My Failed Celibate Relationship

A reflection by Lindsey

I’ve had a lot of different opportunities to learn about my vocation to celibacy. My partnership with Sarah provides a fantastic place to discern how God is calling me to live a celibate life. Additionally, I spent time cultivating celibacy as a single person. But the first place I explored living a celibate life was in a romantic relationship.

When I was first beginning my journey of reconciling my faith and sexuality, I found myself inexplicably drawn to a person I shall call Carey. Carey was several years older than me but lived a life richly connected to Christ in a local faith community. Carey’s pastor was supportive and accepting, encouraging Carey to pursue life in Christ. Despite our age gap, we seemed to be in similar life stages and exploring closely related callings. We could talk easily, and we grew closer and closer. It wasn’t long before I found myself desiring a relationship with Carey.

But there was a problem… or so I thought. Carey was earnestly and stridently convicted that gay sex is a sin and could not be approved under any circumstances. How in the world could a relationship work out? My own views on how to reconcile one’s faith with one’s LGBT status were in flux, and I didn’t want to be trespassing on Carey’s ethical conscience. We had several conversations about the perceived tension and came to the conclusion that it was possible to pursue a relationship that didn’t involve sex. Through a series of unlikely events, I ended up flying to visit Carey a few weeks later. We hit it off with a good deal of instant chemistry.

Carey and I started a strong relationship forged on mutual respect and shared commitment to Christ. We explored different ways to share a prayer life that worked even when we were separated by many states. Our common faith tradition anchored our time spent together. Carey had a bit more experience within our tradition and taught me quite a lot about how to live a way of life aligned with particular aspects of our tradition. We tried to pray early and often, ever growing towards a more complete prayer life in our tradition.

Our discussions about celibacy involved a lot of boundary work. We thought about the counsel given to unmarried heterosexual couples and tried to implement that in our lives. We also talked a lot about what dating heterosexual couples did with each other that did not count as sex. I found myself constantly right up against the boundaries. But I wasn’t driven to the boundaries because I wanted more; I was driven to the boundaries because they defined our limits about what we were willing to share together.

However, from my perspective, our boundary work related to defining sex seemed to bubble over into boundary work in other areas. Every bit of additional boundary work seemed to pull us apart rather than bring us closer together. Night prayer became attached to going to bed, specifically to Carey’s bedtime, a boundary that didn’t work very well with us living on different schedules in different time zones. We started praying separately. Our own tradition became an exclusive marker of faithfully living a Christian life. It became very easy to devote large chunks of conversation to being critical of people in other Christian traditions. We experienced even more conflicts when we talked about politics, especially as we started reading authors referenced by politicians from the other side of the aisle. Fighting politically is never fun. Towards the very end of our relationship together, our boundary work also expanded to only being friends with other LGBT couples in which both parties earnestly believed gay sex is a sin. For my part, I struggled mightily with this idea because I couldn’t see how boundaries in our relationship manifested any differently from those of dating LGBT couples who earnestly believed in trying to save sex until marriage.

I’m not sharing the unraveling of my relationship to point fingers at Carey, or to point fingers at me. I think both Carey and I found ourselves in over our heads because we had never stopped to think about what it might look like to cultivate a celibate vocation together. We had a pretty good handle on what abstinence entailed. Yet, over a year after we broke off our relationship, I had experienced a great deal of conviction that my relationship with Carey did not serve me in cultivating a celibate vocation. We never broke our rules about physical boundaries set to make sure we remained abstinent, but I felt slightly betrayed by my body and its capacity for surprising sexual connection.

I also felt misled by my Christian tradition. Early on in our relationship, Carey found a small book that detailed some of the authoritative teaching discussing LGBT people and their relationships. The practical counsel of the book boiled down to a belief that as LGBT people grew in their capacity to love one another, they would then make the God-honoring choice to refrain from homogenital acts. In the aftermath of my failed relationship, I found myself rather angry. How could the wisdom of my Christian tradition give me but two commands? There was the lofty call to “grow in love” and then the very specific directive to “avoid homogential acts.” I felt that in my relationship with Carey, eventually we tipped the balance towards the latter rather than the former.

Since failing in my first celibate relationship, I’ve become ever more convinced of the need to define celibacy in the positive. I have tried to live my life by the axiom, “Human beings have meaningful relationships with other human beings,” trusting God to show me places of rich connection. I began visiting different vowed celibate people to learn a bit more about how they lived their lives. I learned how to take myself out on dates, exploring different ways to appreciate myself as a beloved child of God as opposed to thinking that every significant friendship would eventually blossom romantically. I’ve become a big advocate of the idea that it’s worth spending time discerning what the vocation of celibacy might look like in a particular individual’s life before encouraging that person to jump into a celibate relationship. I’ve known other people who have experienced failed celibate relationships, and it’s almost uncanny how my friends’ relationships have mirrored the relationship I shared with Carey. I do not wish a failed celibate relationship on anyone, so I speak out about the need to be mindful when cultivating a celibate vocation.

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