What I Learned from Joshua Harris
Friday, September 21, 2012Tweet
As a follow-up to Wednesday's post on faith and feminism, here's an interesting conversation that happened recently on Twitter between two feminist bloggers I respect:
Danielle at From Two to One and I responded that we'd read his books, taken valuable advice from them, and both ended up in healthy relationships married to feminist men. I said I'd post about it, so here I am.
You may remember that I actually recommended one of Joshua Harris's books, Boy Meets Girl, in my first ever Three Books on Thursday post on Three Books Every Couple Should Read, with the caveat that I don't agree with all his views. In all fairness, I never read his original book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, so maybe my views on love would have been all warped and screwed up had I started with that. But a girl in our youth group in high school did read it and spent one night doing a presentation of sorts explaining the key messages, many of which are touched on again in Boy Meets Girl.
I am not a proponent of the idea that you must be right about everything or agree with me on everything to make a valuable contribution to people's lives. This is why, for example, I defend the work that Andrew Marin is doing to help conservative Christians become more accepting of the LGBTQ population, even if I disagree with his particular views about homosexuality. So while I don't think Joshua Harris gets everything right, his books were valuable to me, and I want to talk about why.
If I had come from a conservative, evangelical background, then perhaps his books would have reinforced for me ideas like "men are the head of the family" or "men and women have unique and specific roles decided by their genitals." But that's not where I was coming from when I read Boy Meets Girl. I attended public school up until college and was raised by a very liberal-leaning mother. I spent far too much of my time trying to get guys to like me and/or bemoaning the fact that nobody was interested in me. By the time I started college I had decided to stay single forever. Then a group of girls on my floor freshman year decided to do a book club (that only had one meeting ever) and read Boy Meets Girl.
Joshua Harris's books validated three main things for me:
The Value of My Life Independent of a Partner
When I read Boy Meets Girl I was still fairly determined to stay single, and it was clear from Harris's perspective that was a valid way to live one's life. Harris reiterates that God loves every person whether or not they're in a relationship, and that your value doesn't come from being in a relationship. After wanting throughout all of high school to be in a relationship, this was a lesson it had taken me a long time to learn, and I appreciated having it validated by this book. Here's part that I underlined: "If you're single, I believe that God wants you to see that your story has begun. Life doesn't start when you find a spouse. Marriage is wonderful, but it's simply a new chapter in life."
The Value of My Time and Emotions -- and Others'
I got in a fight with another girl the winter of my senior year of high school because I was talking about how I didn't want to start dating anyone as I'd be going to college in a few months and didn't want a long-distance relationship. She was trying to get it through my head that I could just have a "fling" with someone, that I was 18 and it wasn't worth taking my relationships so seriously. Note that very few people at our high school "dated" in the traditional sense of going out on a first date -- you got to know people as friends through school or clubs, and then if you were mutually interested you decided to start a relationship and be boyfriend and girlfriend. To me, it seemed wrong and deceptive to make that kind of a commitment to someone with the intention of breaking it off in a few months.
What Joshua Harris suggests is that it eats up a lot of time and emotion to "date" anyone you can't envision being with long-term. Interestingly, what I took away from this is the opposite of the traditional Christian idea, as well as cultural message, for women that seeking a spouse is an important part of your life. Parents and friends will ask a single person when they last went on a date and exclaim that they're "not even trying" to find a mate if they're not dating regularly. I didn't want any part of that. Even after Mike and I became close friends, even after I was pretty sure he was interested in me, even after I started to admit that I liked him, I had to ask myself whether there was a possibility that our relationship could lead to marriage. If there had been no way I could envision ever being married to him, then I wouldn't have invested my valuable time and emotion in dating him.
The Value of My Body and Setting Boundaries
When people in high school would start "going out" (being in a relationship), it seemed to come with it some kind of implied consent: You are my girlfriend, so I'm allowed to hold your hand or put my arm around you or kiss you. I hated that because it seemed to strip me of my bodily autonomy and instead put me into a role with pre-set boundaries (or lack thereof).
I read Boy Meets Girl well before Mike and I started dating, and it gave me a needed opportunity to reflect on what I was and wasn't comfortable with in a relationship. I made a decision at that point that I wanted to save my first kiss for marriage because I was fiercely protective of my body and felt that there were certain things I didn't want to share with anyone who hadn't promised a lifelong commitment to me. Mike read Boy Meets Girl around the time we started dating and it caused him to give much more thought to his body and to the physical component of our relationship than he had previously. It gave us a vocabulary to discuss our physical intimacy, and we regularly checked in with one another that our physical intimacy was growing out of our emotional intimacy and not outpacing it or being an end to itself.
Later in our relationship we read Joshua Harris's book that is now titled Sex Is Not the Problem (Lust Is) -- our copy, printed in 2003, is called Not Even a Hint. Again, this gave us the vocabulary and opportunity to discuss some specific struggles we faced and to talk about our thoughts on sex as we looked toward marriage. It also was immensely helpful for me to understand what it feels like for someone (generally a man, and specifically Mike) to have a higher sex drive than I have. Without the conversations that came out of reading this book together about wanting sex to be something always done with and for each other, I'm not sure that we would be so successful in practicing NFP together.
There's also a ton of practical advice in these books. This is the reason I originally recommended Boy Meets Girl on my post about books for couples. Even if you don't agree with Harris's overarching beliefs about the meaning of marriage or the importance of gender roles, his day-to-day advice is spot on. There's advice about communication: Not trying to read each other's minds, really listening, setting aside time to talk, talking through conflict rather than trying to avoid it. He talks about having support outside of just the two of you -- to get a reality check, to find role models. He encourages partners not to keep secrets from one another about their past but to be open about those things they're ashamed of and to forgive one another, not think that their judgment is somehow better than God's -- but at the same time, to realize that ongoing issues may require counseling and you can't expect marriage to "fix" anything.
I also appreciated Harris's acknowledgement that different people have different comfort levels. Some couples who want to save sex for marriage can kiss without feeling that that tempts them to cross the boundaries they've set for their relationship. Some can't. One is not morally superior to the other; it's about being honest with yourself (as a couple) and making choices for yourself about what's important to you and what works for you. Similarly, Not Even a Hint didn't condemn masturbation in and of itself, but instead talked about particular issues with fantasizing about and lusting after another person's body independent of the rest of that person. I took away questions more than specific commands: What effect does this have on you and your relationship? Are you being honest with yourself and your partner?
So for someone raised in a conservative Christian environment, Joshua Harris's books may well be more of the same. But for someone like me, coming from a liberal, secular background in which my peer group and media told me my value came from being in a relationship; that I should always seek to date even with no intention of making a long-term commitment; that physical intimacy is dictated by social norms and not my own comfort level -- Joshua Harris's books were a breath of fresh air.
Here was someone telling me it was OK if I wanted to put very high standards on who was allowed to kiss me or have sex with me.
It was OK if I didn't want to date anyone I couldn't see myself being with for life.
It was OK if I wanted my spouse to seek sexual satisfaction from me alone, and wanted to keep porn out of our relationship.
Did I take his books as a word-for-word manual of how to conduct my relationships? No. Did I get validation I needed about my value and guidance for a healthy relationship? Yes.
Have you read Joshua Harris's books? What do you think?