When My Courtship Failed

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I spent my teen years sure I’d have a first-kiss-at-the-wedding, fairy-tale courtship and happily-ever-after marriage with beautiful children. After all, if I am “committed to courtship,” believe that “true love waits,” and say “marriage is ’til death do us part’,” what else is needed? My beliefs will direct my future.

At 23, I married. At 24, my husband divorced me. Life spiraled into a maze of brokenness, a gritty reality many friends and acquaintances found uncomfortable. I fell. I got up again. Broken heart, broken life, broken dreams.

My ideals failed me. The courtship formula did not protect me from devastation.

Saving my purity for my husband and being betrayed by him triggered feelings of loss and disillusionment. I felt cheated, like someone who paints a masterpiece only to give it to a friend who shreds it.

If a break-up is a broken bone, divorce is an amputation. How do you recover and return to normal? You don’t. You learn to live life differently. In my opinion, you become a stronger individual. It’s not the most desirable way to gain strength, but for those who must walk this path, it works.

Why would I want to go back to being that idealistic, naive, and self-assured girl? Here is beauty–here is grace. Here is a life of rich colors and vibrant sights which make my heart beat faster. I would never have been capable of loving and appreciating another person so deeply if my world had not been shattered. I would have felt entitled to a perfect life and happiness by following all the rules.

Instead of feeling entitled, I am thankful. Not thankful that I have some perfect love story and happy marriage. But thankful for a place to call home, a son who loves me, and a reason to get up in the morning.

Post-Courtship-2I thought courtship would yield my ideals. But any man-made convention will ultimately fail. Even in outwardly appearing successes there is brokenness. Brokenness and beauty go hand in hand. The one is more than worth the pain of the other.

Courtship, ideals, and living a “good life” do not protect anyone from bad things happening. The teaching of emotional purity often causes great harm (which is a whole series of posts in itself!). Wouldn’t it be better, if need be, to date and reap a broken heart a few times, if in the end you find someone who is good and kind? Could this not possibly be better than marrying the first guy you’ve ever been attracted to, so your heart will be “pure”?

Perhaps the first man you ever loved will be good and kind. Perhaps it will be the third or fourth. Neither occurrence is superior. They should both be valid, respected options. And in courtship they aren’t.

I’m divorced. I’m a single mom. And I have a beautiful life rich in God’s grace. I would not be any more happy or fill-in-any-positive-emotion if I’d never been divorced, never been a single mom, or never seen my world ripped to shreds. I don’t sit around wishing things turned out differently. There are far worse things than a broken heart or a broken body.

Why do we see pain as bad, whether it’s the pain of a broken bone or a broken heart? I fractured my pelvis in 2011 and the pain was excruciating. Even a year and a half later, there is an ache when I walk too much in one day. Yars ago my heart broke, and the pain was excruciating. Even half a decade later, there is an ache when I least expect it. This is not bad.

It’s all about beauty and grace. If you look to the right of this post, you’ll see two quotes, my life mantras as it were. “Beauty will save the world” and “Your grace was not taken.” No one can steal my peace and joy. The grace I walk in is mine alone.

As one of my friends told me, “No man controls my life.” If we put the control of our life in the hands of a man or a formula, we are sure to be disappointed. 

“What went wrong?” People ask me. “What could you have done differently so life will fit your ideals? What went wrong?” I think that is the wrong question. It may be what we want to ask, what we want to accomplish, but it is not the right question. Maybe there is no right question. Certainly there are no answers to the “why’s”.

If there is beauty–and there always is–it is enough for me. I’ll spend my life pursuing it, instead of asking questions.

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  1. I agree 100%. I am going through the “shredding” right now of a 18+ year marriage based on the courtship principles and saving my heart and body for “the one”. I truly believe it is better to have a few good heartbreaks from which to learn wisdom and insight, than to naively assume because you did your absolute best to follow “God’s path to a marriage partner” that you will be spared a broken home. Let us remember…we are chosing our children’s fathers. Let’s be choosey and have our breakups (and plenty of them) before the wedding instead of after when there is children involved. Thanks for writing this blog post.

  2. While I am NOT discounting the fact that your marriage ended in heartbreak, I don’t think it’s wise to imply that 1) Courtship is the reason for this and 2) The only way we can truly love someone is if we’ve been hurt by someone before.

