Young People Ask . . .
A Successful Courtship—Just How Important?
WHETHER a marriage will be happy or not is often determined during the first few years. In 1979, 52,000 couples in the United States were divorced before completing their first year of marriage. And in each of the next several years of marriage, a much greater number of couples got divorced.
How is it possible for two people to contemplate building a lifelong relationship and then, in just a few months or in two or three years, determine that their marriage is a failure?
“Most marriage failures are courtship failures,” explains Paul H. Landis, a respected researcher on family life. “This point cannot too often be repeated.” In lands where individuals customarily choose their marriage mates, courtship is the period of time wherein a couple get to know each other better with the possibility of marriage in view. Why is this period so critical?
A Time for Examination
A happy marriage requires painstaking effort. After counseling many unhappily married couples, author Nancy Van Pelt, in her book The Compleat Courtship, asked: “Why do so many marriages fail? There are many reasons, but the main reason is a lack of preparation. . . . I feel anger because of their ignorance regarding the complexity of the task.”
A husband and wife make a sacred vow before God to be faithful to each other for the rest of their lives. The Bible warns that making a vow is a serious matter, saying: “It is a snare when earthling man has rashly cried out, ‘Holy!’ and after vows he is disposed to make examination.” (Proverbs 20:25) On an impulse a person may make a solemn promise but later realize that more is involved than was bargained for. But the time “to make examination” is before making the vow, not afterward.
Courtship gives a couple the opportunity to make such an examination or investigation. When utilized properly, courtship not only can help a couple determine whether they are really suited for each other but can also prime them for the challenges of married life.
Courtship is a time for a person to search his own heart, to sort out just what his important emotional needs are. When Steve began to court Barbara, she began to reflect on her background and concluded: “I would need a man that would be very patient with me.” She added: “Steve was so patient, putting up with so many things I did to him, and he was very considerate. He always listened to me regardless of what I said. Because of this, my interest in him kept increasing and deepening.” Because each satisfied the other’s emotional needs, their courtship led to a happy marriage.
So during courtship, ask yourself: What kind of person am I? What are my important emotional needs? Also, what are the personality strengths and weaknesses of me and my partner? For instance, one young man said of his girlfriend: “She has a certain stability that I need. I’m restless and flighty. I feel that she has a steadying, calming influence.”
A landmark study of a thousand engaged couples, many of whom were questioned further after several years of marriage, found that the fulfillment of such emotional needs “appears to be of primary importance in today’s marriage.” (Courtship, Engagement and Marriage, by Burgess, Wallin, and Shultz) While love is important, having similar goals and the ability to satisfy each other’s emotional needs are essential for a lasting relationship.
Take Your Time!
What is said at Proverbs 21:5 can appropriately be applied to courtship: “Everyone that is hasty surely heads for want.” You can end up being tragically hurt—emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
For example, Evelyn confessed: “I hate to admit it, but I hastily married a man I didn’t know very well. I was in such a hurry to get married, I thought that things would work out. I left him after three months.”
One study of 51 wives who had been married for many years compared the length of their courtship with how happy they were at present. The result? Those having a long courtship reported greater “marital satisfaction.” When asked, “How often do you regret that you are married?” and, “How often do you and your spouse ‘get on each other’s nerves’?” the short-term daters were “much less happy with their marriages,” reported the team of researchers in the journal Family Relations (1985). What was the reason?
“Short periods of dating may mean that individuals do not get much chance to experience troublesome differences, and thus when differences inevitably arise afterwards, they cause greater problems to the marriage,” explained the Kansas State University researchers. “By contrast, couples who have had such experience before marriage may see them as part of life, nothing to get terribly upset about.” Once initiated, courtship can become simply a best-foot-forward time when the man and woman go all out to win each other’s love. But if given enough time, unpleasant habits and tendencies have a way of revealing themselves. A couple who take their time with a courtship will likely find an easier adjustment after marriage, with fewer disappointing surprises.
So a successful courtship should be long enough for a couple to get well acquainted. The really important concern is not always how many months or years the courtship takes but what is accomplished during the period.
However, what if the courtship seems to take too much time?
The Time for Mature Thinking
Some persons, while wanting to keep the relationship cozy, avoid discussing the possibility of marriage. They reason: “Why can’t we just keep things the way they are now?” In some respects this is like a person who goes to a restaurant and is seated at a table. The waiter, after bringing water, bread, and a menu, waits expectantly to take the order. But the customer keeps saying, “No, I’m just fine like this. I don’t want to order anything yet.” Why enter a restaurant if you don’t want to eat a meal? So with a courtship, why enter such a relationship if you don’t want to get married?
Mature thinking will move a couple to consider and discuss the future of a relationship. It is not fair or loving to raise another’s expectations if the intention is not to follow through and get married. “Expectation postponed is making the heart sick,” states Proverbs 13:12. Of course, intimacy and commitment deepen gradually and cannot be rushed. Yet, during courtship especially, a person should ‘let his love be without hypocrisy’ so that his partner, who may be expecting the relationship to lead to marriage, is not unnecessarily hurt.—Romans 12:9.
As the couple seriously consider marriage, courtship provides time for them to talk frankly about their values and goals. Courtship also gives them time to get better acquainted with their partner’s family and discuss how they will relate to in-laws.
Courtship often leads to engagement, when a couple make a formal promise to marry. The previously mentioned study of a thousand engaged couples found that a successful engagement was the best indicator of a satisfying marriage. But a successful engagement does not always mean an entirely smooth one. As the couple spend more time together, formality is set aside. The upcoming wedding may also put the couple under strain. Thus, disagreements, and even quarrels, may occur. Solving such differences demonstrates a couple’s ability to work out matters.
Regardless of the length of the engagement, a Christian couple must refrain from becoming overly intimate with expressions of affection. (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8) In this way, they will maintain a good conscience before God. They will also avoid the trap of allowing sexual attraction to cause them to ignore important issues.
A couple planning for marriage will often find it beneficial to seek out the advice of a Christian minister or an older happily married couple. Such premarital counseling can help them avoid some of the frustrations after marriage.—Proverbs 15:22.
A successful courtship yields many pleasant memories and lays a good foundation for a happy marriage. How to carry on such a courtship will be discussed in a later article.
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Research has shown that a longer courtship often leads to good adjustment to marriage
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It is beneficial for those planning marriage to seek the advice of a happily married older couple