Marcella Purnama remembers a piece of advice she received at her sister’s wedding eight years ago.
“My uncle said, ‘don’t get married too early. Go and enjoy single life more’,” Marcella said.
“Obviously the advice didn’t stick because, three months later, I started a relationship.”
It was during a group dinner at a Thai restaurant in Richmond that Marcella met Tjokro. The dinner was originally set up to matchmake Marcella’s sister, Jess, with Tjok’s friend, Pohan.
“Tjok stayed at the table until the very end, opening and holding the door until everyone was out, so I was very impressed,” Marcella said.
“We had more group dinners which we both tagged along to, and we eventually fell for each other.”
It wasn’t just Tjok’s chivalrous gestures that caught Marcella’s eye.
Like Marcella, Tjok is a Christian of Indonesian-Chinese descent. Marcella said it is “very important” that her partner is someone from the same faith background.
“I want us to have the same values, especially when we have kids,” Marcella said.
“I suppose in a way I’m minimising the risk of marrying a guy who’s not going to be committed with me in the long run.
“Of course, men of faith are not 100 percent guaranteed to be a good match, but as long as both of us are depending 100 percent on Jesus, we’ll be able to face anything.”
Kelly Skilton is a youth and young adults pastor at Murrumbeena Uniting Church and a Monash University chaplain. She is also director of Sonder Collective, an ecumenical initiative for young adults in Victoria.
Kelly’s experiences help inform how she advises young Christians navigating the challenges of dating in an increasingly pluralistic world.
In 2010, Kelly met Stewart*. At the time, Kelly was studying a Bachelor of Theology while Stewart was agnostic.
“He wasn’t Christian but that didn’t bother me,” Kelly said.
“He came to church with me, he supported my faith, he encouraged me to go on camps – he knew that I love God and that this was what I was passionate about.”
For Kelly, finding the right partner was never about dating a person with the same religious beliefs. However, what is important is sharing her life with someone who respects her faith.
“We live in a multi-faith and multicultural society. We’re in a space where we have 130 active faith communities in Australia,” Kelly said.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean that someone from a different faith has a different morality from us.
“They can still strengthen who we are as a person of faith.”
Even a couple that share the Christian faith can have different interpretations of Scripture.
Andy Hughes and Kath Locock have spent many hours debating passages from the New Testament.
“An issue we prayed a lot around last year was around how to vote in the same-sex marriage poll,” Andy said.
“We’ve also looked at issues like instructions from the church later in the New Testament about men and women having different roles.
“I think it’s really helpful to talk these things through and not ignore them and neglect them.”
Kath said these conversations can be an opportunity to learn from each other’s faith perspectives and grow together as a couple.
“I don’t think we’ve ever disagreed on core values – we definitely have those in common – but it’s more the peripheral issues that come up that we might have a debate over,” Kath said.
“It’s quite an enjoyable process because it really tests our understanding and help us articulate what our beliefs are and why.”
Neither Andy nor Kath were active church members when they first met and finding a partner of the same faith was not a priority for either of them.
“At the time we met, our faith wasn’t something we valued super strongly,” Andy said.
“But over the years it has become a really key factor in our relationship.
“Having a partner who is also following Jesus and interested in the same faith – the encouragement and strength you get from each other – is very valuable.”
When Kath was offered a job in Melbourne, it marked a turning point in their relationship. After moving to Melbourne, the couple became engaged and it was during this time that they experienced a renewal of their faith.
“When I met Andy, I was having a bit of a crisis of faith so having a Christian partner wasn’t really a factor I was looking for,” Kath said.
“But learning that Andy was a Christian afterwards has actually helped me grow back into faith.
“Now, my faith is probably stronger than it ever has been because of the influence of having him in my life.”
While Andy and Kath’s faith was strengthened by each other, Kelly had a contrasting experience with Stewart.
A fight over faith ultimately ended their three-year relationship.
“He turned around and said – I still remember this vividly even though it was five years ago – ‘what good is it if your faith doesn’t mean anything to me?’” Kelly recalled.
