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Courtship vs. Dating — Why Dating is More Likely to Get You Married

When I was single, the books I read recommended something called “courtship.” The problem was…it didn’t work, either for me or for anyone around me. So if you have a commitment this weekend, it is a good time to think about how courtship and dating philosophies differ, and why dating is more likely to get you to ‘I Do.’

Courtship

The courtship concept is preached by a variety of people with different slants. The version I learned prescribed getting to know someone for three to four months before exclusively seeing them and discerning marriage. The marriage itself shouldn’t occur until two years pass. This approach is supposed to lessen the number of relationships (and heartbreaks) a person has, and is sometimes marketed as a silver bullet to most modern-day dating problems. 

More extreme approaches recommend that a girl’s father manage her relationships for her. Guys are told to ask the father’s permission for every prolonged encounter with his daughter. That model is so archaic and laced with  problems that I’m just going to focus on the less troubling version here, which more or less calls for strictly phased relationships, courtship vocabulary rather than “dating” lingo, and a slower introduction than is typical in the U.S. today.

While college life allowed romantic relationships to form at a slower pace, the guys I met (Christian, Catholic, or otherwise) in the “real world” weren’t having the courtship fad. Even if they read the same courtship material I did, they were not persuaded.

A courtship devotee would say, “Put your foot down! Make men comply with courtship. Civilize them!” Been there, done that. I was not happy with the results. What courtship bandwagon devotees sometimes fail to recognize is that a budding relationship with potential can quickly turn into a pressure cooker or fizzle out if it is not permitted to grow at a natural pace. 

Arbitrarily lengthy timelines are a recipe for unhealthy relationship rigidity. And, outdated vocabulary can cause a lot of angst. When Catholics glamorize the past and resist the present by prescribing “courtship” as the only option, they risk being more antiquated than the Amish. I don’t toss this statement out lightly; I have discussed this with two people familiar with Pennsylvania Dutch culture.

In addition, parents who instill old world methods for dealing with modern day problems are limiting their child’s ability to cope with today’s challenges.

So before you turn against dating and buy all of the promises of courtship, think about how vigorously enforcing that paradigm could take you out of anything remotely mainstream. Consider the low success rate of courtship. And, realize that it will not bulletproof your marriage.

Dating

Most people use dating to find spouses these days. And here is where the three-date norm comes in. No matter how much you like courtship concepts on paper, the reality is that most singles who are trying to get the most out of their in-person introductions go by the three-date norm. It may seem fast, but really, the length of time varies depending on schedules. It could take a month to have three dates, along with plenty of warm emails and long phone calls. Add an online introduction into the mix, and it could be longer.

While the three-date norm may sound like yet another formulaic and arbitrary timeline, it’s an approximation and not as rigid or intense as courtship concepts. The pace mimics most people’s natural inclinations. It provides enough exposure to get to know someone without the risk of wasting valuable time or mixed messages. It wasn’t pushed in any books or literature I read. Yet, the professional singles I met, whether secular or religious, political or apolitical, readily accepted this social norm without controversy.

The first date is the “get to know.” You don’t have to be crazy about someone to go on a first date — it’s exploration. You observe basic attributes, your reaction to the person, and how they respond to you. If you don’t see a whole lot of potential, don’t go out again. 

If two people see potential though, a second date is in order along with more emails and phone calls. Then, you consider more carefully if this person is really a good candidate for a long-term relationship and start asking more direct questions to arrive at the answer. Some people can call it at the second date, others need a third (maybe fourth or fifth) date to figure it out for sure. After this, people should be able to determine if they want to spend time dating exclusively.

I’ll be the first to admit that people have to get savvy to get good at the 3-date thing. Both daters need to develop their intuition, people reading and listening skills. They need to know what things they cannot compromise on, and what their priorities are. If daters are strategic, marriage-minded, and mature, they should get the hang of it though.

Chapter Eight of my book, How to Get to ‘I Do,’ was written to help people make grounded relationship decisions. Daters who are prepared and focused can find out a lot about a person over email, the phone, and a few dates. A person who takes months to get to know someone is not necessarily better off if they are not asking the right questions.

