Relationships are tricky things to talk about; it seems everyone has a strong opinion on what they should look like, and why other ways are wrong (myself included). With that being said, there is much truth to the concept of individual guidance here: I talk more about this in a previous article. With that background, there is a belief that often comes up in conversations about relationships that I have to address, which is what I am doing today. If you hold to this belief, I am not attacking you, and I am not saying that you are a bad person/parent/friend/etc. for believing this. What I hope to do is simply show how this is an incredibly inaccurate and damaging way of viewing relationships. As always, I want to hear your thoughts—comment, email me (email@example.com), or reach out on social media! –Michael
In my hands, I have two beautifully wrapped presents: these gorgeous gifts are identical in every way, with one exception. One of these presents has been passed around—people have been handling and shaking it, and generally treating it like people treat presents. As such, this gift is looking a little worse for wear: the bow is smashed and doesn’t really want to stay on, the shiny gold wrapping paper is smudged and torn in a few spots, and the gift itself has a corner dented in from where someone dropped it. These presents are an analogy for yourself—which “gift” do you want to present to your future spouse? One that hasn’t been passed around from person to person, acquiring smudges and tears, or one that only they are opening, in pristine condition?
Another analogy is that of a paper heart: when you start seeing someone, you give them your heart. They just might rip it in half and dump you, then you are left with either a ripped up heart to give to someone else, or you can try and tape it together. It will be a whole heart, but it won’t look as good and it won’t be as nice of a gift as your un-touched heart. The first time is the best.
In the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Joshua Harris shares a nightmare his friend had about her wedding day:
But as the minister began to lead Anna and David through their vows, the unthinkable happened. A girl stood up in the middle of the congregation, walked quietly to the altar, and took David’s other hand. Another girl approached and stood next to the first, followed by another. Soon, a chain of six girls stood by him as he repeated his vows to Anna….”Who are these girls, David? What is going on?” she gasped. “They’re girls from my past,” he answered sadly. “Anna, they don’t mean anything to me now…but I’ve given part of my heart to each of them.” “I thought your heart was mine,” she said. “It is, it is,” he pleaded. “Everything that’s left is yours.”
All of this is a pretty good message to share, right? Guard your heart because you want to present your future spouse with the best you. You want to be able to give your spouse the gift of you, unspoiled, unbroken, untainted, and you should give your whole heart to your spouse. There is one little problem that I have with all of these scenarios:
They are completely and utterly flawed, broken, and wrong.
Allow me to reiterate that, because it is important. All of those examples and the mentality that they promote is a dangerous and fundamentally wrong way of approaching relationships, and they have terrible consequences.
First and foremost, Love is not a finite resource. The scene Josh shares of a man giving his wife as much of his heart as he had left from previous relationships assumes that there is a limit to how much love one can have—after giving love and affection and pieces of his heart to past girlfriends, the groom had a reduced amount that he could give to his wife.
This is one of the reasons I dislike using the term “your heart”; it is a completely philosophical construct that lends itself to weird connotations because of our physical mind. We think of a heart and know that you can only divide a heart so many ways. There is only so much to go around, so obviously, if this is the case, previous relationships would have decreased or damaged what is there. But “the heart” is referencing a combination of love, emotions, and investment into another person, none of which are finite things! When I love someone, I am not giving them shareholdings to “my heart”—what I am doing is investing affection and emotions into them, which is not something to be done lightly, but it is not something that I can run out of and will have less to give in a later relationship. Unlike a gift of a physical possession, which can be retained post-relationship, an emotional investment can be negated. If I were to go out with someone and invest in them as described above, and then the relationship ended, I could let go of those emotional ties and not be dragging exes to the alter with me when I get married.
It is important to note that sometimes people can bring exes to the altar and beyond; Allison Vesterfelt recently published a story that I’d encourage you to read where she described life post-relationship where she did not let go of the emotional ties, and how that played out in marriage. She talks about how emotional ties, post-relationship, turn into baggage that needs to be lost.
I had never let go of my ex-boyfriend. I’ll never forget what [my husband] said when I finally had the courage to speak those words out loud. He said: ‘What are you waiting for? The only one who can let go is you.’
Allison’s husband did something here that reveals another flaw in the “smudged gift” line of thought: He viewed her as pure and loved and undamaged, even though she not only had been in a previous relationship, but still was holding onto that baggage. You see, having been in past relationships doesn’t damage your ‘gift’ and it doesn’t somehow make you a lesser spouse (more on this in a minute). If you are in a relationship where past relationships are brought into play like they make you not as good of a person as you could have been, a damaged good, or any negative thing, get out of that relationship!
Emotional abuse looks like someone taking something from your past and holding it against you in the present (whether or not you had control over it doesn’t matter). Being told that you are less valuable or less desirable because you have been in other relationships or emotionally invested into others is abusive. It sounds harsh, but it is the truth. It isn’t blatantly obvious emotional abuse, but most people don’t start out with that; it gets worked into. Am I saying that someone who tells you this information is trying to abuse you? Not at all! Some of them might be trying to manipulate you or ‘neg’ you into a relationship with them, but most probably won’t even realize what they are doing and the waters they are wading into until it is too late. However, a healthy relationship does not ever involve holding someone’s past against them!
