Jessa Duggar’s Happily Ever After

So Jessa Duggar is officially courting and seeing the headlines on news sites and the links people were sharing made me feel nauseous. Reading the articles where they are portrayed as a young couple making a quaint and cute (albeit different) choice when it comes to romance. And then reading the comments where clueless person after clueless person gushes admiration for the “values” and praises them for being “role models.” My heart rate goes up. I close my laptop. I try not to think about it, but still end up feeling vaguely sad. Because I know the rest of the story, I lived it.

I know the stuff that the news articles and the commenters don’t know. How a girl in this movement is told throughout her upbringing that her sole purpose in life is to be a quiet, peaceful, submissive and happy “keeper-at-home”. She has spent her whole life training to be the perfect wife, she knows how to cook, bake, clean, sew, care for children, and so much more, but she still feels as though she will never be good enough to deserve the attention of a godly man.

She knows nothing about her body, perhaps not even the names of her private body parts much less how they function. Sex is a mostly mysterious act that she will learn more about after being safely married, because delving into that beforehand would perhaps tempt her to explore her own body and awaken urges that are supposed to stay asleep until married. Or maybe this forbidden knowledge would make her curious, and open her mind to trying things and compromise her purity with a touch or a kiss. She has been taught that sex is far more important for men, they have a physical need for it. As a woman in general she has a responsibility to shield men from temptation by covering her body with high necklines, long skirts, dull colors and shapeless fabric. As a wife it will be her responsibility to be enthusiastically available for her husband at any time, without immediate access to sex, her husband could be tempted into infidelity or pornography, which would be mostly her fault for not meeting his needs. She has no idea what birth control does, other than it “causes abortions” and marital discord, and promotes selfishness and greediness.

A girl in this movement is told she does not have the capacity to make decisions about her life, especially her romantic life. She cannot trust herself, she must lean completely on her parents to screen everything and nudge (or shove) her in the “right” direction, because making a mistake could have dire consequences. Her purity is precious. If she slips up and gives anything to the wrong man, she is like a used Kleenex, a piece of chewed gum, a cup of water that many other people have spit in. No one will want her, and rightfully so in this mindset! Even a flirtation, or an emotional connection, much less actual physical contact of any kind, could render her impure, broken, and less desireable.  It is far safer to let someone else make the choices for you.

Growing up like this, you hardly know who you are, what you like or what you are interested in. You know who you are supposed to be, and you have been striving to play that part your entire life. That role is so important to you that you would defend it to the hilt, even when you aren’t fully sure why. You believe in that person, that woman that you are supposed to become someday, if you are godly enough. You don’t even ask what you want or need, the thought would hardly occur to you. You don’t need to wonder or question or explore, you have a blueprint to follow. Since you have no idea who you are, you aren’t looking for a soul mate, someone you get along with, or someone you are attracted to. You are waiting for someone who fits the blueprint,  someone your dad will allow you to consider.

So then you are courting, which is almost the same as being engaged, except with no privacy. You are committed to figuring out if you should get married to each other. This process carries a lot of risk because you are forming emotional connection. Despite the heavy supervision, and the guidelines, and absolutely no physical contact, you are still losing a little bit of your purity by having this relationship with someone of the opposite sex. It’s a tough balance, you try to be cool and businesslike, talking about the important things like faith and reason, if you are too personal you could give away pieces of your heart that are supposed to be reserved for your husband. It’s not easy, this is the first time you have really interacted with a non-related male one on one, having conversations, making eye contact, all while hoping against hope that this ends in marriage, because having a courtship end leaves you without that pristine shell of having never given even a shred of yourself away.

You get engaged. You are so excited that someone thinks you are marriage material. This is the start of everything you are meant to be! You pray that god will help you feel confident about relationship, that he will help you fall more in love with this person. You are thrilled that things are working out, just like god promises for those who follow his commands. Depending on your family, you may not have even touched your fiancé yet. You aren’t sure what makes him tick, what turns him on, or even what he smells like up close. But you know that the entire community is watching, your parents are watching, making sure that you maintain proper boundaries, your siblings are watching their first example of how marriage is supposed to begin, your church is watching, pointing you out to their kids as proof that this courtship thing works. You are asked to tell your story, for encouragement. And you do. You even think about writing a book someday. And then it’s happily ever after right?