    This just isn’t a healthy view. Both of my sisters courted and are now married and they have some of the happiest most beautiful marriages I’ve ever seen. This also goes for many couples that I know. This doesn’t mean that it’s because of courtship that they have such beautiful relationships, but don’t you think that God uses all of our circumstances to shape His will for our lives? Whether that be “courtship” or “dating”. You can’t blame your sorrow and pain on courtship.

    To say that we should go “shopping” so we can get our “heart’s broken” before we get married seems a bit ridiculous. Where does the Bible support this view? I see warnings in the Bible against “awakening love before it’s time” and “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”…I see nothing that supports your implied idea of giving your love away to many men before marriage.

    Now, I am NOT saying that we must follow a certain set of “rules” and that if you “give your heart away” you’re in some kind of sin! Because I don’t think that at all. I also think there’s a difference between feeling attraction for someone and for falling head-over-heels for someone. I believe that attraction is a natural part of life – it’s what we do with it that I think is important. Are we guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus as we are commanded?

    I don’t mean this to be argumentative…I’m so sorry if it comes across that way! This has been something I’ve been thinking about and I am just, honestly, bewildered by your view.

    • It is unfortunate that you are bewildered, but thank you for communicating in a polite manner.

      I will be writing a series on emotional purity and delving deeper into these topics. I’m not big on debating things in comments…but wanted to at least acknowledge yours.

      Nowhere did I say that we cannot love until we have been hurt. However, it could be that the deepest, truest loves come through pain. I’d bring in Christ’s relationship to His church but that might just stir things up more. But have not you yourself been through a courtship that did not end in marriage? Wasn’t one of your sisters betrothed and it did not end in marriage? You did not mention this when you mentioned their beautiful marriages. Their marriages are no more perfect for being courtships, or less beautiful, as you say, for being after previous relationships.

      Finally, the “guard your hearts” verse is so grossly misinterpreted in the book “Emotional Purity” and in purity literature in general that it deserves an intense treatment that I cannot do here in the comments. But I will in a post.

  3. It upsets me, it really does, that people are taught that following a particular path – courtship – always leads to a happy marriage. And if you don’t end up in a happy marriage, well, you must not have done the courtship right. The message to people hurt by the courtship model is “you are the failure, not the method.” It’s not right, and it’s not fair to those people.
    There are no guarantees. I know people would like to THINK that there are – that emotional purity + parent-supervised courtship + whatever else they add in to their model will ALWAYS result in a happy, successful marriage. Except it doesn’t. It can’t.
    Relationships fail. Marriages fail. No formula can guarantee otherwise and if someone tells you that they CAN guarantee a successful, happy marriage? Run the other way, very quickly.

  4. Thank your for your honesty. I agree completely. I wrote an article about the damaging effects of emotional purity teachings last year and it exploded all over the web. I’m glad to see others speaking up against these teachings. I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts!

    (P.S. I’m sorry if you get this comment more then once. I had a hard time figuring out how to comment. :P)

  5. Thank you for your kind reply. And please know that I can see where you’re coming from, though we may disagree on this topic.

    Yes, I have been through a courtship that didn’t end in marriage. But (and I say this in all truth.) my heart was not broken…we got to know one another on a friendship level and we both decided to go our separate ways…still friends!

    One of my sisters also went through a courtship (that progressed to engagement.) before that ended as well….neither was her heart broken. But I don’t see what this has to do with anything…? Are you saying that there’s people who believe that you should marry the first person you court? Because I do not believe that at all. I’m confused…but the internet can be such a confusing place since we tend to not know where people are coming from or what they mean without voice inflections. 🙂

    All of that aside, what I’m basically trying to communicate, is this: There are far more marriages that have failed horribly and miserably when the couple dated then marriages where the couple courted. So we can’t blame a failed marriage on either courtship *or* dating. God uses each of our circumstances to further His will and I don’t think that we can say that a marriage failed because of courtship or dating.

    • Yes, I am saying that there is a strong theme in courtship/betrothal/purity relationship teaching and practice that says a relationship should lead to marriage. In practice, courtships do end, but it is a much bigger deal than if a dating relationship ends, because of the level of seriousness and commitment involved. This level of commitment is designed to protect hearts–which only works if the courtship leads to marriage and the marriage stays intact.

      My purpose in writing this piece was not to say dating is the answer. It is only to offer thoughts on what happens when courtship fails to deliver what so many claim it promises. Nothing more.

  6. Also, do you truly believe that if you had dated your ex-husband instead of courting him, that your marriage would not have ended in heartbreak?

    I think we all have a tendency to blame the process instead of the sin of man.

