New Worlds: Courtship

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

The counterpart to arranged marriages are ones where the spouses choose each other, often referred to as a “love match.” When there’s no matchmaker involved (be it a family member or trained professional), it’s up to interested parties to find and woo their own future husband or wife . . . which can be a very fraught process.

Before we dive too far into that, I should say that there’s often courtship involved in arranged marriages, too. The Japanese matchmaking process is called miai and means “looking at one another;” nowadays it begins with looking at a photograph, but in the past it might instead be kagemi, a “hidden look,” arranging for the man to secretly glimpse the woman without her knowing. If that goes well, the families proceed to their children meeting face-to-face, usually in a series of three dates before a decision is made. European nobility sent portraits as advertisements for their kids, and the prospective pair might exchange letters to get to know one another if they couldn’t meet in person.

But with love matches/autonomous marriage, courtship plays a much larger role, because it’s the means by which people even find possible spouses, conduct their evaluations, and seal the deal. So let’s dig into that.

The trend over time has been for this process to become less formalized. When love matches were just starting to become widespread, roughly two hundred years ago, it was common — especially for the upper classes — to organize events where unattached men and women could meet each other under supervision and engage in socially acceptable interaction. You see this all over Regency novels, both contemporary and modern, and part of the reason we have entire genres of social dance is because of the role it’s played in Western courtship.

But not everyone approves of dancing, and not everyone is good at it. Religious activities have long been another venue where people can meet — and it’s worth noting that any number of arranged marriages have begun with two people getting to know each other at such an event and hitting it off well enough that their parents made the arrangements for them. The modern ideal where a husband and wife (or spouses of whatever gender) should be friends as well as domestic partners means that many teenagers and adults find prospects through their hobbies, whether that’s volunteer work, athletic competitions, book clubs, or online fandom. Alternatively, they can meet through processes specifically designed to facilitate relationships, such as speed-dating events in cafes or matchmaking apps.

As mores have relaxed, supervised interactions have given way to a more flexible notion of courtship. “Dating” is a concept with rather fuzzy boundaries, to the point where people can and do debate whether hanging out with a person of the suitable gender counts as a date or not. (Does it only count if it’s the two of you alone, or are group dates a possibility? Does it have to be a leisure activity? Is it only a date if you hold hands, or kiss?) It used to be permissible to date more than one person at a time, and exclusivity only came into play if you agreed you were “going steady.” Nowadays, relationship status is as likely to be defined by one’s Facebook profile as anything else.

The range of acceptable behaviors within courtship has broadened to the point where, for some people, the only difference between “married” and “not married” is a legal one. Not everyone, of course; there are many communities where physical contact is still tightly regulated, such that kissing is allowed but sex is not, or holding hands is allowed or kissing is not, or any touch at all is verboten. But it’s increasingly common for couples to cohabit, sleep together, or both before marriage. Which some people argue is good sense — thoroughly testing compatibility ahead of time — but there’s evidence that it does lead to higher rates of divorce, likely because more people just kind of let inertia slide them into wedlock, rather than evaluating their relationship before making that decision.

Like matchmaking, courtship of the informal type involves evaluating a prospective partner, but the criteria may be different. Family is often less of a consideration . . . though it doesn’t vanish entirely, as more than one person has realized they simply can’t stand the other person’s relatives. Financial status remains important, and personal attractiveness often plays a much more significant role. Especially in these days of airbrushed models and social media, we can be very prone to making snap judgments based on appearance — which leads many people on matchmaking sites and apps to use photos from ten years ago, or to lie about their height and weight. Then again, this is nothing new: Henry VIII, whom I mentioned before, claimed to be very disappointed in the appearance of Anne of Cleves, saying that descriptions and portraits had flattered her more than she deserved. (Considering his track record, Anne may well have been glad he annulled their marriage six months later.)

The notion that husbands and wives should be friends, though, has changed the “compatibility” field quite drastically. It isn’t enough simply for a couple to get along amiably, with the husband bringing home good money and the wife keeping a well-ordered household and a minimum of arguments — which was more or less the ideal of the eighteenth century. They should want to spend their leisure time together. Instead of having separate circles of friends, segregated by gender, they should share friends. So although it’s no longer the case in such marriages that family members have to give approval before two can wed, to some extent friends now fill that role: if a boyfriend or girlfriend doesn’t get along with a best friend, then the romance may be off.

This process can be fun, but it can also be significantly stressful, especially as people get older and their opportunities for socializing diminish. For many adults, work is their primary venue for meeting people . . . but there are significant problems with dating a co-worker, especially if one of you holds a position of authority over the other. So it’s not surprising that we’re coming to rely so heavily on technology to bridge the gap — or that miai is coming back into fashion in Japan. We may still have different standards now for what we want out of a spouse, but looking for help in finding one might just be good sense.

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