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New Oxf ord Rev iew


Preparing Young People for Marital Fidelity
By Charles E. Moore

March 1999

Charles E. Moore and his wife joined the Spring Valley Bruderhof Community of
Farmington, Pennsylvania, in 1992. He works as an editor in the community’s
Plough Pub lishing House.
By now, we are all aware of some of the
consequences of our society’s adoption of
the tenets of sexual liberation and sexual
education. Half of all marriages fail; second
marriages fail more often than first
marriages; and those who cohabit before
marriage, it turns out, are much more likely to
divorce than those who do not cohabit. Few
of us have been unscathed, but the hardest
hit have been the teenagers. By anybody’s
count, there are record levels of teenage
pregnancy, teenage abortion, teenage venereal disease, teenage suicide — in a
word, teenage misery. There is no end of frightening correlations. Kids who
engage in premarital sex are almost three times more likely to use alcohol, six
times more likely to use marijuana, and four times more likely to have attempted
suicide. One even hears that sexually active boys are seven times more likely to
be arrested or picked up by the police.
There is eloquent testimony in these quantitative measures. But it is the quality of
the life lived in the maze of sexual liberation that most disturbs many of us who
were teenagers ourselves in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s. We know well the
pain, anger, hatred, betrayal, fear, disappointment, and confusion that belief in the
illusion brought. How do we help our own teenagers avoid all that? The revolution
was an illusion, but we do not want to react by proclaiming to our children a
counterrevolution that may be equally illusory. To some who have been through
the sexual wars, lifelong faithfulness to a single partner looks not only difficult and
rare, but even unreal. Many of us feel trapped between the patent falseness of the
sexual revolution and the potential nightmare of simply staying the course through
a stale relationship after the passion is gone, of sticking it out with a no-longerlovable person in the name of social or religious convention. What do we tell our
children? What do we tell ourselves?
In truth, the sexual revolution is not the cause of our sick sexual relations. The
sexual revolution is not so much the disease as a symptom of the disease.
Sexual confusion, impurity, and sin are the hideous weeds that shoot up where
all can see them; but the hidden root from which they spring is our defective
vision, not of sex, but of love. It is a vision of love that even we who deplore its
sexual sociopathology cannot quite surrender. I call it the myth of romance.
“Romance” is a wonderful word (as indeed is “liberation”), but powerful words
have their dark meanings, and I use it here to mean the idea that love, real love, is
an emotionally driven, emotionally consuming relationship. In this sense, love —
sexual love, intimate love — means possessing and being possessed by
another, a very special someone, and in this relationship alone are happiness
and fulfillment possible. This view of romance is so widely shared and so rarely
remarked upon that we may think it simply natural. But it is something we have
learned, and I suggest that we may need to begin unlearning it if marriage and
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the love that marriage makes possible are to survive. We must acknowledge our
addiction to the gospel of romance, and examine its teachings.
This “gospel” has several core values. Fundamental to it is the idea that, in a
romantic relationship, the love one feels toward the other is essentially a special,
visceral feeling — incomparable and virtually inexpressible. Whether or not this
feeling lasts is less important than that it exists. The key is that it is there. Neither
the past nor the future matters in comparison to the moment when one is struck
by love. Romance’s domain is the immediate, the now. Moreover, what is
paramount is exactly this special feeling, not the other person. What makes
someone special is the feeling that person gives me. In this sense, love is
“blind.” It does not matter if the other is truly known, so much as whether it feels
right to be together.
The gospel of romantic love also holds that love is largely outside one’s control.
Falling in love is just that — losing control and letting oneself fall into the arms of
another. Love overrides deliberation, even decision, for it grips one at the core of
one’s being. It is subjective and thus cannot be analyzed or explained. Like
magic, it just happens — sweeping me away in a tide of feeling. It is neither dutybound nor constrained by the will. In fact, quite the opposite: Once duty rears its
sober head, love’s edge is blunted. Love is bound only by itself and what it longs
to express. Love gushes forth in the intensity of feeling and culminates in the
bliss of sexual abandon.
Finally, according to the gospel of romance, this indefinable, romantic feeling that
two can share is precisely what makes it easy, or at least easier, to live together.
The intensification of feeling is what makes differences, conflicts,
disappointments, and adjustments bearable. Relationships grow stale when the
vitality of this feeling abates. Then passion is replaced by duty, and no matter how
hard one tries to fan love’s flames, the relationship will grow colder until it is
dead. Unless two people are “in love,” hardships, tests, and struggles will
invariably make their relationship unbearable.
