Monday, August 15, 2016

Boundaries in Dating: He was nice

Gaston sits with his dirty boots on top of Belle's book, while Belle looks on in horror. Image source.
In chapter 12 of Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships, we read the story of Debbie and Nick. Debbie was totally in love with Nick, and started spending more and more time with him, neglecting her friends and her other activities. But it didn't matter to her, she was just so happy to be with Nick. But then, there were some problems. Let's read what happened:
Things continued like this until two things happened that served as a wake-up call for Debbie. First, she began sleeping with Nick, something that she had vowed not to do again until she was safely married. Her vow was part of her spiritual commitment to God and also wisdom she had learned from her previous breakup. [She had been engaged the year before.] What had looked like it would be "forever" had not been after all, and she felt devastated that she had given herself away to someone who had ultimately used her. Now, she found herself doing the same thing again, although this time, she had assured herself, was really going to be forever. But as time went on, her duplicity was beginning to gnaw at her. And she also didn't like how casually Nick was taking their sex life. In the beginning, he had seemed so spiritually committed. But, as she was finding out, his spirituality did not have very deep roots.

The second wake-up call was one day when Nick asked her if she would be interested in looking into cosmetic surgery. At first she thought he was kidding. But when she laughed it off, he did not and pursued it further. "I just think it would help your overall looks," he said.

Debbie was devastated, but more than that, she began thinking. She began to remember other conversations that she and Nick had had about her. Some were about her looks, her hair, at times her weight. (She was a very normal and attractive weight.) Others were about her wardrobe and style, and as she thought more about it, others were about significant areas of her life. She remembered his criticism of sailing when she first shared her excitement about her new passion. He thought it was boring and not where the real action was. That is how he ended up surfing a lot with her watching. Surfing was not boring, according to Nick. But as she really began to think about it, watching surfing was not that exciting either. She had just been so happy to be near Nick that she had lost touch with her interests.

There were other subtle criticisms as well about her other interests. He was not mean at all about them, which is probably why she did not notice that it was happening. It was more of a combination of thinking that things she liked or wanted were not really that great, or more often, he just had a better way of doing things or better things to do.

The same thing had been true about her friends. He had not really clicked with them that much, and that was part of why she had gotten so separated from them. He would say things about her friends like, "she's a little too artsy for me," or other comments that were not really put-downs, but enough to show that he was not interested in the people that she loved. But, again, she had missed it because being with him was what mattered to her. She just felt so good to be with him that pushing him into things or people that he did not like was not a priority to her. She loved being with him. And, this was the subtlety, he was great to be around.
Okay, a lot of things to talk about here. Let's start with the sex part.

First of all, I am totally squicked out by the phrase "safely married." That is a HUGE red flag. Because that is EXACTLY how I thought about it when I was in purity culture. When you're dating, that's the dangerous part, that's the part where there's a risk of breaking up, and if you break up, you lose all the purity and pieces of your heart that you "gave" to your partner over the course of the relaltionship. That's why the dating part has to go as fast as possible- get committed for life as soon as you can, so you don't have to face that risk of breaking up and losing your purity anymore. (This is purity culture logic. I'm totally confused about the extent to which the writers of "Boundaries in Dating" agree or disagree. In the previous chapter, they emphasized how it's absolutely necessary to take the time to get to know someone and not rush into a commitment.)

Continuing along this line of purity culture logic: Sex before marriage is the most dangerous and bad thing you can do. But once you get married, you're safe. Sex in marriage is the most wonderful, amazing, perfect gift from God. When you're married, there's absolutely nothing to worry about in terms of sex. There will be no problems. Honeymoon sex is the best thing ever- that's the reward God gives you for your abstinence. Marital rape doesn't exist. Etc. Don't have sex til you're "safely married."

Now, we know that the writers of "Boundaries in Dating" are definitely NOT part of purity culture. There have been SO MANY things in this book that have completely shocked me because of how not-purity-culture they are. And it really comes across like the writers don't even realize how "controversial" they are, how any good purity culture girl who reads this book is going to be astonished, confused, and horrified at statements that these writers seem to just take for granted, like "we suggest you be open to casually dating anyone of good character" (page 96). So when they use terms like "safely married" and "give herself away" as a description of what sex is, I don't really know what they mean. I've only ever heard these kinds of terms in the context of a "premarital sex is the dirtiest sin ever and will ruin your life forever" worldview. Is that what these writers believe?

I mean, I know they believe premarital sex is a sin, but I don't see how that fits in with the rest of their advice. For example, the previous chapter, which was all about how you should take the relationship slow and not rush into making a commitment. If you really think premarital sex is a dangerous, destructive, life-changing sin, you wouldn't give that advice. So it seems that they believe premarital sex is a sin, but not really a big enough deal that the whole dating process needs to be structured around avoiding "temptation" and getting you "safely married" as soon as possible. But that doesn't make sense to me. Like it's a sin, but it's not really that bad? Huh?

