Striving for the Perfect Christian Love Story

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I read recently that Joshua Harris was asking for stories—the good and the bad—from people who read his books, particularly I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

That book (and all the other books on biblical womanhood, purity, and courtship that I read along with it) was crucial to my own understanding of relationships, and I have mixed feelings as I think about it.

Two years ago, I would have said I regretted how seriously I took dating and relationships. Today I have a slightly more nuanced view of what happened in my own life.

First, I think that when we attack books, we have to realize that it may be our own fault for how we read them. I wrote about this in regard to Babywise, a book I was very bitter with and strongly regretted reading. Some of us (like myself!) read books with too much open-minded acceptance. 

Though we need to be responsible readers, I still think that one of the crucial problems with both Babywise and I Kissed Dating Goodbye is the use of stories, particularly targeting those in a very vulnerable place (soon-to-be-parents and singles who long for marriage, respectively).

It’s one thing to read advice; it’s quite another to read that advice contextualized in stories, either real or imagined. In Babywise, I take issue with the fear-based, pretend story he creates throughout the book, contrasting a Babywise baby with a baby who is parented in a more attachment-parenting style.

In I Kissed Dating Goodbye, the stories were what captivated me, even the ones full of beautiful, supposedly God-honoring heartbreak. I wanted to do things right—to have a God-glorifying love story. So many of us young Christians longed to do the right thing, to have no regrets and no messiness.

My main problem with I Kissed Dating Goodbye for some time has been the fact that the purity movement and the books and advice that went with it focused mostly on sex as the most difficult issue couples would face. The purity movement gave the impression that as long as a couple could control their sexual desire, they would make it to their wedding day with no regrets.

But what about the inherent messiness involved in relationships with anyone, particularly those we grow close to?  What if you are both in college with no jobs, a sure "no" in the courtship movement? What if your parents get a divorce during your relationship, causing you to question everything?What if your jealousy gets the best of you too many times and you feel like you’ve ruined the relationship by showing (and discovering!) the ugliness inside of you? Can you ever fight, and if so, how much? 

The purity and courtship movement implied that if you were a strong Christian heartily pursuing your faith and you found another strong Christian at the correct time and agreed to pursue marriage together while avoiding all sex and involving your families, you could have a perfect, beautiful relationship with no regrets. And you would simultaneously glorify God. 

This message left me confused throughout our relationship, and it added a lot of unnecessary angst. 

I am reading Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love. This book, too, involves advice (of sorts) in the context of story. In it, a couple's love story is presented with selections of prose about love interspersed. In one such section, he writes: 

“Marrying anyone, even the most suitable of beings, comes down to a case of identifying which variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.

In an ideal world, marriage vows would be entirely rewritten. At the altar, a couple would speak thus: “We accept not to panic when, some years from now, what we are doing today we seem like the worst decision of our lives. Yet we promise not to look around, either, for we accept that there cannot be better options out there. Everyone is always impossible.”"

I love the acknowledgement that when we marry, we choose a partner who is in no way perfect. We go into marriage picking someone who seems to answer our insecurities, someone who is flawed in ways that both mirror our own brokenness and also may help to heal us.

In my own understanding of it, the courtship movement misses the concept of dating and marriage as designed to help us see--and maybe fix--ugly parts of ourselves, parts that we may have hitherto been able to hide. It neglects to acknowledge that a good relationship will involve some heartbreak and letdown and frustration no matter how well we handle ourselves. It neglects to acknowledge that we won't always handle ourselves well. This is true in any deep, long-lasting relationships we have, with parents, siblings, and friends.

Maybe the ultimate failure of the courtship movement is its implication that Romantic relationships are so totally different from all other relationships in our lives. 

Yet I’m glad I read the courtship books. Yes, it was silly to feel guilty about using the word “boyfriend." It caused unnecessary angst to try to have a perfect Christian relationship, one that others would write about and emulate and praise (especially since all that takes now is a viral proposal video). It was ridiculous to think that the goal of a successful relationship was having the first kiss on one’s wedding day (and was I the only one who cringed at that anyway?).

But striving for a good relationship wasn't ultimately a waste. Here, de Botton is talking about parenting, but I think this applies to marriage as well:

“Whatever modest denials parents may offer—however much they may downplay their ambitions in front of strangers—to have a child is, at the outset, at least, to make such as assault on perfection, to attempt to create not just another average human being but an exemplar of distinctive perfection. Mediocrity, albeit the statistical norm, can never be the initial goal; the sacrifices required to get a child to adulthood are simply too great.” 

