Fine Romance: The Passage of Courtship from Meeting to Marriage
By Judith Sills, Ph.D.
It starts with "Can I buy you a drink?" It can lead to "Let's buy a house." It's called courtship, and for most of us it's an emotional upheaval.
This upheaval does not resemble in the least the romance you have been anticipating, the one in which you fall magically, instantly, and mutually in love. You've been envisioning a charming, imaginative seduction, followed by an eternity of passion, all gift wrapped in the security of devotion. You've been waiting to star in your own boy-meets-girl movie, complete with clever repartee and happy ending.
What's wrong with this picture? Well, nothing, so far as fantasies go. The sweetest thing about a fantasy is its ability to recreate the world to suit our personal preference. We need the surge of hope and energy our fantasies generate. The daydream of perfect love can be a better companion than a real-life boyfriend who is more faithful to the NFL than he is to you. The fantasy is a lot more attractive than the girlfriend who weeps when you argue and is jealous of your old friends.
But there is a risk attached to the fantasy of what will occur when you fall in love. The risk is this: Reality is so different from your mental image that you might not recognize the right relationship when it comes along or make it work once you've got it.
Developing love requires mental effort. It also takes tact, timing, and the ability to tolerate anxiety. The progression from infatuation to commitment, or from best buddies to true lovers, is a delicate one. It's a long process and we see it through with very few people in our lifetime. That process is courtship.
Courtship may strike you as an antiquated phrase. It stirs images of fathers in front parlors interrogating prospective suitors. Despite the dated associations, courtship is still the best word we have for describing the process between two people who are, however hesitantly, determinedly, or enthusiastically, developing a romantic relationship.
A Fine Romance is meant to offer a formal education in the principles of courtship. Each time two people meet and love, they don't invent anew the best way to develop a relationship. Every couple is influenced by the rules and requirements of the courtship process, whether they are aware of it or not. The ritual of courtship is as old as time and its stages are practically as predictable as the tides. So are its pitfalls, sore spots, and solutions.
Of Course You're Nervous
One aspect of courtship is guaranteed - anxiety. No matter where you currently stand on the desire for a mate, you are apt to find courtship an unnerving experience. Some men and women are doing nothing with their lives but looking frantically for a partner who will change everything. Others don't feel the least bit desperate, focusing instead on creating productive lives as independent adults. Oddly, no matter where we are on this continuum of neediness, when we get into a courtship we usually flounder. From the strongest of us to the most fragile, courtship tends to make us fall apart.
We are not all equally vulnerable to the anxieties of courtship, but we are all vulnerable to some extent. Finding someone to love who loves us in return is at the core of human happiness. Courtship is a primary path toward this love. When the goal is so crucial and the process seems so mysterious, how can we help but feel anxious?
Most of us would like to marry or remarry - someday, if it's right, if it all works out. Few of us have much of an idea of how to make it happen.
Often it will happen anyway. People pick their way through courtships every day without a clear understanding of what's happening to them. They get themselves off the courtship merry-go-round and into a marriage. If you ask them how they managed to work it out, they will otter a one-word explanation - love.
But much more often the courtship is interrupted. He never calls back, she loses sexual interest, he does something unforgivable, she becomes an insecure wretch, he meets someone new, she decides she never really fell in love. It's over.
For many of us the erratic progress of our love affairs is depressing. You want something to work out, but the development of love feels totally out of your control. You don't understand how relationships work, so you don't feel you can do anything to make them work. As a result, you may end up with a pattern of disappointing relationships that leaves you constantly stumbling over one of these spots:
You arc so afraid of rejection that you can't get started.
You begin every romance at a peak of excitement, but it's all downhill from there.
Love makes you more anxious than happy. As soon as you're interested, you start to worry. "I wonder how I'll mess this up. I always do." You turn into a doormat or a whiner.
You end up finding something wrong with everybody. You can't seem to help yourself. Suddenly you become hypercritical.
It seems as if you always get dumped, just when you get interested.
You only want the ones who don't want you.
Your lover won't make a commitment. You can't bring yourself to deliver an ultimatum.
You can't make a commitment. You worry that you could wake up five years from now and feel that you made a terrible choice.
You are longing to be married, but somehow you can't seem to meet the right person.
If you feel stuck in any of these patterns, you probably don't understand courtship. When you do, you'll see that, as with many other psychological processes, you can exercise some control over its outcome. Romance doesn't have to happen to you. You can steer it.
The first step toward understanding how courtship works is to free yourself of your fantasies of how it should work.
