The End of Courtship

The Public Interest, Number 126:39–63, Winter 1997.


In the current wars over the state of American culture, few battlegrounds have seen more action than that of “family values”–sex, marriage, and child-rearing. Passions run high about sexual harassment, condom distribution in schools, pornography, abortion, gay marriage, and other efforts to alter the definition of “a family.” Many people are distressed over the record-high rates of divorce, illegitimacy, teenage pregnancy, marital infidelity, and premarital promiscuity. On some issues, there is even an emerging consensus that something is drastically wrong: Though they may differ on what is to be done, people on both the left and the right have come to regard the break-up of marriage as a leading cause of the neglect, indeed, of the psychic and moral maiming, of America’s children. But while various people are talking about tracking down “dead-beat dads” or reestablishing orphanages or doing something to slow the rate of divorce–all remedies for marital failure–very little attention is being paid to what makes for marital success. Still less are we attending to the ways and mores of entering into marriage, that is, to wooing or courtship.

There is, of course, good reason for this neglect. The very terms–“wooing,” “courting,” “suitors”–are archaic; and if the words barely exist, it is because the phenomena have all but disappeared. Today, there are no socially prescribed forms of conduct that help guide young men and women in the direction of matrimony. This is true not just for the lower or under classes. Even–indeed especially–the elite, those who in previous generations would have defined the conventions in these matters, lack a cultural script whose denouement is marriage. To be sure, there are still exceptions, to be found, say, in closed religious communities or among new immigrants from parts of the world that still practice arranged marriage. But for most of America’s middle- and upper-class youth–the privileged college-educated and graduated–there are no known explicit, or even tacit, social paths directed at marriage. People still get married–though later, less frequently, more hesitantly, and, by and large, less successfully. People still get married in churches and synagogues–though often with ceremonies of their own creation. But, for the great majority, the way to the altar is uncharted territory: It’s every couple on its own bottom, without a compass, often without a goal. Those who reach the altar seem to have stumbled upon it by accident.

American Enterprise Institute
Public Interest [pdf]