When I was single, the books I read recommended something called “courtship.” The problem was…it didn’t work, either for me or for anyone around me. So if you have a commitment this weekend, it is a good time to think about how courtship and dating philosophies differ, and why dating is more likely to get you to ‘I Do.’
The courtship concept is preached by a variety of people with different slants. The version I learned prescribed getting to know someone for three to four months before exclusively seeing them and discerning marriage. The marriage itself shouldn’t occur until two years pass. This approach is supposed to lessen the number of relationships (and heartbreaks) a person has, and is sometimes marketed as a silver bullet to most modern-day dating problems.
More extreme approaches recommend that a girl’s father manage her relationships for her. Guys are told to ask the father’s permission for every prolonged encounter with his daughter. That model is so archaic and laced with problems that I’m just going to focus on the less troubling version here, which more or less calls for strictly phased relationships, courtship vocabulary rather than “dating” lingo, and a slower introduction than is typical in the U.S. today.
While college life allowed romantic relationships to form at a slower pace, the guys I met (Christian, Catholic, or otherwise) in the “real world” weren’t having the courtship fad. Even if they read the same courtship material I did, they were not persuaded.
A courtship devotee would say, “Put your foot down! Make men comply with courtship. Civilize them!” Been there, done that. I was not happy with the results. What courtship bandwagon devotees sometimes fail to recognize is that a budding relationship with potential can quickly turn into a pressure cooker or fizzle out if it is not permitted to grow at a natural pace.
Arbitrarily lengthy timelines are a recipe for unhealthy relationship rigidity. And, outdated vocabulary can cause a lot of angst. When Catholics glamorize the past and resist the present by prescribing “courtship” as the only option, they risk being more antiquated than the Amish. I don’t toss this statement out lightly; I have discussed this with two people familiar with Pennsylvania Dutch culture.
In addition, parents who instill old world methods for dealing with modern day problems are limiting their child’s ability to cope with today’s challenges.
So before you turn against dating and buy all of the promises of courtship, think about how vigorously enforcing that paradigm could take you out of anything remotely mainstream. Consider the low success rate of courtship. And, realize that it will not bulletproof your marriage.
Most people use dating to find spouses these days. And here is where the three-date norm comes in. No matter how much you like courtship concepts on paper, the reality is that most singles who are trying to get the most out of their in-person introductions go by the three-date norm. It may seem fast, but really, the length of time varies depending on schedules. It could take a month to have three dates, along with plenty of warm emails and long phone calls. Add an online introduction into the mix, and it could be longer.
While the three-date norm may sound like yet another formulaic and arbitrary timeline, it’s an approximation and not as rigid or intense as courtship concepts. The pace mimics most people’s natural inclinations. It provides enough exposure to get to know someone without the risk of wasting valuable time or mixed messages. It wasn’t pushed in any books or literature I read. Yet, the professional singles I met, whether secular or religious, political or apolitical, readily accepted this social norm without controversy.
The first date is the “get to know.” You don’t have to be crazy about someone to go on a first date — it’s exploration. You observe basic attributes, your reaction to the person, and how they respond to you. If you don’t see a whole lot of potential, don’t go out again.
If two people see potential though, a second date is in order along with more emails and phone calls. Then, you consider more carefully if this person is really a good candidate for a long-term relationship and start asking more direct questions to arrive at the answer. Some people can call it at the second date, others need a third (maybe fourth or fifth) date to figure it out for sure. After this, people should be able to determine if they want to spend time dating exclusively.
I’ll be the first to admit that people have to get savvy to get good at the 3-date thing. Both daters need to develop their intuition, people reading and listening skills. They need to know what things they cannot compromise on, and what their priorities are. If daters are strategic, marriage-minded, and mature, they should get the hang of it though.
Chapter Eight of my book, How to Get to ‘I Do,’  was written to help people make grounded relationship decisions. Daters who are prepared and focused can find out a lot about a person over email, the phone, and a few dates. A person who takes months to get to know someone is not necessarily better off if they are not asking the right questions.
The Blended Approach
Since courtship is rarely feasible, and initial “dates” are usually harmless outings to a Starbucks, restaurant, or other place to spend time talking, some people may try to blend courtship and dating concepts.
Here’s the problem. If a guy wants you to be his girlfriend at the third date, and you like him, but say, “I’m sorry, I need a few months to think about that,” he will probably feel slighted, no matter how virtuous he is. If you really like him, and all you are doing is trying to construct a man-made timeline for your romance, the friction you’ve introduced early on can hurt the budding relationship or cause you to lose it altogether. When a nice guy shows interest, there is nothing like throwing a courtship book at him to extinguish his enthusiasm. You’re missing him — and embracing a concept instead.
Now, it’s easy to say, “He should want to make me comfortable and happy.” This is true to an extent. In light of that, he might add a few weeks to his timeline out of care and concern for you. At the same time, it isn’t realistic to think that it’s always going to be all about you. A guy who is romantically interested in you and searching for a wife will try to avoid the “friend zone” like it’s a fire pit. If you insist on murky in-between states for months at a time, he’s going to leave for greener pastures.
If women want to attract good men, they need to reward genuine interest. And if someone is seriously searching for a spouse, why make choices that are sure to repel promising relationships? Remember, there are plenty of nice girls who want to date a good guy, who won’t give him courtship hoops to jump through. I hear from them all of the time.
My advice to you is to get some practice with the three-date norm, whether you agree with it or not. Chances are, when you go out with someone, the other person will be familiar with it and analyzing your dates within that context, not courtship.