The Myth of Modern Courtship

Featured, Spirit in the Material World — By on September 2, 2010 at 8:00 am

Ten or fifteen years ago, “courtship” became a buzzword in Evangelical culture. Books like Joshua Harris I Kissed Dating Goodbye* and Elisabeth Elliot’s Passion and Purity popularized the notion of replacing dating with antediluvian courtship rituals. It started a lot of conversations and sold a lot of books, but the concept was more popular than the practice. Dating behavior didn’t change that much. Courtship mini-movements still surface from time to time. Someone recently directed me to this article, harkening us to a better time when women were wooed and men weren’t metrosexual. Yet modern courtship remains mostly a myth . . . and I’m glad. Below the niceties and the hands-off approach to premarital romance, courtship has an ugly history.

Dating as we know it has existed for less than a hundred years. Marrying for love alone became popular a little over two hundred years ago. Before that, a woman’s parents would arrange her marriage to a man who could provide for her financially. Grooms were adult men and brides were teenage girls. The woman had little to no say in the selection of her husband. Courtship didn’t have anything to do with love – it was transaction between two families that would ensure financial stability and the continuation of family bloodlines.

In Western civilization, this stiff march to matrimony started to loosen up around the eleventh century. “Courtly love” emerged among French nobility. Courtly love transformed women from childbearing pieces of property into objects of passion. A man “courted” a woman by wooing her at social events held in the royal court. In the courtly love tradition, romantic love was transcendent, the greatest good. Pursuing a woman meant a man was sanguine and passionate.

There was just one catch: you had to commit adultery and not get caught (maybe that’s why masquerade balls were so popular). Marriage was so devoid of passion that people started committing adultery so they could fall in love. That’s why one of the most heralded tales of courtly love is the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. They could fall in love because they weren’t married. The good news is that the courtly love movement changed the way people thought about relationships. People began wanting love and marriage to go together.

Colonial settlers in America were among the first to give courtship short shrift. They needed families to work the land and set up communities. Parents didn’t want to waste time with protracted courtship rituals, so they gave their sons and daughters more independence. Leave it to the U.S. of A. to put the kibosh on centuries of tradition. Paramours still followed some courtship rituals, but a boy and girl were more likely to initiate the process themselves. The age difference between husband and wife started to shrink. When schools became coeducational and everyone spent more time with the opposite sex, courtship rituals started to fade.

Then the 1960’s arrived and all hell broke loose.

The sexual revolution and the feminist movement annihilated courtship. Romance was no longer expected to lead to marriage. The traditional roles of man as the pursuer and woman as the reactor came under heavy fire for the first time in history. Sexual prohibitions fell, opening a whole realm of physical intimacy to couples with no intention of marrying each other.

Advocates of modern courtship intend it as a correction to the sexual revolution. It’s hard to argue against their motivation. Something God intended as the ultimate from of intimacy has become casual, even recreational. Popular culture treats sex as the starting point of the relationship instead of the final consummation of love and commitment. Though courtship corrals the sex problem, its historical roots in the objectification of women disqualify it as a Biblical alternative to the sexual revolution. Instead, we need to figure out what pre-marriage romance looks like for a man and woman with equal power. This leaves us with dating.

I admit that it’s not an attractive option. It’s messier than courtship and more cumbersome than a casual hook up. Nobody knows how to do it very well. Dating is scary, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Dating is risky. Getting close to someone can be terrifying without the rituals of courtship or the fleeting comforts of casual sex. Healthy intimacy involves living in the tension of authenticity and uncertainty. Being honest and open with no guarantee of a positive outcome is intimidating and sometimes crazy-making. It’s easy to get hurt. That’s the sort of risk that healthy dating involves. Courtship rituals reduce ambivalence and uncertainty. Cheap sex does the same thing. Dating requires courage. It means trusting God, not to drag you toward a mate, but to keep you anchored to your First Love during the journey.

You might be aggravated that I haven’t specified what distinguishes dating from courtship. How far is too far when it comes to physical intimacy (always question numero uno)? Is it okay for a woman to ask a man out (people fight to the death about this one)? There aren’t universal answers to these questions. Dating is about two people figuring out what it means for them to grow closer to each other while remaining close to God. I have some ideas about how that works. So do Lauren Winner, Joshua Harris, Neil Clark Warren, Harville Hendrix, Henry Cloud, Chap Clark, and Donald Miller. But nobody can give you a formula that eliminates risk. God didn’t want it to be easy, and he probably has good reasons.

* This book catches too much crap (mostly from people who haven’t read it) because of its opposition to kissing during courtship. Harris has important insights about identity formation and faith before looking for love. Don’t dismiss the book just because you like making out.

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  • EmilyTimbol says:

    As someone who’s been dating a wonderful, aggravating, sweet, yet confusing man for the past year, I totally agree with your sentiments on dating. It makes me crazy, especially when I forget that we’re supposed to be putting God in the center of our relationship, and not look to each other to be our sources of happiness.

    Also, that first article you linked to was horrid. And makes me think my Grandfather might be moonlighting as an author, especially when it comes to sentences like this:

    “For the first time in human history, mature women by the tens of thousands live the entire decade of their twenties — their most fertile years — neither in the homes of their fathers nor in the homes of their husbands; unprotected, lonely, and out of sync with their inborn nature”

    Wow. I didn’t realize I existed purely to have babies and I need constant protection from a man.

    • EmilyTimbol says:

      OK, I should stop reading, but look at this line! You could write a whole article (including Biblical references urging marriage as only an option, not a requirement) refuting this logic!

      “Our hearts go out not only to the children of failed- or non-marriages — to those betrayed by their parents’ divorce and to those deliberately brought into the world as bastards — but also to the lonely, disappointed, cynical, misguided, or despondent people who are missing out on one of life’s greatest adventures and, through it, on many of life’s deepest experiences, insights, and joys”

  • Kristin McGee says:

    Great history. I learned about courtly love last semester and was appalled. I like the spin you put on it– that it helped push marriage and love together.

  • JamesW says:

    This seems like a good place to point out that once you do get married, whether by dating or courtship, you can always look to Fox News for help on the sexual part of your relationship:

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