This introduction has been re-written five times.
Because I have re-written this article five times.
And each time, it gets longer and longer. Unfortunately, I have an excess of thoughts on the issue of the Christian institution of courtship, and they all flowed out into this article. Consider this my 95 theses on Christian Courtship [except I only have twelve…actually really only eleven]. I believe the institution of courtship in its current form to be detrimental to the health of men and women interested in pursuing a relationship and I believe it to be overly legalistic, universalizing norms that should not be universalized. That said, allow me to make two preliminary comments:
- I recognize and respect those individuals who have successfully managed to navigate the maze of courtship or who are currently involved in said endeavor. This article is not intended to inflame them to rage, or to criticize their choice of relational path. As will become clear through this article, my argument tends less to the extreme of positing my own view and more toward the extreme of criticizing the existing view. I find this approach appropriate given the definitional variation of relationships and the need for couples to chart their own course, while existing within certain principled boundaries. This article takes that framework in its organization.
- In order to not drive the less patient among you to complete insanity, I have split this article into two parts. I humbly request that you refrain from complete judgment until you have read both sections, as my argument may appear to be more radical in part than it is in whole. Thank you.
Now let’s get to the actual criticism. For the sake of my brain, which almost collapsed at the thought of having to organize my many discombobulated thoughts on this issue, I have laid out the article in the format one might find on a FAQ page, with a Myth that the current courtship institution propagates, a fact summarizing what I believe the relational scene should reflect, and a more or less [usually less] brief analysis of the myth and fact. Hopefully this does not simply work in my head, but makes my arguments coherent and meaningful to you, the readers. Let’s start with the biggest, baddest lie of the courtship system.
Myth: You will marry the first person you court.
Fact: While purposeful dating is advisable, you are never locked in.
This is potentially the most devastating lie the courtship system propagates. In order to preserve emotional purity and not ‘date around’, it is generally accepted that courtship is a one-time thing. The person you pursue in courtship is the person you’ll propose to. This is incredibly dangerous for a couple primary reasons.
Firstly, it places entirely too much pressure on the male. Let’s assume that Joe and Jane are friends, both Christians. Joe potentially is interested in Jane, but isn’t quite sure if she is someone he wants to spend his life with. There are very definite limits to friendly conversations, beyond which the situation gets weird fast [i.e. ‘soooo. do you want to have kids? how many? homeschool or public school?]. Unfortunately, Joe is petrified of pursuing Jane for fear of beginning a courtship and realizing that he really doesn’t like her, and so likely will not pursue his interest. The ‘try or die’ view of courtship/marriage inevitably prevents many worthwhile relationships from being initiated, simply because of [an entirely rational] male fear of choosing the ‘wrong’ girl.
Secondly, it espouses a naïve view of emotional purity. There is absolutely nothing sinful about dating multiple people; personally, I think it’s beneficial to date multiple people. Before I’m ridden out of town on a rail, allow me to explain. Your heart has pieces, but emotional attachment to individuals [specifically of the opposite gender], when it occurs within obvious frameworks of physical purity/similar beliefs/etc., doesn’t fragment your heart, it augments it. C.S. Lewis rightly notes that our lives become richer and fuller as we love more people. We were designed by God to love, and loving someone who may not be your spouse is not impure or emotionally scandalous, it’s an adventure God designed for us to live. We don’t use the phrase “learn to love” abstractly. Love is an action, an action that must be learned, no different than walking or speaking. And if love is only allowed one outlet, it will be weak, underdeveloped, and unsatisfactory. I believe the most emotionally pure marriage is the marriage where both parties can look at each other and say, “I’ve loved others, searching for the one who would complete me. You are that one, the object of my highest, final, deepest love, a love that drowns out any memory of loves before and excludes the possibility of loves after.” I would like someone to explain how that relationship can possibly be emotionally impure, the realization that you have found the one in whom your heart delights. Courtship prevents an individual from learning to love, requiring an emotional feat analogous to a parent requiring their child to run a marathon the first time he takes a step, and condemning any withdrawal as a denial of God’s intent for the heart to remain whole, a claim that is patently untrue.
Allow me to note at this point that this is in no way a critique of individuals who do marry the first person they date; there is absolutely nothing wrong with that course of action and I applaud them for the hole in one. That said, an attempt to universalize this experience attached to some moral imperative is not biblically supported and is a construct of a conservative culture petrified of casual dating that emotionally callouses men and women. The solution is not to adopt a draconian approach to relationships, the solution is to approach every relationship with the proper focus from both parties, specifically, that this relationship is aimed towards marriage at some indefinite point in the future, but that both parties understand that the relationship may not work out, at which point the man and woman will go their separate ways in good faith, both having benefited from the time spent together [hint: it’s entirely possible to learn valuable lessons from your exes; they aren’t the Devil incarnate], and both leaving with a clearer picture of what God’s calling on your life is, and what you desire/need in a spouse. That’s a win-win scenario, one that the system of courtship inexplicably avoids.
