Monday, June 27, 2016

Boundaries in Dating: This may be the most un-purity-culture thing I've ever read

3 post-it notes. They say "Past", "Now", and "Future." Image source.
Chapter 5 of Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships is called "Don't Repeat the Past," and it's about taking an honest look at your past dating experiences to see what mistakes you made, what emotional issues you may need to work on, and addressing those things so you don't have the same problems in the future. Sounds good and healthy, right? Yeah! Sounds like the opposite of purity culture.

The chapter kicks off by talking about why it's important to learn from the past. Check out this mind-blowing statement:
No one enters the dating world competent and ready to go. You may come from a good family and relational background. You may be a well-rounded person. These are certainly advantages. But, even given these advantages, the specific arena of dating, like any other relational undertaking, must be experienced through hours and hours of trial and error.

Wow. Every single thing about this is the complete opposite of purity culture. The ENTIRE PREMISE of purity culture is that if you're just prepared enough, if you pray enough, if you're devoted to God, if you work really hard to keep yourself pure and you never have a sexual thought, then you can find your marriage partner successfully (through dating or courting), without ever being hurt emotionally. "Boundaries in Dating" says you can never be fully prepared for dating- you just have to experience it, and then learn from those experiences and the mistakes you make. Wow. In purity culture, any mistake means that you've lost some of your purity and you're not good enough for your future husband. To learn through "hours and hours of trial and error" would be way too risky. No, purity culture claims that if you just follow the rules well enough, you'll find your spouse with no mistakes, no heartbreak, and no risk.

The entire point of purity culture is that, if you have a past at all, then you're impure, unworthy of marrying a good person, never again capable of real love towards a marriage partner. If you have a past, well Jesus can forgive you, but you'll never be as good. And purity culture advocates have to really emphasize the "you'll never be as good" bit- to scare people enough that they'll never do any of those "impure" things.

In contrast, the authors of "Boundaries in Dating" are psychologists. Their goal is to help people deal with their emotional issues- deal with their past- and get better. It's about hope. It's about your ability to take control of your life, and when you discover the reason for your problems, you can change and get better. That's what psychologists do. None of this "but you'll never be as good" like in purity culture. Probably because the "Boundaries in Dating" people don't see the "impure" things as terrible sins that should be avoided at all costs- instead, it's more like "okay this is a thing that happened, it wasn't good, but it happened, and let's see what we can do to help you get better." No judging, no shame, no "this was a sin, and now you've screwed over your future husband. And God."

As an example of what it means to learn from your past and make a change, let's read Jim's story:
Jim had been a happy-go-lucky man in his twenties. He dated quite a bit, but nothing ever came of the relationships. However, Jim wrote it off to bad luck and comforted himself with the knowledge that he had lots of time to find someone. He never really sat down and wondered what was going on. Time, however, caught up with Jim. By his midthirties, he became concerned. He had always wanted to be married by then. Jim became anxious that he might never get married at all.

At this point, the older, wiser Jim slowed down a little and began seriously thinking about his dating pattern. He finally figured it out. Jim tended to go after women who wanted him more than he wanted them. The main thing he was attracted to was that a woman really liked him. It was less risky for him. However, once the relationship became more involved, he would quickly lose interest, as they were not what he desired in the first place. Almost every past relationship has this same clear progression. Jim was amazed when he put the pattern together. I was proud of Jim, because he worked very hard to diagnose the problem.

By this time, Jim had been dating two women, Robin and Jenny. He was honest about this with both women, and was not deceptive. Robin was very interested in him, which normally would initially render her more interesting to him. Jenny, on the other hand, liked Jim but wanted to keep dating other people. This was a struggle for him. The old Jim would have never pursued Jenny after a couple of dates, so great was his insecurity about taking risks with women.

Fortunately, Jim had been pondering his pattern of low-risk dating, and was willing to use his knowledge of the past. What Jim did was to bring his loneliness and insecurity out of his dating world and into his friendships. He opened up to his safe cluster of friends about his feelings, and took risks with them about how afraid he was of committing to them or anyone else. They stuck with him and supported him.

Eventually, Jim became more able to be honest and straightforward with people, secure in the knowledge that he had a solid foundation of relationship between God and a few good folks. In other words, Jim was growing. He got honest with Robin and told her he just didn't have enough interest to continue dating. And he pursued Jenny, though it almost gave him panic attacks to go after such an unsure deal.

As it happened over time, Jim did lose Jenny to someone else, and that was also very painful for him. The good news is that he found that he could survive losing. This foundation of growth is what made it possible for Jim to do the right thing with Robin, and establish the relationship with Jenny. Things then played out as they were supposed to, unhampered by his insecurities. It is much better for a dating relationship to end due to healthy differences than to unhealthy ones.

