Disclaimer: The following contains a lot of religious language that no longer reflects my current spiritual views. What follows is about a period of my past, who I was at that time, and how what I believed changed.
Discovering “God’s Design”
I sat on the carpeted floor of the library hunched over a book, my back pressed against the wall. I glanced out the window at the swirling snowflakes falling on my nearly empty college campus, most students already gone for winter break. I’d taken my last exam earlier that day, and for the first time since starting college at the small Christian university I attended, I actually had time to spare.
I turned back to the book in my hands. It was a book about dating relationships (something I’d never been in before), and my heart beat with excitement as I read about a type of dating that was joyful, fulfilling, and sacred. This, the book said, was God’s design for dating, and the hopeless romantic in me welcomed every word on its pages. Sitting on the library floor that day, I decided that whenever the time eventually came, I would date this way — a way characterized by chivalry, poetic pursuit of the feminine heart, purity, godliness, and devotion.
I resolved I would date God’s way.
Following this initial encounter with what I now know to be evangelical purity culture, I absorbed everything I could find about godly Christian dating. By the end of my freshman year of college, I believed that if I did everything according to God’s design, waited patiently, and guarded my heart, I would date, or “court” as the books called it, only one person — the man God intended for me to marry.
A Storybook Start
I entered my sophomore year confident and content in my singleness, which, according to purity culture, is prime timing for God to bring along a potential suitor. And so that fall, my days as a young, single Christian woman morphed into a budding new dating relationship.
He was a year older than me, studying to be a pastor, and led Bible studies in his residence hall. The unfolding of our relationship was like a story out of the dating books I’d eagerly poured over that snowy day in the library the year prior. We were two souls passionate about Jesus and set on cultivating a relationship of purity.
It wasn’t long into dating that my boyfriend confided in me he had secretly struggled for some time with an addiction to pornography. My stomach dropped. I’d been warned by the dating books that this was, unfortunately, a common struggle for many young Christian men, but with a mind set on Christ, it was a sin that could be overcome. He assured me that he was dealing with the issue, and had lost all desire to look at porn. After seeking advice from a trusted Christian mentor, I decided to cautiously continue moving the relationship forward.
Dating progressed with a dreamlike innocence, and even friends commented on how truly it seemed God made my boyfriend and I for each other. It was only natural then that hearing these statements, as well as discovering numerous and uncanny similarities between us, quickly deepened the seriousness of our relationship. The porn addiction issue remained out of sight.
Physical purity was a top priority for us. Aided by a plethora of university-imposed guidelines to prevent overstepping appropriate boundaries, the physical side of our relationship progressed very gradually and deliberately. We didn’t hold hands for the first two months of dating; our first kiss happened after four months. Hands were kept generously far away from genitals at all times, and kissing couldn’t be more than a peck at the risk of prematurely “awakening love” (AKA producing sexual arousal).
It wasn’t only obedience to our Christian beliefs that kept us from exploring the physical aspect of our relationship; truthfully, I was scared to. Although the dating books encouraged avoidance of sexual discussions at least until getting engaged, sexuality became an almost daily topic of conversation for us. The concerns were seemingly endless: we’d gone too far, we’d kissed with too much passion, he’d been too tired and said things he shouldn’t, I’d distracted him with the shirt I wore because the fabric was too tight around my chest; the list went on.
Over time a predictable pattern began to emerge. We’d engage in mutually approved physical behavior, within a short amount of time the behavior would be brought up (almost always by him), and our sincerity and commitment to God would be called into question. Nearly any expression of physical affection besides holding hands while walking to class would inevitably be called out as evidence of impure hearts and a love for each other stronger than our love for God. Worry and guilt became my constant companions.
Being the inexperienced young woman I was when it came to dating and to men in general, I sought counsel weekly from my mentor, the university chaplain. Not wanting to involve my friends in private matters between my boyfriend and me, my meetings with my mentor became the only outlet I had to express my concerns, gain perspective, and receive guidance. He had my total respect and trust as someone with many years of experience counseling young Christian couples. For this reason, it only added to my worry when my mentor repeatedly expressed genuine concern regarding some of the physical issues my boyfriend frequently brought up, especially with his past addiction to porn.
The Porn Problem
Overall things continued without incident until one day, while separated for summer break, my boyfriend ashamedly confessed he had given into temptations to watch porn after seeing a risqué scene in a movie. We had been dating for nine months at that time and already talked a lot about plans to marry after college. I was devastated. An addiction to porn was a deal-breaker in my book (because the Christian dating books said it was) that I’d made very clear at the start, and the sadness of a jeopardized future together became like a heavy weight of despair I always carried around my neck.
The next school year, an additional pattern emerged in our relationship. With the infatuation having worn off and the dormant addiction revived, our usual conversations about physical boundaries now involved my boyfriend regularly admitting to caving into temptation as a result of our impurity. Every time it would hurt like a knife, not just because I felt cheated on in a sense, but because every relapse felt like him choosing porn over choosing the future with me he said he wanted so much.
