R. D. Langr is a stay-at-home dad to one beautiful daughter. He has a background in psychology and an intuitive grasp of relationships.
A Myriad of Meanings
Today the term courtship has nearly fallen out of use except within more traditional religious circles. Dating, on the other hand, has come to mean nearly any romantic relationship, even one that is not exclusive. Even more, we have "friends with benefits" and other "it's complicated" situations.
Yet so many people have trouble defining the type of relationship they're in, and it is likely for that very reason that both men and women fear the dreaded moment in the relationship when it comes time to “Define The Relationship”. This article is for that very purpose, that by understanding what defines a relationship, you may be able to decide what type of relationship you're in. This, in return, will hopefully lead to better communication between partners, and thus better relationships in general.
The Four Domains of Relationship
Every relationship, whether romantic or not, consists of four different domains—elements that when evaluated on a spectrum, can help one decide how far one is in their relationship.These four domains are on a scale of 1-10, and increase as the seriousness of one’s relationship increases.These four elements are Commitment, Intimacy, Formation/Vulnerabilty, and Community.
Commitment— A mutually binding, entrusting, or obligation by pledge or assurance. A Covenant. Different types of relationships have different levels of commitment. If you are married you (supposedly) have an unbreakable bond and obligation, whereas if you are coworkers in a large corporation you probably have very little obligation to one another.Likewise, at different stages in a romantic relationship, it will be appropriate to have different levels of commitment.This domain can be used to judge how far you should go in the intimacy domain—if you are only a 2/10 on commitment, you should not be a 5/10 in intimacy unless you're specifically looking for a fling. The goal of commitment is trust and security.
Intimacy— A mutual sharing of self in spirituality, physicality, emotion, and intellect. Intimacy is the heart and soul of any relationship. It is a sharing of yourself in different ways: Spiritually, in that you share a life of pondering something greater than yourself, physically in that you engage in things such as hugging, hand-holding, kissing, and at the highest level sex, emotionally as you become vulnerable with each other and readily talk about your moods, pet peeves, and joys, and finally intellectually as you share with each other your beliefs, philosophies and reflections on life. As you become more committed and serious, you can become more intimate and thus share more of yourself.Finally, the goal of intimacy is unity.
Formation/Vulnerability— A mutual cultivation of characteristics and attributes desired for healthy relationships. This element is slightly more ambiguous.Simply put however, the goal of any healthy relationship is to make each other a better person, and in romantic relationships, it is to prepare one’s self, and the other for marriage.To clarify, this is about calling each other to virtue and holiness, not about changing the other person.We should all aim to become better people, while still keeping the unique (and sometimes annoying) qualities that comprise our personality.If neither person is growing in the relationship, or especially if they are becoming “worse” people, it’s time to call the relationship off.
Community— The involvement of peers and family in assessing and affirming the quality of the relationship. We alone should not be the only judges of the quality of our relationship.Many times love (or passion) can blind us to how healthy our relationship actually is.Your family and friends are those people who know you best, so in some cases, even though you may not agree with their opinion, they may be able to see red flags that you cannot.One warning though--be careful that their advice is out of love and not seeking to sabotage something good out of jealousy.If someone gives you an assessment of your relationship, take it to prayer and reflection. Community involvement is essential, and as the relationship grows, the intensity with which you will come to know your partners community should grow as well.On the lower half of this scale you should be seeking some “back-up” and support from your friends whereas on the higher end of the scale your relationship should seek the approval of each of your families.You will be part of each other’s family for the rest of your lives, and so it is necessary that you can at least get along.
How these Elements Apply
First, I think an analogy is in order.It is important to realize that the purpose of any romantic relationship is to prepare ourselves and the other for marriage.However, this may occur in different ways.I like to think of dating as a “caravan” towards the destination of marriage, and courting as a “carpool”.When we’re dating we’re both discerning marriage, but in an individual sort of way.When we’re courting, we’re discerning marriage, together, with the person whom we’re in a relationship with.In dating the four domains tend to be on a lower scale (from 1-5) and in courting they tend to be on the higher scale (6-9) with marriage (hopefully) being a 10 in all areas.Also, it is important to realize that while some variation may occur, these four elements should grow relatively together—you should not be a 10 in intimacy while only a 2 in commitment.It’s like Monopoly; you can’t build a hotel on a property without first building houses evenly on the other ones.Finally, each relationship is different: some relationships go right from friendship into courting, whereas some linger in the dating stages for a long while.
