Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Emotional Purity: When You Use Up All Your Love

I ran across this the other day on a blog. I had completely forgotten about this story, originally printed in Josh Harris' book I Kissed Dating Goodbye and used by many a youth leader to teach their students about purity.

The story starts with a girl getting married. She gushes for awhile about how pretty the church is, yadda yadda, and then stuff happens:

But as the minister began to lead Anna and David through their vows, the unthinkable happened. A girl stood up in the middle of the congregation, walked quietly to the altar, and took David's other hand. Another girl approached and stood next to the first, followed by another. Soon, a chain of six girls stood by him as he repeated his vows to Anna.
Anna felt her lip beginning to quiver as tears welled up in her eyes. "Is this some kind of joke?" she whispered to David.
"I'm...I'm sorry, Anna," he said, staring at the floor.
"Who are these girls, David? What is going on?" she gasped.
"They're girls from my past," he answered sadly. "Anna, they don't mean anything to me now...but I've given part of my heart to each of them."
"I thought your heart was mine," she said.
"It is, it is," he pleaded. "Everything that's left is yours."
A tear rolled down Anna's cheek. Then she woke up.

My eyes widened and I might have even shouted out loud, "OH MY GOSH, I JUST REALIZED! THAT STUPID METAPHOR IS WHAT MESSED WITH ME!"

When it comes to talking about relationships for teenagers in the church I grew up in, the big emphasis is on purity. The guys mostly learn about physical purity, while the girls learn about emotional purity and guarding our hearts. And most of the time they use a particular metaphorical story from Josh Harris' I Kissed Dating Goodbye book. While I am totally OK with nontraditional dating styles, that metaphor has (and had, for me) some unintended consequences.

So the teaching is that if you give too much of your heart away before marriage, you won't have anything left for your spouse.


And here are the problems with that.

1. It makes it sound like love is finite.
This is the most obvious problem with that. The more I love, the less love I have in the end? That is not how that works. While obviously romantic love is a little bit different than platonic friendship, it still doesn't work that way and nobody really thinks it does. If it did, the church would be cautioning people to pace their love in their early years, otherwise they won't have enough left for later. That's complete nonsense, and we recognize it in that scenario, so how come in the emotional purity scenario, I'm suddenly running out of love? This is just a silly, silly way of thinking about it.

2. It makes it sound like we can never let go of our past.
This is a more serious issue. There's no such thing as really moving on in Josh Harris' story. The groom admits that these women mean nothing to him, but it doesn't matter. Every relationship (for girls, this teaching is frequently extended to every single person with whom we've even desired a relationship) will leave a permanent, damaging scar on our hearts and souls. Even mutual breakups where the pair are still friends. Even a silly week-long camp romance in middle school. Even lighthearted impossible crushes. Each one of these will stay with us forever and come between us and our spouse in marriage.

It's an even more damaging message, however, when the relationships are serious one. I have a friend who was engaged and then found out some pretty terrible things about her fiance, so they broke up. That's a terrible thing to happen, and according to this teaching, she is never, ever, ever going to be able to get over it. If only she had kept herself emotionally pure - every romance she heads into now is going to be tainted by this previous one.

Now, obviously that kind of hurt does take time to get over, and obviously there will be some baggage there for quite awhile. But Josh Harris' story takes away any hope of that scar ever healing. There's no moving past it, there's no letting go of it, you're stuck with that relationship forever.

That is completely opposite from Christian teaching, and it's a paralyzing thought, because sometimes there's no way to know if you're with the wrong person in a relationship. Sometimes, as far as you know, everything's great, and then suddenly everything isn't and it comes as a total surprise to you. What if something goes wrong and you're stuck with this failed relationship on your record for the rest of your life? Then you'll going to have to explain to your future spouse that you screwed up and that that failed relationship is going to be invading your relationship with them. Forever. And there's nothing you can do about it.

That's just not how it works.

3. It teaches emotional distance.
Annnnd this was the biggie for me. All throughout high school, I found myself feeling guilty every time I had even vaguely romantic feelings for anyone. I was a sensible person - I knew most of the people I liked didn't (and wouldn't) like me back. I knew there was a slim-to-none chance that even if they DID, that I'd end up in something long-term with them - not in high school. And I was never obsessive in my liking someone. It wasn't ever a mad fit of teenage lust - it was just warm fuzzies and wanting to be around those people a lot. Nothing that I could ever pinpoint as something wrong, and yet I still felt guilty, as if just the feelings themselves were wrong.

It wasn't until I ran into this story again that I realized where this sense of guilt ever came from in the first place - thus my shriek of, "Oh, THAT'S what it was!" I had heard the idea of guarding your heart, the idea of remaining emotionally pure, and began distancing myself as much as I could from guys emotionally, because that was the best way to do that.

If I still believed this as literally, it would completely destroy the relationship I am in now. I would be terrified to get too close to my boyfriend because, again, until we either got married or broke up, I would have no way to know if I was sinning by letting him into my heart or not. What if we got close, and then something went wrong, and we broke up? It'd be my fault for being so emotionally open and vulnerable with him. I would have felt like I needed to put up a wall and never share too much of myself.

