“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.
* * *
Even 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.