Why Courtship Is Fundamentally Awed

By Douglas Wilson

Thomas Umstattd Jr. recently made a splash with his article “Why Courtship is Fundamentally Flawed.” To be perfectly honest, I thought a number of his points were very good, like frosted flakes in the bowl glinting in the morning light of your quiet breakfast nook. But I also thought, retaining the honesty theme here, that a number of his other points were like mushrooms that somebody stuck in there.

His good points were the kind of points that would be made by sane people anywhere, whatever steps in the mating dance they might want to use. I am a courtship advocate, and yet have often said that the courtship model too frequently means that six idiots are involved instead of two. So my purpose here is not to defend indefensible things, like courtships from Hell, or power-tripping fathers.

So, Suzy, I have been praying a lot about this, and I have taken the fact that your last name is Lordschoice as a sign . . .
So, Suzy, I have been praying a lot about this, and I have taken the fact that your last name is Lordschoice as a sign . . .

Nor do I want to be dismissive of some of his other good points — such as courtship ramping up an unnecessary intensity for some folks. Sometimes courtship is treated like a done deal, like a fait accompli. Billy is courting Suzy, let us say, and people bustle up to Billy at say, “Congratulations!” That is like being congratulated that you applied to Harvard, and you haven’t even taken the GREs yet.

Whenever you have a lot of human beings doing something, a good number of them are going to do it with less wisdom than others. The bell curve follows large populations inexorably. So nothing said here should be taken as a dismissal of Umstattd’s right to point out the problem cases. I myself have seen more than a few.

But as someone who helped to put the courtship paradigm on the map, I do think I have a responsibility to respond to some of the mushrooms. The mushrooms in this instance would be those areas where he solves problems that are not necessarily problems, or where he fails to account for other obvious possible explanations for the problems he sees.


An example of the first would be his discussion of divorce, and the problem presented by those who thought that courtship was divorce insurance. Why are so many couples who courted now getting divorced? His whole article is directed at solving this problem (along with the problem of people who haven’t been able to get married at all), but he acknowledges that we don’t really know if the divorce rate is a problem.

“Then couples who did get married through courtship started getting divorced. I’m talking the kind of couples who first kissed at their wedding were filing for divorce. The deal was that if we put up with the rules and awkwardness of courtship now we could avoid the pain of divorce later.  The whole point of courtship was to have a happy marriage, not a high divorce rate.”

His reasons for writing include this high divorce rate, but his evidence for this is anecdotal, which he acknowledges. But he still assumes — in one of his headers — that the courtship divorce rate is in fact high. “Why the Courtship Divorce Rate is So High.”

He calls for research on the courtship divorce rate, knowing that we don’t really have hard numbers to go on. But if this is the case, then why are we calling for solutions?

“Right now all we have little research to go on in terms of the courtship divorce rate. In my observations, some homeschool communities have a much higher divorce rate than others. I would be very interested in seeing some research on this phenomenon. This blog post is my call for more research on the divorce rate amongst couples who ‘courted’ before getting married.”

But he is clearly doing more than calling for an investigation to find out if there is a problem. He is proposing a solution to the problem.

In my experience, this high divorce rate that he assumes is not at all the case. A number of years ago I was speaking at a conference, and in the course of one of my talks I made a point about the divorce rate among Christians being as high as the world’s, and was corrected later by the other speaker at the conference. The numbers I was relying on were taken from Gallup, which means that you also have to take Gallup’s idea of what a Christian is. The other speaker (Rob Rayburn) said that the divorce rate for the marriages he had performed was a tiny fraction of the purported number among Christians. I though huh, and after I got home, we counted up all the weddings I had performed. Hint — there were a lot of them. We also counted up the divorces that had happened out of all those marriages. The divorce rate was something under five percent.

This means that we shouldn’t be returning to traditional dating in order to solve the divorce problem caused by courtship until we know whether or not there is a divorce problem caused by courtship. And then, if we find that there is a high divorce rate in certain sectors of the courtship world, as Umstattd acknowledges might be the case, then we should make it a point to consider other possible factors. Courtship is not the only thing going on here, right?

“I grew up as a member of the homeschool community.” “Each year I waited for courtship to start working and for my homeschool friends to start getting married.” “I know several godly, hardworking and attractive homeschool guys who have been rejected by as many as a dozen fathers.”

So is it the courtship, or is it the combination of courtship and homeschooling? Note that I am not making assertions here, but rather saying when you are troubleshooting a problem, you need to be willing to look at all the factors.

For example, Umstattd points out that getting together in groups, for example, can be challenging. “The other challenge with group settings is that they are logistically complex.” Now I think that this can be true for homeschoolers, but our kids went to a private Christian school, K-12, and groups were never a problem. At the very least, by the time my kids graduated, they knew very well how guys and girls ticked. Getting this information was not difficult at all.

