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.