Three Reasons to Wait Before You Flirt or Date

You’ve probably heard of the Stanford marshmallow experiment. In the ’60s and ’70s, Walter Mischel—then a psychologist at Stanford University—put one preschooler at a time at a desk on which he had placed a bell and a couple marshmallows or other treats equally tough for a kid to resist.

“The researcher told each child that he had to leave, but that when he returned, she could eat both marshmallows,” wrote Michael Bourne in a January 2014 New York Times Magazine article. “If she wanted one marshmallow before then, however, she could ring the bell and eat one, but not both.”

Once alone, the children stared at the marshmallows, or sniffed them, or buried their faces in their hands while they pined, or ate the marshmallows like all that is good depended on their digestion. The study, which discerned differences between people who delay gratification and people who don’t, points to an important truth: We are not unlike preschoolers who are left alone with marshmallows.

We have urges, desires, interests, instincts. We want stuff, like to flirt with or date somebody. Some of us are inclined to get or do what we want as soon as we want to get it or do it. Few of us consider this: like for the preschoolers who agreed to wait 15 minutes because it meant two marshmallows instead of one, there are good reasons to delay action, even if what you want’s within your reach.

But we resist it because moderation is a lost art.

To moderate something is to preside over it. It’s to decide, in the case of desire, to act only when it’s prudent to act—a process that compels us to discern before we do stuff, to accept that delayed reaction to desire doesn’t imply that we’ll never get what we want, and to acknowledge that desire for something doesn’t determine how right for us it is. We ought to bring back the art of moderation for these three reasons:

Moderation keeps us virtuous. 

Virtue requires us to moderate our urges, desires, interests, instincts—to prepare with prayer and thought before we act on them. Chastity is the virtue with which we moderate our appetites instead of being controlled by them (CCC 2339). Modesty is the virtue that “encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships” (CCC 2522)—it compels us to think before we speak or act. Temperance is the virtue that “moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable” (CCC 1809).

Moderation points us in the right direction. 

To preside over a desire means we wait to act on a desire until prayer, critical thought, and context determine that it’s a good idea to act on it. You can’t predict how long it’ll be before it’s smart to act, or whether it even ever will be. That can make a heart hurt. But those are growing pains, and growth puts us in better positions. It orients us toward what we are actually designed for. Time will tell whether that aligns with what we’ve desired. If it does, we will be better prepared—by moderation—to act on that desire. If it doesn’t, then by then, our desires likely will have changed.

Moderation prepares us for what God has prepared for us. 

Sometimes, like the preschoolers who ate the marshmallows without hesitation, we do we want—like flirt or date—as soon as we want to do it. We think that by not immediately acting on a desire or interest, we risk missing out on something great. But patience, prayer, and thought before we act is what’s going to unveil the things that are truly great—the purposes God wants us to serve, the vocations he wants us to live, and the will with which we must align our lives.


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. Ummmm, I dated my girlfriend when I wanted to, I flirted (like, A LOT) with her when I wanted to and i’m now about to propose to her when I want to….. AND, we pray a rosary everyday and attend daily mass when we can, as well as praying novenas and chaplets together. Sometimes God blesses us with a “Marshmellow” and wants us to indulge in pleasure (as CRAZY was that may seem to you. Yeah, it’s weird, God isn’t as much of an Almighty killjoy as adults make him sound when we’re kids.) But thank you for comparing human beings to globs of Sugar and Corn Starch.

    By John | 7 years ago Reply
    • When you criticize, do it with love, not passive aggressiveness. You’re doing all these great things (rosary, daily mass, chaplets, etc.), but you are still missing the mark. This article isn’t about rejecting pleasure – a good thing. It’s about WAITING. The article WAS NOT comparing humans to marshmallows, it was comparing humans to 5-year olds, which isn’t shocking considering both are humans.

      You may have trouble in your marriage when you realize you have to sacrifice and delay gratification. You can’t pick apart what you read in an article, this article is saying something entirely different than you are getting from it.

