Courtship, Part 2: What’s Important and What Isn’t

I explained in Part 1 why the idea of a parent-guided courtship was appealing to me. In that post I described the courtship process that I grew up expecting. Here I am going to focus on one aspect of that: the process by which the father vets his daughter’s prospective suitors. This is, after all, how the father is supposed to protect his daughter from a disastrous match by helping her choose a husband.

My father made a list, a list of qualifications that any young man would have to meet on order to obtain permission to court me. The list wasn’t all that long, but it was non-negotiable. Everything on that list could be placed in one of three categories: religious beliefs, political beliefs, and ability to provide. For my father, being a good husband meant having proper religious beliefs, proper political beliefs, and being able to provide.

My father’s vetting process really wasn’t all that intensive when compared to some. Some fathers influenced by the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements come up with lists of questions that run on for pages, or insist on getting to know the prospective suitor in a process through which the suitor must essentially first court the girl’s father – all before ever saying a word about it to the girl in question. The process of evaluating a potential suitor is something so discussed in Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull circles that Vision Forum offers several resources on the topic for parents.

The questions asked and the vetting process vary from family to family. This makes sense given that the ultimate authority in the Christian Patriarchy movement is not given to some distant leader but rather to each individual father. What I’m going to discuss here is a tendency I have seen toward valuing doctrinal purity over things like good treatment and the ability to carry on a healthy relationship. Because of the diversity in the practice of courtship, the severity of this problem may vary from case to case.

With that caveat, it seems to me that it is doctrinal purity and the ability to provide that matter most for fathers in the Christian Patriarchy movement when evaluating their daughters’ potential suitors. Even the questions that do relate to carrying on healthy relationships generally seem to simply go back to the proper gender roles endorsed by Christian Patriarchy – and in my father’s case, such questions did not exist at all.

I’ve written about this before, in a post called “What About Love?”:

I recently shared my father’s list of requirements with a valued friend of mine. She was completely taken aback. “You mean, there’s nothing about loving you or treating you well on that list?” she asked. Uh, no. I had never thought of it that way, but there wasn’t. It was all political and doctrinal purity and the ability to provide. She then told me that when she started getting serious with the man to whom she is now happily married, her father asked her only two things: “Does he love you?” and “Does he treat you well?” When she answered yes to both, he gave his hearty approval. To her father, it was love and good treatment that mattered, and everything else was optional.

This conversation made me see just how problematic my father’s list, and his valuing of political and doctrinal purity above all else, really was. After all, an awful, controlling, hateful, abusing man who only wanted to marry me to make me his servant would get my father’s blessing if he met my father’s political and doctrinal purity test and could provide for me. At the same time, my loving, adoring, hard-working husband was unable to gain my father’s blessing no matter how wonderful he was simply because he was a member of the wrong denomination and voted for the wrong political candidate. There is something seriously wrong with valuing doctrinal purity above love and kindness.

In other words, doctrinal purity matters more than the ability to carry on a healthy relationship, or even being a healthy and non-abusive person in general. I.e., doctrinal purity matters more than whether the young man is an emotional manipulator, or a potential abuser.

I’ve written before about how little I was actually taught about how to carry on a healthy relationship. I suppose I thought that if I followed the right rules – remained a virgin, married via a parent-guided courtship – a healthy relationship would be the natural and effortless result. It is in the same vein that my father, like so many other fathers in Christian Patriarchy circles, believed that if a young man had the proper doctrinal and political beliefs and was able to provide, then he must naturally be fit and upstanding husband material. How could he not be? Follow the rules/check all the boxes = things work out perfectly.

Now it could well be argued that my father felt that so long as he made sure any suitor met some minimum requirements I would be the judge of whether he treated me well, whether he was kind and compassionate, whether he knew how to carry on a healthy relationship, etc. The problem with this assumption is that the entire rationale for courtship is built on the girl’s inability to properly evaluate suitors without being “blinded by love” or beguiled by a manipulating young man. With this justification, courtship only works if the father only lets through young men who are gaurunteed husband material.

In the end, then, when evaluating prospective suitors what really matters in the courtship crowd is proper belief as opposed to healthy practice. The reason is simple: there is an assumption that proper belief leads to healthy practice and that improper belief leads to unhealthy practice. In other words, someone with correct doctrinal beliefs will naturally be a good and trustworthy person, and someone with incorrect doctrinal beliefs will naturally be a potential abuser. This thinking is so black and white, so bare of the nuance of real life, so deaf to the reality that being a Christian does not automatically mean someone is a good person, and that the correlary is also not true.

But within the mindset of Christian Patriarchy, this thinking makes perfect sense. It is really only natural, within this structure, that what matters most, above all else, is correct doctrinal belief. That correct doctrinal belief, then, combined with proper political belief and the ability to provide, was the sieve through which my father planned to strain any of my potential suitors. And when, partway through college, a young man did become interested in me, and when this young man didn’t meet the requirements of my father’s list, my father refused his permission for a relationship to proceed.

