Just because you’re not going to date doesn’t mean you don’t get your heart broken.
My article yesterday on how Elisabeth Elliot’s courtship with Jim sounds quite toxic and unfair to Elisabeth blew up on Facebook and social media. Most were in agreement that we really need to revisit the book Passion and Purity because what it’s showing to be a healthy relationship is anything but.
As the discussions started happening everywhere, though, there was one theme that emerged that I’d like to comment on a little more. I don’t have time to write a big article this morning because I’m running really late for some interviews, but let me throw this out as food for thought.
So much advice to young people during purity culture told them that they would protect their hearts if they only “courted”–or dated once they were ready to be married.
Until then, you could have friend groups, but nothing romantic.
But this puts young girls who are really interested in someone at a distinct disadvantage. Let’s say you like someone, and you think they like you back. They text you at all hours. They sit next to you on buses. They grab a meal with you occasionally.
But you have absolutely no idea where you stand. Does he like you back? Does he think you’re just a friend? You don’t know. And because you’re not supposed to date, he never has to tell you what he’s thinking, and you’re not allowed to ask him to define the relationship. So you go on like this, never knowing, and being strung along, sometimes for years.
Here’s how Rebecca’s describing it in the mother-daughter book we’re writing (this is from the chapter on dating):
For many of us, the flawed logic of the “don’t date until you can marry the guy or else you’ll get your heart broken” mantra of the mid 2000s fell apart pretty quickly. The house of cards toppled for me (Rebecca) when I realized that not dating wasn’t sparing me heartache–it was just stopping guys who were flirting with me from making any real commitment. I still got my heart broken, but the guy got off scot free because “Well, we weren’t dating.”
On Twitter, that’s what many young women commented on with regards to Passion & Purity. One woman called these “friendationships.” You feel like you’re in a relationship, because you spend a lot of time together, he shares intimacies, you know him really well, but he’s never actually declared his feelings, and you have nothing to hold him to.
And often these “friendationships” end with no warning, and your heart is just as broken as if you had been dating.
Part of the problem with the model that Elisabeth Elliot was promoting is that women are never allowed to ask men to define the relationship.
A guy can have the benefits of a relationship without ever having to commit to exclusivity, or without ever having to clarify his future plans. She can continue to hope against hope that this relationship will someday go somewhere, but he doesn’t have to actually say anything to assure her of this.
And this is largely a gender based thing! Because women are never allowed to take the lead in relationships or speak up about their affections, but must always make the man go first (Elliot makes a big deal about this in Passion & Purity), there is absolutely nothing she can do when she is being strung along. The guy, on the other hand, is free to start a relationship conversation with the woman. So he’s never as helpless.
What this means is that for women, far more than for men, relationships become about a spiritual wrestling.
She can’t speak up and ask him to define the relationship. She is at the whim of when he texts her; when he wants to see her; what he wants to tell her.
The only thing she can do is pray.
That’s why Passion & Purity is far more a book about a woman wrestling with God about whether or not she trusts him enough than it is about a courtship. It was that lesson that I think Elisabeth Elliot was trying to teach girls–that if you want to be married, you need to make sure you’re completely satisfied with Jesus first.
Dating, then, becomes a test of how much you love Jesus. If you want a successful relationship, you have to “put it on the altar” and sacrifice it. You have to turn it over to God (how many girls have written men’s names on scraps of paper and put them in a basket during an altar call at a retreat, when we’re told to give it all to Him?) You have to relinquish it.
For girls, dating is a praying, begging, relinquishing, spiritual experience far more than it ever is for boys, because girls can’t make anything happen on the relationship front. All we can do is pray. And so that’s what we do, and our journals are full of it all.
And this whole dichotomy allows men to string women along because they never promised anything.
Catherine and Peter Marshall’s relationship had much of the same “stringing along” as Jim and Elisabeth Elliot’s. In fact, so many of our revered and idolized couples look the same. He’s a powerful, charismatic man, and she’s enamoured with him, and he loves having a woman hang on his every word, but he’s not going to commit until he absolutely has to. And so he can use her and break her heart again and again and again and it’s still somehow considered Christian.
I’m not sure there’s a way to end this unhealthy dynamic except for women to start speaking up earlier and saying, “you’re either in this or you’re not, and if you’re not, I’m leaving.”
I think that’s what it’s going to take–women exercising boundaries and knowing our worth. But because we’ve overspiritualized relationships so much for women, it’s far more likely that she’ll internalize all of this as a test of her faith rather than as a litmus test for the possible health of any future relationships.
Being strung along, where he has all the benefits of a relationship but none of the responsibilities, is not healthy and is not of Christ.
We need to start calling out “friendationships” for what they are. They aren’t fair to the partner with less power–the partner who isn’t supposed to speak up and ask to define the relationship. They aren’t godly.
The worst I’ve ever felt in a dating relationship was when I was a “friendationship.” My girls will tell you the same thing. It’s awful.
I don’t know how to change it, but I do think we should stop overspiritualizing these types of relationships and calling them out for what they are.
The Great Sex Rescue
Changing the conversation about sex & marriage in the evangelical church.
What if you're NOT the problem with your sex life?
What if the things that you've been taught have messed things up--and what if there's a way to escape these messages?
Welcome to the Great Sex Rescue.
What do you think? Have you ever been in a “friendationship”? How did it make you feel? Let’s talk about it in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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