Courtship Today: The View from Academia

Spring 2001

By Daniel Cere

Courtship charts pathways to marriage. Its customs and rituals help individuals negotiate the complex transition from sexual attraction, through love, to lasting marriage. It provides, for better or worse, the moral and emotional education for married life. And yet, courtship no longer occupies a vital place within contemporary American culture; the word itself now seems quaint and outdated. Social historians such as Beth Bailey and Ellen Rothman have documented the decay of courtship traditions in twentieth-century America. Leon Kass has pointed out that the erosion of courtship, coupled with other worrisome trends in law, economics, and technology, has destabilized the institution of marriage.1 Today, the road to marriage is devoid of clear markers and fraught with more accidents and wrong turns.

The decline of courtship may reflect broader cultural trends. According to Anthony Giddens, one of Britain’s most distinguished sociologists, popular culture is creating a new grammar of intimacy. In The Transformation of Intimacy and, more recently, in the prestigious Reith Lectures, Giddens argues that we are moving from a marriage culture to a culture that celebrates the “pure relationship.” A “pure relationship” is one that has been stripped of any goal beyond the intrinsic emotional, psychological, or sexual satisfaction it brings to the individuals involved. In this new world of “relationships,” marriage is placed on a level playing field with all other long-term sexually intimate relationships, with similar values and processes governing their initiation, maintenance, and dissolution. Accordingly, the concept of a special pathway to marriage – i.e., courtship – tends to be abandoned in favor of a more general discussion of the dynamics of any close relationship.

However, as the consequences of family fragmentation have become more apparent, there are signs of a renewed interest in finding ways to strengthen marriage. A large body of research shows that healthy marriages protect the well-being of spouses and their children, and that a number of significant social costs are generated when marriages fail. This renewed appreciation for marriage’s importance may be triggering some interest in the question of courtship. In the popular realm, a number of new books on courtship, both secular and religious, have sold well. Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider’s popular 1996 book, The Rules, purports to teach battle-scarred women a practical, no-nonsense script for finding a fabulous husband. Joshua Harris’s 1997 Christian best-seller, I Kissed Dating Good-Bye, urges young people to eschew recreational dating and return to older “scriptural” courtship practices. And Leon Kass and Amy Kass’s well-received anthology of readings on courtship and marriage, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar, offers readers wisdom on the nature of courtship and marriage culled from 5,000 years of the Western tradition. The success of these books indicates a yearning among many young people for clearer and more effective pathways to marriage than the culture now provides. The spread of marriage education, in both schools and religious communities, also suggests that the case for courtship is not completely closed.

But what does contemporary scholarship have to say about the courtship question? According to Norval Glenn, the dean of American family sociologists, the study of courtship is now “virtually moribund.” Academics do not appear particularly interested in discussing pathways to marriage. There are, however, a number of scholarly theories poking around into topics of related interest: heterosexual attraction, mate selection, pair bonding, and close relationships. Three schools of scholarly thought merit attention: exchange theory, sociobiology, and close-relationship theory. While these approaches contribute little to the study of courtship itself, they do provide fascinating articulations of the dominant ideologies guiding today’s discourse on heterosexual pair bonding.

The commodification of courtship

The contemporary cultural disarray over dating, courtship, and mate selection reflects deep-seated historical developments that have been the subject of scholarly discussion for a few generations. The transition to modernity and then to postmodernity was accompanied by a diminishment of social scripting of interpersonal relationships, including sexual relationships, courtship, and marriage. Over 60 years ago, one of America’s eminent sociologists, Willard Waller, drew attention to the modern shift away from the explicit standards for mate selection that characterized more homogeneous societies. The nature of the “bargaining process” for heterosexual pair bonding was becoming “confused” and “complex.” Waller argued that the modern emphasis on “marriage for love” was little more than a mask for our cultural confusion over the absence of more explicit communal guidelines toward marriage.

Waller noted that new types of bargains were being struck in the courtship process, “bargains which have to do with merely the conditions of association outside of marriage.” Over the course of the twentieth century, dating and courtship patterns gradually drifted into free-floating social space, devoid of any meaningful connection to the goal of marriage. Rising rates of premarital sexuality, cohabitation, and out-of-wedlock births since the 1960s signaled a decline in the cultural and social stature of marriage as the unique repository of sexual life and childbearing. These trends eroded the traditional connection of courtship to marriage.