And since most long-term relationships don’t start in high school, I should mention something about the culture and community here at New St. Andrews. We have no “rule” about courtship at all, but it would be fair to say that basic assumptions about courtship have gotten down into the level of certain cultural assumptions. In this setting, I have seen a lot of couples get together — but they have gotten to know one another in countless situations over the course of months and years. This means that when the courtship formally starts, the intensity that Umstattd notes does not present the zero to sixty problem that would occur otherwise. But perhaps the problem is not where courtship is, but rather where the homeschooling was.

Another factor that Umstattd tends to downplay is the suitability of the individual.

“I know several godly, hardworking and attractive homeschool guys who have been rejected by as many as a dozen fathers. I respect their tenacity. Getting turned down by courtship fathers is tough on guys because the fathers are rarely gentle or kind.”

Looking at it from the other direction, between my two daughters I talked with 16 guys. If you do the math, you will readily see I turned down 14 of them. This is not a bug; it is a feature. And the 14 I turned down showed up at very different places on the spectrum. Some of them I respected highly as stand-up Christian guys, but my wife and daughter and I agreed it would not be a good match. Others had special issues going on their heads, and t’were better if we left them alone until those issues come to some sort of resolution.

Okay, that's more like it. Nice and traditional.
Okay, that’s more like it. Nice and traditional.

One of the possibilities to consider is that our generation has produced a surplus of maladroit suitors, and when the father turns them down, the problem is mysteriously assigned to the father. The problem is supposed to be that he is “rarely gentle and kind.” But in the cases I had to deal with, I was always gentle and kind — and I know many fathers who were kind to the young men who came to them, whether or not they were turned down.

The weird thing here is that the more obviously unsuitable a suitor was, the less likely it would be that he would see me as being gentle or kind. A bad match can be dramatically obvious to everyone involved except for one person — which is why it would be a bad match, come to think of it.

He also says that the “Bible is surprisingly quiet when it comes to laying out a system of courtship.” I don’t think this is the case, and I would refer anyone interested to the biblical case that I lay out in my book. And here is the second appearance of a link for those people who want a little help buying my book. Okay. . . a third time . . . because you insist . . . buy my book!

And last, the title of this post is obviously a riff off his title — I am seeking to explain “Why Courtship is Fundamentally Awed.” This title involves more than me trying to have a case of the cutes — although there may be a little bit of that too. Here is the actual thinking.

“There be three things which are too wonderful for me, Yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; The way of a serpent upon a rock; The way of a ship in the midst of the sea; And the way of a man with a maid” (Prov. 30:18–19).

The way men and women get together is a grand mystery. Those who want to reduce this grand mystery to a paint-by-numbers approach, whether that safe and predictable approach is a “courtship” approach, or a clunky approach to traditional dating. Systems won’t solve personal problems.

Wise people live wisely, and finding a spouse is part of that life. It is not possible to live wisely unless you are constantly in awe of the really mysterious things — such as a wise man embracing the mystery of finding a wise woman.

As I said in my contribution of 5 Paths to the Love of Your Life:

“The problems that arise do not arise because of courtship but rather because of sins such as dishonesty, lust, a domineering spirit, and so on. This is also the problem in the other models discussed in this volume. The problem is not the model; the problem is the people. And so the question that faces those who are arguing for one model over the other is not whether or not people will sin in the name of this model. The question is which model best anticipates and guards against the inevitable sin. And the answer to that question, in my opinion, is the courtship model” (p. 80).

But with that said, wise Christians who got together by dating are far better off than foolish Christians who think the book of Proverbs stipulates how close to the girl a suitor may sit on the third visit. Sure. But remember the bell curve. Sane people who date are better off than courtship nerds. Absolutely. But courting couples are better off than a lust monkey who has made out with 13 girls, your daughters being two of them, before exiting junior high.

Wisdom matters more than the model — but the model still matters.

Published first at Blog &Mablog. Republished in full with permission. 

One thought on “Why Courtship Is Fundamentally Awed

  1. A good analysis of things. I have since seen this article taken to task by betrothal proponent, who said that Doug Wilson turning down so many potential suitors was not how the system was meant to work – that it is not meant to lead to so many young men getting turned down so often.

    /Any/ human system can make a botch of things – courtship admittedly has less of them, on average – but there are some successful Christian marriages which came out of casual dating or even ‘missionary dating’. As for betrothal, I am not sure whether that is a particular sort of courtship – a difference in degree, not so much of kind.

    I agree with Biblical principles, but what I am seeing in the courtship debate, is too much of another principle – that of diminishing returns. Past a certain point, we have to use the brains God gave us!


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