Tuesday, September 12, 2000

Frank Sinatra, an icon of romance to the 1940s bobby soxers, once crooned about “love and marriage” going together like “a horse and carriage.” American courtship today seems to have dropped the refrain about marriage, says a new paper that looks at modern theories in mate selection.

Courtship and dating patterns have “drifted into a free-floating social space, devoid of any clear connection to the goal of marriage,” Canadian ethics scholar Dan Cere says in a paper released this month by the Institute for American Values (IAV) in New York.

Without “socially prescribed forms of conduct” to help young adults find their way into marriage, there are “more accidents and wrong turns,” he says.

This, in turn, is leading to delayed marriages, fewer marriages and less-successful marriages.

America is at a crossroads, adds Mr. Cere, director of the Newman Institute at McGill University in Montreal.

Many social scientists seem eager to ditch the traditional models of marriage and nuclear family in favor of “close relationships” and an “evolving” family.

Still, about 90 percent of Americans marry at least once, and in 1996, 86 percent of young Americans said that a “happy marriage” was an essential element of a “good life,” says Mr. Cere.

Social scientists would “do us all a great service” if they would begin studying courtship as a path to marriage, he concludes.

Leon and Amy Kass, two outspoken proponents of reviving marriage and courtship, concur.

“There is no more important topic than finding new ways to restore a culture of courtship,” said the couple, who wrote “Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying.”

Human cultures have always monitored the way their young people mated and produced the next generation, says IAV President David Blankenhorn, citing arranged marriages and dowries as just two overt examples of such matrimonial oversight.

In America, though, there seems to be a wholesale abdication of courtship, says Mr. Blankenhorn. It’s as if the whole country has said to its young people, “We don’t know [how you should find a mate] and we don’t want to know. You’re on your own,” he says.

There is evidence that American young people are trying to find their way.

Use of personal ads and the Internet to find dates is exploding. Dating guides, like “The Rules” by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, and even no-dating guides, like Joshua Harris’ “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” remain popular.

These are all “distinct signs of a yearning among young people for clearer and more effective” modes of courtship, says Mr. Cere.

However, as he points out in his paper, “The Experts’ Story of Courtship,” only one of the three prevailing patterns of courtship in America even attempts to lead a couple to marriage.

The first courtship theory Mr. Cere finds is a capitalistic, consumer-based “exchange theory.”

In this approach to courtship, men and women see each other as consumers who need things, and marriage as a contract in which commodities can be exchanged.

“Commodities” include standards of living, quantity and quality of children, sexual gratification and social status, Mr. Cere says, citing the 1970s work of Gary Becker, an exchange theorist.

The exchange theory of courtship has the notable benefit of at least connecting mate selection with marriage, says Mr. Cere.

However, a major defect of this kind of “Let’s Make a Deal” union is that it reduces marriage to a simple contract between consenting adults.

Under today’s no-fault divorce laws, such a contract can be easily broken, with no acknowledgment of the consequences to anyone else, including children, extended family, friends or society at large, he says.

The second modern approach to courtship is “sociobiological,” linking mate selection with sex and reproduction.

In this approach, single women seek “dominant males” who can give nourishment, protection, security and social status to themselves and their offspring, says Mr. Cere.

Single men seek sexual relations with women who are young, healthy, physically attractive and fertile. The purest form of this thinking, Mr. Cere adds, means fathering as many children as possible with as many women as possible.

Since the agendas of men and women do not mesh at least, not for long both sexes pursue courtship strategies aimed at tricking each other into mating with them.

“Females deceive about their age and physical attractiveness,” says Mr. Cere. Males “dissemble” about their assets, career prospects and willingness to commit to the female.

The upside of this “sexual barter” approach to courtship is that women’s expectations for men drive them to achieve these very traits, which, in turn, build societies, says Mr. Cere.

The downside is that it reduces male-female relationships to power, property, deceit, control and reproduction. Forget about love, self-sacrifice or commitment, Mr. Cere said, referring to the 1994 book “The Evolution of Desire,” by David M. Buss, for fuller discussion of the arguments.

Casual sex, sometimes known as “hooking up,” fits into this courtship approach, adds Mr. Cere.

The third modern approach to courtship, and the one that is gaining the most allegiance, says being “in a relationship” is the goal.

This courtship approach results in often thrilling but transient experiences: Adults “shop around” for a suitable partner, make the necessary efforts to secure that partner, and then spend time discovering each other in a “close,” sexual relationship.

Eventually, though, the couple faces a choice: either maintain the relationship, i.e., as in marriage, or dump each other and look for the next “close” relationship.

Needless to say, there is a lot of dumping of partners, says Mr. Cere. The adult’s needs are constant, he explains. The partner who meets them is replaceable.

The problem with making a “close relationship” the ultimate goal is that this means all primary sexual relationships married, cohabiting, heterosexual or homosexual are equally significant, says Mr. Cere.

There are massive implications of such a change, he notes: If all close relationships become of equal value, then marriage will no longer be a “privileged” relationship. And once the importance of marriage is erased, there will be no good reason to prefer two-person couples over polygamous or other kinds of relationships.

In all three modern courtship approaches, Mr. Cere sees a disregard for the “deep human need for lasting love,” and “the human capacity to cherish another person for his or her sake.”

“Courtship is more than coupling” and marriage is more than “going steady, sexual barter or a consumer good,” he says, calling for more studies into these traditional modes of “love and marriage.”

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