Who of us has gotten an education on how to romantically pursue another person? Taken a class? Learned steps and stages of courtship? But how many of us would say that having romantic relationships is one of the most important facets of life? I am often surprised that I didn’t really even learn anything about stages of romance/courtship until well after my graduate studies in counseling, despite the importance of it. Now is never too late. Grab a seat, a warm drink, and prepare for class, ya’ll.
Dr. Patrick Carnes (2010), expert on addictions and intimacy, suggests 12 stages of courtship based on his research. [By the way, “courtship” here is just a reference to the development of a romantic relationship.] He states, “One problem is that there is no systematic and reliable way in our culture to learn the basics of courtship. You probably never attended a course that taught you how to appropriately and successfully flirt. Courtship failure can mean that you start repetitive patterns because what you do does not work. So it is important to learn the basic elements of courtship.” Let’s go!
When we see attractive traits in another, this is called noticing. Along with seeing the good, we can screen for traits that don’t fit us. Being discriminating is part of this. In an existing relationship, we must stay aware of traits that are desirable in the other person.
Though the first part of courtship is noticing attractive traits, this next level involves feeling the attraction- while considering acting on it. Curiosity ensues. To do this well (and not make stupid choices), a person must be able to determine what is suitable for themselves in relationship. For existing relationships, flexibility with change/unknown is still essential- discovery must continue. It is discovery that drives passion. It also can keep relationships strong over time.
Once the “target” has been acquired (haha, joking), flirtation sends information that conveys interest and attraction. Various cues are sent and received- knowing when this is appropriate requires being functional (not dysfunctional). Long-term love relationships continue to flirt.
The next part of the process is demonstration, where a person displays what they bring to the table- whether skills, physical traits, abilities, etc. If the receiver is interested in the “sent” message, the sender experiences great pleasure.
This is when we express (and receive) passion. Not only are we aware of attraction and express it, but vulnerability occurs. This involves risk, of course. Self-worth is required in receiving true expressions of love. Furthermore, this necessary self-worth means determining the accuracy of the other person’s involvement- as opposed to a projection/imagined feelings. Carnes cuts to the core with this question: “Are the people selected consistently positive, or bad choices for you?”
Being an authentic human being, aka, YOU is necessary- no, essential- for good relationship. If intimacy is about knowing and being known, how can this occur if you aren’t honest with who you are? Loving relationships do not wield control over another- “FOG,” i.e., fear, obligation, and guilt. You can be free to be truthful with what you think and feel, all the while being respectful and caring for the other. A healthy person can survive the tension of not having the other person be exactly the same. [For more on this topic, check out Extraordinary Relationships by Roberta M. Gilbert, M.D.]
The passion of early relationship will fade. Let me say this again: the passion of early relationship WILL fade. It is not meant to stay at the “honeymoon” high forever. Here’s what’s special: there is opportunity to deepen. It can become more meaningful. Vulnerability (that knows the other person more fully and lets oneself be known) incredible. Of course, this is much, much harder than the natural “click” of falling in love- because it takes work, sacrifice, maturity.
For physical touch to be beneficial, it must be underscored by care, good judgment, and trust. It respects the context and another person’s boundaries. Without another’s consent, touch destroys trust. However, great healing can come from respectful touch, seen most markedly in those who have not received it in a caring way.
Passion- as expressed sexually- builds through foreplay. Examples are holding, kissing, fondling, general sexual play, and (don’t forget) verbal expressiveness. This exciting stage is often reported as the best part of sex, though in our fast-paced culture, it is often rushed or missed altogether.
Surrender. The best sex requires the ability to let go, trust the other person and yourself with being transparent. Many couples struggle with this because of control or trust challenges. Making love well presupposes abandonment to the other.
Being able to form meaningful relationships of depth necessitates commitment. Stability occurs when commitment and faithfulness are present. Relationships of significance offer connection that is craved- commitment cements the foundation.
The mature are able to maintain and sustain each courtship dimension (i.e., “keep dating”) in an ongoing relationship when it is best for them to stay in it. They let the other know consistently that they are valuable; they share in deep meaning; they take responsibility for problems; they move beyond habit and neurochemical highs to the continual renewal of their relationship.
The implications of this work are too numerous to write in a single post. Hopefully it can help you to consider how you might approach a current or future relationship- or how you have in the past. Understand that these dimensions are descriptive, meaning they are observations on how healthy relationships progress. This also means they are not necessarily prescriptive, i.e., they don’t say exactly what to do or when a relationship is to begin or end. With courtship: be excited / be thoughtful. Relationships have great power to help and heal or hurt and harm.
Justin K. Hughes
Last month’s newsletter introduced Dr. Carnes’ 12 Dimensions of Courtship. Following up with some questions that were asked, I want to note that these are not stages in the sense of literal steps, but more “aspects” and “dimensions.” A great question that was asked by readers was something akin to, “Why is commitment listed as one of the last steps?” This is where I want to be very clear and state that commitment is VERY important (research-wise AND faith-wise) as a relationship develops, and especially before foreplay and intercourse. Getting right down to it, intimacy requires trust and safety. If we get technical, being a committed person is an important trait to have before Dimension 1. Carnes’ dimensions are also interchangeable with one another. I hope this provides clarity. Thanks for listening, and always feel free to pass on your thoughts and questions!
Each of the stages and their descriptions can be found here:
Carnes, P. (2010). Facing the shadow: Starting sexual and relationship recovery (2nd ed.).Carefree, AZ: Gentle Path Press.