Monday, August 1, 2016

Boundaries in Dating: Don't submit too much

A steamroller. Image source.
[content note: this chapter has an example of a dating relationship where one partner is really controlling and can't handle it when the other partner prioritizes their own needs and desires]

Chapter 10 of Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships is called "Adapt Now, Pay Later," and it warns us not to always give up what we want in order to make our partner happy. Because if you do that, you might end up with a partner who's selfish and controlling and doesn't care about your needs at all.

"Boundaries in Dating" presents the story of Keri and Steve. Because Keri was so attracted to Steve and wanted him to like her, she would always say yes to whatever he suggested, even when it was something she didn't really like. He asked her to go out and she said yes, even though she already had plans with friends that day. He asked her to go for a walk in the evening- she was tired and had to get up early the next day, but she said yes anyway. He suggested getting Chinese food for dinner...
"Sounds great," Keri said. Inside, she cringed. She hated Chinese food with a passion, kidded her friends when they ate it, and had all sorts of derogatory names for it.
o_O Uhh well thanks for not printing them, I guess.

Eventually, though, she found she was spending too much time with him, and she wanted to do her own things sometimes, like see her friends and work at her job (she's a freelance writer). She started to say no to Steve sometimes, and he couldn't deal with it. He got angry, he told her she shouldn't go on a trip for her job, that it wasn't right to always put her career before him. And Keri believed him. She thought she was the one being unreasonable by sometimes saying no to him. Fortunately, she talked to her friend Sandy about it:
But as Sandy listened to the story, and had witnessed some of it over recent months, she was seeing a pattern. As long as Keri had been adaptive to Steve and his wishes and wants, things went smoothly. But as soon as she had begun to be a real person with needs and desires of her own, he was unable to deal with the equality. It was his way or the highway.
Sandy told her she had to stand up to Steve. She needed to find out if he was the kind of person who could compromise, or if he would always need to have his own way.
The truth was hard for Keri to hear. But she stood her ground with her friend's support and Steve did not like it. When she told him that there were going to be times that she would have to work and that she might not be there as much as she had been in the beginning, he could not take it. He said that it proved that she did not really care about him and their relationship, and that they did not want the same things after all.

Keri was devastated at first, but through the help of friends like Sandy, she realized that she had avoided a train wreck. Better to find out in the early months of a relationship that you are with someone who cannot adapt to your wishes than to find out much later, or God forbid, after marriage. She was grateful, and she had learned a lesson: don't be someone you are not just to gain someone's love. If you do, the person that your loved one is loving is not you. It is the role that you are playing and not your true self who is being loved.
A few things to say about this. First of all, if someone told me "this proves you don't care about me" when I said I can't always do everything they want, I would be SO ANGRY. Like, so angry that I would then want to keep submitting to them, just to prove them wrong. Which doesn't seem like a healthy response.

Also, the bit about avoiding a train wreck. It's hard to say, exactly, what purity culture's position is on this. I've often heard people (Christian adults) say it's better to break up than to be stuck with someone who's bad for you, but this advice doesn't really fit in with anything in purity culture. [And I've heard many testimonies about how "God told me to break up with my boyfriend" and they did and God helped them through it- that narrative was an important component of the flavor of purity culture I learned, but I haven't personally analyzed how it all fits together.] You lose the biggest chunk of your purity when you do something for the first time. Your first kiss is a super huge big deal. Ever hear anyone make a big deal about their second kiss? No. And the first time you have sex, that's ALL your purity right there. Such a big deal that there's even a special word for it- "virginity." In purity culture logic, after you have sex once it really doesn't matter how many times you do, because you've already lost all your purity.

Really, it's only the experiences that are your first that cause a loss of purity, because "pure" means inexperienced. When I believed in purity culture, I would have argued that a second kiss does translate to a further loss of purity, because the circumstances and emotions surrounding it won't be exactly the same as the first kiss (even if it's with the same partner). To the extent that it's a different experience [in terms of emotions or physical touching], you are losing purity. (But having sex multiple times doesn't translate into a further loss of purity because you've already lost it all. In Purity Land, every instance of penis-in-vagina sex is pretty much the same.) And as for a long-term relationship, where you do the same "impure" (physically or emotionally) things many times, the emotion gets deeper, gradually, and you feel closer. (ie you are gradually losing more and more purity)

All this is to say, in purity ideology, it is important to get out of a relationship as soon as possible, if you know you can't marry the person. Because as your connection gets deeper, you lose more and more purity. But slowly. Really the majority of the purity was lost at the first times you did various things with this partner. (Like how the new car depreciates in value the minute you drive it off the lot.)

