There used to be rules for courtship, and the rules went something like this: Boy meets girl. Boy shows obvious interest in girl. Girl carefully expresses possible interest in boy. Boy speaks with girl’s father for permission to spend time with girl. If all went well, eventually the boy and the girl would become engaged and get married.
It all sounds very old-fashioned. It also sounds like the girl doesn’t have very much say in the matter. Her options are limited, with little opportunity to take the initiative. Therefore, this model of courtship usually is condemned for leaving women powerless. But what happens when there aren’t any rules? What happens to women then?
Some answers are provided by a 2001 study from New York City’s Institute for American Values. The study, which was written by Elizabeth Marquardt and Norval Glenn, is called “Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right: College Women on Dating and Mating Today.” Its findings are saddening, if not surprising.
For starters, the study shows that most college women still have a strong desire to get married. More than eighty percent agree that “being married is a very important goal for me,” and most would like to meet their future husband in college.
Unfortunately, there is almost a total absence of social norms to provide a relational structure that could actually lead to a healthy marriage. What prevails instead is a “hookup culture,” in which students often “get together for a physical encounter and don’t necessarily expect anything further.” Most of the college women studied admitted that they were left confused by the lack of clear rules regarding intimacy, romance, courtship, and sex. As another group of experts describes the situation, “American men and women have been left pretty much to their devices in the selection of a marriage partner, in the negotiation of a betrothal, and in the timing of marriage.”1 This is a troubling sign that our culture is in serious disarray.
But what about dating? Dating used to play a significant role in the courtship process. However, the Institute for American Values concludes that dating has changed, so that now it has two almost contradictory meanings. Sometimes the term is used as a synonym for “hanging out.” College men and women often spend a good deal of loosely organized time together without making their romantic interest in one another explicit. On the other hand, “dating” can also describe a “fast-moving committed relationship that includes sexual activity, sleeping at the partner’s dorm room most nights, sharing meals, and more, but rarely going out on ‘dates’,” in the traditional sense of the word. These intense relationships often end in painful breakups. This is largely because sex has entered the relationship at the wrong place—before marriage rather than after.
Neither of these two kinds of “dating” involves anything like traditional courtship. The resulting confusion makes it hard for a college woman to figure out where she stands. Is the young man she has been seeing committed to her or not? The anxiety builds until finally she initiates “the talk” that clarifies the relationship. But the man is the one who actually decides where the relationship is going. The authors of the study find this confusing, but from the biblical point of view, it is a reminder that in romantic relationships, men are designed to lead.
The authors rightly conclude that the current rules for dating are deeply destructive for women. They write: “If most college women name marriage as an important goal and most say they would like to meet their future husband at college, then we do them no favors by letting them sort out the pathway to marriage almost completely on their own.”
I have some pastoral advice about all of this. Courtship and marriage are matters of profound spiritual significance. Therefore, men and women should not try to figure them out on their own. Christians who have romantic interests or who are in some kind of relationship ought to seek spiritual counsel from someone older and wiser, preferably from Christians who are married. And married Christians should be ready and willing to fulfill their God-given role as guides for courtship and romance. This is my first piece of advice: Get (and give) good counsel.
Second, begin to follow the biblical pattern for relationships between men and women. The Bible says nothing at all about dating. Nor does it provide any kind of handbook for courtship. But it does teach that in marriage, men are to exercise spiritual leadership by showing the sacrificial love of Christ, and women are to respond by showing the submissive love of Christ (see Eph. 5:21–33). This has profound implications for courtship because it sets the pattern for a love relationship between a man and a woman.
Single Christian men should take some initiative. They should actively cultivate friendships with single Christian women. (Incidentally, if a woman says that she is not interested, she should be taken at her word. “No” means no, no matter how tactfully it is expressed.) At each stage it is the man’s responsibility to clarify the relationship. If it is only a friendship, the man should make that clear. If it is becoming something more, the man should say what he is hoping it will become, and give a woman the chance to decide whether it is a relationship she also wants to pursue. Most of the long and agonizing discussions couples have about their relationship could be avoided entirely, if only men would show a little spiritual leadership.
As the relationship develops, a woman should practice the biblical virtue of submission. If she has to take the lead—and unfortunately, she often feels like she has to—the relationship is unlikely to lead to marriage, at least not a healthy one.
The problem is that most people do not follow the pastoral advice that I have just given. Many Christian men fail to take spiritual initiative in their relationships with women. Sometimes Christian women frustrate the process by failing to respond to what leadership they do show. On the other hand, many Christian women handle their relationships in a godly way and yet wait in vain for someone to love them in a sacrificial way.
All of this produces a great deal of suffering. This should not surprise us. We live in a fallen world, and one of the first things the Fall affected was relationships between men and women. As we struggle with these issues—whether we are married or single, in or out of a relationship— what we all need is the love of Christ. We need his love to show us how to love one another, and to bring healing to all the places where we have been wounded in what sometimes seems like a loveless world.