With each relapse and confession came regretful apologies, eloquently written expressions of his love for me, and promises that this “beast of pornography would be slain.” Words of affirmation being my love language, I stayed with him, believing what he said to me was true. Every time he’d remind me, “God brought us together, and it is His will that we be together.” Wanting to stay faithful to God, my hurting heart submissively accepted God had chosen me to be the partner of an aspiring pastor addicted to porn, and it was my calling to keep pointing him back to God each time he fell.
This cycle of renewing our commitment to purity, inevitably stumbling somehow, him returning to porn, and his repentant confessions continued the rest of the school year. I became terrified to do or say anything that might stimulate even the slightest arousal, for fear of a kiss or simple flirtatious comment pushing him over the edge. My understanding of human sexuality became based on this warped model exhibited in our relationship, although I didn’t realize at the time just how badly distorted it really was.
The last week of school, I broke up with my boyfriend after his most hurtful relapse. I began thinking that maybe all along God’s will for me was to ultimately sacrifice myself for my boyfriend’s sake, so that he could finally find freedom from his addiction. Ending my relationship with the person I’d given my whole heart to was the hardest thing I’d ever done, but I believed in doing so I’d fulfilled my calling. A week after we broke up, my ex graduated from our college and we returned home to our respective families out of state.
To make a long story short, that summer I believed I “sensed” God was calling me back into a relationship with my ex, that he was still the one God intended me to marry, and that the root of his addiction had been dealt with after he’d sought professional therapy. We agreed to begin dating again toward the end of the summer, and after I began my senior year of college, he came to visit me. We had a beautiful, Hallmark movie-like reunion, and we rededicated our relationship to Jesus before he left to return home.
While our conversations became less about sexual matters than before, by my last semester of college we were constantly discussing how our future would work out after I graduated. My greatest concern was for us to be together, as long distance dating was really taking a toll on me. We lived nearly 500 miles apart and had gone five months without seeing each other in person. He, however, had pursuits of his own, and although he echoed my desire to be together, God’s will ultimately came first.
The stress of trying to figure out how to make our future together work on a practical level landed me in the campus counselor’s office, spiraling into what she suggested was situational depression. If being with this person was God’s will for me, why were we hitting so many frustrating walls? Why did I feel so misunderstood, unheard, and hurt by him? I felt guilty for asking myself those kinds of questions, and was reprimanded by him for having weak faith whenever I shared about my mounting emotional struggles.
I allowed this relational turmoil to continue for eight months. Having had such broken emotional and mental health at that point, naturally the question gets asked: Why are you staying? I stayed because, in between the bad times, there were still moments of lightheartedness and connection. I stayed because he was a gifted writer who knew how to woo me with words. I stayed because he used my faith, the most important aspect of my life, to convince me this was what God ordained my life to be. I stayed because, intentional or not, the most vulnerable parts of me were used to keep me from leaving him.
Every missed opportunity to be together was somehow God’s will. Every emotional breakdown I had was God testing me to be stronger. The lack of pastoral job openings was God telling him to work on other projects He’d given him first instead. My heart was torn in two, over and over and over again. It was my fault for not having faith. How dare I not be more patient and trusting of my boyfriend’s promises to make this work in God’s time. If I truly loved him, I would wait as long as it took and support him. Every detail of our dysfunction was God’s will.
I ended the relationship permanently late that summer, almost a year after we’d gotten back together. I’d spent the first three months after my college graduation delaying the start of my career, putting my entire life on hold because, eventually, we’d figure out the right way to jump through the spiritual hoops and be blessed by God with the future I thought He’d promised us.
I tried so hard for so long to hang on to what those Christian dating books had said: If you date God’s way, you will only ever date the man God wants you to marry. But if I had signed up to serve a God whose design for dating was emotional torture, then I wanted out. If God had predestined me to marry a porn addict blinded by his pride who used my faith to manipulate me, then I wanted nothing to do with such a sick higher power.
My faith has changed drastically since my days of sitting on the library floor as a young, naïve Christian college student. I no longer believe a truly loving God could have purposed for me to go through those traumatic two and a half years, all because I sincerely wanted to follow Him. I’ve thrown away the oppressive Christian values of prizing physical purity above almost all else. I’ve worked hard to reclaim my sexuality from religion’s prison of guilt and shame. None of it has been easy though by any means.
Christianity desperately needs a massive overhaul in how it teaches on sexuality and relationships. The spiritual abuse, emotional manipulation, and sexual distortion I went through are testaments to that. I know I’m not alone in what I’ve gone through, and finding others who have been similarly wounded by the Christian faith has validated my convictions.
My faith as I’ve known it most my life is no longer, thanks to numerous experiences that have caused me to deconstruct many of my former beliefs. I don’t fit neatly into any category of organized religion anymore, but I’m okay with that.