To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable. - C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
Growing up, we’re taught in Sunday school that God’s love is abundant and by loving more, we grow more in his grace and love. We’re told it’s unconditional and unlimited and that it multiplies more and more and more as we practice it. If we love our neighbor, we’ll receive love back in abundance. God is love, and love is good, and all that jazz.
But, for some reason, this idea comes to a screeching halt when we discuss romantic love – apparently, eros is finite. If I have multiple boyfriends before I marry, I will give away parts of my heart to those men, and will only have a broken shell to present to my husband. When it comes to eros, I have a lifetime limit, and if I love too often and too openly, I will reach that limit and have no love for my husband.
I remember, when I was younger, discussing and vilifying women who “gave their hearts away” by having successive boyfriends in high school. I remember talking about how I wanted to guard my heart until I was ready to give it away in a marriage relationship.
I no longer believe that protecting my heart from being broken is a good way to live. Indeed, I think that belief in this philosophy throughout my formative high school and college years has, in fact, stunted my growth in romantic relationships.
When my boyfriend broke up with me last year, I was terrified of the pain. Nothing in life had prepared me for that moment. It felt like my world would never be whole again, despite his assurances that there would be someone out there for me who would be a better fit, that he was just the first and that there would be someone else who could love me in better, deeper ways than he had.
But, because I’d been raised to believe that the first guy you “give your heart away” to was supposed to be the one you stay with forever, I couldn’t believe him. Even though I live in a city that is 10% of the US population, I couldn’t believe that there was possibly someone who was a better fit for me than this guy. And I realized that, to some people, I was now sullied because I’d had the audacity to kiss someone who wasn’t going to be my husband.
I didn’t feel dirty, but I did feel extremely alone. I felt emotionally ripped apart and unlovable.
I didn’t know how to react, how to feel, or how to respond. I was ill-equipped for a break up because it was never discussed in a positive light while I was growing up – girls who had multiple boyfriends, regardless of what they did with those boyfriends, were sluts. And, suddenly, I was becoming one of those girls who was a “serial dater,” who was giving chunks of her heart away and wouldn’t have any left for her husband. Suddenly, according to the me of five years ago, I was a slut.
Even though I no longer believed in it, the guilt over my “emotional” purity made breaking up much harder than it should have been.* It took me a long time to get to a point where I could say, “I can learn from this. I can grow as a person,” and to stop simply wallowing in the idea that I’d screwed up my “one shot,” as it were.
Last month, I was in Grand Rapids, MI, for a work trip and had some free time on Saturday evening. I ended up going out with a guy I’d met that day. We were out until 3:30 in the morning, dancing and drinking with a large group of his college friends. By the end of the night, we’d kissed several times.
I realized that weekend that I was over my first break up. I was opening myself up to the possibility of loving someone new. And it felt fantastic.
And, because of my previous experience, I was also able to put a stop to things before my heart was broken again. Any relationship that developed was going to be long distance for an undetermined length of time. In the weeks that followed our date, he seemed distant and reluctant to pursue things further. Because I knew how things had gone with my first relationship, I was able to recognize red flags quickly, and after a few days of hard thinking on my part, I texted him that it wasn’t going to work and deleted his number from my phone.
It was an act of strength on my part. After being raised in a culture where one simply didn’t say “I love you” to multiple people, and still struggling with the idea that “this could be my one shot at a relationship,” I was able to recognize that this new guy was not going to go anywhere I wanted to. I was able to recognize those red flags. I was able to stand up and say, “This is not what I want because I know what I want.”
Here’s what I’m saying and probably divulging too much information in saying: that idea that your heart only has so many pieces to give away? And that having boyfriends before you actually marry means you won’t have a whole heart to give to your husband? That is bullshit. My heart is larger and more understanding of the depths of different types of love precisely because of the experience I am developing in these relationships.
Will my (possible but not for sure) future husband not know parts of me that those first two boys know? Quite likely. But that won’t be because I’ve broken apart and given my heart away to too many people that I have nothing left for him. It will be because if/whenever I meet him, I will be a different person than they ever knew.
Each of these experiences is turning me into the woman I need to be in order to know what it’s like to give my full heart to a partner someday in the future. Even if it is in the interest of protection, we should not deny those in our congregations the opportunity to discover who they are through dating, through broken hearts, and through the pain of loving and losing.
*Note: Many would argue that this guilt is proof-positive that dating is wrong. That's wrong; that black and white view denies the complexity that is human beings involved in a relationship and denies them the will and agency to respond to their own lives. My guilt was the result of vestiges of a harmful philosophy I was taught – guilt that came from outside sources. I do not believe that it was the Holy Spirit making me feel convicted about having a boyfriend – the Holy Spirit does not make us wallow in guilt.