Guard Your Heart, part I: I did, and I regret it

“Are you dating anyone right now?”

My drivers ed teacher, Mrs. Schofield, was a stern, opinionated, and very direct woman. She peered over her glasses and left shoulder at me, an eyebrow raised, expecting a direct reply.

“I don’t believe in dating during high school,” I responded from the backseat. “There’s not really any point. Boys my age are still immature. I’ll date when I’m ready to get married, like when I go to college.”

“Hrmph,” Mrs. Schofield hrmphed, pointedly gesticulating to the girl behind the wheel to turn left. “Seems like you’re missing valuable dating experience most kids will have when they get to college. You can date in high school and have fun without feeling pressured to be too serious.”

“I’m just not into casual dating,” I insisted.

Silly Mrs. Schofield, I thought. If only she knew how unnecessary “experience” was. If only she knew the importance of “waiting.” If only she knew the value of Emotional Purity.

* * *

heart-cupidEven if you’ve never immersed yourself in evangelicalism, or its fundamentalist fringes, you probably know that Christians care a lot about your virginity. But it’s not just sexual virginity, it’s also your “emotional virginity.” It is very important that you Guard Your Heart. This means that, as a young lady, you shouldn’t be close friends with a guy, because you might not end up being with him forever; then you’ll have given pieces of your heart that belong to your futurehusband to someone else, and the consequences of that will haunt your hypothetical marriage. You will be less of a person, with less to offer as a spouse. (Sound familiar?)

Now, growing up, I heard conflicting timelines of when it is okay to get to know a guy. It depended on which preacher/family/author was making up the Eternal Universal Rules of Biblical True Love this time. Sometimes you shouldn’t even be friends with kids of the opposite sex. Sometimes you should wait until you’re older. Sometimes you shouldn’t respond to someone pursuing you until your parents had approved of his character, theology, and intentions. Sometimes you shouldn’t become “emotionally intimate,” one-on-one, with a man until you’re dating seriously, planning to get married, betrothed, engaged, or actually married. (That’s right, keep that emotional chastity belt on snug until you’re at the altar!)

Cross-gender relationships were presented as somewhat transactional. You date or court someone only if you think they are a likely candidate for marriage. People of the opposite gender are considered not so much to be people, whom you might like and laugh or go hiking or discuss politics with, but merely as Potential Spouses. Getting to know someone who isn’t a serious contender is a waste of time and also very dangerous. If you don’t Guard Your Heart, feelings might get involved.

All of these rules and formulas are softened by the promise that if you wait long enough, you will meet The One, you will get married, and you will finally be complete. You can let down the barricades around your heart and magically just know how to be good at a relationship, because purity ensures happiness. If you are a lady in contented waiting for her knight in the shining armor of God now, you’ll have the best possible love ever later.

Me, I wasn’t one of those little girls who played Barbie & Ken’s Big Wedding. I didn’t have daydreams filled with a fluffy white dress and seven kids and a white picket fence. But these messages of a relationship being my greatest life achievement which would allow me to reach full personhood, these messages of marriage as the only avenue to self-actualization, still reached me. By guarding my heart, I thought I was not only avoiding present heartache but ensuring a fairytale future.

There was a little fear whisper-lingering in the back of my mind, though, that I had already failed, that I was already impure. See, Guard Your Heart tries to reduce the emotional rollercoaster that is hormonal adolescence, to keep its daughters separate and refined. I often heard mothers tut about girls who giggled and sighed about their crushes. “They’re so boy-crazy,” a mom would say. Then, inevitably, someone would look at me and say, “I’m glad you’re not like that, Katie. You set a good example for those girls.”

Oh yes, I was a good Christian girl with good Christian girlfriends, and we all played that role well. We knew better than to act interested in boys. The secret, of course, was that we were as boy-crazy as any other normal, straight preteen and teenage girls. And I, for one, felt horribly guilty for feeling attracted to boys, for having crushes, for wanting to know them. I felt conspicuous in any cross-gendered conversation or situation, wondering whether it was inappropriate or godly. I worried about “an appearance of evil.” I worried about “awakening love” before its time. So I tried to suppress my interest, and I learned to suppress my heart.

When I graduated high school, I was still playing at being that good girl, an emotional virgin. I had never been kissed, never had a boyfriend, never even had a deep friendship with a guy. Then I got to college, where I lived in a dorm half filled with boys, and realized … men are weird and different and diverse and fun, and, like any persons of any gender, worth knowing in their own right, not just as Potential Spouses. Shockingly, I got to know guys, and let them get to know me, without losing myself. They were just people, and we were just friends, and my life was richer for not fearing half of humanity.