This young man’s character did not matter; how he treated me did not matter; the selfless service he exhibited toward others did not matter. All that was important was doctrinal and political purity, and whether or not he could provide for me.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Froborr

    To be honest, I find something deeply problematic and disturbing in your friend seeking her father’s approval, too. Advise, sure, but approval? *No one* should have *any* say in who an adult marries except the people getting married.

    This comes up with my fiancee sometimes (who was raised fundamentalist, but not CP)–she worries if my family approves of her, or if they would approve of her if they found out [insert thing she's worrying about], to which my only response is, “If they don’t, they can go to hell.”

    • Deird

      I guess it partly depends on the family.

      I have a very close-knit family, and one of the things I was looking for in a partner was someone who’d get along really well with my family. Also, they’re not the kind of people who’d disapprove for no reason – so if they WERE going to tell me they didn’t like him, it would be for a really important reason that I’d want to take seriously.

      (That being said, my mother has exactly one criterion for whether someone’s worth me marrying: has he looked at me with “that look” that means she can see he utterly adores me? If yes, we’ll probably be fine…)

    • Julie42

      Of course it should always be the couple’s decision, but that doesn’t mean other opinions aren’t important. If this girl was getting married but her fiance didn’t treat her well, her family and friends should step in and tell her that this isn’t a good idea. The final decision is always hers, but having opinions from other people is a good idea.

      I was in a relationship where I thought I wanted to marry the guy, but looking back it would have been a terrible idea. If I had gotten engaged to him, I hope some of my siblings would have stepped up and told me not to do it. I see my sister making the same mistakes now. I won’t be rude about it, but if she ever asks me if I think she should get married to this guy, I will strongly urge her not to.

      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        I don’t think anyone here it’s advocating not accepting other people’s opinion stuff, specially people who care for you and know you like most people’s families. What I think most of us are saying is that the guy asking the father’s permission is a retrograde patriarchal tradition and that the final decision should be taking between the two people who are getting married. Of course your friends and your family can give you advice but it’s your life, if you are the one getting married, it’s your decision.

        I really should stop answering people at 4 AM… /too sleepy

      • Steve

        If you want their opinion, you can inform them of your engagement or tell them you’re thinking about getting engaged. And then ask them what they think about it. It doesn’t require this highly ritualized “asking for permission” thing.

  • Shira

    This is one of your most thought-provoking posts! One thing Christians don’t appreciate is that most religions are far more concerned with proper practice than with proper belief. (Not that “proper” practice cannot be a problem if it papers over hidden problems!)

    Of course the idea that “Follow the rules/check all the boxes = things work out perfectly” is one of the great lies we tell ourselves to escape our fear that life might slap us down FOR NO REASON. I suppose everyone engages in this wishful thinking to some extent, but when it becomes part of the fabric of a religion, that religion has become a lie, or at best a husk.

    Thanks for this very interesting post.

  • Christine

    When my boyfriend asks me to marry him I will say yes, but I also want him to ask my father. I’m an athiest, always have been, and so has my father. I see it as a sign of respect for my family that my future husband would ask for a (for lack of a better word) blessing. My family is very close and while my father’s disapproval would seriously make me reconsider it would not be a deal breaker on its own. My boyfriend will be marrying me yes, but he will also be spending a lot of time with my family and I know based on experience with other family members that when a spouse doesn’t fit with the family it causes unnecessary stress.
    Asking permission is symbolic for me and my father. He doesn’t own me and doesn’t even pretend to, but he does love me and would want to love my future husband as well. Giving permission would mean that he supports my decision and thinks that I am making a good choice and will be happy. Not giving permission would cause me to reflect on my decision when my father only wants me to be happy.
    For the record, his criteria would be that my chosen would 1. Treat me well, 2. Love me, 3. Be financially stable. 4. Be athiest or at least unaffiliated (we couldn’t have a religious person in our family, it woudn’t be fair to the religious person) 5. Be able to keep up with me intellectually. His criteria are there to ensure that I am happy and challenged.

    While I agree that in this case the father giving permission is not healthy. I only ask that everyone not jump to negativity where asking permission is involved. It is very positive for me and has nothing to do with women’s rights or not being feminist.

    • Sierra

      Why is it important for him to ask your father and not your mother? Doesn’t her opinion also matter?

      • Lirel

        Completely agree, Sierra. And why not ask the groom’s parents for their permission/approval/blessing?

      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        Exactly what I was going to say. Also, not to be a meanie but being an atheist, please pretty please with a cherry on top, spell it right. Most people don’t do it so at least ourselves should try to spread the right spelling of the word atheist :)

        Personally I understand wanting a good relationship between your family and your spouse and you and hir family but asking permission doesn’t seem to be required in any way to get this… it’s just a staple of a patriarchal society and if your father values reason over tradition, he should understand that as well. He doesn’t need to give permission to advise you if you want his advice.

