Author’s Note: This blog post has been expanded and clarified in my book Courtship in Crisis.
I grew up as a member of the homeschool community back when we were hiding from the cops and getting our textbooks from public school dumpsters. When I was a teenager, my friends started reading this new book called I Kissed Dating Goodbye. 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.
My grandparents would often ask why I wasn’t dating in high school. I explained what courtship was and quoted Joshua Harris, chapter and verse. Their response surprised me.
“I don’t think courtship is a smart idea,” my grandfather said.
“How can you tell who you want to marry if you aren’t going out on dates?” my grandmother wondered every time the topic came up. 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:
- Identification (Finding that other person)
- Interaction (Spending time with the other person)
- Initiation (Starting the relationship)
So I founded PracticalCourtship.com. Its purpose: to instigate a national conversation about how to make courtship more practical. 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. It never happened. Most of them are still single. Some have grown bitter and jaded. Then couples who did get married through courtship started getting divorced. I’m talking the kind of couples who first kissed at their wedding were filing for divorce.
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.
Now let me define what I mean by “courtship”.
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:
- The man must ask the woman’s father’s permission before pursuing the woman romantically.
- 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. Fathers typically hold a “permission and control” role rather than the traditional “advice and blessing” role held by their fathers.
The Case for Traditional Dating
My grandmother grew up in a marginally Christian community. 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: Don’t go out with the same guy twice in a row.
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 guys wouldn’t even want to kiss you!” She said.
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.
“If I had only gone out with 3 or 4 guys I wouldn’t have known what I wanted in a husband,” she said.
It is not that her parents were uninvolved; it is that they played an advisory role, particularly as she entered high school and they relaxed the rules about not going steady.
The Difference Between “Dating” and “Going Steady”
She went on to explain that there used to be a linguistic differentiation between “dating” and “going steady”. “Going steady” meant you were going out with the same person multiple times in a row. It often had symbols like the girl wearing the guy’s letter jacket. This telegraphed to everyone at school that she was “off the market” and that she had a “steady beau”.
It seems that my great grandparents’ rule forbidding my grandmother from going out with the same guy twice in a row was a common rule in those days.
The Greatest Generation was encouraged to date and discouraged from going steady while in middle school.
This is different from my generation, which is encouraged to “wait until you are ready to get married” before pursuing a romantic relationship. This advice, when combined with the fact that “the purpose of courtship is marriage”, makes asking a girl out for dinner the emotional equivalent of asking for her hand in marriage.
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. A humble realization that you are not ready and in need of God’s help may be the more healthy way to start a marriage.
As the decades moved on, our language and behavior changed. We stopped using the phrase “going steady” and changed “dating” to mean “going steady”. For example, we would now say “John and Sarah have been dating for 3 months.” when the Greatest Generation would have said “John and Sarah have been going steady for 3 months.”
We then started using new pejoratives like “dating around” and “playing the field” to describe what used to just be called “dating”. 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. People would “go steady” for just a few weeks and then move on to the next relationship. It was this “hookup and breakup” culture that the founders of courtship were reacting to.
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.
Similarities between Courtship & Engagement:
- They both require the permission of the father.
- They both are intended for marriage.
- They are not “broken up” but are instead “called off”.
- 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.
Young people are expected to jump from interacting with each other in groups straight into “pseudo-engagement”. 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.
Why the Courtship Divorce Rate is So High
Recently I have seen a spike in divorces amongst couples who courted. 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 blog post is my call for more research on the divorce rate amongst couples who “courted” before getting married.
Advantages of Traditional Dating
Less Temptation – It is hard to fall in love with Bob on Tuesday when you know you are going out for coffee with Bill on Thursday. 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).
The real reason is that few guys are willing to ask permission from a woman’s father to marry her before being able to ask her out on a date to get to know her. 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. Maybe this leads to a deeper relationship, maybe it doesn’t. 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. It can take years to recover from a “failed courtship.” Also let’s not also forget the emotional cost for girls of not being asked out year after year and the emotional cost for guys of being rejected by father after father.
