I had a really interesting conversation with a friend the other day. As we were developing our thoughts, I tried to think of the right analogy to explain the fact that sexuality is not something we ever figure out and master, but something that we simply have to learn to deal with in as healthy a manner as possible.
I started with a shoe that doesn’t fit: it is uncomfortable, it rubs, it slips, but eventually you kind of arrive at a functional, working relationship with that shoe. Not great.
Next I tried a horse. Even worse.
My friend had a better one: walking on a line. On one side was lust, on the other was prudery, or whatever you’d want to call the other side of sexual unhealthiness. The analogy was a good one for two reasons: 1) on both sides is danger, 2) a line may stretch on and on, and so it is with the pitfalls of sex. It may get easier to walk it, but walk it you always shall.
The context of our conversation was marriage and the best ways to prepare to live it chastely. My friend and I had a lot to reflect on – not only on our own lives before and during marriage, but we have also worked closely for a number of years with university-age students, upon whom our thoughts were especially focused. We have seen the damage that over-sexualisation does. We have also seen the damage that prudery and idealism do too. This other side requires a lot more explanation, I think.
We are all intrinsically sexual; we are all intrinsically sexually dysfunctional. That’s the doctrine of original sin. Take it or leave it. Strong Catholics are quick to recognize the ever-threatening presence of lust, a problem brought especially close to us by technology and by our hedonistic society; we are, however, prone to ignoring and misunderstanding the other side. It is a great error (a heresy, actually, called Pelagianism), the idea that we can transcend the effects of original sin in our lives. The Church offers a more pessimistic doctrine: you can’t ever arrive at a state where you are no longer effected by your sexuality (and that of others).
It may be pessimistic, but it’s the truth, and we have to take it into account if we are to live well. Since it is the truth, it stands to reason that when we think we have arrived at a state free from temptation, we have likely brought along with us some unexpected and unwanted guests. Fear of sexuality, fear of the sexuality of the other, is not strength and healthiness. An idea of chastity that is purely negative (that sexuality is evil) can make you more vulnerable to one thing: the unexpected. You cannot control the future, what may happen to you. Yes, you can avoid many ‘near-occasions of sin,’ but not all of them. And how will you be when one arrives? Even worse, how do you think a purely negative conception will affect how you will treat others? Are you alive to the full goodness of the other? Some effects of what is called a ‘lack of sexual integration’ are obvious, for instance, the inability to be around someone of the opposite sex with peace of mind, without erratic, perhaps even unkind, behaviour, etc. Some of the effects are not so obvious, like excessive bravado or machismo, chauvinism, etc.
A rigid stance may turn into a negative regard for girls – viewed as the threat. It’s ok to put some distance between you and various ‘over-sexualized’ domains, especially at those times in your life that one might call a period of psychological or spiritual low, places like the beach, the mall, various social events, or even the internet. But girls aren’t the threat, or at least the vast majority of them mean you no harm. In fact, the vast majority of girls you know wish you well. They are, in other words, gifts to you. It’s the girls who are blessing in your life who make it possible for you to see girls as more than sexual objects, make it possible for you to appreciate the beauty and kindness of girls as God does, make it possible to see love in a new, better way. Sexuality is a powerful thing, but it is just a part of the person’s innate ability to be kind and to receive kindness. Just a part: love is the whole, sexuality is a part. At all times all girls want to be loved. Only some girls, I should say, one girl, some of the time, can be loved sexually. Think about this. In it lies the essence of how we are treat girls. They are (much like boys are, but in a quite different way) creatures always in need of love, who always view other people according to that need.
Boys, at about thirteen-years of age, become testosterone-fueled machines, ones that are wired to consume, destroy and reproduce. You know yourself to some extent and have gotten used to these drives – the anger, the jealousy, the physical and emotional desires that come along with manhood. What you don’t know as well is the other side, the girl-side, and girls are not like this at all.
This is not to say that a girl’s experience should define a man’s – not at all. I find many Catholics do this, unwittingly, that is to say, treat boys like they are supposed to behave and experience the world like girls do. There’s a lot I could say about this, but, for now, it suffices to say a few things both about how to protect the good things that are a part of being a girl, and – yes – about how to avoid and be wary of the bad. There is bad. But first the good. Girls are emotionally ‘gifted.’ They can and do ‘feel’ events even when you do not, and in ways you cannot relate to. Because of this, while men seek the ‘strong position’ that is independence and self-sufficiency, girls work to do the exact opposite. They believe that improving a situation consists in tying people more closely together. Neither drive, that of the boy or that of the girl, however, should be considered an absolute good in itself. There are times when one is more appropriate and times when the other is.