Critical social theorists such as Eva Illouz in Consuming the Romantic Utopia and Beth Bailey in From Front Porch to Back Seat have attempted to trace one important aspect of this story, namely, the commodification and commercialization of courtship practices in modern capitalist economies. They argue that nineteenth-century courtship practices lay within the sphere of civil society: Churches, families, kinship groups, and cultural communities largely shaped courtship rites and practices. However, twentieth-century courtship increasingly moved to the beat of modern capitalism. Courtship was driven out of the home and into the marketplace: Movie theaters, automobiles, restaurants, dance halls, and clubs, rather than homes, church halls, and community celebrations, became the privileged spaces for courtship activity. According to Bailey, the language of the market came to dominate academic theories of courtship and romance, as well as popular culture:

As it emerged in the twentieth century, courtship largely was construed and understood in models and metaphors of modern industrial capitalism. The new system of courtship privileged competition (and worried about how to control it); it valued consumption; it presented an economic model of scarcity and abundance as a guide to personal affairs. The rules of the market were consciously applied; the vocabulary of economic exchange defined acts of courtship.
But a systematic application of economic theory to courtship had to await the work of economist Gary Becker. It was Becker and his school’s special, but limited, achievement to apply the tools of the economist to the arena of love, and to do so, moreover, at the very moment in history when the commodification of courtship was largely completed. Exchange theory explicitly assumes that acts of marriage, like other acts, are the choices of rational selves. “Persons marry,” Becker wrote in his 1974 essay “A Theory of Marriage,” “when the utility expected from the marriage exceeds the utility expected from remaining single.” In the self-contained world of exchange theory, any desire, even the desire to love and care for another human being, must be shoved within the cramped confines of a person’s “utility function.”

Exchange theory views the passion and poetry of mate selection as mere marketing strategies. The utility of a marriage depends on the “commodities” produced by the potential partner: standards of living, quantity and quality of children, sexual gratification, social status, and others. The marriage market consists of three critical components: supply, preferences, and resources. Men and women actively looking for a spouse represent the “supply.” “Preferences” are the characteristics men or women, as customers, look for in a spouse. “Resources” are the various attributes that men and women offer in order to gain those preferences.

This “exchange theory” model of courtship, the oldest of our three expert stories, is by no means dead. The “marriage market” model, with all its bland economic vocabulary (supply and demand, preferences, bargaining, exchange, and investment), continues to influence some prominent discussions of mate selection – and still generates research into such areas as the relationship between employment and the marriageability of men.

For those interested in marriage as a social institution, the advantage of this perspective is that it still views courtship as the pathway to marriage. But in exchange theory, the marriage vow has been dumbed down to a mere contract intended to serve the narrow interests of the individuals investing in the relationship. No-fault divorce laws make marriage agreements far flimsier and more vulnerable to shifting preferences than most business contracts. Exchange theory nicely reflects this cultural shift and spotlights the increasingly utilitarian motivations that guide entrance into these fragile marriage “deals.”

Yet by assuming that, by definition, individuals act as rational consumers, “exchange theory” is of limited use in understanding the social and interpersonal aspects of courtship and marriage as institutions. It fails to appreciate the irrational or unselfconscious ideas that may move people to marriage and may keep them in it long after a “rational consumer” would have traded in their old clunky model for a jazzier new one. Many of the essential features of love – the longing for permanence, the desire to give oneself to another – must in the economists’ story of courtship be either submerged into “contract theory” or dismissed altogether as irrational. For a full understanding of how and why people marry, we must look elsewhere.

It’s all in the genes

Sociobiology is one of the most popular of the new theoretical perspectives on courtship, marriage, and sexuality. In the quest to unravel the convoluted scripts of heterosexual bonding, sociobiology has emerged as an attractive alternative, basing arguments on an appeal to genes rather than morals. In contrast to rational choice or exchange theories of courtship, sociobiologists search for deeply rooted evolutionary factors that govern sexual and romantic preferences in mate selection.

