It took me six years of marriage to re-visit this idea of courtship. Six years to learn how the whole courtship process had affected me – for better or for worse. Once I realized the influence this idea had on my life – and ultimately who I married – I knew this story needed to be told. I recently shared my courtship story on the podcast Please Be Reasonable. I’m sharing it here now because I know I’m not alone. The courtship movement affected many of my generation in one way or another. We may have differing opinions, but it’s definitely worth talking about.
I come from the evangelical early 2000’s culture of purity rings, “guard your heart,” “practice emotional abstinence,” and “leave room for Jesus.”
But being homeschooled means I was in an even more conservative culture – one in which most kids weren’t allowed to date at all because their families believed in courtship.
When I was old enough to start liking boys, my parents gave me a couple of dating books that weren’t really about dating at all.
I should mention that my parents weren’t legalistic rule-followers. They were the “rebellious kids” in their youth group going up, so they approached this topic more casually than many parents.
But popular Christian culture at this time was one of “purity” and “not dating.” Even though my folks were among the more laid-back, I was still deeply affected by this culture.
My generation was the first to be exposed to this test-run rebirth of victorian courtship principles.
The problem is none of us knew what we were doing.
I didn’t quite court, but I didn’t date for a long time either. I played the courtship game. I made mistakes. I had my heart broken along the way. Somehow I got married to an amazing man!
So What is Courtship?
Well the opposite of “falling in love” is “guarding your heart.”
Most people already know what dating is: Boy meets girl. Boy gets girl’s number (or vise versa) and they go to coffee or dinner.
Courtship can take on various forms, but it sometimes looks like: Boy meets girl. Boy doesn’t tell girl. Boy tells his parents he likes girl and they whisper to girl’s parents behind her back. Girl has no idea what’s going on. A proposal might happen.
Okay, I’m probably exaggerating. But you get the idea. Here’s a real story to help clarify. This is an example of a “success” story from The Dating Trap by Martha Ruppert:
Robert and Alyssa were acquaintances who lived 2,500 miles apart. Robert had been praying for guidance in the area of marriage. He was 28 and Alyssa 18.
During the time the two families were together, Robert and his father asked Alyssa’s father, Norm, if Robert could get to know Alyssa better to discover if God might be leading them to marry. Norm and his wife prayed about Robert’s request while they were still guests in his home. They decided he should speak with Alyssa.
Alyssa recounts her shock when Robert told her what was on his mind. The Lord had not turned her heart toward him, and Robert had not shown any outward interest in her. She agreed to pray, although she admits she was not interested in marriage or Robert at the time.
…Alyssa remembers “Although I did not know if the outcome of the relationship would be marriage, the most important aspect of getting to know Robert would be to build our relationship with Jesus.” So Alyssa agreed to begin a friendship with him.
…And God drew them together through phone calls, letters, and visits. Alyssa remarked “God began to do a great thing in my heart.”
Robert eventually proposed with the help of both families. During the proposal, Robert read Alyssa a letter her father wrote:
You have just had one of the most beautiful proposals in the world presented to you by one of the most wonderful men in the world… Before you answer him your mother and I would like to express how grateful to God we are for you and for Robert. I am grateful, Alyssa, that you have saved yourself for this moment. We know that you are also thankful for the grace of God that protected you. We know that you will enjoy the benefit of honoring your mother’s and my wishes and following our council… We would like to now recommend Robert to you as the one man for you….in joy, be greatful; be free. What will you say? We love you.
Mom and dad.
She said yes.
But something about the letter feels like overkill to me. Maybe even manipulative… If Alyssa’s relationship with her father is healthy, won’t she already know his opinion of Robert – by talking to him?
My husband Josh pointed out that it seems like Alyssa has no power in the story. Everything is happening to her or behind her back. While they say it’s her choice, how can she say no when her father wrote part of the proposal?
We’re Just Friends
The human heart doesn’t like taking orders from the mind. The time will come for all of us when we don’t feel like doing the godly, responsible thing we’ve resolved to do. The question is, how will we respond when our hearts lead a full-scale rebellion? If we don’t prepare ourselves for an uprising, we’ll be tempted to abandon our principles and standards.
