Why Almost Every Approach to Dating and Courtship Is Fundamentally Flawed

2:17 PM

A slew of former homeschoolers filing for divorce left Thomas Umstattd Jr. disillusioned about courtship and intentional dating...those practices that led to the marriages of said homeschoolers. He wrote a long article on why courtship is fundamentally flawed and concluded by suggesting his grandmother's advice: never go out with the same person twice in a row. In this way, you date around, get to know what kind of variations of the opposite sex you click with, and never have the heartbreak and emotional attachment that both serial breakups and called off courtships entail. And then (I'm assuming), once you decide which of the many dates you enjoyed most, you go steady and then get married, never divorce, and live happily ever after? (He wasn't clear on that point.)

I can say many things in response to this. Like, I became best friends my boyfriend without even knowing he liked me. It's possible to interact with and have one-on-one conversations with the opposite sex without calling it a "date." Can we just call it being friendly and normal and human? Then you don't need to even worry about what to wear and who pays for dinner. (I suppose I'm thinking of a college setting, where you can say, "Let's grab coffee," walk five feet to the cafe, and just chat without much planning. You probably do need to be more intentional in "real life.") All that to say, his idea of dating doesn't resonate with what my boyfriend and I did, and we're doing just fine. Also, this approach still leaves open room for heartbreak if you "go steady" and find it doesn't work out. (Because if you've only gone on a handful of casual dates with this person, of course "going steady" might not work out -- how are you supposed to know a person who only ever puts on their polished, going-on-a-date gentleman or lady self?) And how do you even get from "never dating someone twice" to going steady? Do you start going on more and more dates with one person and then make a declaration of exclusivity? Because that gets into the frustrating waters of leaving one person hanging and confused about the nature of the relationship. Just how interested are you, anyway, if you go on two dates? Three? Four months?

This approach solves nothing. But I don't mean to single it out as the worst approach. The reasons listed above aren't the main reason I find it fundamentally flawed. Along with nearly every single other approach to snagging a mate for life and lowering the divorce rates, this approach is fundamentally flawed because it focuses on the method instead of the hearts and intentions of the individuals involved. 

I finally decided that the how-when-where of finding a spouse means next to nothing when it comes to stable marriages. Think of the most loving, godly couples you know. Many of them got there by traditional dating. Some by courting. Lots with broken relationships. A few married their high school sweethearts. Many got married later in life, many when young, a few in college, some after. I know godly couples who didn't start out so godly -- got pregnant out of wedlock, married someone who wasn't truly a Christian at the time, lived together before marriage. All of them are people I admire and want to emulate when it comes time for me to say I do.

And when I ask them, "How did you do it? What's the secret to success?", they don't say, "Well, we intentionally courted" or "We rejected that stupid courtship idea altogether." (People say that when giving advice to young couples currently dating or courting, of course.) They say, "By the grace of God. We stuck with it. It was hard, but we chose to love each other, anyway. We loved each other, and we figured it out as we went along."

There is no method under the sun that guarantees divorce or long, healthy marriages. There is no mechanism for marriage that prevents selfishness and adultery and anger and bitterness. You know why those homeschool courtship marriages crumbled? Because they refused to love each other in the sacrificial way Christ did -- perhaps as big as committing adultery, perhaps as small as thinking only of one's own needs and not reaching out to get to know the other person. Their courtships, however good or bad, did not doom them to divorce. Their attitudes toward love and marriage and their everyday actions did.

The only thing that guarantees healthy relationships, dating, courting, or married, is when both people agree to love each other completely and sacrificially no matter how much they do not understand, like, or respect their partners. 

Almost every approach to dating and courtship is fundamentally flawed because it believes the lie that if you get to know someone thoroughly enough, problems won't arise -- not problems big enough to wreck a marriage. That's why we need to date around, to know all our options. That's why we need to plan lists of future spousal traits so that we can match up our views and interests perfectly. As long as our spouse most perfectly suits us, fits with us, understands us, our relationship will go relatively smoothly. It's those people who fail to date long enough or don't live with each other or court with a chaperon who set up their marriages for disaster.

There's a grain of truth in this. Understanding and communication are absolutely imperative to making a relationship work -- marriages especially. Unfortunately, the full truth is that people change. Drastically. Not just that you marry someone and find out things you never knew. People change. They get depressed. Life knocks them down. They get tempted by something they never thought they'd struggle with. They get new opportunities and meet new people and hear new ideas that can radically shape the person you once knew into someone you don't even like. 

At that point, it doesn't matter how little or well you knew your spouse while dating. What matters is if you grit your teeth, cry out to God, and get busy getting to know the person they are and the person they're becoming...even if you really liked the previous version of themselves. That is the only attitude that weathers marriage and indeed, that getting-to-know-you stage. And if your attempts at dating and courtship don't include that attitude and that determination, no method will bring you a happily ever after.

