Via Facebook, I read a couple of articles by Thomas Umstattd Jr., apparently a political activist in Texas: “Why Courtship is Fundamentally Flawed”, and a subsequent Q&A on the article based on extensive feedback in the comments. As the title implies, it is intended as a critique of Joshua Harris’ 2000 book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, wherein Harris proposed that “casual dating” be replaced with “purposeful, intentional courtship”.
For those of my readers who are not Christians, or Christians of the type for whom this is the first you’ve heard of Joshua Harris and his book, then the motivation behind Umstattd’s article is not going to make much sense. This blog post is rather intended for the rest of you.
This article is the first I’ve heard of Thomas Umstattd, and to all appearances he seeks to address an important question: how can Christians pursue their romantic attachments in a chaste and God-honoring way in a culture that is indifferent to both of these considerations. The cultural context is key: it is easy to imagine a system for pairing people off – Umstattd offers arranged marriages as an example, and asserts that courtship is a variant of this – that would do the job better than what we have. But there is no tradition of it in America and no cultural infrastructure to support it. Umstattd says, quite reasonably, that arranged marriages fly in the face of America’s individualist tradition. The possibility that something similar is true for courtship as Harris conceives it should not be rejected out of hand, but nor should the idea that dating carries its own problems.
Umstattd offers anecdotes, as do many of his commenters, recounting the failure of courtship to reliably reach satisfactory results, by which we mean happy marriage. Umstattd calls for empirical studies to investigate courtship’s efficacy, but the dearth of such studies does not prevent him from making empirical assertions about its failure. I should note here that Umstattd in his youth was an avid proponent of courtship, as were his peers, and his article is written to express their general disappointment. But as we have often discussed, there are a whole lot of cultural currents militating against family formation by whatever means, resulting in longer periods of singleness and with it increased temptation to sin. Courtship isn’t going to solve these problems; the relevant comparison is the alternatives in practice today, not, contra Umstattd, the experience of our grandparents.
I cannot resolve this conflict with any authority in the absence of hard data. I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye from the safety and detachment of my own marriage – a product of “traditional dating”, more or less – soon after the book’s publication. My only criticism at the time was of Harris’ lack of awareness that his own high level of personal attractiveness – he had hair back then, and Mrs. Φ confirmed that he had a great deal of animal magnetism – gave him options that most of us don’t have. Indeed, any pairing method he used was likely to work out well for him, and indeed it did: Harris married quite young, IIRC.
Otherwise, much of Harris’ book seemed reasonable, but then so too does much in Umstattd’s article. He takes pains to draw a distinction between “dating” and “going steady”, and that prior to the “going steady” stage, the rule for dating should be: don’t go on a date with the same person twice in a row. This passage also rang true for me personally:
The Greatest Generation was encouraged to date and discouraged from going steady while in middle school.
This is different from my generation, which is encouraged to “wait until you are ready to get married” before pursuing a romantic relationship. This advice, when combined with the fact that “the purpose of courtship is marriage”, makes asking a girl out for dinner the emotional equivalent of asking for her hand in marriage.
I am not convinced that anyone is ever truly ready to get married. Readiness can become a carrot on a stick, an ideal that can never be achieved. Marriage will always be a bit like jumping into a pool of cold water. A humble realization that you are not ready and in need of God’s help may be the more healthy way to start a marriage.
This was certainly my experience. I will stipulate that there is some threshold of maturity required of its participants for marriage to survive. But marriage itself, and the kinds of relationships that are purposefully headed towards marriage, are their own schoolhouse, a unique opportunity for personal growth by means of conflict and pain, and the demand for both repentance and forgiveness.
But there were several passages of the article that I take issue with. I have already mentioned one: comparing the present generation with the WWII generation ignores massive (and negative) social change since then. Here are some others.
“How can you tell who you want to marry if you aren’t going out on dates?” my grandmother wondered . . . . “If I had only gone out with 3 or 4 guys I wouldn’t have known what I wanted in a husband.”
The kindest thing that I can say about this passage is that it may have been true that during the
courtship dating years of the Greatest Generation there was such equality among men that choosing one was a function of a woman’s unique, highly individualized preferences. But I suspect that a more honest, and more contemporarily relevant, interpretation is that she had to reconcile with herself what set of tradeoffs she could live with. Because female preferences strike me as pretty uniform.
The word “traditional” appears maybe 15 or so times in the article, always in the context of describing the
courtship dating practices allegedly in effect for the WWII generation. Let me stipulate that those practices arrived at good-enough outcomes given the culture of the time. Umstattd describes it thus:
My grandmother grew up in a marginally Christian community. People went to church on Sunday but that was the extent of their religious activity. They were not the Bible-reading, small-grouping, mission-tripping Christian young people common in evangelical churches today.
Okay, but Umstattd doesn’t fully grapple with the fact that the creation of an evangelical “subculture” is a reaction to the general slide in the morals of the larger community since his grandmother’s day. I am pretty sure that this is as relevant to the present viability of
traditional WWII dating as it is to any of its many antecedents. How it is relevant is a question too complicated for me to think through . . . but then, I’m not the one offering the advice.
