Courtship: Labor of Love


“Courtship is a wonderful period,” said President David O. McKay. “It should be a sacred one. That is the time in which you choose your mate.” (True to the Faith, Bookcraft, 1966, p. 317.)

To that we would add that it’s a time for hard work, the labor of love. When we were teenagers, we had the notion that courtship would be a blissful period of strolling down shady lanes hand-in-hand, looking deep into each other’s eyes, and planning the future. This period, we were sure, would immediately precede “happily ever after.”

In reality, we found it to be a time of great adjustment and compromise. Courtship is a time of abandoning independence and learning interdependence. It is the process of developing a trusting, sharing relationship, of learning to listen and really hear, of caring about the other and sharing self. You might say it is a “tenderizing” experience.

Each of us brought to the relationship a separate and very different history, and because we each had our own ways of viewing the world there was much adjustment to be made.

Our experience counseling and observing other young people has also convinced us that our courtship was typical—the romance was fun but the “work” was essential. One young graduate student couple we know felt that everyday getting-to-know-you experiences such as shopping, studying together, or car washing were necessary groundwork for their marriage relationship. David explained: “The time we spent together during those months helped us know and cope with each other’s fears and expectations. Sandy soon knew I could not be a carbon copy of her father, and I had to deal with my own fear about the responsibility of providing for a wife and family. In a way our trials during courtship and the way the Lord helped us settle them became the prototype for handling difficulties now, four years later.”

He added, “I worry about those who hurry so quickly into marriage that all they have known is the romance. There’s a lot of adjusting to do, and it can come before or after marriage; but it must come. Some new husbands or wives must be uncomfortably surprised by the very differences we ironed out during our dating.”

Realizing that courtship is a time for plenty of hard work is one important principle. Here are some other equally important concepts:

1. Be willing to let it not work out.

Sometimes one partner may create problems by becoming much more committed to the relationship than the other. One young friend of ours charted the stormy process:

“I felt that courting had been a long and fruitless endeavor until I met Louise. Before, dating had seemed like a contest of wills in which you had to be very careful to not commit yourself prematurely or you’d get hurt; but this time I was so excited—I was really ‘zonked’! She was the one for me and I hardly paid attention to the fact that she wasn’t ready to think as seriously about us as I was. I was viewing the entire relationship in terms of marriage while she was having a good time dating this nice fellow—me! By the sheer force of my enthusiasm, I suppose, I assumed that she was as ready as I and surprised her with a diamond.”

Louise was surprised—unpleasantly: “I really wasn’t expecting it and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t feel comfortable accepting it, but I thought that it would work out. After all, Tom was a returned missionary, he obviously loved me, and I did like him a lot. So I took it.”

Two tense months followed. Louise suddenly found that “the relationship was no longer fun. It seemed heavy and serious. I wondered what was the matter with me that my feelings weren’t as strong as his. I tried to talk myself into being in love, but it didn’t work because it wasn’t real.”

For Tom’s part, he was suddenly very aware of her hesitancy. “I felt really vulnerable as if my feelings had so outpaced hers that I was dangling over a cliff. I tried to recover by being more cautious and guarded sometimes, and sometimes by being so ‘giving’ that it was not giving at all. I was trying to make it grow. None of it worked because it was so manipulative. We were no longer growing in our trust and understanding. It was so important to me, I wasn’t willing to let it not work out, and it was dying for that very reason. The best thing that ever happened to us was breaking off the engagement, although I wouldn’t have believed it at the time.”

2. Being happy vs. seeking happiness.

Happiness seems to be one of those elusive qualities that doesn’t come when you seek it directly—it’s usually the by-product of a worthwhile life. Similarly, it’s likely that the couple who enter into courtship or marriage somewhat desperately, feeling that their happiness depends upon being loved by someone or being married, will not be happy.

