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What Mom Taught Me About Relationships

Mother’s Day is always bitter-sweet for me. Before I lost Mom to cancer, it was just sweet. We moved all the time and so she was truly my closest friend. She knew all my dreams and hopes, she gave me space to be myself even when it was awkward and stilted, and she derived great delight in watching me become the person that God had intended. She had a saying, “Find your children fascinating, and they will always be so.”

She was dying when I left for law school overseas. People had tried to talk me out of going – they knew it would be the last time I saw her even if I was in complete denial about it – but she was furious at any hint that I might be dissuaded from my dreams. Shortly before I was due to go, she called me into her room and told me in no uncertain terms that I was to get my butt on that plane to Scotland. My last memory of her is her standing, looking very small and frail, at the door waving as we drove off to the airport. I am told that once we were out of sight, she collapsed and had to be helped back to bed. “They don’t make movies this sad,” she told her best friend.

There were many motivating factors for Mom to make sure that I made it on that plane. She believed that I had worked hard for many years with law school as my goal, and she didn’t want to be the one to get in the way of those dreams. She also knew that I was slowly withering away in Texas, and I had to get out. My years in Texas gave me some tremendous gifts for which I am thankful, but I always felt like a fish out of water there. Going to Scotland gave me the chance to breathe again, and Mom recognized this as the necessary next step in my development.

But she was also concerned about the relationship I was in at the time. I was dating a guy (let’s call him Alex) who, in her mind, wasn’t the right fit for me. Going to school meant that I was moving 3,000 miles away before the relationship got too serious. At the time, I couldn’t understand this – Alex was amazing! And he truly was a great guy. But she asked me once, “Can you talk to him…I mean, really talk to him?”

In retrospect, I believe her inquiry was borne of painful insight that she had into her own marriage. My dad was a wonderful man in a lot of ways, but she often felt lonely with him. He was a pastor, so he worked a lot. My parents were great spouses and parents, but I don’t know if they were great friends. I don’t think she felt that she could really talk to him.

This shaped the way she taught me about dating relationships. Sex was a very open topic in our household, and I was fortunate enough to escape the whole “you are damaged goods if you sleep around” dogma. Sex was clearly taught as something to be saved for marriage, but my mother spent far more time talking to me about what type of man I wanted to spend my life with rather than simply what I would do once I found that man.

Texas was a great place for learning about different types of men. When I was a teenager, we didn’t do the whole courting thing. Every girl started to “car date” (the guy would pick you up in his car after meeting your dad…who was usually cleaning his shotgun) around the age of 15, and it was expected that you would date numerous people before you got married. While it scared the living daylights out of me at the time, I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world. I got to meet a wide variety of guys with different personalities and temperaments to see who fit me best. To this day, I don’t ascribe to the belief that there is one person out there for you, but I do believe that there are certain personality types that will suit you better and make marriage less tumultuous. Dating was my opportunity to find out what type of guy I was looking for as a life partner.

Over the years, my mother offered her input and guidance. Of one boyfriend, she said, “He doesn’t light up when you walk into the room. You deserve that.” Of another, she said “He didn’t open the car door for you. Chivalry is important.“ She did love one guy but unfortunately I didn’t, so that was the end of that relationship. And so when she asked me whether I could really talk to Alex, I took her seriously. Yes, he had great character. Yes, he was good looking. Yes, we had similar goals in life. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there were things I just couldn’t share with him. I kept far too much of who I really was hidden from his view.

We did date long-distance, and it took time for me to break up with him. But when I met Eric, the first thing that jumped out at me was that we could talk. We actually started out by arguing, but we talked for hours and hours and we haven’t stopped. (Well, except for the few times during our dating years when I kicked him to the curb.) When the passion ebbs in our relationship, when we are stressed by the circumstances of life, and when we don’t agree on various points of view, we still have enormous respect for each other…respect is grounded in our deep friendship. Turns out, Mom was right.

Now, I am a mom. After enduring the bitter years of being both motherless and childless, I now have the sweetness of raising my own daughter, Riley. She has already had her first crush. We have had the first of many sex talks (in age appropriate terms, of course). Her body is beginning to change, and I already recognize the signs of hormonal fluctuations. Before I know it, she will begin on the path of looking for her life partner. Without a doubt, I will have challenging decisions to make about balancing the concepts of purity and sexual responsibility. I hope that I will do so with wisdom and grace.

But as I guide my daughter, I will do so with Mom’s model in mind. I will watch her with fascination to see who she is growing to be. As I learn to understand her better, I will have conversations with her about what type of guy will fit with her personality. I will support her as she goes through the difficult and yet giddy period of dating. I will speak honestly into her life about her choices and hope that she will listen…if not in the moment, at least when it comes to making the final decision. Most importantly, I will do my best to help her understand the importance of friendship and communication as a basis for marriage so she can choose wisely.

