We need to work on courtship

Glenda Riley

February 12, 1993|By Glenda Riley

LOVE is in the air. Valentine's Day is here again. It's the season of courtship.

At the same time, society's message, like a broken record, is marriage and divorce, marriage and divorce.

But what about courtship? It might be far more productive to focus on what happens before people marry -- and eventually divorce.

If courtship is supposed to result in the selection of a compatible mate who will last a lifetime, modern courtship is a failure. Today, about one of two marriages ends in divorce in the United States. The re-divorce rate is also startling. The more often a person divorces, the more likely it is that his or her next marriage will end up the same way.

Once upon a time, the process of choosing a spouse was a family affair. But by the beginning of the 20th century, courtship had shifted, assisted by the automobile, from the family parlor to the anonymity of public places and the privacy of apartments. After World War II, courting couples began to do the unthinkable: They lived together without the sanctity of marriage.

Faced by irate parents and critical friends, many such couples insisted that their arrangement constituted a trial marriage. They would make wiser choices of mates. In 1988, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the number of cohabitating couples had reached 2.3 million. One year later, a University of Wisconsin study showed that 38 percent of couples who lived together before marriage divorced within 10 years. But only 27 percent of couples who had not lived together did so.

Contemporary courtship needs rethinking. Selecting a lifetime companion is a critical matter. Why do parents, relatives, and friends shirk obligations as confidantes and counselors? Members of a parents' group have protested that "nobody listens anyway." Often, however, advice is rejected more because of the way it is offered than because of the headstrong attitudes of the advis- ees.

People who throw up their hands in despair could profitably devote their energy to other approaches. They could offer advice in a non-judgmental way and open their homes to their children's, relatives' and friends' romantic partners. Is it really so important that she tests her crimping iron on the bathroom curtains, that he brings his slightly neurotic dog to the relationship or that they prefer to share a bedroom?

A courting pair are far more likely to discover their differences and identify their problems in a loving environment than one reeking with criticism or closed to them entirely.

Teachers also can help. After the rise and fall of "marriage and family" courses during the 1960s, such materials disappeared from school curriculum. Today's teachers are stressed and overworked, yet thousands are willing to pick up where parents leave off -- or give up. In Indianapolis schools, marriage and family programs start in fourth grade. Perhaps such information should come from the home, but it frequently does not. Let us help our educational system take up the slack.

Clergy and officials are another key to more stable marriages. They must, as Catholic priests do, require waiting periods and pre-marital counseling. A New York City man admitted that although he resisted a priest's teachings through six months of counseling, he was better prepared and happier in marriage than if the priest had simply performed the ceremony.

Of course, the world will never be perfect. Despite advice and education, some people will rush into marriage. Some will grab an unsuitable mate because they fear being alone. Others will follow the romantic messages pumped out by music, television and movies. And many clergy and officials will shrug and marry couples in haste.

As a result, legislation is necessary. Marriage must be harder to get. People who worry about the U.S. divorce rate frequently suggest that divorce should be harder to get. But divorce is only the seal that marks the legal termination of a bad marriage. The availability of divorce is seldom the cause of a marriage's disintegration; rather, the fact that a mismatched couple married in the first place led to marital problems and eventually to divorce.

Marriage must be more difficult to obtain. Although laws cannot force people to choose compatible partners, they can require them to wait before marrying. Like a gun license, a marriage license needs a cooling-off period, for both guns and marriage create potentially explosive situations.

Mandatory pre-marital counseling is another possibility. Perhaps

people seeking marriage licenses can be forced to think while they are waiting.

Granted, sane and sensible courtships do not guarantee successful marriages. Too many destructive factors tear at the fabric of contemporary matrimony. Still, parental guidance, education, counseling and legislation give couples a better chance of success, and they send a message often forgotten: Marriage is serious business, and romantic love that springs eternal every Valentine's Day is only one of its prerequisites.

Glenda Riley is a professor of history at Ball State University in Indiana and author of "Divorce: An American Tradition" (Oxford University Press).

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