    • If i had dated instead of courted, the relationship would not have ended in marriage. It is because of the serious nature and heavy front-end commitment of courtship that discourages break-ups far more than dating does. Does that make sense?

    • Actually, I think this is one of the first former courtship proponents I’ve ever seen who points out that not only the people but the SYSTEM of courtship is flawed.

      • Because after all, if people are sinful and flawed, so is the courtship process, as it was invented by people. However well-intentioned they were.

  7. I think if we define courtship as a semi-engagement then we may be asking for trouble. I do wish there was a better word than “courtship,” as this means so many different things to so many different people. But courtship, as our family defines it, should be the “deliberate pursuit of marriage.” Motive matters. It doesn’t mean that it will always end in marriage, but marriage needs to be the goal, not perpetual romance. When young people guard their hearts, they’re using discretion, and this is a great protection, as well as a biblical trait for any Christian.

  8. “If i had dated instead of courted, the relationship would not have ended in marriage.”

    You can’t know this for sure.

    In fact, two of my daughters experienced courtships that did not end in marriage, and the fact that they courted proved to be a HUGE protection. Their hearts were guarded and as a result they were not heartbroken when the relationships ended.

    In addition, if they had not been committed to guarding their hearts and bodies, they could have gotten so caught up in the romance (as well as other things) that they wouldn’t have been able to clearly see some of the HUGE red flags that were there. And by the time they did, it may have been too late. We are very grateful for God’s guidance in it all.

    • Here’s one thing I don’t understand: You mention that it’s essential to “guard your heart” throughout courtship. If so, when are you actually allowed to _fall in love_ with this person you’ve already tentatively signed on to marry? After the engagement? Even that would not exclude the possibility of heartbreak; sadly, some courtships do end at that stage.

      Discretion and good judgment are key in any romantic relationship, but young people should not enter into courtship assuming it offers protection against a broken heart. We all know of many failed courtships, as well as the broken hearts that can (and often do) go along with them, even though some people try to sweep evidence of this under the rug.

      Natalie’s point is that by refraining from making marriage the objective right at the beginning of a relationship, women may be in a better position to evaluate the character and long-term compatibility of their suitors–and may feel more freedom to end an unsuitable relationship if necessary.

      In courtship culture, because relationships are by definition serious at the outset, it’s easy to feel locked in by the commitment you’ve already made to a person, determined to stick things out even if there are red flags. (This is especially true for women who, because of their relative isolation from the world, fear they may never have a realistic marriage prospect again.) And since the courting couple are seldom allowed to spend time alone together, some potential red flags may never even appear until after marriage, at which point we get situations like Natalie’s heartbreaking one.

      • Hi Silvia, I can appreciate your concerns, but again, I think it depends on how we define courtship. It obviously means drastically different things to different people. By our family’s definition, our married daughters were able to develop a relaxed loving relationship during the course of their courtships, while still guarding their hearts. While it was understood from the beginning that this was a pursuit of marriage, the couples were encouraged to always remember that “this still may be someone else’s future spouse.”

        This helped them to view their suitor as a brother in Christ, and helped them to evaluate the relationship intellectually, while building a solid friendship that was free of the rose-colored-glasses syndrome.

        Again, we can’t trust in “methods,” so to speak. Courtship, no matter how it plays out, is not an inoculation against sin or deception; but, I still believe the principles we’ve applied in our family (regardless of whether you call it courtship or something else) have, by God’s grace, been very helpful to our children, and have been a huge protection against heartbreak and serious mistakes.

        Again, I think if we define courtship as a semi-engagement then we may be asking for trouble. But neither do I want a guy pursuing the heart of one of our daughters with no intention of ever marrying her. I don’t see any sort of precedent for that in Scripture. We’re to apply wisdom and discretion to all of life.

        [Link removed]

  9. Hi Natalie, I’m really, really sorry I seem to have upset you. That certainly wasn’t my intention at all! When I said you “couldn’t know that for sure,” I was only pointing out that we can’t know the future of circumstances that never happened; however, if you feel certain about this, I have no desire of convincing you of anything else. I’m also very sorry for what you’ve been through. Though I know none of the details, I can relate to your pain.

    As you may know, I went through similar circumstances when I was your age. [Link removed]

    I dated a lot before I married Jessica’s birth father. And I had my heart broken (and broke a lot of hearts) before getting emotionally and physically involved with him. It’s hard to explain how easy it is to get sucked into relationships that are unhealthy once emotions are involved.