Exhibit A: Attitude over Method



Meet Bailey. She grew up homeschooled with the idea of courtship that morphed into intentional dating. She thought hard and prayed long about her future boyfriend -- what he would be like, what he would believe, how their relationship would pan out. She wrote several What I'm Looking for in a Man lists. She read all the courtship and emotional purity books.

Meet Erich. He was public schooled. His dad told him girls were expensive and don't you dare get a girl pregnant. He grew up with all boys, hung out with mostly boys, never really crushed on any girls, and never thought about intentionally dating or dating in general. He never heard the debates. He never developed a science on matchmaking.

Totally opposite views, opposite backgrounds, right? In fact, our relationship started out as absolutely accidental instead of intentional. He found he liked me because I was weird and different, and when I asked him point blank if we were just friends, he took a gamble and said, "No, I like you and want to date you" without actually even knowing if that's what he wanted.

And we did date. Which is to say, we loved each other and chose to love each other and keep trying to understand each other even though we came from opposite sides of literally everything. The main thing we had in common? Fierce loyalty and the unspoken belief that when you say, "I love you," you mean it for keeps and for reals. (He hates when I say "for reals.")

I guess this is why I facepalm whenever I hear someone talk about compatibility of interests and minor beliefs. Because Erich and I, we're opposite. And yet we're not anymore. We've changed, for good and for bad. We've dealt with each other's worst moments. We still love each other, anyway (and we still like each other too, surprisingly!). If we, fallible, clueless human beings who certainly make no claims to a perfect relationship, can stick with each other out of sheer determination and sacrifice, anybody can hang on through rough times. That's the beauty of love.

In sum, be the person and find the person who shares the same attitude of playing for keeps. Whatever method you use, find that person. That's the only thing that matters.

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21 impressions

  1. Argh, you beat me to it! I was making a post based on this same premise just today, and in reaction to the same article(s)!

    You did a really good job, though.

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  2. Simply beautiful Thank you so much for bringing the debate back to what it is truly all about. The whole point of a relationship has to be first, to glorify God, and second, to love the other person as Christ loves them. In my experience, God doesn't work in a methodical or systematic way. His plan continues to surprise me, but I know that he is good, so I am along for the ride! Thank you this great reminder to focus on the heart and intent behind relationships, rather than the way they fit into a certain relationship category.

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  3. I loved reading this, especially so because tomorrow is my 20th wedding anniversary!

    Some parts I really liked:

    "this approach is fundamentally flawed because it focuses on the method instead of the hearts and intentions of the individuals involved."

    "We loved each other, and we figured it out as we went along."

    "be the person and find the person who shares the same attitude of playing for keeps"

    I never listened to the statistics and doomsday tales. I believed the day I got married and I believe today that when I said "forever" that means *forever* - not I hope forever, or I will try really hard for as long as I can, but "I promise forever." Before I got married I always knew I would not say those words unless I could mean them with my whole heart.

    And I was unbelievably lucky to have found the best man in the universe for me. :-D

    Blessings to you and Erich. I know you have years and years of love to look forward to.

    Adele

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  4. Nice post! It's a different viewpoint. I'm not quite old enough to begin any kind of courting but I still enjoyed reading about your take on the subject. ;-)
    ~Rebekah

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  5. This is an interesting article for me because my brother is close to getting engaged so I've been thinking about it more than usual. I agree with most of what you've said. My parents dated intentionally; my dad said he knew my mom would be the one he was going to marry as soon as he met her. But he'd also been engaged once before that.
    As for me, I've been courted three times, twice by the same guy, and it never panned out. My brother has been doing I guess you could call it a combination of dating and courting. I mean, they don't usually go out on dates; he goes to her house, they ride horses, shoot guns, hang out with each other. But they usually have a chaperon with them (not always).
    So, you're right that relationships are always different, and there's no entirely 'right' way to do it, although there are definitely wrong ways to do it I believe (which God can of course turn to good).
    Anyways, I always enjoy your blog posts (although sometimes I don't agree with you!); they're very thoughtful, and they make me think :)

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  6. Jonathan, write it and leave me the link!

    Adele, congratulations on twenty years!! I just love how refreshingly simple and sincere your attitude is -- a promise is a promise, and it will be kept.

    Anon -- I like how you put it: "There's no entirely 'right' way to do it, although there are definitely wrong ways to do it."

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  7. I read this article earlier today before coming across your blog post, and my initial reaction to Umstattd's post was one of validation to the baggage I still carry with me as I try to "date around" At the same time, I love the points you make about love being a committment and that there are no formulas because that is all so so true. I have to say though, I do not think Umstattd was trying to create a new formula. Perhaps that's how you interpreted it, but I read it more as an expose' of the potential flaws of the courtship model, geared mostly to people that are either currently entrenched in the system or fresh out of it. I know you personally are happily in a relationship with a great person (and yes, as you said, college is a very different environment from the real world...the way you meet people and develop relationships really changes after college), but as he stated in the article, there are many, MANY former homeschool students, mostly women, in their late 20s-late 30s who are still not married because of their adherence to the courtship system. Quite a few of these, I dare say, still live with their parents. Courtship isn't working for them, and many of them don't even realize this as they continue in their decades-old daydreams of prince charming to suddenly appear and talk to their dad. (yes I personally know people who are rounding up to 30 now who still think like this) Others might realize courtship hasn't worked for them, but have no idea what to do instead. And I believe this is the issue Umstattd was trying to address. He was trying to raise awareness and give people practical suggestions as they take steps away from the system of courtship and realign their thinking. I didn't get a rule-y, system-y vibe from the article at all even though he did use lists and my rule-o-meter is pretty sensitive these days :).

