Sexpectations: Purity, Courtship, and Dating

A good deal of the pain we feel in our day to day lives comes from unmet expectations. As an example, if my husband doesn’t put his dirty clothes in the hamper I become upset, but only because I expect him to put them in the hamper. If I didn’t it wouldn’t upset me. The same is true, for example, of my parents: they feel a great deal of pain today because I didn’t live up to their expectations as an adult daughter. If they hadn’t expected me to submit to my father, they would not have been upset when I didn’t. Have you ever heard the phrase “unmet expectations lead to frustration?” Well, it’s true.

I had a really interesting conversation with one of my husband’s cousins recently. She grew up in a liberal agnostic family, and is today a career woman with a high power job, a successful husband, and a young child. We talked about relationships and my background, and I asked her a few questions. It turns out, like I expected, that she doesn’t feel at all upset by the fact that her husband dated other women before her, or by the fact that he had sex with other women before her. Similarly, he is not upset by the fact that she dated around and had sex before he met her. In fact, they are today still good friends with several of their exes, and in fact, friends with each other’s exes.

When I first started dating the man who is now my husband, I was horrified by the fact that he had dated other women before me, and been physically intimate with them. I felt angry, angry at him and angry at those other girls. I knew one of them – she lived in my dorm – and I have to say I almost hated her. I felt that she had taken something from me, something precious, simply by dating my husband. He had given away a piece of his heart, I believed, and now the heart he would give me was incomplete. We could never have the best, all because he had dated before.

So what explains the difference? Expectations. My cousin never expected that she would be her husbands’ first. When she wasn’t, it was old hat. I in contrast expected to be my husband’s first. When I wasn’t, I felt incredible pain and hurt.

The thing I most regret about that early time was what I did to my wonderful boyfriend because of this. Reader, I am far from perfect. I made sure my boyfriend knew that he had hurt me by dating and being intimate with others before me, and I worked hard to make sure he felt the proper amount of remorse. And he did, but only because he could see that he had hurt me, not because he actually thought he had been wrong in what he had done.

He told me that the pain I felt was based not on actual harm but rather on unmet expectations. He told me that he loved me, and that those past relationships did not weaken his love for me. For a long time, I didn’t believe him. I said a lot of awful things to him, things that I regret. I think it just took a while to sink in that he was right.

Weirdly, my now husband told me that he wished I had dated before. He even wished that I wasn’t a virgin. This completely threw me. Wasn’t he supposed to be thrilled that he was my first? Wasn’t my intact heart (and hymen) supposed to be some sort of present for him, some sort of gift? But he was serious. He really truly wished I had had previous boyfriends, and in fact he told me that not only would he not have cared if I had had sex before, but in fact he actually wished I’d had.

I was so confused. I had saved myself for him – wasn’t that supposed to mean something? The reality is that it would have meant something if he had been a fundamentalist or evangelical boy raised to expect sexual purity and emotional purity. But he wasn’t, so it didn’t.

Gradually, over time, I realized that the pain I was feeling was not due to any harm from my husband’s previous relationships, but rather to unmet expectations. And I also concluded that my expectations had been out of whack. As I realized that the idea of giving away pieces of your heart was crap (love is infinite, not finite), that dating can actually be a beneficial way to learn more about yourself and about relationships, and that the emphasis I had been taught to place on physical purity was completely misplaced, my expectations shifted, and as they did, the pain lifted.

Today, my expectations have shifted so completely that I feel no pain at all from the fact that my husband had previous relationships. In fact, I am now good friends with one of my husband’s exes, and I feel no ill will toward her at all.

As I look back on the past, I can see that the pain was real. I can see also that the that pain my husband felt for having caused me pain was real. But I also can see that the entire cause of the pain was not real harm or damage, but rather the expectations that had been ingrained in me. Those expectations caused both of us an incredible amount of completely unnecessary pain. And I hate that.

In marriages where both parties are raised expecting to be each other’s first and they actually are, this pain of unmet expectations will not be felt. Similarly, in marriages where both parties are raised expecting that the other will have dated before they meet, this pain will not exist. The problem occurs in marriages where one partner was raised with one set of expectations and the other with another. In some ways it’s like talking in different languages: the one partner says “don’t you see how much you hurt me?” and the other says “what are you talking about?” The problem is not actual harm, it is mismatched expectations.

I am raising my daughter to expect that her future spouse will have dated before he meets her, and that she will date beforehand too. I hope to protect my daughter from the pain that I felt, but I realize that may not be possible. After all, if she grows up to marry someone who was raised to expect that he would be his spouse’s first, that someone will feel pain and anger over which she will have no control. Her relationship too will be damaged by mismatched expectations, damage that will persist as long as the expectations remain mismatched. And I hate that this is a possibility.