Evolutionary psychology maintains that males and females have radically divergent sexual psychologies. Innate evolutionary factors have conditioned women to value and select men on the basis of their ability to provide nourishment, protection, security, and social status for themselves and their offspring. Females seek “dominant males.” Status signals such as power, money, social position, intelligence, education, skills, and the ability to father rank high for women. Males, on the other hand, are “hardwired” to seek sexual liaisons with women who show signs of reproductive viability, such as health, youth, and physical attractiveness.

In this highly charged and competitive world of courtship, male and female interests are essentially incommensurable, yielding divergent strategies and counter-strategies of seduction. Females deceive about their age and physical attractiveness; males dissemble about their financial resources, career prospects, and willingness to commit. Women deceive and seduce cosmetically, men deceive and seduce through ritualized displays of acquisition. Women concentrate on dressing for dates, men concentrate on planning and paying for dates.

Given these courtship dynamics, sociobiology predicts the emergence of a “marriage gradient” with women “marrying up” and men “marrying down.” This puts a “marriage squeeze” on high-status women. High-status males have an immense pool of potential female mates from which to choose, but high-status women seeking to “marry up” face a very restricted pool of available males. The male tendency to “marry down” tends further to sideline high-status females. Feminists often disparage this pattern as a patriarchal strategy aimed at female subordination: Men socially entrench the subordination of women by marrying down and ruling over their younger and lower-status women. This male strategy also contributes to the social marginalization of high-achieving women.

Sociobiologists smile at these expressions of moral outrage. From their perspective, feminists are usually high-status women with careers, resources, and power; however, feminists predictably refuse to “marry down.” They are in the market for “challenging” men – a feminist euphemism for “dominant males.” In his 1998 book What Women Want, What Men Want, John Townsend notes that the feminist disparagement of “marrying-down” males echoes the age-old rhetorical strategies of high-status females, who typically denigrate low-status female competitors while simultaneously berating high-status males for daring to overlook them.

These courtship strategies have a profound impact on hierarchical structuring of human societies. Male and female mate preferences generate very different social outcomes. The traits that men value (female youth, health, and attractiveness) have relatively little impact on social order, aside from the impetus they give to the development of cosmetic and clothing industries. But the traits that women value – status, productivity, dominance, resources – fire up the male “will to power.” Men need to make a difference in the world if they are to be noticed by women. Mary Batten, author of Sexual Strategies: How Females Choose Their Mates, argues that female mating strategies play a major role in driving men to compete for power and wealth, thereby fostering in all human societies the “social dominance orientation” of men.

Sociobiology offers a rollicking comic spoof on the world of romance and power. In the world of sociobiology, lovers are bustling about, stumbling through their relationships, deceiving one another, wooing and warring with one another from very different, even contradictory, scripts of love – and yet, somehow, when all is said and done, these mismatched lovers land in bed together, men on top, cunningly trapped by the inexorable logic of reproductive success. Meanwhile, in the public sphere, men exhaust themselves to succeed in the worlds of high finance and global politics in order to be “attractive” to the next pretty blond that happens to pass by. In the words of Henry Kissinger: “Without an office, you have no power, and I love power because it attracts women.”

Sociobiology also offers an intellectual spin on the growing climate of cynicism that pervades contemporary explorations of marriage in literature, popular film, and music. According to David Buss in The Evolution of Desire, we must “lift our collective heads” out of the romantic sands and recognize that heterosexual relationships are about power, sex, property, deceit, and control, rather than love, self-giving, romance, and commitment. Sociobiology replaces the tale of Cupid’s arrows with a story of another outside agent: our own impish genes, which manipulate us and mock our purposes in their blind, relentless search for survival and replication.

Power males

Some scholars believe that sociobiology offers scientific support for monogamous marriage. Townsend’s colorful exploration of evolutionary perspectives on mate selection ends with a homiletic flourish on the role evolution played in the development of the stable monogamous marriage. Yet if we follow the logic of maximum reproductive success to its endpoint, we seem to find a case made for male polygyny, not monogamy. To the extent that sociobiology suggests or implies a particular social-sexual order, dominant male polygyny, not strict monogamy, may eventually emerge as its central plank.