…What exactly does that look like? For me and many other people I know, it has meant rejecting typical dating. I go out with groups of friends, I avoid one-on-one dating because it encourages physical intimacy and places me in an isolated setting with a girl. Can’t I handle it? Don’t I have any self-control? Yeah, maybe I could handle it, but that’s not the point. God says, “Flee the evil desires of youth.”
Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye
Harris wrote the courtship handbook I Kissed Dating Goodbye when he was only 21 years old. At that point, he admits that he hadn’t really done a lot of “courting” firsthand, either!
Courtship was a theory. An untested idea.
As someone who did try the courtship route in (homeschooled) high school, I can attest that we were all pretty confused.
Conventional, casual dating might have been a welcome change to the awkward “undefined relationships” and “group dates” that we participated in.
“Friends until proven otherwise” was one of our unwritten mantras. Which is great…mostly.
It sounds like a good idea to just be friends with everyone, but this “never define the relationship even if you like someone” mentality resulted in some confusing situations in high school.
In dating world when someone says they want to “just be friends” it’s taken as rejection.
In the courtship world it’s a given.
And if someone doesn’t want to “just be friends,” it means he has ulterior motives and isn’t worth your time.
It was a subtle game of hanging out in groups while inadvertently trying to impress one another.
And no one really knew what was going on….at least I didn’t.
In a culture that was so afraid of dating, I couldn’t even find a homeschool boy to go with me as a friend to homeschool prom.
We were all doing such a good job guarding our hearts that a prom date was almost equal to a marriage proposal.
My first boyfriend made my heart flutter because, despite his character flaws, he didn’t play games. He actually told me he liked me, called me, and hung out with me. It was so refreshing!
But it was my first dating experience. I didn’t know the rules of dating. I only knew the rules of courtship.
Ruppert actually compares a dating commitment to a marriage commitment, saying that breakups often happen for the same reasons divorces happen:
“I’m no longer attracted to you.”
“Our relationship is no longer challenging.”
“I do not love you anymore.”
Sadly, these are some of the same reasons Christian men and women abandon their marriages. Don’t you see a pattern here? How do Christians think they can cultivate these attitudes during their single years and not have it affect their marital commitment? These behaviors stem from an entirely false notion of what love is and they transfer perfectly into marriage.
Martha Ruppert, The Dating Trap
In I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Joshua Harris agrees that traditional dating is a “training ground for divorce” because we’re taught to quit when the going gets tough.
As a young, homeschooled, Christian single person, I took this advice quite literally.
I didn’t know I could break up with my boyfriend when the red flags started appearing one after another.
I was committed to the relationship. I believed in forgiveness.
And I seriously thought that guarding my heart meant dating as few men as possible – even if it meant marrying someone who (in retrospect) wasn’t right for me.
I thank God that this person eventually broke up with me, and our tumultuous relationship screeched to a halt. Yes, he broke up with me. I was heartbroken at the time, but it was the best thing that ever could have happened!
I was committed to the first guy I ever dated because I had been taught to be committed.
To look for a life partner.
If, on the other hand, I had causally dated my first boyfriend we could have had fun and I would have had the strength to break it off when the red flags appeared.
Casual dating would’ve saved me months of heartache in this instance.
But I thought having multiple boyfriends was worse than one bad boyfriend.
I’ve recently learned that I’m not alone.
Many evangelical young people today are afraid to date. They avoid asking each other out for fear that a relationship might end in failure and leave them sullied. Indeed, asking someone out has become almost equivalent to asking someone to marry you.
Joshua Harris taught me that dating was wrong. He taught me that having relationships that didn’t lead to marriage was wrong. As a result, my first romantic relationship was serious from day one. It was all about “is this the person I’m going to marry or not?” I obsessed over that question. I knew that if I broke up with him I would be damaged goods.
Likewise, if I had casually dated, I wouldn’t have turned down perfectly respectable guys because I was afraid.
One year when I was a teenager at the annual homeschool Christmas ball (yep) I danced with the same guy the whole evening. The following year he waited for me and we danced together again. At the end of the second year he asked for my number.
“Otherwise it’ll be a whole year until I see you again.”
“Um, I’m not sure…. Maybe I should ask my parents… Wait, sorry…”
He waited a whole year to see me again and I didn’t give him my number. Talk about playing hard to get…. Poor guy!