More Marriage – Let’s face it, most married people got married because they dated first. 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. Of the last two generations, one won’t get married and the other won’t stay married. 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.
Dating also trains people to continue dating their spouse after they get married. It is important for married couples to be able to have fun with each other. The kind of parents who are the strongest advocates of courtship are often the ones who go on the fewest dates with each other.
More Matchmaking – Modern Courtship doesn’t really have a mechanism for matchmaking. How can there be blind dates if the man must first get permission from a father? Courtship relationships are so intense that even introductions can be awkward. I know many happily married couples who met through a blind date or an online matchmaking service like eHarmony. Matchmaking is a time-tested practice that Traditional Dating is fully compatible with. Courtship? Not so much.
More League Awareness – Not everyone has the same level of attractiveness, character, intelligence and wealth. Parents tend to see their own children through rose-colored glasses. Homeschool communities can be a bit like Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average. It is easy for “no guy to be good enough for daddy’s little princess”. The sad result of enforcing this mindset is a daughter who becomes a spinster. With traditional dating guys learn their league by finding out what girls say “yes” to that second date. Girls learn their league by seeing what kind of guys ask them out.
Responding to Common Questions & Objections to Traditional Dating
Why Not Just Spend Time in Groups?
If you talk with advocates of modern courtship they speak highly of single people spending time in groups. Group settings reduce the intensity, commitment and exclusivity and thus protect the hearts of single people.
The problem with group settings is that not all personality types open up in group settings. Many married couples include one spouse who is more comfortable in group settings than the other. These couples may have never found each other if they were limited to “group dating.”
In group activities, it can be hard for the wallflowers to be discovered for the flowers that they really are. They need a less intense 1-on-1 setting in which to bloom. Group settings are particularly rough on women who grew up in communities where they were trained to value submissiveness, meekness and quietness.
The other challenge with group settings is that they are logistically complex. The more people you add to the group, the harder coordination becomes. Where is a stay-at-home daughter who attends a small family integrated church supposed to find groups of young people to hang out with? The result of limiting interaction to group settings is many lonely nights interacting with no one.
But Isn’t Courtship Biblical?
When applying Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, to our lives, it is important to differentiate between Biblical precedent, principle and precept. Just because Jacob had two wives and a seven-year engagement does not mean that God wants all men to have two wives and seven-year engagements.
What we have in the Old Testament is a lot of precedent: each story is different from the last.
For precedents we have:
- the woman as the protagonist in the romance (Ruth & Boaz)
- the man as the protagonist in the romance (Jacob & Rachel)
- the romance arranged by a third party (Isaac & Rebekah)
- the woman entering the man’s harem (David & Abigail, Micah, Bathsheba etc.)
But the Bible is surprisingly quiet when it comes to laying out a system of courtship. Courtship Systems are cultural, and the Bible rarely advocates one cultural approach over another. God’s heart is that every tribe and tongue come worship him without having to surrender their food, language or other cultural distinctives in the process.
Most of the moral arguments for courtship are actually arguments for arranged marriage. The arguments for the strong involvement of parents fit arranged marriage much better than they fit courtship.
When I started PracticalCourtship.com, one of my goals was to never use the site to criticize arranged marriage. In countries like India, that have both arranged marriages and “love marriages,” the arranged marriages have the lower divorce rate. Arranged marriage has been used by many cultures for many years with good results.
The problem is that arranged marriage is not a good fit for western culture. Many Americans value individual liberty more than life itself. Giving this most important decision to someone else is not something many of us are comfortable with. Also, parents are often hesitant to arrange marriages lest their child resent them if the marriage turns out to be an unhappy one.
I don’t see Arranged Marriage taking off in Western Culture.
We need a system to help young people make good decisions. Fortunately, we have one: Traditional Dating.