Looking back, I wish I hadn’t internalized all those messages about Emotional Purity for so long. I regret not befriending more boys in high school. I regret thinking of classmates and peers as The Other Gender instead of as individuals, as people, as comrades. I missed potential friendships and hypothetical memories. I missed valuable opportunities to develop as a person among people, because I was too busy categorizing humanity into male and female and never the twain shall meet until wedding bells doth ring.

Mrs. Schofield was right. When I finally did start dating, my experience was too small – and my expectations too high. I was emotionally unprepared, relationally immature, because I’d had so little practice. I wish I’d had an earlier start at dating. Just dating, not pre-marriage. Because turns out, dating can be just that: Intentional friendship with some romance, you could call it. Getting to know someone, maybe falling in love. Testing compatibility. Learning to empathize, be vulnerable, stand up for yourself, communicate, compromise, cherish.

You can do all that without losing your heart or becoming impure.

*   *   *

I get the heart of Guard Your Heart. Parents and leaders want to protect kids from pain. Teenage drama, adult heartache, emotional abuse – those are all real risks in any relationship. But there are equal risks in immaturity, in sheltering, in extremism. Putting the “undated,” the inexperienced, and the naïve on a pedestal strangely values people, especially women, for not doing something, for separating and suppressing themselves, for keeping up appearances. And it sets them up for a fall. Because they’ll have to get down off the pedestal one day, and suddenly they’ll realize there’s no ladder, and they don’t even know how to walk normally on solid ground.

My story isn’t universal. There are people who grew up in evangelicalism and missed or ignored Guard Your Heart. There are happy endings from formal courtships and first loves. But there are other stories, from dating and broken hearts and exes, that are just as good, and no more inherently impure. That’s something I never heard from the church, or at conferences, or in Christian dating books.

I am a better person today than I was at 18. I am single, I have been brokenhearted, I have misplaced expectations and made stupid decisions in relationships romantic and platonic. But I have a clearer understanding of who I am and how I relate to people because I have stopped guarding my heart like it’s a state secret and men are all foreign spies trying to steal it and betray me. I am more in love with all people because I feel free to unashamedly invest my heart, to know and be known.

Let’s stop making emotional frigidity the test of evangelical sainthood or biblical womanhood. Let’s stop making dating such a huge deal. Let’s stop telling kids cross-gender relationships are scary war zones laced with landmines, devastation, and sin. Let’s stop propagating the lies of permanently ruined purity.

These days, I’ve given up my emotional virginity, but my heart’s still whole, and fuller than ever.

Part II: Emotional purity isn’t real
Part III: Fear vs. discretion

(Cupid Disarmed by Guillaume Seignac.)

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17 comments

  1. FANTASTIC post. I’ve had a lot of discussions about this recently with friends around my age. Emotional Purity creates a lot of fallout that doesn’t emerge until years later. My experience wasn’t as harsh as yours or theirs because I was pretty boy-crazy as a Christian teenager. But I always felt guilty and shameful about it!

  2. Thanks for this, Kate. I was not boy-crazy at all for most of my life. My parents were thankful, my grandparents worried, and my friends confused, but when I started being interested in boys I was left clueless and awkward and I didn’t know how to communicate my feelings. I made some poor decisions with boys thinking I was expressing myself when really I was being used. Turns out even those experiences that hurt have taught me so much and I am thankful I learned the things I did. They helped prepare me for the relationship that would lead to marriage. We can Guard Hearts all we want but in the end the mistakes will be made and lessons will be learned. That doesn’t, however, mean we don’t steward the hearts around us well, but sheltering does little for real growth in my opinion. I think there’s a difference there- stewarding vs. sheltering.

    1. Stewarding vs. sheltering: that’s a great way to put it, Jessie. I agree that distinction is important and plan to discuss that next week. Thanks for sharing some of your story and adding your perspective here.

    2. Rachael · · Reply

      I like that, “stewarding vs. sheltering”. Great distinction.

      I remember Jonathan Lindvall (I think it was him) saying that children (defined as any unmarried offspring regardless of age) need to be sheltered. He was not at all ashamed to say it, and a lot of parents, like mine, ate it up. It’s like they were now given license to give in to a temptation that they would otherwise feel guilty about indulging in.

  3. Staci Beukers · · Reply

    Kate, I really enjoyed this post. I can’t wait to read Parts II and III. I loved how you write about the damage that can come from the pressure of purity. You write about relationships from and open-minded and enlightened perspective that recognizes them as life enhancing experiences. Mistakes are also life enhancing and not everyone recognizes that. You’re amazing, I appreciate you and your writing style. I will buy any book you write ;)

    1. Aw geez Staci, you’re making me blush. Thanks for your encouragement. (:

  4. And here I was thinking I was the only one. I never had a name for it. Never tested why I believed it. Never considered how out of context it was. Relationships are all about building trust and nor about hiding your real heart. I totally identify with your story I’d dating after high school/college/later life. It was hard because just like you said, “When I finally did start dating, my experience was too small – and my expectations too high.” Now for grace and just being real with all people all the time. Thanks for your transparent story. It matters!!!