I'm glad we made our "assault on perfection" even if we had to mesh our ideals with reality.  I’m glad Jonathan and I were the first person the other person kissed. Obviously we would not have been ruined if that wasn’t the case. But I'm still glad this is a part of our story. I'm glad we had our earnest desire to be intentional, to try not to cause pain. I'm glad my husband is still willing to strive for something grand even though we'll never achieve perfection on earth.

And I'm equally glad we gave up on the idea of trying to have the perfect by-the-book relationship. I'm glad we eventually figured out it didn't exist and that there was more to life than making ourselves fit a mold.

My favorite words on this topic so far come from Addie Zierman who claims that we need more stories.

Stories are powerful, and giving lessons within them can be dangerous.

But stories can also heal. The more stories with have—with all their nuance and complexity—the better. We need stories that show real, applied grace not just in the context of sexual sin but also grace for the sad, the angry, the jealous, the zealous overachiever. 

 However, I hope that even our stories--the ones filled with the truthful, real brokenness and messiness--still show that marriage is worth waiting for and sacrificing for and being faithful to. And more importantly that God is.

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The Love Your Spouse Challenge and a Peek into Marriages

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Lately the #loveyourspouse challenge has taken off in my Facebook newsfeed. I see posts daily from people who have decided to share things they love about their husband or wife, tagging others to do the same. And in some ways, I like it more than a lot of the husband/wife stuff on social media.

It’s easy to be cynical about social media and romantic relationships. Surely it has set the bar high—but not always in healthy, authentic ways.

Sometimes the only side of romantic relationships that we see on social media is the flashy, romantic side. I fell down the rabbit hole of an engagement story website the other day, and it made me thankful Jonathan and I got engaged before engagements became such a big deal.

True—there have always been women who wanted to have their nails done before the photos of the diamond ring, but it’s nothing like the girls of today whose soon-to-be-fiances plan elaborate scavenger hunts leading up to the proposal that often include a chance to get hair, makeup, and nails done (and sometime even the perfect outfit). It makes me a little sweaty just to think about it.

When we were dating (way back in 2008), we paid about fifteen cents for each text (although there was a price difference between the incoming and outgoing, right?). When I went to New York for an internship, Jonathan would text me, and it was a big deal. We crammed as much as we could into those little texts because we had to pay for them. We saved most stuff for the phone (flip phones, so no email). And AIM combined with lengthy Facebook messages at the start of our relationship.

Things are different now. You see a very tiny peek into most people’s relationships though social media. Some couples almost live out their relationship on social media, sharing pictures and stories constantly. For others, the only proof that they are together is the group shots posted by friends. And then there are the “three years ago today” flashback posts where you can actually see the first social media evidence of the couple—a milestone in itself.

And even in our posts, we praise the big gestures, the ones we can show with pictures—the bouquet of flowers after a rough day, the romantic dinner he made, the perfect gift she bought him. Husbands praise their wives for their hot bodies and women praise their husbands for taking the kids for a few days so they can get away. These are all absolutely wonderful things. But sometimes they are just snapshots and don’t show the depth of a relationship. Sometimes they leave us wishing our own relationships were just flowers and favors and appreciation. Sometimes we want to edit out the arguments or the times we just feel “blah” about our own relationships.

And then there are the birthday and anniversary posts—the ones where boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives, praise one another in sweeping statements. I’ll admit—I really like these. They almost seem like the Proverbs equivalent of city gates—a place where people sing one another’s praises. I’m sure there’s also the gift dilemma when it comes to these posts—the guy who mocks these posts mercilessly while secretly wishing his girlfriend would post one for him. But overall, I like these little glimpses of praise and happiness that pop up in my newsfeed.

These loveyourspouse challenge is more interesting though because it forces people to dig a little deeper. I’ve been encouraged and challenged by some of the stories people tell. I like this slightly more nuanced glimpse into relationships.

Some of the couples I’ve seen get divorced in the last few years seemed to have rock solid marriages and to be exemplary individuals. In most cases, if you told me only one spouse was at fault in the divorce, I wouldn’t know which one to pick. I almost wish that people  had to publish a brief explanatory sentence when they got divorced.  Divorces force us to look twice at our own marriages. If that divorced couple was so happy three years ago, it decreases my certainty a little bit. So there’s a part of me that wants to know a brief version of what happened so I can buttress my own marriage or make changes in myself or maybe just stop worrying because it doesn’t apply to me.

Anyway I’ve appreciated this particular challenge because it has shown me all the different varieties marriages take. I’ve seen glimpses into people’s first dates and the daily sacrifices they make for one another. I’ve gleaned little tidbits of advice at times.