My conversation with my husband’s cousin only confirmed for me something that I had already come to believe. There is no inherent pain that results from having other relationships before marriage or even from having had sex with others before marriage. None. The pain comes only and entirely from unmet expectations. That is why I felt pain that my husband had dated and been intimate before meeting me while my husband’s cousin had absolutely no problem with the fact that her husband had dated and been intimate before meeting her (in fact she would have found it odd if she had been his first). And I find this fascinating.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Anne —

    I was just talking about this the other night! That it's the way I look at things…though I called it perspectives rather than expectations. It's the same thing though.

  • jemand

    I wonder about attempting to extend this to outside romantic or sexual relationships while *in* a marriage? I don't think it works still.I mean… well… A LOT of the resulting pain would be from unmet expectations, yes, but I don't think those expectations are as externally imposed, coming from culture or parents etc.But for a select few, there needn't be any pain at all. See, I kind of think it's a more invisible axis similar to the heterosexuality/homosexuality that is becoming more visible now, some (most) people are innately wired to expect monogamy and to feel insecure when faced with proof their partner doesn't value it, and for a select few it wouldn't bother them at all (though perhaps it may if they have internalized the expectations of the surrounding culture.)Going backwards… I imagine it could be possible that for a *very* few, feeling insecure about previous relationships of a partner they were with would be similarly innate, not externally imposed, but I think this would be extremely rare. I'm not even sure the logic would work like that. And even if it did, it can't at all explain the rise of the "no dating" movement as an actual movement.What do you think the motivations ARE of the people who are setting up these expectations? I think that is a fascinating subject to explore that I really don't have many ideas on yet. My guess is, though, that it will involve control on some level.

  • Anne —

    I wonder about attempting to extend this to outside romantic or sexual relationships while *in* a marriage? I don't think it works still.No…that doesn't work…because unless it's agreed it's an open marriage, there's going to be hurt feelings if someone was cheated on!It took me a long time to realize why I felt the way I did about my husband's previous relationships (or relationships with any girl for that matter) was actually MY problem…that I have a problem with insecurity. He didn't do anything wrong. It's just the way I view them and myself that's the problem.

  • Libby Anne

    Jemand – "I wonder about attempting to extend this to outside romantic or sexual relationships while *in* a marriage? I don't think it works still."Anne – "No…that doesn't work…because unless it's agreed it's an open marriage, there's going to be hurt feelings if someone was cheated on!"I think that if both partners agreed for real for it to be an open relationship and neither expected the other to be sexually faithful, then there would be no pain. I think though that this would be harder to achieve because I think we're hardwired to expect or at least want monogamy.

  • Anne —

    I think that if both partners agreed for real for it to be an open relationship and neither expected the other to be sexually faithful, then there would be no pain. I think though that this would be harder to achieve because I think we're hardwired to expect or at least want monogamy.Yeah…that's sorta what I mean. I guess I kind of also see it like, what's the point of being married if you don't want to be monogamous anyway?

  • jemand

    Well, I don't think we're any more hardwired for monogamy than we are for heterosexuality. It's a statistical norm, but plenty of people don't fit it and that's ok, for them.And people have very personal reasons for wanting to get married, they may have a deep emotional commitment to one person while not seeing sex as needing to be exclusive, or maybe they just want to mark, THIS relationship means more to me, this one I intend to keep the rest of my life, etc. I don't know. It seems every couple's reasons for getting married, really are as unique as that couple, and similarly, every couple's idea of what marriage means to them is just about as unique.I mean… in the current culture the expectations that are common lead "why would they want to do that?" to be the first thought most "statistically normal" people think of, but a generation ago that was the reaction to homosexual couples as well.I think things work best when a couple is open and communicates what a relationship means to them, what marriage means to them, etc, instead of relying on cultural expectations for what "normal" relationships look like. For some people, they can get by mostly by borrowing those expectations, and it doesn't cause too much trouble, but for a not insignificant number that approach won't work at all.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    I don't think we're hardwired for monogamy as such. I do think that we are, to some extent, hardwired for a certain degree of possessiveness, which can lead to jealousy. But I also think we're equally hardwired to be sexually attracted to more than one person. They're competing impulses. (Also, I just want to point out that I tend to feel pretty cautious about saying definitively that we are "hardwired" for anything, since we still have a lot to learn about the relationship between neurology and psychology.)Basically, here's how I think it works. If you are in an open relationship, you are occasionally going to feel a little jealous sometimes. Show me a person in an open relationship who claims to never have felt just a little but jealous, even in a fleeting and inconsequential way, and I'll show you a liar. Likewise, if you are in a monogamous relationship, you are going to feel a little antsy sometimes. Show me a person in a monogamous relationship who claims to have never felt the urge to sleep with someone else or experience some sexual variety, even in a fleeting and inconsequential way, and I'll show you a liar. In other words, no type of relationship is perfect. It's up to the individual to gain the level of maturity and self-awareness necessary to determine which imperfections he or she is most suited to deal with if they want a committed, long-term relationship (and I think most of us do).I know open couples and monogamous couples that have very happy, stable relationships. And I've had both open and monogamous relationships myself. They both require communication and trust and are not so different as one might think. There are lots of ways to make love work.

