When I was 16, the book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” by Joshua Harris made the rounds through my youth group. The previously unpublished Christian writer offered a dissertation on why he chose to “court” instead of “date.”
Long courtships are not advisable.
Basically, the ideal Southern Baptist dating timeline looks like this: a six-month courtship, then tearfully hash out past indiscretions over dinner, pray about forgiving your future spouse of those past sins, pop the question, a six-month engagement, then your wedding day. The time between the first date and the wedding day is kept to a year to prevent the relationship from devolving into an affair, acting on purely animalistic desire, as is unavoidable on day 366.
To many of the girls this book read as a manual, a sort of “One Year Guide to a Christianized Disney Princess Wedding.” Except it left out all the critical warnings that most manuals include such as “don’t let your child put a plastic bag on his head,” or “make sure you and your future husband are actually compatible,” or “beware of Pinterest wedding board-induced proposal acceptance.”
I’ll admit that the concept was enchanting at the time. The timeline was a simple way to avoid being one of those women that appears unwanted to female youth groupers. You know the type: 26, seemingly unattached (no ring) and living with a cat or a female roommate. Could an education/a career/ a social life/ a personal relationship with God/individual goals really satisfy her more than a blissful Christian union could? According to the things I heard in the girls’ dorms a few years later, the answer was a definitive “no”.
Around the time, I was taking a break from my journalism degree to do a semester at a small undergraduate program offered at the seminary most closely associated with my Kentucky church. The second story lounge was painted a light lilac, and girls would congregate there—sprawling on the cream-colored couch and plushy carpet – and share romantic hopes, triumphs and disappointments, all in strange Christian-specific euphemisms: “I’m waiting for my Boaz”; “you should be letting God write your love story”; “God’s not going to bless her with someone until she focuses on becoming a Proverbs 31 wife.”
For that last one, women’s ministry courses were offered to teach domestic skills, such as making homemade detergent, sewing deconstructed dungarees into an apron, and latticing pastry strips to make a neat pie crust. Photos of these Pinterest-worthy accomplishments would be posted on Facebook or Tweeted with hastags such as #domesticswag. This seems innocuous enough, but the underlying message is really, “someone, please notice my efforts to become more desirable as a good, Christian wife.”
Back in the lounge, after attracting the attentions of one of the seminarians, the female students would talk about getting asked to coffee at the small campus café. The one year count-down clock began ticking right then and there. There was no room for casual dating. The young women were cautioned by the faculty and their wives not to let a man see them without a purpose. Obviously, that purpose was marriage.
However, the combination of a purpose and a timeline is not infallible at curbing the raging hormones and curiosity of teenagers and young 20-somethings who had their minds set on marriage, often before they even decided on their major.
I remember a girl whom the faculty had deemed a troublemaker from the start – probably because of her caramel-colored skin and nose ring. She was dismissed from the university after it was rumored that she and her boyfriend had “sinned together,” or at least gotten close.
Even one of the campus sweethearts was found in the tattered backseat of her boyfriend’s black Jeep Cherokee, which was parked in a lot behind the empty chapel.
She wasn’t dismissed though. The couple sought “counseling”, and they were married a few months later.
Young marriages are typical in my denomination. As I watched more and more couples walk down the aisle, before either party was really ready for their vows, the more tainted the illusion of the Christianized Disney Princess Wedding became—which only became worse when I heard from them in the months after their weddings.
A friend of mine who was engaged at 17, called her mom after her honeymoon crying. She asked between hiccupped tears, “Is this how it’s really supposed to be?” Parents of married children in the church were familiar with this phenomenon, and laughingly referred to the first year of marriage as God’s way to sandpaper out the couple’s selfish imperfections.
I would leave it to life and God to burnish our defects—instead of basking in the glow of an unrealistic courtship, only to be surprised on your honeymoon by the realization that you don’t actually know your spouse, and then counting on this stranger to turn you into the ideal mate you’re supposed to be.
It’s been years since I was the girl beguiled by the idea of a short courtship followed by a young marriage. I still don’t own a cat—but I do possess the dreams for a life that is greater than simply taking somebody else’s last name. I’m on my way to being an educated woman with loving friends and family, who possesses a strong personal faith. One of those women that I know that young girls in my church’s youth group are terrified of becoming – but one going into the future with her eyes wide open.