The Right Person Theory
The greatest obstacle to appreciating the hidden structure of courtship is that you've been taught that there is no such thing. Instead you've been encouraged to believe that falling in love and marrying is largely a matter of finding the right person. You believe you'll marry when the right person comes along. And, you've been assured, you will somehow "know" when it's right.
It's a seductive idea. In an increasingly technical, automated, and isolating society, it's a pleasure to trust some part of life to the magical, unknowable power of love. Love will find us, like Santa does on Christmas morning, no matter where we live or how hard we are to get to. When it does, it will be unmistakable, and it will change everything.
As delightful as the right person theory is, it is not particularly accurate. Contrary to our fantasies, love is not an event, it is a creation. A successful relationship is not the result of a fortuitous introduction. It requires the preparation, maturity, and emotional effort of two loving adults.
Most of us resist this idea with our whole hearts. We've spent our lives looking for Mr. or Ms. Right. We've worked out elaborate descriptions of what he will look like, how she will smile. We know in advance how our right person will think, dress, act. Then we move about the world trying to fit the people we meet to this mental checklist. The more detailed our mental image, the more efficient we believe we can be in finding love.
The problem is, love isn't something you find; it's something you develop. It's certainly true that love is easier to develop with some people than with others. In this loose sense, some people are more right than others, perhaps because their backgrounds are similar to ours, their looks more appealing, or their personalities more comfortable for us, at least initially.
It's also true that there are people with whom we have a magical instantaneous connection, the sense of having met one's soul mate, one's spiritual twin. But a soul-mate is not necessarily available, or even appropriate to be your mate. And no matter how right someone appears to be on paper, if either of you is not ready or skilled enough for courtship, nothing long lasting will occur. Successful courtship is less a matter of whom you choose than of the kind of relationship you are able to create.
Contrary to the right person theory, romance can develop with a lot more someones than you've allowed yourself to believe. Still, Mr./Ms. Right is the central myth of courtship in our culture. As such, it's the cause of much of the pain of romance; it's a dead-end street that leaves you helplessly trusting to luck when you could be actively creating happiness.
If you are a subscriber to the right person theory, be prepared for two serious problems in courtship: You may have a hard time coping with the normal doubts of romance, or you may get stuck in a no-exit circle of blame.
The central tenet of the right person theory is that if your choice of partner is right, you will know. Everyone has varying mental portraits of the love of their life, but each of these portraits has one thing in common: The right person will exorcise doubt. In your heart, you'll know it's right.
Except you usually don't. Or, if she knows it's right, he doesn't. Or, if she's having doubts and backing off, he's sure, but the moment she seems confident that she wants him, he turns off.
The fact is, you usually don't know for sure that you've found the right one. You feel desperately in love, but she's treating you like something she wipes her feet on . . . He's wonderful but he's all over you and suddenly you find you'd rather read a good book . . . The two of you fight all the time or can't seem to fight at all . . . You know you're in love, but your friends think you are ill. . . .
These are some of the normal doubts with which real courtship presents you. There is no Mr. Right, there's only Mr. Maybe. The second, more serious problem with the right person hypothesis is that it is potentially damaging to you. Searching for the right person inspires blame.
When a romance fails, it is perfectly reasonable to want to know why. If you believe that a successful relationship is a matter of connecting with the right person, you have only two alternatives for explaining failure: blame your partner or blame yourself.
Blame feels right. You are hurt or guilty, angry or regretful. Romantic failure is the ripest ground for self-loathing, man-hating, or misogyny.
Most of us start by blaming the other person. Male or female, we soothe our self-esteem by reflecting critically on his or her maturity, character, or personal style. He was too selfish, too spoiled, a Peter Pan. She was too pushy, too clinging, too greedy. She was looking for a daddy; he doesn't want a girlfriend, he wants a mother. She was a castrating bitch; he was a manipulative bastard.
If you have relatively little experience with romantic failure, you will find that placing the blame on the inadequacies of the other person will be a satisfying exercise. You will most likely heal your wounds, catalogue your errors in judgment, and continue your search.
These explanations can only work for so long. Several rocky courtships later, you will begin to have your doubts. More likely, your past lovers will blur together a bit, and you will be tempted to expand your circle of blame to include all men or all women. ("Women today are too aggressive." "Men only want mothers.")
You can firmly believe there's no one out there until your best friend gets married, your baby sister receives her engagement ring, and the office closes early for your secretary's bridal shower. While you might meet all these prospective spouses and assure yourself that none of them was someone you would want, nevertheless they plant seeds of doubt. Obviously for some people, the right one is out there. What's wrong with you?
You move right around the circle of blame and point the finger at yourself. It's easy to do. Something about you was just not right. But what?