Suggestions for Single Men:
If she says you need to talk to her dad first, just move on to the next girl. Don’t let the fact that some women have controlling fathers keep you from dating the girls with more normal families. There are a lot of fish in the sea and some dads are nicer than others. Remember that this man would have become your father-in-law, and controlling people tend to control everything they can. So avoiding women with those kinds of fathers can save you a lot of heartache down the road.
When I initially started reading this article, I hadn’t taken note of the author’s name, and when I read this passage I assumed it was written by a woman: every woman trying to evade accountability for her actions accused someone of being “controlling”.
In the Q&A, Umstattd elaborates:
7 Reasons I Don’t Recommend Going After Dragon-Guarded Women
I will allow that Umstattd’s somewhat loaded language here is coming from his own bitter experience. Apparently, getting a father’s permission to
date court a girl was a significant obstacle for him. Now, Harris IIRC doesn’t spend much time giving advice to parents as to what the standard for their permission should be. But elsewhere I have read that the exercise itself was a valuable filter. The point is not for the father to be picky about who gets to date his daughter. Rather, requiring a young man to ask a father’s permission tends to weed out those with dishonorable motives from the get-go, and remind the others of their own accountability for what happens. I’m sorry that everyone in Umstattd’s experience was doing it wrong, but that’s not Harris’ fault.
Here are the 7 Reasons:
- Getting parental approval to start makes things too intense too quickly. Getting permission to enter a relationship whose purpose is marriage, before getting to know the girl, is like stepping on the gas while also stepping on the brakes. That is not a healthy way to start a relationship. Better to begin as “just friends” who get coffee or ice cream every now and again. Please read the original post for all of the problems that come from getting too intense too soon. Here is another way to think of it: it’s like trying to bake cookies at 500 degrees. The higher temperature the harder it is to avoid burnt cookies.
- There is a good chance “Talk to my dad” is really her way of saying “no.” Often girls feel bad about hurting a guy’s feelings by saying “no.” It is easier for a girl to send the man to her dad who can say “no” for her. So my advice is to take the hint and take the “no” for what it really is.
- There may be maturity issues. If she doesn’t feel mature enough to give you a direct answer, there is a chance she is not mature enough for the relationship. The kind of girls protected in this way are often the kind of girls who don’t have a lot of freedom to make their own choices, which can stunt their emotional maturity. They may still live at home and lack the real world experience for the kind of serious marriage-bound courtship the dad will likely insist you have.
- There may be trust issues. Assuming she is an adult (18+), the fact that her parents don’t let her make this decision reveals their distrust. If her parents, who have known her all her life, don’t trust her, then why should you? These trust issues may instead be a symptom of a lack of trust in God. On the other hand, she could be an amazing trustworthy girl whose suspicious parents are unwilling to cede control over her life to her.
- The parents may need to be “handled” for the rest of the relationship. Some of the comments say that the man should ”man up” and “handle” the father. This can put an undue strain on the relationship and can lead to some very sad outcomes as I’ve seen in the comments. Ideally, family gatherings should be something couples look forward to. No one wants Christmas to be a warzone.
- It makes the relationship mathematically more complex. Two people together is one relationship. Three people triples the number of relationships to three. A true courtship with all four parents involved is 15 different relationships. Any of these relationships can bring tension into the romantic relationship. The more people in a relationship, the harder it is to “shake hands and make up.” The inevitable reconciliation needed for a healthy relationship can become nearly impossible. The less flawed model is to have only one relationship between two people who get advice from 4 trusted advisers. Thanks to Stephen McCants for correcting my math on this.
- It is not your place to change someone’s family. Unconditional love means you love without conditions. This means accepting someone for who they are. Going into a relationship with a goal to change someone or their family is not love, it is manipulation. This goes both ways.
With the exception of the first point, all of these are problems irrespective of whether the family is a “courtship” family or a “traditional dating” family. Problems with trust, maturity, and family conflict shouldn’t be assumed to exist at higher rates in families merely doing their best to follow what they believe is the right path.
As to the first point, I’m inclined to believe that this is actually more complicated than it seems. A father’s conversation with a young man about his intentions might reveal, for instance, that he doesn’t have the romantic ambitions that the girl hopes and assumes. I must sadly admit that this was something of which I myself was guilty: inviting girls out one-on-one to do stuff because I enjoyed their company, not because I was attracted to them romantically. And perhaps I knew or suspected that their feelings for me were stronger than my feelings for them, and therefore that my invitations had the potential to be misleading. But the girls didn’t make an issue of it, their fathers didn’t make an issue of it, so it was just easier and more convenient for me to let the whole thing slide.
So there are several possible outcomes to a conversation with the father about intentions.
- I have no romantic intent.
- I want to see if there is any potential for me to develop romantic intent.
- I have romantic intent and want an opportunity to pitch woo.
- We both already have romantic intent and wish to move to the pre-engagement stage.
And perhaps there are others. But I can see benefit, and little harm, in having this discussion honestly with Dad from the start.
It’s a long article, and as a father of two daughters I welcome Umstattd’s contribution to the discussion. But these were the problems I had. I encourage everyone to read the article and hope you will comment here.