So pervasive is the myth of romance that we are scarcely aware of alternatives to
it. Yet without it I doubt that the sexual revolution would have occurred. We know
that modern sex education and plentiful contraception have not made sex at all
“safe” for our teenagers. The indexes of teenage sexual misery sketched above
show that our teenagers are perhaps further than ever from having their sexual
aspect under control. This is because the gospel of romance undercuts any
explicit admonitions to self-control or even to self-preservation. We may call
someone promiscuous, but in truth that person is deeply faithful — faithful to the
gospel of romance. We may say that marriage is being destroyed by infidelity, but
in fact the deserters from wedlock are deeply faithful — to themselves and their
feelings, exactly as the myth of romance teaches them to be.
Fidelity to self — indeed, addiction to self — is of the essence of the gospel of
romance. That is why it is no help in teaching us to be faithful to another. In fact,
the gospel of romance teaches, forms, inculcates, and indoctrinates a set of lies
about married love. Today’s sexual impurity is but the suppuration from an
infected wound we cannot seem to locate, let alone heal. That wound is our false
story about what makes life worth living and relationships worth having.
To announce that the enemy of faithfulness is primarily a deceptive ideology is at
best to sound an alarm, not to solve the problem. I believe that in matters of love
and marriage and family we can have a much greater transformative influence,
but only if we are willing first to repent and undergo change. We must practice —
not just preach — something different. We Christians have to be much more
aware of and honest about the myths we live by. We need to acknowledge that we
have tended to narrow the question of sexual integrity, as if the principal problem
were the proper timing of copulation: before marriage, no; after marriage, yes. In
truth, the principal question is about the nature of married love. Marriage is not
simply the legitimization of copulation, nor is it a seal of approval on the false
gospel of romance. We Christians stand forthrightly against the doctrines of
sexual freedom, because they are so obviously wrong. But we are (more deeply
than we know) bound also by the gospel of romance. We, too, perpetuate the
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values that undermine lasting, loving relationships. We caution the teenagers not
to go too far too soon in their relationships, but we accept the world’s definition of
“relationship.” We want to have our marriages, and our romance too.
The promise of romance is a sham, and unless we as Christ’s disciples reveal it
for what it is we will continue to suffer conjugal and familial breakdown. True
Gospel love has little to do with the romantic myths of our age. God’s love, of
which married love is but a symbol, is rooted in eternity — it is lasting, faithful,
forbearing, loyal, and committed to the unconditional well-being of the other.
Married love is not about an experience, not about a feeling, not even about a
relationship, but about a way of being, a way of giving that makes us, as God’s
image-bearers, uniquely human. Marriage and family are the fruit of a love that is
rooted not in what is immediate or transitory, but in what is unconditional and
lasting. Love is hard work, not because it is a duty, but because there is a fight
between good and evil in each of us. Therefore, love does not make the work of
relationship easy or easier. Rather it moves us to transcend our self-centered
worlds to consider the other as more important than ourselves.
You may say, “I agree.” But the practices, even rituals, of romantic love entrap us
all. The romantic myth incarnates itself in concrete ways. To counteract it will
demand a response that is equally concrete, beginning with a change in our
basic cultural habits of romance, those acceptable, everyday, mundane practices
that shape our understanding of what love is all about. These practices are many
and varied, but they coalesce in a particular set of actions, customs, and
expectations which we know as the institution of dating. For it is this institution,
like no other, that legitimizes the gospel of romance. The grip of the romantic myth
is strengthened by the ways we have established for boys and girls, men and
women, to get to know each other.
The romantic ideal, with its language and story of love, finds a foothold in the
“date.” It flourishes in the practice of “going steady.” By its very nature, dating
means experimentation. Instead of teaching commitment, it ignores it or, to be
more exact, undermines it. Dating breeds destructive habits that work against
what it takes to be married and to have a family, that diminish the ability to know
and be known. Instead of forming skills that help us to learn how to suffer and
forgive, it teaches us, when we are hurt, to look for another. Instead of teaching us
to accept the mundane, dating plays on our thirst for novelty. Some say dating
encourages lust. Worse, almost, is that it encourages wanderlust.
We need to see the convention of dating for what it is. Christoph Arnold in his
book A Plea for Purity rightly says:
For the most part, dating in our society has become a game — a ritual of pairing
off with a boyfriend or girlfriend on the basis of physical and emotional attraction. It
is built on a false understanding of friendship and often has little to do with
genuine love or faithfulness. In many instances, dating is centered on an
unhealthy preoccupation with personal “image.” And when it involves sex, it can
leave a conscience so heavily burdened that it takes years to heal. Vanity and
superficiality go hand in hand with conventional dating. So does flirting — drawing
attention to oneself so as to sexually attract another person. Flirting demonstrates
inner insecurity and unhappiness, and it is an insult to God.