      By Stephen | 7 years ago Reply
    • What she means by this article is this; do not date someone simply for the social status, or because you think that you NEED to be dating someone. No need to try to be insulting.

      By Greg Tibor | 7 years ago Reply
    • Hello, John! I’m a fellow reader of this article, and I’d like to say, I’m happy for you because you must be meant for each other for staying together. But this relationship doesn’t happen to everyone. Many cry, many fail because in the end they realize they are not for the person that they have flirted and dated with. Blessed are you for you’ve found the person you want to be with without having to hurt yourself or the other person unnecessarily.

      Don’t you just want to say thank you to the people who still write articles about virtues despite being named as “killjoys”, “no social life, that is why,” and a lot more? They could just stop since at least they know the truth, they cling to it, and they at least know what to do. But they are good people they want to share what they know and fight for it amidst the judgemental feedbacks of others.

      And yes, we cant compare human beings with sugar and corn starch but we need to make a rough analogy for us to grasp the idea as clear as possible. We are humans, we need signs to point something beyond our senses. I hope I don’t offend you in any way. I’m just trying to converse with you and communicate my own stand on this.

      God bless you and your fiancee!

      By shelly | 7 years ago Reply
    • You should really reread article without your bias towards the headline because you seem to have missed the point entirely.

      By Scott | 7 years ago Reply
    • Be careful brother, that’s quite a bitter response.

      By Georgina | 7 years ago Reply
    • Some people just have to be contrary… The purpose was not that you cannot eat any marshmallows ever, but using an experiment about marshmallows to explain virtues in understandable terms. No one is criticizing your relationship only encouraging us all to be discerning patient and virtuous because it doesn’t usually work out perfect the first go.

      By Neal | 7 years ago Reply
      • Preach!

        By Arleen Spenceley (@ArleenSpenceley) | 7 years ago Reply
        • You’re awesome Arleen! Another fantastic article, I’m looking forward to your book coming out in the fall! God bless

          By John | 7 years ago Reply
          • Oh by the way, I’m not the same John that accused you of comparing humans to marshmallows although I am a human & enjoy eating marshmallows:)

            By John | 7 years ago
          • Thanks so much! And LOL at “I’m not the same John that accused you of comparing humans to marshmallows.”

            By Arleen Spenceley (@ArleenSpenceley) | 7 years ago
    • John, she is using marshmallows in the same way that Jesus explained the Kingdom of God in parables. We have to have these analogies to better understand what God is trying to tell us. Open your heart to understand the message instead of being angry and focusing on people being the marshmallows in the experiment. Since you were so blessed to find your fiancée and both of you share such a wonderful prayer life, this article may not be intended for you. Congratulations and God bless!

      By Elyse | 7 years ago Reply
    • John. This article appears to have hit a nerve, perhaps because deep down you know you are jumping the gun. There will be times when “marshmallows” are not available, because of sickness, a difficult pregnancy, difficult work schedule, travel, etc. Will you seek “marshmallows” elsewhere? I pray that you will at least consider making a vow with each other to take back your virginity until marriage. Make your covenant with God first and use the beautiful gift that God made for married people. It will make one flesh union (your “marshmallows”) much more pleasurable if you do it by God’s rules.

      By Charles Kalinowski | 7 years ago Reply
  2. Well said Arleen. I think self control and critical thinking are what separates us from other animals.

    By John H. Morgan III | 7 years ago Reply
    • Having a soul is what separates us from animals, I believe.

      By Georgina | 7 years ago Reply
      • We are animals.

        By Will | 7 years ago Reply
  3. I agree with John.

    By Ella | 7 years ago Reply
  4. Very well written, Arleen! The virtues of self control and moderation seem to be quickly fading in our society, so it’s refreshing to be reminded of the beautiful gift they are. I can attest that such moderation has helped me tremendously in my life, and though, as you said, it often can leave your heart hurting in the moment, I can say that now, after the fact, I can see so many blessings springing forth in my life by simply waiting for God’s time before I act, rather than acting on my own desires 🙂 God Bless you!