  • Libby Anne

    PP – "I don't think we're hardwired for monogamy as such. I do think that we are, to some extent, hardwired for a certain degree of possessiveness, which can lead to jealousy." This, this is what I actually meant! I'm sorry I didn't articulate it very well, lol.

  • Final Anonymous

    Well, I've been married several years, and I've never felt the urge to sleep with someone else, and I'm not a liar (but if I was, how would you know, right? lol). So I disagree with the sweeping generalization.However, in my first marriage I most definitely was attracted to others. And unfortunately my ex was more than just attracted, and we did not have an open marriage, so yeah, unmet expectations definitely led to him being kicked to the curb.It never bothered me that either man had been with others before me. Actually, I was glad they had a clue what they were doing! I think I would have been a little weirded out to have my husband figuring it all out with me as he went along.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Maybe "urge to sleep with someone else" isn't the way to put it. I just meant being sexually attracted to other people, which can be interpreted as an "urge' or not. And I do think that that's pretty universal. There are exceptions to every rule but I do believe they are that, exceptions.

  • lalouve

    Well, I'm in an open marriage – in fact I have not been monogamous for the last 25 years. We got married because we love each other, simple as that. We don't consider sexual exclusiveness a sign of love, not a requirement for the love to last; we do consider communication and accepting responsibility both for our own actions and feelings signs of love and requirements for its continuation. And yes, of course jealousy sometimes is a problem. But really, show me a monogamous relationship where neither partner has ever felt jealous…monogamy is not a cure for jealousy any more than non-monogamy is. Knowing and understanding your own feelings is.

  • Jenny

    Expectations are definitely a problem. I once dated a Christian guy who refused to believe that I'd never had a boyfriend. The implication is not that a girl is "saving" herself for a future husband, but that the girl has serious "issues." Luckily, I'd been called pretty much everything (e.g., asexual, closet lesbian, closet slut, liar) during my college years, so now I fully expect not to be believed. I think that it puts of many men because they're concerned that their sexual life looks ghastly compared. And to most homeschool girls, they'd be right.

  • Anonymous

    I am poly. I am woman I means I love more than one person. I love two men. There are over million people like us in US. We all come from different cultural and spiritual background but Polyamory is something that works for us. I do not feel tha I give a away a piece of my heart at twice the rate of mono people.What we say is this "love is infinited but time is limited". I would not have more than 2 lovers with work an all.

  • Nome

    Everyone is talking about expectations in marriage. I heard about a distant relative and his wife who did have an open marriage but had certain rules like they told each other. The husband lied to her about an encounter so even broke her expectations about even that. It was bad for a while but now they have a young child…and I hope are not 'open' anymore about it!My husband and I have different pre-marriage dating histories. For a while I had the expectation that he had more girlfriends then he ever did. That expectation hurt his feelings a little, he had less stories then I did, but he is a great husband nonetheless. We talk to each other!

  • Nathan Salo Tumberg

    I have to agree with your husband. There are times that I wish my wife hadn't married the first man she slept with (me). I would've preferred if she had those experiences. We are poly, so perhaps she'll get to have them still, but so far there's been no one that she wanted engage with that was actually available.