    Though courtship is certainly no inoculation against deception or sin, at least (depending on how you define courtship) there is a greater chance that discernment is used and hopefully parents or others will see red flags before emotions (and hormones) are heavily engaged.

    Blessings to you, sister.

  10. YES. Yes to this article, yes to the questioning, Yes to the truths it contains, and yes to the fact that “guarding your heart” romantically is about as abstract an idea as you can get, where emotions are involved.

    I am fully on board with submitting every area of our lives to Christ, and seeking Him fervently in such an important season/decision. I just don’t believe that a decision to have ones heart “on guard” is sufficient. In fact, the very declaration seems to preclude any brother/sister interaction, and create a tension.

    I concede “guarding your heart” may mean different things to different people. It just seems to me like applying a bandaid to prevent the flu, and stepping out boldly thinking you’re protected. Though the phrase is often bandied about, the specifics aren’t talked about.

    I have experienced the “broken bone” of a breakup, not the “amputation” of divorce, but your words resonate:

    “Why would I want to go back to being that idealistic, naive, and self-assured girl? Here is beauty–here is grace.”

    Here is grace indeed. I would not trade the scar, because the wounding/healing process taught me more about His grace and His love than years of living “safely”. I had to be broken before I could be put together again – in His pattern.

    […as a disclaimer, I’m not suggesting that we should live so as to be hurt/wounded. Only that if it occurs, God can and will bring beauty from the ashes.]

    PS. Hope this doesn’t double post…had a bit of trouble selecting my non-gravatar email address.

  11. You’ve stated it so clearly: no person or formula can make life “right,” free of pain, or secure. I would like to post this at every homeschool convention, Christian School, Bill Gothard seminar, Courtship rally, and every other crutch we so foolishly lean on for the support of our illusions.
    Keep sharing the true beauty, sister Natalie!!!

    • Randi, thanks for your thoughts. It’s been awhile since we connected! We all meant well in the past with what we supported and tried to implement but that doesn’t mean it was best or always worked. The key now, I believe, is to be open to admitting we didn’t know what we were doing. 🙂

    • I think unless you are one of those very close to what is happening, divorces often don’t seem to make sense and questions are asked. They have a right to be asked, but they can’t always be answered because there’s too many people’s privacy involved.

      Glad it was encouraging. Just a start on my part toward the conversation at large on why there isn’t one way to marital happiness.

  12. Dear Natalie: i truly loved your post i always liked to write and your writings are so beautiful i don’t say this lightly you write from life’s hard times you write from brokeness from truth i strongly admire that. What i don’t like is what people here are doing…they are asking too many questions!! they are asking more stuff than needed…with age only with age and many experiences i learned not to ask some things because it’s not my story..it’s your story..i learn from listening not from asking not from hurting not from arguing not from meddling. 🙁 My daddy once taught me he is so broken and sick now,,but he taught me this: SIlence sometimes Jane is golden. YES he was right! 🙂 as always..! he is a wise man 🙂 He is better now he feels much better but pray for him Natalie please pray for him. I want him to be cured one day and walk..pray for this miracle with me! And i have to say big bravo to sharing your life story and all your broken pieces with us…I have my story too that I am honestly too afraid to share so openly because i always was afraid of criticism…and questions like this…each time i try to open up a little more like a flower on fb there are some that even though we r friends they just don’t know when to keep their mouth shut. I really at times in life just like Job need people to be there for me, to listen, to love, and to inspire me with silence! 🙂 yes i have a few friends like that that God gave me through the years..They have gotten me through the hardest of times..i also was in wards like you mentioned on this main home page 3 times one summer in 2004 it is a distant memory God healed me so much from that and from those memories..they are not even a part of who i am now BUT all those pieces are a part of my life..but the past is the past 🙂 i also was engaged once after long dating ritual….then never married..maybe one day God will give me a mate..maybe or maybe not. Thank you so much for being so brave Natalie for sharing so much of yourself with the world…many appreciate your bravery and your honesty…some may have read and didn’t even comment! what a blessing you are..God is so proud of you 🙂 I don’t know if you remember me i was on ylcf for many years then for many reasons left…i always loved your posts you emailed me too. Thanks for being such a brave writer…i love writing poetry myself..i think i’ll pick up my pen many years later to heal those broken pieces to heal and to be the best i can be which is through writing…Sorry this was so lengthy Natalie I apologize i am long winded sometimes…God Bless you dear sister and your family…hugs!