernment is an art we can bring back, if we ask important questions while we date, including but not limited to these:

Do I know the truth about this person? In his brilliant book Love and Responsibility, St. John Paul II wrote that “feelings arise spontaneously—the attraction which one person feels towards another often begins suddenly and unexpectedly—but this reaction is in effect ‘blind.’ Where the feelings are functioning naturally, they are not concerned with the truth about their object. … And this is just where emotional-affective reactions often tend to distort or falsify attractions: through their prism, values which are not really present at all may be discerned in a person. … This is why in any attraction—and indeed, here above all—the question of the truth about the person towards whom it is felt is so important.” I decided to date the bassist based on spontaneous feelings, and I focused on keeping them strong instead of on discovering who he was.Through the prism of feelings, I could justify his decision not to tell his parents about our relationship. I could rationalize his decision not to demote his “ex-girlfriend” from her first place position in his MySpace “Top 8.”

Do I actually like this person? In dating relationships in which I’ve been committed to discovering the truth, I have learned more than once that I don’t like this guy. The charming one, who turned out to be a narcissist. The funny one, who turned out to be immature. The other funny one, who turned out to be to local strip clubs what Sam Malone was to Cheers. Some of us—like I, in the relationship with the bassist—forge onward regardless of whether what we learn means we don’t like a person, because we don’t pause long enough to notice that we don’t. Others are pressured (from within or from without) to work on relationships not actually worth their time. But our commitment in dating is not until death. It’s until we’ve discerned that we shouldn’t get married.

Does the world need a kid who’ll grow up and turn into one of us? If you wouldn’t want your child to turn into you or the person you’re dating, you ought to ask another question: Why not? In the answer, you’re likely to find important evidence: not that you or he or she should never procreate, but that you (or he or she) is currently more open to maintaining a status quo than to growing, that one is a reckless decision-maker, or a self-absorbed ignorer of surroundings—that one isn’t yet prepared for marriage. And that requires us to ask this question: is a person who is unprepared for marriage a person who should date? If not—and I’d say not—we have used the art of discernment to determine what we ought to do next.


arleen fall 2013Arleen Spenceley is author of forthcoming book Chastity is For Lovers: Single, Happy, and (Still) a Virgin, to be released by Ave Maria Press in Fall 2014. She works as a staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in counseling, both from the University of South Florida. She blogs at and tweets @ArleenSpenceley. Click here to like her on Facebook.



  1. I really like this article. I think it is insightful and thoughtful, especially when considering a world where considering someone to be cute is sometimes the only reason people start dating. Another thing to keep in mind is is the moral integrity of the person. People often take on characteristics of those they hang around and a dateing partner/fiancé/spouse needs to be good influence, someone who prompts you closer to God rather than farther away. I also really liked your point about really liking a person for who they are. I think some people approach dating from the point of view that it is better to settle for someone just okay than to be alone. I believe this is a losing mentality that works against those who use it and can cause people to end up with people who do not treat then well or in less than satisfactory relationships. It’s much better to approach dating as a happy single who will only change their relationship status for someone they really think is fantastic and extraordinary enough to possibly spend the rest of their life with. But anyway, thank you for this well written article. Discernment in dating is a much needed resource in our world and the Christian church today.

    By Crystal | 7 years ago Reply
  2. This was very insightful! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    By Christiana | 7 years ago Reply
  3. Hi! I found this quite interesting since I just met a guy who seems to have a lot of good things my ex boyfriends lacked. I was able to talk to him about a lot of things but specially about some religious stuff I was only comfortable talking with my dad and it felt quite nice, since he shared a lot of the same opinions with me. Since it could progress to something more, I was wondering how is it that I could try to be friends with him first, and learn more about his beliefs, family, etc. and if something didn’t fit into my standards (like if he’s a Catholic, which I’m 99.99% he is, but didn’t go to mass EVERY Sunday or thought differently from my “ideal” partner), how to not cut him off completely but not make him think I’d still might be interested in something else, rather than just a friendship. Thanks very much! =)

    By Angeline | 7 years ago Reply
  4. So true. I’m waiting to date until I’m ready for marriage and the waiting forces you to practice the lost art of friendship when you find somone you like. It’s the way to go!