Courtship doesn’t create the couple parents imagine it will.

When you live sheltered to that extent, there are things you haven’t learned about yet, things you don’t know about yourself or your partner that you will have to address later in your relationship. Your parents claim that this lifestyle makes for maturity, but you have experienced so little, been allowed to make so few mistakes, that you are still emotionally a child in many ways. A child with all the responsibilities of an adult, married to another child/adult.

My spouse and I were both virgins when we got married. In the 3 weeks leading up to our wedding we went from only having held hands and the occasional short hug, to cuddling a bit, some mutual groping (in the moments we managed to snatch alone), and finally kissing for the first time 8 days before the wedding. I am forever grateful that we did. The wedding night was awkward enough, seeing the other’s body, and touching each other for the first time unclothed and in the light, I remember one of us was so nervous they almost vomited from sheer anxiety. If we hadn’t had what little warm up we did, it would have been even more difficult.

 And even with all the efforts our parents made to prevent emotional and sexual entanglements, it didn’t mean that marriage was a walk in the park. I had been taught that marriage was hard work, it was a commitment to honor, not a fun ride as long as you are on an emotional high. But I was also taught that doing things “the right way” was essentially a guarantee that god would bless our union and we would be spared the marital discord and modern troubles that couples face. With no individual lives to meld, we would more easily be a strong single unit. With no prior sexual experience we would have no comparison and no jealousy. With the same strong spiritual commitments and beliefs, we would be equally yoked. But none of those things address individual personalities, identities, and buried issues and problems that you have never been allowed to acknowledge.

That’s the background story to explain how as long as the beliefs and goals were mutual, you could end up with anyone. Some of the girls in this movement end up with verbally abusive spouses, some with physically or sexually abusive spouses, some of them marry men who abuse their children. Some end up married to someone they never really know or connect with. Some marry someone with completely different sexual drive or interest. Some divorce amiably, other messily. Some stick together through the struggle. In fact, all of the things that can happen in a “worldly” relationship, happen in marriages that began in courtship. Courtship isn’t the Silver Bullet it is claimed to be.

I was lucky. We grew up together those first 5 years. And as we figured out who we are, the person my spouse emerged as is loving, gentle, considerate and committed. Sometimes I still don’t know how we stayed together through the incredible amount of change in our lives. I think the fact that we were of similar age helped. Also we both became disillusioned with our past at about the same time, we were lucky in that, because it doesn’t always happen that way. We also only had each other, and the background to understand what each of us had gone through in that religious movement, you aren’t going to find that many places.

We really were just extraordinarily lucky.

Which is why I see the naïve write-ups by people who have no exposure to this mindset, and I see the photos of Jessa Duggar standing awkwardly next to her suitor with just their shoulders touching, and I feel sad. I remember what it feels like to be that stifled, that cautious, that businesslike. And I remember the years after the “I do” trying to figure things out and asking yourself if you ever really had the chance to make a choice for yourself.

And it hurts.


  • Meyli

    For years my family has watched that show. I cannot watch it anymore; I walk out of the room if it is on – I can’t watch because their family makes me want to be sick.
    I am the same age as several of the oldest children, and I can’t watch them being treated like children instead of adults.
    I just hope the constant exposure to film crews will have SOME positive impact on the children, and that they grow up to question their upbringing.

  • Lana

    This is so beautifully written, Melissa. You are right. They don’t understand. You do.

  • Amy DePoint

    Well done Melissa. This gave me a glimpse into a world I know nothing about.

  • Kephas

    Wow. That included a few too many assumptions for me.

    • Melissa_PermissionToLive

      It isn’t really meant to be an assumption, although I suppose the title may make it sound that way. This is what the articles on Jessa Duggar courting bring back for me. I just wrote down the way I see the courtship experience looking back on it.

  • ‘Becca

    I think it’s amazing that you and your spouse have managed to come out of that background and grow into the people you are today, together. It is really, really awesome and not something anyone can take for granted will happen in a courtship or in any type of marriage. Your story is a testament not to the power of courtship or the power of marriage but to the power of LOVE, love between two people who belong together because of your souls, not because one of you is a Traditional Woman and one is a Traditional Man. From my perspective, God guided you to each other for wonderful reasons which had nothing at all to do with your following those stifling rules; it’s because of God’s grace that you found each other DESPITE all the oppressive forces that tried to keep you from being yourselves.

