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Harmful Courtship Teachings: the Myth of the Construction Paper Heart

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I’m currently a 25-year-old married woman and mother of one. This morning my son woke up at 5:45, but was scared to enter the hallway because the hall night-light was broken. He crawled back in bed and went to sleep. Unfortunately for me, I have a touch of a cold and cough and as much as I wanted to go back to sleep, all I could do was toss and turn and try to go get the annoying Taylor Swift version of the song “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart” out of my head.

I was unsuccessful.

Last Christmas I gave you my heart
But the very next day, you gave it away
This year, to save me from tears
I’ll give it to someone special

I thought to myself…Man, she’s so stupid. What’s she doing going and giving her heart away like that anyway? 

Immediately my train of thought stopped as I came face to face with a popular conservative Christian teaching about relationships. I stared it down with new eyes and evaluated it’s validity.

The teaching goes something like this, normally along with use of a visual aid, a heart made out of red construction paper:

“When you are in a dating relationship, you are giving yourself wholeheartedly to that person–you are giving away a piece of your heart to them.”

(The top corner of the heart is then torn off and given to someone in the audience.)

“Then if that relationship doesn’t work out, and you get into another relationship, you give them a piece of your heart too.”

(Another portion is then torn off and given to someone in the audience.)

“This is repeated over and over as you go from relationship to relationship giving pieces of your heart to all these different people, and by the time you actually meet “the one” that God has created for you…you have nothing left to give that person. This, teenagers, is why dating is so dangerous.”

the myth of the construction paper heart @beautifulinhistime.com #courtship

As a good Christian girl who didn’t date because she was “saving her heart” for her future husband, this sounded great. Because I was going to have my WHOLE heart to give to him, bless God!

Until “the one” turned into “the wrong one.” 

I entered a psuedo-“courtship” with a young man when I was 18. It was a “courtship” in the sense that our parents were heavily involved in and approved of our relationship from the start, and we entered our relationship with the understanding that our marriage was definitely going to be the result of the relationship. We “broke” some of the other “courtship rules” like the ones about physical touch, as we held hands a half-dozen times and hugged once or twice. After two brief months, the relationship ended. It just wasn’t meant to be for many reasons.

{Read My Failed Courtship Story Here}

But I realized this morning that part of the reason that I was so incredibly devastated by the loss of that relationship was that I thought I had lost a part of myself.

I was left feeling damaged and unfixable.

I remember thinking and sobbing things like “I’ll never be able to love anyone again! I held his hand!!!!!! How will I ever hold anyone’s hand again without thinking of him? How will anyone else love me after I’ve given my heart away?”

I viewed myself as broken and less of a person. Even if I could tape the pieces back together, I was still going to be damaged–you can’t hide a rip in construction paper no matter how much you try.

Harmful Courtship Teachings: the Myth of the Construction Paper Heart | giving away a piece of your heart | teen dating | Christian dating myths
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But this idea…it’s just. not. true.

As human beings, we are meant to love and to give. That’s what a relationship–ANY relationship–is all about! You cannot interact with another human being and care about that person at all without there being some “giving of your heart.” It’s just impossible.

But that’s what is so great about the human heart–It’s not made out of construction paper. 

If it were true, how could a loving mother of one child go on to become a loving mother of two, three, or even twelve children? Every time she nurses that baby, kisses away a boo-boo, reads a bedtime story, loves away elementary school drama, or has a loving talk with a hurting teenager–she is giving a piece of her heart away! Oh no! What’s going to be left for her other children?!?!

Or what about friendship? You better beware because the next time you vent or spill out your guts in conversation with your bestie you might be sharing too much! You might be robbing all your other friends (and future friends you might every have) of the ability to share your heart too!

Or what about hobbies? Don’t put too much of your heart into your music, your photography, your baking, your blogging!!! You could be giving away your heart and then you will never be able to get it back to invest in another hobby!

Or, most dangerously…what about God?

If you give your heart over to sin, to lust, to pride…you are giving a piece of your heart to the Devil. Then you have less to give to God! Eventually, you will just be too far gone to ever return to Him or have him love you.

What’s missing in this picture is life, grace, and restoration.

