“A froggy went a-courtin’ he did ride. . .”
~ From a 16th-century English folk song
Courtship. It’s such an old-fashioned word that some might find its use today to be quaint. Over the last few decades, courtship has gone the way of scented love letters and rotary telephones. In the push for more freedom of choice in relationships, courtship rituals have almost disappeared from American culture.
Yes, people still like romance — as in candlelight dinners and walks on the beach – but the structures and traditions that led from initial attraction to marriage have fallen by the wayside. Many couples move from attraction to renting a truck and moving in, no genuine commitment required. Going “a-courtin’,” the slow wooing of another person and the gradual development of closeness and affection, seems to have all but disappeared.
The result of this hurried intimacy is a great deal of confusion. When sharing a bed and a life and maybe even a child comes before the sharing of long talks about values and goals and deep explorations of each other’s personality and history, couples often are set up for heartbreak. When things don’t turn out as expected, some couples are able to recognize their mistake, wish each other well and let the relationship go. But others, not at all sure what true commitment is about, fight with each other and with themselves to hang on. Cheating becomes the substitute for the dating and sorting out that should have occurred before moving in. Trust becomes yet another thing to fight about.
Everyone is a victim in this scenario, especially when the couple has had children. The kids end up without the stable home and loving family every child deserves. The women often end up single-mothering and struggling. The men often end up paying child support for children they may seldom see or becoming burdened with unanticipated responsibilities. Sometimes the couple manages to co-parent responsibly and well and remain friends. But even in these best-case instances, both now are looking for partners who may not want to deal with children or continued involvement with an “ex.” Those without kids are not unscathed either. They have wasted years in a relationship that left them with trust issues and heartache.
All this can be avoided by bringing courtship back into style. I’m not talking about “courtship” as defined by the Christian right, where couples remain chaste and parents are fully involved in every stage of the developing relationship (although that is certainly one way to go about it). I’m talking about a period of time during which a couple who is attracted to each other takes it slow and gets to know each other well before deciding they are exclusive, before planning to move in, and, by all means, before making a baby. Courtship isn’t dating.
Dating is step 1. Dating means going out with a number of people to see what kind of person is likely to be a fit. Dating is getting to know a number of people you are attracted to by going out for coffee or hanging together with friends or maybe going to a movie or a concert. Picking from a selection of one is unwise, no matter how interesting he or she may be. When the relationship hits a rough patch, as all relationships do, you’ll start wondering about what it would be like if only you had chosen someone more intelligent, more witty, or more competent on the dance floor. Dating a few people before making a choice gives you the chance to see just what kind of person fits your unique personality and your dreams.
Courtship is step 2. Courtship comes when you think you’ve found that special someone. It is the period between your initial choice and committing to making a life together. It’s a time for talks about everything and anything. Long walks and intimate dinners provide the time and the context for exciting, in-depth exploration of another person. It’s a time for learning about each other’s history, beliefs, values, and goals. It’s a time for deciding whether you think similarly about the use of time and money and your expectations about who will do what if you live together. It gives you a chance to experience how each responds to conflict and challenges as well as to easy cooperation.
Larger questions — such as whether you want children, the role of in-laws in your life, and how decisions will be made — get visited and revisited as the relationship gains depth and seriousness. Steady affection and care get added to the initial sexual excitement. Each learns how to cherish and nurture the other. When a couple is a good fit, they discover that they both love and like the person they are with and they like who they are when they are together.
Commitment is step 3. Relationships that last, that deepen and ripen into a long marriage and satisfying parenting, are built on a solid foundation. That foundation needs to be built over time and with care. If “courtship” is too old-fashioned of a term, call it something else, but don’t skip over the process. When that process is done well, both members of a couple become secure in the knowledge that they are each going to give 100 percent to the relationship and to the family they plan to build together. Only then should there be talk of marriage and sharing a home, a life, and a baby.