Holding up a pink construction paper heart with words written on it like “ love,” “respect,” “devotion,” and “trust,” the young girl made her presentation. As she tore away sections of the heart, she explained that when a girl allows herself to have a crush or to form an emotional attachment to a young man, she is giving away a piece of her heart. With a quivering voice, the speaker then encouraged the group of young girls to guard their hearts so that they will be fully intact for the men they marry.

The idea of “guarding your heart” when it comes to romantic relationships has circulated in the Christian, and especially the homeschooling community, for years. There are numerous books, videos and seminars that promote the idea that young people should never let their hearts become entwined in a romantic relationship until they are at the point of marriage with someone. These resources urge their audience to control their thoughts and emotions with the goal of remaining not only physically pure, but emotionally.

When I first heard about this new way of thinking in my early years of homeschooling, I loved it. Having brought lots of baggage into my own marriage I wanted something better for my children. So I embraced the idea and encouraged my children to guard their hearts for their future spouses.

But that has turned out to be easier said, than done.

Wading through the sea of potential spouses is complicated. And it becomes even more complicated when a young man finally decides to date or court someone. The relationship becomes complex because getting to the point of marriage emotionally takes an investment of time and intense interaction. It takes time for two people to know each other well enough to see if they are compatible for marriage. They need to discover if they have the same beliefs, if their personalities blend well, if that person’s character is as upright as they originally thought, and if the attraction between them will grow. During that time, as a young man and woman are talking and sharing, no matter how guarded they are, emotions can be stirred and one or both can find that they are in love. That is normal. God made us with emotions.  But there is no guarantee, regardless whether a couple date or pursue marriage via courtship, that the relationship will result in marriage. For a wide variety of reasons relationships end and when they do, hearts can be broken. I’ve seen this happen even within the most guarded families because there is always a risk when two people endeavor to love.

Tragically, young people who have followed the “guard your heart” mentality, and have then found themselves in a failed relationship, are often left feeling that they have transgressed in some way for having emotions for someone that they did not end up marrying. Because they have been told never to give away a piece of their heart and to keep it intact for the their spouse, they are guilt-laden and feel as if a scarlet letter has been emblazoned across their foreheads. In their failed attempt to guard their hearts, they have instead shackled their hearts with shame.

I think this is wrong. There is nothing sinful in giving your heart, even a piece of it, to someone. There is no commandment in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt not love someone.” Loving someone merely shows that you were willing to become vulnerable while venturing to pursue a possible marital relationship. You are not cheapened because you loved and it didn’t work out, nor do pieces of your heart go permanently missing because you experienced unrequited love. It just means you are a human being with normal emotions.

I understand that the parents who promote guarding your heart are trying to protect their children from pain and from bringing unhealthy baggage into a marital relationship, but they need to realize that sometimes those painful broken relationships bring maturity and growth in character. All of us learn from mistakes. In addition, we also need to recognize a very important factor in the equation: God allows our children to meet people, become emotionally involved with them, and then have the relationship end. The young people may have had complete parental approval and have followed every rule the courtship community throws at them, and yet, it still didn’t work. God was leading, but the association did not end in marriage.

Having loved and lost is painful and when our kids experience this heartbreak the last thing they need is guilt and shame or to feel in some way less pure. We need to love, encourage and comfort them and then help them get back in the saddle rather than pointing a finger of blame. The road leading to marriage can be tricky and its navigation should be handled with great care and consideration and prayer, but also with a heart open for love, not guarded by fear.