Townsend himself has trouble shaking loose from the inner logic of this position. “Men in position of power,” he admits, “tend to practice polygyny: legitimate polygyny where it is allowed; functional polygyny where it is not.” Townsend notes that polygyny is accepted in over 83 percent of human societies. He concedes that Western societies have firmly prohibited polygyny but argues that many elite males are “in effect, polygynous.” Divorce and remarriage or a series of sexual partners are forms of “serial polygyny.” The illicit sexual relationships that garnish the lives of many high-status males are forms of “functional polygyny.” As sociobiology cleans the dust from our evolutionary psychology, out springs an aggressive and promiscuous male genie.

And today, male elites command resources, technologies, and services far beyond the wildest dreams of their predecessors. They are able to sustain relationships with a variety of women, as well as make significant investments in their offspring. Indeed, we may be in the midst of a subtle and imperceptible drift toward some form of socially acceptable concubinage for dominant males. Sociobiology might accelerate this trend by making the concept of polygyny appear to be a reasonable accommodation to some of the more problematic exigencies of dominant male psychology.

Sociobiology does bring one crucial advantage to current debates. It reconnects courtship with procreation, offering a powerful exploration of the intrinsic connections between sexuality, heterosexual bonding, reproductive success, and investment in offspring. And it provides a corrective to other theoretical approaches, which tend to separate the question of children and child-rearing from courtship and mate selection. However, it is important to note that according to sociobiology, sexual attraction per se is not dependent on conscious awareness of the linkage between attraction and procreation. This linkage was forged in our distant evolutionary past. Once the evolutionary hardwiring is in place, men are instinctively attracted to young voluptuous women, and women are instinctively attracted to dominant males. They are not attracted because physical beauty or social dominance signal reproductive potential; they are just attracted.

But what happens when these ancient evolutionary drives are loosened from their moorings in reproduction? What happens when, aided by technology, we can weaken or dissolve altogether the linkage between sex and procreation? Sociobiologists assure us that our drives are now genetically secure enough to dispense with any direct concern with procreation. In days of old, procreation was a critical fact in the slow evolutionary hardwiring of heterosexual attraction, but that work is done. The dynamics of heterosexual attraction can now thrive in freestanding forms. So where, in the final sociobiological analysis, do children fit in? In social terms, nowhere.

In sum, for all of its explanatory power regarding the interactions among sexual desire, procreation, and social processes, sociobiology is unable to understand or strengthen marriage as an institution. In the current environment, sociobiology also reinforces trends of dubious value. Its particular version of sexual realism corresponds well to contemporary cynicism about heterosexual love and marriage. Sociobiology has a very modest interest in marriage; if other arrangements can meet our “evolutionary desires,” sociobiology is more than willing to consider them. There is also its barely veiled celebration of dominance, exploitation, and raw power. Insofar as sociobiology helps shape our standards, it supports efforts to give dominant males more latitude to make full use of their resources in the realm of sexual pursuit. Finally, sociobiology has a nice way of acknowledging children for their unique contribution to the evolution of our sexual drives, then politely showing them the door.

Postmodern courtship

One of the most prominent perspectives in contemporary courtship research is that of “close-relationships” theory. In 1988, Steve Duck edited a major anthology, Handbook of Personal Relations, which marked the tenth anniversary of a new discipline, “the science of close relationships.” Current research in the field continues at the “incredible rate” of expansion that Duck celebrated in 1988. This work has been spearheaded by a diverse group of scholars who have formed professional associations, such as the International Society for the Study of Personal Relationships and the International Network on Personal Relationships. They have also launched two journals, the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships and Personal Relationships, as well as a number of major publication series, such as the Sage Series on Close Relationships and Advances in Personal Relationships. The field employs a variety of research methodologies, from standard social-science surveys to intensive one-on-one and small-group interviews.

