Understanding the differences and similarities between the social structures Christians use to make the journey into marriage can be confusing. That’s why I’m happy to present something unseen thus far in the discussion of Christian matrimony: a chart comparing the basic steps dating, Courtship, and betrothal use to move two people from platonic friendship to marriage.
Take a look at the chart to see some of the similarities and differences between the three methods. The chart shows how each social structure starts from platonic friendship (at the bottom) and progresses to marriage. Below you can find some more of my thoughts.
Even if you don’t read through all of my below comments, please share the chart after taking a look at it. I think it will be helpful for everyone to have more clarity about how all these different ways of getting married work. Thanks! And please leave a comment so I can know what you guys think of the chart and the different structures for moving toward marriage! What sticks out to you as you look over the chart?
Some General Thoughts
Every marital relationship once started as a man and woman who were uninvolved with each other’s lives but proceeded to make the journey of growing closer to the point of marrying. In the modern west, this process typically follows the pattern of the couple moving through levels of Casual Romantic Interest, Committed Romantic Interest, and Marital Anticipation, culminating in Marriage. This chart shows how dating, Courtship, and betrothal each navigate the process of moving through the levels of relational investment.
One thing I ask you to remember is that this chart depicts the general, basic structure that each method uses as far as my studies have given me insight. Variations and exceptions can occur when people make changes in their own lives and circumstances. I’ve also observed some people hybridizing characteristics of dating and Courtship structures to create a result that lands between the two base structures. So if the structures outlined here don’t quite match what you’ve experienced, observed, or promoted, please understand that my aim isn’t to make an exhaustive presentation of the every possible permutation of the various paths into marriage. But please comment and let me know your thoughts on how the chart squares with matrimonial methods you’ve encountered!
Another thing I should mention is that arranged marriage is missing from this chart. When I say “arranged marriage” I mean that the individual getting married has accepted the decision of someone else as to whom he or she will marry. In an arranged marriage, the person getting married doesn’t participate in choosing his or her spouse. He or she simply accepts the choice of spouse that has been made by another (typically parents). In dating, Courtship, and betrothal, the individual getting married has the final say in whom he or she will marry. Parents, counselors, and friends typically weigh in on the decision to one degree or another, but, ultimately, the bride and groom have the final say on spouse selection.
Thoughts on Dating
Ah, dating, that 1950s-hearkening process of going out and going steady. Dating begins the path toward marriage with casual dating. Casual dating is where guys and girls will go on dates together with very low relational expectation and commitment. That means that neither person commits to any definite end of their relationship or has any such claim over the other. Either can refuse to continue going on dates with the other at any time. Casual dating also is not exclusive. Either person can go on dates with other people without committing a wrong against the other person (i.e. “cheating”). The purpose of casual dating is to allow two people to interact with each other and get to know each other better than natural activities would otherwise allow. Some perspectives value casually dating many different people because the experience of becoming familiar with different people and personality types allows a person to make a more informed decision of what kind of person he or she should marry. For more on casual dating see The Good And Bad Of Casual.
Once a particular man and woman decide that they want to have a deeper romantic relationship, they enter what I call a “Committed Romantic Relationship.” In the 1950s they would have said they were “going steady.” In today’s vernacular, we would say they’re “in a relationship,” they’re “boyfriend and girlfriend,” or that their relationship is “Facebook official.” This relationship is exclusive and recognized by their surrounding community. If either of them even casually dates another person, it’s typically considered a form of “cheating.” You can be sure there will be jealousy. The couple will continue in their committed dating relationship until they either (1) decide they want to get married or (2) want to break up. (Note: In modern America, many people just start living together after settling into a long-term committed romantic relationship rather than proceeding with marriage. Even though I acknowledge this happens, I don’t condone it. The Christian’s aim should be to commit to marriage or commit to serving God in dedicated singleness. Indefinitely sitting on the fence isn’t a virtue.)
If the couple decides to marry then there will be a proposal, after which the couple are considered engaged. In this stage, they are committed to marrying, but either could call off the wedding. While this would typically be heartbreaking, it wouldn’t be considered a moral offense.
At their wedding, the couple will marry and be thereafter recognized as husband and wife.
