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

Not Every Courtship Looks Like the Duggars'
It Took This for People to Listen?
When Marriage Looks Like the Only Escape
Anna Duggar and the Silencing Power of Forgiveness
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.


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