Tom and Louise discovered that principle. When Tom could see that Louise’s feelings didn’t match his own, he was miserable and blamed it all on Louise. “I crashed and burned for nearly three months before I realized that I was going to live and that this moping around was no excuse for living. I decided that it would be wonderful if I found someone who would share my life, but I wasn’t going to live or die depending on her decision to love me. I was going to be happy regardless!”

This attitude would have guaranteed a “happy ending” regardless; but in this case, it was happy for both of them.

“As long as I felt that Tom was desperate for me,” said Louise, “I was afraid and unable to give. As soon as he became a whole person, confident within himself, he became very appealing and attractive to me.” They renewed their friendship and their courtship and have been married now for more than ten years.

However, some people desire so desperately to get married that they feel they can’t be happy until they are married. Consequently, some singles that we have seen in our BYU wards remain in a perpetual holding pattern. Bob, a twenty-seven-year-old graduate student we know, is not only anxious to marry, but harbors unnecessary feelings of guilt and self-doubt every time someone remarks, “It’s your turn next.” He is so ill-at-ease in any social situation that he jokes too much and laughs too loud and is accused of never being serious. Because he fears he is unacceptable as he is, he tries too hard, forcing himself to be something he is not. This facade is just that—phony. A girl would have to fall in love with Bob almost in spite of him rather than because of him since she would have such a difficult time finding out who he really is.

In contrast, Peggy puts no effort into maintaining an “image” but a lot of effort into expressing a very genuine and attractive personality. She is always pleasant and cheerful, thinking of others and helping wherever possible. As a nurse, she was concerned not only about her patients but also their families.

She has been a stake missionary and was recently called to serve a full-time welfare services mission. We think she’s a great example of someone who has learned to be happy rather than seek happiness.

Each of us can and should lead a rich, full life, content with what the Lord gives us. We can take every opportunity to experience learning, develop talents, and contribute to others. President Kimball has said that “the more we serve our fellowmen in appropriate ways, the more substance there is to our souls. … Indeed, it is easier to ‘find’ ourselves because there is so much more of us to find” (Ensign, Dec. 1974, p. 2). Our own happiness in what we are doing with our lives sometimes becomes our most lovable asset.

3. Be wary of looking for “the one.”

Many of us have grown up with the impression that someday we will find “the one,” surrounded by an unmistakable glow, accompanied by bells and chimes.

This faulty assumption implies that love is something that just happens, that “looking” consists of wandering around until you come in range of “the one.” Then, magnetism will draw you together. In contrast, many happily married couples will tell you that their first meeting was anything but ideal. A couple in our ward confessed that they didn’t like each other at all at first. Mary Ann thought Ed was awfully sober and Ed solemnly told his friends she was cute but too flighty and giggly. Fortunately, they let the relationship grow instead of drifting on in search of instant thrills.

It is unwise for us to spend our lives in search of “the one.” As Elder Boyd K. Packer explains: “While I am sure some young couples have some special guidance in getting together, I do not believe in predestined love. If you desire the inspiration of the Lord in this crucial decision, you must live the standards of the Church, and you must pray constantly for the wisdom to recognize those qualities upon which a successful union may be based. You must do the choosing, rather than seek for some one-and-only so-called soul mate, chosen for you by someone else and waiting for you.” (Eternal Love, Deseret Book, 1973, p. 11.)

We know a couple who desired special guidance in their lives. She was nineteen, and he was twenty-six. Each of them, unbeknown to the other, was fasting and praying once a week—not about marriage—but to improve their relationship with the Lord. When they met they immediately had very positive feelings about each other, feelings that intensified as they spent time together, It was not a bells-and-chimes experience, but they had been preparing themselves and were able to recognize the Spirit’s promptings when they came.