But here's the thing- that purity isn't exactly "lost." Rather, you "gave" it to your partner. ("I gave him my first kiss", "he took her virginity" and all that. Yeah I'm not really okay with that kind of language.) So as long as you are still with that partner, you haven't lost the purity. But if you break up, it's gone forever.

My point is, under the logic of purity culture, it would be very hard to make a choice between ending an unhealthy relationship (and suddenly losing ALL the purity that had been transferred to that partner over the course of the relationship) and staying in the relationship (which erodes your purity slowly, but actually if you end up marrying that partner and being with them forever, then you never lose that purity). Yes, I occasionally heard Christians say it's worse to be stuck in a bad marriage than to experience a breakup, but there were no over-the-top scare tactics about that. The scare tactics were all about losing your purity and being damaged goods, unworthy of a good husband. They never told us to fear being in an unhealthy relationship you want to leave, but can't.

(Samantha Field has written a really good post about how purity culture taught her that she shouldn't leave her abusive partner. I'm sure purity culture advocates would deny that this is what they're teaching, but seriously, THIS IS WHAT THEY'RE TEACHING.)

(And, in case it's not clear, I don't believe in any of this purity stuff. And neither do the writers of "Boundaries in Dating.")

But anyway, when I read statements like the one in "Boundaries in Dating," about how it was good that Keri got out of the relationship early- she was only with Steve for a few months- it's hard for me to really... agree with it. Err, yes, I definitely agree with it- like, logically, isn't it obvious that being in a bad relationship long-term is worse than being in a bad relationship short-term- but... because of my background in purity culture, I still have an irrational belief that breaking up is The Worst Thing Ever, and I have a really hard time saying that a breakup is less bad than years and years and years of being with a person who doesn't treat you right.

In my opinion, this is one of the most OBVIOUS problems with purity culture. Like if you teach people that the only thing that truly matters in a romantic relationship is how much experience you had before the relationship, OF COURSE they are going to reason that it's better to stay in a bad (or even abusive) relationship, rather than completely lose all that purity and have to start over- they've been taught that the heartbreak of breaking up can never truly heal, and that they've lost so much purity that they aren't worthy of a good partner anymore. Better to stay with the loser you have than to become that worthless piece of chewed gum, right?

There have been times I've thought to myself, I honestly can't imagine any circumstances where I would actually make the choice to break up with someone. Even after I had rejected most of purity culture, I still had thoughts like that. And that is horrifying.

But let's come back to reality: Okay, for real. If your partner doesn't treat you right, and you break up, it sucks at first but things will be better. SO MUCH BETTER. You deserve better. You deserve happiness and love. And there is absolutely NOTHING that is "less valuable" about you because of certain experiences you've had. That's a bunch of crap. (I would even go so far as to call it blasphemous- people bear the image of God, and promoters of purity culture are saying the image of God can be ruined and made worthless.)

OKAY let's get back to the book. I'll just let you read this section, and then we'll talk about what Christianity taught me about submitting.
You are a person, and you cannot go throughout life without pursuing your own wishes, needs and desires, nor should you. Your needs and desires are going to come out, and you had better find out early in the relationship where the person you are dating really stands with the idea of sometimes having to adapt to them.


Take it from us. As marriage counselors, we see many, many marriages that get into trouble with this dynamic. One person has very poor boundaries when the relationship begins and the other has all the control. Then after some amount of time in the marriage, the compliant one cannot take it anymore. He or she finally stands up and wants to be a person. And many times the spouse, who is more often than not self-centered, does not like it. The rules are changing and the spouse does not have the tools to deal with the change. And the marriage gets into trouble. Sometimes it grows, sometimes it adapts, and sometimes it does not.
First of all, YES. Wow. This is such important stuff. This is amazingly good and healthy advice about relationships, and it kind of seems like common sense, almost too obvious to even mention, but YOU GUYS, this is completely opposite everything I've ever heard in church.

