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The path to finding a mate for life is not easy. Through my personal life and my work as a marriage and relationship educator and coach, I have seen how perseverance, courage, discernment, and commitment are all essential. We and the world need strong, happy marriages that are fortresses of well-being.
We are not yet living in a world that has established a common pattern of courtship based on the Baha’i Teachings. As a result, individuals and couples are experimenting and trying to find their way – sometimes joyfully and sometimes with more difficulty.
As you know, courtship practices differ greatly from one culture to another, and it is not yet known what pattern of courtship will emerge in the future when society has been more influenced by Baha’i Teachings. However, there is no indication that it will resemble the practices extant in existing cultures…. In this interim period, the friends are encouraged to make great efforts to live in conformity with the Teachings and to gradually forge a new pattern of behavior, more in keeping with the spirit of Baha’u’llah’s Revelation. 1
The challenge we face is how to engage in patterns of courtship that strive to implement Baha’i principles in a world that is “a bewildering moral environment” 2 and in “a society in which materialism, self-centeredness and failing marriages are all too common.” 3
So, when we look at what possibly aligns with Baha’i courtship, what is important?
For one, I believe that it’s significantly about character, as Abdu’l-Baha asks us to “exercise the utmost care to become thoroughly acquainted with the character of the other, that the binding covenant between them may be a tie that will endure forever.” 4 This means developing our own characters and then experiencing someone’s ability to consistently demonstrate a variety of qualities, such as being kind, courteous, compassionate, responsible, courageous, truthful, and trustworthy.
The Universal House of Justice focuses us on the topic of character and its importance (the bolding of certain words in quotations was added by me for emphasis):
A couple should study each other’s character and spend time getting to know each other before they decide to marry, and when they do marry it should be with the intention of establishing an eternal bond. 5
…your sons may well feel that it is wise to have a long period of courtship in which the prospective partners spend much time together and become thoroughly acquainted with each other’s character, background and family. 1
My experience has been that I can adjust to a partner’s profession, daily habits, quirks, diet, and more IF the foundation of his character is solid. Then I can trust his words, motives, and actions. I can relax with him instead of constantly monitoring for concerns, and we can focus outward on our service to others.
I have found it helpful when I’ve been looking for a partner to keep in mind this guidance below, which has helped me choose to spend time with a prospective marriage partner by serving others and participating in community activities together, all the while growing in my understanding of his responses to a wide variety of circumstances. Spending time with others in this manner doesn’t necessarily make it easy to adhere to Baha’i standards, but it helps.
… there is nothing in the Baha’i Writings which relates specifically to the so-called dating practices prevalent in some parts of the world, where two unmarried people of the opposite sex participate together in a social activity. In general, Baha’is who are planning to involve themselves in this form of behavior should become well aware of the Baha’i Teachings on chastity and, with these in mind, should scrupulously avoid any actions which would arouse passions which might well tempt them to violate these Teachings. In deciding which acts are permissible in the light of these considerations, the youth should use their own judgment, giving due consideration to the advice of their parents, taking account of the prevailing customs of the society in which they live, and prayerfully following the guidance of their conscience. … [A]dherence to this standard cannot be over-emphasized as a basis for true happiness and for successful marriage. 6
Chastity is one of those terms in the Teachings that seems to make us uncomfortable. Chastity means maintaining sexual purity and reserving sexual attraction, thoughts, responses, and intimacy as a special and respectful gift to share with a marriage partner. In the Baha’i Faith, sex and sexuality are not “impure” or “unholy”; sex is a natural impulse, but it belongs in a certain context, which is within a healthy marriage. Marriage is a divine institution, within which sexual intimacy serves as a unifying factor for a married couple. (If you’d like to read more about chastity, Janna wrote an article called “An Honest Letter to Baha’i Youth About Sex”.)
It’s common to hear the process of learning about character phrased as, “investigating someone’s character,” but, from what I’ve read, this term does not appear in the Writings in English, and my concern is that it implies being a detective. It can reduce the joy and interesting challenge of getting to know someone well to an unpleasant-sounding task. Someone shared with me his concern that unmarried Baha’is are avoiding the term “in a relationship,” as everyone is potentially “investigating” everyone else, which can result in suspicion and intrigue. He also perceived a how lack of public commitment and exclusivity during courtship could make difficult the levels of investment and emotional intimacy necessary for a couple to adequately ready themselves for marriage.
How to identify couples who are courting would vary from culture to culture, from situation to situation, and from couple to couple. However, regardless of how it is done, thoroughly knowing a partner cannot happen isolated from family and community. I believe that what can be helpful is for community members and family to acknowledge couples who are courting, and for community and family to guard against making a big deal out of couples going through this process. The Universal House of Justice writes:
Although a Baha’i may, if he chooses, seek his parents’ advice on the choice of a partner, and although Baha’i parents may give such advice if asked, it is clear from the Teachings that parents do not have the right to interfere in their children’s actual choice of a prospective partner until approached for their consent to marry. Therefore, when discussing the issue of courtship with your sons, it would be best to discuss it on the level of principle without reference to individuals. 3
What can be very helpful is when parents, families, friends, and communities provide opportunities for couples to serve together and be together in supportive environments. Getting to know each other well and being chaste are easier when couples fill their lives with joyful activities that moderate the emphasis on physical attraction.
Concerning your wish for a marriage partner to enhance your life and service, you are encouraged to trust in God, pursue your purposes with a joyful heart, and identify opportunities, through your own prayerful consideration or through consultation with others, to meet a man to whom you could consider being married. 7
A couple may or may not decide to marry, but they will have every opportunity to determine that for themselves.
These are a few of my thoughts about creating a new dating culture for singles. If you’d like to read more, I’ve co-written a book called Starting with Me: Knowing Myself Before Finding a Partner (which you can purchase here).
- The Universal House of Justice, August 28, 1994, to an individual
- Letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, February 5, 1992
- The Universal House of Justice, August 28, 1994
- Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baba, #86
- Letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, #1269
- Letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, February 5, 1992, to an individual
- Letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, August 25, 2010
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