But in my mind -in courtship culture- his asking for a way to keep in contact with me was almost like a marriage proposal.
And while a year is a long time to wait to ask for someone’s number, I definitely wasn’t ready to commit my whole life to him! All I knew about him was that he was a moderately good dancer.
This story may sound ridiculous to anyone else. But I had been primed and prepped to marry the first man I dated.
So yeah, no pressure or anything.
The Good Old Days
The Dating Trap says that dating is dangerous because:
- It damages emotions
- It stirs passions
- It can cause misplaced priorities
- It damages friendships
- It divides parents and children
- It threatens marital happiness
Dating wasn’t something I took lightly. Which is good, I admit. It shouldn’t be taken super lightly.
But it also shouldn’t be taken so seriously that we clam up around the opposite sex, are afraid to go to prom, or commit our lives to the first guy that shows outward interest.
Maybe casual dating isn’t the answer to all the world’s problems, but it seems to me like a pretty logical way to get to know people and perhaps find a spouse.
After all, it’s what our parents and grandparents did.
I’ve talked to the older generations. In the good old days people dated….often quite casually!
Martha Ruppert is a mother of seven kids who admittedly dated in order to meet her husband.
But gone are the good old days. Ruppert says that times have changed and dating is no longer a viable option in our culture.
She suggests courtship as a means to get kids married without conventional dating (and she applauds the arranged marriages of Hindu and Amish culture multiple times in her book).
It’s true that the culture has changed in recent years. The problem is that she is writing about something she has only speculated about. She hasn’t actually courted and it sounds like, as of the time the book was written, neither had her children.
This whole courtship thing is uncharted territory.
Dating might not be perfect, but the fear of dating very nearly ruined my life.
The Power of a Good Mistake
The Dating Trap seems to project the notion that the only heartbreak we’ll ever know and the only purity battle we’ll ever fight in life is in the years leading up to marriage.
Once the kids are married, the story is over and they will never be hurt or tempted again.
I say that guarding your heart is cool, but it isn’t the end of the story. Other pain and other temptations outside of marriage will eventually pop up, and we have to be prepared to face them.
That begs the question: are all dating mistakes bad?
While few parents would ever wish hardship on their children, maybe being free to date and make mistakes is preparation for real life.
Maybe, just maybe, mistakes in dating will help prevent bigger mistakes in marriage.
Dating my first boyfriend made me completely confident that Josh was the right man to marry.
It gave me something to compare him to.
I learned and grew from my previous relationship.
Did it suck? Yes. But it gave me the wisdom and discernment that only comes from experiences.
I knew Mr. Right by dating Mr. Wrong.
If absolutely nothing else it made me appreciate Josh more.
I knew he was a great catch (and still is!)
Oops, My Bad….
Joshua Harris apologized in 2016, saying that maybe he had been wrong about courtship.
I think the problem when I wrote “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” is that I had not walked through that relationship yet myself. And it was very speculative.
…I think it’s taken time for the consequences of the way that people applied the book and the way the book affected people to play out. And so I’m hearing these different voices saying, here’s how your book was used against me, here’s how it was forced on me, or here’s how I tried to…apply it and it had this negative consequence in different ways.
…It’s so easy to latch on to a formula. You know, you do these things and you’ll be great. You’ll be safe and you’ll be protected and you’ll be whatever. And I just don’t think that’s the way life works. I don’t think that’s the way the life of faith works. And so when we try to overly control our own lives or overly control other people’s lives, I think we end up harming people… I think that that’s part of the problem with my book.
Joshua Harris, NPR interview 2016
It took time for the consequences of people applying the book to play out.
Can I get an amen? I’m one of those people!
Another one of those people is Libby Anne, writing for Patheos:
I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye for the first time when I was 14 years old, and immediately commenced shaming myself for my schoolgirl crushes. I tortured myself for years, desperately afraid that I was giving away pieces of my heart, never to get them back. There are women out there who married the first guy they dated because they believed, under the influences of Harris’s teachings, that they had given away a piece of their heart that they could never get back. It was no longer just about physical purity, it was also about what I’ve sometimes seem called “love virginity.” The stakes were raised. Dating around became akin to sleeping around, and both were seen as practice for divorce, which of course was bad, bad, bad.