These conflicting tendencies have wide-ranging implications for relationships, and for sexuality. Many young men can get sucked into a girl’s world, and be completely unprepared for the emotional onslaught that can strike. Healthy relationships do not devolve into codependency, that is to say, where the happiness of the couple becomes completely dependent upon the other’s approval. But the relationships a young man has experienced hitherto have been, no doubt, most often formed around his come-and-go-freely character, and for all that, kind of one-sided. Parents and siblings are there when he goes, and fully accept him when he returns, without demanding an account of himself. But the young lady whose heart he has won, requires something more. And so he should give it, but not while losing what is essential to him living a full life as required by God who gave him his nature as a man. A man has needs too. He was perhaps unaware that he needed the stable reassuring presence of his family as he came and went. He was unaware of this need, and so believed himself completely ready and able to take on adult life, as if that meant total emotional self-sufficiency. When he moves away for school or for work a vacuum can form where previously there had been a lot of comfort. Even if he doesn’t move away, age itself can make him think that he needs to keep his inner-life from his family. To a degree this is a very good thing, a necessary part of growing into an adult. Nevertheless, this can also make him vulnerable.
So what is a young man supposed to do with a woman? Insecurity on both sides can be a recipe for forming a mutually-enriching new life for both of them, or it may occasion deep unhealthiness, great misery, and set off a pattern of sin that can last a life-time. We see it all over the place – people using each other emotionally and sexually as they attempt to fill emotional voids.
The most important factor in sizing up a potential wife (and this is what all this is about) is emotional intelligence, for lack of a better word. ‘Having it all together,’ is not the important part. Remember, that idea is a fantasy – no one has it all together. A good candidate for a wife is not the girl who has no ‘baggage’ of hurt that she carries around with her, you know, the girl who came from a perfect family! What is important is that she have an awareness of why she is the way she is, and that she is aware of what it is she can do to live God’s will more fully, to fulfill the two commandments of God, despite all her shortcomings. And you need this awareness too.
If this is true, that means that you should only enter into a relationship when you have the freedom to walk away from it if that becomes necessary. You can truly be in love, truly need the other person, but you must always preserve in yourself the freedom that is loving and needing the Lord more. Don’t be surprised by your need for her. If it’s not there, there is something wrong with the situation: you are not in love if that is the case. But, this need in you must not be stronger than your love for God. If you are in a healthy relationship, you will periodically take time apart to spend it with the Lord, alone. There’s no better way to discern your vocation than on a retreat – by yourself! Need is what makes you wobble along that straight line. Romantic love coupled with divine love brings about wild wobbling!
Religiosity is not emotional intelligence. I have met a lot of religious people (hey, I’m one!) who did not have it together emotionally (me, again!) and did not know it. Don’t be fooled. Just because she prays and goes to mass doesn’t mean she’s the one for you. Lots of girls do that – are they all the one for you?
Don’t look for a state of life that can be lived in perfect equilibrium. That’s heaven, not earth. To be a human being is to wobble along the line, the chastity line. Being in love is being needy. It’s a matter of degrees and whether this neediness fuels acts of courage, joy and generosity (all of these three), or whether this need is suspicious, self-destructive, inward-looking, depressing, unproductive, backward-looking (any of these).
For the vast majority of boys it is written into their DNA that a girl is required for their growth in holiness. Dealing with sexual desire is necessary to this advance. Dealing with the emotional life of someone who is not like you (i.e., a girl) is also necessary for this advance. Sexual desire creates a different reality every day. What worked yesterday won’t necessarily work today. You will wobble. Being kind, patient and encouraging to a girl whose emotions you just cannot figure out will cause you to wobble. Theologians sometimes talk about dynamic and static realities. When people are involved, reality is hardly static. Life is messy, and that is good, because messiness is the circumstance that will cause you to grow in virtue. You will not grow otherwise. Weightlifters knows they must ‘attack’ muscles from different angles for them to grow. Pitchers attack batters by mixing up their pitches. You will not figure chastity out. You will grow in it as you keep working at it, despite how hard it is to stay on that line.
Colin wrote this Article for the Knights of the Holy Eucharist. He has been married to Anne-Marie since 1999, and they are proud to raise their six children, in a small town in Ontario, Canada. Colin has a PhD in Theology and works tirelessly to promote the Gospel. “Just share the Word,” is what he believes the Lord says to him – and so he does. He recently founded The Catholic Review of Books, a printed journal and website dedicated to “all things books” from the perspectives of faithful Catholics. He is fascinated by the concept of chivalry as it applies to being a man and a father in today’s crazy world.