I don’t have tons of marriage advice, and while I’m happily married, I can’t help but have doubts as marriages around me fail. I don’t think we should share all the intimate details of our marriages or all the negative things about our spouses (or ourselves), but I do think seeing what other people love about their marriage and their spouse can make us look at our own marriage for the things we love.

There’s an old saying that if we put everyone’s problems in a hat and could choose whichever ones we wanted, we would still probably pick our own. I think the same is usually true in happy marriages—we would still choose our spouse with all his or her failings and annoying habits. I read an article a while back about how women in their forties were often having affairs, but then they always wanted to go back to their own spouse. They say you have to focus on the 80% that’s good if you want a happy marriage, instead of spending your energy on the other 20%. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with praising that 80% on social media.

Seven Years and Daffodils

DSC04685 The daffodils bloomed just in time--as they must have seven years ago--just in time for you to put one on my desk before I got to class to commemorate the day we started dating. We spent the cold months walking around campus and talking in the parking lot until our knee joints were frozen stiff, only occasionally going inside of one of the building's lobbies to sit. Except for childhood winters, it's probably the only winter I didn't feel the cold.

I fell in love with you listening to Frank Sinatra and Sandra McCraken, an odd combination to be sure. I would drive to campus with my windows down, listening to Frank sing about spring on Jupiter and Mars, always anxious to see you. I fell in love in the spring, the clover filling my bag and cluttering the pages of my books from the time we spent sitting in the grassy crater after my Tuesday class. I fell in love between classes and homework and studying and watching a tall, handsome guy with brown hair play basketball. I sat on the bleachers, shyly, sure that my feelings for you were far too strong, far too evident on my face. And when I look back, we were just kids.

How did we think we were old enough to talk about marriage until two in the morning, wishing those three years before graduation would go by faster? How strange that we went on dates, pretending to be grown ups! How did we think we were old enough to buy a ring and say vows too big for us? How did we get to seven years of falling in love in the spring? Most days I feel like we are just playing house, just pretending to be grown ups and hoping we're doing it right, just as we were then.IMG_9025

We decided to call St. Patrick's Day our anniversary, though we had pretty much decided to date the night before. I'm pretty sure we made it Facebook official right after 12am, just to mark the day. If not, it would have been like so many other days with our snatches of time outside between classes and watching the dark fall, still outside. We probably went to the library and sat in the crater and went to chapel--it was a Monday, after all. And even that day, we felt that something big had changed and it had--it was the beginning of what we have now.

When it boils down to it, those early dating days remind me of nothing so much as childhood--staying outside all day, so drunk on life, coming in at night to sleep like the dead.

Like children, we had that strange mix of certainty and uncertainty, often feeling certain about the big things and unsure of the small. I remember how shy I was about you calling me your girlfriend, wondering whether it was the correct Christian term. At the same time, I had no qualms about being your girlfriend.

As children do, our relationship aged. We had to confront hard things in others--and more importantly, in ourselves.

It's easy to write a sweet piece like this in the warm March sun--so like that day seven years ago. It's easy to see this as merely sentimental; after all, I could write this and then have an argument with you. But in moments of greatest clarity, I know that this is what is true; I remember how lucky I am. I don't forget the thrill of our arms resting beside one another on the chapel seats. I don't forget how you carried my bag to class for me. I don't forget looking for you after class--scanning all the faces and waiting to see yours.

And as much as I loved those glorious sun-soaked days, I love the comfort and surety of these even more.

I still find daffodils from you all the time--the mornings you take our son so I can sleep or write, the breakfast dates, the hastily-scribbled love notes on the counter, the Chick-fil-A stops.

And perhaps what still shocks me more than anything else is how like that young girl I still feel--how unsure and drunk on life, that strange mix of sureness and uncertainty, making big life decisions like I'm choosing an ice cream flavor while agonizing over the little ones. Yet always very, very sure of you.

Will You Lose Yourself in Motherhood?

IMG_2340 To my younger self:

You see it on many blogs, websites, and in parenting magazines. And though you've never really wondered until now, you are warned that you will lose yourself when this baby comes in a few months. If you love motherhood, you're in danger of losing your self. If you struggle, you're also in danger.

The books offer so much advice--weekly date nights, time on the couch to reconnect with your husband every evening, a pedicure or mom's day out. Some advise you not to stay home with the baby; others tell you it's okay as long as you hire a sitter to get some alone time. You try to remember these things because you want to avoid depression or waking up in twenty years to a self you don't know.

You get the message that your marriage, career, body, and self will change--maybe even be lost--in the delivery room (if not before). You're warned that you have to furtively guard these things to keep this helpless unborn child from taking them away.