Our hearts are alive. Ever-growing. Ever-changing. Ever-expanding. Every day there is the potential in each of our relationships for there to be pain, hurt, tension…even rejection, brokenness, and sin. But there is also the potential for more love, sweeter love, and greater depth…for grace, mercy, forgiveness, and restoration. That’s how God created our hearts and our relationships to be.

It’s not something to be scared of. 

A broken relationship can leave you with a broken heart, but it can’t leave you with less of a heart. It’s still yours. And you can choose what you do with it. Mr. Knight-In-Shining-Armor-Who-Fell-Off-His-White-Horse doesn’t carry around that piece in a box somewhere…it’s not collecting dust on his shelf. It’s where it’s always been. Within you.

God promises that He can provide healing and restoration:

He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds.
Psalm 147:3

And once He does, you still have it all. You still have all of your heart to give to someone else…to your future spouse, to your children, to your friends, to your neighbors.

Our hearts aren’t made out of construction paper. 

I wish I could travel back in time and talk to her, that girl sobbing over “giving her heart away to some guy who didn’t deserve it.” I wish I could tell her that it’s okay. That loving someone, even the wrong someone, is a normal part of life. The fact that it didn’t work out doesn’t mean that she’s damaged, or worthless, or has less to give to someone else.

I wish I could tell her that she will find healing, restoration, and peace.

I wish I could tell her that she will go on to hold another man’s hand countless times a day and never once thing about that other guy when she’s doing it.

{Read: Our Love Story}

I wish I could tell her that she will sing to him “I love you my babeh with all of my HEART!” daily and that she will mean it every time.

I wish I could tell her that her love will grow and change to include love for a child who will change her in more ways that she could ever imagine.

I wish I could tell her that her heart isn’t made out of construction paper.

But I can’t tell her.

So I’m telling you.

When my courtship ended, I was left feeling damaged and unfixable. I remember thinking and sobbing things like "I'll never be able to love anyone again! I held his hand!!!!!! How will I ever hold anyone's hand again without thinking of him? How will anyone else love me after I've given my heart away?" I viewed myself as broken and less of a person. The courtship teaching of the construction paper heart is flawed and harmful.
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I’m telling you…teenage girl who is afraid to look at a guy as more than a friend because you might be giving your heart away. You’re not.

I’m telling you…freshman college girl who is at the brink of a relationship and is afraid you might be making a mistake. I can’t promise that he isn’t a total jerk and that you aren’t making a mistake. But I can promise that no matter what the outcome, you can find grace, healing, and restoration.

I’m telling you…broken-hearted girl crying because your perfect little world and courtship came crashing down around you and now you feel damaged beyond repair. You aren’t.

I’m telling you…young woman who wonders if you have fallen away from God so much that you have nothing left to give Him. You are the most special of all. Because let me tell you this secret about God. He loves you whether you have a perfect or a sinful heart. He loves you whether that heart is broken or has never known pain. He loves you whether your life is put together or not. He loves you because He made you and wants to be with you. No matter how much sin or hurt there is in your life, it’s never too late to love God completely.

Because your heart isn’t made out of construction paper.

construction paper heart

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43 Comments

  • Kristin Kraabel

    Amen sister! I remember this example well and the feeling like I didn’t have my whole heart to give to my husband or God. Then when I got divorced I still felt like that 9 year old girl so scared she had nothing left and promised to only love my children and God. Amazing how he has other plans and how he has such grace for us.
    I remember being taught to pray/love/write my future husband. I don’t want to do that to my girls, I want to teach them to pray/write/love God and the rest, well it will work itself out.
    Thank you for your great post.

    • Aprille

      I did the writing to my future husband thing too and it just perpetuated a fantastical view of men and marriage. He has never even read those letters. He tried but it was just too weird and awkward for him because I wasn’t really writing to him…I was writing to an imagined ideal.

  • Leah

    Aprille, I was raised on the very teachings/videos you speak of. And in college I learned how erroneaous they are. I became the “rebellious daughter” because I walked away from those unbiblical teachings. Oh, and by the way- the men who push those teachings? One of them never married and the other one has at least one divorced daughter (it was an arranged marriage). Case in point that this teaching isn’t foolproof. God leads people differently! So if we are going to force the Jewish culture on courtship, for goodness sake, let’s be Jewish in every other area of life! Great post!