    1. Thanks, Marvia. We’re never as alone in our experiences as we think we are, eh?

  5. Thomas Perkins · · Reply

    I grew up on the other side of the story: raised to be the Perfect Gentleman. I never really succeeded at being Prince Charming, and though things worked out remarkably well for me, I do still like I was suppressed and a hypocrite most of my teenage years. The only reason I am married to my wife now is that I threw caution to the wind and dove into dating her right after I met her. I am so glad that I was in a place to disregard the Holy Gospel of Guard Your Heart and give it away.

  6. Here’s a word from the old people: A lot of our peers “bled and died” to try and give you kids a better experience than they had. We were making social experiments and we’re very sorry for the bad fallout a lot of it had. With out younger kids we are giving them the freedom to date with integrity and make a lot more of their own choices and try to include falling in love in the great experiences of life that God loves.
    Have a heart, you guys! Being a parent is way harder than you think. And in your sorting it out and figuring out how to do it perfect (as compared to the evil past generation) remember that it’s easy to swing to an extreme because of your personal pain. Take a middle ground, have compassion on your parents and be grateful someone was willing to be weird, rejected by society and branded cultish because they loved you.

    1. Grateful Son · · Reply

      I tend very much to agree with the problems pointed out in this post, but amen! While I disagree with this Guard-Your-Heart teaching, the people who teach it are on the whole just good parents who love their children trying to give them the help, the protection, and the nurturing they never had. And they deserve to be honored and respected for that. Not mocked, slandered, or demonized.

  7. Michelle Finley · · Reply

    I’m so glad you shared this, I too walked down this path and though I’m not sure I would say that I came out permenently scarred, I would say that I definitely came out “temporarily awkward!” I see that I missed out on some pretty good friendships, and a lot of relationship skills. When I was finally “ready” to date I realized I didn’t really know how to talk to a guy (unless I wasn’t at ALL interested in him – then it was easy.) I ended up giving all the guys I did like the impression that I was stuck up and the guys I didn’t like, but was friends with the impression I did like them. How frustrating. By the grace of God he changed my heart and turned one of my good friends in the “not at all interested pile” into my best friend, love of my life, and husband. I know that God did guard my heart during those teenage years, AND it ended up working out for me, but I do feel it was too extreme. A couple of years ago I recognized this (around the time I was getting engaged and thought “I will not teach my children the same way I was taught” and I won’t, but the thing of it is, now I have two baby girls who will end up growing up and being boy crazed pre-teen, teenagers and the thought of them being hurt (emotionally, physically, mentally) freaks me out, but as you mentioned, guarding them to this extreme also produces damage. So I guess my husband and I will just have to pray that God will show us how to teach our girls balance and try to show them the meaning behind “guarding your heart” rather than simply telling them to avoid boys or be ashamed of their feelings.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Michelle. I appreciate your perspective and your heart for your daughter. I do think balance is the key here; the opposite of Guard Your Heart extremism doesn’t have to be leaving kids to fend for themselves, wild and unhindered, relationally and emotionally.

  8. Rachael · · Reply

    Thank you for this. I can relate to SO much of what you say here.

    It’s ironic that while this was all supposed to keep us from making mistakes or getting hurt, a lot of us made OTHER mistakes and experienced other kinds of pain as a result. It’s what always happens when choices are made out of fear, which I think is the underlying motive for most parents who bring their children up with this mindset. Now that I am a parent, I want to be mindful not to react to this in fear and thereby accomplish nothing but causing my children other kinds of pain. (Not that I think any parent can do this perfectly. But if we are working out of a place of love, respect, and trust, instead of fear, I think the results will be a lot less damaging.)

  9. […] say, “Purity culture damaged me,” (I’ve discussed this myself here and here, for instance,) and both of those are important. But I appreciate this article detailing why […]

  10. There are stories of successful first loves and then there are stories like mine. I guarded my heart up until the altar expecting it to magically unlock the day we got married. 10 years later I’m still waiting. I didn’t know what falling in love felt like and honestly I was taught not to care because “love comes and goes and it’s really commitment and duty that keep a marriage strong through the years.”

  11. […] Davids and available Bathsheba, meat and prey, women who tempt and men who just can’t resist. Inter-sex relationships seem terrifying. The positive goals — for girls and boys, men and women to be able to […]

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