Patterns of Amish Courtship

By: Gertrude Lindener-Stawski

Amish courting practices, according to the religious tradition, are based on the belief that there is only one right mate for each individual. Marriages are made in heaven and there is no possibility of divorce. Thus, one had better choose well and with sincere prayer, to know God's will. In actual practice, though, the situation is somewhat more ambiguous.

Ideally, the courting process should be one in which the couple get to know each other and how well their personalities will mesh. They find out whether the intended partner will be a good worker, parent, partner, and church member. Qualities such as character, patience, ability to cooperate, thrift and frugality, competence, and humility are assessed. The two get to know each other as persons. It is thought that indulgence in any physical contact is undesirable, as that would get sensual desires aroused, distracting attention from the primarily rational and functional exploration of a person's capacity to be a productive and helpful member of a family economic team.

Biblical injunctions against lusts of the flesh, youthful indiscretions, chambering and wantonness, fleshly dsires, etc. are supposed to be taken very seriously, these all being considered sinful. Purity is the ideal, complete purity of motive and behavior. It seems even holding hands, or sitting close together, let alone kissing or necking, are sure to launch one on the slippery slope of sensual lust which leads inexorably to guilt, shame and remorse. It is even thought by some that two or three hours together of talking every second week during the courting period is sufficient time together!

There are many settings and occasions when young people between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four can mix and meet. Frolics and bees and weddings--all carefully structured social events-- provide opportunities to meet potential partners. However, the primary meeting ground is the Sunday evening singing. In the buggy rides to or from these events the young people pair off for further time together, usually going to the girl's home afterwards where they will have some limited privacy to talk further while the rest of the family is asleep. Not surprisingly more than conversation frequently occurs, perhaps even kissing, necking and petting. The religious strictures against physical contact give way to more lenient patterns of behavior which actually have a well-established tradition of acceptability as long as sexual intimacy is avoided. The couple tries to be discreet, even secretive, about time together to avoid heckling and pranks from some of their unattached peers or siblings.

Also influencing Amish courting patterns is the period of development during which as-yet-unbaptized adolescents try out some of the worldly aspects of the larger culture such as cars, radios, musical instruments, "English" clothes, movies, beer drinking, etc. This is done discreetly, so that parents don't know, or pretend not to know. Peer groups are an essential part of the experimentation. Parents often help in this process; even the church takes a lenient view, feeling that young people have to get those ideas out of their systems before they can make an informed and serious decision as to whether they want to make a lifelong commitment to the church and to the Amish life. Parents turn their heads, pretending not to notice. They may even give money to help the youth buy a car, may even allow him to park it at home behind the barn. Neighbors and local businessmen may also conspire helpfully.

Ideally, it is hoped, courting will not be undertaken until this experimenting time, the Rumspringa, is over and the youth has been baptized and is subject to the sanctions of the church. Then he or she settles down to serious, practical courting with a pure heart and equal parity of actions that have only the family-to-be's future in mind. It is not surprising that such an ascetic and rational mode of mate selection is not followed by all. For one thing, this requires a very disciplined personality. The mind must be kept focussed on the practical, not the emotional, or (God forbid!) on the physical pleasures of a love relationship. Such things are reserved strictly for the time after the marriage knot is tied. There should, ideally, be no casual dating; courting is supposed to be serious business, not pleasure. Some parents, with their longer repertoires of life experiences, may well appreciate such restrained ways, but it hardly seems appealing to the enthusiasms of youth.

Amish individuals tend to see the problems of these ambiguous patterns of courtship in various ways. First, there are those who worry about touching behavior that starts young people "on the slippery slope to sin". These are the people who see the problem as religious teachings not being taken seriously, the rules not being obeyed, purity not guiding behavior. Others perceive problems from quite an opposite view, by putting their emphasis on what has been customary behavior in their own younger days, that is, parental looking away and indulging experimental behavior which usually includes considerable physical contact such as necking and petting. For them the problems lie in the stresses to community unity that come from trying to be very strict about the rules in a way that makes little allowance for the vagaries of young human nature. Those who insist on strict behavioral limits may well be considered too prideful and self-righteous, as the example of the 'covering bunch' in the novel Katie shows.

