When I look at this picture of myself on my wedding day, I don’t see a happy bride. I see a frightened little girl who was under incredible pressure from her family’s ministry. Not only was I expected to be physically pure, I was expected to be emotionally pure.
Emotional purity meant that I received approval from my father before I developed romantic feelings for a man.
In my fundamentalist church, we didn’t date. We courted. We didn’t really fall in love because FALLING in love was lack of self-control and failure to guard our hearts. Falling in love was for “worldly” people who didn’t read their Bibles and pray for God’s will.
“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.
Essentially, church leadership told me how to feel.
My problem was that I developed romantic feelings for my husband before getting approval.
It happened while traveling home from a summer missionary trip. I had the rare opportunity to talk with Matt alone. I’d only ever related to him in a group setting or at church. It was an exquisite experience of true, authentic connection (you’ll get to read about it in my book) wherein we discovered we were kindred souls.
A few days later, I blurted out that I liked him. He said he liked me, too but that we couldn’t talk about it anymore until we received approval for courtship. During the year and a half we waited for courtship approval, I was expected to act (and feel!) like Matt meant nothing more to me than a casual friend.
So, I shut down my emotions.
This is a common experience for young women raised in the evangelical purity culture. For the sake of “emotional purity,” we are taught to deny, repress, shame and shun our feelings.
I was introduced to the idea of emotional purity, like most conservative Christian girls of my generation, from the opening pages of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, where Josh Harris told a story of a nightmare where someone’s showing up at the altar to get married, but all their former “significant others” are holding onto this person and each claiming a “piece of [his/her] heart.”
My mom and dad told me when I was very small (5? 6?) that while my friends might date, we didn’t date. We courted, because dating is practice for divorce. And ever after that, they would quiz me to see if I had a crush, and I would pride myself on saying “no! that’s bad!” When I was going through puberty, I did have crushes, and I confessed them in great agony to my mom, sure I was ruined to keep my heart for the one I’d eventually marry. Her response would always be a sober “well, lift that up to the Lord. Just give it up to him. You’re too young to get married.”It was assumed that having a crush and not marrying them was committting emotional adultery before you were even married. And so I shut down my emotions. But I experienced misery and guilt any time my emotions “rebelled” and dwelled on someone “prematurely.”
As Hannah’s experience illustrates, even schoolgirl crushes are blown up into massive moral failures described as ‘committing emotional adultery.’
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.
It got so bad that eventually I believed if something felt good it was probably sinful. If I was happy, I wasn’t suffering enough. Sometimes I wished I were a robot so I could turn off my feelings with a push of a button.
When we finally received courtship approval and it was OK for me to have romantic feelings for Matt, I was a mess. I was depressed, exhausted, confused and literally sick all the time.
My journals from age 18-20 describe my constant fatigue, exhaustion, confusion, depression and general malaise. I spent many days in bed just trying to recover from the constant stress of living inside this repressive environment.
Purity culture took a literal toll on my body. Purity culture is horrifically exhausting.
When spiritual authorities tell you how to feel, they are usurping your God-given autonomy and exercising a subtle form of spiritual abuse.
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.
We found a way to remember those few moments of pure, authentic connection we once had and we’ve carefully built a new relationship together. Our recovery is still an ongoing process.
But together, we are becoming human.