    By Mary B. | 7 years ago Reply
  5. It’s not that God is an all mighty kill joy or the comparison to marshmallows… It goes beyond that my dearest brother. It speaks about self control and really and truly embracing Gods power in our our decision making. In that most sincere moment within you, as you gaze upon that person you like or love. That beyond the thoughts that bare in your head.we really stay still and listen to Gods whisper, and wait for his answer. And it might be weeks or months or years but we keep at it, discerning his voice deep deep in our hearts. Now a days its what I WANT. BC I CAN. And God is calling us to Say with true sincerity in our hearts.. What do you Want, BECAUSE YOU CAN. May God Bless us All.

    By Yenci | 7 years ago Reply
  6. This blog is amazing and I love to read all posted by this one in particular struck me because so often I hear to “initiate love” and to ask out girls and be fearless but so little I hear about the decernment that should go into our decisions so thank you for your opinion

    By Matt sluder | 7 years ago Reply
  7. So are we like not supposed to date?? Believe it or not, God is going to put someone in my life sooner or later. I have a girlfriend whom I’ve been dating for years now, and I really don’t think God wants me to hold her off and “wait” and then one day take a silly belief like that to the altar with her. We’ve had a very chaste relationship and refrain from sex and anything of the like. What we have isn’t unchaste or wrong or sinful or immodest. I don’t get it! How long are we supposed to wait, for goodness sake?

    By Dan | 7 years ago Reply
    • Well it seems that you’ve done a great job with your relationship. I wouldn’t get upset at this article. It’s main target is for teens/young adults who are concerned for their romantic lives and how to keep them in balance with their relationship with Jesus. How long you wait depends on God. If the signs become clear and everything is fitting for you two to be married then God Bless and enjoy your beautiful friendship and marriage.

      By Georgina | 7 years ago Reply
    • Dan, this is something that people rarely understand until they’re married, and usually understand once they are. Prolonged dating relationships are very difficult to keep chaste. Dating before you’re ready (age, maturity, financially) to marry is just using someone for your personal enjoyment. Dating once you’re ready should quickly lead to a determination that a person is or isn’t the one to marry, and if not, continuing to date that person is using her for your personal enjoyment.

      While there is a possibility that you are very special and can maintain a relationship for years without any sort of immoral sexual activity, you must recognize that MOST PEOPLE CAN’T, and for you to promote it as a good activity is leading others into near occasions of sin. God bless you.

      By Leigh | 7 years ago Reply
  8. What she means by moderation and to wait is not what you guys have in mind. She’s not saying don’t date, all she’s trying to get across is that when you want to pursue someone, spend some time in prayer and discern if it’s really what you want before you jump into doing. More often than not people act on impulse and it ends up not being the best thing they could have done. And not only when it confess to dating. Even with other aspects of our lives, we should always discern and spend time in prayer and really meditate on an issue for as long as it requires before acting on it. It lets us let the Holy Spirit lead the way. It’s a time of asking for guidance and to be pointed in the right direction. To be assisted by God to make the right decision.

    Great post. I love it and couldn’t agree more.

    By Lerato | 7 years ago Reply
  9. I think the point that is being made here is that it’s often more prudent and beneficial for us if, before jumping in the deep end and starting a relationship with someone as soon as we know we like them, we wait a little while instead and perhaps get to know them as a friend, or discern what their feelings towards us are.

    I have found in the past that not doing this does lead to heartbreak when you’re in the relationship and realise that you each want or were expecting different things (not necessarily unchaste things, but different).

    Thank you for this! 🙂

    By Jenna | 7 years ago Reply
  10. I think the purpose of Arleen’s article is to high-light the fact that seeking emotional pleasure in flirting or being in a relationship, without discerned reason, is hazardous, because it lends to the pursuit of instant gratification. I would assume that it’s more directed to younger readers (early teens), who may be influenced by the dating culture, in the sense that they feel as though they should (carelessly) flirt and/or rush into a relationship, since peer-pressure suggests doing so, and because they crave the positive emotions associated with them. I would not assume that it applies to those who have discerned marriage, and have the maturity required to date responsibly (neither of which are necessarily determined by age).