The dynamics of initiating and developing close, sexually based relationships are a major preoccupation of close-relationship theory. Articles and monographs cover a very wide range of topics: “falling in love,” romantic love, attachment patterns, “love styles,” interracial and interethnic dating, physical attractiveness (body shape, health status, hair length, height, voice intonation), age preferences, jealousy, love triangles, dating infidelity, fatal attractions, family-of-origin influences, socioeconomic status, self-disclosure processes, topic avoidance, deceit, nonverbal signals, the use of humor, coping with peer and parental criticism, relationship dissolution, and romance grieving processes.

This complex body of theories probing a baffling array of topics might appear to resist general commentary and review, but certain common themes do emerge: Marriage is knocked off its pedestal, and its purpose of child-rearing gets short shrift. And the transcendent ideal of love is replaced by the “love styles” of individual selves seeking sexual satisfaction in episodic relationships. Courtship, rather than leading to marriage, becomes just one damn relationship after another.

Generic brand relationships

Close-relationship theorists argue that we need to bring a common theoretical and methodological approach to the study of all “sexually based primary relationships.” In their 1989 book The Sexual Bond: Rethinking Families and Close Relationships, John Scanzoni, Jay Teachman, and Linda Thompson argue that alternative sexual life styles are not “qualitatively other from what is known as the benchmark conventional nuclear family.” Courtship, spousal, and familial relationships can and should be “subsumed under the broader construct of close or primary relationships.”

In the taxonomy of sexually based adult relationships, the existence or nonexistence of a legally recognized bond, such as marriage, is a secondary consideration. Marriage is merely a de jure category, not an actual scientific reality. Close-relationship theorists argue that the family is “essentially a lay or commonsense construct” rather than a meaningful scientific model. The terms “family” and “families” are “valid poetic and literary descriptions of folk-culture reality” that may be of value in “fostering communication among lay persons” about the “slippery realities” of personal relationships. However, such “lay” constructs distort and limit scientific work on intimate adult relationships. Scholars and professionals will “find it more fruitful both practically and scientifically to think and work in more general or generic terms – specifically in terms of close or primary relationships.”

A close relationship is “dyadic.” It is an “interaction” between two individuals that is characterized by strong and coherent patterns of interdependence, self-disclosure, exchange, investment, commitment, and conflict. These dyadic bonds constitute an interpersonal microcosm with their own unique processes and dynamics. One side-effect of redefining all relationships as inherently dyadic is that it obscures the communal side of marriage. The family itself fades away as a unit of analysis. For close-relationship theorists, the only way to understand the family is to break it down into bidirectional dyadic pairs: husband-wife, mother-child, father-child, or brother-sister relationships.

In The Sexual Bond: Rethinking Families and Close Relationships, Scanzoni, Teachman, Thompson, and Karen Polonko suggest that legal theorists should consider expanding their thinking about sexually bonded intimacy beyond the confines of the family to include all “close relationships.” The American Law Institute recently proposed model legislation that does just that, offering most cohabiting partners with children many of the legal rights heretofore reserved for married couples. The Canadian Bar Association recently published a lengthy report, Recognizing and Supporting Close Personal Relationships Between Adults, which advocates fundamental reforms of Canadian laws in the light of close-relationship theory. It argues that the law must now stress the “substance of relationships” rather than favoring certain types of “arrangements” such as marriage. Any relationship marked by interdependence, mutuality, intimacy, and endurance merits legal recognition. The report contends that governments “should recognize and support” all significant adult close relationships so long as they are “neither dysfunctional nor harmful.”

If marriage and family fade from view, so too do children. Close-relationship theorists tend to ignore the procreative dimension of sexual relationships. This child-free understanding of courtship also shapes, and often distorts, these theorists’ view of social reality. One would assume, for example, that our society’s high rates of teen pregnancy and unwed childbearing would be relevant to the study of contemporary heterosexual courtship. Yet these trends receive scant attention in close-relationship theory. Its narrow concentration on the interpersonal dynamics of dyadic relationships precludes any serious consideration of the procreative dimension of heterosexual coupling.

