Is courtship always associated with marriage? What are its goals and dangers?
Courtship, unlike dating, is a mutual association of a young man and a young woman in order to prepare an eventual marriage.
There are two main goals in the immediate preparation of a marriage.
- First, one must seek to gain a sufficient knowledge of the prospective spouse’s character and dispositions.
- Second, one must aim to perfect the virtues necessary to be a good husband and wife.
Courting someone is no pleasure party, and can be a source of temptation, as is the case of intimate and frequent meetings with a person of the opposite sex. However, such occasion of sin is normal and necessary in order to discern whether or not the two parties are willing to marry.
The danger inherent in this circumstance is exacerbated only if one does not have a clear idea of what one is seeking.
Are there any obstacles to learning the character of one’s prospective spouse?
There are many such obstacles, but we shall focus on two.
In the first place, the limited time of a courtship renders it difficult to assess accurately the character of one’s boyfriend or girlfriend. Often, the young couple does not have anything more than a passing acquaintance before beginning courtship, meaning that they have only a few short months in which to evaluate their prospective partner. So time is restricted for a choice which engages one for life and, most often, for eternity.
This problem is compounded by the fact that in courtship men and women are often poor judges of each other’s true nature, and this for obvious reasons. First of all, each party resorts easily to no small dissimulation, that is to say, endeavors to highlight his or her good qualities and hide the defects. Next, love is blind. Both are often smitten by the other, and this infatuation causes much overlooking and excusing faults present in the other. Experts say that when a man loves a woman, if she is bad he can’t see it, she can do no wrong.
How might one overcome such difficulties?
One simple way to get inside knowledge of the partner is spending time with each other’s family. Although this method cannot supplant direct interaction, it remains a key element of courtship. It is by observing a person living in the bosom of his or her family—where they are most at ease—that their true nature can become apparent. It also allows one to come into contact with individuals from the same background as the friend but who have no special interest in winning one’s approval nor are the object of a blind fancy. If one dislikes the members of the family of one’s boyfriend or girlfriend, it might indicate that the pleasure of intimacy is likely to disappear after years of living together.
In particular, a young woman should watch closely how her boyfriend treats his mother. This will give her great insight into the vision which he has of womanly dignity. If he is dismissive of the opinions and judgments of his mother, it is likely he is going to be unwilling to seek counsel at the hands of his wife. She can also remark whether he is insensitive to the innumerable sacrifices made by the woman who has nourished him from infancy. If he is disrespectful to her or takes her for granted, the young lady can be reasonably sure that the gentlemanly attention which he pays to her is nothing more than a mask which will quickly be dropped after she says “I do.”
The young man, for his part, should observe two things in the young lady he is courting. In the first place, he should note how she behaves in the presence of her father. He ought to mark the attitude with which she complies with his just and reasonable requests, which will do much to reveal to what extent she has the spirit of submission necessary to fulfill generously the precept of St. Paul: “Wives, obey your husbands as the Lord.” If she is slow to follow his counsels or treats them with a noticeable levity, this means that she might have a hard time acquiescing to his direction as the head of the home.
Furthermore, he ought to watch how she conducts herself with her younger siblings and especially the toddlers. A mother provides a child’s first formation as a human being, and this requires no small spirit of self-sacrifice. Since a newborn is wholly helpless and is oblivious to the needs of those around it, it will not politely wait for a good moment in its mother’s schedule to make known its desires or needs. It is by studying how his girlfriend handles the non-cute and inconvenient demands of her younger siblings that he may form an idea of whether she is mature enough to handle the rigorous duties of motherhood.
Are there any more general lessons to be gained by observing each other’s families?
It is important to observe the parents of each family, how they interact with each other and with the children. This is because children imitate the habits of their parents. A young woman should pay particular attention to how her boyfriend’s father treats his wife and children. This will be a strong indicator as to what manner of husband and father her young man will be. Conversely, the young man should pay attention to what manner of mistress of the home is his young lady’s mother.
This point can be broadened to include the general form of government of the home. The young man and young woman should attentively consider and discuss with one another the manner of education, discipline, prayer life, and, not least of all, financial expectations which permeate one another’s homes. Again, the environment in which one grows up invariably colors what one judges to be normal behavior. Thus, if either has a strong disdain for the manner of life predominant in the home of their companion, it is a good sign that after the glow of the honeymoon has faded there will arise serious and painful disagreements as to how the household should be run.
