I’m sure some of you have heard of the phrase “guarding your heart.” It’s a slogan flung around with gusto in the emotional chastity realm, but it never fails to bring a smirk of annoyance to my face.
Allow me to explain. For those of you who have not been enlightened by the emotional chastity fairy, guarding your heart is a concept taught to most young Christian women that tries to ensure that their hearts aren’t broken before they should be. Basically, girls are warned not to let their feelings for a man give way to infatuation, or to tell a man too much about themselves, just in case he happens to turn tail and run away forever (like most of them supposedly do). Okay, you say, very fine, very good. Nothing wrong with that.
I had never heard of guarding my heart or emotional chastity until I came to college and became very emotionally involved in several relationships. So on that fatal day when I came to one of the SPO leaders crying about all the difficult men in my life, I was immediately filled in on what I had done wrong. I had told Jimmy Joe too much about my personal problems. I had let Buddy Ro steal my attention when he didn’t deserve it. I had allowed myself to cater to Bobby Joe’s every whim. I hadn’t guarded my heart! In fact, I had let these men STEAL my heart! Ah, the horror!
Well, never fear, this well-meaning lady told me, this can all be fixed. Just pull away. Don’t spend so much time with X. Stop telling Y about your hopes and dreams and fears. Don’t be a cookie-baking slave for Z. With an enlightened heart, I went back to school and followed her instructions to the letter.
And you know what? I became more lonely, insecure, and unstable than ever. If someone had just told me to step back and frankly examine myself and the relationships I was trapped in, there would have been a lot less chocolate wrappers and Kleenex in my trashcan. I knew deep down that these relationships would never work. I knew my feelings for these people would never be reciprocated. But most of all, I knew I was digging myself into a deep rut of pretending. I couldn’t be myself around these men—couldn’t touch them, couldn’t tell stupid jokes, couldn’t even look into their eyes for more than two seconds during conversations.
When I pulled away, I missed them. After all, they were and still are my friends, and the resulting feelings of insecurity, loneliness, and doubt were like shooting myself in the foot. I could sit alone on Friday nights watching Combat! and sniffling into my popcorn bowl, wondering what kind of fun they were having without me and halfheartedly congratulating myself for being so virtuous and staying away from an emotionally unchaste situation. Or I could say to hell with it, I’m going to go out with my friends and play cards and toss Frisbees and realize that there are healthier ways to deal with your feelings.
See, all this stuff about guarding your heart is fine and good until you use it as a replacement for something far more important: two little things called honesty and common sense.
One of the most important issues emotional chastity fails to address is how to be genuine with your feelings. Many girls think that being emotionally chaste means ignoring your feelings, or just not doing anything about them when they suddenly surface. Sexual chastity means not having sex, but emotional chastity does not mean not having emotions. Even Spock cried.
You see, when we rock ourselves to sleep with the mantra “guard your heart,” we begin to calculate every emotional step in our relationships. We weigh every feeling and hope, and battle against our every expectation for the relationship as a safeguard just in case Bobby Joe turns tail and leaves us sobbing in the chaos. Basically, we force ourselves to be emotionally distant, never going beyond small talk about the weather (which, I will admit, Minnesotans can yak about for an eternity and a half).
We ladies must protect ourselves from those heartbreaking men. As a result, we fear deep conversation. We fear being the one to make the next move. We even fear physical touch, as a side hug (detestable things) or even a light tap on the shoulder can drag us down into the rut of attachment and dependency. We never know if the guy is going to stick around or not, so we assume that he’s not, and thus keep our expectations very low to protect ourselves from getting hurt. And more often than not the guy does leave, while we gals are left wondering to the point of insanity if it was because we told him about the dream we had where we were getting married to someone on the beach.
Ladies, you don’t have to act like pretty little robots around men. Your emotions are important, and sometimes you need to be honest and just talk about it instead of just pretending the elephant in the room isn’t there. Basically, when we are afraid of getting hurt, and do everything in our power to prevent it, we decrease our capacity to love. Real love is not like The Notebook. Real love is painful, difficult, and sometimes even embarrassing. Just ask Jesus, giving up his whole life out of love for us and dying naked on a cross like a criminal. Eat ya heart out, Ryan Gosling.
Common sense is the other neglected scrap in this picture. Of course you shouldn’t go around blubbering to men what you should only tell a priest in the confessional. There are some things reserved only for close girlfriends, diaries, and people with white collars behind black screens. But this doesn’t mean you have to paste on a happy face whenever Joe Schmo darkens your door. If you’re sad, tell him. If you’re angry about how a friend treated you unfairly, talk about it. For cryin' out loud, be human. You have your problems, he has his; and if you’re honest about it you can have a lot of meaningful conversations where you share each other’s perspectives. There’s nothing scandalous or dangerous about that.
To trim it down to a bite-sized nugget, honesty is key. If you want to be good friends with a guy, do it. If you want to be more than friends, stop pretending that you don’t like him and do something about it. Just be honest! It can be done without completely spilling your guts. Emotional chastity is not a condom to protect your heart, just like condoms won’t protect your soul. We don’t have to walk around with our shields up all the time like we’ll get shot to pieces by the world if we let out the tiniest inch of vulnerability. Our society has lost the art of being susceptible, and this has led to a culture of “happy plastic people with walls around our weakness and smiles to hide our pain,” to steal from Casting Crowns.
It’s okay to cry in front of your male friends. It’s okay to tell them when you’re sad, or angry, or lonely. Men are people too, and they will want to do what they can to help you (and if they don’t want to help you, well, you can be the one who walks away and leaves him to sulk and play Skyrim for 14 hours straight and scarf several sausage-and-cheese pizzas—or whatever men do when they get their hearts broken. Contrary to popular belief, they do have hearts).
So, instead of telling ladies to guard their hearts, let’s just tell them to just be honest with themselves and their bros in Christ, and the world will have a lot more chocolate and a lot less chick flicks (and will be a better place for everybody).