Myth: When the “courtship” becomes official, the timeline kicks into high gear.
Fact: Healthy relationships ease into commitments, at a comfortable pace for both parties, avoiding awkward requirements that may stifle or eliminate the possibility of a love interest.
This is an area where casual dating has something to teach. Taking it easy is incredibly beneficial; don’t lose focus, but enjoy yourselves. This is Bermuda, not the NYSE. Facebook may have revolutionized the social world, but just because someone changes his or her relationship status from single to “in a relationship” [and by relationship, I obviously mean courtship, there simply isn’t any other God approved system] in no way means turbo drive gets engaged with the altar as the destination. Literally the only two things that change from dating unofficially to dating officially are: 1) you lose the prefix and 2) you’re not really free to shop around anymore. There is absolutely no mandate that says “As soon as thou art officially courting, thou hast six months to place a diamond on thy beloved’s ring finger,” and with good reason. Here’s what making a relationship official states: we both have at least some basic level of mutual interest, and are committed to seeing if this partnership is one that may work out over the long haul. There are still so many unknowns at this stage in the relationship that to put it into overdrive will either cause both parties to overlook important issues that will come back to be giant problems [God forbid] after marriage, or will overload the parties to the degree that any previously present emotional attachment has died the death of warp speed.
Take a chill pill, relax, nothing has changed except that all your annoying relatives on Facebook will be messaging you wanting all the intimate details. Let the relationship take its natural course, if anything you can relax now because you have your significant other tied down for the time being. Get to know each other as normal people, learn everything about them. This is something that only happens with time. Rushing only creates problems, never solutions.
Myth: The parents have the final say.
Fact: You are marrying an individual, not a family. You are an adult, not a child. Those two facts make the marital decision entirely between you and your significant other.
Your parents exist as God’s method of insuring Lord of the Flies doesn’t actually take place on a global scale, as your guardians, the individuals who love you most, and the two people primarily responsible for making you an independent adult human being. Let’s stop there and pay attention to that last phrase, ‘an independent adult human being.’ This is also known as an adult, not a child, man, woman, a person who’s passed through puberty and then some [I initially thought this might result in some funny synonyms…it worked better in my head]. The point here is that you are in charge of your own life; your parents don’t have to live with your spouse for 50+ years, you do. And while it’s definitely in your best interest to listen to the advice of your parents, you are under no obligation whatsoever to follow their dictates. Courtship has this backwards.
The traditional courtship model views both the man and the woman as under the complete authoritarian control of the parents [give or take a few degrees of authoritarianism], where the parents of the man will decide what poor female meets their high standards of being worthy of wedding their son, while the parents of the woman maintain an extrapolated principle of Biblical authority of their daughter, rendering her obedience to their every wish as a Christian duty. This model of authority transfer, where the man’s parents release him, and the woman’s parents transfer her to her spouse, is incredibly problematic and unfortunately results in many homes becoming clones of the parent’s family, instead of allowing the individual peculiarities [term used positively] of the two children to thrive.
I believe healthy relationships are best culminated in marriage when the two individuals find such complete joy and fulfillment in each other that they desire nothing else than to spend the rest of their lives together, and receive the blessing [notice this term, blessing, not permission] of both sets of parents to be married. This both respects the guidance role of the parents, while preserving the natural wild beauty of a loving couple. Courtship all too often artificially stifles this adult freedom, making both the man and the woman completely subservient to parental whims, asking permission before spending time with their significant other, asking permission before going on dates/holding hands/sitting next to each other/proposing/etc., creating an atmosphere of restriction and formulaic emotions [if that doesn’t make sense, it’s because emotions definitely aren’t formulaic].
Helpful hint for guys: It’s still generally a smart idea, presuming he’s capable of rational thought, to get your girlfriend’s father’s blessing before proposing. A pissed off father-in-law is really not fun to deal with. Just don’t let him run the show.
Myth: Men must be “financially secure.”
Fact: Holding males to an arbitrary standard eliminates large numbers of suitable candidates and places an inappropriate focus on monetary resources as the determinant of a successful relationship.
This is my favorite. It usually goes something like this, “any male interested in courting a female must be financially secure which means meeting some arbitrary threshold of independence that varies per family at issue and usually is absurdly high considering the economic environment and the general earning potential of anyone around the age where they consider beginning a relationship but we’re going to hold them to it anyway because it means they’re a potentially suitable mate for the girl.” Two things:
- You have my respect if you can say all that in one breath.
- Hopefully reading that makes it pretty self-evident how unreasonable this standard is for interested men. And yet parents wonder why no ‘suitable’ men are interested in your daughters. It’s because they all died trying to climb up to meet the bar.
The simple reality of life is that no one is ever ‘financially secure’, in that the economy is ever volatile and unless you’re a multi-millionaire your financial security will be a question of margins, not of surpluses.