In the Christianity I learned, we were always supposed to "submit", and it was wrong to value our own happiness and goals. ("Boundaries in Dating" uses the word "adapt" throughout this chapter. In my opinon as a former evangelical, the correct word is "submit.") Really, there were 2 levels: first, all Christians are supposed to give up what they want in order to help other people. You shouldn't spend a lot of effort pursuing something that's important to you- no, you should always work to help others instead. Otherwise you're "selfish." And second, women are supposed to "submit" to men. Now there are variations on this- some complementarians say it only applies to a husband-wife relationship, and a woman doesn't have to submit to any other men besides her husband. But often, they say women can't hold certain leadership positions- sometimes just in church, but sometimes they extend it to all of society and say a woman shouldn't have a job where she is sometimes "in authority over men."

Let me tell you a little story to illustrate the first level- the "it's wrong for Christians to really really want something, other than God of course." Back in college, I had a few friends who liked to cook and used to make a cake whenever it was someone's birthday. One year, I lived on the opposite side of campus from this friend group, and on my birthday, I hoped they would bring me a cake, but I kind of thought maybe it was too far for them to come all the way over to my dorm, maybe they wouldn't come.

But I really wanted that cake. And in the evening, I waited around and hoped they would come, but they didn't. Actually, they didn't forget- I remember one friend asked me if I wanted them to come and bring a cake- but when she called to ask, it was already night and the point was kind of like "we don't really want to come all the way over there tonight, can we give you the cake some other time?" and I pretended it didn't really matter to me.

And then I was sad about it. And I didn't really understand why I was so sad... I thought to myself, "it's because I really wanted a cake, and that's selfish and sinful- I should just always be content with God. I thought that because today is my birthday, it's okay to be a little selfish, to want something, and look, I gave in to the temptation, and now I'm suffering the consequences of my sin. Ahhh lately I've been so happy all the time- I just always think about how I have God, and God is all I need... but today, satan lied and said it would be okay for me to be a little selfish on my birthday, and I fell for it. I wanted a cake, I wasn't fully satisfied with God, and that's a sin and that's why I'm sad now- it's the consequences of sin. If I could be perfectly sinless all the time, I would never be sad, because no matter my circumstances, I would be content with God. Like Philippians 4:12-13 says."

Yes. This is a true story. At the height of my "on fire for God" days, I truly believed it was sinful to feel other emotions besides "I'm SUPER happy because I have God." I truly believed that it was wrong to want something so much that not getting it would affect me emotionally.

And don't tell me I was "too extreme" and that's not what the church was teaching. Don't gaslight me. People at church used to always say "God is all you need" (interestingly, the writers of "Boundaries in Dating" disagree) and I used to always say "God is all I need" when giving my testimony, and church people always told me how I had such an amazing testimony and I was setting a great example with my total devotion to God.

Anyway, it's shocking to me to read the statement "You are a person, and you cannot go throughout life without pursuing your own wishes, needs, and desires, nor should you" in "Boundaries in Dating." Because that's what I thought we WERE supposed to strive for. That's what I learned in church. I thought that the more you submit and give up what you want, the better. But, in a practical sense, if you submit over and over and over, at some point you'll get fed up and probably get in a big fight with the other person, which is a worse result than if you had just told them what your needs were in the first place. You can't submit forever, you're only human, you're sinful, you can't be perfect- so it's best to try communicating nicely before you get to the point where you blow up at somebody. That's sort of a compromise- we know the ideal case is one where you can always give up what you want and keep your mouth shut about it and stomp down your emotions, but realistically, that's not going to happen. Communicating about your needs is second-best.

Now, I don't know if I've ever seen Christians spell it out so directly, like I just did there, but over and over they say "put others first", and they NEVER say "you should care about your own wants and needs, you shouldn't always put others first" so basically, that's where it leads. The only exception is Debi Pearl, who literally says that it's wrong for a woman to ever tell her husband that she doesn't exactly agree with something the husband is doing. (I was shocked when I read that Debi Pearl said that in "Created To Be His Help Meet"- I definitely always believed that Christians were required to believe "wives, submit to your husbands", but the definition of "submit" always included expressing your opinion first, then being okay with being rejected. I never personally came into contact with a variety of Christianity which explicitly said such nasty things.)

And speaking of complementarianism- yeah, not only do Christians have to "submit" and give up their own desires and needs, but Christian women have to submit even more. And, you guys, in this story about Keri and Steve, I can totally imagine Steve telling Keri she's doing a bad thing, not being a good submissive woman, when she stands up for herself and says she can't just do whatever Steve wants all the time. And if she had grown up in a Christian culture that taught complementarianism- even if it was super-vaguely defined, like it was for me- she would believe him. In that context, it would be so easy for Steve to convince her that she was the one being unreasonable.