Interestingly enough, even if these analogies were true and being in past relationships did irrevocably damage your heart so that you had a smudged gift to give to your future spouse, this school of thought ignores God. One of the names God is called in the Bible is the Great Physician; if God healed people who had their flesh and limbs rotting off of their bodies, if God was able to repeatedly bring dead people back to life, and if God could cure mental illnesses, then what sort of audacity does it take to deny the fact that he can heal emotional wounds? If your heart is broken, my God is a God that is in the restoration business. Not only is everything in the Bible about this restoration that He’s working out, and not only is He a healer, when Jesus was on Earth, He was a carpenter—building and fixing things. Restoring things to beyond their original condition is God’s jam! It’s what He does day in and day out, so why would we doubt the fact that He is making all things new, including our emotions, love, and hearts?
Our relationships are perhaps the biggest analogy for God and His love for us that exists. Throughout the Bible this motif of God wooing (dating/courting) and marrying us occurs practically non-stop. As soon as we enter into a relationship with God, the first thing He does is destroy the slate. He doesn’t clean our slate, He takes it out back and unloads a shotgun into it, and then crushes the fragments. He clothes us in Jesus’ righteousness, which removes all wrongdoing from our past, present, and future. If this is what happens in reality when we have a relationship with God, should this not be reflected in the analogy that is our relationships with others? If we really did have presents to give to our spouses that were smudged and broken and torn, does God not re-wrap those presents so that they are even better than before?
Going back to that present analogy, there is yet another flaw built into it. This analogy presumes that if we steer clear of romantic relationships and emotional/physical intimacy with others, our “present” will remain untainted, clean and beautiful, but that is not the case. Dan Cathy says,
“In the end, every interaction throughout your day leaves the other person a little better or a little worse. There is no such thing as a neutral exchange.”
Mr. Cathy has hit upon a deep truth; by interacting with people, our “present” will be smudged or polished. Remember how “the heart” is a combination of love, emotions, and investment into another person? When our heart is broken or torn, what is happening is we are receiving emotional and psychological hurt. To put that into the gift analogy, our gift (our “heart”) being smudged or torn is comprised of hurt (emotional and physical) that we have received from others. The closer you are to a person, the greater capacity for hurt there is, but even a stranger can and will smudge your present.
C.S. Lewis said that “to love is to be vulnerable”, and it is true. To love someone and to engage in a relationship with them does place your heart at risk, and that is a good thing! We are told to guard our hearts, but love and emotions are alive—locking them up causes it to grow atrophied and die.
Taylor Mali wrote a poem called Why Falling in Love is Like Owning a Dog where he says, “Most of the time, love just wants to go out for a nice long walk because love loves exercise”; exercise is needed for things to be healthy, and love is no exception.
Emily Maynard said, “All relationships invite our hearts to walk through disappointment and joy, the more intimate the relationship, the greater the capacity for both those things. If you really want to be in healthy relationships, stop ‘guarding’ your heart and start using it.”
And that’s just it—you are not a present. You are not a paper heart to be torn and taped together. You are a human being. Healthy relationships don’t look like the giving of a present, they look like two lines running parallel and possibly entwining for a period of time, long or short. Two stories where past and present come together to create you and them, and you have the blessed opportunity to shape each other’s stories for however long you stay together. Is this something that should be taken lightly and frivolously? Not in the least. But is this something we should fear, or warn others away from engaging in? In no way!
There is one final point I wish to make today. We’ve covered a lot of ground, talking about how this line of thinking is flawed, inaccurate, and minimizes God’s restorative ability, but we haven’t talked much about its impact. I know many people who were raised under this mindset or developed it themselves: they never dated, they guarded their hearts, and tried to keep their present looking nice and pretty for their spouse. When they started seeing someone, they did so with the intention of marrying them once the courtship period had run its course—but life doesn’t always go according to plan. These relationships ended, for one reason or another, and left behind them devastation. One young lady I knew was shaken to her core because she viewed herself as damaged goods now—her present had been smudged by hands that were not her husband’s. She felt like she might have messed up her chance at happiness and a blissful marriage because she had gone out with someone else, and whoever she would have married wouldn’t see her because she was a used good—or if they did they would do it for the same reason someone adopts a three-legged puppy at a kill-shelter.
The message that the ‘smudged gift’ doctrine sends is this: if you do end up having dated or courted more than one person, you are worthy of less value than you were before. You won’t be able to love as deeply or purely, and if someone loves you like you were an “un-smudged present”, than they love you more than you deserve and you are indebted to them.
I know that this is not what those who use these analogies and this line of thought are trying to communicate, but there is something more important than what is said, and that is the message that is received. I know so many people who advocate this thinking, and they have the best of intentions. The road to personal hell, low self-worth, indebtedness in relationships, and misery is paved with good intentions, and it is time we put this teaching in the ground.
If you have never been in a romantic relationship before, that is wonderful! I wish you all the joy and happiness in the world as you embark on the adventure that is life and singleness and/or romance. If you married your childhood sweetheart, more power to you! I think that is fantastic and I’m glad that worked out for you. If you have been in relationships countless times, but none of them are right for you, I’m so glad that you recognized that! I’m not glad that you went through the pain of an ended relationship, but I am glad that you didn’t stick with someone that wasn’t right for you. Wherever you find yourself in your dating status, know that you are whole, valued, and as “un-smudged” as they come.
If you have found yourself believing that you are in some way less worthy of love because of your past, find those that will speak the truth in you. You are not a gift to be evaluated–you are a person to be loved.
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