Saturday, August 16, 2014

Courtship and Dating: Where Next?

I've written before about the problems I've seen with courtship, but I'm deliberately refraining from making any pronouncements about what would be better. My children are too young and I am too married for it to be immediately relevant or even give me grounds for immediate observation. One thing I confess is that, like many people backing away from courtship, I still felt that "casual dating" was a rather dubious proposition.

This article has me rethinking that feeling: Why Courtship is Fundamentally Flawed. It's probably worth clicking over to read (though not the comments, unless you're in bed with the flu), but to summarize he points out that the problem with courtship was there was no mechanism provided for single people to get to know each other *without* the pressure of an exclusive relationship, which naturally leads to heavy emotional and often physical involvement.

Courtship was a reaction to the dating culture of the 80s, at which point it had become routine for even young teenagers to date with the goal of forming serious boyfriend/girlfriend relationships as quickly as possible, maintain for several months or years, break up, then reattach to someone new. The courtship proponents were quite right that this is not a particularly healthy thing to promote--better practice for serial monogamy than permanent monogamy. So they rejected it--but they neglected to put something in its place. They just raised the stakes on the long-term, exclusive relationships by naming them courtship and putting the pressure on to move to marriage as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, the dating scene was scaring off nearly everybody. Even when I was a young single, I noticed that hardly anybody I knew "dated," whether they were into courtship or not. People just hung out together. Because I mostly knew church people, it was apparently limited mostly to hanging out, but people in wilder circles had a similar phenomenon, only with hooking up added on the side. Either way, the formal emotional commitment that we had come to associate with dating was way too scary. Apparently, this phenomenon continues and dating is something of a lost art down to the present. 

Umstadd suggests we might do better to look a little farther back, to how dating was practiced by our grandparents (or maybe great-grandparents for today's teenagers). He calls it Traditional Dating. I think of Norman Rockwell:

The idea was, that there was expected to be a time period of dating in which young people were expected to go out with a number of people, not forming a serious attachment with any of them, but simply getting to know a number of different potential partners in a number of different settings. Dating was different from "going steady," which was a state that was expected to wait until the people were close to marriageable age and probably headed that direction.

He then goes on to offer some advice for singles, but since my interest in this topic is less immediate, I'm more interested in stepping back to some broader social questions. The challenge is, one person cannot single-handedly form a social convention. So it is worthwhile for people not currently in need of a partner to stop and think about what social institutions are beneficial and worthy of promotion.

I am analyzing from the Christian/traditionalist/romantic assumption that a reasonably amicable, permanent, monogamous relationship is the best and healthiest means for the expression of adult sexuality and upbringing of the next generation, and that it is in the best interest of society to smooth the path of its rising members into entering into such a relationship if they so desire. I'm not going to delve into the why of this assumption because this post is already far too long and I've barely gotten started.

The question for now is, How? Arranged marriages is one option--and some courtship advocates come very close or even openly advocate this--but no matter what you can cite for the success of such marriages in other cultures, the fact is that they have not been practiced in *this* culture for centuries, and we have not the slightest idea how to go about it. Ripping up a custom from one culture and stuffing it wholesale into another culture without all the related customs and support is like trying to transplant a cactus in the rainforest. It's not going to take.

So that leaves us with some variation of what Western cultures have long practiced--people choose their own mates, with more or less guidance from the rest of society on how, when, and whom. I notice that the time period of casual interactions has good precedents. No, it doesn't always look like the Norman Rockwell trip to the soda fountain. It might look like a social round of balls, dinners, etc. Or, at a simpler level, church socials, singing schools, and riding out together. But somehow, someway, the precedent seems strong that when people must choose their own partners, there is benefit in making a time and a place for meeting a number of different potential partners, and getting to know them on a casual basis before making a selection.

Some people will cite examples of how two people miraculously met each other in totally unexpected ways, after totally failing through normal means, as proof that such ordinary means are unnecessary or inadequate. However, as put in the film Operation: Danger, "There is a difference between recognizing miracles and depending on them." (You probably haven't seen Operation: Danger, which was a private production done by a friend from law school, and so you are missing out here.) Whatever may come about in exceptionable circumstances does not mean we should fail to promote easier circumstances for the ordinary course of events.

In reality, most of those of us who practiced courtship--especially those who practiced it more or less successfully--did have such a time. We went with what was currently acceptable and flew under the anti-dating radar--we had friends. We chatted (a lot!) online. We hung out in groups. This had some advantages. Friendship is an admirable basis for marriage. Talking is one good way to get to know each other.