I no longer buy that there isn’t enough of my heart to go around. Here’s yet another example:
[Joshua Harris popularized the idea] that every time you fall in love or get “emotionally attached” to someone, you give away a piece of your heart. The more pieces you give away, the less of your heart you have to give to your spouse someday. He even went so far as to say that each of those former flames actually have some sort of hold on you. This has got to be the most bogus and the most damaging teaching of this entire movement. Love doesn’t work that way. The more you give, the more you have.
My 3rd child doesn’t have less of my heart just because I’ve loved two other children before him. And, really, I haven’t given them “pieces” of my heart. I’ve given them each all of my heart. The miracle of love is that it multiplies by being given.
Each person I love has “a piece of my heart”…my best friend, my sisters, my husband, my parents, my kids. It is ridiculous to suggest that there is not enough of my heart to go around.
There is currently a feedback form on Harris’ website for personal stories in reaction to I Kissed Dating Goodbye. (Here’s a huge list of stories by people who have been impacted by this book – for better or worse.)
I’m thrilled that Harris had the humility to come out and apologize publicly if his “speculations” harmed anyone.
Truth is, there is no formula for avoiding heartbreak. I daresay heartbreak and pain are part of life. The good news is that we can learn from our pain.
You can do everything “right” and your life can still suck. You can do everything “wrong” and still be blessed… People who follow the courtship formula still get divorced. Or stuck in terrible marriages. Courtship is not the assurance of a good marriage. Life is too complicated for that. Love involves vulnerability. When you choose to love, you are choosing to accept risking a broken heart. No formula can protect you. Life involves risk. Following God involves risk. He is not a “safe” God. But He is good.
God doesn’t seem to like formulas. Because formula is the opposite of faith. Formula says “I will follow a God that I’ve put neatly in a box, to give me the desired results”. Faith says “I will follow You even when I can’t see where I’m going, even when the world is collapsing around me.” Formula says “I will not risk, I will be in control of my future.” Faith says “I will risk everything, I will trust Whom I cannot see, surrender what I cannot control anyway.” Formula is the assurance of things planned for, the conviction of things seen. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1).
But we are afraid. So we control instead of trust. We don’t take a step unless we can see where we’re going. We build neat little formulas and say “THIS will keep me safe!” Then we blame God when our puny formulas fail.
Relationships are messy because people are messy.
We probably aren’t going to get it right on the very first try. That’s why learning from our mistakes is so important.
Joshua Harris is a perfect example of someone who isn’t afraid to admit he’s made a mistake and move forward.
My Dating Rules
I don’t want to just complain about courtship without offering some advice to counteract it. Based on what I’ve read and my own experiences, I’ve come up with some rules of dating that I think might actually help my single friends – and my own kids.
My Dating Rules:
- If you’re a believer, date believers
- Wait until you’re ready
- Go slowly and stick to your standards
- Honor your date and honor yourself
- Be selective
- A date should not make you feel afraid / hurt / guilty
- Involve other friends / mentors in the relationship
- Dating should bring out the best in you
(Adapted from Going Out Without Freaking Out by Tim Baker)
I think there are ways that dating can be shaped into something positive – something that gives us confidence, something that is fun, and something that eventually helps us choose who to marry.
I know there’s no way to completely avoid heartbreak or temptation – in dating, in courtship, and even in marriage. We are all fallen and in need of grace.
But I do think that having personally experienced the pressures of courtship culture, that dating with some solid guidelines in place might be the better option.
I tried courtship. I tried “not-dating.” I made some killer mistakes. But in the end I met my husband through traditional dating.
We met at the house of a mutual friend, we got each other’s numbers, we went for coffee. We actually had a really great time dating and getting to know each other on all kinds of little adventures! I recently wrote down a list of some of our first dates, and they were great. We got to know each other a lot in that year that we dated, we included other friends, and we had a great time. We made good memories together.
I admit there’s no perfect solution. There are courtship success stories out there, and there are horrible dating stories out there. This is just my story. In the end, all I really know is my own experience.
What’s your story? Do you have input on the whole dating game? What did your parents teach you about courtship or dating and how did it affect your choices? What do you plan to tell your children about dating and relationships?