    Thanks for recognizing that your successful relationship doesn’t mean courtship or any part of that value system is a good idea, and for writing about it!

  • Formerly Rebecca

    I feel you, sister – I can barely stand to read the comments after articles about the Duggars, as there are far too many positive ones congratulating them on their “values,” enough to make me ill. Sometimes I reply to one or two of them, saying my family was the Duggars, I also grew up Quiverfull, in patriarchy, and it’s not at all harmless and sweet and quaint. I am forever ruined being stifled during my upbringing where as an adult living at home I wasn’t allowed to work outside the home lest my naïve female self be negatively influenced and my library books were censored by my parents but at least I got out. My family was so outwardly happy, I say, we were frequently told by strangers what a blessing it was to see such a happy godly family – but what strangers didn’t know was that I cried myself to sleep at night because I was the “smart one” in the family who so yearned to go to college but since I was a girl that would never happen.

    The Duggars aren’t harmless and sweet, I say, and my heart breaks for Jessa, who is getting married off and will have kids before she even knows who she truly is, if she ever does in such a cult.

    To which commenters invariably reply, well, sorry, but your family is not the Duggars. The daughters seem genuinely happy to be where they are.

  • locosmom

    I do think the Duggars are more progressive than most people give them credit for. The two older girls are training to be a nurse practitioner and the other a midwife. I know these are modest medical roles for women today, but, they are very needed in rural areas. Also, there is nothing wrong with modesty, the girls don’t wear shapeless colorless clothing. Yes they are under the father’ thumb, but they don’t know any different, I personally have a problem with a patriarchal system, being native american where we trace lineage through our mother. I am sorry for your having been forced to endure all the hardships you did, but most women do go through much more than men even in today’s society. At least you found yourself, but maybe these young women know who they are too.

  • Warren Lamb

    Good job, Melissa. I appreciate your gentle authenticity. I have been counseling survivors of abuse for over 26 years and a large number come/have come from this background of patriarchalism rooted in lousy hermeneutics and even poorer logic. The perniciousness of the damage is nothing short of vile – and it most often comes more from a place of deception than from evil intent. People live their lives based on what they believe to be most true. When they believe lies, the results are unrighteous, not the righteousness they think they are seeking. Sad, sad, sad…and foolish.

  • Rosalinda Lozano

    I feel so sorry for you, the author, that as you tear down the “movement” of purity and chastity, you see how the world has torn down women at every level. The world has made women objects to be used and thrown away, yet you find it important to attack purity, innocence? I guess it’s true. Misery loves company and will do everything in its power to bring everyone along for the ride.

    • Feminerd

      Why do you think the only valuable thing about a woman is what lies between her legs, or what has been (or not been) up her vagina?

      A woman’s sexual purity is the least important thing about her. Her dreams, her personality, her talents, her hopes, her struggles, her emotions, her brain, her integrity; all of those matter. None of them has a single thing to do with whether a woman has a hymen or not. Fetishizing purity just says that all the rest of a woman is unimportant. Your purity culture made women objects to be used and thrown away. “The world” the rest of us are trying to build says fuck that noise (pardon my French, but it’s the best way to get that idea across), a woman is a person with inherent dignity and must be treated with the respect due any person.

      • Danielle Dashingthroughthesnow

        Perfectly said and my thoughts exactly Feminerd, thank you!

      • Rosalinda Lozano

        Purity, does not equal lack of sex. It means pureness of mind and a heart hungry to please God. Just reading your comment makes me nauseous. I don’t understand why everything has to be linked to sex. Life is not all about sex. We are created to love and serve Christ, the end. Whether you believe it or not, matters not. It’s the truth.

        • Feminerd

          If Christians actually thought that, it would be great.

          But all I ever see is a focus on sex, sex, sex, by Christians. Girls shouldn’t have sex. Girls shouldn’t think about sex. Girls shouldn’t touch boys ever, or think about boys, or masturbate, lest they become “impure”. They should certainly never think about girls! All I ever hear about purity is connected to sex. And it’s all Christians’ fault, because that’s all they focus on.

          The purity movement in conservative Christianity is all about the sex, and it’s because Christians have made it all about the sex. If you want it to be about something else, then you go fix it.

