This blog post has been expanded and clarified in my book Courtship in Crisis. For months we could talk of little else. After reading it myself, I grew into as big an opponent of dating as you could find. Dating was evil and Courtship, whatever it was, was godly, good and Biblical. I explained what courtship was and quoted Joshua Harris, chapter and verse.
Their response surprised me. I tried to convince them but to no avail. They both obstinately held to the position that courtship was a foolish idea. Well, what did they know? They were public schooled. I ignored their advice on relationships, preferring to listen to the young people around me who were passionate advocates of courtship. As I grew older, I started to speak at homeschool conferences and events.
I talked with homeschool parents, students and alumni all over the country and started to see some challenges with making courtship work.
Some of the specific challenges I identified were: Visits and comments poured in from all over the country about how to make courtship work and why it did not work. Each year I waited for courtship to start working and for my homeschool friends to start getting married.
Most of them are still single. Some have grown bitter and jaded. Then couples who did get married through courtship started getting divorced. This was not the deal! The deal was that if we put up with the rules and awkwardness of courtship now we could avoid the pain of divorce later.
The whole point of courtship was to have a happy marriage, not a high divorce rate. So I humbled myself and took my grandmother out for dinner to hear why she thought courtship was a bad idea all those years ago. She had predicted the failure of courtship back in the 90s and I wanted to understand how and why. So what is courtship anyway? After 20 years there still is no general consensus as to what courtship is.
But here are the elements most conservative communities have in common: High accountability chaperones, monitored correspondence, etc. Rules about physical contact and purity. The specific rules vary from community to community. The purpose of the courtship is marriage High relational intentionality and intensity High parental involvement. People went to church on Sunday, but that was the extent of their religious activity. They were not the Bible-reading, small-grouping, mission-tripping Christian young people common in evangelical churches today.
And yet her community of friends all got married and then stayed married for decades and decades. So what on earth were they doing that worked so well? Over dinner, my grandmother shared her story about what dating was like back in the 30s and 40s. When my grandmother dated in middle school yes, middle school her parents had one primary rule for her.
The Primary Dating Rule: So if she went out for soda with Bob on Tuesday, she had to go to a movie with Bill on Thursday before she could go to the school dance with Bob on Saturday. That sounded crazy to me. So, I asked her the rationale behind it. She explained that the lack of exclusivity helped them guard their hearts and kept things from getting too serious too quickly.
The lack of exclusivity kept the interactions fun and casual. The lack of exclusivity helped the girls guard their hearts and kept the boys from feeling entitled to the girl. How could a boy have a claim to her time, heart or body if she was going out with someone else later that week?
She went on to explain that by the time she graduated from high school, she had gone out on dates with over 20 different guys. This meant that by the time she was 17 years old she knew which Bob she wanted to marry. They got married and stayed married till my grandfather passed away half a century later. The Greatest Generation was encouraged to date and discouraged from going steady while in middle school.
I am not convinced that anyone is ever truly ready to get married. Readiness can become a carrot on a stick, an ideal that can never be achieved. Marriage will always be a bit like jumping into a pool of cold water. As the decades moved on, our language and behavior changed.
Each decade added more exclusivity, intensity, and commitment to dating and saw a subsequent rise in temptation and promiscuity. It is easier to justify promiscuity when you are exclusively committed to just one person, even if that commitment is only a week old. In the late 80s and early 90s this promiscuous culture reached its peak.
But their proposed solution involved adding even more commitment, exclusivity and intensity, the very things that lead to the problem in the first place.
This is why courtship is fundamentally flawed. The courtship movement eliminated dating and replaced it with nothing. Or, put another way, they replaced dating with engagement. The only tangible difference between an engagement and a courtship is the ring and the date.
They both require the permission of the father. They both are intended for marriage. When they are called off there is an inevitable rending of a community as one of the couple no longer feel comfortable spending time with the community of their ex-future spouse.
This is a jump very few are prepared to make. The result is that a commitment to courtship is often a commitment to lifelong singleness. I have a few theories as to why this is. Young people whose parents often maintain veto power on all of their decisions are then expected to make this most important decision without any experience in good decision making. They have no context of who they are, past decision making or an idea of what they are looking for in a spouse.
How can you know what personality you fit well with if you only go out with one other person? The result can be a mismatched couple and a marriage that is difficult to sustain.
Right now all we have little research to go on in terms of the courtship divorce rate. In my observations, some homeschool communities have a much higher divorce rate than others. I would be very interested in seeing some research on this phenomenon. This lack of emotional commitment leads to less physical temptation. Less temptation leads to less compromise. I have no idea how women are supposed to guard their hearts while in an exclusive relationship with the purpose of marriage.
More Interaction — I know many homeschool girls who are frustrated that they never get asked out on a date. It is not uncommon to find a 21 year old stay at home daughter who has never been asked out on a date. The reason for this is not because the girl is unattractive although that may be the story she convinces herself of over time. Even when this permission is requested, it is unlikely to be given.
I know several godly, hardworking and attractive homeschool guys who have been rejected by as many as a dozen fathers. I respect their tenacity. Getting turned down by courtship fathers is tough on guys because the fathers are rarely gentle or kind.
So if you are a courtship-minded girl wondering why the guys are not calling, you may want to ask your dad how many guys he has run off.
With Traditional Dating, asking a girl out on a date is no big deal. All the guy is asking to do is to get to know the girl better. Either way, the interaction is easier and more fun when it is not so intense.
Less Heartbreak — One of the promises of courtship is that it can lead to less heartbreak than dating. I laugh at this to keep myself from crying. This could not be further from the truth. Calling off a courtship can be as emotionally wrenching as calling off an engagement. I would even submit that most homeschoolers who do get married supplemented with dating at some point in their journey.
Courtship is not resulting in many marriages despite having been advocated by sometimes unmarried conservative leaders for nearly 20 years. More Fun — The institution of marriage is crumbling. A smaller percentage of people are married in America than at any other time.
Part of what helps perpetuate the institution of marriage is making the process of getting married fun. My grandmother made dating in her day sound really fun. Courtship on the other hand can be awkward and emotionally heartwrenching.