How else can young people gain knowledge of one another? Do they not need to interact and do things together?
Since marriage is a kind of friendship, it is cultivated by shared experiences and activities. Those activities should be preferred which help fine-tune virtues necessary for marriage. Activities which merely encourage dissipation or even sin are by no means profitable and only serve to prepare unhappy marriages.
Where possible, it is advisable for a young couple to join one of the youth groups—such as Exsurge in Post Falls or Aciem in St. Marys —offered in the parish. This serves to remind the couple that marriage is a public institution intended to preserve society at large. God did not primarily intend it for the personal happiness of the young man and woman. Belonging to such a group will encourage them to rise above the mutual selfishness and self-absorption to which star-crossed lovers are inordinately prone.
In particular, such groups give young ladies the chance to see the character of their men. A necessary component of a successful marriage is the respect a woman has for her husband, and this respect is most properly earned when he conducts himself in the world outside the home in a manner worthy of honor. Pope Pius XII notes: “Since the reputation and public esteem of a husband affects the honor and standing of a wife, the man, out of respect for her, should strive to surpass his equals and distinguish himself in his own field” (Pius XII, Dear Newlyweds [Sarto House], p. 157).
To be more precise, she can pay attention to a variety of the qualities which will indicate his motivation to be a good head of the home. To mention a few, she can observe:
- His initiative. A successful husband and father must be ready to lead his family. This translates into seeing what needs to be done and acting without being prodded by others. Far too often, men abdicate this role to their wives, not infrequently with disastrous results. Having a spirit of initiative will earn him a good reputation and thus draw down honor on his wife. The young woman can watch her young man’s behavior in this youth group and see how much he strives to excel in this social setting.
- His responsibility. As the head of the home, the man must shoulder numerous and often demanding obligations. The happiness of his household will depend in a large measure on his faithful execution of those duties. Although the duties involved in a youth group do not compare to those of a father or husband, they tell a great deal about future responsibilities.
- His handling of humiliations or setbacks. Married life will involve many failures and trials. The natural tendency of human nature is to wilt before them and to escape, whether in childish activity, alcohol, an affair, or workaholism. It requires much fortitude to resist this cop-out and address these setbacks. A young lady can gain valuable insight in considering how her young man rises to such occasions in a demanding social environment such as is found in these youth groups.
What about those who do not have access to such youth groups? What could they do besides meeting their partner’s family?
Here are few general suggestions. As a rule, those activities—such as hikes or quiet meals together—ought to be preferred which foster conversation and healthy discussions. It is by talking to one another—on anything of the future common life but also on any other things—that the couple can learn whether they like one another and are willing to commit to one another. Activities which discourage discussion serve more to obscure than to reveal whether the two will enjoy living with each other.
Also, it would be profitable to make a point of joining one of the lay apostolates in one’s chapel (e.g., the Holy Name Society, the Legion of Mary, Altar Society, or some other such organization). Along these lines, they should seek opportunities of donating their time in works of charity, such as visiting people in old folks homes or even helping at a local soup kitchen. Again, the goal is to help one another remember that by considering the foundation of a new household, they are assuming a responsibility to perpetuate and promote the welfare of a larger society.
This is not to say that one can never engage in activities which are more specifically meant to be pleasant for the couple, but these ought not to form the sole nor even principal part of the courtship inasmuch as they ill-prepare young people for the crosses and responsibilities of married life. It is precisely in these crosses that the couple will find true joy together.
What role ought prayer to play in the prospective courtship?
Fr. Raoul, S.J., in his book Christ in the Home rightly emphasizes the need of the young man and woman to pray by relating an adage common in his day that one ought to pray once when embarking on sea (or before taking off), twice when going to war, and three times when about to be married. If circumstances permit, they ought especially to assist frequently at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, wherein is to be found the deepest source of the graces necessary for a good marriage.
Finally, when possible, they ought to follow a retreat, especially a five-day Ignatian retreat if they have never done it, which provides souls a special grace to discern the will of God for them. St. Ignatius recommends making a retreat when faced with a major decision in life, and few things are more momentous than to yoke one’s temporal and eternal fate with this or that person.