    At the heart of the article, I think Arleen is asking for people to be responsible with how they lend themselves emotionally, because flippant use of the emotional faculty can do a lot of damage in the long-term.

    Just my two cents.


    By Vincent | 7 years ago Reply
    • Precisely. 🙂

      By Arleen Spenceley (@ArleenSpenceley) | 7 years ago Reply
  11. OK gentlemen, I realize some of you are getting mighty defensive about this so I am going to make the attempt to translate what Arleen has said into “guy-lingo.” Yes, God will at one point put a woman in our lives (unless of course we called to something else). The point (I feel) she is making isn’t that we should wait forever for Miss Right to appear on our door step but that we should use wisdom and patience before we do something crazy.

    My last girlfriend broke up with me in October and she is already engaged to someone else and plans on getting married in May 2015. Last night I had a friend tell me that her and her boyfriend of only 7 months plan to get married in April 2016.

    Now I have a lot of patience (trust me I’m a Chicago Cubs fan) but even I have my moments where I want Miss Right, RIGHT NOW! But I know I am not ready for her.

    As guys, we need to use our heads and ask ourselves some questions such as, “If my future wife were to show up at my doorstep right now, could I honestly tell her ‘I am ready to build a life with you?'” Think about it?

    By Andrew Lind | 7 years ago Reply
    • Well said 🙂

      By Diana | 7 years ago Reply
    • NAILED IT.


      By Arleen Spenceley (@ArleenSpenceley) | 7 years ago Reply
  12. I have to say that I can not agree with this: not because of the purpose, but the way it is exposed and explained. The thing is, ethics can not be something like “there are these virtues” and “this is right and this is wrong”. Ethics are more than that, an even better than that. What says here does not show me a true reason to be better, or a true way to be better…

    By Nicolás | 7 years ago Reply
  13. While I admire the commitment to virtues expressed in this article – I believe this is some of the worst dating advice I have yet heard – and I am trying to be helpful here – so let me explain why.

    In my 35 years of life, I have the people who find true love put themselves out there. They go on dates. They don’t have casual sex, but they are comfortable with their sexuality. They don’t assume love will find them – they go out and find it. I know of no other way. I have never seen just waiting around work out for anyone.

    And if you make a few mistakes along the way – that’s ok. You’ll grow from your mistakes and become a wiser person because of it. Being so hesitant to put yourself out there, closes off your opportunities for growth.

    I met my love at 20 years old. I would not have been mature enough for that relationship if it wasn’t for the mistakes I made prior to that relationship. And I am thankful for previous relationships I had, even though they were not marriage material.

    By dianna | 7 years ago Reply
  14. That boy, who I think having chemistry on me, text me alot in a situation. Then he would disappeared for several days. If I dont reply his msg afterwards, he say like
    “Why r u not texting me back?”
    “Do I seem annoying to me?”
    “You’re not replying, u r ignoring me”
    And once, he sent me a photo at 3am. It was me in the photo and I guessed he took without my notice. I didnt react it back cos I dont want to talk if he is trying to seduce me.
    He would say sorry after all these things like.
    I dont really understand his kind of msging. If he’s into me, he should regularly contact me, isn’t it?
    Now he is just on his words. What should I do?

    By Lynn | 7 years ago Reply
  15. Hi. I’m anna, a Christian. When I surrendered my life to Jesus after grauating from college, I made a bloody war against myself and my desire to flirt around, wanting to truly live a life of purity and living in a way that pleases the Lord. I was far from home by the way and with a couple of Christians with me in my journey for purity. Then I went back home and started studying again. No career, no friends. I felt like my life is completely hopeless and decided that I’ll feel better if I finally have a man by my side. I used to flirt and its coming out again with all that desire to have a guy with me fuels it. So I just came to a point to ask google how not to flirt. And I just feel so blessed that there is a blog like this. It’s really different from a point of view of a Christian. I kinda’ forgot about this, so yeah. a million thanks!. and Godspeed!!!!

    By anna | 7 years ago Reply

Leave a Reply