“Follow God’s will and the feelings will follow,” my fundamentalist father often told me.
Following God’s will meant getting prior approval before doing anything. And emotional purity meant getting prior approval before feeling anything.
This was my experience too. I was given a copy of I Kissed Dating Goodbye when I turned 13, and I devoured it. It was my guideline for all things to do with relationships. God was in charge, which really meant that my dad was in charge, because that was the way God wanted it, of course. I didn't find out that Thad was interested in me from him, I found out when my dad told me. Even though we were both interested in each other, we couldn't begin an actual relationship until my dad decided we were ready, and until then we were to remain friends only- even though we were interested in each other. It was very bizarre.
We weren't allowed to go anywhere by ourselves. I couldn't even ride in his car unless my little sister came with us. We had strict guidelines about when we were allowed to talk on the phone, and for how long. As far as physical contact, there was to be none. Any conversations about the state of the relationship(once we could actually start a relationship) were held with my parents present, and were actually probably initiated by my dad.
It was enough to make anyone crazy.
One of the saddest things that came out of this highly regulated environment was what should have been one of the happiest parts of our budding relationship- the moment that he told me he loved me. I'll leave out the details for privacy's sake, but the gist is that one night(about 2 years into our relationship), Thad told me that he loved me for the first time- and I said nothing back. Oh, I knew I loved him. I had known that for about 6 months. But I hadn't been allowed to do or say anything about it. So when Thad told me that night that he loved me, I reacted with an intense mixture of elation and terror. He loved me too! But- could I respond? Could I verbalize to him that I loved him as well? Was it time for that? Was it appropriate? I'd have to talk to my dad first, of course, and oh- my dad! What would his reaction be when I told him that Thad loved me?!?! I was terrified. Of course, not telling him was not an option. Dad had told me from the beginning that if I kept any part of our relationship from him that he'd shut the whole thing down in an instant.
My life was not my own. The choices were not mine to make. The experiences were not mine to experience, at least not without discussion and approval first- and how much of the experience is left at that point?
Remember when I said that for years I had the nagging feeling that I wasn't really living my life, that it wasn't really me that was experiencing all the events in my own life? Elizabeth explains that so well:
This is dehumanizing because it shames a woman for experiencing normal, human feelings during normal, human development.So, how do girls in strict, courtship environments cope? We shut down our emotions.The bad news is that you can’t shut down one feeling without shutting down them all. I thought that by ignoring, denying, shaming and shunning my romantic feelings for Matt I was preserving my “emotional purity” and “guarding my heart.” Instead, I ended up completely numb.
Yep. I had no idea that was what was happening to me, but it was. I couldn't really feel or experience anything. Years later, after we'd been married for a while, I started to come alive and started feeling all those feelings I never had before. I became a completely new person. And then I realized I'd been really ripped off. I was married to a wonderful person, and we'd built a wonderful life together, but all those wonderful, lovey-dovey new love feelings and experiences? I'd missed those. I didn't get to choose those- they were hand picked and approved for me. That spontaneity of finding out that the person you liked has feelings for you too- never had that. The wonderful feeling of being told "I love you" for the first time, and being able to fully, completely, wholeheartedly respond, "I love you too" was stolen from me. Even the genuine moments that we did have, and there were some of those too, were clouded by that ever present feeling that I wasn't really there, that I wasn't really living my own life. I'll never be able to get those moments back. I feel like I missed all the really fun parts getting to know my husband for the first time, and I'll never be able to experience those again.
Sarah Bessey wrote a post recently in which she quotes Brené Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection:
“In another very unexpected discovery, my research also taught me that there’s no such thing as selective emotional numbing. There is a full spectrum of human emotions and when we numb the dark, we numb the light. While I was “taking the edge off” of the pain and vulnerability, I was also unintentionally dulling my experiences of good feelings, like joy. … Joy is as thorny and sharp as any of the dark emotions. To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees – these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain…. We can’t make a list of the “bad” emotions and say, “I’m going to numb these” and then make a list of the positive emotions and say, “I’m going to fully engage in these!”
This is why I felt like I wasn't really present in my life. I felt that way until right before Tristan was born- that's one of the reasons his birth was so transformative for me- it was one of the first big moments in my life that I was actually fully there to FEEL and experience.
I've grown, I've grieved, and I've processed, but I'm realizing that I'm not done yet.
Near the end of her post, Elizabeth writes:
It is nothing short of a miracle that my husband and I are still together. What saved us? Getting OUT of that environment, leaving intense holiness behind, feeling our feelings.
Us too, Elizabeth. Us too.