And actually, in the rest of Debbie and Nick's story, which is later in the chapter, the sex part is only mentioned a little bit. I'll give you more details later in the post. But my point is, this book doesn't make a big deal about "oh isn't it terrible how she had sex with him and lost her purity and she'll regret it forever?" Instead, it says Debbie's story has "a good ending"- she ends up talking to her friends about what's going on, and they support her when she stands up for herself and eventually breaks up with Nick. We'll see the details later in this post. But anyway, my point is, the book is very clear about how it's so GOOD that Debbie had wonderful friends to help her and she got out of the relationship. This is a story with a happy ending! Hooray! And not one word is said about "but still, she had lost part of her purity that can never be restored" or any crap like that.

So... I'm very confused about the writers' view of premarital sex. Like, they say they believe it's a sin, but ... really? Then why don't they make as much of a big deal about it as purity culture does?

Moving on. Let's talk about how Nick treated Debbie, how he always acted like her interests weren't that great, so they ended up always doing what he wanted. You guys, this really creeps me out. A guy like that is dangerous. He was isolating her from her friends and slowly convincing her that her own wants and needs didn't really matter. But he was so nice about it. And he was fun! And attractive! She really loved him, and she really was happy with him. Until she noticed what he was doing.

(And this story is a good example of how a person can hurt you emotionally, and you don't even realize it when it happens. When they're doing it, you're happy- maybe you make excuses for them, or you don't want to believe it's really happening. But when you actually realize the reality of what's going on, that's when you see they've been hurting you all along. I don't have experience with abuse, but it really seems intuitive to me that abuse would work this way. A victim might actually feel really happy and like everything is okay in the relationship- until they realize what's happening, and realize that the whole time, their partner has been treating them horribly and actually causing emotional trauma. And then people don't believe the victim because they said they were totally happy before.)

So Debbie told her friends about what Nick had said, and they weren't having it. They said it's not okay for him to treat her like that. And she realized they were right.

Well I told you guys I'd let you know when sex was mentioned again, so here's the next bit:
Slowly she began to get it. And she did what she should have done earlier. She used her support network to ground her, and from that position of strength she began to get stronger and more direct with Nick. She returned to her strong stand on the limits of their physical relationship, and she said that it was important that he do some things with her friends, as well as go sailing with her.
See what I mean about how sex isn't treated as a huge, life-ruining sin? It's just like "oh, they were doing it, but now they're not, so everything's getting better." No mention of anybody's purity being permanently lost.

Nick said sorry, he didn't realize she was unhappy about the things he said and did. Things were good for a little bit, but then he went back to treating her the same way. But Debbie had her friends to support her, and with their help she was able to stand up for herself, and finally they broke up.
Sound like a good ending? You bet it is. Debbie was spared much heartache that would have been certain if she had gone forward. Without the support of her friends, her need for a relationship just might have driven her to continue, even into marriage with Nick. Friends gave her several important ingredients that every dating relationship must have in order to be based in reality. Let's look at those ingredients here.
Yes, really. We're just going to declare this an unambiguously happy ending and move on to talking about why friends are important. Nothing about "oh isn't it terrible how she lost her purity, oh if only she had never started the relationship in the first place."

So yeah. Definitely not purity culture, but I'm baffled as to what it is, then.

But anyway, the main point of this chapter is that you need to stay connected to your friends so that if you have a dating partner who's treating you wrong, your friends will be able to help you realize what's happening. And that's really really good advice. Yes.

When people are in love, they tend to see their partner in an idealized way, and ignore problems in the relationship. This isn't necessarily bad- but it's bad when those problems are things that are actually a big deal and actually really unhealthy. We need people who can help us see the reality of the relationship and to deal with it. We need people who can support us and give us the strength to set boundaries and stand up for ourselves- and even break up.

But... hmm. I'm thinking about how good and healthy this all is, in a theoretical sense, but also about how, in my experiences with dating, I haven't really had that. I'm engaged now, and I have dated 2 other guys in the past [you all can do the math on your own, estimating upper and lower bounds for my current purity level based on those stats], but I have never been in a purity-culture-approved relationship. In every dating relationship I've had, I've struggled with guilt over how I wasn't following the purity rules- and I don't mean super-impure things like kissing or having sex, I mean things like dating a non-Christian, texting my boyfriend at night to say I missed him, me being the one to say "so are we boyfriend and girlfriend?" instead of letting the guy "make the first move", choosing to be in the relationship even though God hadn't given me a "yes" despite my many nights of praying, etc. And because of that guilt, it was always hard to be honest with my friends about how the relationship was going. I'm glad I always have had a few people I could talk to. But... it would have been much easier- and I probably would have had much healthier relationships- if purity culture hadn't made me feel like I was the worst sinner and should be ashamed of what I was doing, and therefore I probably shouldn't tell anybody. (And then I also could have been honest with myself about what I wanted- instead of ashamed of even having desires in the first place.)

