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My family joined the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) when I was about 9 years old. I was taught the traditional courtship by ATI and Bill Gothard. Keep my mind pure. If I fall in love with someone who is not my spouse I’ll have less love to give him. My future spouse will ask my dad for permission before he talks to me. My dad will be the one in charge of my courtship. Dating is wrong and will lead me to sin. Boys became something to avoid: I didn’t look at them; I didn’t talk to them; I didn’t stand close to them.
When I was younger, before all the courtship rules and regulations, I was sassy and enjoyed interacting with boys. I was bold. One time, a boy was teasing a friend and me at church (it was typical “boy likes girl so he pulls her hair” teasing). I chased him throughout the entire church and out the doors yelling, “yeah, run, boy, run!” I was not a gentle and quiet spirit.
After all the courtship rules and regulations entered the picture, well, I was a completely different girl. I was terrified of boys. If one looked like he was going to talk to me at church, I turned around and pretended to be occupied with something else. I walked by boys with eyes averted. If we were with another ATI family that had teenage boys, I stayed as far away from them as possible. I was always on edge in social settings; during this time, I was having what I now know were anxiety attacks. Mostly these attacks happened either at a social event where the boys were, or when I knew an event was coming up. Somehow, I think the two facts are related.
When I was around 16, we started attending a different church. Most of the members were in ATI, as were the pastor and his family. A homeschooled boy (non ATI) started talking to me one day after the service. Not in an “I’m interested in dating you” way, but about politics, history, baseball, whatever was going on at the time. As I talked more and more to him, I slowly got over my fears. He was just being friendly, and you know what? Nothing bad happened. I started getting over my fear, and I began talking to the other boys at church (always in a group, never alone or one-on-one). One boy and I started leading some activities at the local nursing home through the church’s ministry. Apparently that crossed a line. My mother was informed by the pastor’s wife that she had learned from her daughter that I was “flirting with all the boys in the church.” I was shocked, and I told my mom that was not true. I am glad to say that my mom knew that I was not “flirting with all the boys at church.” But I started watching my behavior around boys again.
Around this time, our home life was falling apart. Things had gotten so bad, I had decided that I didn’t love my dad anymore. I was so scared that I was never going to get married, since my dad did not seem to care enough about me to look for a husband for me. My dad was rarely home, and when he was, he mostly ignored or yelled at us. I thought it was my fault that our relationship was disintegrating because I was not a good enough daughter. I remember hoping that he would not pick someone like himself for me to marry. My dad liked only people who were like him, and I was starting to dislike him. I was worried that I’d be stuck for the rest of my life married to someone like my dad. Nonetheless, I was determined to be a good daughter and to “give my heart” to my dad for his safe keeping; hopefully that would make things better. I had received a diploma-like paper from the Pre-Apprentice Seminar at Knoxville one year. On it, a vow was written to give my heart to my dad until such time I was married, then my dad would give it to my husband. During this lesson, the speaker stressed that giving your heart to your dad would be safe; he would not allow any harm to come to it because he was your God-given authority. There was a place on the paper for both of us to sign and date. I thought long and hard, and I decided to sign it and give it to my dad for Christmas. I wrapped it up and gave it to him on Christmas morning. In my mind, I was turning myself over to him and submitting like a Godly daughter should. This was difficult for me to do and very important to me. He opened it, read it, signed his name, and handed it back to me. I explained “No, this is for you. I want you to keep it. I don’t want it.” He said, “Oh, I think you should hang onto this for me; I might lose it.” I managed to keep from crying until I got to my room, where I began to sob. I had handed my dad my heart, and he just gave it back. He didn’t even care.
About two years went by. I started to worry that I was never going to get married at all. No one had shown the slightest interest in me or my sisters. It was then that I started to realize: This is not working, and there are no signs that it will. Dating was bad and looked down upon, and I had no other options. Following several contentious months with my dad, I moved out to live with extended family. I knew I had to get away. A few months after I moved out, my dad left my family. It came out that he had been cheating for six or seven years with many women. When this happened, my relationship foundations were destroyed. All those lessons on moral, upstanding behavior went right down the drain. I believed none of the things I had been taught, because the person teaching them did the exact opposite of what he taught. I didn’t know what to believe; I had to start at the very beginning.
Thankfully, my story does have a happy ending. I made serious mistakes when I first started dating that I regret; I dated some men I should not have seen. I was in my early 20s, and I had no clue how a mature, respectful relationship worked. A very kind, wise woman at my church, when I approached her crying and confused, advised me to go to counseling. I spent a year and a half in counseling, working on learning who I was and who I wanted to become. I had been so focused on becoming the standard of perfection that I had lost sight completely of who I was. I forgave my dad, and I worked through much of the emotional trauma he left me with. Once I found myself, I started dating again. I dated some very good, nice men before deciding (on my own) they were not the ones for me. I am grateful to those men for the great learning experiences. I left those relationships a better person.
I am now married to a kind, caring, smart, wonderful man; I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we belong together. I am grateful for all the learning experiences I had, although they were difficult at the time. Here is the thing: courtship is supposed to bypass those difficulties, prevent them from happening. It didn’t, even though I made the commitments and followed all the steps. Trial and error made me grow, mature, learn to trust. I would not be the person I am today if I had followed the traditional concept of courtship, and I would not have the marriage I have today. I would not want to change a thing; God used all that for good. Man-made courtship rules cannot, and should not, take away from God working in our lives. He is bigger than all that. I am so grateful that God, in his own timing, brought my husband and me together.
Disclaimer: My intent is not to say that those in marriages brought about via courtship are not as good as mine; I just find that the courtship model did not work for me, and that the courtship teachings did me more harm than good.
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