Growing up on the conservative Christian homeschooling culture of courtship and purity rings made a lot of things about boy-girl interactions different. Everything was ramped up, accelerated somehow. Our mothers jumped straight from simple attractions on our part to the possibility of marriage. We did too.
I still remember my first crush. I was seven. He was nine. I was homeschooled, but he wasn’t. My mother and his mother knew each other from church. Finally, I got up the courage to ask him what he wanted to be when he grew up, to see if our life visions were compatible. He said he wanted to be a basketball player. I knew that almost certainly wouldn’t happen, and that even if it did, the longterm prospects were slim. This declaration on his part made him seem unwise, and thus definitely an unsuitable partner. How would I be able to submit to his headship when his life ambition was basketball player? I still thought he was cute and all, but my crush was for all intents and purposes over, because I knew there was nothing there for us.
We were told we shouldn’t date until we were ready for marriage. Well, they told us we shouldn’t date at all, that we should court, but that those relationships should not begin before each party was ready to marry. In other words, guy-girl relationships were intrinsically tied to marriage. Guy-girl relationships that weren’t marriage-oriented were wrong and would have all sorts of consequences.
In this context, it’s not surprising that we children would immediately jump to thoughts of marriage upon even the slightest crush. Were there prospects? Could we possibly end up married, someday? If no, attraction must be crushed. If yes? Well, one can dream, right? I mean, I might be 14 and he might be 16, and we may not be ready for marriage and I might be too afraid of the opposite sex to talk to him anyway, but the most important pressing question is whether maybe, someday, we might be compatible and in a position to marry, right?
There was one young man whom I had always found gangly and awkward and unattractive, but when I headed off to college I learned that he was headed off to university to study engineering. Hmm, I thought. That’s good prospects. Maybe I should reconsider how I felt about him? If I played my cards right, perhaps there might be something there. After all, we had the same beliefs and background. Like me, he was from a large homeschooling family, even more conservative than mine if anything.
Reading that now, I’m struck by how mercenary it was. But that was my reality.
I don’t think it’s helpful to ramp the pressure up to 100 and insert the marriage question into the slightest childhood crush. Most people will have multiple relationships before they meet the person they marry, and that’s actually a good thing, because it’s how we learn and grow. I was taught growing up that we give away “pieces of our heart” every time we have a relationship. The ideal, I was taught, was for my very first relationship to lead to marriage. But the truth is that we learn and grow through our relationships. My husband wouldn’t be the person he is today if he hadn’t dated the two women he dated before me—and I like the person he is today. Far from depriving me of pieces of his heart, those two relationships improved him.
But perhaps what I find most unhealthy about this whole pieces-of-your-heart/your-first-relationship-should-lead-to-marriage ideal is what it means for young men and women who begin a relationship and find it turning south, only to feel that leaving the relationship is not an option. I know women today who found themselves in abusive relationships—yes, good evangelical homeschooled girls who followed the rules and courted good evangelical homeschooled boys—only to feel trapped. Leaving was out of the question—leaving meant not simply relationship failure but comprehensive life failure, and things lost that could never be retrieved.
I know what I’m going to tell my children: It’s okay. It doesn’t have to mean more than you want it to mean. Enjoy the moment. Focus on building healthy and fulfilling relationships rather than trying to force things toward marriage. Oh, and also? Sometimes a crush is just a crush. And that’s okay.