I walked away from a very conservative, very strict Christian upbringing when I was 19. Leaving fundamentalist religion is kind of like relocating to a foreign country. You have to learn how to do simple things in different ways, and you have to unlearn biases, fears, and old habits. It’s made much more difficult when you were a pastor’s daughter in a small church that exhibited many symptoms of a cult.
Navigating the world outside of the sphere of an all-encompassing religious upbringing comes with a steep learning curve. There’s all the pop culture references I missed out on, the fact that I wasn’t used to being friends with people outside of church, the clothing I was told was wrong to wear, and, oh, yeah, sex ed, which was very similar to the “have sex and you’ll die” strain of curriculum.
It’s all been weird, difficult, and laughable in equal measure. I’m almost four years out, with a college degree under my belt and an outlook on life that is almost the opposite of the one I was raised to have. I mean, I’m a liberal outspoken feminist who voted for Obama. I’ve conquered a lot of things, but one thing I’ve yet to master is probably the scariest thing of them all: the world of dating.
I had been taught that dating was just “practice for divorce,” and that while marriage was certainly God’s highest calling for a woman, it was only to be attained under the circumstances of courtship. The approach is highly supervised and very centered around the needs of men and the idea that the worst thing a woman could do is possess a tempting body. Like the Duggars, but without all the smiling at the cameras.
I decided that this year I would start fresh. It would be the year that Becca Dates Boys. I signed up for the ridiculous dating apps, told my friends I was open to being introduced to whomever, and worked on making eye contact with boys in public. I had a string of first dates in which I learned about banter (surprisingly, my most successful tactic has been to talk about my 22-year-old car that I’ve named Susan Sarandon because, like the actress, she is hardy and just keeps on running) and immediate turn-offs (when a date dropped homophobic slurs in conversation, I knew right then it would never work). My goal was not so much to find my one true love as it was to learn how to date casually, without the impending doom of marriage as the be all and end all of life.
And then, of course, everything changed when I met a man I really, really liked.
Chemistry isn’t something they teach you about while growing up fundie, and encountering it in the real world the few times that I have has always been a shock to my system. On my quest to learn how to date without feeling like each interaction had the weight of the world resting on the outcome, I didn’t think about what it would be like if I met someone who I clicked with completely.
He was kind, courteous, prone to applauding at all my jokes, and made me laugh every time we spoke. I didn’t think about the fact that he wasn’t a Christian, like I was, until he asked me my feelings on premarital sex (not opposed, but not ready either). This led to a conversation in which he said something to the effect of, “I’m not really a believer in anything. Is that going to be a problem for you?” and I told him, “I don’t know. I don’t think so. Maybe not.” We went from casual flirtation to beginning-of-the-relationship parameters fast. Chemistry, compatibility, a long-term relationship -- these were things I was totally unprepared for.
Cue 24 hours of panic. I mean, utter, absolute panic. I called my big brother, my best friend. I cried all through a day of work and felt like such a fool when I couldn’t explain why. I went to my best friend’s mother’s house and cried on her couch for a long time. Finally she asked me “Why are you feeling so conflicted?”
I told her that I felt like all the ideologies I had been raised in were swimming to the surface, and I couldn’t remember why I’d rejected them. Turns out the central issue was that I didn’t want to kowtow to the rules of my old religion, but even in my new version of faith, I still didn’t want to be in a serious relationship with someone who didn’t share at least some aspects of my spiritual life. I had to recognize that the reason I felt uncomfortable in it was not because of the voices of my past, but because who I was now needed that connection in a partner.
It was an important, adult moment for me. I called him up and tried to explain how there would be a level of connection missing for me, and that we both knew we were already serious and therefore trying anyway would only end in heartbreak.
I didn’t know that my foray into the world of dating would teach me so much about myself. I still don’t know quite what it looks like to date casually, while knowing that any serious relationship I get into has to have that element. My fundamentalist past taught me that all dating is a recipe for disaster, and I had to confront that head-on. Ultimately, this was about me finding out what I want, because it’s what I want, not because someone else told me it’s what I need.
So I’m still dating boys, but now I’m armed with a better sense of who I am. To me, that alone makes it worth it.