Purity culture talks about "accountability" a lot- and when I was single, I totally told close female friends about my "struggles" with liking boys, and I had that "accountability." But when I was dating... when you already know you're breaking the rules, you don't really want accountability. Maybe if I hadn't felt so ashamed over things that didn't actually matter, I might have been able to get real, actual, healthy advice from people.

So another thing "Boundaries in Dating" says is that friends help you stay connected to all parts of yourself. In Debbie's case, she was losing touch with her own interests, her spirituality, and even her "full range of emotional responsiveness."
Because she was losing touch with her life, she lost her ability to feel a lot of life's passions and emotions- her anger and her sense of protest had given way to dullness.
I really like that bit. Well, I really like anything that tells us it's good and healthy to experience a "full range" of emotions- because too often, Christians act like it's a sin to experience anger, to not just "forgive" and get over it, etc. But "Boundaries in Dating" seems to be saying that Debbie SHOULD HAVE felt (and expressed) "her anger and her sense of protest" when Nick said mean things to her. Yeah. Don't submit to that crap. Stand up for yourself. This is so unlike any Christianity I ever heard of when I was growing up evangelical.

I also like this part:
The other side of this is that friends notice personality changes, for the better or the worse. How many times have you heard someone say, "Oh, she has grown so much since she started dating _____. He just brings out the best in her." It is a beautiful thing and your friends will be able to see that. And how many times have you heard, "She has changed so much since she started dating _____. She is not herself. I don't even like to be around her anymore." Sometimes a dating relationship can change someone for the worse, too. Relationships have that kind of power when someone does not have good boundaries. It is up to friends to help give you that feedback if it is happening.
And then there's a section about "spiritual values", and, well I told you I'd let you know every time the sex between Debbie and Nick was mentioned, since it's mentioned so few times, so here you go:
If we value things like honesty, purity, compassion, sobriety, kindness, responsibility, and on and on, life will take on a certain shape that has a good end. However, when we begin to let our values slip, our life takes a different direction that does not have a good end. When Debbie began sleeping with Nick, she had lost a value that was very important to her and which also protected her from losing other aspects of herself. The pseudo-intimacy that they were having in sex was blinding her from seeing the lack of real intimacy in the relationship. That is one way that purity protects single people.
For real, you guys, the first time I read that sentence that included "purity" in a list of values, I thought to myself, "I wonder what they mean by 'purity', since in my mind it has always meant 'not having sex' but I don't think these writers hold that view." But then I read the rest of the paragraph and, wow, they DID mean "not having sex."

(And I'll repeat what I said earlier: the language about "losing other aspects of herself" freaks me out. As if sex is some kind of transaction. I don't know of any healthy view of sex that uses language about giving, taking, losing, etc to describe consensual romantic or sexual actions.)

I don't know if the writers would agree with this or not (I'm very unclear about how/why they believe premarital sex is a sin) but this paragraph shows that the sex was not unhealthy in and of itself. Purity (which purity culture defines as a lack of experience) is not an intrinsically good thing. There's no point in not doing stuff solely for the sake of not doing stuff. Yes, abstinence can be a very good thing. But it's good because the relationship isn't emotionally deep enough yet. Or it's good because you're not comfortable with the risks that come with sex. It's a means to an end- it's not intrinsically better or more moral than other choices. And I don't know if the writers realize this or not, but the way they wrote this paragraph, they are saying "purity" is a means to an end, not simply a good thing by itself. They say "purity" can "protect single people" by enabling them to clearly see the level of emotional closeness that exists in a relationship, so they don't fool themselves into thinking the relationship has such a deep connection just because they're having sex. So really, the important thing is the ability to honestly look at where the relationship is. Not having sex can be a tool to help you do that. But if this- or any of the other reasons that abstinence can be a good choice- isn't applicable to your situation, then there's nothing wrong with having sex. (That's my view- probably the writers of "Boundaries in Dating" disagree. But again, I don't understand how.)

