As my relationship with John* progressed, the abuse escalated. Like most women in an abusive relationship, I continuously rationalized and justified it. I internalized his perspective, and was earnestly trying to be a better girlfriend–surely, if I didn’t constantly make mistakes, John wouldn’t have a reason to abuse me.
Now that I have a few years of distance, I can identify that thinking for what it was. It took me a long time to realize that I had been in an abusive relationship. It took me two years to realize that he had raped me. I started looking for help.
One thing I’ve noticed is that there isn’t a terrible lot of material for Christian women escaping from abusive relationships. Most of the advice centers on “loving your husband through it.” Women are encouraged to stay in abusive marriages, sometimes explicitly. Often, the encouragement to stay in an abusive relationship or marriage is implicit– God hates divorce. The abuse can’t be so bad that divorce is justified. I’ve heard preachers say that there is only one possible situation where leaving your husband is ok– if the abuse is so bad that he’s going to kill you or your children. They ignore the damage of spiritual, emotional, and verbal abuse. Forget conversations about rape in marriage — marital rape isn’t a possibility in IFB or complementarian rhetoric. Being married is equal to eternal sexual availability.
The resources are appearing, now, as more and more people are realizing the potential dangers in complementarianism and the inherent abuse present in patriarchal teachings. However, what about young women, who are “courting,” or “dating,” and are in an abusive relationship? They could, technically, leave at any time– but they don’t.
Part of the reason I wrote about in roses — that the purity culture traps young women, once they have crossed any kind of “purity” line (such as physical touch or caresses, or any thing remotely sexual, including “dressing immodestly” to phone sex or sexting). Once you’ve surrendered your purity, you’re done. You no longer possess the “greatest gift a girl can give her future husband.” I did, already, thinking that he could be my future husband, but now definitely must be, or I’m ruined.
But there’s also the emotional purity, the unrealistic demand that girls keep their heart “intact.” So what happens when they fall in love, and they’ve “given their heart away”? What happens when they’ve followed every precaution available, gone along with the courtship method, and they still end up with a broken heart?
Well, in my experience, the evangelical world is silent. Either they looked at me like I was nuts for worrying about this, or they just shrugged. There’s no use crying over spilt milk– your future husband will just have to make do with a piece of you missing. Just try not to let it happen again, ok?
But, here’s what I’ve learned since then.
Dating is fun. The “dating game,” as Joshua Harris phrased it so disparagingly, is chaotic, and frustrating, and wacky, and funny, and romantic, cute, and sweet. Yes, I could end up embarrassing myself– and I did, when I asked George* if I could have his number and turns out he had a girlfriend (jerk, we’d been talking for three hours and you didn’t think to mention that?) Yes, I might end up crossing lines I’ve been told my entire life were a hard limit (like slapping Jack* because I’d let him rub my back but that didn’t mean he could grab my boob, go home, you’re drunk). Yes, you’ll be putting yourself out there (like being honest with Dan* who turned out to be a little bit crazy and wanted to perform an exorcism), and you might, just maybe, get hurt in the process (like going out with Mike* who suddenly stopped talking to me and two months later ended up engaged– and they are blissfully happy). Or maybe hurting someone else (like Jim*, who liked me a whole lot more than I liked him, but we had a lot of fun watching the World Series together, and now we’re friends. Wait– yes, being friends after dating is possible, too).
But y’know what?
That’s not a bad thing.
We shouldn’t be so consumed with “guarding our heart” that we forget there’s a whole world full of people that have no clue what they’re doing– including us. That we’re all in this together, and just because I wanted to hang out with a boy –and oh gosh is he cute– doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it. I got to know him, if for no other reason than that he’s a boy, and he was different, and he taught me a lot about what it means to be a friend. I figured out what I liked, what I didn’t like, and realized that having that information was important. I learned not to think “could he be The One?” and to go with the flow for a bit.
Yes, I “test drove” some cars and “tried on” some shoes I didn’t ultimately buy, but I learned to be myself in a relationship. I learned about myself while engaging with different men in romantic and platonic ways. When I finally met my husband, I could see in him everything I’d learned to value. He was perfect for me– and I was perfect for him, but only because I’d discovered who I really was.