Traditional Dating fits our culture like a glove. Most of Americans already intuitively know how it works because it is part of who we are as a people. If you don’t know how it works, ask your grandparents and they will tell you of the glory days when men were free. Watch the twinkle in their eye when they tell you of a time when men and women could fall in love and pick their own spouses.
Hasn’t Our Sexualized Culture Ruined Dating?
There is no denying that the media is far more sexually charged than it was when my grandparents were dating in junior high. Now while some of that is the media following culture (The Beatles sang about hand holding while hippies swapped STDs in the 60s), I do believe that media affects the culture. The question is how do we best respond to that culture.
The commitment, exclusivity and intensity of dating is what lead to temptation and compromise in the first place. Courtship makes the problem worse by increasing the commitment which intensifies the temptation. The advocates of courtship know this, which is why chaperones are so critical to the system.
The other problem with courtship is that it often delays marriage. Courtship communities expect young people to live celibate lives in a sexually charged culture for a decade or more before they get married. The Bible instructs us to flee temptation and to marry lest you burn with lust. Courtship teaches instead to delay marriage until you are ready.
I recently heard a local pastor complaining about a rash of older 20 something women in his church who had given up on finding prince charming. They started making physical compromises in an effort to attract a man. Once they gave up on courtship they just grabbed whatever the world was offering.
The benefit of traditional dating is that the lack of exclusivity reduces temptation. It also helps young people find out who they are and who they are looking for faster. Early marriage reduces the number of years a young person must resist sexual temptation through celibacy.
Finally, I should say this: Where sin abounds, grace abounds more. I understand Grace to be the power of God to do the will of God. The power of God is greater than the power of our sexualized culture. There is nothing new under the sun and no new temptation that is not already common to man. This is not the first time Christians have lived in a sexualized culture.
If you study history, you will find that this actually happens often. In each of those generations God provided a way out. I believe that for our generation that way is Traditional Dating.
Now Let’s Talk Some Specifics
Suggestions For Single Women
If you are a single woman, realize that the reason guys are not asking you out is NOT because you are unattractive. It is because you live in a system where he must want to marry you before he can get to know you. It is the system that is broken, not you. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Somewhere out there is a guy who will see you as the most beautiful woman in the world. The more guys you meet, the faster you will find him.
- If a Christian guy asks you out for dinner, say “yes”. You don’t need to love him to say yes to a first date.
- Be friendly. Give the guy hope that he has a chance with you. Coyness is not as attractive as the media makes it out to be.
- Don’t make him run a gauntlet before he can get to know you. Realize he is not asking to marry you when he asks if he can buy you dinner.
- Some guys are hidden gems and are more than meets the eye. Give him a chance to win your attention and to earn that second date.
- If you are not interested in a guy, let him down gently. There is a way to give a firm “no” to a guy without making him feel like a worm.
- Don’t call in your dad to scare him off unless he won’t take the hint. Your dad and his shotgun should be the last resort.
- Let the guy pay for dinner.
Suggestions for Single Men
- Start asking girls out. Most girls would love to be asked out and will say “yes” if you would just ask them.
- Realize that asking a girl out for dinner is not the same as proposing marriage.
- If she says you need to talk to her dad first, take the “no” for what it is and move on to the next woman. For a better explanation of this point see 7 Reasons I Recommend Avoiding Dragon Guarded Women.
- If you have been browbeaten by harsh courtship fathers, I feel your pain. Ask God to heal your heart and to give you the courage to try again. The tide is shifting. The leaders that those men used to justify their actions are quickly fading into the past. We are entering a kinder, gentler age. Who knows. Maybe the next girl you ask out could be the one.
- Get a job. Money makes you more attractive.
- Pay for dinner.
Suggestions for Both Single Men and Single Women
- Do what your grandparents did and go out on dates with lots of different people before going steady with any of them.
- Don’t marry the first person you have feelings for.
- Keep an eye out for public places where you can have private conversations.