When dating your primary focus is on you, asking, “what should I do to prepare myself for marriage” and “what traits am I looking for in my future spouse”. These are how the various elements play out in dating:
Commitment: When you’re dating, your commitment level should be about a 4 or a 5, meaning that you both understand that you’re in a “romantic friendship”. At this level of commitment you should be aiming to work out issues that would hinder normal friendship—you are committed to spending more time with each other, a moderate level of self sacrifice in activities and time management, and work through any minor fights without the threat of “leaving”. This level of commitment will be a primer for the more serious needs of a courting or marriage relationship.
Intimacy: As a 4 or 5, physical intimacy really can be hard to define, especially if you don’t believe in sex (a 10) before marriage. A four would probably be hand holding with kissing at about a 7 (the implications of this would be no kissing until courting). Spiritually you should be attending services or prayers with each other but not sharing too many of your spiritual struggles or repeated patterns of sin. You should call each other to holiness without being too invested in the struggles of the other person. Emotionally you should be more open to sharing your moods and allowing the other person to help you in bad times, but should not be leaning on the person too much for great emotional needs like depression, anxiety, or other psychological difficulties.
Formation: When dating you should focused on 1) finding what and WHO forms you best (i.e. What kind of person do you need to be with), 2) knowing IF you’re even supposed to be married, and 3) knowing what you need to do in order to be a better spouse. Because the formation is still in the low numbers (4-6) you should be addressing general issues and not focusing (as much) on addressing the issues of your significant other (although we are called to help ALL people be better people, just in different fashions).
Community: Low-level community focuses on being accountable to and involved in friends and peer groups. An unfortunate amount of people, when they start dating, begin to neglect their friends and other relationships. That extreme exclusivity is not healthy.
When courting your primary focus is on the relationship in general, asking, “is this the person I’m supposed to married”, “how can we make both of us the best spouses”, and “what do we need to work on in our relationship”. These are how the various elements play out in courtship:
Commitment: When you’re courting, your commitment level should be about a 7 or a 8, meaning that you both understand that you’re in a “committed” but not absolutely binding relationship. At this level of commitment you should be working out the more serious issues in your relationship—you are committed to spending more time with each other than a dating, but less than a married couple. This requires a slightly higher level of self sacrifice in activities and time management and you may actually start to plan a good amount of your schedule around this person. Finally, you should be able to work through any moderate to serious fights without the threat of “leaving”. However, if you are constantly fighting about serious or life changing things, it may be a sign that this person isn’t right for you. This level of commitment will be preparation for the more serious needs of a marriage relationship.
Intimacy: As a 7 or 8, physical intimacy can STILL be hard to define. Kissing may be considered about a 7. Concerning spirituality, it may be appropriate to share about and help each other through some of your more common spiritual struggles and patterns of sin. Still, be prudent about this and assess your relationship. You should call each other to holiness but not giving too much of yourself spiritually if you are still discerning marriage. Emotionally you can begin to lean on each other more for emotional support in difficult life situations like family death, personal illness, or other crises. You should be able to bear each other’s burdens more than if you were dating, but remember to seek professional help in things such as mental illness. Just because your partner loves you doesn’t mean you can both deal with it without certain tools.
Formation: When courting you should focus on 1) if the person you’re with is the one you should marry, 2) making yourself and your potential spouse the best person possible, and 3) learning how a healthy relationship (and marriage) should look concerning communication, intimacy, and commitment. Because the formation is now in the high numbers (7-8) you should be addressing specific issues and helping your partner wok on theirs as well. You should also be working on issues that affect your relationship as a couple.
Community: High-level community focuses on being accountable to and involved in not only friends and peer groups, but especially to the family’s of both partners. The couple should maintain interactions with friends, but at the courting stage should be getting to know each other’s family and eventually the two family’s should meet. This aids in accountability, peaceful relationships among families, as well as helping you understand how your partner grow up and was raised.
The Importance of Each
While some would say that courting is an old fashioned tradition out of style in today's world, other's would say that dating itself serves no purpose as it not intrinsically geared toward marriage. However, I believe that both dating AND courtship are important and serve their purposes in different stages of life and the relationship. Every relationship is different and so they will all follow different patterns--these numbers aren't necessarily fluid and contiguous. If you've been friends with someone for years and then decide to enter a relationship, you may start off right at the courtship levels. If you're meeting someone for the first time and are interested in dating them to get to know them better, you may start out with dating level numbers, but with the purpose of courtship (Are they the one?). For teenagers, healthy (and sometimes supervised) dating can help them form healthy relationships, set boundaries, and find what they're looking for in a future mate. For everyone who believes not all people are supposed to be married, dating serves the function of helping to decide if marriage is for you.
Courtship, on the other hand, provides a safe accountability for discerning marriage with a person. Involving the family helps the transition go more smoothly for all parties involved and will help foster a loving extended family environment in the future. For those who believe that sex and other physical boundaries are best saved for marriage, the accountability of friends and family can help the relationship's integrity.
© 2012 R D Langr