A Documentary Look at Courtship

There’s a documentary being made about the courtship of a young woman named Kelly. Kelly’s story is interesting for a number of reasons (for example, she was raised in a secular home, converted to Christianity, discovered and embraced the Christian Patriarchy movement, and then, in her thirties, found “spiritual parents” to walk her through the courtship process). Let me start by giving you the documentary’s trailer:

The documentary is still in production, and its website is actually a kickstarter site aimed at raising enough money to finish the project. Here is the summary from the documentary’s website:

Finding the person you’re going to spend the rest of your life with can seem nothing short of impossible, but what if you decided that you were going to renounce dating, save yourself for marriage, and leave the process of looking for your husband up to your parents…and God? This is the story of Kelly, a young woman who is doing just that.

For Kelly, who grew up happily in a secular family in Alabama, this was not the road she originally envisioned for herself.  But in her early twenties, her parents divorced and her world was shaken. Was marriage still something she believed in?  Was dating even right for her? Kelly moved to Michigan and began to develop a close relationship with God.  As she embarked upon a religious life, she learned about Christian Courtship, a process where parents with God’s assistance search for their daughter’s spouse.  Kelly knew instantly that Courtship was for her. Though she did kiss boys as a teen, she now hopes to save her next kiss for her husband.

Because Kelly’s own parents thought courtship was crazy (Why not just Internet date?), she began to search for spiritual parents. When she met the Wrights, a couple who had embraced Courtship for their own family, she knew that they were just the people she had been looking for. Now Kelly lives with the them , and, if a young man is interested in her, he must meet with Mr. Wright first.  If Mr. Wright approves then Kelly gets introduced and the whole family works together to determine if this is the person God intends for her to marry. The young man will not be left alone with Kelly until they are standing at the altar.

Now on the one hand, this film is being promoted as a romantic comedy and a “love story” rather than being portrayed as a cautionary tale (which, given that Kelly’s view on the role of a wife lines up with that of Debi Pearl, it probably should be), it would be easy to dismiss this film as potentially being a sort of white-washing propaganda. On the other hand, though, if the trailer is an representative of the actual film it appears that Amy isn’t going to be ignoring either the rough edges of the process and lifestyle or the truly radical nature of her subject’s beliefs (both of which the Duggars’ TV show, Nineteen Kids and Counting, constantly ignores). Given that the documentary filmmaker, Amy Kohn, is from New York City and hadn’t even heard of this whole courtship phenomenon until she stumbled upon it and thought it had the potential to make good documentary material (see this radio interview for more on that, starting at 24:30), and given that Amy told me in an email that the film “has no agenda,”  I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt. My impression is that Amy simply wants to lay Kelly’s courtship story out there as it happened, and let people form their own opinions about it. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on all this when the documentary eventually comes out.

I will say this, though: one thing I like about the forthcoming documentary is that, from the little bit I saw in the trailer, it sounds like it will be a fairly realistic picture of how courtship plays out. For those of you who have been asking to learn more about how courtship works, I would say that this trailer is an excellent short and dirty introduction. Hopefully the documentary will be the same, and will serve as something to point to when someone asks “courtship, today? how does that work exactly? is that like arranged marriage, or what?”

So, that said, let me offer a couple of thoughts I had on watching the trailer. These thoughts aren’t meant to be judgments of the trailer, but simply thoughts about courtship that I had while watching it. (And of course, feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments section as well!)

First, in the trailer Kelly breaks into tears thinking about the fact that she doesn’t have her first kiss to give to her future husband. All of that grief is grief that was created. If Kelly had not been told repeatedly that anything less than saving her first kiss for marriage is failure—I mean my goodness, the book in the trailer pounds girls over the head with the idea that their first kiss is their most precious gift, I kid you not—she would not be in tears about having kissed boys in high school. Is her grief genuine? Absolutely. But it’s also grief that was created in her by the subculture in which she has immersed herself.

