On Wednesday, Joshua Harris, author of the controversial book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” announced that he and his wife Shannon Bonne are getting a divorce. The premise of Harris’s book was that dating was “practice” for divorce, so one should follow courtship, a system wherein one didn’t have any display of sexual intimacy (including kissing or even hand holding) prior to marriage. A first kiss at the altar on your wedding day would be the most ideal way one could enter marriage. Unblemished, unspoiled – this was the key to a long, happy marriage. Purity culture didn’t originate with Harris, but he put a fedora on it and sold a million books.
Within the past year, Harris apologized for his part in purity culture. He has asked that the book no longer be published. He produced a documentary including people harmed by his book. People have been critical of his “too little, too late” response and he still holds many of the same views about sex and sin, but there was a response, so in at least some way, Harris acknowledged that what he wrote was damaging.
The fallout from his teachings is impossible to gauge, but it is significant. If you were a part of an evangelical church in the late 90’s, you were at least aware of Harris’s book, and even if you didn’t buy what he was (literally) selling, there was probably someone in your life who did, perhaps leaving you feeling less pure than the person who had greater control over their sexual impulses. Regardless of your level of involvement in purity culture, those teachings likely had an effect on you, and the most popular purveyor of purity culture was Josh Harris.
So seeing the announcement that Harris is getting a divorce is giving people some feels. Some see it as a grave sin. Some as karmic justice for the damage caused by Harris’s book. Some see it as the direct result of the purity culture movement. Some see it as giving up when they should be digging in. Some are feeling anger because they believed what he taught and were demeaned when it didn’t work out for them, only to see the teacher also “fail.”
Lots of people with lots of opinions about the end of someone’s marriage.
And I get it. When someone dons the “expert” hat and offers their path to marriage and subsequent marriage up for public scrutiny, then it’s hard not to scrutinize the end of the union as well. It’s difficult not to feel betrayed or smug or shocked when the outcome is the exact opposite of what has been promised. Public advice followed by public failure will always cause people to sit by and make judgments on exactly how one led to the other.
But here’s the thing. Life is just really, really complicated. I know that’s the most “worldly” answer, but it’s the truth. We can criticize ideologies like purity culture for contributing to unhealthy patterns that can lead to divorce (as I have), but to suggest that it’s a straight line from Harris’s book to an ended marriage is reductive. Who we are at 20 is not (or at least, should not be) who we are at 30 or 40 or whatever. With any luck, we are constantly evolving. Sometimes that evolution happens with our spouse, sometimes without them. Sometimes those differences can be tolerated within the marriage, sometimes they cannot. And when they can’t, sometimes the best choice is to walk away as friends.
I’m sad for Josh and Shannon because endings are always sad. I’m sad because their children now have to do the divorced family thing and that’s hard. I’m sad for them because no one plans to see their marriage end.
But beyond that, I’m happy for them. Happy that even with the immense pressure that can come from being in the public eye as a couple that “has to” stay together, they could still do what is healthiest for them and split up. Happy that they could be honest about their journey even when people would rather that they be palatable. Happy that they have a chance to find a new way forward with more knowledge than they had before.
I hope they can find peace. I hope that they can find happiness that is free from shame. And I hope that their last kiss was as sweet as their first.