Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Dark Side of Courtship

Emotional recovery is a unique process. Just when you think you've made good progress, that you've healed and are able to move on with your life, you'll come across something that brings an old memory back to the surface, just waiting there for you to process and deal with yet again. That happened to me this morning when I ran across a blog post that I related to so much that it brought me to tears.

The post was by Elizabeth Esther, and it was about her experience with fundamentalism, particularly her courtship experience and the effect it had on her. She writes,

“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 BrenĂ© 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.


  1. I think the only thing about this article that bothers my spirit is the part when you quote "leaving intense holiness behind." What if the man-made laws that your father was forcing on your life were not even mentioned in the Bible as "holy?" It sounds like instead of leaving holiness, you just needed to get away from a modern day Pharisee. YAH's laws are perfect as stated in Psalm 19:7"The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple." If we are to be holy as YAH is holy then keeping His law is what is required. Not a bunch of man-made traditions that only drive us to insanity and regret. Jesus' yoke is easy and His burden is light. Let us pursue holiness as He was perfectly holy and walk as He walked--which was keeping His Father's law in perfection.

  2. Thank you M.O.M. for another good post.

  3. I saw your link on Elizabeth Esther's blog--I can identify with this so well. Down to the panic at being told, "I love you." Was it OK for him to say that yet? Wasn't that supposed to wait for the proposal? What was I supposed to say? (What I actually said was, "I believe you." :-D How's that for cold?) And my dad didn't even place any restrictions on us, once we had been approved for courtship. But it was less significant *what* the restrictions were than *that* our parents had the power to make or remove them.

    I was telling my husband the other day how painful remembering that whole year was for me--even though it has been over a decade now. He asked, "You mean because of your mom dying?" Well, no. My mom dying was painful at the time, but it was a comprehensible grief, one that I could share with others, one that pretty much everybody goes through at one time or another. I mourned, dealt with it, and moved on. But the pain of realizing I had signed over my freedom and future, of deep guilt because a pure friendship developed into romance, of complete helplessness--that was something I couldn't even acknowledge at the time, something that nobody understood. Courtship was supposed to spare us emotional trauma. So I have to work through it now, I guess.

  4. I am right there with you. The first time my (now) husband told me he loved me, I was both thrilled and afraid. I did say I loved him too, in direct defiance of my father. I was so afraid that by hiding that moment from my parents I was dooming my relationship with the man I loved. All through our courtship (which was never, ever spoken of in those terms; we were "just friends" up until the day he proposed) I knew that if my dad said no, it was over. I agonized over that fact over and over. I rarely denied myself the right of feeling my feelings, but I would always deny them to my parents. Oh the unnecessary guilt and pain I endured through this process.
    Now I can only ask myself, how will I keep my own daughters (if God chooses to bless us with children) from going through this same travesty? So many heart injuries I had when growing up could have been avoided if I had felt safe to talk to my parents about my crushes. How can my husband and I teach purity without shaming our children?