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.