          If the idea that women are people too, with hopes, dreams, desires, goals, emotions, personalities, brains, and talents of their own; if that idea makes you sick, then what is wrong with you?

          EDIT: Oh look, a timely link! This is what purity culture is. This is what it does. This is what it’s about. And it’s all about the sex.

    • Ashton

      Why would you think that Melissa is miserable? I’ve never been more miserable than when I was trying to force myself into being religious. I pled to a god that I didn’t believe in to give me some faith – any at all. I felt ridiculous for talking to air every night. My emotions are complicated. I certainly wouldn’t claim to be happy all the time, but I am at peace with myself now that I’ve accepted who I am. Please don’t go around telling people that they must be miserable.

    • Michael W Busch

      What Feminerd said.

      Also: “purity” and “innocence” by themselves do not matter. People and their welfare matter. Purity culture harms people, by treating them as objects and by denying them knowledge and opportunities – as Melissa and many others have explained at length. It needs to end.

    • Caravelle

      The world tears down women in so many different ways, true. Purity culture being one of the worst examples. Good on Melissa for attacking it.

    • Mario Strada

      Purity and innocence? Why don’t you call them by their real name: Ignorance.
      Ignorance about the world within and without.
      The only justification I give for these parents obsessed with this archaic lifestyle is that probably they don’t know any better themselves.

      I am also sure that for some people this is just what the doctor ordered. If they are happy it won’t be me to tell them otherwise.

      But for those that yearn more, those that have curiosity and drive, this is a stifling lifestyle. and certainly is not one for everybody.

      But the difference is that if my daughter were to choose such a lifestyle on her own she would have all of my support. Likewise, if she choose to live a different life and as long as it was safe for her, she would also have all my support.

      For people like you there is only your way. There is no room for individuality. Whatever you believe to be true must be true for everyone.

      I am sorry, but you are the one to be pitied. But more than pity, you need to be proven wrong and fought whenever you seek to impose those ideals upon the rest of society.

  • Deborah Bee

    Thank you for your article. It brought to light a lot of things the show shielded from it’s viewers.
    I’ve watched a few episodes, and I came away feeling sad for the children, especially the daughters. I can’t help but wonder why TLC doesn’t pull back the curtain on this family, and expose the disturbing things that you and others have written about. It would make for better TV, to see the parents defend their beliefs, and maybe even see some of the children show real emotion. Instead of their frozen smiles.

  • Moni Westling

    Thank you for writing such an insightful piece. While I’m much older than you, I’m extremely thankful this courtship movement wasn’t known about back in the 70′s. My religious fanatic mother would have insisted that I participate. I’m grateful that I was able to date, and form relationships with men, without this whole courtship/chaperone thing (although my mother would have definitely approved). Yes, my heart has been broken by relationships that didn’t work out; and somehow, I managed to maintain virginity until I was married. However, I know that the only thing that mattered to my mother was that the man I married wasn’t Catholic, and was a real Christian- personality, interests, worldviews – those didn’t matter.
    Listen up, kids – while I do not, and never will, advocate promiscuity and “casual sex”, here’s the other side of the coin – virginity is NOT the be-all and end-all of life. Sex is an important part of life, and I think it’s important to know if you can live with this person, and be happy and satisfied for the rest of your life. This idea of not even kissing until the wedding is ridiculous – don’t fall for it, kids. Remain true to yourself, don’t sell yourself out cheap, and give too much of yourself away to too many people; but don’t play the role of the ice princess and virgin – it can cost way too much.

  • bekabot

    It’s not easy, this is the first time you have really interacted with a non-related male one on one, having conversations, making eye contact, all while hoping against hope that this ends in marriage, because having a courtship end leaves you without that pristine shell of having never given even a shred of yourself away.

    The irony here is that none of the Duggars can boast of living within a pristine shell which spares them the necessity of ever giving even a shred of themselves away, because they’re on TV, for cripes’ sake.

  • f_galton

    She’s cute.

    • Michael W Busch

      That is entirely irrelevant to what Melissa has written.

  • Tom Breitling

    hmm… stereotype much?
    I find it interesting that it is acceptable to make generalized criticisms of people who attempt to live by one moral code, but not of those living by another. For example, if someone had a bad go of it being brought up by two homosexual fathers, and wrote a similar article, (about how bad all families with homosexual fathers were) it’s likely that many of the folks who admire this article would be in that case very critical.
    just a thought. commence your hateful responses.