It had some disadvantages, too, though. One obvious one is that, in courtship circles, it was always somewhat suspect. It wasn't supposed to lead to anything more. You were supposed to be totally disinterested, always, and if you were rather shy or if your parents were rather strict you didn't even have the option of friendship. So while it served as the necessary prelude to deeper relationships, it could do so only as long as everyone successfully pretended that it wouldn't. This was hardly a healthy situation. Even among groups that are not philosophically anti-dating, there seems to be a great deal of confusion as to whether friendship might be an acceptable prelude to romance or an absolute bar to it, and as to how or when one signals the transition. As another law school friend put it, "People are friends. Then they are confused. Then they are engaged."

I see another disadvantage to the "friendship" paradigm, and this one applies across the board: friendship is, by its nature, an open-ended, loose-formed relationship of mutual and spontaneous convenience. One doesn't *ask* someone to become a friend. It just happens. Nor does one demand exclusivity from one's friends (unless one is an obnoxious, jealous person). Nor does one have the obligation to persevere with a friend when things become difficult, or rearrange your life to preserve the friendship in its original form. I have many dear friends whom I communicate with once or twice a year.

But all these things are necessary to build a stable, monogamous sexual relationship. At some point you *do* have to make a deliberate choice. It *is* exclusive. One must rearrange one's life, and persevere in the face of difficulties. Friendship is a fine basis in one sense, and a grossly inadequate one in another. And I have to wonder if this is not a factor in the increasing delay of marriage and fear of commitment--the diminished opportunity to practice these things during the preliminary stages.

Because it seems that other getting-to-know-you settings *did* contain practice in these things. As Henry Tilney pointed out (yes, I'm still on an Austen kick), the country dance was a miniature of the marriage customs: The man had the right to ask, the woman to refuse, they both had to remain exclusive for the dance, do their best to accommodate their partner, and not act like they wished to be elsewhere.

And in another setting, the casual date of the early twentieth century provided a miniature of that era's customs: still the man has the right to ask, still the woman to refuse, there was still an expectation of loyalty for the duration of the event (as my mother would put it, you must "dance with the one who brung you"), and, reflecting the changing economic realities, the date was expected to cost money and the man was expected to provide all of it.

In other words, you had some practice, not in having a long-term intense emotional connection to another person which you then break off and try elsewhere, but in making choices, facing the possibility of rejection, focusing your attention deliberately for a season, all in a setting that openly acknowledged that finding a life partner was a worthy and deliberate goal without pressing you into a choice too soon.

This certainly does not eliminate the possibility of heartbreak, bad choices, or never finding a mate (human relationships will never come with a money-back guarantee)--but it does seem like it does what human society *can* do to help the next generation on. And I do think grownup society has such an obligation, rather than leaving the next generation to figure out sexuality from scratch, any more than we would expect them to figure out medicine from scratch. Roles and scripts can be too confining if taken too far, but if you start with nothing you spend all your time negotiating and not enough having fun.

But we can't import another generation's practices wholesale any more than we can import another culture's. Still, we can learn from what has been done and do our best to find parallels today. Perhaps in reflection of today's consumer but egalitarian culture, costs and the obligation of asking must be more evenly split. Friendships are all very well, but there needs to be a recognition and, yes, encouragement of the other dynamic. And some practice in deliberately asking, choosing, showing loyalty, in a way that does not insist on premature long-term attachments.


Diary of an Autodidact said...

An outstanding post. Well thought and well written.

Also, bonus points for working in a Rockwell AND a still from P&P.

One thing you did provoke me to wonder: would this have more immediacy if you were slightly less married? Marriage as a sliding scale is an amusing mental exercise...

Wendy said...

Very interesting, both your post and his article. It's of more immediate interest to me having 3 1/2 teens!

I really like his grandparent's rule of not going on dates with the same person twice in a row, but I wonder how that works in our culture where such things are...unexpected.

Diary of an Autodidact said...

I also forgot to mention how much I love this line:

So while it served as the necessary prelude to deeper relationships, it could do so only as long as everyone successfully pretended that it wouldn't.

Isn't THAT the truth.

Queen of Carrots said...

I'm wondering that, too, Wendy--if everybody in your kids' peer group takes going on dates as an immediate prelude to a heavy boyfriend/girlfriend relationship, then one teen alone can hardly change it.

One commenter mentioned that she had a good experience in college agreeing to go out with various guys but specifying up front that it was "as a friend." That way they knew not to expect kissing or exclusivity, but she still got the chance to talk with many different guys (and I believe met her husband). That might be one way to approach it.