July 07, 2010

The difference between courtship and dating

By Anthony Buono *

Dear Anthony,

What is the difference between courtship and dating? Is the only difference that dating is casual and courtship is exclusive with movement towards engagement? I don't want to date more than one guy at a time, but I might not want to marry that one guy, either. Does this mean we're just dating?

These terms are often used interchangeably, depending on which one the person feels most comfortable using. A Christian person uses the word “courtship”. You never hear a non-Christian use this term at any time. So courtship, just as a term, has meaning and value to a Christian. However, among Christians, you still hear “courtship” and “dating” used interchangeably; indicating that many single people find the terms to mean the same thing. Why would anyone use the term “courtship” when they are simply “dating”?

I believe it is a “feel good” kind of word. Some Christians find the word “dating” to be a negative term due to their secular counterparts using the term excessively. I think a single Christian person using “courtship” to describe their dating life wants to psychologically believe they are doing something a little better, a bit more nobler than merely “dating”.

These two words, however, should NOT be used interchangeably. They are two very different words, with different meanings, and indicate two different places in the process towards marriage. In fact, with regards to “dating” I should not be too quick to say that this term necessarily included in the process towards marriage.

There is a fundamental different between courtship and dating. Dating does not necessarily mean the persons are interested in marriage at all, let alone interested in determining if this person they are dating might be the person they should marry one day. For many, dating is a form of entertainment, something to do with one’s free time. It is completely possible to date someone with absolutely no intention of considering them for marriage.

Courtship, on the other hand, absolutely does have marriage in mind. To say that you are courting someone or are in a courtship is basically to say “I am moving toward potential marriage with this person, and we shall see how it goes.” It also absolutely implies exclusivity with the person. To enter into courtship means to put a hold on considering any other person for marriage in order to focus on determining if this person you are courting is the one to become engaged to marry.

Notice that courtship is not engagement. To become engaged to a person is to make a decision to marry. Courtship wants to focus only on the person you “think” might be the one you want to spend the rest of your life with.

Those who enter into courtship are pretty sure they have found the one. They are not going into courtship with any thought that it is not the one. Otherwise, they would not be exclusive. It is quite a big step to become formally exclusive with someone. It is a practice run of making the formal decision to forsake all others on the day you exchange vows. In courtship, you do forsake all others, but not as a vow, but rather as a trial run.

Because it means exclusivity, courtship needs to be a short period of time, and have a definitive end. It cannot be open ended. Otherwise, you risk hurting each other in a way you do not wish to, but can simply because you are not yet married. It risks looking like and acting like you are married, when you have not formally made the commitment. It risks giving in to the temptation to do that one thing reserved ONLY to married couples because you become so used to each other and, what the heck, you love each other and are practically married anyway, so why not?

At the practical level, you want to be in courtship for a short time, with the agreement to get engaged or end the relationship at the end of that time period. This ensures that hearts are not too invested beyond repair, and that both persons are able to become available to new persons.

Another reason courtship is usually entered into when both are pretty certain they have found the one is because the reality of starting over from scratch with a new person and going through the process again is draining and deflating. It’s very similar to building a house. When you have done it once, you are not inclined to do it again. It is much too involved and comes at a high price.

So courtship should not be used interchangeably with dating, and should not be entered into lightly. However, if it the courtship does not work out, you have avoid rushing into a marriage that you may likely have regretted later. Courtship, as a process, ensures that all the right steps have been taken and all the right things have been talked about in order to come to the closest conclusion possible that you are in love and want to spend the rest of your life with this person. I usually advise couples in courtship to make sure they have taken a good, long road trip together so they can experience all the sides of each other, which a long road trip seems to bring out. If you can endure each other’s faults, quirks, and negatives sides, and still say “I love you!”, then you have what you are looking for.

I assume at this point my focus on courtship has provided some insight into what dating is. First, dating is NOT courtship. The best way to describe dating is that it is a sampling process. You date in order to sample the person. You spend non-commitment time with the person in order to see if there is an all around attraction to that person enough to move on to “serious dating.” Serious dating is no longer a sampling process. You have realized you want to be married and have learned more about yourself and the kind of person you are attracted to from your dating experience.

Some people never stop sampling. In fact, they unfortunately allow themselves to cheapen their offering by showing they only want to sample, and never purchase. You know the many sample food stations in Costco? I know a man who told me he goes in there to have lunch by partaking in all the sample stations, and then leaves. As if Costco is in business to hand out free lunches. What is Costco’s goal with these sample stations? To “sell” the product they are allowing people to sample.

Single persons who want to get married are in this same situation. They are putting themselves out there to sample in hopes to find a buyer. This particularly pertains to women, since men are the purchasers (the ones who propose).

Dating today has sadly become a free-for-all of perpetual samplers, which no intention to buy (make a permanent commitment). Worse, they naturally are inclined to want to sample the marriage-only goods as well, proving further they don’t want the commitment and responsibility that comes with the dating process toward marriage. I think these persons should be made to where a tag that says “Samples Only” so the single people serious about finding the right person and ready to make a commitment can avoid wasting time with the sample-only people.

Dating is a great thing, as long as people are willing to make commitment moves. Move on to serious dating, and then to being willing to be exclusive, and then to courtship, and then engagement, and then marriage. Otherwise, it is just socializing with friends. True, serious dating seeks to find your best friend. Courtship confirms that you found that best friend.

I hope this helps.

Yours in Christ,

Anthony

Anthony Buono is the founder of Avemariasingles.com. For thousands of Catholic singles, Anthony offers guidance, humor, understanding, and practical relationship advice.  Visit his blog at 6stonejars.com

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.