And that is a terrible idea.

It would keep us so far apart emotionally. I could never choose to marry somebody who I felt emotionally distant from. Part of building the relationship at all is building trust and emotional openness. I don't want to marry someone I haven't been emotionally open and honest with. But, again, since there's no way to know whether you're on the right track or not until you're actually married, I should apparently avoid being too emotionally open with anyone, because they might turn out to be one of the failures instead of the success.

Sometimes relationships go wrong. It just happens. People are complicated, weird creatures. But they're a whole lot more likely to go wrong if one of the people does the "right thing," guarding their heart and never opening up emotionally, hiding a whole part of themselves from the other person.

This whole metaphor teaches that romantic emotions, positive and negative, scar us for life and are usually wrong. The easiest response to that is shutting it all down, because then everything is safe, and when we get married someday, it'll all be easy to open back up again and then we can instantly be emotionally open and acceptably romantic with each other, no problem.


4. It can wreak all sorts of havoc with platonic opposite sex friendships.
This one is less terrifying than the other three, but I wanted to mention it because Christianity isn't sure what to do with these anyway. Some groups encourage it, some suggest against it, some say it's OK as long as nobody gets too close.

Either way, with this kind of teaching, it's difficult to figure out how platonic friends fit in. Is getting emotionally close to *them* wrong too, or does that only apply to romantic relationships? (In which case, it's all sorts of awkward if you go from being friends to being a couple. You'd have to immediately withdraw from them emotionally, and I can't see that ending well at all.)

One of my female friends recently told me, "I wish someone had told me growing up that I could have very strong, very intense feelings for a guy without it needing to be at all romantic." She had to figure that out on her own, and so do many girls in the church today. Some don't figure it out at all.

The emotional purity teaching has good intentions. I am absolutely a fan of being emotionally smart - be sensible about who you open up to, learn to distinguish "being in love" from minor crushes, be aware of when an interest in someone is unhealthy or obsessive. But the metaphors and stories attempting to teach this lesson have been poorly chosen can easily be taken to an extreme that traps young women in fear and keeps them from learning healthy emotional responses. It almost did that for me.


  1. Does this apply to celebrity boyfriends too? Cause I would be completely happy with Adam Pascal, Uwe Kroger and Matt Bomer showing up at my wedding, wherever they wanted to stand. Poor Adam though will have quite a few weddings to go to. He got dumped by quite a few of us.

    On a more serious note, I find that story really sickening. And makes me angry that this is getting taught to teens, I mean dating is confusing and question-raising enough by itself, and also as a Christian, without this stuff. And also agree with 100% all your points.

    Also, I kind of object to the way it makes out that the love this David had for these girls is the same love he has and will have for his wife. Maybe this is the mushy romantic side of me that enjoys romantic comedies, I mean clearly not a subject I have firsthand knowledge of, but frankly I think the depth of relationship one has with one’s spouse is so much more than what one would have with the people you dated whilst looking for, for lack of a better word, ‘the one’. After all, loving someone and being in love are different. And you can also stop loving or liking someone…and now I think I’m rambling a bit so.

    Also, how does this apply for widows/widowers? Is it all ‘whoops, you used to be married, so, you’re used goods, your love’s inferior quality now, no one wants you, spend the rest of your life alone’…or does it like not count if they’re dead or something?

    Also, this how outlook really encourages a scenario where one could very easily panic and think ‘oh no, I’ve become emotional evolved with this guy! Now I’ve got to marry him!’ And you end up married to someone regardless of whether you were right for each other or the extent of your feelings.

    Now if they want to use that story to illustrate how *not* to behave at your ex’s wedding, I’m completely fine with that.

    1. Heh, my friend Rachel was talking to me on Facebook and asked about the celebrity boyfriend thing, too. To quote her specifically: "Oh and Jacob is screwed because before him there was Benedict, and before Benedict there was..." (Neil Patrick Harris, is how that sentence should end. And then Norbert. And then, yes, poor, poor Adam.)

      I agree - this metaphor is incredibly flawed. If this is the message they want to send, they have to at *least* help us clarify when our emotional purity has been... violated. Does every person I have ever had a crush on count? Does Han Solo count? Guys I liked for a week on a missions trip but didn't ever actually talk to? Guy friends I shared stuff with but was never romantically interested in? They give us these metaphors but the metaphors never actually help us draw the line at what is healthy for us emotionally and what isn't, so we're left to figure it out on our own. So logically, I knew that it probably wasn't wrong to be interested in someone (because I couldn't even help it a lot of the time), but I had a nagging sense of guilt to go along with it.

  2. Also, I love that Anna doesn't say anything after just the one girl, but waits until six girls have come over.

  3. Sighs...I've got to get an account on here if I keep reading your blog so I can just edit a post instead of posting a dozen times. Sorry.