It's mind-blowing to read "One person has very poor boundaries when the relationship begins and the other has all the control" like it's a bad thing. "Very poor boundaries" means they always gave up what they wanted, they were never selfish, they always put others first. Isn't that what we're supposed to do?

And no, I no longer believe that's what we're supposed to do. I now believe in a much more feminist version of Christianity, which values equality and is very much NOT OKAY with telling victims to just try to submit more, rather than fighting for justice. But the writers of "Boundaries in Dating" don't seem to be coming from a Christian feminist perspective. Instead, they're looking at these topics as psychologists- their job is to help people be more emotionally healthy and have good relationships. Really, the whole aim of this book is incredibly "selfish", from an evangelical Christian perspective. It's not presented as "here are God's rules that you MUST follow or else you're a horrible sinner"- instead, it's like "you should do these things because here are the potential positive and negative results of doing or not doing them." It's all about you. They don't talk about how making bad choices hurts God or your future spouse that you haven't met yet.

It's very bizarre- I have never encountered a variety of Christianity which advocates doing things that are good for ourselves, without external motivations like "this is what God said you HAVE TO do"- with the exception of Christian feminism, which is what I now believe. I know why Christian feminism doesn't believe in always putting others first. I really would like to know why Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend (the writers of "Boundaries in Dating") don't believe in always putting others first. Well, as the many examples in the book show, they don't believe in always putting others first because it's not emotionally healthy to let other people have that much control over your life. But why do they believe our own emotional health matters? No church I've been in has ever told me that my emotional health matters. I want to know how Cloud and Townsend justify this, from a Christian point of view. I know why I believe it, as a Christian feminist- in short, because a good tree cannot bear bad fruit- but why do they believe it?

This book confuses me so much. I totally agree with the majority of it, and strongly believe that what they say about relationships is SO GOOD and I wish everyone knew about it, but... but how is it related to Christianity?

And speaking of things that are not about Christianity: The word "God" only appears twice in this chapter:
[Steve] was everything that [Keri] had been looking for, and she could not believe that "God had brought him" into her life.


... Better to find out in the early months of a relationship that you are with someone who cannot adapt to your wishes than to find out much later, or God forbid, after marriage.
That's it. And neither of those really "counts" as being "about" God or Christianity. Beyond that, there is absolutely nothing religious at all in this chapter. Not one bible verse, not even one Christianese word like "discipleship." Again I must ask, how is this a Christian book? It's not, really, it's just good, solid advice, grounded in reality, with an occasional bible verse or Christian cultural marker added.

Anyway, here's one more really good quote from this chapter:
People who are selfish and controlling can only be that way if they are in relationship with someone who is adaptive. If someone stands up to them and is honest about his or her wants and desires, then the controlling person has to learn to share or gets frustrated and goes away.
That right there is one of THE BEST arguments against complementarianism I have ever heard.

Basically, if you're a good, godly, submissive woman, then there's really nothing to keep you from ending up in a relationship with a man who's selfish, controlling, and doesn't care about what you want. (I am aware that complementarians would say that God will protect you- you're not supposed to stand up for yourself, you're supposed to obey God by submitting to your husband, and then God will stand up for you. Yeah okay. Tell that to the victims who stayed in abusive relationships until their abuser finally killed them.)

But "Boundaries in Dating" never mentions complementarianism, or "wives submit to your husbands" or God-given gender roles, or anything like that. It's like they don't even know that complementarianism exists, and I continue to be completely baffled by this. A Christian book about dating, and it never acknowledges that some Christians believe men and women are so different and that these differences are absolutely essential to a healthy marriage?

None of the advice I've read so far in "Boundaries in Dating" is gendered. There's no "if you're a man, you need to do this, if you're a woman, you need to do that." Their advice about what is and is not healthy in a relationship applies equally to all genders. I don't get it.

But I'll sum up this chapter by saying this: Don't submit too much. A relationship needs to be based on equality. If you always submit to what your partner wants, you might end up with a partner who is selfish and can't stand compromise. And that's bad because you matter. Your emotions matter. Your needs and desires matter.


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

Previous post: Definitely Not Complementarian

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