In time, Jim went for another woman, Samantha, in whom he was genuinely interested. And this time, he was attracted to her character and values, not her interest in him. Pursuing her was a real risk for him. But in time, Samantha loved him back. They are now happily married. Had Jim not dealt with his past dating approaches, who knows what might have happened instead? The past's examples and warnings (1 Corinthians 10:11) proved a helpful ally for Jim.
On first reading this story, I really liked it. But then I realized, I don't really know how to evaluate this- is it realistic? Is it a healthy way to view relationships? I like this story and it seems like it all makes sense, but it feels very strange to hear relationships talked about in this way. About risk, about choosing to take risks, about surviving a breakup and taking that as confirmation that the risk was worth it. Wow.

To a reader who believes in purity culture, this story is unintelligible. It's not that they would disagree with it, it's that they wouldn't even be able to understand it. If all you know is purity culture, and then someone talks about how isn't it great that Jim learned to take risks in relationships and then everything worked out, it would make no sense to you. What about purity? What about how everyone in this story lost pieces of their heart? Because the authors of "Boundaries in Dating" come from a completely different perspective than purity culture, with completely different assumptions about what dating is, a purity-culture reader would be literally unable to understand this story. They would learn nothing from it, because it comes across as complete nonsense if all you know is "breaking up will make you impure, so GUARD YOUR HEART!!!!"

And even for me, like I said, I like this story but honestly I don't have the tools to really understand and evaluate it. It includes big, abstract concepts like taking risks and learning it's worth it to take risks, even if you break up- and I don't know if I've ever heard dating discussed in those terms. Actually, if I think about my experiences rather than abstract ideas I've learned about dating, I can sort of understand the part about being more willing to date someone I'm less interested in, because then it's less risk. Yeah, okay, so one time there was this guy, let's call him Pat, and I wasn't attracted to him AT ALL, and sometimes he used to sit next to me and lean against the back of the couch in such a way that he was almost leaning on me, and I liked imagining that he liked me and we were dating, in my head it was fun to pretend because he didn't actually matter to me so there was no risk of me losing part of my heart, and we weren't actually in a relationship or anything, so no risk of me losing any purity.

See, yeah, I need to think of a really specific example that I've experienced, because these concepts feel so foreign to me. (And actually, a purity-culture follower might even reason that they should be in a relationship with someone they're not terribly interested in, as a way to guard their heart.)

Next, there's a section in this chapter called "Be Afraid of Your Past", about how not evaluating and learning from your past can cause problems in your current or future relationships, so it's good to have "a healthy fear" of repeating the past. I'm not really comfortable with how they use the terms "afraid" and "fear" because purity culture was ALL ABOUT FEAR for me, and I am so done with that. Really, though, what they're talking about here is being aware of possible consequences that could realistically happen, and working to prevent them. It's not some huge unknown, vaguely-defined, infinitely-horrible thing that just hangs over you all the time, like in purity culture.

The most interesting bit of the "Be Afraid of Your Past" section is this:
As in Jim's case, most people have some sort of age deadline in their head by which they would like to marry. In reality, you can't wait forever, because you don't have forever. There is such a thing as "too late." So many people who have dreamed all their lives about being married will, in ignoring their pasts, lose their married futures. Get to work on the past!
This is pretty shocking to me because purity culture is all about how you should keep waiting and trust in God's timing. If God has ordained that you meet your husband at age 41, then that's the way it is and there's nothing you can do about it. Yes, purity culture does pressure people into marrying young, and generally church people act like you're a problem that needs to be solved if you're still single in your late twenties or thirties- but at least in the form of purity culture I followed, you can TOTALLY wait forever and it's wrong to have an "age deadline."

This is a good illustration of the fact that "Boundaries in Dating" is definitely written for adults, whereas purity culture is generally directed toward teenagers and college-aged people. As for the "age deadline" concept, my opinion is that you have to be reasonable. My parents got married right out of college, so I always thought I would too, and I felt like a failure when I didn't. And I still sometimes feel like I'm going so slow, when it seems like everyone on facebook is getting married and having babies. But in reality, it's totally fine and normal to not be married or have kids at my age. Just because a lot of people on facebook are doing it doesn't mean they're winning and I'm losing. Realistically, you can have biological kids in your late thirties or even older (I'm not totally sure when, but I think it's much older than whatever mainstream culture is telling you) or you could even adopt kids. At different ages, you'll have different life circumstances and different options available to you, some of which are better than others, so it makes sense to have a preferred age when you want to get married, but I'm not sure I can say there's some point after which all hope of getting married and having children is lost. (Or rather, since I'm young, I don't know enough to be able to speculate on that.)

The point is, if you're in college and you think your life is ruined because you don't have a "ring by spring", then calm down, it's okay, you have a lot of time. But maybe, at some point, years and years and years later, it's no longer true that "you have a lot of time." Sort of a strange new concept for me. But yes, it shows "Boundaries in Dating" was definitely written for adults.

So. In summary, this chapter is about learning from your past. There's no judgment, there's no "now you're impure and you can never be fully healed." These authors are psychologists; their job is to help people get better, not to tell them they're permanently damaged. Pretty much the complete opposite of purity culture.


A blog series reviewing the book Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships (introduction post is here)

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