Emotional Purity vs. Emotional Fornication

Note: This series is not intended to be an exhaustive examination of every possible scenario and individual perspective on emotional purity. I write from my experience, study, and perspective–nothing more.

1383203_53982321smEmotional Purity: An Affair of the Heart by Heather Paulsen is the primary source I will be interacting with. The double entendre in the subtitle hints at all the underpinnings of this teaching.

Personally, I found my teenage and early-twenties pursuit of emotional purity to be despair-provoking. Was I truly committing “emotional fornication” (to use the exact phrase told to me, and to a group of my friends) by being emotionally and, yes, physically attracted to a man outside of marriage?

Remember Joshua Harris’s opening in the bestselling I Kissed Dating Goodbye? It involved a scene in which a bride saw all the former girlfriends of her groom parade before her during the wedding ceremony. In my opinion this is both over-the-top and deliberately emotive. What impressionable teenage girl will be capable of withstanding the impact of this imagery?

How terrifying to think that not only was I wronging my hypothetical future husband (who, according to this teaching, would be heartbroken and grieved to learn of I’d cared for another man), but I was displeasing an angry God.

“Saving yourself for your husband” sounds good. Heaping guilt and condemnation on yourself or others for feeling a natural attraction or being disappointed when the guy you like doesn’t return your affection? Not so good.

I welcome comments and dialogue, particularly as I begin this series. What do you see as the pressing issues related to emotional purity?


4 thoughts on “Emotional Purity vs. Emotional Fornication

  1. A former homeschooled guy chiming in here although I know your focus is on women. What I write is primarily based on my own experiences.

    Growing up, I saw some who were caught in the “emotional purity” hype. Paulsen may have popularized the vocabulary, but the principles of the movement predate her work. I think it is truly sad when teen (and older) boys and girls are unable to interact with the other gender in healthy ways because of this “paranoia” about their thoughts and actions. I was irritated at times when some women walled themselves off because of these ideas.

    However, as a guy, what really caused me to be upset were some misguided views of men that were propagated by some in local churches. It usually went one of two ways. First, some girls (at least in my circles) were taught that they had to be emotionally pure because no good guy would want them if they were not “keeping their heart pure.” Conversely, some were also taught a low view of a man and his self-control. I recall at some points where it seemed like they believed the woman should be morally superior to the man including the emotions. In short, girls were expected to have it together in spiritual/emotional areas; guys were not necessarily on the hook. That bothered me. Although I’ve never been in a relationship, I can imagine the immense pressure that such teaching puts on a man/woman trying to get to know each other. For some, the guilt that must set in must have been incredible.

    It may be a misguided view of men, but as you noted, it is fundamentally a misguided view of our life before God. I remember reading these type of teachings and thinking that God was really just out to get people if they dared step over the line. The concept of grace was rarely taught and usually distorted. This saddens me because, as a Christian, grace is at the heart of the faith I confess. I think some conservative churches taught plenty of form, rules, and style and failed to teach the substance of a faith that would have profoundly impacted how we handled our relationships.

    I’m happy you’re discussing this issue as I still see it espoused by some homeschoolers. I look forward to your subsequent posts.


  2. I hadn’t heard of “emotional purity” until after making some mistakes, and I wished someone had told me about it. Especially in this age of the Internet. As women we need to know how our emotions work and be warned of potential consequences. I really appreciate that Heather calls attention to this.

    However, I also learned that in order to love life and to love brothers in the Church, you sometimes have to risk being misunderstood or being let down.

    You can be clueless and end up getting hurt, or you can follow the “rules” and still be hurt. The 6 years of “limbo” leading up to courtship (and marriage) with my husband were so hard. Books and forums helped me process it, but only the Holy Spirit could speak to my individual situation.


  3. Natalie, I’m so glad you’re addressing this. You know I struggled with a lot of guilt over my ‘lost’ ’emotional virginity’ until a wise friend’s words revealed to me that this whole emotional purity thing is us setting a standard higher than God’s.

    God calls us to sexual purity–the emotional purity is our idea, an effort protect ourselves from the sometimes-risky love of a relationship we can’t always guarantee will end in marriage.

    Opening ourselves up to a man puts our hearts at risk, but it’s also imperative to a healthy dating or courtship relationship that a couple be open with each other.

    And then there’s that fine line between loving our brothers unselfishly and keeping the boundaries that ARE appropriate in a dating relationship. It’s a line that can only be walked individually before God, not with a set of rules.

    Good discussion topic.



  4. I think the emotional purity thing – that yes once too I espoused was harmful in many ways.

    For one it was taken to an impossible extreme. I mean really until the guy asked to court you – you were not to “like” him in any way but as a “brother”? But then you enter a relationship that is “for marriage” with someone you had “no feelings for” but a floodgate opens in the new “courting” relationship of emotions because… you are supposed to have the intention of marrying… which goes into why I think courtship was more damaging than dating. Dating break ups I’m sure are hard, especially hard when it’s been a long term relationship… but courting has this “I’m supposed to marry this person” “if all works out” that is… so your heart is MUCH more vulnerable. And the break up is way worse. But that’s about courtship… I’ve read the Emotional Purity book ages ago.

    Heather also seemed to take a “no relationships with guys at all” approach because we just “can’t keep our hearts”… As a woman who had a few close (very close) guy friends, who I truly had no romantic attachment too I can attest that is not the case. One can be friends with a person of the opposite gender without wanting to have sex with them, date them, or marry them or any intention besides friendship (and yes I know it was true on the guy’s part not just mine)… I’m great friends with his wife and he is one of my husband’s best friends now… My husband had similar good girl friends with whom I am good friends with now and it didn’t bother me in the least. I am of the opinion that having friends of the opposite gender is healthy, it brings balance to our lives, gives us perspective, and is edifying. And I don’t think liking one of the opposite gender means cutting off a friendship. The best relationships should grow out of good friendships.


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