    By Shane | 7 years ago Reply
  5. I found this article to be incredibly helpful! I have unfortunately found myself going on dates with people who I’d never even think of marrying. Thanks to the “How to Find Your Soulmate Without Losing your Soul” I discovered what true, authentic love is. And now I continue learning from blogs like these! Thank you for writing such an outstanding blog!

    By Hannah Pavalko | 7 years ago Reply
  6. This was literally exactly what I needed to hear. SO glad you wrote this. It makes total sense, but isn’t a way I would have ever thought about dating. THANK YOU

    By Paige | 7 years ago Reply
  7. I loved that book and I really love reading blogs like these 🙂 they are so encouraging 😀 Thank you so much for writing it! God Bless you!

    By Katie Wesolowski | 7 years ago Reply
  8. I think this is SO important in the long run, however, I know that I often over do it. I’ve found myself asking a guy I’m newly interested in how he feels about different sacraments or biblical baby names. When you’re young, there’s no rush to throw yourself into holy, deeply personal commitments from the get-go. The ideals of courting are so key here. Take time, lots of time, to fully get to know the person as they are before trying to get to know you and them together as an “us.” It will be a process and obviously, not every relationship WILL lead to marriage but when you do get serious come back to this blog post and make sure you’re on top of things (and not each other) in a way that will boost your spiritual lives and the two of you are growing closer together at similar rate emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Don’t assume everyone you meet and are interested in is ready to answer the tough questions about sacramental unity!

    By Corrinne | 7 years ago Reply
  9. I wish there were more people in the world that thought like this!
    I feel like nowadays dating is like wine tasting. You taste all these different wines and while each one is unique and good in its own way, by the end you’ve got the taste of each wine mingled on your taste buds and you forget which was the best.
    I’ve never dated “Just because” and never thought of it that way. Until you’re ready to discern marriage there really is no purpose to dating.
    Now making friends, that’s another thing!

    By Katie | 7 years ago Reply
  10. I’ve used this art of discernment in weeding out the guys who I know are not good for me, but now I’m just left with no one. Where’s the good guy now? What does he look like and does he even exist?

    By Alma | 7 years ago Reply
    • Good guys are out there. I married mine a year and a half ago and we now have a lovely baby girl 🙂 My husband’s advice to his friends is to not just create a list of qualifiers, but to also classify them into non-negotiables and negotiables. That way, you’ll be able to distinguish between the necessary attributes and the frills. That might help you clarify your image of a good guy.

      That, and make friends. Lots of them.

      By Joy | 7 years ago Reply
    • He’s out there. Don’t you worry. Pray for him, so that he comes to you as holy as you are waiting for him.

      By Alma A. | 7 years ago Reply
    • Be patient, the Lord will provide for you! There are good guys out there, they’re just harder to find. Focus on running after the Lord & after you’ve been running for awhile look to your left & your right & see if any “good guys” are keeping up with you!