Casual dating takes one end of this extreme by basically laying out no qualifications at all for a man to meet; courtship takes the other extreme by requiring the man to essentially be God. There should be standards, but they should be attainable. Here’s a general framework for what a male interested in a relationship should be able to demonstrate, and what girls should look for in interested males.
By a plan, I don’t mean a major in underwater basket weaving. I’m referring to a viable career path that he is pursuing with some promise of income and a reasonable degree of stability [i.e. don’t date a history major]. Don’t expect a man in his mid twenties to have the establishment of a man in his late 40’s, only ask that he be on his way to that end.
An acceptable plan.
Some women want a millionaire, some women need to reevaluate their standards for a mate, some women just want a nice guy, some women need to consider how attractive living in a van under a bridge is. The comparisons continue indefinitely. It’s vital that the person you [the man] are pursuing find your career path acceptable. Conversely, it’s vital that you [the woman] are comfortable with the worst-case outcome of the career path of the man pursuing you. Missionary to Africa doesn’t pay well at all, but of all vocations, that’s probably one of the most important to have a committed spouse with you. Everything is relative. Don’t try to make it absolute, but make sure the relative impact is acceptable to you.
A realistic timeframe.
This basically excludes high school relationships, but we already knew those were bad ideas. Someone assuring you they’ll graduate with a useable degree in 8 years probably should come back in roughly 6 years and try that pitch again. Men, don’t get over excited, 3 years is probably close to the max you can ask a normal woman to wait [think sophomore year of undergrad at the absolute earliest]. Women, use your head. Your logical one.
I think that basically covers it. Don’t expect Mark Zuckerberg to date you, ladies. He’s got an awful personality and isn’t even attractive; it’s a lose-lose.
NOTE: I write this particular section with some significant degree of personal conflict. I lean heavily to the side of “man must have six figure income before even entertaining thought of relationships” primarily because I am petrified of not being able to provide for someone I love. I note this only to provide context for my views and to justify at some level that the framework I outlined is not a covert male attempt to lower the bar for myself, or others. Perhaps I am mistaken, perhaps there are other rationales driving my thought process on this issue, but please evaluate everything I said under this point accordingly.
Myth: Women must be “capable homemakers.”
Fact: Hah. Let’s just skip to the explanation here.
This is one of the most irritating items for me, as a male, to hear advocates of courtship propagate. It’s based on so many patently untrue extrapolations of Biblical womanhood and again places an unrealistic burden on women.
Firstly, women are called to be homemakers, in that they should be decently capable at cleaning, cooking, and other basic necessities of life. This is not exclusive! I promise you, my male friends, you will be so much more attractive to any and all individuals of the female persuasion if you enjoy ironing, doing dishes, and cooking. Just so that’s clear; now back on topic. Women are called to be homemakers, but it’s not something you instantaneously achieve, analogously to financial stability with men. Some women will be more skilled at cooking than others, some may not have organizational gifts, some women may just take longer to develop those skills. And that is completely, absolutely, unquestionably fine, and does not in any way mean these women should consider themselves unworthy for a relationship simply because they’re in the process of learning, and don’t yet possess the skills of their mothers [20+ years their senior].
Secondly, contrary to popular belief, the Proverbs 31 women had a job, outside of the home. While most of y’all are putting your brains back inside your skull, listen. It is equally important, in my framework [granted, others may differ, but you’re reading my article, so I’m sharing my opinion], that a woman possess a skill set marketable outside the home compared to her skill at ‘homemaking’. Why? Because it exemplifies motivation and diligence. A single woman who pursues a college degree and a career is infinitely more attractive, in my opinion, than a woman who decides to sit at home, live with her family, and wait desperately for some man to come along and save her. I submit that a woman who is pursuing the ability to be self-sustaining, but may not have all the finer points of home maintenance down, is far more ready for dating/marriage than someone who can cook ridiculously well, but is lost the instant she steps outside the kitchen.
Third, and while this may seem sarcastic, I’m entirely serious, dating/marrying someone who already is a completely capable homemaker can be rather boring. There are so many great experiences to be had in the learning process. One family I know made a series of bricks while learning to make homemade wheat bread, bricks that were actually used as doorstops at one point. Another family played field hockey with the early attempts at making biscuits. Epitome of housewife? No. Completely acceptable? Absolutely. Have some fun.
Fourth and finally, just because a woman doesn’t want to make all bread herself, or grow everything organically in a backyard garden, or spend her free time scouring health cookbooks, doesn’t mean she’s somehow unfit for a relationship/marriage. Just as with male financial security, it’s a relative scale. A man who wants his wife to be Laura Ingalls Wilder v2.0 might view poor cooking skills as problematic, I personally could tolerate anyone who doesn’t default to microwave meals every evening. It’s all a relative scale.
And that is my dissertation on why women don’t need to know how to cook. Helpful hint to women, though: guys generally really massively love food, and anything you can do to fulfill that love usually results in love being extended to you. You’re welcome.