    • Aprille

      Love this comment. I knew that you had a similar background and would get what I was talking about. The idea sounds so ridiculous now, but I swallowed it for so long!

  • wifosaurus

    If God can create man out of dust, he can heal a wounded heart.

    After Adam and Eve took the fruit, God made them clothes. After Cain killed Abel, God protected him. Jesus asked the Father to forgive those who had murdered him. Our God is a merciful God. We are never too far from grace if we humble ourselves and ask for it!

  • Carly Webster

    George Michael (Wham!) wrote that song in 1984. It was annoying then, too. And, oddly, it’s been “covered” over 400 times! I didn’t realize Taylor Swift did a version.

  • Camille

    Hey, Aprille. I’ve never heard it put with a construction paper heart, but another famous analogy is a piece of duct tape that ‘looses its sticky’ as it gets peeled off your first boyfriend to your second, etc. You are absolutely right. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it forgets that love multiplies, not shrinks, when it is given.

    Here’s to loving wholly, fully, and, yes, maybe even a bit recklessly…. 😉

  • Mel

    What a silly analogy, that construction heart one. It interferes with what G-d wants FOR us, the willingness TO love, without condition, without restraint….without obligation. Oh, but as one who believed she could guard her heart–the analogy feeds into the fear that promotes keeping secrets and holding on to bits so we won’t be ‘as devastated’ when it doesn’t work out.
    I get what the construction heart analogy is trying to encourage–THINK about the relationship, THINK about what you’re getting into…..love is a splendid thing but THINK. At least I hope that’s the message. Certainly it’s not ‘withhold love’…. (I can hope!)

    • Aprille

      Yes I think that it is imperative that young people not enter romantic relationships carelessly or without thought. Wisdom and seeking God is necessary. But even if there is wisdom and seeking God, sometimes things still won’t work out. And I think that young people need to know that that’s okay. There will always be pain and suffering even when we check all the boxes. Love will always hurt, even when you love the right person.

  • Chrissy

    I love love LOVED this post! As you know, we all had so much pounded into our heads that has been damaging to us. I’m so thankful that as we all have “grown up” we have been able to be open to God showing us just how much we were all following “people”. I’m thankful that He has shown us HIS love and how much He wants to leads us individually and not be tied to “christian ideas”. His grace is greater and we all have grown so much since cutting the ties with those parts of our past. : )

    • Aprille

      Thank you for your sweet comments. My eyes are opened daily to so many damaging philosophies and teachings that for so long I have accepted completely! It’s been so freeing, and a little sad at the same time. I’m just so glad to be where we are now!

  • Robin Jingjit

    I love this! I heard that paper heart story, too. Scare tactics like that work for a while, until you find yourself ‘damaged goods’ for holding someone’s hand.

    Those scare tactics undermine the gospel. Like there are some things that even God’s grace isn’t enough to fix.

    I love your blog. I will be reading from now on.

    • Aprille

      Thanks for your comment and for following me. “Scare tactic” really is what it is, although I’ve never thought about it in that light. So much about courtship and similar methodologies of getting into relationship are about scaring young people into not even interacting each other and just depending on their parents to find their mates. I’ve seen it happen time again, and personally it took me a long time to be able to even look at guys when I went to college. I had no self-confidence and lived in a lot of fear. I’m so glad I’m beyond a lot of that and happily married! That time in my life was so stressful!