The Blended Approach

Since courtship is rarely feasible, and initial “dates” are usually harmless outings to a Starbucks, restaurant, or other place to spend time talking, some people may try to blend courtship and dating concepts.

Here’s the problem. If a guy wants you to be his girlfriend at the third date, and you like him, but say, “I’m sorry, I need a few months to think about that,” he will probably feel slighted, no matter how virtuous he is. If you really like him, and all you are doing is trying to construct a man-made timeline for your romance, the friction you’ve introduced early on can hurt the budding relationship or cause you to lose it altogether. When a nice guy shows interest, there is nothing like throwing a courtship book at him to extinguish his enthusiasm. You’re missing him — and embracing a concept instead.

Now, it’s easy to say, “He should want to make me comfortable and happy.” This is true to an extent. In light of that, he might add a few weeks to his timeline out of care and concern for you. At the same time, it isn’t realistic to think that it’s always going to be all about you. A guy who is romantically interested in you and searching for a wife will try to avoid the “friend zone” like it’s a fire pit. If you insist on murky in-between states for months at a time, he’s going to leave for greener pastures.

If women want to attract good men, they need to reward genuine interest. And if someone is seriously searching for a spouse, why make choices that are sure to repel promising relationships? Remember, there are plenty of nice girls who want to date a good guy, who won’t give him courtship hoops to jump through.  I hear from them all of the time.

Tip

My advice to you is to get some practice with the three-date norm, whether you agree with it or not. Chances are, when you go out with someone, the other person will be familiar with it and analyzing your dates within that context, not courtship.


Amy Bonaccorso is a life coach, dating expert, and the award-winning author of  How to Get to ‘I Do’ – A Dating Guide for Catholic Women. Her work is regularly featured on radio, television, print and online media outlets. Before becoming a full-time coach and writer, she led a successful decade-long career as a communications professional in the federal government. Visit her at www.amybonaccorso.com and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.


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  • Heidi Bratton

    Amy, As the parents of four teenagers, one adult child (and a toddler, who blissfully hasn’t a clue about all of this), my husband and I have wrestled with the courtship model of dating that you’ve outlined so well in this article. We read all the books about kissing dating goodbye and were genuinely happy to hear of the success of the ideology for some people within specific faith communities. Ultimately, we discerned what you seem to be also saying here, which is: unless we think our children will only and always live in a very small corner of the world where a very large percentage of the pool of potential spouses will also remain indefinitely, courtship as a rigid system will simply not work and will set them up for more, not less, heartbreak. Believing instead that our children will most likely explore every corner of the world they possibly can (which the college-age kids are in fact doing), we have taught them them how to have healthy, holy, whole-person, family- and faith-inclusive dating relationships and marriage attitudes. We have taught they to respect themselves and the opposite gender specifically and universally. We try to model what a truly Catholic marriage should look like personally and by exposure to other good Catholic couples in an effort to give them a search image for the type of person they are looking for when they are out there in the wide world of dating. Within the ideology of courtship there is much that is appealing and that brings our children’s sexual energy back into an arena of some community input and control. It is reaction, however, a pendulum swing away from the culture of “hooking up,” and while certainly a preferable extreme to that culture, ultimately I believe we are not called to react as much as to stay steadily on the mark. I believe a parent’s time is better spend on teaching our children basic Catholic morality, setting common sense rules like no dating under age 16, and having open, frank discussion about the nature of love verses the nature of rigid formulas. Thanks for posting this great article, Amy!

  • Mary Kochan

    Why would anyone date who is not ready to marry?

    I understand that Church law says a 16 yr. old may marry and I don’t argue that, but when you let your 17 yr old date, is it because he or she is seriously considering marriage or it is mere recreation?