Now you have perspective from the future. So I'll answer a few questions for you. Will you lose yourself? Yes. Will your life change? Yes. Will it all be good? No.

But you are worried about something that has happened before and will continue to happen. Let me tell you a story--your story.

Do you remember how much you loved high school? After the loneliness of middle school, you often referred to it as your golden years. You asked questions, found answers, and grew in your faith. You knew who you were. Sermons, books, Scripture, movies--they were all alive for you. You gained courage and kindness and friends. You became a better sister and daughter and student and friend. You felt like you knew yourself (you would later find that maybe you didn't). You wrote constantly.

Then college came. Freshman year at a small liberal arts school overwhelms many students. And you certainly lost yourself. You were forced to confront things you had decided were black and white. Just as you resurfaced a bit at the end of the semester, you started dating. And though you found aspects of yourself, you also lost yourself again.

There are many warnings about losing yourself in a new relationship. But in some ways, it is inevitable. Part of falling in love is the giving up of yourself, finding the delight in hearing about another rather than talking about yourself. Through dating, you were forced to confront deep things about yourself--things you did not realize. I know you sometimes look at your dating years and feel that maybe you lost yourself, but in reality, dating and the many family crises of your college years were revealing who you ultimately were. And it was ugly in many ways.

But you emerged with a little more self-knowledge and a little more certainty that things weren't as black and white as you thought. You were still weak and uncertain though, as many parts of your world had come crumbling in around you.

Then you started teaching. And in the morning-to-night work, never-ending grading and worries about your students, you lost yourself again. You heard harsh accusations and felt the sting of criticism. You wondered whether you could still sit in church behind these same adults who were rude and unrelenting. You questioned your desire to teach and the gifts you has assumed you had. After your first year, you found some healing, and things became a bit surer.

The next major change came when your son was born. But you had your doubts. You hated admitting you didn't have a job. You wondered if you were doing the right thing. The days were often long, and the hours of darkness and solitude stretched on. But instead of being a crisis like these other times, you found strength from the beginning. You couldn't believe that you could create and birth and grow a baby. You couldn't imagine such sacrifice that didn't feel like sacrifice. In motherhood, you rediscovered some things you had given up--writing, reading, being with children, solitude.

In motherhood, you found yourself again. But it's just more of yourself--and you will repeat this cycle continuously.

Some experiences are more cut-and-dried. You came back from an internship in New York feeling like you found more of yourself than you lost. You spend the summer after your first year as a teacher feeling depleted and angry. But there's always this cycle of loss and rebirth, growth and change.

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I once heard that our lives--the people we are--are like those Russian nesting dolls. We stay the same core person inside but we grow through more and more selves. This has been true for me. I've lost myself again and again and then found myself. I've grown and changed and remained the same.

The same is true of marriage. Even in our brief years of marriage, our relationship has gone through hard times, changed, and become stronger and better. If we had not had our son, I'm convinced we still would have changed and our marriage would have changed. If anything, having Liam has brought more beauty, more laughter, and even more commitment to our marriage and ourselves as individuals.

You will continue to lose and find yourself throughout your life as you go through that series of nesting dolls. I know that I will inevitably have seasons of no time for myself or brief seasons when Jon and I barely have energy to speak to one another. I assume we will go through more difficult times and more times when one of us feels desperate and depressed. Such is life. If a baby pushes this further into lostness, then it also pushes us further into foundness, into the person we were meant to be. And this isn't just true of babies--it can be true of every big or hard change throughout our lives. 

So if you're starting a new endeavor--new schooling, a new job, marriage, a child--you will almost inevitably lose some of yourself. That's okay. Things will change; you may lose both bad parts and good parts. But by God's grace, you will emerge even stronger, more confident (and less!), and more open to what it means to live in this world. Losing and finding is an inevitable cycle--a spiraling back until we return again to the beginning--to the openness, love, and wonder of childhood.

The Dad You Imagined He Could Be

IMG_5849 Like many girls, one of the reasons you married your husband is that you could tell he would be a great dad. You remember that February night--the one before you even started dating--when neither one of you felt the cold as he talked about how he admired his dad. He couldn't contain his excitement at having kids one day, and you swooned.

Years later, you're both delighted--though a little shaken--by those two pink lines that appear in seconds. But you can still see that he will be a great dad to this baby--this son. He is strong and reassuring during the pregnancy, attending almost every doctor's appointment. He understands when you're too tired to attend the basketball games he coaches, and he rushes home afterward to be with you. Like you, he wants this baby, marveling at the ultrasound, the constant kicks, and the rounding of your belly.