    • Deb

      Aprille,
      I’m stumbling on this years after you wrote it. I’m so sorry you were raised to feel like this, “I wish I could travel back in time and talk to her, that girl sobbing over “giving her heart away to some guy who didn’t deserve it.” I wish I could tell her that it’s okay. That loving someone, even the wrong someone, is a normal part of life. The fact that it didn’t work out doesn’t mean that she’s damaged, or worthless, or has less to give to someone else.”
      I’m a mother of 4 ages 20-13 and have been raising my children to delay dating (compared to the rest of the world) and spend time in groups of friends, observing these friends, interacting, enjoying one another’s company, but not paring off into couples. I just sent this blog entry to my 20 year old daughter (who I showed the construction paper heart video to years ago) to ask her if we, her parents, ever gave her the impression there would be no hope for her if this first relationship of hers does not work out. If we did give that impression, we are missing the gospel entirely! For whom did Jesus come but for sinners who are broken-hearted many times in life?
      My question is then, what are you teaching your children instead? Certainly you aren’t endorsing tossing caution the wind, I know you aren’t. So, what have you found that is better, more Biblically accurate teaching about the subject?
      Thank you for sharing what you have learned.

      • Aprille

        Deb, thank you so much for your comment. I think you are an incredible humble – and wise – mother to ask your children their thoughts on things you taught them. That can go SUCH a long way in your relationship with them (even if that relationship is good).

        As for what I am teaching my children, I do not know. They are currently 6 and 1, so we have some time to figure it out. My husband and I both had a previous relationship – but for the most part, were each other’s “first” – we were both virgins on our wedding day. We both still hold to the belief that dating shouldn’t be just fun and shallow, but for responsible mate-seeking adults. However, I think I will make sure that they know that relationships do come with risk – ALL relationships. You cannot make someone love you. Sometimes life takes two people in different directions, and that’s okay. You can heal and move on, even from a broken relationship. (My husband and I are both living proof!)

        I also do not really believe there is ONE person they are destined to marry. I think God gives us a lot of freedom and choice in the decision-making process. As long as they marry girls who are trying to do the right thing in their life before God – and girls that will love them like we do – I think that we will be thrilled. I don’t pretend to know the answers or speak dogmatically on the subject. I just know there are pros and cons to many approaches, and no perfect way to “find” one’s mate.

  • steve240

    Aprille

    I just noticed this blog post when you made a comment on another blog critiquing Josh Harris’s teaching on emotional “purity.”

    I have a blog where I critique Josh Harris’s book:

    http://www.ikdg.wordpress.com
    “I Kissed Dating Goodbye: Wisdom or Foolishness?”

    What I find really sad about those who promote this “alternative” to dating is that they are quick to point out the “defects” they see with dating but silent about the problems their “alternative” has caused. Even in Josh Harris’s own church he found there were problems and had to tell singles that it was OK to invite someone of the opposite sex for coffee or something.

    I remember when teaching came out against dating one of the arguments against dating was that it caused something along the lines of premature pairing off. IMO and from what I have seen courtship can cause people to prematurely pair off. You found in your experience the person you were in a courtship with wasn’t a good match and stopped it.

    One thing I don’t understand with courtship is that how are you suppose to get to know someone and determine if they might be a good match w/o spending some time with them. If the only way you can do that is entering into a courtship then especially the young man has to go through a lot of “hoops” to do that just to get to know someone. How many times can one do that.

    Steve

  • Selena Campbell

    Aprille,

    I love this post. So freeing. Even today, I remember weeping years ago because I felt not good enough for my husband because of things I’d done in my past. Only the example used in my case wasn’t as nice as a red paper heart. It was a candy bar. And the “teaching” I was hearing went something like this: every time you “give yourself away” to someone, it’s like letting them tear the wrapper and take a lick or a bite. And who wants a “used” candy bar? So, save yourself for your husband. Well, that’s all nice if you stay “pure” but if you sin and fall, what then? Ahh….grace, grace, marvelous grace….where would we be without it?

    Thank you so much for sharing. You are inspiring me to blog my own story. 🙂

    • Aprille

      Wow. I’ve heard many illustrations but that’s a new one for me. So shame-inducing. I’m sorry you had to go through that! And I’m thankful you have found grace!

  • stoopingformanna

    Amen! This is such a powerful and much-needed message…especially for teenage girls (boys, too). Thank you for sharing your story and your gift of writing here. I’m going to share this with my teens now. Great post!

  • Gsusfreak4evr

    Thank you so much for sharing this! My best friend made some poor relationship choices and have often wondered if that heart analogy is true. But you are so right. Grace is the key. He is a whole person and can love fully through Jesus forgiveness, mercy and grace. Thank you for sharing!

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