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Courtship Narratives


About the Narratives
Case Study Examples


About the Narratives

The purpose of the courtship narratives was to gather data pertaining to couples' courtships, specifically the processes which led to the commitment to marriage. This is an instance where qualitative data is integrated with quantitative data to serve the function of enhancing the quantitative data. Each spouse was interviewed separately during the first phase of data collection, and the interviews were audio taped. These face-to-face interviews consisted of spouses separately reconstructing their courtship by giving a brief description of their relationship from the time they first met until their marriage. The importance of these descriptions was that they allowed us to obtain an idea of how the spouses remembered the premarital relationship. Also, they allowed the research team to compare each spouse's recollection of the premarital relationship to their partner's to see how similar or dissimilar their descriptions were.

Additionally, each spouse was instructed to indicate, using a graphing procedure, how the probability of marriage changed from the time their relationship began until they wed, while considering both their own feelings about marriage and the feelings they thought their partner had at the time concerning the commitment to marriage. This allows us to see the differences in perceptions between spouses. For example, we may see that both spouses' graphs are very similar or very different in terms of their commitment to marriage. In order to facilitate the graphing procedure, participants were told to consider significant events which had occurred in their relationship that may aid in their recollection of their relationship at a particular time. The significance of collecting this information is that we can compare spouses' interpretations of significant events. For example, we may see that one spouse viewed moving further away from one another as a facilitator of less commitment, while the other spouse thought it made them more likely to marry. Each time spouses indicated changes in the probability of marriage, they were asked to explain what led them to believe that this change, either an increase or a decrease, had occurred, and their responses were coded according to the following coding scheme:

  • Individual factors
    • Timing or social clock beliefs
    • Standards for a suitable partner
    • Relationship standards
    • Fear or attraction dispositions
  • Dyadic inferences
    • Redefinitions of the level of involvement
    • Conflict
    • Self-disclosure
    • Interpersonal events with symbolic meaning
    • Recognition of change in the amount of interdependence
  • Social network inferences
    • Husband with others
    • Wife with others
    • Husband and wife together with others
    • Others independent of spouse
  • Other-circumstantial

Case Study Examples

The following narratives were gathered from the courtship data of those couples who divorced before their second wedding anniversary. The themes in these case studies are consistent with the findings that "briefly married" couples are lower in affectional expression and love, and higher in ambivalence and negativity, than any other group of couples (Huston et al., 2001).


Cassie & Dean

Cassie was 17, Dean 18 when they married. They lived in a wooden shack, located near a small rural town. The relationship began shortly after Cassie's previous boyfriend, whom she liked very much, went away to school. Dean's best friend told her that Dean would "do anything he could to get her," and that stimulated her to become interested. She recalled: "I was living with my aunt and I had problems that were family-related. I just wanted to be with somebody that cared about me . . . he kept telling me he loved me." They began to talk about marriage almost immediately after they began seeing each other and they were wed nine months later. Cassie said: "I just wanted to get out of the house and be with him all of the time. I was really tired of my aunt telling me to be home at a certain time. Every time I'd go somewhere, she'd find out where I was if I lied to her, no matter what. I just wanted to get away from them people because it was such a small town." The couple had difficulty gaining permission to marry, but Cassie's aunt, who thought it was a good idea, agreed to intercede on her behalf with Cassie's father.


Neil & Donna

Neil and Donna were both 23 year old high school graduates when they were married, after nearly a three-year courtship that on graph paper looks as close to typical as any in the sample. "When I first met her," Neil said, "I just had that feeling she was gonna be the right one. I mean there was just a certain feeling there . . . I can't say the . . . word that I really want to say -- there was some kind of pull." Neil reports: "I was very afraid for a long time to actually come out and tell her how I felt. It wasn't long before [we met] that she had broken up from her boyfriend. . .they had been engaged and were gonna get married and she broke it off. . .. It was very difficult for her to talk to anybody about her problems and she opened up and started talking to me which I'd say gave her a sense of security . . . Her mother used to get on her back an awful lot, give her a hard time. She would get really upset and then she'd get really mad and then she would finally break down and tell me what was bothering her, which would make her feel a lot better. Anger inside doesn't do no good."

