We are lost in a romantic wasteland. People have no idea how to get married anymore.
Michael Gerson wrote a great column a while back about the devastating effects of the loss of a courtship narrative--the script that people used to live by: you meet someone, you ask her out, you date for a while, you propose, you marry. The purpose of dating was to lead to marriage.
Now most young people consider marriage as something for "older people", not something for those in their twenties. So we have a whole generation stuck between childhood and adulthood, who have reached sexual maturity but not relational maturity. And they don't know how to make that jump.
In the absence of a courtship narrative, young people have evolved a casual, ad hoc version of their own: cohabitation. From 1960 to 2007, the number of Americans cohabiting increased fourteenfold. For some, it is a test-drive for marriage. For others, it is an easier, low-commitment alternative to marriage. About 40 percent of children will now spend some of their childhood in a cohabiting union.
How is this working out? Not very well. Relationships defined by lower levels of commitment are, not unexpectedly, more likely to break up. Three-quarters of children born to cohabiting parents will see their parents split up by the time they turn 16, compared with about one-third of children born to married parents. So apart from the counsel of cold showers or "let the good times roll," is there any good advice for those traversing the relational wilderness? Religion and morality contribute ideals of character. But social science also indicates some rough, practical wisdom.
He also says that people who marry after age 27 tend to have less happy marriages, likely because people are more set in their ways, or they have more baggage.
I find most dating and cohabitation that they say is a "practice for marriage" is really more like a "practice for divorce". Think about it: what's important about marriage is not the fact that two people live together; it is that two people are committed to each other. What categorizes divorce is two people who were once in love now deciding to separate. In other words, divorce is based on a lack of commitment; an assumption that a relationship that was once close can deteriorate to the point that it is better to separate.
Separation is not easy. I remember plenty of heartbreaks when I was 18 and 19, and they hurt. I don't think we're supposed to feel that way. And yet every time we break up with someone whom we once loved, we teach our hearts how to recover. And studies show that we learn to protect our hearts more, so that we're not vulnerable the next time. We aren't practicing for commitment at all when we live together and then break up; we're learning how to guard our hearts and how to live out short relationships. That's not healthy.
So what should we teach our kids? I think we have to return to the old courtship narrative, as hard as it is for teens in this texting world. One 14-year-old boy very close to my family is currently having girl troubles. He took a girl to the grade 8 graduation dance, and started "dating" her after that, which as near as I can figure consisted of texting "Wassup?" to her several times a day, and occasionally hanging out. They didn't "date", as we used to, by going to a movie or out for a walk or something.
That relationship is now over, so he's looking for another girl. But what is he going to do with that girl? They don't actually know how to have a relationship that involves talking and getting to know each other, because it seems to me that many teens aren't interested in the "person" as much as they are in the "relationship". This brings us to our first point:
1. Teach Children, from a Young Age, that Dating is for Marriage
There is no point in this kind of "pseudo-relationship" that my 14-year-old friend has, and as a parent, I have told my children from the get-go that the only point of dating is marriage, and so you shouldn't date until you're ready to marry. Then, when you do start dating, you have to get to know the person to see whether you want to be with them. If you don't, you end it. You don't date just "because they're fun to be with" even though you could never marry them. That's not what dating is for.
What if no one else feels that way, and they're all by themselves in a social wasteland? So what? Honestly, who needs to date at 14 or 15? And if their friends don't get that, they need some new friends. Find a youth group where at least some healthy spiritual kids hang out, where they can find peers. Teach a youth group if you need to and talk about proper dating! And raise your kids to believe in courtship again.
I have seen some encouraging cultural signs recently. I love the line that Taylor Swift put into her song "Love Story", where Romeo tells Juliet "I talked to your dad, go pick out a white dress..." He acknowledges that he asked her dad for permission. And I've seen that in a couple of other places, too.
We need to teach our kids that the only viable and justifiable reason to date is to marry. Cohabitation is not an option. And it's tough if your family, like mine, have people who do cohabitate. What we tell our girls is that you can't expect non-Christians to act as Christians, and so we must never, ever judge them. We just have to love them on their terms. And I do love them! I pray that they will find real commitment and real joy together (and I have seen that happen in one couple who did marry). It is, nevertheless, a fine line because you want to tell kids that it's wrong without encouraging them to think badly of relatives. But don't shy away from it! Kids need to know, from a young age, what their futures should look like. Be very clear on this courtship narrative.
2. Teach Children to Communicate
Believing in marriage, though, isn't enough. They also have to learn how to communicate. So many teens and even young adults date almost exclusively through cell phones and Facebook now, and you can't base a marriage on that.
That's why it's so important to encourage your children, from as young an age as possible, to have face-to-face friends. As they become teens, keep encouraging that face-to-face contact. Have friends over for sleepovers. Make your house the hangout. Invite friends home after church. Have kids over after school. And while the kids are at your house, try to enforce some technology-free time. Don't let them just watch movies or play video games. Actually encourage them to do something that involves talking, whether it's a craft together or hanging out in their bedroom (for same sex friends) or whatever.
Courtship is supposed to be about really getting to know someone, but in our world we have lost the art of getting to know people as technology as replaced our social relationships. Teach your kids how to talk to each other.
3. Teach Children to Discern
Finally, ask your children what they think of their friends. Too often we hang out with people uncritically because, like my 14-year-old friend, the point is to have a relationship; the point is not the person. And so teens tend to make friends for the sake of having friends, or date for the sake of having a "boyfriend".
Encourage your children to think about who their really good friends are. Who do they feel able to share their hearts with? Who do they think is more shallow? Who is fun to be with, but you can't really trust him or her with your deepest thoughts? Who really does love God, and who is just putting on a show?
You don't want to gossip, obviously, but I think having conversations with your children about what makes a good friend, and who best exemplifies that, helps your child to start thinking about such questions like, "am I actually enjoying being with this person?" So often we spend time with people because we're grateful someone likes us, but we don't take the time to ask if we like them.
If you want your child to choose a good spouse, they have to learn to discern about good and bad relationships. So teach them this, and it's more likely you'll appreciate their ultimate choice!
What about you? Do you have any advice on how to encourage your kids in courtship? Let's talk about it!
About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.