    • Heidi Bratton

      Hmm. I think the most innocent reason for dating without being ready to marry is most likely for the sake of participating the junior or senior prom or other such events that are left over from the 50s or 60s when teens actually did expect to marry right out of high school. They are somewhat contrived and definitely overly romanticized events in this day and age, but they are not all bad if used as teachable moments while children are still living at home. The benefit of innocent participation would totally depend on the child, their date, the parent-child relationship, the hosts of the event, and such specific things that it would be hard to make a one-size fits all answer to whether or not this type of dating was recreational in the negative sense of using others for our own pleasure, or recreational in the sense of how dating relationships are typically, if also expensively and excessively, organized in our day and age.

  • http://www.amybonaccorso.com Amy Bonaccorso

    Thank you so much for the comments, Heidi. I really appreciate hearing about your experiences and understand where you are coming from. The courtship model can initially be very attractive to devout Catholic families, but yes – in this world we live in, it’s not going to work when most everyone is “dating.” Relationships are about connecting with other people. If the pendulum swings too far in one direction and people adopt extremely rigid expectations, it can result in social isolation and missed opportunities. If I decided to hold onto the courtship model, I’d still be single! Good for you and your husband for being so in tune with what’s going on.

    I think some form of dating can be healthy around age 16/17 – it probably depends on the person and situation. It may not look the same as dating for older people though because teenagers usually aren’t ready to get married in our culture today. Like, I remember taking long, regular walks alone with a guy I liked when I was around 16. It started naturally – there was an attraction and a desire to get to know each other one on one. No hand-holding, kissing or marriage talk – but it was an important relationship for me at the time. I would not consider it merely recreational…that would minimize the significance.

    People have to learn to manage relationships with the opposite gender and also their own emotions- it’s an important part of their development. Like, what happens when you like someone, but they don’t like you back? My husband mentioned that if people get to their 20s and are too simple-minded and confused about relationships because they’ve avoided them completely previously, dating with the goal of marriage is going to be that much more challenging.

  • Mary Kochan

    So is that dating at 16, 17 chaperoned?

  • Heidi Bratton

    Yes, chaperoned.

  • http://anthonyschefter.com PrairieHawk

    I’m 41 and don’t date. The few times in my life I’ve gone out with eligible women, I’ve found it all to be extremely complicated. What do you say to a son who appears to have no interest in dating? He may have a strong charism of celibacy and a religious vocation. These days, though, family and friends are more likely to suspect a sexual disorder. This is completely unfair to a kid when we know from our Tradition that not everyone is called to marriage.

    Does part of growing up include a discernment about one’s relationship with the opposite sex and a possible vocation? Celibacy is a beautiful call to universal friendship with young and old, male and female alike. Is it something that we look for and encourage in our young people?

  • Heidi Bratton

    Hi Prairie Hawk, You make a good point about unmarried persons who are not dating being sometimes looked at sideways. That is an unfortunate outcome of our time, and I am sorry for any misunderstandings you may had suffered because of it. Just from the parental point of view, which is I what I am representing in this excellent discussion, I think that ALL Catholic children should be taught to pray and discern a call to religious life AND married life from the very beginning – that is before dating and probably beginning seriously at age around 13 years old. That is to say that, as parents, we have to teach our children from infancy to know, love, and serve God and the Catholic Faith. Within that broad sweep and as they become young teens, we need to further teach them 1) to embrace the Christian virtues and charitable works that make both vocations possible (celibate love and married love), 2)to seek God’s unmerited grace for by reading the Word of God and participating in the Sacraments regularly, and 3)to really, really embrace the fact that no one state in life is “holier” than an other. Each is an individual gift from God specifically to that person. If our children learn these and also absorb from us the right, general attitude of respect for priests and religious sisters and brothers, as well as for the institution of marriage, they will naturally be open to hearing God’s call to healthy celebacy (by either religious life or lay life)and/or to married life. They will be capable of entering into healthy dating relationships if they feel called to do so or not if they do not feel called. Importantly, I believe that they will be further protected from the souring that can take place concerning either vocation based on poor experience with any one individual religious person or any one bad married person. They are, of course, many specific “how-to’s” and “what-if’s” to be discussed on this topic, but a guiding ideology, not a problem solving approach is what I’m outlining with my response.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mamamcgreevy Valerie Bagwell McGreevy