Donna's version mirrors Neil's: "Mother and I just started getting into it all the time. . . he just had the patience and understanding and he sort of helped me through it. I guess it was then that it hit us that we loved each other!" Later in the interview, she elaborates: "I was never one to express any feeling at all; I was always quite in a shell, nobody could break through it. I don't know how he did it, but he did." Of all the 168 women in the study, Donna scored lowest on the "maintenance" subscale of the Braiker and Kelley (1979) measure.

The conflicts with her mother continued through the courtship, intensifying at times to physicalviolence. When she came in late at night one night, her mother came at her with the sweeper hose from the vacuum. She left home for 4 days and by the time she returned she felt "things were pretty well set."

It didn't work out that simply, however, and they put off their marriage on several occasions, until Donna wasn't sure whether Neil would ever be ready to marry. "He said he wanted to but he was scared. . . . He just made up excuses, first he wanted to buy a house and then he wanted to buy the land and build and I said if we don't get married now, we're never gonna have the money . . . It's just if you want things you'll get them . . . I finally got him to make the decision. It's funny but it's the truth. I was at the gynecologist -- I've wanted a kid for 2 years, but I couldn't have one without getting married -- and I was talking to him about the [physical] problems I've had since I was thirteen and he said I'm getting older and that it would be to my advantage [not to wait too long to start a family.] He said, 'Is there anything else I can do for you today?' and I said 'yeah, call my fiancee and tell him to marry me because I want to start my family.' So I went to Neil and I said, 'I'm not pressuring you or pushing you into anything but if we are going to get married we better decide soon because the chances [for having a child] are lesser and lesser as I get older and older.' I said 'can we set a date or can't we?' He wanted to set it for July or August, but I said May 22nd, and that's when we were married."


Eddie & Susan

Eddie, when asked why the chance of marriage increased during the first few months of his courtship with Susan, said: "I guess she was the kind of girl I was looking for . . .She didn't run around a lot . . .it was just something in my mind that I had dreamed about . . . she wasn't nothing like high class . . .she didn't think she was everything and all that stuff . . . she never really went out with any other guys before. I was it." He was 16 and she 13; they were married three years later. His estimate of the chance of marriage escalated to where, after six months, he was reasonably certain they would marry. She was slower to come around to marriage, but after they had been together for about four months she began to stay overnight at his house, first on weekends, and then regularly -- slowly she became a member of his family. His parents openly encouraged them to get married. Almost two years into the relationship, Eddie reported "We had wanted to get married for a long time, but it was impossible . . . She was going to school, she was still young, and I wasn't in a financial situation . . . Then the baby came . . . .I think that was around November when I found out." The pregnancy increased the likelihood of marriage in Susan's mind, but she said: "I knew that he loved me before I got pregnant . . . In June the baby was born . . . and he showed me loved me and the baby. I felt I knew for sure that we were gonna get married."


Mack & Wendy

Mack was from an upper middle-class family, the son of a dentist and a teacher. Wendy's father worked on an assembly line; her mother was a homemaker. Mack, early in the interview, described himself as "a terribly desperate character," and the interviewers became personally wary of him by the time they finished what turned out to be a marathon eight hour interview. Wendy was reluctant to be interviewed at all -- she stayed in her bedroom for 45 minutes, and when she came out she was surly, saying she "didn't want these people here." After a private conversation with her husband, she consented. The only emotion Mack seemed comfortable with was anger. Mack's collection of handguns was on display; and he made a point of showing the interviewers that lots of them were loaded. He boasted about being arrested six months earlier for assault; he also showed the interviewer huge jars of the drugs he sells -- two customers stopped by during the day.

The interviewer, upon returning from the interview, described him as "highly cooperative, eager to tell his story," and then added "perhaps this is related to his grandiose view of himself. He doesn't seem to care what happens to him."

