“When you have a free moment, shoot me a message, for nothing more than to build a friendship rooted in Christ…”
The random Facebook message from a former classmate, who I’ll call X, sounded innocent enough. X reached out under the guise of praying for success on my graduate school finals in December 2014. While we hadn’t interacted much, I remembered him as one of the few Black men in our graduate public health program. My gut told me that he was praying and using spiritual buzz words, not out of sincerity, but as bait to lure me in. But, I liked the attention and I figured a friendship wouldn’t hurt. I would later learn that my gut was right.
X was living in North Carolina completing a post-graduate fellowship, so our friendship was long distance. We had many long phone conversations. As I look back, I realize that he did most of the talking. He was a self-proclaimed good “driver” of conversations. I can see now that he just dominated conversations. He said that he was different than most guys. From my limited experience, he was different. He immersed himself in learning theology. At my suggestion, he started seeing a counselor. I thought his discipline was admirable. Even though he was intentional about articulating that he wanted to protect the boundaries of our friendship, it seemed like he wanted more.
In my mind, I couldn’t honor God and pursue my own happiness.
Being heavily influenced by purity and courtship culture, I was conditioned to want a Godly man for a husband. A man that would pray for me. A man that would lead me. And of course a man that would wait until marriage to have sex. So when X told me he wanted to honor God by changing his behavior and waiting to even kiss until his wedding day, it was attractive to me. My then-pastor and his wife frequently cited this part of their story as something that helped them gain clarity about their decision to marry.
Our long-distance “friendship rooted in Christ” turned into a courtship. We wanted to pursue a courtship to be intentional about figuring out whether we should get married. The process was exciting because of the newness for me, but it was methodical. We had a spreadsheet with different theological topics that we wanted to talk about.The rigid and legalistic way X approached the courtship caused dissension in our relationship. Ultimately, that wasn’t a deal breaker for me because I was focused on doing the right thing and my religious conditioning told me that the right thing was to focus on facts over feelings. I had always been told “the heart is deceitful,” so I was groomed to categorically deny my feelings in favor of doing what would honor God. In my mind, I couldn’t honor God and pursue my own happiness. My relationship with X didn’t make me feel good, but I couldn’t justify ending it because he checked all of the right spiritual boxes.
Three months after starting our courtship, we were engaged. We planned to get married in the Spring of 2016.
I was finishing the last semester of my dual JD/MPH degree at the time and I had plans to take the Texas bar exam. Once I graduated in December 2015, I moved to Texas to be with my family and study for the February bar exam. Our original plan was for me to move to North Carolina where he was once I took the bar exam.
When I moved to Texas, I could tell X was agitated whenever we would talk. This wasn’t a new behavior. I noticed it previously whenever I spent time extended time with my family. I had addressed it with him, and we almost broke up over it, but he vowed to change. In a conversation shortly after I moved, he said his Biblical counselor told him that we should be in the same place to prepare for marriage. I proposed the idea of me moving to NC shortly after I took the bar exam, a little sooner than we had initially planned. He insisted that I needed to move immediately and suggested that I wasn’t ready for marriage if I didn’t want to move. At that moment, I knew what he was saying was manipulative.
Throughout my time in church, marriage was displayed as a superior spiritual calling that would only be successful for the most mature and devout believers. This was reinforced through the materials we explored in our courtship. So, the suggestion that I wasn’t ready for marriage was meant to signal that I wasn’t spiritually mature. My pride and desire to please others would not allow me to agree with that assessment. He saw that I so desired to honor God and he exploited that. But, I also did see some legitimacy to the idea that almost our entire relationship before marriage should not be long distance. I knew that, no matter what I did, I could potentially look back and regret my decision.
Another aspect of my faith conditioning was the notion that following God may come with a lack of support from those around you. I had some family members tell me straight out to not move and to not get married. I recalled the scripture in Matthew when Jesus said, “who are my mother and my brothers?” In the circles I was in, this passage was interpreted to mean that spiritual families are more important than earthly families and following God means placing more importance on the spiritual family. I wanted to seek the advice of someone outside of my family, so I reached out to the person we had sought out to marry us. We knew each other from my home church growing up. I set up a time to meet with her under the guise of catching up, and I planned to ask her for advice when we met. Unfortunately, she had to cancel our plans at the last minute.
So, against my gut and the advice of my family, I changed my plans and moved to NC right away.
…it was easier to focus on the exam than deal with the issues I saw in our relationship…
Once I got to NC, I stayed with a family from his church. We spent time going to church and small group together, in addition to doing pre-marital counseling. Our communication got rocky, and in one particular session, our counselor suggested that he observed some blame-shifting. With about a month to go before the bar exam, I decided at that point to focus on studying and resume counseling when the exam was over. In truth, it was easier to focus on the exam than deal with the issues I saw in our relationship and possibly burst the vision for marriage I had created in my mind.
After I took the exam and returned my focus to the wedding, I suggested we go back to counseling. He came up with excuse after excuse to not see the same counselor. He insisted that, even though the counselor was a Black man, he didn’t feel the counselor understood him and his experience as a Black man. I wanted to be sensitive to those concerns so I agreed to continue going through our marriage preparation materials with a mentor couple.
About one month before our wedding, I found out I failed the bar exam.