Second, courtship is touted as a way to avoid having your heart broken, but it seems to me that what courtship actually does is raise the stakes. Did you see the way Kelly reacted to the prospect of meeting her possible prospective husband (3:15)? Conservative evangelical flagship publication World Magazine actually published an article not so long ago revealing that the entire courtship mentality has made young men view asking women to to form a relationship with them as akin to asking them to marry them, and has left young women feeling that saying yes to a relationship is the same as becoming engaged. (Yes, the article really says that.) For another example, see this article, in which a young woman finds herself weeping in her car and feeling completely broken because a young man she was interested in—a young man she thought might be the man she was supposed to marry—turned down her suggestion that they start a relationship. Courtship doesn’t “protect your heart.” It actually makes it more vulnerable by dramatically raising the stakes and the pressure.

Third, notice the amount of trust Kelly is putting in her chosen spiritual father. (Yes, the whole choosing a spiritual father if your father refuses to be your authority thing is actually endorsed by those in this movement; see, for example, Anna Sophia and Elizabeth Botkin’s book, So Much More.) Kelly asks him to vet each and every potential marriage candidate, and to not even bring a candidate to her unless he passes his inspection. Kelly is expecting her spiritual father to both weed out bad candidates and know what sort of man is best for her. The courtship mentality moves from the idea that women are fallible and not able to safely find good husbands to the conclusion that the solution is trusting another man to do the husband-finding for them. But men are fallible too. (Full disclosure: When I first began getting to know Sean, the man who is now my husband, we began our relationship as a courtship. That period ended when my father ordered me to end my relationship with Sean and I refused.)

Finally, I think one thing to take away from this documentary is the role concerns about the pitfalls of dating and the prevalence of divorce play in creating an atmosphere in which courtship appears attractive. While in this case it was an adult woman who was attracted to courtship for herself, in most cases it is parents who choose courtship for their children, pointing to their own past heartbreaks and regrets or the high divorce rate as their reasons for doing so. They seem to see courtship as a magic formula that will allow them to evade these potential problems and live happily ever after. However, the reality is that there is no magic formula. Still, this does pose an interesting question. What can we say to help keep people from seeing dating as a sinking ship, and more than that, what advice is most helpful for aiding people in navigating the world of dating and relationships?

I’m going to finish by offering some related reading:

Courtship, Dating, and Regret, by Libby Anne

Sexpectations: Purity, Courtship, and Dating, by Libby Anne

How the Teachings of Emotional Purity and Courtship Damage Healthy Relationships, by Darcy. See also part 2 and part 3.

Why Courtship Fails: A Male’s Perspective, on No Longer Quivering

Listen for the Singing: My Courtship Story, by Melissa

Courtship v. Dating: Our Story, by Dulce

Courtship Promised to Protect Me, by Joy

Fifty Shades of Evangelical Justifications for Patriarchy
When Men Wax Poetic about My Womb
What the Ruff, the Spotted Hyena, and the Cuttlefish Taught Me about Gender and Sexuality
What Courtship Was for Me
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.

  • Julian

    “While in this case it was an adult woman who was attracted to courtship for herself, in most cases it is parents who choose courtship for their children, pointing to their own past heartbreaks and regrets or the high divorce rate as their reasons for doing so.”

    For me, that’s one of the salient points to recognize about this documentary. As unsettling as I find courtship culture, I have a far different reaction to it being entered into willingly by an adult who has lived outside of it and presumably has her eyes open. That’s her choice, and while I may disagree with it and have grave reservations about its ramifications, I have neither the right nor the inclination to interfere. It’s a completely different situation when young people are involved, when they’ve been raised knowing nothing different and inculcated with a number of assumptions about the way relationships work that bear little resemblance to reality. The subject of the documentary, while she demonstrates a good example of the way the courtship process works in practice, is a novelty; the kids who are raised with no other options are a tragedy.

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ M

      I’m concerned because while she jumped into the rabbit hole all by herself, if she does marry and have kids, how much choice will her kids have?

      • Julian

        Very fair point, M.

  • ERB

    “It actually makes it more vulnerable by dramatically raising the stakes and the pressure.” <– Could not agree with this more.

    The fact that her parents divorced at such a "tough" age makes me think she's desperately worried, scared, and scarred and wants an absolute guarantee that she won't end up in the same boat (and who can do that, save God?). My parents are divorced (although did so when I was much younger), but I still held similar feelings. The thing is, the only person you can control is yourself.