And I will do all of this with that an ever-present hollow place in my own heart…the one that represents how much I miss Mom; how I wish she had been here to meet the man I finally did choose, to see her granddaughter be born, and her daughter become a mom. It’s a scar that reminds me of how much I needed Mom and how hard it is to do this without her. But it also serves as a daily prompt for me to think back on all the things she did teach me, and how important it is that I never forget. Because of it, I pray every day that I am half the mother to Riley that Mom was to me.

Mother’s Day will always be bitter-sweet for me. I can’t make it through without thinking of what I’ve lost, but neither can I get through it without being in awe of all I have.

“My Virginity Mistake”

A friend sent me a link to “My Virginity Mistake,” written by Jessica Ciencin Henriquez who explains her belief that making a purity pledge and remaining a virgin until she got married led to the ultimate demise of her marriage. The article evoked a whole range of emotions in me – sadness, pain, empathy, but also frustration, rage and indignation. It wasn’t that I was surprised by her revelations or perspective; it was that I have heard her story so many times before within the privacy of my coaching sessions.

A large number of my clients are church leaders who were given the purity talks as teenagers and skidded into marriage having pushed the line as far as they could go while still remaining “technical virgins” (no penis-in-vagina action, but various levels of everything else). Keep in mind, they are in the minority – 88% of people who take purity pledges end up having intercourse before marriage.

These people are therefore part of the dwindling 12% who “made it” to marriage, but instead of the bliss that they were promised, they battle with disappointment, resentment and drudgery in their sex lives. However, unlike Henriquez, they are committed to their marriages and desperately seeking places of refuge and help.

To me, this article was just another reminder that in the Church we have dropped the ball on how we handle sexuality. We screw it up from the cradle to the grave. We have covered genitals with special names because we cannot bear the medically correct terms. We have disciplined our toddlers when their hands stray into their pants and linger there too long. We have implicitly at best (explicitly at worst) told our teenagers they are trash if they get hot and heavy before they get married. We have dodged anything beyond the bare-bones basics of sexuality in our pre-marital courses. We don’t provide a safe place for newlyweds to even admit they are facing problems with intimacy, causing them to suffer through confusion, loneliness and isolation. We have acquiesced to the ethos of silent tolerance of women who are disinterested in sex and men who turn to porn for the thrill their marriage does not provide. We have actively participated in a culture that shuts down, shames and eviscerates people who fall sexually and need our help. We have turned a blind eye to the hurting in our churches, choosing instead to focus on programs that are less controversial and easier to justify to the board of elders. Instead admitting our own imperfections and inviting others into the safety of that communion, we have presented a portrait of a God who freely forgives (or at least overlooks) the sins we are comfortable with, but harshly judges the sins we find personally disturbing.

In doing so we have lost sight of what we are called to do. We have stopped being the salt of the earth and started rubbing it in people’s wounds. This is our sin.

And yet, this is also our opportunity. People desperately want health and wholeness. Parents want to have guidance on how to talk to their kids about masturbation, oral sex, condoms, porn and STIs. Young people need to know that if they stumble and fall before marriage, they are still valued in the eyes of God…that the blood of Jesus is more than a cheap laundry detergent that gets out the smell but not the stain of our sin. Newlyweds need to have a place to acknowledge that they couldn’t even have sex on their honeymoon because it just didn’t work. They must be provided with the freedom to talk to people who will not flinch at words like clitoris, penis, orgasm and semen. Couples deserve marriages where sex is more than just a duty – it is pleasurable, frequent and sought after. They need to have the freedom to struggle with something in their marriage – smack dab in the middle of imperfection – while still working toward the goal of holiness and restoration.

This is why I love the Church. The Church is uniquely positioned (and called) to be what these people so desperately need. We have the community buildings. We have the small groups. We have the mentorship programs. We have the childcare. We have the pastors who are on call night and day for people who need them. We have volunteers who can facilitate teaching sessions. We have the very words of Jesus. And we have the God who actually came up with this whole idea of sex, put the proper plumbing in place and hard-wired it into our DNA.

But do we have the courage?

Will we step up to the plate; take a long, hard look at our faux-sacred status quo; and be willing to admit (and change) what honestly is not working? Can we repent of our institutionalized sin and break free of our bondage to it? Can we lay aside our ignorance, our shame and our fear when people like Henriquez need us?

The Church must come to the table as a faith community, regardless of our specific denominational segregations, to share best practices – ideas that actually work and have higher success rates than 12%. And I believe we can do it.

But we have to remember that while Jesus loves us, He came to seek and save that which was lost. He didn’t come to “put a ring on it.”