    I’m sorry that your idea of courtship is such a constricted, unnatural way to start a relationship. I think your definition of how YOU date is very much in keeping with courtship. The idea of courtship is NOT to have a pre-determined pace for a relationship, but to be ready for marriage and intending to find a mate. The worldly view of dating is to meet someone you are attracted to, have fun together and see where things go. Courtship starts with introspection and figuring out where you are going in life and what your priorities are for your self and what you want in a mate and then finding a person who has compatible life goals and priorities (note – they don’t have to be a PERFECT match, just compatible.) I think your disdain of the courtship philosophy should be directed at the legalistic structure you described, not the philosophy of waiting to seek a mate after you’ve reached an age and a place in your life where you are ready to contemplate marriage.

    • FrankEnanoza

      I’m a single 30 year old male who just got confirmed Catholic about 1-2 years ago and your description of courtship is how I more or less understand it too. -Frank Enanoza

  • bondjapan

    “Dating” as it’s understood and practiced in our modern culture is really nothing more than practice for divorce. Courting archaic? Many things seen as archaic are better than what we have today. (Family sitting down to meals together? How archaic! Receiving Holy Communion on the tongue while kneeling? How archaic!)

  • Momofmany

    Facebook status updates have changed some dating lingo. There are stages: “talking”
    “exclusive”
    “boyfriend-girlfriend”
    FB official “in a relationship with”

    It seems like modern guys and girls, who are interested in a serious relationship, have figured out their own system of courtship, dating, relationship building. It solves some of the blurred line issues.

    I’ve known families who have beaten the horse dead on the courtship issue, just to have kids married at young ages when they are unprepared to raise and support a family in the modern world. I’ve seen girls get pregnant from these same families–even while attending strict Catholic universities–then they marry and “Lo!” It’s all good!

    Raise virtuous, emotionally healthy children, teach them that sex is sacred and off the menu until marriage, and your kids will recognize the spouse God has prepared for them from all eternity.

  • Momofmany

    One more thought is that emotions don’t follow a strict handbook, that’s why raising integrated, virtuous children is the “key to the kingdom” of purity in relationships that lead to marriage–if that is what a person’s vocation is.

    The Image of God FF series by Ignatius Press does an outstanding job helping children understand, embrace, and live their identities as adopted sons and daughters of a loving father, and, through baptism: Images of God.

    • Amy

      Momofmany – Yes, integration and virtue are critical! I know what you mean about Catholics who have rigid philosophies – like courtship – not typically observing better outcomes in their own families as a result…and I agree, emotions don’t follow a strict handbook. The biggest fumble that I think courtship makes is that it comes off as a maze of rules that if followed well, seem to *guarantee* happiness and perfection. That creates a false sense of security and can cause people to get lazy about cultivating a heartfelt respect for another person and developing other human virtues that will support a healthy marriage and friendships. I am sure this is an unintended consequence, but it’s a real one.

  • Ladasha Smithson

    I can you your inexperience and disconnect from millennials. What you think dating is what most people today would call courting. And what you think people do during dating is not at all what they do today!

  • fishman

    So my oldest is 7 so this is all still theory to me except my own experience.

    It seems like the contentious issue of all this is the idea of ‘exclusiveness’ when you maybe really aren’t all that committed. I have known some couples who dated in high school and married after college and have been married over a decade, so I can’t say it can’t happen.

    I think communication and expectations management are key here, regardless of what you call the experience.

    The reality is that human beings are physically and psychologically created to form new families between 16 and 25 year old, the older side for men the younger for women.

    I think that biology plays a large role in the development of what is often referred to as teenage angst, a condition that seems unreported through out most of history.

    So, what things did you find that helped your children to remain pure while they deal with the ‘separation anxiety’ and the loneliness that come from the need and or desire to leave their birth family and form a new one?

    What rules did you make about ‘going steady’ or ‘being exclusive’ and at what age?