    I hope she eventually (re)gains a feeling of safety in the relationships that are most important to her. Her "spiritual parents" don't seem like bad people, but I can't help but think they're taking a vulnerable young woman and helping her down the garden path instead of facing her toward a mirror.

    I also feel the compulsion to add–and I really don't mean this in a derogatory way–but courtship (especially here!) often seems like someone else's flavor of kink to me. Fifty Shades of Courtship.

  • alr

    This statement really stuck out to me: “it’s not about having fun”.
    I left my iPod in someone else’s vehicle and have been driving all week with just the radio. When I do that, I have a bad habit of listening to Christian radio. (Which just pisses me off!). I caught a bit of a standard “how to make your husband happy” bit of garbage the other day all about how women need to remember to “pretend” to like things their husbands like the way they did when dating (obviously a crowd of “liberals”, right?). The whole theme seemed to be that you can’t possibly be friends with your spouse or enjoy being with him. But you should pretend to be so anyway. And the idea Kelly states here that getting to know a future spouse should not be “fun” reinforces that. Radical idea: if you really want to avoid divorce, don’t go to all of these extremes, find someone who you can truly enjoy being with from the start.

  • http://republic-of-gilead.blogspot.com Ahab

    Kelly’s interest in conservative Christianity and courtship may spring from her desire for a stable, happy marriage, although whether or not that wish will be fulfilled remains to be seen. Still, I wonder if any other factors drew her to this subculture. It just seems jarring to see a secular woman dive headfirst into such a life . Aas I read the blog post, I kept asking myself what Kelly was really looking for it all this.

    • http://AztecQueen2000.blogspot.com AztecQueen2000

      As someone who chose fundamentalism as an adult (Jewish, not Christian, but they’re similar enough), there is an attraction there. When someone is in their twenties, the process of going out and making it in a world that has become increasingly difficult is daunting. The idea of handing all the major decisions off to G-d or a spiritual mentor is attractive, if for no other reason than getting one off the hook. Particularly if one has no family in the area, a religious community becomes the surrogate family.

      • Paige

        Not having been raised religious, I’ve always wondered what the attraction is of handing the decision making role to God or to the church? Could you explain why someone would sit on their hands instead of deciding things?

        I’ve watched my mom sit and wait all her life for something to happen. She never understood why I decided to move out and I’ve never understood why she doesn’t do better with her life.

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    I think you’re totally right that “courtship” is attractive because it promises a way to date and get married without a risk of heartbreak. Personally, my family is Christian but never into the super-extreme parts of purity culture- instead, I got into that myself after a breakup. The idea is that if you do everything right, if you wait and pray and listen to God correctly, then you’ll be safe from breakups and related sadness. OF COURSE I wanted that after being dumped and fearing I would be forever alone. And they say that “courtship” is “God’s plan for your life”- courtship is “trusting God”, and dating like a normal person is “following your own sinful desires, not waiting and trusting in God’s plan.”

    Yeah… so… I don’t believe that any more. For SO MANY reasons, many of which you have written about on this blog before (so much pressure on the relationship, fear of making a mistake and ruining “God’s plan for your life”, etc etc). But here are a few related posts from my blog:
    “You Never Marry the Right Person” article
    How long should you pray before asking a girl out?

  • Miranda

    I always wondered why it destroyed me so much when I was finally brave enough to tell a guy I liked him and wanted to date and he turned me down. The damage that this horrific religious movement causes is incredibly long lasting. I wasn’t told anything about how the real world worked–I was told that EVERYONE waited until marriage for sex, and movies were just unrealistic. I was told things like Satan and demons caused the lustful thoughts in people, and they were aberrations.
    Enter reality. I went to the Air Force Academy and had no idea what I was in for. Not only was I exposed to people just being normal, I began to develop feelings myself. I tortured myself because of them, thinking that I was being tempted by the Devil or that I was horrifically sinning. To make matters worse, I was raped. Instead of looking for help, I nearly killed myself because I felt so incredibly guilty that I “put myself in that position.” To this day I struggle with my self-image and feelings of worthlessness. I left Christianity, and I’m doing much better as an atheist, but seeing things like Kelly putting herself through that makes me feel sick. I escaped. I can only hope she does before it’s too late.

