Courtship - Laying the Foundations of a Marriage
So many books and guides on courtship have been offered over the years – all reflecting the mores and trends of their times – that it may seem insignificant to offer a mere article on the topic, considering what has gone on before. Instead, we will explore some timeless reoccurring themes from perspectives that are frequently ignored in current American culture. The fact that these themes are both critical and ignored has much to do with why so many relationships and marriages fail. We all know the strength of a building is first determined by the strength of its foundation – a fact also true of relationships. Yet, the popular ideal beginning of a relationship in our society seems to be portrayed in what we call the chance encounter; what amounts to the accidental beginning of a foundation. This rarely works.
First, persons interested in seeking a committed relationship often give mixed messages. They want something real, but they will settle for play. Few persons these days are courageous enough to be vulnerable in expressing their ultimate relationship goals during the initial encounter stages. The unspoken trend seems to be, “If we keep it light, and keep it fun, nobody will get hurt.” However, in the romantic relationship world, there is no such thing as “relationship light.” Why are so many American romances doomed from the beginning? So much is left to chance: chance encounter, then taking chances with fate.
The Typical Modern Relationship Approach
If the “chance encounter” first results in no hurt feelings in either party for being “hit on” by the other, then the fledgling couple discusses superficial topics that are potentially non-threatening. They move to this level in hopes the initial physical attractions will be followed by attractions of personality, often distorting their interests and attributes to make them fit with their potential partner. Finally – often sooner than later – they decide to “play around” and see how things work out before they move together. More religious couples may decide to marry quickly, driven by their passions to enter wedlock (nice term) before they even know each other well enough to form the foundation for a committed relationship. Again, everything is put on chance. For persons who want more in life than just playing around, with endless cycles of excitement, loneliness and grief, there are approaches to courtship that are more conscious, deliberate and effective.
Here, I shall outline some essential perspectives not covered in many of the most current guides on the subject of dating and courtship. First, as discussed in earlier column installments (available on my website), it is important to learn what most of us did not learn as part of our formal education: relationship skills are essential to successful dating and courtship. Then you must develop the courage to be vulnerable-enough to cut-to-the-quick when encountering a potential partner. Dr. Phil McGraw’s Love Smart is a recent useful handbook on the methodology of courtship basics, because it details exactly that: no wasting time with useless small talk.
Vulnerability and Intimacy
The willingness to be vulnerable requires that you present yourself exactly as who you are, in total honesty. If one desires true intimacy, and sexuality is but a small component of intimacy, then vulnerability is the most essential component of intimacy. One is intimate with another when he or she feels completely free to expose their whole being, without holding back due to fear of rejection. So many times over the years, I have heard clients say they just want to find somebody – a “soul mate” with whom they can connect on the deepest levels. There is a process of awareness that can be useful once the relationship skills are ready and the courage for vulnerability and honesty are honed to a level of readiness. This process involves developing a relationship following the four dimensions of human experience.
These are real dimensions, involving different energetic levels from a quantum physical perspective, though the current experience of most of us limits awareness of the true depths of these concepts. Nevertheless, we can still practice them in principle.
We are not just physical beings. We are physical, emotional, mental and spiritual beings – with each level (or dimension), in turn, expressing a more refined aspect of our existence and coming closer to what we would call our essence. True compatibility requires true intimacy. True intimacy involves a connection on all of these levels, beginning first with the most refined levels and moving down to the physical level only as compatibility is achieved at the higher levels.
Courtship or relationship-building that has the highest potential for a lasting relationship requires patient, conscious interactions beginning from the most refined level and working downward. This means the relationship is built by establishing compatibilities from the most refined, least dense, or spiritual level; then working down to the densest or physical level. If this approach sounds reminiscent of the “old-fashioned” ways of courtship, compared to “modern day” approaches, you are not off the mark. The problem with “modern day” approaches is the amount of suffering and damage done to participants in such relationships.
Modern Courtship and Suffering
Today, typical relationships are literally built upside down! That is to say, physical attraction is given the first and primary emphasis, followed in turn by the other three levels – if followed to any degree at all. How does this happen?
It is natural for relationships to begin with physical attraction. Our hormones are the most powerful drugs in human experience – and they come “pre-installed” to work from the inside! We also learn early-on that our control of our hormones is directly tied to how much we decide to stimulate them. Since our culture gives us more than enough examples to illustrate this point, I will avoid further detail here – except to emphasize that we have the power to decide the level of sexual stimulation in a developing relationship.
