Sitting near the end of a parade once, my family was thrilled to see President Ezra Taft Benson step out of a car that had just completed the parade route. We watched as President Benson slowly made his way around to open the car’s other door. Taking his wife, Flora, by the hand, he assisted her out, and they walked arm in arm to a seat in the viewing stand. We were all inspired by their obvious love for each other.
How did the Bensons develop their strong relationship? The process started during their courtship. President Benson’s biographer tells us that during this time, they “talked for hours, exploring their feelings about a future together. … The more they talked, the more comfortable they felt with each other.” The prophet himself describes it this way: “‘There was so much to tell and we seemed to enjoy each other so very much. … It was a perfect courtship during which I discovered in Flora a great character and a rare combination of virtues’” (Sheri L. Dew, Ezra Taft Benson, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1987, p. 88). The Bensons’ courtship stretched over seven years, more than four of which they spent apart, writing letters.
On the other hand, Scott and Pamela met a few months after Scott returned from his mission. They were instantly attracted to each other. After a whirlwind courtship, they married in a beautiful temple ceremony. Soon Pamela was expecting their first child and quit her job due to poor health, which meant that Scott had to drop out of college and look for a full-time job. As well suited to each other as the couple had felt they were, they felt overwhelmed by the stresses of married life, and their relationship began to deteriorate.
Part of Scott and Pamela’s problem was that they had not properly built an enduring friendship before marriage, a friendship that could help keep their relationship stable after marriage, even in the midst of challenges. Elder Spencer W. Kimball wrote: “The successful marriage depends in large measure upon the preparation made in approaching it. … One cannot pick the ripe, rich, luscious fruit from a tree that was never planted, nurtured, nor pruned” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969, p. 242).
Before entering the temple to be sealed, a man and a woman must build an inspired foundation of friendship and compatibility. Dating can help build this foundation; but unless participated in wisely, dating can also prove disastrous. While each couple’s courtship will be different, here are several areas of building a friendship that Judy and I considered while we were preparing for our marriage. Perhaps other individuals who are approaching—or already in the middle of—a marriage-oriented relationship could consider these ideas as well. Because courtship should continue throughout marriage, spouses too can benefit by seeking to strengthen and renew their friendships with their partners.
A well-known maxim recommends longer courtships followed by shorter engagements. Elder Hugh B. Brown concurs: “Infatuation may be romantic, glamorous, thrilling, and even urgent, but genuine love should not be in a hurry. … Time should be taken for serious thought, and opportunity given for [each partner to gain] physical, mental, and spiritual maturity. Longer acquaintances will enable both to evaluate themselves and their proposed companions, to know each other’s likes and dislikes, habits and dispositions, aptitudes and aspirations” (You and Your Marriage, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960, pp. 27, 34).
Building a strong premarital friendship requires spending sufficient time with each other and finding opportunities for interaction. I know of couples who spent almost their entire engagement separated because of work or school. Similarly, some couples count a partner’s years on a mission as courtship time. Although time apart can provide valuable perspective, long-distance romances can’t replace face-to-face interaction even if a couple spends a fortune on postage. Relationships and individuals change too quickly and too subtly to be monitored and influenced from afar.
When I first dated my wife, Judy, I was preparing to leave for college within a month. I did leave, but I felt that our budding relationship was too promising to abandon—so I returned home to enroll in a local school and continue our courtship. Looking back, I’m glad I did, because I now see that although we felt right for each other, we needed time to prepare to live together in marriage.
During our courtship, Judy and I spent little money on dates because we received our greatest enjoyment from conversation and simple activities. We talked endlessly of school and careers, of each other’s families and upbringing, of our individual hopes and expectations for marriage, and of our feelings about children and parenthood. We attended Church meetings and activities together and sometimes shared our courtship time with friends or family members. We found it truly exciting just to be in each other’s company.