    • math_geek

      I was in a relationship that came very close to proposal. I was going to ask my then girlfriend to marry me, but after doing so I was going to ask her father. I think the idea of it is a bit silly, and Sierra makes a good point about asking her mom. However, I knew her father was conservative and a bit old-fashioned and because of that not asking him would have communicated that I didn’t care what he thought with regards to his daughter. I strongly didn’t want to communicate that. If I’m lucky enough to be in that situation again, whether I ask my girlfriend’s father (or mother) will definitely depend on the people involved. Some ideas may be antiquated but it really does little harm to perform those little formalities and in some cases have very positive results.

      • Liriel

        Depends on the woman – I’d be ticked if my fiancee asked my father. I wouldn’t split up with him, but there would be a fight about it. It’s not just a “little formality” to me – it’s an insult.

    • Alexandra

      The tradition of asking a woman’s father for permission is absolutely not a feminism friendly move. Why not both of a woman’s parents? Why not the man’s parents as well? Why not the couple inform their parents of the engagement like adults whose parents aren’t in a position to give permission? Everything about a man asking a woman’s father is about patriarchy.

    • Katy-Anne

      Oh. A patriarchal atheist. How cute. (Not).

      I don’t suppose it matters what your mom’s opinion is?

  • Rosie

    THIS. I want to explain it to so many who say “he’s a Christian” when they mean “he’s a good person”. The beginning of the end of my belief was when I encountered a young man with all the “right” beliefs who turned out to be an abuser. And then I asked myself some fatal questions: what good is belief if it doesn’t keep me safe? what good is it if it doesn’t make people behave better than average on the whole? (I know some people have answers to those questions that work for them; I just haven’t found any that are compelling for me yet.)

    By the time I married, I didn’t care much what my parents thought of any potential suitor. But I did make him pass the “buddy test” before we even officially dated. My good friends had to like him before I’d get involved. When people ask if my parents approve of him, I say “as much as they approve of me”, which probably isn’t saying a whole lot.

    • Deird

      But I did make him pass the “buddy test” before we even officially dated. My good friends had to like him before I’d get involved.

      *nods* For me, though, my family falls into the “buddy test” category. We’re very close, and their opinion really matters.

  • thalwen

    Wow, some of those checklists are scary.. and sickening. One had the guy’s opinion on abortion in the case of rape? What kind of father thinks about those kinds of things and makes it the guy’s opinion to decide? And how a woman should dress, and what her role in life should be.. it’s exactly like a property transfer, just making sure your property has an owner that you approve of. Her opinions on her own life are irrelevant. I guess it is something you have to be raised with. In my family, if a guy/girl were to ask my father for his permission I think he’d be weirded out, and I’d be pissed.

    • Steve

      A property transfer. That’s pretty much what marriage was in the OT and still is in tribal culture’s today

    • Contrarian

      What kind of father? The kind of father who wonders, “How much does he respect the Word of God? Does he uphold righteous behavior and condemn immoral behavior? Will he let my daughter stray from the correct path, or will he protect her from sinful influences and shepherd her through a godly life?”
      Even if they see it as akin to a property transfer, these P/QF fathers love their children as much as any parent. That’s why the movement is so dangerous: it so often plays on parents’ love. The father is asking the suitor these questions because he loves his daughter, because his daughter’s eternal salvation is the number one most important thing he worries about. That suitor had BETTER ensure it. If the suitor thinks that sometimes abortion is okay, or that it’s okay for women to dress immodestly, or is okay with feminism, well, then the suitor is potentially not Christian, might potentially expose his daughter to sinful influences that could lead her salvation to be in doubt.

  • AnotherOne

    Wow. Michael Pearl’s guidance on choosing a suitor may be the most horrifying thing I’ve ever read. Ask them if they have sex with animals ?!?! And I so don’t believe that those “letters” he prints are real. They’re too trite–they say all too perfectly exactly what he would want them to say.

    But the best part is this: “And, never forget the hold Sodom and Gomorrah had on Mrs. Lot. Don’t let that happen to your daughter’s children!”

    Yes, because my biggest fear for my children and grandchildren is that they’ll be turned into pillars of salt. It keeps me awake at night, I swear.

  • smrnda

    I actually never even heard of the notion of a man asking a woman’s father for permission to marry her until i was over 20. I guess I had this idea that people getting married were adults who did not ask their parents permission to make major life decisions, and that I *thought* parents wanted their kids to grow up and be able to make decisions on their own.

    The checklist for a potential suitor could be shorted to “do you believe women are property? if so, BY ALL MEANS marry my daughter!”

    As for little traditions not having much harm, they have tremendous harm – these little things are ways that patriarchy stays alive, by making itself seem harmless and quaint and perhaps a little nostalgic.

  • Elise

    My now husband asked both of my parents–rather, asked for their blessing, not their permission. It was non-negotiable. Both parents or none. I wasn’t going to do the ‘ask the father’ thing. Granted, my mum was the abuser–but it was the principle of gender equality that mattered.

    And yes, my dad walked me down the aisle. I communicated to my parents that it would be a non-traditional wedding, so I said that they could each pick two thing that the would like to have included. My dad wanted to walk me down the aisle. It was really very nice.