In short, dating is likely to be an exercise in serial flirtation — dulling the
conscience, exploiting vulnerability, and parodying intimacy. The ritual of pairing
off, in the name of love, is actually a ritual of being cut off from our shared
humanity as male and female. It dehumanizes the other in that it categorizes the
other as a potential sexual option. The immature kids on whom we’ve imposed
this structure hardly know how to be close to the opposite sex without going too
The pressure to maintain an image, to find or to be the “right one,” even to
“perform,” is intense. How can a teenager let down his or her guard? To protect
oneself one awaits what the “gospel” promises — that magic spark, that flash of
special feeling. One can feel safe in the power of such passion. But once it
sputters, once it flickers, one backs off, afraid to be seen, and tumbles down a
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spiral of retreat.
Dating is not just two people going out together. Dating is a mentality, a ruling
narrative, a chosen paradigm. Most of us have been through the forming and
dissolving of many “special relationships.” We have chased the promise of
romance. We have assumed that it was just a part of life, part of growing up. But
each breakup rips and tears our soul’s longing for fidelity. Dating is neither a
natural event nor a harmless social custom. By its very nature it weakens our
capacity for faithfulness and commitment. It is not compatible with the art, the
struggle, and the discipline of knowing another person. It is geared toward
obtaining intimacy but without a price and without sacrifice, and therefore without
a contented heart.
Even when there are no breakups, when a couple seems to be steadily “going
together,” the myth of romance can breed in the two a false exclusivity: artificially
separating them from friends and family; fostering relational self-centeredness;
overemphasizing the physical and emotional to the exclusion of the spiritual;
creating intense jealousies; and prohibiting natural, free, wholesome relating.
In other words, dating incarnates and inculcates a set of values that
systematically erodes the kind of foundation it takes to have a happy, Godcentered, lasting marriage. If we Christians are serious about the virtue of
chastity, then we need not only tell our young people God’s sexual ideal and
sexual laws, but also raise them and form them in a different way of doing
relationships. We need to exemplify a set of practices — a counter-ritual — that
models and instills a culture of fidelity.
In my own church community, we have rejected conventional dating entirely, and
the results are excellent. This is a bold statement, and I must explain it,
acknowledging fully the special nature of this community before I suggest how
other communities also can free their kids from the tyranny of dating. The
Bruderhof community is part of the Anabaptist tradition and is made up of people
living in covenant with one another and with God. Our land is owned by the
community; the community operates its own businesses (medical supplies,
publishing, and others); and housing is semi-communal (a family has private
quarters but shares a kitchen with other families). We have a community center
with frequent shared meals and activities, communal duties and responsibilities
that rotate, and a system of governance that operates through sharing and
consensus rather than politicking and votes.
Our children are educated in the community school through eighth grade, and
then go (usually) to a local public high school. We could, no doubt, run our own
high school if we wanted. But our goal is not to insulate our children from the
world; it is to prepare them for the world. The Bruderhof is not the world and we
well know it; neither, of course, is the public high school. And of the two, which is
more likely to mistake itself for the world? Undoubtedly, the high school. So when
our teenagers reach that delicate period of traveling to the public school and
returning to the community each day, we take great care to provide positive
experience and diminish the negative.
This does not mean we separate the sexes or disparage relationships. Far from
it! Our young and single people have many opportunities to get to know one
another and we rejoice when friendships develop. But friendship is one thing,
pairing off is another. Instead of dating, our young men and women are given
opportunities for positive, natural, mutual exchanges in daily settings of working,
sharing, relaxing, serving, and playing together, both among themselves and with
the larger church community. (There are dances, too.) They get to know each
other without pressure, in group settings, and as brothers and sisters. Though
they have the freedom to be seen together without being subject to gossip or
speculation about their friendship, this freedom is never a private wandering-off
together but rather an open, protected sharing in the reverence of the church.
The community does not operate on wishful thinking. We communicate to the
youngsters coming into their physical maturity that sex is not a separate area of
life, not an escape from life, and not a taboo subject of discussion. Part of
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growing up is acknowledging that we are sexual beings, that we have sexual
feelings and a sexual nature — indeed a sexual vocation. We do not ask the kids
to pretend sex and romance do not exist, but we try to teach and exemplify them
properly. Parents are primarily responsible, but part of the Bruderhof covenant is
that parents do not operate alone. Mutual aid is needed and available, with certain
parents taking the role of “high school parents,” meaning that their home is open
to the high schoolers after school for snacks and talks and winding down.
It is not expected that the kids will effortlessly get with the program. By being
available to them, by refusing to evade the topic of romance, by providing many
places to meet and interact, and by the examples of their own marriages, the
adults of the Bruderhof model the continual effort and close attention that the
great gift of sex demands in its recipients. No one pretends that it is easy to be
good in any area of life. The very point of our system is that sexual feeling and
passion and longing are not basically different from other passions and longings.
Our covenant is based on respect for self and others, and a prime virtue is selfcontrol based on that respect. Just as anger or disappointment or ambition will
arise and must be expressed, with self-control and respect for the other, so will
sexual feeling arise, and its expression must have those same characteristics.