The courtship was stormy. It started out as a sexual relationship; Wendy got pregnant right away. Mack, who reported that he was sexually involved with several other women at the time, offered Wendy the choice of marriage or an abortion. She chose abortion, saying that she wasn't ready for marriage -- that she hardly knew him. A couple of months later, Mack was nearly killed in an accident and was hospitalized for eight months. He was deeply depressed during the first part of his hospital stay, saying "He couldn't stand to have someone see him physically wrecked" -- and when Wendy came to see him, he said "get lost." She waited a while and then sent him a card, which started him to think about her again. He said he had always been sexually attracted to her and, when she came to visit him shortly after sending the card, he was struck by "how good she looked." She began visiting regularly and they started talking about marriage. After he got out of the hospital, however, he left immediately for the other side of the country, without telling her. In retrospect, he said that "I felt like a heel for months afterward, that it was the most terrible thing I ever did." She began working two jobs to earn enough money to travel to see him. She paid her way to visit him and resume their relationship, but its storminess continued. He began to admire her "stick-to-itiveness." Mack had become addicted to morphine and, once they got back together, so did she. They returned to their hometown to continue a courtship that became marked by considerable conflict, regularly erupting in violence. Mack and Wendy's mother were continually at each other.

On one occasion, he pointed a loaded gun at Wendy's mother before throwing her across the room; on another occasion, he hit her. On a later occasion, according to Mack, Wendy's mother attacked him during an argument. He called the police, who ended up arresting Mack rather than his future mother-in-law. The conflicts between Mack and Wendy's mother forced the issue of the marriage.

He accepted responsibility for what's happened to Wendy -- saying that getting involved with him has changed her for the worse -- and thus felt he owed it to her to marry her.


Joe & Cheryl

Joe gave Cheryl an engagement ring a month after they met. The engagement ring, however, did not symbolize a mutual understanding that they would marry, but rather a desire on his part for that to happen. He recalled that "I was pretty anxious to get married." Cheryl was fifteen the August they met, and she was about to enter the 9th grade. Once school began, she started to skip school to be with him; he was eighteen, living on his own, having dropped out of school after the eighth grade. Cheryl's mother tried to keep track of Cheryl, but as Joe tells it, "we started living together, and she started keeping away from her mother for two to three days at a time . . . Her mother would come looking for her and she would bawl her out if she knew she was with me, and so Cheryl would start lying and tell she was with a girlfriend or something. She [Cheryl's mother] talked to my step-dad and he told her that we were seeing each other." Joe reports that Cheryl's mother didn't like him, until he made his intentions about marriage clear, "then she started making up . . . [Cheryl] and I had a few arguments -- once she felt I was neglecting her because I was hunting. She wanted more attention, and I thought it wasn't fair . . . she hurt my feelings and things took a turn for the worse." The two of them made up very quickly.

Cheryl was shy, and she had a difficult time explaining the progression of the courtship, other than to say it "felt good to be with him."


Roger & Melanie

"I just liked them sad eyes," Roger (18 years old) replied when asked if there was anything special that attracted him to Melanie (his 16 year old bride). Their relationship had begun three and a half years earlier; it became sexual after they had known each other about four months and for Melanie at least, sex and fantasies about marriage went together. She said the "first time we ever had intercourse I felt we were already married in a way; he felt like he was my husband. We were together constantly . . . We would get into a really bad mood when we were not together."

Later during the interview, she described herself as something of a flirt, and Melanie and Roger both described each other as jealous and possessive. The courtship was marked by a series "lovers' quarrels." One time, during a period when they were apart, Melanie reports that Roger "was making moves on my best friend, Angela. He was having sex with her. So I told him to get lost, that there would never be any chance that we would get married because he might do it again." Melanie, in order to "get over" Roger, started going to parties and dating a mutual friend, Scott, "who had a really neat car" -- and the two of them became sexually involved. "Roger became very jealous," and that made Melanie feel "that Roger at least cared." Roger and Melanie didn't talk at all for almost a month, but when she broke up with Scott, Roger called her and said "he wanted to be friends. So, as Melanie put it, "we go out and we had sex . . . we start talking about marriage again." The break with Scott was not clean, however, because Melanie continued to see him "a little bit on the side." When Roger found out about it, they had another big fight. They made up, and decided that they'd had their experiences -- and that their relationship was more important. "He really liked it that guys liked me but they couldn't have me." The relationship stabilized and by the time Melanie turned sixteen, she was certain that the two of them would marry. Roger, however, didn't feel certain that the relationship was headed to marriage until he heard that Melanie was pregnant. Marriage quickly changed in his mind from a 50-50; they were married within month after the pregnancy was discovered.


The PAIR Project at the University of Texas at Austin
Principal Investigator, Ted L. Huston
Page last modified: 16 January 2002