Yet children do happen, and their arrival does, therefore, present a theoretical quandary. Close-relationship theorists respond to this problem by drawing attention to the vexing impact of children on adult close relationships. For example, Steve Duck encourages us to abandon the traditional view of children as “bundles of joy,” and instead to understand them as “one of the greatest stressors of a relationship.” According to Duck, the transition to parenthood is “hazardous to marriage,” since it is typically accompanied by sharp declines in relationship satisfaction. In a popular rendition of close-relationship theory, Partnering: A New Kind of Relationship, Hal and Sidra Stone devote two chapters to the exploration of obstacles to satisfactory dyadic relationships. One chapter surveys a variety of potential threats to relationships, such as drug addiction and alcohol abuse; the other chapter focuses entirely on children. The Stones argue that children pose the major threat to “primary relationships” between adults, since these relationships are “very frequently … destroyed by the presence of children.”

Love under construction

In close-relationship theory, relationships have no teleology or common goal: not marriage, certainly, not even love. In this view, love has no objective existence; it is a construct of the individual, a shifting metric by which each of us defines whether or not relationships are “good enough” to continue. Constructivism challenges the old “love and marriage, horse and carriage” view. It notes that some of the most exquisite forms of romantic love, such as the courtly love tradition of the medieval era, stood outside of conjugal and familial life, and concludes that intimate dyadic love can flourish in many freestanding forms.

The “love researchers” of close-relationship theory attempt to provide tools for measuring how people construct and conceptualize love. This project turns our attention away from any substantive exploration of “real love” or “true love” (the phrases themselves seem so quaint) to a consideration of “how” love is “constructed” or “represented” by diverse individuals or communities. Constructivism seems to be our emerging cultural conclusion on the meaning of love.

In The Psychology of Love, John Alan Lee puts forward one of the most thoroughly constructivistic views of love in close-relationship theory. Lee states that he is “not concerned with defining love itself” but with helping lovers distinguish between different love constructs. These “love styles” represent “competing ideologies of love” that Lee culled from an extensive study of Western literature and philosophy. His “constructive typology” consists of six types of love, which, he cautions his readers, are far from exhaustive. Eros is passionate love. Erotic lovers seek intimate sexual and emotional involvement. Ludus is flirtatious; love is a game. Ludus lovers avoid commitment or self-disclosure. Storge is companionate love or friendship. Mania is an obsessive love that is intense, explosive, jealous, and possessive. Agape is an altruistic and self-giving love based more on will than emotion. Pragma is a utilitarian love concerned with a sensible match that will effectively meet the social and emotion needs of each partner.

The key word is “style.” There are “love styles” just as there are “life styles.” The differences between lovers consist only of different “styles” of loving, “each valid according to each person’s taste.” In this view, love styles can be constantly adjusted and changed, since they are grounded in no external or objective standards but instead in the subjective satisfactions of the “customers.” One might find a particular love style (or love-styler) “dissatisfying,” so, John Lee asks, “why not change?”

The value of various constructed styles of love is pegged to levels of subjective satisfaction. Yet there is considerable debate over the standards for measuring satisfaction. Is it a matter of the partners’ subjective feelings about their relationship (how the relationship feels)? Or is it about their actual relationship behavior (how it works)? In their contribution to the volume Satisfaction in Close Relationships, Susan and Clyde Hendricks distance themselves from attempts to offer more objective criteria of relationship success. They maintain that close-relationship theory is “fixed on people’s subjective, affective experiencing of their own happiness and contentment with their close relationship.”

The essay by Larry Erbert and Steve Duck in the same volume insists on the importance of “subjective evaluation by each relational partner”: “Satisfaction measures are not designed as objective assessments of relational interaction, but as measures of the attitudes and feelings of the relational partners.” The authors argue for a “dialectical theory of relationship satisfaction” that challenges and deconstructs the “ideal type” implicit in most measures of satisfaction. They contend that these measurements conceal an ideological bias favoring stability over change, reliability over uncertainty, togetherness over individuality, and agreement over conflict. These valuations also entrench “a rigid structural prison that serves to limit the validation of other types of relationships.” By instead emphasizing subjective feelings and dispositions, these theorists hope to validate more fluid and variable relationships.

