The Courtship Marriage

This starts with a really simple premise.  I begin by rejecting “forever answers.”[1]  He says, “Will you marry me?” meaning, “Will you love me forever?”  She says “Yes.” Meaning “Yes, I will love you forever.”  (I know that’s the truth of it; I’ve seen the movies thousands of times.)  I reject that meaning because I know that this is not the first relationship he and she have experienced—they had parents, for instance— and they both know relationships don’t work that way.

courtship 4She says yes because she has been courted.  She has no idea how she is going to react to “not being courted.”  We do, of course, but she doesn’t.  If we assess this situation as one where he will get the responses he wants because he has been “testing the waters” as the relationship developed and has been “making progress” toward that “Yes,” then we are dumbfounded when he stops using the strategy that has been so successful up to now.  Apart from the fact that it requires attention and effort, why would he stop checking on how they are doing and stop planning for the progress they can make together?

The premise, apparently, is that “reality” is fixed at the time he asks the question and she answers affirmatively.  There is a much more realistic premise, of course: she will continue to say yes if she continues to feel that she is being courted.  This isn’t really the kind of question the courts will ever decide.

The danger to the courtship marriage[2] is not that she will start saying No.  It is not even courtshipthat he will stop asking—although that is an important mechanism.  It is that the question will recede into the fog of living a complicated life, so that it no longer seems an urgent question and if he asks it anyway, she will not say yes or no.  She will say, “What?”[3]

In the kind of marriage I am calling a “courtship marriage,” it is understood that that initial Yes isn’t going to last forever.  It needs to be asked over and over and for it to be a meaningful question, i.e., the context within which it can be meaningfully asked needs to be sustained.  Most often, it is not necessary to use words to ask the question.  The question is implicit in all the work that goes on to make sure that the marriage has all the room it needs to grow and all the focus it needs to be seen clearly.

courtship 2Let’s look at the “room to grow” argument.  And it does happen sometimes that providing the room the marriage needs in order to keep growing means cutting back on the room other interests would otherwise take.  If you do it right, your marriage is going to grow.  No matter whether you do it right or not, you are not going to get more than 24 hours in a day.  That means that if some things become more prominent, other things will need to become less prominent.  That’s not “advanced marriage;” that’s arithmetic.

And now the focus argument.  I was thinking of photography when I included the provision about focus.  There is a focal plane—long or short.  That means you can give a marriage a kind of attention that is “too close” and one that is “too distant.”  For me, that metaphor translates into “too detailed” and “too general.”  You need to put the marriage, in the picture you are taking, where you can see all the things you need to see to help to shape it.  You don’t need to see everything and I think, based on some years of experience, that trying to see too much detail is a bad idea.

All that to say that the context in which the “will you love me” question can be meaningfully asked, needs to be maintained.  That has implications for giving the marriage room to grow and it has implications for how to focus on it.  So, given these considerations, the question will not become irrelevant.  And if it continues to be a relevant question, then it needs to keep being asked.


First, because you and your wife are not the people you were the last time she said Yes.  Thomas Jefferson thought “every twenty years” would be good timing for a political revolution because it was wrong for one generation to have to live with the political decisions of an earlier generation.  I’d have to say that I don’t have Jefferson’s appetite for political revolution, but I do agree that “the consent of the person”[4] cannot be reliably passed from one time to another.  You are not married to the person who said Yes the last time you asked, and if you want a courtship-style marriage, you need to secure the enthusiastic consent of the person you are married to today.

Second, because asking the question and getting a thoughtful answer is the best way I courtship 3know to keep the marriage strong.  As I said earlier, the great danger is not that she is going to say, “Actually…no.”  The great danger is that she is going to say, “Oh yeah…that again.”  If the context of the question is not urgent, than the question itself is going to head over to autopilot, the graveyard of marriages that were once good.

Finally, I confess that I have written this from the standpoint of the husband because that is who I am.  It isn’t that I don’t know that the wife’s part is as important as the husband’s.  What I know for sure is that the question cannot be held in place unless both partners hold it.  I know a woman who responds with pleasure to being courted by her husband is very likely going to continue to be courted.  I know that if she will continue to teach him what kinds of courtship work best, he will continue to get better at it.[5] Husbands are insensitive sometimes, but we aren’t stupid.  And I know that the wife can elicit the question from her husband even when he wasn’t thinking of asking it.

I know those things.  I just know them the way a spectator knows them; not the way a player knows them.

Marriages also fail because bad things happen.  I know that’s true.  I just don’t know how to keep bad things from happening.  This piece is about what I do know, which is how important it is to keep paying attention so the most important relationship of my life doesn’t just drift away because I stopped paying attention to it.


[1] I’m working with “Leave it to Beaver” era presuppositions: heterosexual marriage, marriage as a distinct and honored institution, and long-term romantic interaction as a distinct possibility.  Romance is possible in an ongoing way if you keep putting resources into the emotional account  that sustains the marriage in the same way that ongoing solvency is possible if you keep putting money into your bank account.
[2] It might be worth pausing to say that the kind of relationship I am calling “the courtship marriage” is not the only kind of good marriage.  I know there are other kinds of good marriages that don’t look like this at all.  But this is the kind I like best.
[3] The classic all-time what was given by Tevye’s wife Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, whose first answer is “What?,” followed by “You’re a fool.”, and eventually by “I suppose I do.”
[4] The marital equivalent of the “consent of the people.”
[5] Otherwise, he will “court” her in the style he understands best, whether she actually likes it or not.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Love and Marriage and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.