My IFB background has shaped every aspect of my life thus far. I used to accept fundamentalism’s dictation of my actions without question. Those days are long gone, of course, but fundamentalism is still doing its best to shape my life. Being raised in a lifestyle that involved attending church three times a week (and more if there were revival services), attending church-school five days a week (K-4 through 12th grade), and being heavily involved in the church and school as a family did an excellent job of instilling IFB principles into my very person. I attended and then worked at a summer camp run by Baptists; I then went on to a Baptist college where IFB principles were further entrenched into my thinking. When I made the decision to leave IFB and Christianity as a whole, I did not fully understand how much my former beliefs would continue to impact me in the future. Perhaps the largest way it has impacted me is in the areas of relationships, love, and marriage.
Conservative Christians focus on keeping themselves pure, which usually means no sex before marriage. My seventh grade Sunday School teacher had us (all girls) sign slips of paper promising to keep ourselves pure before marriage. At some point during my teen years my Dad took me out to a special dinner and then had a brief, awkward conversation with me about keeping myself pure before marriage. I promised him that I would and he presented me with a purity ring. Camp speakers and staff spoke extensively about young people keeping themselves pure, lest we give ourselves away piece by piece until there’s nothing left for our future spouse. I took this phrase to heart and prided myself in the fact that I had not dated a long string of guys. I wanted to wait for the right one and date only him and then get married and live happily ever after. Doing things correctly was supposed to guarantee a blissful marriage, after all. Prior to leaving IFB, I had assumed I would meet a wonderful, Christ-centered man and then we’d embark on some dating/courtship hybrid that would end in sappy vows at the altar. My own parents had both dated and done things the “normal” way, but I knew that Dad hoped I would choose the courtship route. He bought into the concept of a father is responsible for daughter until he hands that responsibility off to her husband at the alter. I didn’t like or accept that at all, though, and he didn’t really push it. I think he’s too awesome of a guy to truly buy into male headship/ownership of females. He certainly never treated my mother like he owned her. Anyway.
In college I spent a lot of time reading and praying about godly standards for relationship. Sermons, chapel messages, classroom discussions, dorm discussions, and dorm devotions were full of thoughts and mandates about purity, dating, marriage, etc. In that sort of atmosphere there was no escaping the fact that most people are or will be in relationships; if they aren’t presently in a relationship, they probably wish they were. I was no exception and sincerely wished for a relationship. When I voiced those thoughts to friends I was told that I should be making the most of my singleness by serving God. “Serving God” meant focusing on prayers, reading my Bible, and working in a ministry of some sort (so I wouldn’t get discontent and go off on my own and find a suitable partner instead of waiting for God). Whole books and special studies are dedicated to using your single years for God’s glory while you wait for God to bring you a spouse or, heaven-forbid, learn to accept that you’re meant to focus on God rather than a husband. One pamphlet floating around amongst Baptists is particularly disturbing – Stay in the Castle. It tells the story of a King (God) who had a daughter (you). The daughter was told that her knight in shining armor (your husband) would come on a special, unknown day and seek her hand in marriage – she just had to be patient and wait. Well, the daughter, like any curious young woman tired of being locked up in a castle, slips off to the village one night and falls in love with the excitement going on there. The commoners aren’t so bad – she even meets a nice boy. She and the boy fall in love and decide to be married, despite her father’s sad disapproval of her defiant choice. Some months later, as her back aches because of the child she is carrying in her womb, she sees a glowing knight ride up to the castle, only to be sent away because his princess didn’t wait for him. Talk about emotional manipulation! Do what your father (earthly and heavenly) tells you so you don’t end up married to a poor drunk, lest you bemoan carrying his child and missing out on the life of luxury you should have had. Christian literature on relationships is pretty awful, in my experience, and any claims of Christian psychology should be viewed with great skepticism. Anyway. These things illustrate some of the major influences on my understanding of/views on relationships.
When I made the tumultuous decisions to leave Christianity, one of the first things I did was stop “waiting for God” and start to actively seek out a relationship. I met a man – who was not a Christian – and we began dating. He seemed to be everything I thought I wanted in a partner – smart, funny, kind, ambitious, confidant, etc. He was also my first real boyfriend, so I had little-to-no previous experience with a dating relationship. I knew that the relationship standards I had been raised with were not the norm for other people. What was the norm for “the world” ???? I had no idea. My new boyfriend expected hand-holding, hugs, and kissing from the start. I was reluctant and taken aback by his expectations, but wasn’t sure if they were truly unreasonable or if I was just a prude. I looked to my Dad for guidance here, but he seemed to be of the opinion that my boyfriend’s way of thinking was not cause for alarm (which really surprised me and still seems odd to me now). I tried to ease up and relax some, but I did maintain certain boundaries. The boyfriend wasn’t particularly thrilled but agreed to respect my decisions. The way he treated me was far from respectful, but at the time I didn’t see it. He pushed and pushed to break down any barriers I set up. If I wasn’t as cuddly as he wanted me to be he’d pout and lash out at me verbally, telling me how things should be. If I became upset and later felt bad (which was often), I would apologize for being such a prude and then he would comment about how benevolent he was to put up with me. “Most guys would have already raped me,” he said, “but I’m was glad I’m not that kind of guy.” Being talked to like this made me feel like I was beholding to him for being so nice. I figured that, if other “normal” guys were like what he described, I must certainly have a good boyfriend. He was good at manipulating me, obviously, and was very clever with his words. Too clever, actually – he was/is a habitual liar and told me fantastic lies from the start. I was surprised when I discovered some of the lies he told, but the reasoning he gave for telling those lies seemed acceptable so I pushed it off as something normal people must do. He said and did a LOT of things that I pushed off as normal because he was very good at presenting himself as a relatively normal guy… and because I didn’t know what normal really was. He wasn’t normal, though, at any level. I would not discover just how abnormal he was until after we were married.
Looking back, I wish I had dated around in high school and in college so that I could experience what it was like to be in a relationship long before it actually was important (think marriage-important). Granted, my opportunities for dating were pretty much non-existent and guys didn’t seem interested in me. I didn’t even have great friendships with guys once I started to “grow up,” because friendships with guys were taboo. Being able to be friends with a guy is tough for me to this day. I was raised to think that if a guy was being more than polite it meant he was interested in you, romantically, and if you were more than polite to a guy you were showing your interest and being a bit forward. I had a few male friendships in college, but they were all with fundamentalists so that did little to help me gauge what was normal and acceptable in any sort of relationship. At least one of those male friendships was of a very close nature, and should have been helpful to me. It was very hurtful, though, to my understanding of the dynamic between a man and a woman, particularly between marriage partners, because of how he treated his wife (who was also my close friend). Verbal abuse and manipulation were very prominent in his relationships with other people – doubly so with those who were close to him; it was those very things that finally ended our friendship. But I didn’t learn from that experience, I guess, because I jumped right into a romantic relationship that was fraught with the same verbal abuse and manipulation I had previously escaped.