    But finale point, sometimes actually a previous relationship or dating experience, rather then maker you weaker, can make you stronger and you can learn from it, and will actually improve you're next relationship, or just teach you better how to handle them or what you are really looking for.

    1. It's true. While I'm not a fan of serial dating or being in a relationship just to be in a relationship, past experiences, both good and bad, can help us learn. That certainly is true for relationships as well.

    2. Yes, I agree, I wouldn't date *just to date*, and see no reason to be in a relationship with a guy once I know that this isn't a guy I could spend my life with. The only guy I've actually ever gone out with, I stopped seeing pretty quickly because as nice as a guy as he was and as exciting as it was to be going out on a date with someone and as nice as it does feel to know there's this guy that likes you, I knew that it definitly wasn't a relationship I wanted to persue into anything serious. But I definitly think past relationships should be looked on more as 'what have I learned from this, or gained from the experience, or just what's something good I got out of it' then in an 'Aaah! Unclean! Unclean!' kind of way.

      (This is all stuff I've given some thought to, hence why my comments have gotten kind of long on it, sorry if I got rambly)

    3. No, you leave as many long rambly comments as you want to. :) My post was certainly long and rambly enough.

      Yeah, the thing that bothers me is how much fear and guilt this whole message plays upon. It teaches us to fear our past experiences because THEY WILL NOW NEVER LEAVE US, and it teaches us to fear our present and future experiences because WHAT IF THEY TURN OUT TO BE BAD. When, honestly, almost everyone has had prior relationships before settling down with someone, including those who now have perfectly happy, healthy relationships. Present relationships are not necessarily plagued by past ones. Can they be? Of course. Is it inevitable? No.

      Annie Hall is one of my favorite rom coms because of its take on this. Now while I am certainly not about to take all Woody Allen's relationship advice, ha, I think Annie Hall is an excellent story, that teaches that wherever relationships end up heading, we can use those experiences to make us better people. We don't need to be filled with remorse and shame and regret. We learn what we learn in the relationship, we learn what we learn after the relationship, and we move on, hopefully better people.

  4. Really good points here- I'm going to link to this from my blog. You've done a good job of summing up what this teaching means when taken to its logical conclusion- I have also spent a lot of time analyzing what I was told about dating, trying to figure out how in the world it was supposed to work... so I'm supposed to keep myself very emotionally separated from my boyfriend, for damage-control in the case of a breakup... "I would be terrified to get too close to my boyfriend because, again, until we either got married or broke up, I would have no way to know if I was sinning by letting him into my heart or not." Yes. This. Exactly. Either a relationship is totally great and "God brought us together" and everything's awesome, or it's a huge mistake you will always regret for the rest of your life, a terrible sin and you should have known better. (The logical conclusion is that dating is HORRIBLY DANGEROUS, and you should rush into marriage as fast as possible so you no longer have the risk of breaking up. Umm... right...)

    Like I said, I've also analyzed this stuff in the past, and was baffled at the inconsistencies, but I never actually thought to question the teaching itself- hey, maybe this "giving away part of your heart" is totally a lie. Until I became interested in (and started dating) a really awesome guy, and I thought "I'm not guarding my heart at all" because I was like, actually affectionate towards him, rather than giving him the bare minimum of niceness so that I wouldn't be "too emotionally attached." Yeah, I don't guard my heart anymore. Definitely not.

    1. Thank you so much for the comment and the linking! Much apologies on the late response to your comment, I haven't been online much. (Incidentally, your blog is *great* - I'm following it on Google Reader now, so I'm sure I'll comment every once in awhile.)

      Yeah, my perspective on this changed when I actually became close friends with a couple of guys, and then changed definitively when I started dating my closest guy friend. Surely I wasn't supposed to backpedal my way out of my close friendship with him. That didn't make any sense. So I went forward, opening my heart to him more and more, and instead of feeling like I was doing something wrong, I found myself more and more confident that I was doing the right thing. If it went wrong, it went wrong, but it would *definitely* go wrong if I kept him at arms' length. We just recently got engaged, something I could never have agreed to in good conscience if I had not already let him into my heart and into my life.

  5. How are you so wise?
    There are many reasons I left the church. If there were more people like you in it, I would have a lot less reasons. Reading your posts that address issues that I have with church, make me able to be less bitter, and see that maybe there is hope for the women in the church today.
    Thank you for that.

    1. Savannah, that is the one of the greatest compliments I could ever be given. Heh. Thank you so very much. I am so glad you've been encouraged by my blogs... I do have a lot of friends who have left the church specifically because of issues like these, and even though I have stuck with the church (or... well, with Christianity, anyway. My issues with church itself is a whole 'nother blog series, hehe) I do firmly believe that there *must* be a place for issues like these to be discussed, and that fear, power struggles, and captivity are never things that are meant to be a part of the Christian life.

  6. About the finite-love thing, also nobody ever suggests that you limit the number of children you have because you'll love the younger ones less.