It is interesting that in the excerpts from the Nov. 98, and Jan. 99 issues of Young Companion this second point of view is not aired at all, except in the question from 'Puzzled and Wondering' that launched the flood of responses from editors and readers in the first place. It would seem from the general prevalence of necking and petting behavior, that majority sentiment is not for great strictness in avoiding sensory pleasures (provided the girls don't get pregnant). Yet that possible majority does not feel free to speak out or to justify its attitudes in print. Perhaps the Bible's role as the one unimpeachable authority silences contrary opinion. In the novel Katie we do find a good many people ready to justify these attitudes on a person-to-person basis, with considerable resentment against what they consider the Hochmut of those on the other side of the issue. Both in Katie, and in "No Pangs of Guilt" the mothers give their daughters no support in their desire to remain pure during courtship. Both mothers roundly criticize their daughters for losing a good potential mate over such a "silly" idea as re f using to neck. Even some of the ministers in Katie were inclined to let the flap over the pamphlets on the covering issue pass, saying the girls would get over it once they started to date. In The Mennonite Soldier (p. 149-159) Mastie says, "Pop never told us about his courting days, so I don't see any reason why I should tell him about mine. I'm sure he did plenty." When, earlier, Pop had asked to have Mastie excommunicated, it was for fighting, not for sexual behavior.

Splits in the community, and especially among the youth over differing interpretations of rules for behavior seem to be more of an issue than the various behaviors themselves. How to keep unity in the community seems to be the question overriding all others. I think that it is a basic survival issue. Unity can be seen in psychological terms as one form of the "courage to be", as Paul Tillich puts it, and in religious terms as a requirement of the gathered community--the church as bride of Christ--that it be of one mind. The many mechanisms used by the Amish for maintaining this unity are ingenious and effective: shunning those who differ; twice yearly ordnungsgemee; freedom for experimentation for youth so that only those who really want to stay decide to do so; keeping the groups small enough to be face-to-face; etc. The de tails of how to be separated from worldly matters have changed gradually over time, as long as the basic principal is kept. But the group must remain united over its understanding of those details. Disunity destroys the group.

I see some problems with the Amish ways of courtship, but also some great strengths. There is enormous practical advantage in having young people not focus their attention on the heady sexual dimensions of a boy/girl relationship. Attention is thereby directed to the long range matters of character, competence, and ability to work together and care for each other, which in the long run are better predictors of marital success than the romantic passions on which American culture seems to focus so entirely. The many arguments given for this approach in Young Companion are convincing on practical grounds, aside from the religious arguments also brought to bear. Sex-obsessed young twentieth century Americans could profit from thinking about this so un-Hollywood approach. In fact one finds many ministers and counselors making just such suggestions, even without religious overtones, to confused young people.

For me the greatest problem with the Amish system is in its seeming avoidance of affectional physical contact among family members in general. The exception seems to be the generous loving, cuddling, and cooing that a baby gets in its first two years of life. I wonder about the effect of the lack of overt showing of affection between married couples and among other family members. There does seem to be deep affection and respect in families and between married couples. When family members meet after a long absence, as when Katie and her mother meet again after Katie's three year absence working in the Ozarks, they do not hug, but grasp each others' hands and look into each others' eyes. One of the loveliest pictures in John Hostetler's book on the Amish in on page 175--a young farmer with his young son on his lap as he guides the team pulling his hayrake. The protective arms around the barefoot boy speak volumes about the father and his son. Affection, of course, .has many forms of expression besides physical contact, but the strong cultural bias against easy and relaxed physical touching behavior seems likely to leave many with unmet needs in this area.

Is there some unnamed fear--of sentimentality, of distraction from work, of emotional dependence, of vulnerability, of too much pleasure?--in the lack of expressive affection for anyone except babies? It seems to me an unrealistic view of human nature. No sex education is given growing children by their parents, though information is picked up from peers and from observing farm animals. One wonders whether the absence of natural, unselfconscious, affectionate behavior in the family--in favor of work oriented attention--coupled with the severe religious censure of any kind of lust, has something to do with the eagerness of young adults to jump into necking and petting when they are old enough to date. It would seem much healthier, and less ambiguous emotionally, if young couples were free to and comfortable about holding hands in public and amongst family and friends, with more natural and less severe supposed limits on touching behavior.

The other issue that bothers me about Amish courtship practices is the way in which the girl must take a completely passive role, in keeping with the accepted male dominance of the society. Katie pretends not to be interested in the very boys who do interest her. She must not take even the slightest initiative, or show the slightest interest. This is common enough in many cultures, and until recently, in American society also. Yet it introduces a note of dishonesty and game playing into relationships which are better kept open, straightforward and trusting. The role of Amish women as subordinate to men is almost certainly the cause in this case. The result is a limited view of the possibilities in male-female relationships, which is of course confirmed by the courting patterns, both in their ideal form and in the more usual permissive variations on it.

The practical emphasis in Amish courting has much to recommend it. The over-severity of physical restrictions so widely ignored by many and yet the subject of concern and division, seems one of the weaknesses. Yet the Amish practice compares favorably with the wider American society, in its result of stable and solid marriages. Maybe, even with all the ambiguity, the Amish have learned, by and large, how to choose wisely?