Precisely because we welcome the full range of the emotional gifts of the human
spirit and seek to train ourselves to use them fruitfully, we have a good chance of
teaching our children that sex is not a law unto itself.
Among our young people, it is understood at the outset that Christ and the church
must come before any and every relationship — especially before any
commitment is ever made to another. The only sure foundation for marriage is a
shared faith that leads to a unity of heart and soul in the Spirit. Only when Jesus is
at the center is a couple assured that their relationship is blessed. For this
reason, any relationship leading toward marriage must first of all come under the
care and guidance of the church. It is important that when two people feel drawn
together, others are included to help them keep their priorities straight. Emotional
and physical desires, which have their rightful place, can too easily gain the upper
hand and skew what is right and good.
Healthy relationships are not those that are most private, but those that include
the wider input of others. Thus when a young woman and man feel drawn to each
other they naturally involve their parents and ministers. This is seen not as an
imposition but as an opportunity for guidance and help. Getting to know another
person inwardly — heart to heart — is not easy. Neither can a healthy, growing
relationship be rushed. Because parents know their children best, they can help a
couple discern if they are really meant for each other.
Therefore, before spending extra time together, a couple is encouraged to write
letters to each other and in this way to begin to share their hearts openly and
honestly. Only after a period of time, and only when the couple — independently
as well as together with the input of others — feels that God has drawn them
together for marriage are they ready to become engaged. When this happens, the
whole church gets involved in preparing for their wedding. During the
engagement period other couples meet with them and share their experiences of
what it takes to grow in married love. This includes the experiences of older
couples and of the newly married. In this way the engaged couple can witness the
power and hope of faithful love. All the while the focus, instead of being on the
desire for physical closeness, is on the virtues and skills needed for a lasting,
fulfilling marriage.
By rejecting conventional dating and replacing it with something entirely different
— a culture of fidelity — the community is able to form, not just to instruct, its
young people in the ways of faithfulness. The temptations of passion, the allure of
emotion, and the fear of loneliness can be mitigated. The struggle against
temptation remains, but there is power in the atmosphere of a gathered, united
church, and there is reinforcement when the Spirit finds a foothold.
For a culture of fidelity to emerge, however, parents and ministers have to rid
themselves of the way this world does relationships. Yet too many of us are
hesitant to undergo such reformation. We parents are hesitant to speak out
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against the gospel of false love. Instead we carry a deep guilt and shame of our
own which prevents us from committing ourselves wholeheartedly to a different
way. We compromise with our children because we ourselves live with burdened
consciences. We refuse to take a firm stand and thus fail to create genuine
workable alternatives. We simply enjoy the romantic myth too much ourselves.
Today’s marriages and families will continue to splinter unless we make a
concerted effort to reconstruct our social lives, including those of our children. The
Bruderhof, you may protest, is a community and has an advantage over isolated
families in the restless secular world. How can regular folks do it? I would be
less than authentic if I offered a recipe, a list of “14 Ways to Keep Your Child
Chaste.” Parents are understandably anxious about helping their children to be
chaste before marriage and successful in marriage. But if a parent is more
anxious about sexual virtue than about other virtues, that may itself be a sign of
the parent’s unwitting submission to the romantic myth of the primacy of sex. To
worry about our teenagers’ sexual virtue without worrying about their interpersonal
virtue (are they honest, exploitative, self-aggrandizing?) or their economic virtue
(are they envious or greedy, are they addicted to shopping or fashion?) is to
privilege sex and send our children a distorted message. They will not fail to
sense it.
The home is primary, but I imagine that success in mitigating the myth of
romance by withstanding the insistent culture of dating would be most likely for
families pulling together. If like-minded parents, covenanting with one another
and with a spiritual mentor such as a minister or priest, agree to help one another
in the delicate task of creating truly communal situations for the social life of their
young people, I think they could go a long way toward relieving their teens of the
burdensome sexual pressures the world loads on them. If forming a group of
covenanted families seems too daunting a task, chaperoned dating might be a
compromise worth considering. In any case, only adults who have pledged
themselves to fidelity and seriousness in all areas of life can hope to guide young
people to fidelity and seriousness in the area of sex.
We recognize that the destructive “sexual revolution” portrayed in my opening
paragraphs is a disastrous innovation. We ought to recognize as well that our
common institution of “dating” is no less innovative, and perhaps no less
disastrous. What society before ours has so abandoned its immature to fend for
themselves in the jungle of human emotion? Like so much else that our
consumer society prizes as freedom, our dating turns out to be a kind of
conformity, a conformity in this case to the dictates of the powerful myth of
romance. Dating needs to be exposed for what it is and then discarded. More
than that, it must be replaced with positive habits, with new ways for young men
and women to get to know one another. It can be done.

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© 1999 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved. March 1999, Volume LXVI,
Number 3.

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