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    1. I totally agree with you Karen. I come from the courtship circles... The dating is evil, courtship is the only right way circles. I am 30 & have never had a relationship. Though I don't necessarily blame the courtship model for that...God is in perfect control of my unmarried/married days! I definitely took Thomas to be calling out the ultra conservative people to see the faults in their dearly beloved system. I believe there is a good middle ground... Truths to be gleaned from both dating and courtship... And that we each must individually seek the Lord for the balance He desires for us to have!

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  8. "Along with nearly every single other approach to snagging a mate for life and lowering the divorce rates, this approach is fundamentally flawed because it focuses on the method instead of the hearts and intentions of the individuals involved."

    YESYESYESYES.

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  9. I read that article yesterday and liked some of the points it made, but there was something about it that I knew was off. This explains what was wrong with it!

    I love this post. Thanks for writing it.

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  10. Karen, I loved reading your opinion, because I honestly couldn't understand why everyone was excited about this article. :P If the issue Umstattd is addressing is simply, "Hey, people, look at all these highly eligible young men and women who are STILL UNMARRIED because courtship is a flawed system of getting a mate," I agree. I just didn't think his solution (though not a system in itself) was foolproof, either.

    I guess I took issue with the article because it started out addressing a problem deeper than just that unmarried homeschoolers aren't finding a mate: he linked courtship to the reason why homeschoolers' marriages were crumbling...in the same way that courtship proponents link divorce to dating. It's not fair, and it's not accurate.....because it's all about the people, not the system.

    All that to say, I'm really glad I got your perspective!! It helped me understand where he and others who love this article are coming from.

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  11. Wow, Bailey, this is really, really good. It kind of puts words to what I've been starting to believe over the past couple years, especially while watching my sister's beautiful courtship now. (Remember Allison? You might want to check her blog...)
    I especially agree with your point about choosing to love and hanging on, no matter what. There's a time of making friends and getting to know the basics, then there is a choice to be made.
    Thank you for posting this.
    <><

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  12. I am appalled at your misquoting Thomas Umstaddt, Junior:

    "never go out with the same person twice" (in a row)

    A massively different interpretation, when you drop the "in a row" part.

    I mean it is six more letters. And if you really want to get technical, you should mention "in middle school."

    Context is generally important, though not always relevant.

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  13. I corrected it to say "in a row."

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  14. Hmm. All these articles on courtship, dating, and all that jazz are really thought-provoking. Good stuff, Bailey!

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  15. Erich was a part of your clique, before you started "dating" him.

    You "dated" all the guys in your clique, in that you all ate meals together, studied together, talked together, etc...

    That is essentially what Junior is saying. It is also why affairs often occur between work colleagues, a point no one should ever discount as trivial.

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  16. First of all, very well written. I was initially a big proponent of Umstattd's essay when I started reading yours and was initially skeptical with your approach. Now I completely agree with you.
    I think that Umstattd's most enlightening point is his take on the attitude towards courtship in his circles, namely: "The deal was that if we put up with the rules and awkwardness of courtship now we could avoid the pain of divorce later."

    I think that, like you said, the issue is with a mechanistic view of relationships. The idea that courtship magically avoids all the difficulties of dating, and precludes the possibility of divorce, is probably the precise thing that is causing a high divorce rate among courtship marriages. Because commitment to love one another is replaced by relying on courtship to take all the work out of it, and then you end up divorced.

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  17. http://ceefourjonny.blogspot.com/2014/08/courtship-vs-dating-its-people-not-model.html

    I think your post was much more thorough and better written than mine, but this is what I came up with.

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  18. For some reason I couldn't comment on your actual post, but bravo!! I liked it a whole ton. Thanks for writing!!

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  19. I really liked this, Bailey. I read that article myself a day or two ago, and wasn't very impressed. My husband and I courted (or dated intentionally with strict boundaries), we saved our first kiss for our wedding day, and were virgins on our wedding night. Before we were even engaged, we agreed that divorce would never be an option for us. So for the author to make a blanket statement about courtship and courtship couples in general was a little unfair, in my opinion. Even though we chose courtship for ourselves, I do believe that God can and does use any number of relationship methods. And to believe that there is one fail-proof, heart-break resistant approach to romance and marriage is setting yourself up for failure. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the matter!

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  20. I agree with attitude over method. It's just like beauty over humor.

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