Courtship Today: The View from Academia

By Cere, Daniel | The Public Interest, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Courtship Today: The View from Academia


Cere, Daniel, The Public Interest


COURTSHIP charts pathways to marriage. Its customs and rituals help individuals negotiate the complex transition from sexual attraction, through love, to lasting marriage. It provides, for better or worse, the moral and emotional education for married life. And yet, courtship no longer occupies a vital place within contemporary American culture; the word itself now seems quaint and outdated. Social historians such as Beth Bailey and Ellen Rothman have documented the decay of courtship traditions in twentieth-century America. Leon Kass has pointed out that the erosion of courtship, coupled with other worrisome trends in law, economics, and technology, has destabilized the institution of marriage. [1] Today, the road to marriage is devoid of clear markers and fraught with more accidents and wrong turns.

The decline of courtship may reflect broader cultural trends. According to Anthony Giddens, one of Britain's most distinguished sociologists, popular culture is creating a new grammar of intimacy. In The Transformation of Intimacy and, more recently, in the prestigious Reith Lectures, Giddens argues that we are moving from a marriage culture to a culture that celebrates the "pure relationship." A "pure relationship" is one that has been stripped of any goal beyond the intrinsic emotional, psychological, or sexual satisfaction it brings to the individuals involved. In this new world of "relationships," marriage is placed on a level playing field with all other longterm sexually intimate relationships, with similar values and processes governing their initiation, maintenance, and dissolution. Accordingly, the concept of a special pathway to marriage--i.e., courtship--tends to be abandoned in favor of a more general discussion of the dynamics of any close relationship.

However, as the consequences of family fragmentation have become more apparent, there are signs of a renewed interest in finding ways to strengthen marriage. A large body of research shows that healthy marriages protect the well-being of spouses and their children, and that a number of significant social costs are generated when marriages fail. This renewed appreciation for marriage's importance may be triggering some interest in the question of courtship. In the popular realm, a number of new books on courtship, both secular and religious, have sold well. Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider's popular 1996 book, The Rules, purports to teach battle-scarred women a practical, no-nonsense script for finding a fabulous husband. Joshua Harris's 1997 Christian best-seller, I Kissed Dating Good-Bye, urges young people to eschew recreational dating and return to older "scriptural" courtship practices. And Leon Kass and Amy Kass's well-received anthology of readings on courtship and marriage, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar, o ffers readers wisdom on the nature of courtship and marriage culled from 5,000 years of the Western tradition. The success of these books indicates a yearning among many young people for clearer and more effective pathways to marriage than the culture now provides. The spread of marriage education, in both schools and religious communities, also suggests that the case for courtship is not completely closed.

But what does contemporary scholarship have to say about the courtship question? According to Norval Glenn, the dean of American family sociologists, the study of courtship is now "virtually moribund." Academics do not appear particularly interested in discussing pathways to marriage. There are, however, a number of scholarly theories poking around into topics of related interest: heterosexual attraction, mate selection, pair bonding, and close relationships. Three schools of scholarly thought merit attention: exchange theory, sociobiology, and close-relationship theory. While these approaches contribute little to the study of courtship itself, they do provide fascinating articulations of the dominant ideologies guiding today's discourse on heterosexual pair bonding. …

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