That’s not really the right title, it should be “Why We Courted, But We Won’t Ask Our Children To.” But that didn’t sound quite as snappy.
My husband and I both grew up in the more conservative branch of the homeschooling world. When I was twelve, my parents came home from a conference and said, “Just so you know, you’ll never be allowed to date.” I wasn’t much interested in such things at the time, so it was fine with me. As I grew older, I read all the books and resources and pamphlets on courtship and was perfectly convinced that this was the best way to go about getting married, the way that honored God and would lead to the best marriages.
Looking back now, I can see many valuable and true ideas that drove the courtship movement, ones that I still value:
- The waste of time and energy generated by dating/romantic relationships at very young ages. Yeah, that would have been stupid. I have no regrets that I didn’t have a boyfriend when I was 14.
- The value of getting advice from older and wiser people in pursuing romance. Sure, that can be helpful.
- The seriousness of the endeavor—the realization that our hearts and bodies are precious gifts not to be idly given away.
However, as I grew older and begin to see the theoretical dreams of courtship turned into reality, I began to have doubts. I watched my friends be hurt by the courtship expectations, rules, and culture. I found out that real life didn’t fit very well into the courtship boxes. My husband and I went through the courtship hoops before we made our relationship official, but it added nothing to our relationship and in some ways diminished it.
Looking back now, and having talked to many others who grew up under these courtship expectations, here are some problems I see with the commonly-defined, parent-guided courtship model:
- It infantilizes young people at the exact moment they need to be treated as adults. I think most courtship ideals are first written by people whose oldest child is about 12. And 12 year olds need a lot of protection and guidance. That’s why 12 year olds aren’t allowed to get married. But the whole idea of courtship is that the people involved are old enough to get married. So why can’t they be treated as adults? Why are their parents still telling them when they can be together, what they can talk about, whether they can proceed, how much they can touch? How do their parents expect them to navigate an adult relationship on their own if they still need this level of guidance?
- It places too much emphasis on the family of origin and its standards and goals. The whole point of getting married is leaving your old family and starting a new one. So why are the old families calling the shots?
- It creates artificial restrictions on emotions. One of the expectations of courtship is often that emotional attachment will not take place early on because . . . well, because it’s not supposed to. Balderdash. You can’t honestly and seriously consider another person for marriage without your emotions getting involved. Unless they really are someone you shouldn’t be marrying. Actually, those who have had broken up courtships have testified that the pain was far, far greater than a breakup in dating because the expectations and pressure were so high to begin with. If you are going to open up the possibility of a relationship, then you are opening up the possibility of heartbreak. Heartbreak is not a sin; it’s a part of life.
- It places completely unrealistic expectations of purity that can backfire.No matter what lip service people in the emotional purity/courtship culture may give to personal freedom or believing in God’s forgiveness, the message the young people get is this: If you touch another person romantically, if you become emotionally attached to another person, if your courtship fails, if, God forbid, you have sex before marriage, YOU ARE DAMAGED GOODS. No good person will want you. Ever. You will not be able to have a good marriage. So . . . if you fail to meet the impossible standard, why try for anything else? Why not just go out and do your own thing, finally?
- It sets up a standard that is beyond anything God asks. One way I have seen the line drawn is, “Anything that would be wrong for people who are married to someone else, is wrong for people who are single.” Hmm, let’s see: it would be wrong for my husband to ask another woman to marry him. If that’s the line, no one would ever get married. And there is nothing in the Bible that says it is wrong to ever care for another person to whom you are not yet married. It’s just not in there. And yes, trying to follow this Pharisaical standard often leads either to despair and running off the opposite direction, or suppression to the point where a healthy marriage relationship is very difficult.
- It adds the failings and limitations of the parents to the relationship in a way that can be quite harmful. Parents are not perfect. They do not get a shining light from the sky telling them who their kids should marry. They have doubts, misgivings, and they do not like seeing their precious baby go off and value someone else more. I have seen some very well-intentioned parents do some incredibly cruel things to your children under the courtship model. You may think you are different. But if you think you ought to be directing your adult descendant’s love life, I strongly doubt that you are. The courtship model has, instead of two sinners trying to blend their lives, six (or more, if siblings get a say!) people trying to blend their lives. It’s just too much drama.
- It places too much emphasis on the preamble. Yes, we are happily married and I know other people who courted who are happily married. I also know people who lived together before they got married who are happily married. I once met a really dynamic Christian couple who had been married at gunpoint by the Khmer Rouge. And there are many couples who courted who are divorced or have major marriage problems. Just as the wedding is not the point, the courtship/dating/whatever is not the point. There’s nothing magical about a particular procedure for getting married that will guarantee a good marriage OR prevent heartbreak.
Now, my parents, and my husband’s parents, loved us and wanted the best for us. They raised us with the ideal and goal of having a good marriage, and for that we are grateful. But the courtship process added nothing to our relationship. Without it, we could have let our relationship progress naturally and learned to make decisions together. With it, we had essentially an ultimatum: Proceed immediately through intense pre-courtship scrutiny, courtship, engagement to marriage (with all the accompanying expectations, such as immediate childbearing) or give up your best friend. So we chose each other, and we have no regrets about that.
But we also, at that point, gave up a lot of thinking for ourselves. We didn’t want to cause trouble with our parents, so we kept doing things their way. His parents did not think we should ever be alone together. Or touch each other at all. OK fine, we just did it. We didn’t talk to God or each other about what might be good choices for us. And that pattern continued into our marriage, with us just deferring to whatever we had been taught about family life, until we had worked our way into corners we couldn’t get out of.
Given that we had been taught that we should have as many children as possible as soon as possible, we had precisely nine months (of difficult pregnancy) from having a kid brother in the backseat to having a baby of our own in the back seat. No time to learn to work together as a couple. No pre-child romance to draw inspiration from when things got dry. Lucky for us we did not wind up with serious sexual dysfunctions from this model (some do), but we still have trouble placing a priority on planning time just to be together for fun to build our relationship. It wasn’t something we did; it didn’t fit the model. We were just supposed to have serious conversations or spend time with family.
My husband had just finished school and was looking for work; I had graduated two years early and had a good job. His parents didn’t like the idea of him moving out far away single, which constrained his career options in some very damaging ways. So he just took the first thing he could find close to his home, and I dumped my career. We are still trying to make up for lost time from those decisions.
I haven’t mentioned my parents here because my mother died right before we began courting and my father didn’t have much energy to spare for guiding the courtship. However, from conversations I had with my mother before her death, I know that, much as I miss her, she would have had plenty of ideas of more hoops for us to jump through had she lived. That part would have been miserable.
What will our kids do? I don’t know. When they are young teens, we will certainly steer them away from premature romantic involvement. (Mostly by giving them a full life and helping them develop long-term goals.) We will hopefully guide them in learning to read others and self-awareness so they will be able to make a wise choice. We will try to be an example of marriage worth aspiring to. We will encourage them to have many friends of both genders and not to get too worried when crushes come—and go. We hope we will be safe people for them to talk to. But ultimately, when they’re adults and ready for marriage, it’s going to be up to them.