All about me

And how are we to understand the “self” that close relationships are intended to serve, satisfy, and enhance? Julia Wood and Steve Duck insist that we can no longer view the “identity” of the self as “enclosed in a stable core.” Instead, “selves are recognized as contingent, forming and reforming within diverse relationships and circumstances.” The self only assumes identity “in response to others.” According to Kenneth Gergen and Regina Walter, relationships are the “ontological prior,” by which they mean that “the individual is essentially an extension of relationship.” Thus the grounding of identity in our society, once secured by morality and religion, has shrunk down to the small circles of shifting close relationships in which selves seek recognition and meaning through intimacies with “significant others.”

For Gergen, the modern “saturated self” is essentially a “pastiche personality” that is continually constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed in diverse social contexts. Since the self is constantly “fashioned” and then refashioned within processes of social interchange, the individual does not have an “autobiography” in which, for example, courtship may represent one chapter in a coherent life story. Instead, we now have “sociobiographies,” in which diverse relationships constantly help to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct personal identity. For Julia Wood and Steve Duck, this “relational self” is a “teeming mass of potentialities, any of which may be realized in particular moments and none of which is invariant over time and context.”

In this view, close relationships are significant only insofar as they generate worlds of meaning that enrich and enhance the self. Close-relationship theorists develop models to chart the “self-enhancement” component in close relationships, and argue that these relationships are “one especially satisfying, useful, and human means of expanding the self through including each other in the self.” Close-relationship advocates Elaine and Arthur Aron cite the ancient Upanisadic axiom that “all love is directed toward the Self.” Even in loving, the self is still profoundly self-referential.

Microwave relationships

In close-relationship theory, romantic relationships are said to constitute the “formation stage” of sexually based relationships. For these theorists, courtship does not point toward a specific end, such as stable, successful marriage. The intense, fluid, exploratory world of courtship-as-romance – not courtship leading to marriage – is the paradigm for all sexually intimate relationships, including marriage.

And so marriage lands finally in a very curious spot. Instead of courtship being defined by the goal of marriage, marriage is defined by the dynamics of courtship. Close-relationship theory agrees with the old cosmetics advertisement slogan: The test of a good marriage is its capacity to maintain the “thrill of courtship.” The phrase “You would never know they are married” becomes the highest praise for conjugal love. Of course, intense courtship cannot be sustained forever. But it may be precisely the necessarily limited duration of courtship that makes this bond so fascinating to close-relationship theorists. Close-relationship theory tends to focus particularly on “initiation” and “disengagement,” since these are “particularly striking phases” of intimate relationships. It tends to pass over the dreary world of “relationship maintenance” (marriage).

The relational self is supremely adapted to an endless ebb and flow of romantic encounters and liaisons. In the post-modern world, “Purpose is replaced with pastiche.” Relationships are pastiche, marriage is purpose. Gergen and Walter exclaim the wonders of intense, but fragile, romances. These passionate liaisons are “joint creations” that offer accelerating, mutually generated forms of “reverberating activity” – “my pleasure increases as I experience your pleasure, yours increasing as a result of mine, mine increasing further because of yours, and so on.”

Gergen argues that courtship now refers to an ongoing process that involves the formation of many different sexually bonded relationships throughout life. He defines these interactions as “microwave relationships” – cooked up fast, served, and consumed. The layers of emotional residue left by the multiple passages through episodic relationships are not lamented but celebrated: “The pace of relationships is hurried, and processes of unfolding that once required months or years may be accomplished in days or weeks … The single person may experience not a handful of courtship relationships in a life time but dozens.”

In this postmodern world, stability, domesticity, and fidelity evoke little interest. Relational life is episodic, consisting of closures of old relationships to make way for self-disclosing new intimacies.

Flat and dull

A research model primarily aimed at understanding the internal dynamics of close, sexually intimate relationships is obviously ill-equipped to understand marriage or what leads to marriage. Yet times change. The new world imagined by close-relationship theory – essentially a world of serial coupling – is, more and more with each passing day, the world in which we live. Close-relationship theory is thus an articulation of an increasingly popular, and perhaps soon dominant, ideology of personal relationships.

