I didn’t read Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye until I was in college, but that didn’t mean I hadn’t heard of it. At the church I grew up in, an Independent Fundamental Baptist congregation in the Deep South, courtship was the only path to marriage any of us followed. Once I finally read I Kissed Dating Goodbye, I recognized all the principles Joshua advocated. I’d heard them all my life– from Sunday school teachers, pastors, evangelists … all using the same language, even the same metaphors on occasion.
Dating is like falling off a cliff.
Dating is like walking a tightrope over a gaping chasm.
The metaphor that stuck with me the closest, though, was the one Joshua chose to talk about how we’re supposed to “guard our hearts”:
First, picture guarding your heart as if your heart were a criminal tied in a chair who would like to break free and knock you over the head. (141)
I didn’t realize this image was from I Kissed Dating Goodbye, but I heard the comparison often enough that the message here was deeply ingrained. My heart is deceitfully wicked, and who can trust it? Definitely not me. I have to guard it– against myself, against others. I must keep myself physically and emotionally pure, or I’m likely to face the (metaphorical) devastation and horror of a criminal getting loose and assaulting me. Or, I could wind up like “Anna,” the bride from the opening of the book, staring at a row of women holding pieces of my husband-to-be’s heart, pieces forever lost and broken (13-14). I had to keep my own heart intact, whole … pure, or it would be my future husband mourning the loss of what should have “belonged” to him.
Courtship, or “dating with intention,” was meant to protect us from that fate. Guard your heart, keep yourself pure, and you’ll be well on your way to a happy life and a healthy marriage. Fail, though, and you’ll be tumbling into a gaping chasm. You’ll never get the piece of your heart back, and Joshua Harris had made it perfectly clear how dangerous that was.
I met the man who would eventually become my first fiancé at the beginning of my sophomore year, a few months after I’d finally read I Kissed Dating Goodbye for myself. With Joshua’s warnings fresh in my mind, I held myself aloof at first. When we ended up in orchestra rehearsals for the school’s Gilbert & Sullivan production, the “group setting” seemed perfect. We had a lot of time to spend together, but with plenty of other people around. It was exactly the kind of environment Joshua had described.
Over a few months, things started getting a little more serious, and I did my best to follow what I’d been taught. I consulted all my friends, my family, my parents. I earnestly prayed and read my Bible like I never had before. I asked advice from people I knew who were engaged, or married– how did you know that he was “The One”? How did God reveal His will to you? I knew that I needed to get this right the very first time.
For months I “guarded my heart.” We slowly moved through all the steps– he consulted his parents, his pastor, and my parents. Toward the end of the school year, both our families sat together and agreed on the “rules” for our courtship. This was it, I thought, and I finally allowed myself to feel truly in love. When he felt called to transfer to a smaller Bible college in order to train for full-time ministry, he asked my parents for permission to propose. It was a little quick– we’d only been officially courting for five months– but he didn’t want to leave me behind without that commitment. Everyone approved, and it seemed like we had a concrete plan. We’d work on graduating, get married, and then start training together to become missionaries.
What I didn’t realize for many years was that our entire relationship was abusive. Because he never hit me– not hit me, hit me, at least– it didn’t occur to me that his behavior was wrong. It started small, the way abuse always starts. He started pushing my boundaries, started demanding more and more of my time and attention. But, the culture around I Kissed Dating Goodbye was supporting everything he did. He was the man– he leads, I follow. He takes charge, I submit. I didn’t want to be like Joshua’s mother, too “headstrong and independent” (205), so I submitted. I internalized the verbal abuse as justified. All my life I’d been trying to be the quiet, meek, gentle woman I thought was “biblical,” and he was helping me attain that. We were “practicing” for marriage after all, and isn’t marriage supposed to be about helping each other follow God’s commands?
Slowly, oh so slowly, the abuse escalated. On one of the very few times we were ever alone, he raped me. I pleaded with him to stop, begged him, tried to tell him that “we couldn’t do this” … but it didn’t make any difference. He knew what I believed, what we both believed: I’d given my heart away, and that meant that I could no longer be “pure” for any other man. And, there was also what Joshua had said about a “girl’s responsibility,” and the “direction of purity”: there must have been things I could’ve done to stop it. Even though I wore nothing but skirts and high-necked tops, I should have dressed more modestly. I should have avoided the “on-ramp” entirely by sitting outside in 100-degree heat until his parents came home … or something (87-101). Because of all of those mixed-up ideas, I didn’t even realize for several years that what he had done was even rape, so I believed that I had also lost my physical purity as well as my emotional purity.
I was ruined.
If I were to try to leave him, ever try to marry someone else, he’d be standing right next to me at the altar, holding my hand … holding a piece of my heart no one else would ever have. Without my carefully-guarded purity, who would want me? Certainly not any of the men I’d known who were waiting diligently for a woman who’d guarded her heart.
It took me a long time, but I eventually realized what Joshua Harris and the I Kissed Dating Goodbye-culture had gotten so desperately wrong: your heart can’t be broken into pieces like that. The people in our lives may love us, and they may hurt us, but they can’t take anything away from us. We’re people, not things, and we can’t be ruined.