Saturday, April 9, 2016

Why I'm Burning the Letters I Wrote to my "Future Husband"

One day in sixth grade, I remember confessing to my mother that I was worried about something: I hadn't yet experienced my first crush. At an age where many of the other girls in my class were going boy crazy, no one had really caught my eye, not even a Disney channel star or pop singer. My mother reassured me that this was normal, and that I was really quite young. Much to my relief, a short time after I developed a crush on the middle school bad boy - handsome, smart (but he would never show it), rebellious, with floppy long hair and tight jeans. It was the mid-2000's, after all.

Around this same time, like many evangelical girls around the nation, I loved reading Brio magazine, Focus on the Family's publication for teenage girls. Along with advice on family, friends, God, and (very modest) fashion, there were, of course, articles on boys. Unlike mainstream teen girl mags, these articles were not about trying to figure out whether he liked you, or cute date ideas. Rather, they were articles exhorting sexual purity, and cautioning against the dangers of dating. The idea was that when you meet your future husband, all the waiting will have been worth it. A handful of speakers and writers suggested that teenage girls start praying for their husbands and writing him letters saying that they were "saving themselves" for him. They also encouraged developing a "checklist" of character qualities that we should see in a boy before dating him.

I took them up on that advice. I began praying for "my future husband" and writing him letters at the ripe age of twelve. Every year or so throughout my adolescence, on a particularly lonely or emotional night, I would sit down to write him a letter. They were sappy, full of sentimentality that I had finally found "the one," and saying that I just knew that he magically embodied every trait on my Future Husband Checklist. I expressed my hope that he, too, had been "waiting for me."

How was it that in one short year I had gone from not really caring about boys, to writing sappy letters to the one I thought I'd marry someday?

My evangelical, conservative surroundings continued to develop my ethos on romantic relationships. My parents took me out for the nicest dinner I had ever had when I turned thirteen and presented me with a purity ring as a sign of my commitment to stay sexually abstinent until marriage. (My mother now insists that she just wanted me to wait until I was older before deciding to sleep with someone, but if that was her intent, that was a strange way to go about it.) About once a year in church youth group, we would divide up into boys and girls for the night to talk about the "Christian" ideals for masculinity and femininity in a marriage context. Here, we girls were told that wives were to submit to their husbands, and that husbands were to be the spiritual leaders of the homes. I hated the idea, but tried to make myself believe it because I was told it was the "right" interpretation of the Bible.

Thus began my incredibly polarized, inconsistent perception of my identity as female as I progressed through high school and my first years of college. On the one hand, I had excellent family and mentors who told me that I was capable and encouraged me to shine. I played adventure sports, worked out hard, excelled in school, rose to leadership roles in almost every organization I participated in, had great friends of both genders, began planning a career in business, and planned church service projects in our community. No one told me that I was incapable of doing any of these things because of my gender. At the same time, I became increasingly upset that nothing was happening in my life, romantically speaking. Every time that I liked a boy and demonstrated some level of interest in him, I was rejected. Was I not pretty enough? Not feminine enough? Would I ever be desirable? What if no one ever wanted to marry me? My poor parents, and siblings, and friends heard me cry so many times. I was deeply discontent about my singleness.

As time went on, things got darker. By the summer before my junior year of college, I still had never had a boyfriend. My fears strengthened. If the man was supposed to be the leader of the home, what kind of man would be "strong enough" to lead me? Several people had actually asked me this question, point-blank. I became romantically interested in a friend, despite the fact that at times he was indifferent to my feelings and treated me poorly, because he was authoritative, military-type, and traditionally masculine. Once, he told me that I would "have to marry an MMA fighter to find someone manly enough for me." Another time, we were sparring verbally, and he said something so rude that I half-jokingly, half-seriously hit him. He hit me back. Hard. Everyone in the room froze - it was so clear that a line had been crossed. And yet, when I prayed about it, I felt so certain that he was "the One" for me because he was "manly enough." I even told a few people so. Thankfully, I went to go study abroad, and he started seeing someone else, so nothing materialized between us.

My actions soon turned inconsistent, too. I maintained that I was going to remain "pure" until marriage, but I would get drunk and make out/hook up with boys, both abroad and occasionally after I returned home. I began having very serious doubts and questions. What does the Bible really have to say about women? Do men have to be leaders in marriage? What role can women play in the church? What does the Bible really have to say about pre-marital sex? What about masturbation? How are women realistically supposed to engage with their sexuality when for many women there is a ten-to-fifteen-year age gap between when their hormones hit and when they are married? I felt guilty every time I "rebelled", but frustrated when I asked these questions or admitted that I was struggling. Some seemed shocked, uncomfortable, and incapable of handling any authentic questions about female sexuality. Others treated me with compassion (varying between patronizing and authentic), but shrugged and told me that the Bible said what it said, that this was God's plan, and that I just needed to pray harder and surrender more. In other words, figure it out. To this day, I believe that one of the main reasons that I was never asked to have a leadership position with the Christian group I was involved with in college (when all of my other friends were on the leadership team, and when my work as a leader was highly valued in every other organization I was a part of) is that I asked hard questions, and that me being a strong woman made them uneasy and me untrustworthy when it came to mentoring and shaping others.

Thankfully, God has enough grace for me to question, even when humans don't. A lot has changed since then - I've been dating a wonderful man for over a year, and he loves me because I am a strong, ambitious woman, not in spite of it. I do not make him feel emasculated, and our relationship is very much a partnership. I also have done extensive reading and research on femininity, from Christian and secular sources, and have come to my own conclusions - essentially, that women are equally valuable to men, powerful, and capable of creating an enormous impact. There are differences between men and women: some biological, many results of socialization. Ultimately, the heart of God is for all of us to work against patriarchy. Nowadays, I rarely fear that I am not feminine, or that I will die alone (although old fears do have a way of popping up every now and again).

