Characteristics of Courtship

I have been enjoying this summary by Sigma Frame about the state of “courtship models” today. But, as I have said, I do not want to repeat this analysis, which has been very well done by others, nor particularly add to it, since I think we have mostly done enough by this point, and what has been done is mostly correct, or functional — not in error.

But, all of this has to be boiled down into some basic structures, or “things to do.” As I have said, it has to be something that a fourteen-year-old girl can understand, and put into practice — and get good results. The most recent attempt to do so, the “purity movement” of the 1990s and 2000s, ran into a surprising number of difficulties. Nevertheless, it was a noble and earnest attempt, which continues today in an evolving form. We should respect all those that participated. It is not easy to be pioneers.

I read the novels of the nineteenth century with interest, because it was the last time that “courtship” worked properly in the West. One of the things you notice is that there is no “dating.” Courting couples do not dress up and go to restaurants. From the highest levels of society (War and Peace) to the lowest (Little House on the Prairie, or Peggotty and Mr. Barkis in David Copperfield), nobody ever goes to a restaurant. They do not seem to exist.

The primary social interactions seem to be social events (particularly dances), and also, visits to a young woman at her father’s home. In practice, in small communities everybody tended to know everyone else from childhood, and would bump into each other while going about their business, or in church (this is perhaps one reason why people made such an effort to dress up for church). Among the leisure class, people made a constant stream of visits to each others’ houses. In those days, there was no television, recorded music, radio, internet, video games or social media. If you were tired of reading, there wasn’t much else to do but talk to your neighbors. People did not suffer from an excess of choice. Your future spouse probably grew up within forty miles of you.

Courtship was not supposed to be “for fun,” but it was supposed to be fun — that is, a woman and a man would enjoy spending time together. If a man showed a heightened level of interests in a woman, and they were understood to be “courting,” it was expected that the man would either propose to the girl, or get lost within a few months. If a woman was expecting a proposal from a man she liked, and planned to accept it, she might refuse the advances of other men during that time. If it turned out that the man was just fooling around and having fun (“having fun” here meaning spending some pleasant time together, probably without getting to the handholding stage), then he would be wasting the woman’s time and she might have turned down some other suitors that were more serious. This is actually a major plot device in some novels. If you were aiming to get married at age 18, you couldn’t dilly-dally with timewasters.

Nevertheless, “courting” was mostly supposed to be light and enjoyable, like “dating” today. Of course there was always the consideration of whether a person (the man, usually) was an appropriate match, but this happened in the background. The purpose of “courting” at all was to develop or explore some connection between the pair that went beyond their “courtship resumes.” It was also to develop the interest and motivation that would lead young people to make a commitment. It was about “soft” aspects — personality, character, physical appearance. If it was only about “courtship resumes,” then you could just have an arranged marriage and forget about “courtship.”

A lot of “courting” was done with the assistance of older adults, particularly a woman’s mother and her matronly friends. It became known that a young woman, or a young man, was serious about finding a spouse, and pretty soon the older women would be involved in matchmaking. This relied, in part, upon a community of older women, which was more common when women were housewives, and weren’t distracted by television. They spent a lot more time chatting together, under one pretense or another.

Courtship could be very brief. In Hermann and Dorothea (1797), by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a young man meets the woman of his interest for the first time in the morning. Her background is checked out by some older, wiser friends (a doctor and a priest) in the afternoon. He proposes to her (with some plot complications) that evening, and they are married before midnight.

At times, courtship could be extended for a very long time, but this was really “engagement,” not courtship. The promise to marry was already given (although it could be taken away). The most common reason was that the young man had good prospects (he was in law school for example) but was not yet ready to support a family. Or, perhaps there was some other complication, such as that the woman was in mourning for her father.

Marriage itself was not some drawn-out affair, as it often becomes today, with planning stretching over a year. Once the marriage is agreed to, it could take place three days later, and typically did not cost a lot of money.

Today, we generally do not have the social environment that was common at that time. It is hard to imagine “calling on a woman” at her father’s house today, if you are over the age of sixteen. We do not have the close-knit communities in which everyone knew everyone else. High school and college does create a community of this sort today, but the relationships that are formed there are, in many cases, assumed to be transient. Even among the working classes, who do not expect to go to college and who will probably live near where they went to high school, people today do not seem to find their spouses in high school, as many probably did in the 1950s. The upper classes do not spend their time visiting each other, as they once did. Social dancing, or other such events where some connection could be made between men and women, does not exist anymore. It is hard to imagine any kind of relationship with a woman one meets at a “dance club” today besides a hookup. The workplace serves as a major courting arena in some cultures today (notably Japan), was probably the place that many American men found their wives in 1900-1980, and which even in 1990 was the place that 20% of Americans found their spouses. But, that was down to 10% in 2005-2009, and given all the dangers of such activity today, is probably going to slide towards zero.

This brings us to “traditional dating,” as Thomas Umstattd suggested in Courtship in Crisis. Unfortunately, in the effort to break from “dating,” (premarital monogamous relationships including sex, or pre-sex — First, Second and Third Base — among the very young), many interested in courtship also eliminated dating, which is: going on dates. But, without the infrastructure of alternatives to dating, as a way for young people to spend some time together and make a connection, too often people are left with nothing at all.

Published by proprietor

Happily married, with children.

3 thoughts on “Characteristics of Courtship

  1. “But, all of this has to be boiled down into some basic structures, or “things to do.” As I have said, it has to be something that a fourteen-year-old girl can understand, and put into practice — and get good results.”

    Yes, the discussion on this matter is far from complete. We must continue until we arrive at a detailed timeline of procedures to be undertaken, including various contexts. We must offer some alternative path(s) to marriage that promises a better outcome in marriage than what we have now — postponing marriage for a decade while dating around and hooking up, followed by cohabitation, culminating in a spiritually meaningless “paper marriage”, followed by divorce and broken homes for children.
    We also need to review the Purity Movement to determine what went wrong there. Was it the teaching, or the culture, or the lack of discipline, or something else? Maybe a combination of these?
    There is still a lot of work to do here.
    Thank you for contributing to the discussion.
    I enjoy reading your posts.


      1. I don’t know much about the movement, but it seems that “purity” (no sex) became the focus, rather than “getting married and making babies,” preferably at a young age.

        Liked by 2 people

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