Sometimes either one partner or both partners in a dating relationship begin to feel urgency to rush toward marriage before they know anything about each other. A feeling of urgency early in a relationship can sometimes be a red flag. It does not necessarily mean that your partner is the wrong person, but it does signal a need to stand back and perhaps investigate other alternatives. We must not be in a hurry, acting on impulse and emotion alone.
Best friends who marry are likely to find joy and fulfillment together through all seasons of life. From the time of their courtships, such couples have learned how to give constant, conscious nourishment to their relationships.
Courtship requires effort and creativity. Too often our modern world suggests expensive and elaborate dating activities. But depth and meaning emerge in a relationship only when two people converse, exploring each other’s feelings and aspirations and sharing concerns and perspectives. This kind of growth best occurs during simple, wholesome activities. After one of his first dates with his future wife, David O. McKay, later President of the Church, wrote in his journal: “Took a ride over on South hills. Saw purple [mountains] at sunset. Very beautiful. … Went strolling with [Emma Ray]. Told each other secrets. A memorable night!” His sweetheart added: “Yes, and we held hands all the way home” (David Laurence McKay, My Father, David O. McKay, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1989, p. 2).
There is another challenge common to courtships: curbing the desire for premature romantic involvement is an important part of building a strong friendship during dating. Besides being contrary to the commandments of God, physical intimacy before marriage also blocks the development of true friendship. Even the early stages of physical expression of romance can eclipse the mental and spiritual aspects of a relationship and thus halt its progress. This part of love comes after friendship and marriage. Alma 38:12 admonishes: “See that ye bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love.” Despite what the world teaches, the highest forms of love are inspired by the Spirit, not by hormones.
Bruce C. Hafen has compared relationships between men and women to a pyramid. The base of the pyramid is friendship, and the ascending layers include building blocks such as understanding, respect, and restraint. At the very top is what he terms a “glittering little mystery called romance.” If one tries to stand the pyramid on its point, expecting romance to hold everything else up, the pyramid will fall (“The Gospel and Romantic Love,” Ensign, Oct. 1982, p. 67).
We should be prayerful in all that we do, but courtship is a particularly important time to receive the Lord’s inspiration. After all, choosing our marriage partner is one of the most vital, far-reaching decisions we make in our mortal lives. The Lord can help us make the right choice. Through his Spirit, he will reveal the truth of a relationship to us as we allow sufficient time and exercise our faith.
Some people expect the Lord to provide a dramatic revelation about their eternal mate, but what usually happens is that as we drop our defenses and communicate with a potential spouse, we experience subtle, ongoing spiritual promptings about the relationship.
Inspiration can come only when we are honest with ourselves, our potential mates, and the Lord. When we first date somebody, we may try to mask our faults and make ourselves as appealing as possible. To develop an honest relationship, however, we must move beyond superficial appearances and allow our true selves to emerge. Likewise, we need to be careful to avoid hero-worshipping a potential mate; we should not allow our hopes and expectations color the truth about him or her. When marriage is a possibility, dating partners should constantly assess how much real potential they have for harmony, conformity, and union.
Denying the Lord’s inspiration and our own intuition can have disastrous results. Dr. Craig Horton, a marriage and family therapist in southern California, conducted an informal, unpublished survey among couples whose marriages had failed. When asked what had gone wrong, most of the participants cited a major flaw in the spouse’s character or some insurmountable difference. What surprised Brother Horton was that virtually all participants reported having sensed these flaws or differences before marriage, yet they had relied upon romance and love to overcome them. The saying is true: Keep your eyes wide open during courtship and half-closed after the wedding.
We can know if a relationship is good by judging its fruits. Is the friendship deepening as the partners share and develop mutual interests, desires, goals, and values? D&C 88:40 describes a successful relationship: “Intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light.”
Every courtship is different, and every one of us must seek the Lord’s guidance as we move toward marriage and seek to know what is right for us.
I’ll never forget the feeling that came over me as I walked up the steps of the Los Angeles Temple on the morning Judy and I were to be married: I knew our marriage was right. Ever since, I have thanked Heavenly Father for my best friend. Our friendship began during courtship and still continues to grow.