Nonetheless, the hurt and the damage remain. The letters I wrote to my future husband are a tangible representation of the ways in which gender roles destroyed me. I am burning them to express the lingering emotional collateral.

I am angry that I was told at such a young, impressionable age that I should be waiting around for "my future husband." The message I received, over and over, is that I was not complete until I met "the One." It is absurd that anyone would encourage young teenage girls to think about marriage, when they likely will not wed for years or perhaps never at all. I am angry that I was made to feel that something was wrong with me because of my strengths and capabilities, purely because I was born female. I was told that (at least in certain aspects of my life) I needed to tone myself down so as to not injure the fragile male ego. I wonder at what I my life might have been like if I didn't waste so much emotional energy worrying about my future spouse and whether I would ever be enough as a woman. I've always been a perfectionist, and that is a separate issue, but I wonder if my perfectionism wouldn't have driven me so hard, wouldn't have broken me down so much, if I had a fuller sense of who I was as a woman. I wonder if I wouldn't have put on 25 pounds from emotional eating because I felt deeply inadequate but was too scared to sit with such an emotion, so I ate myself numb instead.

I am saddened by how the church has manipulated and controlled female sexuality throughout the centuries. In the Inquisition, male church leaders feared that women were temptresses under the employ of the devil to cause Christian men to stumble. Women were accused of witchcraft, tortured, and brutally murdered. I visited a museum in Mexico at a site were such atrocities occurred, and let me tell you, it is horrifying. Today, in the United States at least, the form of control may be more subtle and less severe, but it is control nonetheless. My friends attended a church which literally put out a cake, and took chunks out of the cake as a metaphor for every sexual encounter a girl had before marriage. They then frosted the cake with white frosting, saying that the "grace of God" could make you "clean" again, but that under the surface you would still be damaged goods. The psychological damage of such a vivid metaphor is harmful, not only to girls who had consensual sex, but also to the large percentage of girls who are sexually abused. Another winning method is imposing strict dress standards on girls, telling them that they should not "cause their brothers to stumble" with their clothing. In other words, your sexuality is dangerous, and therefore we must protect males from you by controlling you. And oh, by the way, your sexuality isn't actually yours anyway - it belongs to the magical mythical man whom you will someday marry.

I am devastated knowing that the same patriarchal lies I believed for so long are still running rampant in our world, and having very real effects on people. There are other strong, capable women in the North American evangelical church with stories very similar to mine, and I feel their pain. However, the damage we suffer is light compared to many other women. I shudder to think how many women in the church stay in abusive relationships because "male headship" can quickly dissolve into aggression, as I saw with a man whom I thought I wanted to be with. Outrageously, many widely-followed evangelical leaders speak out against divorce, even in the context of abuse. My heart breaks for women in other parts of the world who face considerably less freedoms and privilege, and considerably more danger, for being female than women in more egalitarian nations.

I am scared to admit what I felt for so many years. Reading this with some level of detachment, I acknowledge that many people hearing this would shame me for what I have written. The world tells us a lot of bullshit, and we have to choose to believe was is true. People could easily think, that's dumb, why would she believe those things? Or, if she was such a strong, independent woman, why did she latch on so quickly to what others told her? Get over it. Move on. I worry that I'll be labeled another entitled, overly-sensitive Millenial, who whines about the fact that the world has given her an unfair lot when in reality the world is just an unfair place. To which I say, it's real. It happened. It hurt. Everyone experiences hard things, and it's important to deal with them. If we don't deal with them, they become toxic, and we cannot change the pattern, making us very likely to inflict the same hurt on others.

I am also proud. I am proud that I was brave enough to question everything that I had been taught, and willing to consider a different way. I am proud that I continually get better at feeling my hurts rather than numbing them. I am proud that I have fought so hard to gain back my mental health and to build a healthier identity. I am proud that I choose to speak out about what I experienced, so that maybe another girl or woman feels less alone in her own hurt. I am proud that I want to work toward a better world, in which "female" does not mean "lesser."

Finally, I am unsure how to move forward. I don't know how to re-engage with a church which has made it clear that my type of woman (one who is unabashedly strong and doesn't buy the literal, historical interpretation of the Bible which is used to shame women) is not welcome. Even outside of the church, it is often exhausting being a woman in this world. I am privileged in so many other ways which help me to overcome (or not even have to face in the first place) the obstacles which face so many other women, but my heart breaks that such obstacles exist in the first place. I'm starting by burning these letters, as catharsis. However, ultimately holding onto my anger and resentment will only make me bitter and ineffective. I suppose I'll end this by saying that I'm praying that I can continue to heal, that other women will continue to heal, and that we as a church, we as a nation, and we as human beings continue to work against patriarchy and the shameful subordination of women.


  1. I rembember Brio. I was horribly worried about my bra straps showing for years after I read an article about it. They posted a ton of pictures of showing bra straps with the word "tacky" over it.
    Also, the cover of this article was slightly concerning. Out of context, you look a bit like an anarchist.
    Finally, I'm proud of you. If I ever told you to "tone it down", it was probably because you're my loud older sister and I'm grumpy (nothing to do with men).

    1. Haha - bra straps! Oh the horror! Thanks B. Love you!!

    2. Also, anarchy looks more appealing every day ;)