Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I was the tallest girl in my grade at my suburban Orange County church, and taller than almost all of the boys. That is, until Nathan’s family began attending our services.
Nathan was a lanky surfer type, with long knobby fingers that moved gracefully on a guitar, an effortless smile, and straight blond hair. The hair was a point of pride for him. It was also the thing that hooked me, along with his height.
On a church trip that year, I joined five other girls surrounding him in a pool. His hair had gotten wet, and he needed all of our opinions on whether it looked okay.
“Go like this,” I said, leaning my head back so that the water pulled my long hair back behind me. He mimicked the action.
“I don’t like it slicked back,” he said, ruffling his hair so that it wasn’t sticking to his head. I wasn’t offended, though; I knew our romance was budding. Sometimes at church, when our youth group was sprawled out on the couches after the service, I’d catch him staring at me. Other times, I’d stare at him and look away as soon as he saw me.
At church camp that summer, there was some minor drama: One of the girls in the eighth-grade cabin confessed that she liked Nathan, prompting everyone else in the cabin to share that they liked him, too. I tried hard to keep a straight face whenever his name came up, knowing I’d already caught his eye.
Thus began my self-imposed dating ban. For the next half-decade, it was Nathan or bust — not only because I was a swoony teen with a crush that wouldn’t die, but because of everything my teenage self knew about what it means to be a woman in a relationship: that waiting is a virtue, that inexperience makes you a worthy spouse, and that forgiveness is expected regardless of the transgression. That’ll happen when the bulk of your education on sex and dating comes from an evangelical church.
* * *
My sophomore year of high school, the youth group went on a summer campout near the beach. The tent I’d planned to share with friends was too small, so I volunteered to sleep outside.
The air was warm, and the campground was dark and silent. I was too excited to sleep, thinking of all of the points during the weekend when Nathan and I might end up sitting next to each other: during a meal, or on the bus, or on the beach, our towels laid out side by side.
Soon, I saw a shooting star. Then I saw another. If there are ten, I thought, that means God wants me to marry Nathan.
Out of the corner of my eye, a dark figure approached from across the street. As he came closer, I realized it was him. He stopped by the fire pit, just past the picnic table I’d sat at earlier.
Nathan blew his nose once. Twice. Then he threw the tissue into the fire pit and turned back around.
Should I say something? I wondered frantically. What would I say? Hello? How was your nose-blowing? The moment passed. I stayed in my spot, only going back to bed once I’d counted ten shooting stars.
My certainty seems a little less ridiculous when you consider the context: I had been taught to believe that the world was created in seven days, that two animals of every kind literally joined Noah on a boat, and that the Bible in general was a historically and scientifically accurate document. Given all of that, was it really that much of a stretch to believe that my crush would one day be my spouse? I’d been raised to have faith in the seemingly impossible. And I did.
* * *
Throughout high school, I remained steadfast in my certainty that Nathan and I would end up together. When he began dating another girl from our youth group named Tori, I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be his first girlfriend, but I wasn’t worried (and sure enough, they broke up later that year). When a Christian dating book, When God Writes Your Love Story, began making the rounds among my friends, I thought, he already has. Skip.
I didn’t see the point in dating if I already knew whom I was going to marry, but I didn’t mind if Nathan dated a few other people in the meantime. When he ignored me on church trips, or flirted with other people, I brushed it off. My only real worry was that he wasn’t going to save himself for marriage the way I was.
Our church was clear on sex: It should only happen inside of marriage. Girls were reminded to dress modestly, to avoid provoking the sin of lust. Church leaders told us that birth control was ineffective, that it was like jumping out of an airplane with a parachute that only worked some of the time. Plus, they said, the sex would be better if you waited, because the bond you’d have with your spouse wouldn’t be watered down from multiple partners.
After graduation, I ended up going to the same San Diego private Christian college as Tori, Nathan’s first girlfriend. We bonded by gossiping about the few people we both knew from Orange County — including Nathan, who was still in our hometown at the local community college.
“He told me he hooked up with a girl, but I don’t think he really did,” Tori told me one afternoon in the cafeteria. “I think he’s got a girlfriend now from school.”
It was my worst fear: Nathan dating a non-Christian who wasn’t waiting for marriage. It wasn’t just that he was going against what we’d learned — by sleeping with his girlfriend, I thought, it was like he was cheating on me, his future wife. I was devastated.
But I pressed on, doggedly believing that the right thing to do was to forgive him and still remain inexperienced in love.
I don’t know what it was that finally allowed me to cut Nathan loose. I suspect it was just the passage of time, rather than any grand realization about myself and what I deserved. The realization came later. It took several more years — time spent pursuing men who showed no interest in me, and passing over the ones who did — for me to figure out what I’d been depriving myself of: good, healthy relationships. Relationships that taught me about overcoming conflict, setting boundaries, speaking up for what I wanted. Relationships where I didn’t equate worthiness with self-denial, or desire with lack of interest.
It would be a while more before I could fully unlearn those associations, ingrained in me since adolescence. I still believe in God, but I no longer believe in the definitions of love that I absorbed as a teenager, or that God was sending me messages that night at the church campout. And I can admit now that deep down, I knew all along that the shooting stars weren’t really a sign: “There’s going to be a meteor shower this weekend,” our youth pastor had said in the van on the way to the campsite.
Dani Fankhauser is the author of Shameless: How I Lost My Virginity and Kept My Faith.