Courting vs. Dating: What Does It All Mean?

What was meant to be a nice, ‘food coma’-inducing meal at Chipotle Mexican Grill, paired with a pleasant conversation between my boyfriend and I, quickly shifted gears, taking a turn for the worse. The monster that reared its ugly head this time was the seemingly unassuming, yet ever-lingering debate on dating versus courting. Do we really even know what either of those words mean? Or, are they just synonyms of each other–two different words essentially meaning the same thing?

One of the boys at my church’s youth group recently turned 18 years old. As is commonly done to most ‘men’ this age, the heckling and teasing began shortly after the birthday cake had been cut. When asked if he had a girlfriend yet, or if he was dating anyone, this freshly minted man stated, “I don’t date…I court”. When asked if he even knew what that meant, he promptly replied with an earnest, “no”. This sort of answer in regards to dating is commonly heard at any church youth group, or even young adult groups, for that matter. Why is there such a confusion about dating and/or courting? Are parents, teachers, or youth pastors slacking off when it comes to discussing this topic with young people, or is this whole notion of there even being a difference between the two words unfounded?

According to Skip Burzumato of Boundless Webzine, in “the early 20th century, courtship involved one man and one woman spending intentional time together in order to get to know each other with the expressed purpose of evaluating the other as a potential husband or wife”. This was usually done in a private setting, such as the girl’s home, and monitored by people closest to her, such as her parents. In this case, my understanding has always been that the man was already interested in the possibility of marrying the girl in question, but had to make his intentions known not only to her, but also to her family, which would explain why he showed up at her house in the first place, donned in his Sunday best, holding flowers in his shaky hands. Burzumato goes on to explain that dating, as we understand it today, is just an added element to the “system of courtship”. Dating allows multiple possibilities for a potential spouse, diverting from a cultural, scripted method, to a more “multi-layered, ambiguous system”. So, although you may be dating, the ultimately goal remains–finding someone to marry. Courtship states that you pick someone you are interested in marrying and then get to know them, while dating says you get to know someone, and then see if you would like to marry them. So, the difference here is incredibly small, but still present, nonetheless, and deserves some attention.

I’m sure you’ve all heard your grandma or mother say, “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free”, at some point in your lives. As crazy as Granny may seem at times, she’s usually right. The problem I find with dating, is that there is no accountability in place. Burzumato also explained that with the onset of “the date” in the 1930’s and 40’s came leaving the private setting of the girl’s home, to going out and “parking the car”. Hopefully I don’t have to paint you a picture as to what he means by that; most of you are old enough, and have vivid enough imaginations to figure it out. Once Daddy isn’t watching, both the girl and guy are free to do whatever they please, without the pressure to tie the knot. Although this doesn’t mean all dating couples are dropping their pants, it does ease the pressure of stating your intentions from the get-go; accountability has been lost with the element of ‘dating’. I’d be hard pressed to find someone who says they are “courting for fun”, whereas plenty of people go on dates with random people, without really getting to know them outside of a romantic context, simply because it’s fun. In those cases, the intent to marry the person is not there, and if marriage is the whole point of dating, then both parties ‘dating for fun’ are simply wasting their time.

Most people with a lasting relationship and loving marriage will tell you they are best friends, or that their relationship started off as a friendship and grew into love. I believe that is where courtship comes into play – when two friends fall in love, want to get married, and begin a courtship. Both the man and woman are aware that their relationship is leading to marriage, and in due time, they will tie the knot. Granted, they are more than likely to say they are “dating”, as that word is most commonly used in today’s society, but essentially, they are courting. With dating, the ambiguity of the relationship and its unclear future, can be both disturbing and heartbreaking. Intentions need to be made exceptionally clear right from the onset, so that both the man and woman can act accordingly. If you’re dating to get to know someone, good luck, because let’s face it, most people are on their best behaviour on a ‘just a date’. If you build a friendship first, then you already know the person, and in courting them, you see if they would be a suitable spouse for you. Unless you are ready to get married, don’t bother dating, because then it just defeats the whole purpose of dating, which is marriage.

I may be old-fashioned, but I believe there is an inherent difference between courting and dating. Accountability is important for any successful relationship; lay out your intentions in stone. Know what you want and respect the person you are with, or want to be with, enough to make sure they are aware of what you want – courting ensures this, dating doesn’t. Dating leaves you wondering, questioning, and unsure. So, although I think it’s lame when Christians say, “I don’t date…I court”, as long as you know what you’re talking about when you say that, or are able to back up your statement, it’s fine. Otherwise…just don’t.

So, what happened that day at Chipotle Mexican Grill when the monster of the dating vs. courting clawed into my lovely evening with my boyfriend? Well, let’s just say, I was right, and that monster won’t be third-wheeling on our dates ever again.

Octavia Ahsan

@OctaviaFaith; OctaviaFaith.com

Octavia Ahsan is a writer/blogger from Brampton, a suburb outside of Toronto, ON. In 2010 she received a Bachelors degree in Science from McMaster University, and founded a charitable organization called CompassionActs. In March 2012 she founded The PODIUM, where she also serves as the Editor-in-Chief. She frequently writes for MilkandHoneyMedia.co.uk, a popular Christian girls blog based out of London, England, as well as her personal blog site OctaviaFaith.com. In her spare time, she likes to hunt for the best burrito in Toronto (Chipotle Mexican Grill holds the spot so far).

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One comment

  1. In my humble opinion, dating and courting are two different steps in a relationship that is possibly leading to marriage. It really comes down to how we are taught. The modern day meaning of both have changed from what they use to imply. I know couples who said they are “courting” and they are also having a intimate relationship. I know couples who have said they where “dating ” but waited to after marriage to have sex. I have taught my kids that they should only date someone that they would marry, not that they will marry them, but that person they are interested in has the qualities that you would look for in picking a mate that they would spend the rest of their lives with.
    To me, Dating is the first step in building a relationship with the opposite sex. It’s a time that you get to know a little more about someone. You go out with a group of friends or you hang out together after church with other young adults. If that relationship begins to blossoms into a deeper commitment for each, it then leads to the second step of the relationship, which is courting. Courting is when the relationship has taken on a deeper meaning. They are now taking a step closer to engagement.
    Then the third step is engagement. Then after engagement, marriage would be the forth step in the relationship.
    That is how I was taught.
    I now have four children, one boy and three girls, and this is what I have taught them.
    Anyway, I enjoyed your thoughts on this subject.

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