4. Seek spiritual confirmation wisely.

We are all entitled to receive spiritual confirmation in choosing a companion, but the decision must be our own. Elder Bruce R. McConkie counseled BYU students:

“Well, do you want a wife? Do you want anything that’s right and proper? You go to work and you use the agency, power, and ability that God has given you. You use every faculty, you get all the judgment that you can centered on the problem, you make up your own mind, and then, to be sure that you don’t err, you counsel with the Lord. You talk it over. You say, ‘This is what I think; what do you think?’ And if you get the calm, sweet surety that comes only from the Holy Spirit, you know you’ve reached the right conclusion; but if there’s anxiety and uncertainty in your heart, then you’d better start over, because the Lord’s hand is not in it, and you’re not getting the ratifying seal that, as a member of the Church who has the gift of the Holy Ghost, you are entitled to receive.” (“Agency or Inspiration—Which?” Speeches of the Year, BYU Devotional Addresses, 1972–73, pp. 115–16.)

Many individuals and couples become impatient with the gradual sharing process of courtship and want a manifestation from the Lord about whom they should marry. One young father smiled as he told us that as a returned missionary he would hurry home after each new date and pray, “‘Is this girl the one for me?’ I was asking the Lord to do the work, to make my decision for me,” he says. “I’m not sure if I was trying to avoid the risk of being hurt or just anxious to reduce the time and effort involved in finding a wife.”

A young mother of five has a refreshing, expanded view on the witness of the Spirit. She and her husband married soon out of high school and soon afterward they joined the Church. She had a testimony of the gospel and loved her husband, but within a few years the realities of the marriage were there—household chores, babies to care for, the busy, absent husband. She told us: “Sometimes I find myself thinking, ‘What have I done to my life? If this were any other job I’d quit!’ When I feel like that, it’s very comforting to go to the Lord and receive renewed confirmation that I made the right choice in my marriage, to realize that it’s forever and that I want it to be forever.”

5. Continue the courtship into marriage.

Unfortunately, too many individuals enter into marriage believing that after the ceremony is performed they will either live happily ever after or in misery, depending upon how accurate their choice was. They do not see that “happy ever-aftering” depends upon daily loving and concern as much after marriage as during courtship.

One couple we knew met on a twelfth, got engaged on a twelfth, and married on a twelfth. Even now that they have four children, the twelfth is a special day. Sometimes they exchange cards, or she’ll buy him his favorite candy bar, or they’ll go to the temple. It’s a way of reaffirming that the choice they made is a good one.

One of the counselors in our campus ward bishopric found love notes tucked into his shirt pocket or lunch box each day from his thoughtful wife.

A young husband had three long-stemmed yellow roses delivered to his wife on the morning of their third anniversary.

A wife of thirteen years we knew at Purdue University made a habit of always combing her hair and applying fresh lipstick a few minutes before she expected her husband home each afternoon. She was telling him daily—and reaffirming to herself—that he was worth a special effort.

President Kimball has warned: “Love cannot be expected to last forever unless it is continually fed with portions of love, the manifestations of esteem and admiration, the expressions of gratitude, and the consideration of unselfishness.” (Marriage and Divorce, Deseret Book, 1976, p. 14.)

With shared love of the gospel and a genuine desire for righteousness, a couple in love can make their decision to marry become the “right choice”; then their mate becomes more and more the “one and only.”

6. Go forth in faith.

Like so many of our other daily problems, the best solutions to the concerns of courtship are spiritual. If we are sincerely striving to live the commandments of the Lord and acting in faith, we are doing what the Lord would ask of us regardless of whether we are finding a mate or not. While some activities or experiences can help us have more opportunities for courtship, they are probably far less important than spiritual qualities—faith, love of God, love of others, and a healthy love of self. With those qualities we can trust that whatever happens will be for our ultimate good and blessing. We can be ourselves, knowing that that is the best way to be. That, of course, does not mean that we cannot or will not change, but simply that we will change because we want to grow, not because we fear we are unlovable as we are.

Our goal can be similar to that of Paul, the apostle: “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. … I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (Philip. 4:11, 13.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Scott Greer

M. Gawain Wells, a clinical psychologist and a high councilor in the Provo Utah North Stake, and Sister Gayle J. Wells are the parents of five children.