A courtship is not just a way of discovering the heart of another person. It is a process of generously seeking an intimate friendship that will establish the foundation of the entire marriage. I would suggest five things that are of critical importance to establish that foundation in Christ.
Years ago, I was preparing a couple for marriage, and I suggested they make a habit of saying “please” and “thank you.” The young woman smiled and said, “Fred isn’t into that. He thinks it’s too formal.” I responded, “Formal or not, it is extremely important. It is a manifestation of respect, which you will vow to do on your wedding day (“I will love you and honor you ...”).”
I told them of the married couple whom I counseled to keep track for a week of just how polite they were in their daily interactions. They came back and proclaimed they were amazed at how rude they were. They began to reform, and their relationship got better and better. Pope Francis proclaimed that living together is an art which can be summarized in three words: “please, thank you and sorry.”
Another element of respect is to learn to express dissatisfaction diplomatically. To say “My hero, it would make me really happy if you’d hold my chair for me in the restaurant,” will bring far greater results than saying, “You are so rude. You don’t hold my chair for me.”
Many will say, “diplomacy is not my strong point,” but no one is naturally diplomatic. It can take years to develop it, but it’s part of the Christian virtues of kindness and love.
Commit to chastity
Committing to chastity is not just firmly promising yourself you won’t sleep with someone before marriage. It certainly includes that, but chastity is far more than that. Any seeking of sexual pleasure is sinful, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes” (No. 2351). That is, seeking sexual pleasure outside of a marital act open to life is sinful. So, chastity would exclude heavy kissing and any other stimulating activities outside of marriage.
These things are quite important because many young people who intend to avoid premarital sex get stirred up by their style of kissing and end up falling.
Know how to be chaste
So, a Christian has to commit to a lifestyle of chastity, not just the end point. That lifestyle can include lots of warm hugs, sharing affection in various ways, but not strongly stimulating activity. Kisses should be gentle, tender, while standing, and only for saying good night. If a couple wants to share affection on the couch, she can sit and he can lie next to her with his head on her lap, holding and kissing her hand, talking the night away.
It takes a strong commitment to this lifestyle of many hugs and few kisses to really remain chaste during courtship. Hugs are primarily about intimacy; heavy kissing and beyond, primarily about pleasure. What so often happens in sharing affection during courtship is that couples start out seeking intimacy but end up settling for pleasure. They’re not the same. Pleasure is a poor substitute for intimacy.
Many couples who have tried this approach have been able to retrieve their chastity and have found it quite enriching. The traditional approach of getting people all revved about avoiding premarital sex doesn’t seem to work as well as this.
Pursue personal intimacy
Intimacy is the crown of love. If you love your sweetheart generously, seeking his or her good above all, you will often have the joy of intimacy.
Not every couple thinks of that as their goal, but they should. Doing things together, lots of “talking dates” like having dinner, going for walks and getting together with other couples are all things that will facilitate sharing the deep things of the heart and discovering each other as persons, not just superficially. (And, couples must continue to date once married to keep this intimacy alive!)
Seek and give forgiveness
Another virtue for a good courtship is humility. Be humble enough to admit mistakes, to ask forgiveness and to strive to overcome faults. A partner who is willing to forgive, without enabling bad behavior, fosters this sort of humility in their sweetheart. Humility, mercy and the desire to grow are essential elements of a good courtship — and a good marriage, too.
Father Thomas G. Morrow is the author of “Christian Courtship in An Oversexed World” (Catholic Faith Alive, $13.95).