  • Anonymous

    your comment regarding how you are raising your daughter stuck out to me, it seems you are kind of doing the opposite of your parents, yet with the same goal of wanting to "protect" her…i guess no parent WANTS their kids to experience pain, but i think you can also teach them to look beyond to the intentions of the other person. She might not WANT to have an active dating life, or may not find the "right" person easily…. on the other hand she might and if she should happen upon a boy who has "saved" himself for her well…then you can teach her to accept it as the "gift" it's intended to be without feeling bad about her own personal decisions… some people's dating/sex life is more about "chance" than "choice"…so it's good to be open-minded about it all and pass that along to our kids…Personally i have boys and girls and I am constantly fighting the gender "norms" of society finding the ballance between letting them be themselves while yet still wanting them to "fit in" to a certain extent so that they won't experience hurt feelings either… (sigh) not easy this journey of parenting… (especially when we're still figuring out our own childhoods!)I LOVE your blog….keep it up (a fellow NLQ reader)

  • women like big men

    I don’t like to infuse words and view most of the time, but the one you have just make me want to smile and say, go ahead keep me up to date together with your thinking, nice post by the way

  • thefloatinglantern

    This post is very relevant to my own feelings about the disparity between the sexual experience of my girlfriend and me (and my feelings about the fact that she wants to open up our relationship). I was raised Catholic, and though I've gotten away from those beliefs now, the years I spent being uncomfortable with sex have had an effect.For me, the explanation for my hurt/resentful feelings is more specific than just "unmet expectations." The problem is that for so many years I was trained to think that sex is something you only get after you've paid a certain price – the price of marriage, or at the very least a committed monogamous relationship. I lived by those rules. I missed out on things because of them. And though I think those rules are complete nonsense now, I can't yet eliminate the visceral feeling of resentment I have for people who "break" the rules. (Only in certain circumstances, mind you – I am getting better.) And it certainly gets worse when my girlfriend says that she wants to do sexual things with other people, who haven't paid the "price" I have.Tim Martin

  • Xanthe Wyse

    interesting post. My husband was my first 'real' boyfriend. I actually wish I'd had some other relationship experiences. I didn't thanks to religious indoctrination and Asperger's (that I didn't know about until my son was diagnosed – I really didn't have a clue if someone was attracted to me and how to flirt etc).My 'first love' was very painful, because the person I was 'in love' with was attracted to me, but our relationship didn't turn into anything physical (I think because I got sick with depression). Unrequited love is very painful. I was flattered when male friend told me they were attracted to me (I had been married for a few years). I felt horrible because I felt attracted back and I ended the friendship because I was terrified I would end up in an affair and lose my marriage. I felt sad that I've never kissed another man – I feel like I've missed out one something.My husband has stuck by me thru thick and thin and loves me. I know it would really hurt on me if he cheated on me, and vice versa.

  • Anonymous

    Great post. I'm new here, found you via NLQ. I'm a home educating recovering QFer from fundamentalism who left IC/organized religion about 10yrs ago, and now not sure what I think about god, if he exists (I think he does, but not the god I grew up with). Anyways, as a mom of 6 girls & 3 boys, I've been wondering about premarital sex as it might pertain to my dc, when previously I just 'knew it was wrong'. Been thinking about how so much (or all) that we think/take issue with is really just in our head. Its as big as we make it.I was sexually active before marriage, but still a technical virgin, as was my dh. For yrs I was upset/jealous of what he had done with a long-term girlfriend, and regretful of what I had done with bf. Then totally distraught when I discovered he was viewing online porn. So mad/hurt/felt like he cheated on me.So, my older girls are in their 20's, and hardly dated (used to believe in courtship) though our eldest had been engaged but called it off. Our 2nd dd has now been traveling with a guy 14yo than her, and I'm thinking that they might be sexually involved. Yrs ago it would have crushed my (expectant) heart. Now it doesn't seem like such a big deal. It will be if I make it a big deal, but if thats what she wants to do, I can respect her choice.

  • Danielle

    Great article….good food for thought….thank you!

  • Anonymous


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    Romance is just a state of mind, but love comes from the heart.It is important for all people to accept that fact that everyone is born differently and not everyone is born with deep inclination to romance.

  • Amelia

    Am I ever glad that both my now-husband and I had lost our virginity to others before we started dating.
    For me, it had become this total hangup. I didn’t have sex at uni because I was involved in church, and then I didn’t have sex because I didnt want it to be casual and I wasn’t dating.
    Having it once (and it was BAD) with an old high school boyfriend “got it out of the way” so to speak, and actually totally removed my hangups about it. If I have kids, thats going to be one of the big pieces of advice I give them: Its never going to be great the first time, so dont make a big to-do about it.

  • Eclectic

    Amelia: Actually, it can be pretty good the first time. I come from a radically different background, but I still have fond memories of the event. And sex is wired so deep into the brain it tends to produce a strong emptional reaction. The one bit of advice I give people is “for better or worse, you WILL remember your first time for the rest of your life. Make sure it’s a good memory.”