  • alr

    Question: does she just live with this family and not work or support herself at all? Is that perhaps some of the attraction, the ability to take no responsibility for her own life? I can’t imagine doing that. I am an underemployed grad student and my husband has to support both of us and it makes me feel guilty as it is. How could a grown adult just move in with unrelated people and let them pay her way?

    • Anonymouse

      “How could a grown adult just move in with unrelated people and let them pay her way?” Isn’t that the whole point of being a woman in a conservative religious household? A girl goes from her father’s house to her husband’s, and never once does she stand on her own two feet.

      • alr

        There is a minor legal difference that is actually very important. In most cases, children inherit from their parents. And if my husband were run over by a bus tomorrow, community property laws mean everything that is his is mine plus I am the beneficiary of his life insurance and receive benefits from his work place as well. If these people crash their car and die next week, this woman has absolutely nothing. She could immediately be homeless if their next of kin so chooses. Dependency on completely unrelated people is a very precarious place to be.

  • Ortin

    I watched the video clip. The whole situation seems creepy.

    It also seems to me that Kelly is a very insecure and immature person. She’s deferring the responsibility of finding a partner to her “spiritual parents” and a religious doctrine because she’s afraid of failure.

    She also doesn’t have a lot of self confidence. She’s afraid of being found unworthy, and she’s finding validation in marriage. “I think what a woman really wants to know is Am I beautiful? And am I lovable? Could a man really love me? Could a man really want me? Could a man really want to get to know me deeply and keep me?”

    I am filled with terror.

  • alr

    Good points, Ortin. I wonder what exactly her life was like in the years between leaving home and adopting this lifestyle. Was it especially difficult? Did she have a hard time navigating young adulthood and this was a way to escape those pressures of responsibility and independence? After all, the whole “stay at home daughters” thing essentially keeps grown women trapped in childhood. So what are the reasons that she needed or wanted that? I hope the final project gives us an answer.

  • Ember

    I remember seeing a study in high school psych class indicating that the countries with the lowest divorce rates are the same countries where divorce is considered unacceptable. Courtship may save someone from the heartbreak of divorce, but it certainly does not guarantee a “happily ever after.”

  • http://pslibrary.com/ MrPopularSentiment

    Anyone else find it kind of awkward that this “Spiritual Father” has invited a non-related woman close to his own (and his wife’s) age to live with his family? Even if nothing physical happens, that sends out all sorts of creepvibes for me…

    But regarding divorce, my parents separated when I was a kid (they never married, so no divorce, but emotionally the same thing). I grew up with a very positive view of relationships and their potential longevity (if both partners are willing to compromise and work together and communicate their needs). I think that a big part of why comes down to how my parents acted around their separation. They were both very hurt with each other, but they were extremely good at communicating that hurt in an honest way with me. Not “your father is a jerk,” but rather “your father and I disagreed about too many things and we weren’t able to make it work.” I was never exposed to that vindictive venting that some divorced parents unfortunately do.

    Also, my parents continued to work as a team to parent me. They would talk every week to make sure that they each knew what was going on in my life, for example. And while I had set visits with my dad, he was also the first person my mom would call if she needed a babysitter. When my father got a new steady girlfriend, my mom was very supportive of me bonding with her, even when I went through a phase of calling this new woman my “mom,” my mother would simply respond that she was happy I had more people in my life who loved me. Even when my dad and this woman eventually broke up, my mom was very supportive in helping me keep in contact with her, enabling me to do so in every way she could (even letting the woman stay in our house for a few days when she was travelling through the area).

    Despite all this, I did still struggle with my parents’ separation at the time, and my parents recognized this and made arrangements for me to see a child therapist, so I had a neutral third party I could talk to about my feelings and experiences.

    My parents are flawed people and far from perfect, but I am so amazed and so grateful for the maturity they showed in their separation (at least regarding me – I found out as an adult that they were fighting some pretty rough battles behind the scenes!). I think that it really helped me see that two people can work together even when they really don’t like each other, and it also made me not fear divorce. Yes, sometimes relationships end – but that’s not the end of the world. The relationship is still worth it, and if it does end, it’s possible to move on and find happiness elsewhere.

