The term courtship is defined by the Webster dictionary as; “a period during which a couple develop a romantic relationship, especially with a view to marriage.” How does developing the romantic relationship work? What does having a view toward marriage look like? How long is this period? What does the relationship look like? What behavior does this period include? None of us ever sat down to a “here’s what courtship is” kind of talk. While some can navigate the courting scene seamlessly, others find themselves stuck in a rut. Patrick Carnes, in his book Facing the Shadows, outlines the stages of courtship. Knowing each phase can help you identify where you are getting stuck, or which step you are overlooking, causing courting to go awry.
Noticing – This is the conscious ability to recognize traits that you find attractive yet at the same time recognizing traits that may not be good for you. “Noticing also means discriminating (Carnes, 2010).”
Attraction – Permitting yourself to feel interested in the other person and being capable of imagining yourself acting on your desires. There is a desire and interest to learn more about the emotional, physical, and intellectual traits of the other person. Attraction is what keeps an existing relationship alive, by remaining open to the unknown, change, and learning new things about your partner.
Flirting – Everyone should have some flirting skills, even animals in the wild flirt. Bowerbirds in Australia build nests and decorate the nests for potential mates. The purpose of flirting is to send a signal to the potential partner that you are interested and attracted to them. Flirting includes playful, seductive, and charming behavioral social cues. Flirting also requires recognition of when it is appropriate to flirt.
Demonstration – In Bonobo mating we call this phase; “presenting”. The female Bonobo will present her swollen genitals to the males in the group, signaling her interest in mating. Demonstrating is showing the potential partner your prowess at a specific skill, physical trait, capability, or sexual act with the intention of attracting the other person to you. Obviously, demonstration must be done appropriately and only after interest was shown by the other person.
Romance – Notice how many steps come before romance. The definition (see above) of courtship seems to go directly to the romance phase. Romance is the “ability to experience, express, and receive passion (Carnes, 2010).” Receiving passion from another requires a sense of self-worth and recognition that you are worthy of another persons love. Romance also requires being in reality and recognizing when romance is shared or only a projection or imagination.
Individuation – Individuation is the opposite of enmeshment. Enmeshment is when a person does not have his or her own identity in the relationship. When people are in love it is easy to forgo ones own desires, interests, and goals, causing them to lose their own identity. Being an individual in the relationship constitutes the ability to be able to ask for your needs without the fear of being rejected or going elsewhere for your needs. Individuation is a sense of freedom to be who you are and confident that your partner will not intimidate or force you to change.
Intimacy – The key components for intimacy are attachment and the ability to be vulnerable. In order for an intimate relationship to develop you need to be willing to attach to another and allow the other to attach to you. Attachment requires the willingness to be vulnerable and open with your partner. Intimacy is: “Being known fully and staying anyway (Carnes, 2010).” Intimacy is a risk. If you fear that your partner will reject you, you will create barriers so that they never fully see you.
Touching – There are different types of touch in romantic relationships; Intimate touch, sensual touch, and erotic touch. Couples can incorporate all levels of touch during the relationship or at different stages in the relationship. For touch to feel safe there must be respect of each other’s bodies and respect of each other’s boundaries. Each partner should feel confident to say no to touch that they do not feel comfortable with. If you cannot say “no” then you cannot say “yes”.
Foreplay – Foreplay is a very important aspect of courting and should not be skipped. Foreplay allows partners to express their deep sexual passion toward each other. Foreplay is a sharing of pleasure and the goal does not have to be intercourse. Sometimes, foreplay is the goal itself.
Intercourse – “More than the exchange of body fluids, this is the ability to surrender oneself to passion (Carnes, 2010).” In order to be able to surrender oneself to another, there has to be trust between partners. Intercourse is a form of giving up control; where you allow your partner to see your vulnerabilities. Intercourse has no rules, abandon ideas of how it “should” be.
Commitment – Commitment is the phase in which partners commit to each other by bonding and attachment. When a relationship does not have feelings of attachment partners will look elsewhere for attachment. This can lead one to seek out “trusting attachments” such as, alcohol, drugs, sex, and risk-taking behaviors.
Renewal – Courting never ends. Renewal is continuing courtship even in a committed long-term relationship or marriage. Continuing to flirt and attract your partner. Continuing to show interest and care for each other.
When we encounter relationship dysfunctions or struggles while dating it is indicative of a hiccup in one of these stages. Notice how marriage is not included on the list. Courtship does not have to include marriage or a vision toward marriage. Courtship requires a willingness to be open and vulnerable so you can create a trusting bond with one another.
Sara Schapiro-Halberstam, MHC-LP, CASAC is a psychotherapist in New York City where she practices individual therapy, couples counseling, and sex counseling. You can contact Sara at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more blog posts at www.mwr.nyc
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Sara Schapiro-Halberstam, LMHC