“Faith isn’t a hobby – so why would we end up with someone who wouldn’t strengthen our faith?”
However, Kelly does not believe a couple’s compatibility is determined by religious affiliation alone.
“Just because someone’s Christian doesn’t mean they’re going to be the perfect life partner,” she said.
“To find someone who has the same theology as you is near impossible. Even if we worship the same God, we will have different expressions of that.”
The rise of online dating apps such as Tinder has also changed how young people find partners.
“How we meet people today is a lot different to how it was before,” Kelly said.
“I know a lot of people who have done online dating and are married. In our world, social media is just another space to meet people.
“How you then navigate a relationship in there requires a different response – the world is a different place compared to our parents’ generation.”
Generational friction can sometimes put children on a collision course with their parents when choosing a partner.
For some young Chinese-Indonesians, this means managing their parents’ traditional views about marriage while remaining true to their own values and life goals.
“As a Chinese-Indonesian, there’s this expectation of marrying someone within the same culture or race,” Marcella said.
“I guess it’s down to the individual and their parents. – some parents might resist at first when their child goes out with someone from a different background, and become more accepting later on.
“Others might say ‘no’ to the very end.”
Dating someone from a different race, religion or socio-economic background can be seen as bringing ‘shame’ to the family.
“Sometimes so many people try to meddle in your relationship. People might have good intentions, asking whether the man is the ‘leader’ type and so on and so forth, but I do find it’s a bit too much sometimes,” Marcella said.
“There are so many expectations sometimes on finding that godly, Christian partner we can spend the rest of our lives with.”
People from the church community can also exert pressure on young people to find a partner who conforms to a checklist of characteristics.
“You’re more encouraged to find that perfect person instead of working on your imperfect relationships,” Marcella said.
“I actually see this trend most in churches. From my experience, some church leaders encourage young women to be with the ‘perfect’ man. But I believe that we young people should learn by ourselves.”
The division of household and parental responsibilities has also evolved as gender roles become increasingly flexible.
Last year, Kath and Andy welcomed their first child, Charlie, into the world.
For Kath, a research scientist at CSIRO, her career is something that she has worked extremely hard on.
With the support of Andy, she was determined to maintain her career aspirations while juggling the demands of motherhood.
“My mum stayed at home while I was growing up and Dad went to work every day,” Kath said.
“But Andy and I have a much more equal role in the household and our responsibilities looking after Charlie.”
Another changing social trend is that Australians are getting married later in life. In 1966, the median marriage age for women in Australia was 24 years and 27.1 years for men.
According to the 2016 Census, the median marriage age for women was 29.9 years and 31.9 for men.
“People of an older generation sometimes have an expectation that you should be married by now or that there should be a time when marriage is set,” Kelly said.
“It’s that idea that you have to have a family and children.”
For young Christians still searching for a partner, it can be disheartening when they see most of their friends entering into romantic relationships while they remain single.
Kelly, who is currently single, advises them to draw inspiration from Psalm 46:10 – be still and know that I am God.
“It’s that idea to be still and just resting in God in that space,” she said.
“That means being content with who I am and enjoying the small things.
“At one point I won’t be able to enjoy having a coffee by myself, being in a bed by myself, cooking a meal for one.
“People think that being single is the absence of another person – but being single is how you were created. You and your relationship with God was first.”
Andy advises other young Christians to not idealise marriage.
“There are probably some young people in the church who at times look at marriage and think that once they get married all their problems will be solved,” he said.
“But I think that’s a big misconception – they might already have this idea that God is a big matchmaker and that there’s Mr Right and Mrs Right and it’s all set and done.
“Marriage itself doesn’t mean there are no problems – it just means you have new problems!”
Last September, eight years after her sister’s wedding, it was Marcella’s turn to get married.
She and Tjok tied the knot at a ceremony in Melbourne attended by family and friends from Australia and overseas.
“Like most things in life, relationships take time,” she said.
“My advice for other young couples is to learn to communicate well, and most of all, to be less selfish with one another.
“This means forgiving each other – and learning to love your partner’s favourite food, even when you don’t feel like it.”
*Name has been changed.