In our “everything-is-up-for-grabs,” “take-it-when-you-can-get-it” society, it is common for a developing couple to “go-for-it” in the sexual arena, with the idea that when sex is good, everything else will be better. Not so. Nothing in human experience has more potential for addiction than sex. When a couple establishes sexual involvement before establishing compatibility at the emotional, mental and spiritual levels, they are opening themselves up to the possibility of an addictive, codependent, bond between each other that leads to every level of lying and self-deception. Nobody will admit it, but nobody wants to give up the sex – even when the sex becomes ruined by all the conflicts that arise out of the relationship incompatibilities. Please understand, I’m not preaching or judging; I’m talking about suffering. The original purpose behind religious and courtship traditions warning against approaching relationships from a sex-down agenda has everything to do with protecting people from self-destructive practices. Some folks learn from the teaching; some by hard experience – but the important thing is that we learn. So, here are the essentials of establishing relationship compatibilities, in the natural order of the dimensions of human experience.
If they are honest from the first encounter – meaning no game-playing – a prospective couple will each understand their own, and their partner’s, intentions for continuing communication. They will recognize their physical attraction for each other, acknowledging it, but not letting their hormones override their need to establish compatibilities on all other levels. From this point on, they spend time with each other, a process popularly called dating. The emphasis will be on communication and understanding each other, even while participating in fun activities that meet their interests. They will talk and share – a lot, because they establishing compatibility on each of these levels.
Spirituality encompasses much more than religious compatibility. Spirituality defines the true essence of a person’s existence. What gives a potential partner meaning and joy in life? What most moves him or her? How has the person answered ultimate questions? – because how we answer our ultimate questions (or not) determines how we live our lives. What does a prospective partner see as his or her reason for existence? What part does moral integrity, honor, willingness to sacrifice (and for what?) play in his or her life? How is spirituality reflected in lifestyle ideals (simplicity in nature or a mansion on the green)? Are religious/spiritual beliefs and spiritual practices compatible? How will all this relate to raising children? What is the value of service to each partner? Coming to mutual peace in all this establishes compatibility.
Does the couple have similar interests? Are their education levels compatible? Remember, education can be formal or self-taught. A sense of intellectual and interest compatibility is of importance here. Are beliefs and values compatible? (Don’t exclude political values.) What practices are employed for mental stimulation? Are educational goals compatible?
Emotional temperaments do not have to be the same, but both partners must experience a sense of compatibility in this domain. Each should have experienced and embraced the other in his or her full range of emotional expression. The development of tolerance, kindness and compassion are paramount in relating to each other. A successful approach for working through disagreements without alienation must be established. What are each person’s tastes and preferences for music and other arts?
Physical attraction is already established. What remains is to establish compatibility with respect to shared values regarding physical existence. Are interests in transportation, clothing and fashion compatible? Choice of lifestyle, including residence? Tastes in decorating? Handling finances and priorities for spending should be compatible. Sexual compatibility is the easiest of these to attain and, contrary to popular opinion, does not require “road-testing” as a preliminary to making a relationship commitment like marriage.
Putting It All Together
Notice how each of these dimensions blends into the other. Think about how the higher dimensions – especially the spiritual dimension – are more inclusive of lower dimensions, and especially how real happiness depends on fulfillment in the higher dimensions. The importance of a social dimension is not explored here, because establishing compatibility requires relationship skills. However, a compatible social life, including mutual friends, supportive (or non-interfering) extended family, compatible careers and work schedules are all important. A truly functional courtship approach is a conscious, patient process that takes as long as it takes – without jumping into premature marriage “to avoid sinning” and without jumping into sex to avoid the challenges of establishing a solid relationship. Research studies have determined, contrary to popular opinion, that couples who live together before marriage have a higher divorce rate. When a couple goes through a careful courtship process to establish compatibility, they are also likely to have also established a level of love and commitment that will provide the foundation for a lasting marriage. There are no shortcuts; no quick paths to pleasure without suffering.
Granville Angell (copyright 03/2006)
Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC is a licensed professional counselor with 30 years experience. His private practice, TRANSITIONS Personal & Family Counseling Services (www.transitions-counseling.com), includes a specialized sub-practice focusing on holistic, intuition-enhanced counseling and clinical hypnotherapy, called SoulMentors. He may be reached at 704-735-1554 or 704-276-1164.
To call TRANSITIONS/SoulMentors: (704) 276-1164