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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9 thoughts on “My Failed Celibate Relationship

    • No, we both were happy with how physical intimacy manifested itself in our relationship. We could talk openly about that aspect of our relationship even as boundary lines affecting other areas of life were drawn.

  1. I agree, simple behavior control and”don’t lists” never seem to work long term. I think we were created to be holistic beings, and as such, we should live what we are and decide on and not just avoid what we aren’t. Life should be lived most often in affirmation. As an avid gardener, I am reminded that plants (and people) grow in the light and nutrition, and die in the dark.

    • Mindy, thanks for the gardening analogy here. I think you’re exactly right. I’d reckon that in celibate relationships the light comes from seeking Christ together and the nutrition comes from cultivating one’s celibate vocation in the world.

  2. I have 3 questions for you: 1. Do you still think bad things about people in Christian churches that aren’t yours? 2. How do you know your celibate relationship with Sarah won’t fail too? 3. What would you do if you wanted to have sex?

    • Hi Alex, taking your questions in order:
      1) I’ve actually never felt like I could judge people in other Christian traditions. I have benefitted tremendously from spending time in a number of different Christian traditions before entering my current Christian tradition. The vast majority of my Christian friends make their home in a Christian tradition that differs from mine.

      2) I wouldn’t say that I know my relationship with Sarah is going to endure for all eternity. I hope that it will, I pray that it will, and I do my best to maintain a posture that allows our vocation to thrive. But I believe all vocations are inherently fragile, a topic that I address more in this post:

      3) The answer to that question is incredibly personal and varies on the circumstances. People who are living a celibate vocation does well to determine their own course for integrating their sexualities (rather than excising their sexualities).

  3. I really appreciate how this post adds to The Fragility of Vocation; your story definitely serves to underscore the importance of being deliberate about both vocation and relationships. I’m grateful for your willingness to share.

    • Thanks for the feedback! I do think this post complements the Fragility of Vocation. As much as I want to believe that a vocation is a permanent reality, it does not make sense to treat potential permanence as an a priori condition. It too easy for things to end when the human heart makes a turn away from vocation.

  4. “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.”

    this is something i’ve struggled with quite a lot. and even though i’m consciously aware of the danger of that thinking about significant friendships, it’s been difficult to rein my heart in. there’s so much positivity in learning to appreciate oneself, yeah? i suppose this isn’t a discussion-generating comment, just one that says, “keep speaking that truth!” 🙂

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