      By John | 7 years ago Reply
    • Can I tackle this one? Or at least begin to…
      First, it helps to know what you yourself LOVE. You know what you don’t want… but what DO you want? And when I ask this… I mean in the context of life, not in the context of a relationship. What brings you peace? What excites you? What motivates you? What brings out the best in yourself? The more you can answer those questions… the easier it’ll be to know what is good in a relationship. What kinds of people in your life help you feel rooted? Feel strong? I’ve noticed that as time goes on, it’s important to be sure of who and what you are… as that attracts the same kinds of people. If you’re unsure of who you are before God, you’ll only attract all the wrong kinds of people… both in friendships and romantic relationships. I got closer to finding my husband the moment I started asking questions like “Who am I to you, my God?” “Who are you calling me to be… as a person, as a woman, as a friend, as a daughter, as a sister?”. God is specific in who He called you to be. The more we fulfill our personal avocations… the easier it is to discern who IS good for you… and for them to find you. =) My husband found me, and I found him … and WOW, talk about a solid match. I got married later (39), but I’m glad I finally pursued that line of thinking and we found each other rather quickly once I started down that path. In fact, I think i would’ve found my husband earlier (turns out we had crossed paths before)… if I had been willing to follow the advice I just gave you. Have faith… even when it seems impossible. In fact, BECAUSE it seems impossible. God loves that all-out abandoned trust and child-like expectation. It purifies our heart and intentions.

      By Monique | 7 years ago Reply
    • Alma,

      Discernment is much more like pruning, rather than weeding.

      What do you do with ugly flowers once you’ve finished weeding them? You dispose of them! If you are looking to weed guys out, you must consider how that shows your respect and love of guys who are all (whether good or bad) your brothers in Christ.

      What happens when you prune flowers? They bloom! And then you are able to pick the most wonderful, the most perfect, and allow it to take pride of place in your bouquet. If you weed out all of the ugly, or seemingly undesirable, flowers during the spring, then when summer comes your garden will look rather depressing!

      Don’t throw away relationships with people, just shut down the bad elements of those relationships. Unless they are toxic – then run as fast as you can. However not many guys are toxic!

      Hope you understood and enjoyed the continuation of the horticultural analogy.

      With my prayers,

      By CatholicPeter | 7 years ago Reply
    • Hi, Alma!

      I’d like to answer this in a future post either here or at my personal blog ( Stay tuned.


      By Arleen Spenceley | 7 years ago Reply
    • There are many “good guys” out there…I have been annulled for about 18 years. In that time, I have been rejected by many. I have tried online sites…my church…you name it. It feels as if there must be something very wrong with me to have this happen…but I see it that it is ok to be not chosen by a guy who is not for me. I do know that Our Lord loves me (and you) as we should be loved. I continue to ask Him to guide me in finding the man He has for me. When the time is right…it WILL happen. Remember that the guy for you is also praying to find you. 🙂

      By Michelle | 7 years ago Reply
  11. Thanks for the great post Arleen. As far as I understand it you imply that a person who is unprepared for marriage should not be dating: my question is “how does a person know whether they are prepared for marriage?”


    By Patrick | 7 years ago Reply
    • Thanks, Patrick! I will add this to my list of ideas for future posts. Stay tuned. 🙂

      By Arleen | 7 years ago Reply
  12. Escolher uma pessoa é uma decisão que requer maturidade e responsabilidade. Muito bom artigo, mas faltou citar a oração, como escuta da vontade de Deus

    By Larissa | 7 years ago Reply
  13. Thanks for the great article Arleen. I am left wondering though how does one discern if they are prepared for marriage and hence should start dating?

    By Patrick | 7 years ago Reply
    • Will answer in a future post. Stay tuned…!

      By Arleen | 7 years ago Reply
  14. I would also add that we should ask if we have the prospective dating partner’s spiritual well-being in mind. If it seems they are discerning something other than marriage (for example, the Priesthood or religious life), it’s out duty to respect their spiritual journey by not forcing them into an uncomfortable situation that will just end badly for all parties involved.

    By Bridie | 7 years ago Reply
  15. awesome, so helpful and so true!

    By michael | 7 years ago Reply
  16. This is an awesome article!! It is great!

    But, are you saying that you should discern a person only objectively? Isn’t the body good? Aren’t your feelings and desires also God given?

    Isn’t discernment supposed to be a combined decision of the mind, heart, body and soul?

    For, cannot the body speak a different language from the mind?
    Ex: Where there is no physical attraction between the man and the woman.

    By Joe | 7 years ago Reply

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