Thoughts on Courtship
The biggest structural difference between dating and Courtship is that Courtship avoids the period of casual dating. This is because many Courtship proponents saw that many harms people experienced while dating came from the behavior of having casual dating flings that went nowhere and only wasted time, energy, and emotions. As a result, Courtship developed without any particular space in which to have casual romantic interaction. Men and women get to know each other through platonic interactions, usually in group settings. It’s from these platonic interactions that a man determines if he wants to pursue a committed romantic relationship with a woman. Now, it’s possible that a man and woman will realize they feel romantic interest in each other before they reach the point of formally recognizing it at the level of committed romantic interest. But in Courtship structure, it’s typically expected that romantic interest won’t be expressed until the couple is ready to commit to a relationship.
If a man decides to pursue a committed relationship with a woman, he must typically first receive the approval of the woman’s father or spiritual guardian. He may then invite the woman to enter the relationship. If she agrees, the couple then begins a Courtship, an exclusive, committed romantic relationship. The two are then recognized as “boyfriend and girlfriend” or “in a Courtship.” The strict purpose of the Courtship is for the man and woman to determine whether they will marry. If either decides he or she will not marry the other person then he or she is expected to immediately end the Courtship. Having a long, drawn-out Courtship is typically frowned upon since a relatively quick and decisive advance to marriage is valued. Remaining in a Courtship indefinitely without intention to move into marriage is considered unacceptable.
If the two decide to marry then there will be a proposal, after which the two will be considered engaged as in dating. As in dating, either may call off the engagement without being considered to have committed a moral offense.
The couple’s engagement culminates in marriage.
Thoughts on Betrothal
Betrothal is something of an odd-one-out of the three structures. In dating and Courtship, romance comes before marital commitment. Once the couple gets to the level of committed romantic interest they engage in romantic behaviors. Flowers, poetry, candlelit dinners… You know how it goes. But it’s possible their romantic relationship will end in breakup rather than marriage. Betrothal, on the other hand, puts marital commitment before romance. Because most Americans value having romantic affection for a person before committing to marriage, betrothal is the least-used of the three structures among modern, American Christians. However, because there is enough of a modern Christian demographic that prizes betrothal structure and believes it to have biblical superiority, I feel it’s worthy of comparison with dating and Courtship.
In betrothal, two individuals will consider whether they will commit to marrying each other before having established a romantic relationship. There’s some variance among betrothal perspectives as to how the conversation begins. In some cases, the prospective groom begins conversation with the woman’s father and the woman. In other cases, the father of the man and the father of the woman begin the conversation. Regardless of how the discussion begins, the key members explicitly discuss the prospect of the man and woman marrying. Considerations are usually highly pragmatic. Prospective spouses usually discuss theological beliefs and family expectations in order to evaluate the match. All this happens on a (formally, if not emotionally) casual level since, technically, the man and woman aren’t committed to any definite relationship with each other apart from friendship.
If the couple decides to marry then the man will make a formal proposal of marriage and the woman will formally accept. However, this doesn’t result in the couple being engaged and considered fiancees. Instead, they are considered betrothed. This means that each is fully committed to being fully wed in the future. This may be in the near future, and a wedding date will quickly be set. Or it may be in the more distant future, and the couple will remain betrothed without a wedding date set. The difference between engagement and betrothal is that a betrothal cannot be called off. Once the couple has become betrothed, they are considered to have made a solemn pledge to each other that they will follow through on their marital intentions. One of the reasons some Christians prize the betrothal structure is because it creates a space for the couple to begin romancing each other without fear of a breakup happening later. For better or for worse, each is morally required to marry the other. Betrothal’s response to cold feet is a pair of wool socks.
Eventually, the couple will reach their wedding day and marry. They are then fully recognized as husband and wife.
In creating this chart, I’m not trying to provide judgments as to whether any of these structures are better/worse than the others and why. I fully believe that God accepts marriages that come into being through any of these structures. There’s no biblical prescription for how marriages are supposed to begin.
There’s no biblical prescription for how marriages are supposed to begin.
The constant requirement of Scripture is that we pursue marriage while maintaining complete love for God and others. My hope for everyone is that every person will always act out of love and will give careful consideration as to why he or she chooses a particular way to approach marriage.
I really want to know what you guys think of these three structures! What stuck out to you as you looked at the chart and read the description of each structure? Please comment with your answer!
And, hey, click one of those little buttons to share the chart!