Next, the book talks about how, when you're in a relationship, you should still have your own life separate from your partner. It's not healthy to spend all your time with them and lose your connection with your friends and your own interests. And, if you grew up in purity culture, better be sitting down when you read this next part, because WOW:
This is where dating other people can be very helpful. Especially in the early stages of the relationship, it is usually important to stay open to other people. That keeps you from getting caught up in some idealized fusion with someone and can keep you objective. You will notice that other people are different, for good or bad. And that comparison is helpful. It also reinforces to you that there are other fish in the sea and you won't feel like you "have to" land this particular one or you will be hopelessly alone. Keep your phone line open until you are sure who you are dealing with and that you really want to cut yourself off from other dating relationships.
Oh my goodness, every single thing about this is so completely opposite purity culture, it's hard to know where to even begin.

First of all, as I've said in previous posts, the writers of "Boundaries in Dating" define "dating" in this way: You casually go out with a lot of different people, no commitment, until you decide to be exclusive with one person. I've heard of this definition before- seems like it was common for my parents' generation?- but I don't think I've ever seen how it works in real life. When you're a student, you naturally have opportunities to make friends and find potential romantic partners without putting in a lot of effort, without needing to ask someone on an official date. But as an adult, I guess dating would normally work the way they're assuming here- you go on dates with people you don't know that well, just to try, no commitment, and then if you like them, you can decide to be in an actual relationship.

Of course, purity culture would be horrified at this. Actually taking initiative and making an actual decision to go on a date with someone, when you're not committed to them at all? Oh dear goodness, how will your future spouse feel? If it's just someone you happen to interact with a lot, and then the relationship "just happens", then that's understandable. But if you actually made a deliberate effort to go on a date with someone you don't even know if you'd want to be boyfriend/girlfriend with- wow. Wow. Pretty reckless.

(I remember back in college, people would talk about "is it okay for Christians to do online dating?" Many of us thought it wasn't okay, because we're supposed to just wait for God to "bring us together", and taking initiative to get involved in online dating means you don't trust God.)

Additionally, the paragraph I quoted above says it's good to date different people so that you can compare them. Wow. WOW. You guys, one of the MOST IMPORTANT goals of purity culture is making sure you never ever ever have the opportunity to compare your spouse to an ex. This is one of the reasons why it's bad to have sex with someone you don't marry- because then what if you get married to someone else, and whenever you have sex with your spouse, you end up thinking about the ex? What if your spouse isn't as good in bed as your ex was? What if you can't force yourself to believe that your spouse is the hottest person in the world? According to purity logic, this is an insurmountable problem. There's no way to address it, if it happens- all we can do is make sure everybody only ever has sex with 1 partner, so this terrible unsolvable problem of comparison never arises. (This is also why masturbating is a sin- because what if your spouse isn't as good at sex as you are just masturbating yourself? That would definitely be a hopeless and unsolvable situation, better just never masturbate, just to be safe.)

And it's not just about sex- really anything related to dating might leave you with memories that come up again in the future when you're married. And oh, wouldn't that be horrible, if you ever had a fleeting thought comparing your spouse to an ex.

So when "Boundaries in Dating" says it's good to date several people because then you can compare them and you won't end up with an awful partner because you thought there were no other options- wow. I... wow. That actually sounds like a really good idea. Mind-blowing though. Completely mind-blowing.

Also, this part: "It also reinforces to you that there are other fish in the sea and you won't feel like you 'have to' land this particular one or you will be hopelessly alone." In purity culture, you have to be super-committed from the beginning. Other bloggers have written about how starting a courtship is basically like getting engaged. When I was in purity culture, I didn't use the term "courtship" but I did see a first date as a bigger decision than getting engaged. When you start the relationship, you DO "feel like you 'have to' land this particular one or you will be hopelessly alone." Every dating relationship you have before before marriage reduces your purity- you NEED to keep the number as low as possible. If you don't marry your current partner, if you break up, you'll have to start all over, but you'll have more experience, so you'll be less pure, less worthy of finding a good partner.

In reality (not purity land), there's nothing wrong with having a big or small number of exes. And getting out of a bad relationship can be a very very GOOD thing that leaves you much BETTER OFF. And experience is not intrinsically bad- actually, why would it be bad at all?

And the last bit of this chapter is subtitled "Safe Dating", which means you have to stay connected with your friends in order to have "safe" relationships- you'll have people to support you, who can tell you if something seems wrong. Again, so not how purity culture uses the term "safe." In purity land, "safe" means you're guarding your heart and you're keeping very very strict physical limits. "Safe" means you're not losing physical or emotional purity. But no teaching from purity culture on what a healthy relationship actually looks like.

Anyway, there are 2 main things to learn from this chapter: First, it's possible for a partner to be "nice", attractive, and fun and also be treating you wrong. And it's not your fault if it takes you a while to notice. It's definitely NOT OKAY for them to disrespect you like that- you have the right to stand up to them, to say no, to protect yourself, to break up with them. And second, it's really really important to have friends you can talk to about the relationship. They can help you realize when something is wrong- because it's hard to realize it on your own when you're in love.


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

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