- Find a church with lots of single people. There are still churches out there with a healthy culture of traditional dating. If no one in your church got married last year, don’t expect to break that trend. You can always move back to your parent’s church after you find your sweetheart.
- Have fun.
- Fear God.
Suggestions For Parents
- Try to make marriage attractive to your children by loving and respecting your spouse the best you can. One reason that your children may not be getting married is because they don’t want what you have in your marriage.
- Start dating your spouse again. Do whatever you can to make your marriage a happy one.
- Encourage your sons to ask girls out on dates.
- Allow your daughters to say yes to first dates from Christian guys you don’t know.
- As your children become adults, give advice instead of commands. Being a parent does not make you a Pope for another adult.
- The gentler you are in giving advice, the more it will be sought.
- Take a step back and trust God to guide your child directly.
- Pray earnestly and persistently for your child.
- Encourage your children to find their way to places where they can meet other single people.
- Don’t force your daughters to stay at home. Let them get out into the world where they can meet godly men. If you want to catch a fish you must first walk to the pond.
- Remember that gentleness and kindness are fruits of the Spirit.
- Treat the person interested in your child as a fellow brother or sister in Christ.
How to Talk With Your Folks About Courtship
Share this post with your parents and talk to with them about why courtship is flawed and why you are going to start going out on dates.
The older you are, the easier this conversation will be. I find that even the most controlling parents start to mellow out as their single daughters start entering their 30s. That biological clock waits for no man, even Prince Charming. It will help when their friends start bragging about their grandchildren.
Listen to them as they share the mistakes they made while dating. Listen to their story of how they fell in love. Just remember that every romance is different and your story will be different. Just because your parents got divorced or live in an unhappy marriage does not doom you to their fate.
Realize that many of their rules were created out of fear. They are afraid that you will suffer the same way they did when they were your age.
Don’t forget that they love you. Explain to them that you all want the same thing: for you to be happily married.
Explain that courtship is not helping you become happily married. Courtship leads to singleness more often than it leads to marriage.
If all else fails, play the grandchildren card. Most parents want grandchildren. Try to explain that if they want grandchildren you need to get married and courtship is not helping you do that.
Where do we go from here?
Share this post with your community on Facebook and Google+ to continue the conversation. My hope is that as single people start embracing traditional dating we can restore the fun first date to our culture. The more people who read this post the more guys that will start asking girls out and the more girls who will say “yes” to that first date.
- The Greatest Generation was encouraged to date and discouraged from going steady in middle school. (Click to Tweet)
- The courtship movement eliminated dating and replaced it with nothing. (Click to Tweet)
- The only tangible difference between an engagement and a courtship is the ring and the date. (Click to Tweet)
- A commitment to courtship is often a commitment to lifelong singleness. (Click to Tweet)
- Most of the moral arguments for courtship are actually arguments for arranged marriage. (Click to Tweet)
- Being a parent does not make you a Pope for another adult. (Click to Tweet)
- The benefit of traditional dating is that the lack of exclusivity reduces temptation. (Click to Tweet)
- When applying Scripture, it is important to differentiate between precedent, principle and precept. (Click to Tweet)
What do you think?
If I have learned one thing running PracticalCourtship.com, it is that courtship is very controversial. Even the definition of the word sparks a debate. That is fine. I am happy to see your thoughts and opinions in the comments. A few requests for the comments:
- Keep the conversation civil. No name calling. Just because you were hurt in the past is no excuse to hurt others in the future.
- Keep the conversation humble. Bragging about how this is not a problem in your family is not very helpful.
- Please read the follow up article before posting comments. I may have already addressed your question in the Q&A post.
- I reserve the right to delete comments. It is not censorship to take your comment off of my personal blog. Remember you can say whatever you want about me or this post on your own blog or Facebook page.
If you think that this post should be expanded into a book to respond to some of the concerns posted below, click here, to get book updates.
This post has turned into a book!