    • Melissa_PermissionToLive

      As I stated before, this is a recollection of some of my experience of fundamentalist courtship. It is not claiming that Christianity or people who strive to live by that moral code are “bad”. The title is what it is because it was the articles on Jessa Duggar’s courtship and how overwhelmingly positive most of those articles were, that made me think about and then write this post.

    • UWIR

      Homosexuality is not a “moral code”. Your hypothetical about two homosexual couples makes no sense. If a homosexual couple were to teaches their children what Melissa’s did, it would be absurd to ascribe that to homosexuality. On the other hand, it is completely reasonable to ascribe Melissa’s parents’ actions to their religion.

    • Michael W Busch

      It is not “hateful” for someone to point out when you have made a mistake, which you most certainly have.

      So cut the homophobia, and actually listen to what Melissa has said.

  • tarichaveritas

    I have always maintained that dating others, having sex with other people, and experiencing life was treating my body and my self as a temple. I honored my own beliefs. I made mistakes, sure, and then I dusted myself off.

    I think having had intercourse with more than one person was a benefit. I never wonder what I’m missing with my husband. He is a wonderful match for me in so many ways. Having made mistakes with boyfriends where I did “give” myself to them and then not be treated well strengthened me in knowing what I deserved. I worry that people who have only dated or been with one other person would actually be more prone to temptation to see if something could be better.

    I certainly don’t advocate unprotected intercourse. I always thoughtfully considered relationships, went through testing, etc. That’s a due diligence that is important. But my experiences with others, including living with (or sort of living with) several other men was so valuable. I did my growing up, and I’m a better person for it.

    I definitely still continue to learn and grow with my husband. We will both continue to do so. But we do so in the knowledge that we’ve been with other people, and there is not another person on earth I want to be with.

  • Rae

    I had to skim parts of this because I’m not (emotionally) up for processing all of it right now, but I wanted to say that I am so glad that you wrote it. I remember reading the courtship-positive version of your story a few years ago and seeing commenters want to recreate something similar for their own children and freaking out a little behind my computer.

    I never got around to posting why I chose differently from you, even though I grew up with similar indoctrination, and though it hurts, I am glad that you are sharing more of the other side now. It is chilling to see “normal” parents watch this sort of thing and want to embrace it for their children since I know how fast things can change in families.

    • Melissa_PermissionToLive

      Thank you Rae! I understand that! I remember those comments freaked me out too. :P Even in that series I tried to show a balance of what became part of our love story, but also the reservations I had about courtship. This post was a bit more of a raw and vulnerable window into the emotions of a girl in this mentality.

  • Michael Koch

    this family multiplies like a dangerous new species of cockroaches

  • MNb

    “The wedding night was awkward enough”
    Just another stupid tradition. The night of our marriage we did not have sex as we were way too tired of partying and lack of sleep. Then again neither of us was a virgin yet. Of course we also were no christians (my ex has converted after her second marriage) nor Americans.

    • fojap

      I’m not sure what being Americans has to do with it.

  • fojap

    After reading some of the comments, I just wanted to say that I had sex with my high school boyfriend at a comparatively young age. I’m going on fifty and I think I have a little bit of perspective and in retrospect I’m really glad I did that. I feel really fortunate to have grown up in an ethnically, racially and religiously diverse town in the Northeastern United States at the tail-end of the sexual revolution and before the conservative revolution. I engaged in a lot of sexual exploration with boyfriends at the time. Some of those moments were the best, most tender and sweetest moments of my life.

    Not only people who advocate purity, but people who put too much emphasis on the dangers of promiscuity, rob young people of these experiences.

    • fojap

      By the way, I meant to add that it was a really interesting post. I also frequently write from a first person point of view, even if my thoughts have been prompted by something outside myself, because I don’t want to project my own thoughts onto other people and I’m painfully aware that my own feelings and experiences might not apply to other people. I very much appreciate that you are speaking primarily from you own experience.

  • Rosalinda Lozano

    Meyli, it’s very possible that you cannot watch it anymore because you have fallen to the world and when the world tells you that promiscuity and immorality are good and right, Truth makes you nauseous?