But the realities of a newborn are way different than vaguely "wanting kids." Nothing quite prepares you to see your man become a father. It's different than it looked in your head, just as that baby cries a bit more than he did in your head. That first night in the hospital, when the baby won't stop crying, you both secretly wonder what you have done. In your sleep-deprived state, you're convinced you won't survive.

But you drive home as a family of three on a Saturday, your husband's hands steady on the steering wheel. He drives a little slower with awareness of the hiccupping bundle in the backseat.

At first, it's hard. You expect him to be the strong one, the one who is immune to exhaustion and fatigue. You don't like seeing the humanness of him (or the fact that he learns quickly to sleep through the baby's cries). You also expect him to be patient, but there are times he voices the words in your head, "I can't do this anymore; he won't stop crying!"

You see him wince at the piles of laundry even though he tries to hide it. Sometimes you're jealous he gets to escape. Sometimes you feel guilty for how much you do "nothing" during the day. You wonder if you'll ever be a team.

You see how much he loves the baby, but it's a nervous, tentative love that holds him carefully rather than expertly, that marvels in his newness and tininess. It's a love that stands in contrast to the deep knowledge and connection you have with the baby--the son you carried inside you for nine months.

You feel annoyed that he's jealous of the baby, but at the same time, it makes you wonder if you do love the baby too much or him not enough. You struggle to figure out what to do with all-consuming love for a little tiny boy that, for a short season, has eclipsed so many other feelings. You wonder if he's not a little too obsessed with having time alone with you; doesn't he love the baby?

You both get frustrated wondering who is doing more and you start making lists. "I walked the baby for over an hour last night and got up with him." "But I did all the laundry, the dishes, and finished making dinner. Now I have to go to work." (One day, you'll look back and see how silly this all is, but it won't be until you're both a bit more rested and clear-thinking, a bit better able to discuss your needs and serve each other).

A pastor tells you, "When my first son was born, I was so angry. I went around punching walls. I didn't expect it to be so hard for me--the dad." And you'll both breathe a sigh of relief because you both resonate with that: "I didn't expect it to be so hard for me--or for you."

One day, little things will start to happen. You'll see how he can make the baby smile--a different smile from the one the baby gives you. You'll relish the goofy voice he uses for the baby.

You'll realize there's no one else you'd rather have beside you on a trip with your baby. Only he will understand the fifteen million stops to nurse and comfort a baby who hates his carseat. Only he will let you keep talking and talking because the baby stirs anytime you don't. He will take the baby on long walks in the morning so you can get more sleep.

You'll hear him tell his family how much he admires you. You'll be thankful for all the times he insists on picking up pizza or groceries on the way home. He'll bring you everything you need during marathon nursing sessions and watch TV with you or let you read quietly.

Months later, it will be just the two of them running errands (after you dismiss the car wreck scenarios and actually let someone else take the baby in a car). You'll hear the excitement when he comes back and tells you all about it. He'll show you videos on his phone and tell you what you missed.

It will be easy not to notice these things. You'll make the negative lists far more quickly (especially at 3 in the morning). It will be easy to compare your husband to the stories you read in books or the pictures posted online of yet another bouquet or sweet gesture. But you could tell those stories and take those pictures too, if only you'll open your eyes. And for all the negative lists you made, when you look back, only positives will come to mind. You'll see that, though it looked different than you expected, he's been the dad you hoped he would be all along.

You'll see the spontaneous kisses on the head, the sudden exclamations of, "You're so cute!"

He'll want to hold the baby and see everyone's reaction to him. When you're getting ready to go out, taking turns handing off the baby, he'll say "Doesn't mommy look pretty!?"

You'll start to realize that his day is different from yours in a way you never expected, and now that you aren't working the same job, it takes effort to relate. It takes thoughtfulness not to offend when you're both feeling so raw. You suddenly have to remind yourselves to hug and kiss. But you're both growing, sometimes rapidly, just like that baby. And your love will gain traction again, just as that little boy gains traction and starts to walk.

Fatherhood isn't in those big things you write home about. It's not about comparison--to other dads or to yourself. Rather it's accepting that this dad, this man, this husband is the one chosen to be the father of this child. It's the "thank yous" and spontaneous chocolate bars and the long walks together and the cleaning up the dishes when you just had to make cookies late at night to sustain you through a night of wake ups.

It's the delight in getting away and the delight in staying home with the toddler. It's the way you both laugh at his antics and get freaked out when he gets a bump on his head.

It's the note he leaves on your baby's first birthday right before he leaves for work: "Thanks for coming into our lives and making us soooo happy!"

You'll both adjust and change and find deep within each other the person you always knew was there--the guy who talked about how he couldn't wait to be a dad and the girl who drank it all in with glowing eyes.