In Couples: Scenes from the Inside, Sally Cline argues that we are in the midst of a “relationship revolution.” In this new world, five ideas stand out. First, the distinction between marriage and other intimate partnerships is all but eliminated. Courting couples are now said simply to be “in a relationship,” which puts them in the same generic category as married couples, subject to the same norms and processes of relationship quality, maintenance, and dissolution. Second, while the need for basic human attachment and intimacy must still be satisfied, we now privately choose the specific “love styles” with which we gratify those needs. Third, the new world is only big enough for the dyad, the couple. Children are essentially screened out. Despite complaints about the narrowness of the old nuclear family, the world of “close relationships” is far narrower, and also far more boring. Fourth, the new dyadic relationships are measured not by their capacity to foster traditional virtues such as courage or self-sacrifice, but solely by their capacity to satisfy what the self views as its needs. All externally based criteria for what is needed, or for what might constitute satisfaction, are banished; all standards become radically subjective. Finally, the openness, emotional intensity, and relative brevity of courtship are the very traits that make it superior to marriage as an expression of, and as a way of understanding, relationships. Consequently, romantic relationships replace marriage as life’s main arena for the discovery of personal meaning.

In the end, close-relationship theory reduces courtship and marriage to the loving interactions of ever-changing dyad partners. This shift may be the soft underbelly of contemporary theory and practice. For when the dust of this revolution settles, only “relationships” remain – thin and shadowy vestiges of formerly powerful vocations. Despite postmodern celebrations of uncertain futures and new-found freedoms, the road ahead seems flatter and less interesting. Don’t bother to fasten your seat belts.

Courtship, culture, and postmodernity

Today’s three most influential schools of academic thought on courtship – exchange theory, sociobiology, and close-relationship theory – do provide some useful insights. But these insights are fragmentary and quite limited. Exchange theory illuminates our growing capacity to understand marriage in essentially utilitarian terms. This approach has predictive power, insofar as our actual marrying behavior increasingly conforms to the expectations of the theory. Sociobiology exemplifies our cultural fatigue with idealistic views of romance. Its emphasis on the irrational nature of sexual desire and conflict nourishes contemporary cynicism. Its harsh realism further erodes those moral and religious ideals which, for earlier generations, sought to elevate sexual desire into lasting marital love.

Close-relationship theory illuminates our growing tendency to blur the distinctions between marriage and other relationships. Its theoretical insights ring true precisely to the extent that marriage itself is increasingly diluted and reduced to the fluidity and plasticity of just another “relationship.” In short, the older understanding of marriage as covenantal, life-long, genealogical, self-sacrificial, and child-centered is gradually being replaced by an understanding of marriage as merely another dyadic intimate relationship. To the extent that this operation succeeds, close-relationship theory will resonate ever more clearly with our actual personal and social experiences.

And yet, while the models of courtship generated by these schools of thought illuminate certain current realities, they blind us to others. Marriage retains a central importance in American culture, both practically and as an ideal. While nonmarital sex and childbearing are much more common, it is also true that about 90 percent of Americans marry, and Americans of all ages and social classes continue to list a “happy marriage” as vital to their lives. Scholars would do us all a great service if they would rediscover their interest in marriage and the pathways leading to it. Marriage is not just a close relationship, or a sexual barter, or a consumer good. Illuminating these distinctions will require theoretical models that begin, above all, with curiosity about what marriage is.

This is not a plea for homespun “family values” and virtues. “Family values” discourse may actually contribute to our cultural apathy about marriage by obscuring the more radical, startling, and unsettling characteristics of monogamous marriage. Marriage is an erotic bond that bridges the fundamental sexual divide within the human species. It is an intersexual coupling, but it is not just about self-enhancing satisfaction; it is a procreative bond that generates human life. It resonates through the poetry, religion, art, myth, and symbols of the human spirit. Marriage embraces the life, the passions, the beauty, the journeys, the betrayals, the dreams, and, ultimately, the death of the other. A symptom of the curious flatness of our postmodern sexual culture is its growing inability to perceive the elemental depths and power of this primordial human bond.

1 “The End of Courtship,” The Public Interest, Number 126, Winter 1997.

Daniel Cere is director of the Newman Institute of Catholic Studies at McGill University. His essay is based on a report prepared for the Institute for American Values, where he is an affiliate scholar.