    • Ortin

      I actually don’t think the idea of her moving in with this strange couple is too odd, if I’m interpreting the doctrine correctly. Because Kelly doesn’t have a theistic father and is unmarried, she literally has no godly authority dictating her decisions. Her moving in with a theistic family places her under the male head of household’s authority, which is meet and right according to doctrine.

      I mean yeah, according to someone who doesn’t follow this doctrine it’s super creepy. But I think the logic they’re following is consistent in this situation.

  • smrnda

    I find this a little frightening just since it’s the type of thing you think nobody would opt into unless they’d been raised in it, but I guess that if that were the case this whole “quiverfull” and “Christian patriarchy” thing would have never emerged, as it mostly involves people who elect to return to a past that never existed.

    Perhaps I have a hard time relating to the idea of actively seeking out someone else to run your life. My parents were very much absentee parents (both very career minded) and I might be just old enough to have avoided the helicopter parenting era, so I found it normal and even desirable not to have someone in charge telling me what to do or who I had to ask permission or advice from. The idea of someone in their thirties doing this is seems weird, thought it may be anxiety about not being married or not having a marriage work out.

  • Mostlylurking

    So she’s basically saying “being a grown-up is too hard”, and hands in her adult card in exchange for being a child again, not having to take responsibility for her own life and happiness? Sounds really healthy…

  • Ortin

    Thanks alr.

    Also, I have this very vivid image of a peacock in my head when I think about that suitor playing the soprano sax for her and her “spiritual family”. Is that sort of presentation and spectacle common in courtships?

  • Karen

    I may have said this before, but the whole courtship thing just does not compute in my head. The notion that someone else has a right or an obligation to be part of the decision-making on who I will spend the rest of my life with is just not something I can or could ever swallow. Admittedly, I started dating fairly late; I was/am overweight, I was always very serious about my studies, and I went to an all-girls high school. When I was in college dating, it never occurred to me to invite a boyfriend to meet my parents until we were in a fairly serious relationship; that was in my junior year. When we finally decided we wanted to get married, we didn’t ask my father if it was okay, we told my parents we were going to get married. I already knew there were things about him they didn’t approve of — he wore his hair too long and he rode a motorcycle — but they chose not to share any objections they might have had to our marriage, as long as the wedding itself was in a Catholic church. Boyfriend was raised fundamentalist Christian but had become fairly non-religious in college, so he was cool with that. That was it.

    The only person who voiced objections was Boyfriend’s mother, who took him aside and told him privately that I was not good enough or good-looking enough for him, that he would get bored with me, and he should keep looking. That was almost 33 years ago; we’re still married, it still works for us, and I have become a very much beloved daughter-in-law just as Husband became a very much beloved son-in-law.

    Today, we’re both atheists, so we don’t believe there was any deity around to have guided the process anyhow. But I do believe we both prayed for guidance at the time.

  • Christine

    Just for the record, if I had discovered that my husband had asked my parents’ permission before proposing, my answer would not have been certain. (Asking their blessing is fine, asking their permission is pretty close to, if not actually, a deal-breaker).

  • Kristen

    The part where she talks about how everyone woman wants to know ‘am i beautiful?’ ‘am I loveable?’ ‘could a man love me?’ makes me so sad. Of course women are going to be asking themselves those questions if they’ve been taught that their value is wrapped up in their relationship to men.

  • Judy L.

    There’s something inconsistent here: She trusted her own judgement enough to go out and find and choose a ‘spiritual father’, but she thinks she can’t or shouldn’t guide her own search for a husband?

    And enough with this ‘first kiss’ bullpucky. Every time you kiss someone new you get to give and receive a ‘first kiss’. Kissing is a renewable resource that actually improves with use. (I’m not familiar with Evangelical/CP publications for children so I have to ask: Is there a companion fairy tale for boys that shows God giving baby princes their first kiss as their most precious possession that they can use only once?)

  • http://www.facebook.com/kelly.crawford.182 Kelly Crawford

    Both Kelly and the guy seem incredible immature to me. I think her dad has a point and I hate to say this but I feel that if you’re not mature enough to pick out your own significant other then you’re not mature enough to be in a relationship at all.