“Guard your heart” was a popular one.
“Do not date anyone you would not consider marrying” came up occasionally.
“Dating and breaking up is practice for divorce.” Yeah, okay.
“God has someone special designed just for you.” No kidding?!
“Heather, don’t hug boys. Keep your body off theirs!” (But I will die without boy hugs!)
“Do not say I Love You so easily.” But, I do love them.
Don’t let your good be evil spoken of (c.f. Romans 14:16) – that was Granny’s favorite.
I heard them all, but… I did not listen. As a teenager, I felt completely lost without a boyfriend. At the time I denied it, but in the deepest parts of my heart, I craved that validation.
I Want to be Whole
When we were eighteen, I went to dinner with my two longest friends. They laughed and joked about being single and threw around theories as to why that might be. “Maybe it is because I am one of the guys?” “Well, I have the small chest situation.” They were having a blast, but as they laughed about their singlehood, I felt tears approaching. I wanted what they had. I wanted to feel whole without some boy or man telling me I was special. I wanted to take God at His Word and know He was all I needed.
Around the same time, my attitude and outlook on life grew negative. All these boys I turned to for psychological support were gone. Some broke up with me and I broke up with the others. The reasons did not matter. Here I was… eighteen years old and scowling like a miserable old lady. That is when my godmother, Becky, took me into a Sunday School room at church and said, “We need to talk about your attitude.” Apparently, people were noticing the chip on my shoulder. My quest to find happiness and fulfillment outside of God’s path had caught up with me. I slept with tissues by the bed to catch the tears. I was angry. I was sad. I was empty.
Throughout the years, I remember thinking, “If this relationship is wrong, God will get me out of it. After all, He’s protected me thus far.” I was making foolish decisions and expecting God to swoop in and save me from the consequences. Since His forgiveness was given as a free gift (cf. Romans 6:1-2), I hoped there were no consequences either. I got past the frivolous boyfriend stage. I made it through the anger stage. All is well, right?
God forgave me, but without realizing it, I carelessly dumped years of weight into my heart – broken promises, empty words, unwise conversations, and ungodly actions. Being on the other side of my teen years did not make all the chaos float away. It was still there. Dormant. Waiting.
A few years later, I met Eric. In Virginia, I was far away from most of my previous beaus. It felt like a new beginning. All that baggage is behind me. This is who I am now. I am heading in a new direction. For the months leading up to the wedding, I barely thought about the old days. I am happy now and that is all that matters.
As it turns out, the wedding was a nice distraction. Once it was over, life got real again. New house. New “roommate.” New life. It was daunting, and despite my self-assurance before the wedding, I was not ready. Looking in the mirror, I still heard negative messages from a past boyfriend. Why don’t you dress better? Why can’t you look better? That girl over there is hot. I’d date her. For years, I heard his voice when I saw my reflection.
In quiet moments, my thoughts took me to a different man – a man I hurt. I recalled the tears, the pleas, the counseling session with our pastor, the careless words, and my fickle behavior. Was that really me? Could I have been that cruel? I wanted to go back and change it. Still do.
The lessons I learned (some true and some lies) in those relationships stayed locked up in my heart. They were there when Eric proposed. They were there when we drove away from the church on our wedding day. They were there when we started working with other couples. The hurt, the regret, the rejection, the shame – it was all there? Why?
Because I hid from it instead of working through it.
When problems come my way, I tend to cocoon myself (as Eric says). Maybe if I ignore it, it will work itself out? Cleaning out old, emotional luggage is hard work. It requires proactivity.
Has any part of my story resonated with you so far? If so, please keep reading. You can heal.
Healing before your wedding is the best time to start.
- Write the name of each former boyfriend (or girlfriend) on separate sheets of paper. You can keep them in a journal, but only if you are willing to rip the pages out later.
- Below each name, write down every hurt you endured, regret you have, offense you committed, and offense you need to forgive. If possible, do one name per day (or week). Try not to rush this process. There may be memories locked away you need time to unearth. If your memories are extremely painful, work through this process with a Bible-based counselor. Opening deep wounds alone can take you back to a dark place. Someone who is qualified to help can guide you in a safe and systematic way.
- Pray through each list. Before starting, look up Scriptures on forgiveness. Ask friends you trust to pray for you and with you as you start this process. Pray blessings on the person in question. Ask God to forgive you for mistakes made in the relationship. If there is anger in your heart, ask Him to clear it and set you free. Even if you do not feel it, declare forgiveness. “I forgive (ex-boyfriend/ex-girlfriend) for (what he or she did).” Continue praying through the list until you can honestly say, “I’ve forgiven (ex-boyfriend/ex-girlfriend).”
- If possible, make amends. One of my ex-boyfriends gave me money for a missions trip which I did not end up attending due to the events of 9/11. In my anger, I foolishly gave the money to a charity instead of giving it back to him. (At the time, I believed the money was a manipulation tactic.) It bothered me for years. Ten years into my marriage, I told Eric, “I really want to make this right.” Eric agreed and I sent this man a check along with an apology. He responded with much grace. He even said he had forgiven me years ago. It is amazing what that simple conversation did for my heart. I did not even know I needed his forgiveness, but it blessed me dearly. In some cases, reaching out might not be wise. Check your motivation. If your only reason for contacting the person is to make yourself feel better, hold back; but, if you truly want to apologize for his or her benefit, consider a call or a letter. If he or she is single, a call may be appropriate. Just be careful not to stoke an old fire. If he or she is in a relationship, a simple letter might be better, ending with, “Thank you for reading this. I wish you all the best and I will not contact you anymore.”
- Build a fire. After creating your lists, praying through them, and making all the amends you need to make, conduct a ceremony. One by one, throw your sheets of paper into the fire. With each toss, thank God for the lessons learned and once again say, “I forgive (ex-boyfriend/ex-girlfriend).”
- Write this quote down and recite it daily until you truly believe it: “I am not defined by my past. I am who Christ says I am. Those experiences helped shape me, but they are gone. God will use everything for His glory. I am moving forward into the future God has set for me. The old me is gone. When former anger, fear, or shame rises, I will forgive again until they never return.”
- Focus on what is coming. We cannot change the past. We can repent and we can seek reconciliation, but we cannot erase. However, God in His mercy made a way for us to be forgiven and freed of those weights (cf. Ephesians 2:1-10). Once you identify the hurts and regrets, seek forgiveness, offer forgiveness, and ceremoniously put those relationships in the past, you can move towards the future. You cannot change the past, but you can do something about the days ahead.
Unless you deal with the built-up crud in your heart, you will suffer and your partner will suffer. I did not realize Eric was going to suffer as a result of my unresolved past relationships; but, he did. One of the greatest gifts you can give to your future spouse is becoming (and staying) emotionally healthy.
A healthy person will not take out old anger on a new relationship.
A healthy person will not need constant reassurance of love and commitment.
A healthy person will not push love away to protect his or her heart.
A healthy person has the makings of a partner and teammate rather than an opponent and competitor.
A healthy person raises healthy children.
Dumping out that suitcase and disposing of old hurts is hard work but imagine how much lighter you will feel once it is done.
Does your heart need cleansing before tying the knot? Do the work.