In Chapter 5 of The Fellowship, Bekah’s good friend Ty gives her a ride home to her parents’ for the weekend. He’s begun to suspect that the “weird church” Bekah grew up in affects her thinking more than he realized. Bekah fields his questions about authority, college, a woman’s role in life, and they eventually get around to “courtship.”
“Courting…?” Ty said.
He went on, “That basically means getting engaged, right?”
“No. We’ve had this conversation before too.”
“I know. I just can’t keep straight… oh, hang on. It means you can’t hold hands till you get married.”
“Exactly. Glad you listened when I explained it.”
“No, no, wait, I remember more now. It means you can’t hold hands until you marry the guy your dad says you can marry.”
“You’re definitely not going to be speaking at any Youth Meetings.”
“How would you explain courtship then?”
“It means not starting a romantic relationship until you’re ready for marriage. And you have to have the blessing of both fathers. And the guy initiates the relationship, not the girl.” Bekah didn’t add the dozens of other rules and expectations that were included in the courtship package.
My husband and I courted. We waited until we were ready for marriage before we started a romance (we were already friends). He contacted my mother first (both my dad and stepdad were dead, a situation that the patriarchy movement tends to gloss over). We involved our parents and families in our activities. We set boundaries in our relationship, including saving our first kiss for the wedding. (Full disclosure: we didn’t save everything for the wedding; we felt very free to make out within our boundaries.) For years I was a big fan of courtship… until I figured out why ours went so well. We did it wrong.
DJ and I made all the decisions ourselves. Our parents were available for consultation — I talked for hours with my mom before agreeing to court him — but they didn’t have any final say. It never occurred to them to try to make our decisions for us. We took charge of our relationship, and it’s served us well all these years later.
But we have many friends whose parents very much considered themselves the active authority in the relationship. Those courtships rarely went well. Either the couple was too compliant and didn’t learn how to function as a united force, or one or both parties aggressively asserted independence and everybody suffered from the emotional fallout. As one friend said later, “My courtship was the most miserable time of my life.”
All too often, “courtship” ends up looking a lot like these rather poetic essays from two friends:
When I was 14, the homeschool fathers said, “Read your Bible, abstain from sex, and in a few years you’ll be ready for one of our daughters.” And I did.
When I was 18, the fathers said, “Work hard, be creative, and make something of your life, and in a few years you’ll be ready for marriage.” And I did.
When I was 22, the fathers said, “Embrace our theology for yourself, get a career that pays as much as we make now, and you’ll be ready to court.” And I did.
When I was 26, they said, “Why are you so independent from your parents, go to a different church in a different state, and don’t respect their authority? The answer is no.”
When I was 14 I was told, “Promise God you will never date, try with all your energy to turn your crushes into something else, learn how to be content with only your parents and your brother as friends, and one day you’ll catch the attention of a godly man.”
At 18 I was told, “Focus on ministry, minimize your own dreams and desires, give selflessly at home, learn to submit to your parents at home, and soon a godly man will notice you.”
At 22 I was told, “The godly man you think is the one isn’t the one, trust us. So submit to your parents’ better judgement and discipline your heart to be quiet while they make it impossible for this man to know you well enough to consider you. Focus on serving. Focus on giving. And soon the right godly man will notice you.”
At 29 I was told, “The godly man who has seen you, noticed you, and admired you while you’ve been giving and serving and ministering, isn’t committed to courtship, and you promised us when you were 14 that you wouldn’t date. So this is not the right godly man. Just…”
I stopped listening.
I’m married to him.
But the years I wasted are never far from my consciousness.
The problem isn’t that parents are involved, or express disapproval, or set high standards. The problem is, as expressed a little later in the novel:
“I don’t resist the idea of authority,” Ty objected. “What I resist is somebody telling me that he speaks for God in my life, and if I don’t listen to him I’m screwed.”
Looking back, here’s what I see:
- Some people did everything right and have a beautiful marriage now.
- Some people did everything right and are picking up the pieces of shattered dreams.
- Some did everything as stupidly as possible, and suffered from years of misery.
- Others did the same thing and ended up wiser, a bit storm-tossed, and happily married.
The Courtship Package was sold to us as a way to prevent bad things from happening. But the promise was empty. Formulas don’t guarantee success. Even God doesn’t guarantee that everything will go well. Trusting in a formula leaves us shattered and helpless when things go wrong. Trusting in God gives someone to grab onto when everything is falling apart.
So I’m not really a fan of “courtship” anymore. I’m a fan of two people knowing their own minds and getting to know one another, and standing together before God and the world.