I’m not sure what’s worse: falling for a great guy but having no idea where the relationship’s headed or having no prospects in sight. Both are frustrating. And both leave you feeling no closer to marriage than when you started.
I guess at least with the “I’ve fallen for someone great” option, you get the benefit of losing your appetite and having your clothes fit better. And you have the hope that at some point, he’ll commit.
Still, abiding stalled relationships is no way to spend your most marriable years. But it seems to be the way things are. “Today there are no socially prescribed forms of conduct that help guide young men and women in the direction of matrimony,” write Amy and Leon Kass in their book Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar . “[T]here are no known explicit or even tacit social paths directed at marriage…. For the great majority the way to the altar is uncharted territory. Those who reach the altar seem to have stumbled upon it by accident.”
It wasn’t always this way.
From Steps to Stalled
In her book Why There Are No Good Men Left, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead explains how, for centuries, Western societies had well-established courtship norms to help young people select mates. She called that The Marriage System and said of it, “It has established norms, practices and occasions that help men and women meet, get to know each other, learn about each other’s character, habits and interests.” Think balls and parties — so prominent in Jane Austen novels. “To be fond of dancing,” wrote Austen in Pride and Prejudice, “was a certain step toward falling in love.”
The problem, she notes, is the erosion of these customs and traditions, of “the system [that] sought to promote and regularize romantic courtship.” Though some vestiges of courtship remain, most are faint memories that have been replaced by what she calls The Relationship System. This system is designed not to foster life-long marriage but serial relationships. Noted as much for the breakup as for the beginning of a new relationship, it’s characterized by serial heartache.
In the old days, women recognized where they were in their progress toward marriage — the behavior of their man, in view of cultural expectations, gave them the much-needed clues. As Dafoe Whitehead explains it, “Romantic courtship … is organized as a linear progression, or ladder…. Each step becomes progressively more public. Each rung has greater institutional recognition and social support. Each level moves the couple higher up the ladder toward marital commitment.”
In The Relationship System, however, each change in a relationship’s status is just that, a change. From friends, to boyfriend/girlfriend, to lovers, to cohabiting couple, each stage is no further from, or closer to, marriage. It just is. The problem is that many women think they’re in the traditional courtship system where each change is actually progress toward marriage. But the erosion of societal norms and expectations has given men permission to take what they can get, with little expected in return.
It leaves traditionally-minded women in quite a state, “like being an Amish woman at a rave.”
I was that “Amish” girl. As I’ve written before, Steve Watters and I were best friends for a year, but he showed no signs of moving us toward anything more. Despite our deep emotional intimacy — something that in Jane Austen’s day would have surely guaranteed a proposal — we were stalled.
I needed to let Steve know I wanted to be part of the traditional system that moved with purpose toward marriage — and not just flounder in The Relationship System — I had to Pull a Ruth. (That’s a whole other story.) Thankfully, he was part “Amish” himself. It just took some encouragement and prayer to remind him of his roots — and his true desires.
I think a lot of Christian guys are like Steve was. Something in them longs for adventure, partnership, purpose. They just don’t realize that one of the surest ways to achieve those desires is to marry well.
So what’s a marriage-minded girl to do, surrounded as she is by guys who’ve been taught to think they’re part of The Relationship System?
Testing for Progress
Dr. Scott Stanley, a lead marriage researcher at the University of Denver, says that since we no longer have societal norms and expectations for marriage in place, what a woman needs are some tests; ways she can discern where a relationship is headed without initiating the conversation-stopping DTR (“define the relationship” talk).
Her task is two-fold: find out if her man is interested in, and capable of, moving toward marriage and re-establish marriage as the purpose of dating.
One of the best ways to do that is to head to the movies.
Why movies? Because they create a natural opportunity to discuss things that might not otherwise come up till months into the relationship; things like parenthood, marriage, finances, faith amidst trial, commitment to work, moral certainty under pressure, and more.
If you choose your movies wisely — for more than sheer entertainment — looking for stories that have something useful to say about real life, you may just get the chance to ask some questions of your date that on their own would seem pushy, forced or simply out of place. A good movie puts these issues on the table. They’ll never replace the ladder Dafoe Whitehead discusses, but they can be a powerful tool for moving a relationship forward.
Back when we were just friends, Steve and I would go to a movie then spend the next several hours talking about it. Whether it was a good story, good casting, good cinematography — and how the tale applied to our lives. We always looked for the applications. And if there weren’t any, or any that seemed realistic, we talked even longer; About how the director had missed an opportunity to inspire, instruct or inform.
We watched some good stories: Toy Story, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Sabrina, Spitfire Grill. But even if we had chosen a stinker, especially one with questionable morals, it would have been useful for observing the other’s response. I’d never want to marry a guy who didn’t respect my need to get up and exit a bad movie — or better yet, initiate leaving.
A Mighty Movie
The week Emma opened in movie theaters, Steve Watters and I were still just friends. The movie was part of 1996’s summer lineup; a summer marked by the hijinx of not knowing where our relationship was headed. We’d been spending countless hours together every day, growing in emotional intimacy. Still, despite my hopes, I was no more certain of a future with Steve than when I’d first met him.
Since we were both fans of period pieces, we decided to head to the movies. The more the story unfolded — quintessential Jane Austen heroine attempts to play matchmaker, clumsily taking the love lives of her friends into her own hands — the more I could see us in the characters. By the end of the film, Emma, convinced that her matchmaking abilities are woefully inadequate, finds her own love in her longtime friend Mr. Knightly. In fact the story so closely resembled ours that I was at once ecstatic and afraid to speak. Surely he saw it. Surely he knows without a doubt that I am Emma and he, Mr. Knightly.
I didn’t dare break the silence that filled the car ride home. I didn’t want to risk breaking his train of thought; which I was certain focused on us and where we were headed and how our story so closely paralleled the one we’d just watched on the big screen.
It was a quiet ride home. He didn’t say much. I still remember racing up to my room after he dropped me off. I could barely breathe.
The film helped me see once and for all that Steve was “my Mr. Knightly.” It was only a day or two later that I finally “pulled a Ruth.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Next time the guy you’re romantic with says, “What should we do tonight,” why not suggest dinner and a movie? Or better yet, a movie and then dinner. With all that fodder for conversation, there’ll be a lot more on the table than just food.
Copyright 2005 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.