Dating vs. Courtship: What’s the Difference?


We read books like Little House on the Prairie, and in them, we would read about the courtship of the characters in the book and we think, Aw. How quaint. Courtship.

As the years passed from the days of Little House on the Prairie (the 1800’s) and America moved into the early 1900’s, the more formal practice of courtship was done away with and dating took over the pre-marriage scene.

But once again a shift has occurred, as the 1900’s have ended and the 21st century has emerged. With books like Josh Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and Eric and Leslie Ludy’s When God Writes Your Love Story, it’s not only parents choosing the courtship process for their children, but young adults choosing this for themselves.

Recently The Duggars, on their reality show, 18 and Counting, helped educate many of us as to how courtship works, as we watched their oldest son, Josh, propose to his girlfriend Anna. Although a family member expressed the viewpoint that she would much rather participate in the dating scene, the Duggar children all stated that they were choosing to participate in courtship rather than dating, although ultimately, their parents were not demanding that they do so.

While old-fashioned, horribly strict, and lacking in any form of fun and spontaneity to some, courtship to others is a refreshing return of purity and values.

So what is the different between courtship and dating? Is one better than the other?

The Reason for Courtship versus Dating

When a young couple participates in courtship, the reason is simple — they are planning on getting married. Dating, on the other hand, is not usually approached in that light. Dating, instead, is for fun and to get to know the person you are interested in, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will inevitably end in engagement and marriage.

A couple who begins to court does so only when they feel they are ready to be married. Both they and their parents believe the couple are ready for marriage financially, emotionally, logically, and spiritually. In the world of courtship, if you aren’t ready to be married tomorrow then you aren’t ready to begin courting.

The Relationship in Courtship versus Dating

How in the world does a couple get to know each other, then? those of us in the dating world wonder. Isn’t that a bit risky to begin a relationship with the intention of it ending in marriage if you haven’t had a chance to get to see what the person is like and find out if you are compatible with them?

With common sense, this seems like a worthwhile argument, and yet those in the courtship world believe that the couple gets to know each other in public and group settings, letting them see the other individual for who they really are. Dating is believed to be nothing other than putting on one’s best behavior for the sake of impressing another person, therefore lacking in authenticity of character. The strength of getting to know someone in social situations lies in the opinion that the other person is simply themselves because there is no one they are trying to impress or win over.

This authenticity can be achieved because in the courtship process, if there is an interest, it is not expressed until actual courtship begins. Without an interest and intention clearly expressed, the individuals are more likely to behave as they normally would than if they were aware that someone was observing them as a future spouse.

Dating approaches relationships differently. In dating, the couple doesn’t get to know each other and then begin to date. Instead, they date to get to know each other. While it can’t be ignored that spending time together, whether it’s activities or conversation, does help the couple get to know each other, very often in the dating relationship the group setting is minimal, and that leaves out a crucial aspect of being able to observe your partner as they relate and interact with others.

Parental Involvement in Courtship versus Dating

Jokes abound about dads waiting with shotguns as their daughter’s boyfriend arrives to pick her up for the first date, and to a degree, parents are involved in the dating process in that they have met the boyfriend or the girlfriend and given some strict instructions for the first date. As the relationship progresses, however, the parental involvement wanes and the teens are pretty much left on their own in the relationship.

In courtship, the parents are intricately involved in the entire process. One or both children will express any interest they have in the opposite sex to their parents first, seeking their counsel and advice on the matter. If the parent approves of their choice, it is then the guy’s responsibility to go ask the girl’s dad if he may court her.

Asking usually involves a detailed conversation with the girls’ father that includes what the boy’s convictions are, his intentions, the time frame he has in mind for the relationship, and how he plans on providing for the daughter. After this intense conversation the dad will either give his blessing or he will give the young man a set of goals that he wants to see him achieve first before he is deemed ready to enter a serious relationship.

When both parents approve, the relationship is then conducted in the parent’s presence the majority of the time. The couple interact with each other at each other’s home with the family surrounding them and interacting with them.

As the courtship progresses, the moms mentor the young women on how to be good wives, and the dads mentor the sons on how to be good husbands. If any concerns are noticed surrounding the relationship, parents will bring them up to the couple.

Time spent in Courtship versus Dating

If the couple who is courting spends time apart from their parents, it is never as an unchaperoned couple. The entire time period, from courtship to wedding day, is never spent in solitude as a couple, but instead has people present at all times.

This is much different than the world of dating, in which couples go out for extended periods of time alone with no one aware of their activities.

Physical contact in Courtship versus Dating

Dating often includes hand holding and kissing, and for many couples, extends into a sexual relationship as well. It is common, in today’s world of dating, that to date someone means you are also sleeping with them. To date and not have a physical relationship of any sort is almost unheard of.

Courtship is the polar opposite. There is little to no personal contact of any kind until the wedding day. Although some couples choose to hold hands, most will not even participate in this type of physical contact, choosing to reserve every bit of it for marriage.

Approaching marriage in this way flies in the face of the argument that we must know if we are sexually compatible with our future spouse. For those who practice courtship, they believe that because sexual purity is practiced before the wedding day, that will guarantee a special and beautiful sexual relationship within marriage.

Engagement Period

Because the couple who chooses to do courtship keeps the physical contact down to a bare minimum, and because that same couple is in love and anxious to be physical, and because sexual purity is so intrinsically important to that couple (and their parents), short engagements are typically practiced. This is for the purpose of ensuring purity of both body and mind.

Engagements are also much shorter for courting couples because of the simple fact that they did not enter the courting relationship until both of them were in a place where they were able to get married.

In the dating world, engagements can last for years. Couples typically date, get engaged, and then begin preparing for marriage financially. The process of marriage preparation is completely opposite in the two practices.

Which is Right: Courtship or Dating?

The answer is going to depend on your views of what the proper process is for preparing for marriage, the parental involvement level needed in that process, and convictions about sexual purity.

Those who think it’s ridiculous to hold off on any type of relationship with the opposite sex until one is ready for marriage and who have no issues with being involved sexually before marriage will scoff at the idea of courtship. They will not understand how a marriage built on courtship can be satisfying both emotionally and sexually when testing it out with the person did not exist beforehand and the parents were so intricately involved in the relationship.

People who adhere to sex only within marriage and view dating as a shallow and frivolous activity based on gratification, shudder to think that people enter the sacredness of marriage with that as a foundation. They wonder how marriage can be built on trust and strength with that as the lead in.

Both sides view the other as extreme and completely impractical and can’t fathom why someone would choose to practice differently than they have chosen. Each way believes their way is the right way and the other way is illogical, and even unhealthy. I have found that there is little agreement between the people in the two worlds.

What it comes down to, is each person needs to ask themselves, “What do I believe will lay the strongest foundation for a healthy marriage down the road?”

If the end result of dating or courtship is marriage, shouldn’t the marriage be the ultimate focus? Dating and courtship don’t last forever, but hopefully marriage does. So each individual must ask themselves what they feel is the best way to achieve a long-lasting and satisfying marriage. Whatever your answer is, that’s the path you need to take toward the altar.

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