Why I Liberated Myself from Respectable, Traditional Relationships

by Jade Perry

I grew up in a nondenominational Black church setting with strong Evangelical and Pentecostal influences. I also grew up “across the way,” a term that extended family used to describe my family’s location in a neighboring suburb that housed a great deal of lower middle class Black families. This mixture of evangelical religion, socioeconomic status, racial identity and gender identity converged to form an environment in which ‘respectability politics’ became the name of the game. It was the expected script that I was to follow as a young, Black woman. And for quite some time I’d internalized and followed the script within my dating and partnership choices.

Respectability politics, as defined by Trudy on Gradient Lair, “originated as cultural, sexual, domestic, employment and artistic “guidelines” or “rules” for racially marginalized groups to follow in the effort to be viewed as “human” in a White supremacist society… (respectability politics) implies that recognition of Black humanity has to be “earned” by Black people by engaging in puritanical behavior…” Evangelical religion provided me with the language for some of these behaviors.

As a preteen and teen, I was mainly applauded when I was docile, virginal, and polite. I was supposed to be “respectable” and “well-mannered” daughter. My dating choices were to follow suit. I was taught that the model for a “real woman” was wrapped in modesty and chastity. I was mostly afraid of my sexuality because evangelical religious circles warned me that I needed to be alert against any lustfulness, while respectability politics told me that black women shouldn’t spend time being lascivious, but contribute their efforts to the racial uplift of the people.

I was taught that Biblical women ascribed to traditional gender roles, and strived for traditional relationships. For a while, I believed them. That is, until I realized that traditional doesn’t always mean healthy.

During those complicated years, I began dating Kevin (whose name has been changed), and we were the vision of a respectable, traditional relationship. He was on track to become a minister and came from a long line of bishops, preachers, and clergy. He asked my father’s permission to date me (Lord, why didn’t anyone pull me to the side then?), and believed that we should feel shame regarding our sexuality and intimacy. He suggested a respectable curfew for when we should stop communicating—lest anything “inappropriate” happened—and insisted that any questions I had could be vanquished with a well placed Scripture. Needless to say, as time went on, the relationship became more and more toxic. The parameters got more and more stringent. I needed to stop debating his theology, praxis, or what he’d heard from God because this was domineering. I needed to be a bit more marriage-oriented, even though I felt neither of us were prepared for that step.

Needless to say, this respectable, “traditional” relationship ended and I was left questioning absolutely everything. I had done everything “right” (by churchy-Tyler-Perry-esque standards), and still ended up in a situation where my authentic self had no space to thrive emotionally, spiritually, or sexually. I played the game and I didn’t win. When I spoke out, I was called “domineering.” When I covered up in shame, I was congratulated for being “modest.”

So, I decided to stop playing the game. I decided that I would begin to make my decisions on partnership and intimacy based on what was good for me, as me. Not as a respectable Black woman. Not as a dutiful daughter. Not as a woman of faith. But simply, as myself.

I stopped going to church for a time and began going to therapy to unlearn & disempower the role that shame played in my life. I moved out of the city and began to think about what faith looked like in my life. It was a theology of radical inclusion and intentional self-care. I realized that the things that happened to me were not my fault. I decided to do the work that it took to come up with my own ethic of intimate relationships. Somewhat like a miracle, other women of color who had been through similar circumstances began to find me, connect with me, and help me affirm new truths about myself & my choices. As Rev. Dr. Renita Weems says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.”

Some time later, I began dating again, and none of those choices have looked “traditional.” There was pushback on every side: about the socioeconomic statuses of my partners, about choices of cohabitation (or “shackin’ up” as some might say), about embracing a healthy and informed sexual ethic. Yet, at this point in my life, I am more committed to my own health and well-being than tradition or respectability.

Through that process, I’ve learned some things. First, you’ve got to rally your heart, your mind, and your soul in order to liberate yourself from traditional relationships that may not be healthy for you. You’ve got to know that not everyone wants you to be free, and you’ve got to decide that you’re going to be free, regardless. Secondly, you’ve got to be willing to speak up. One of the favorite things about my dating life at this point is that I’m no longer silenced in the intimacy of my partnership. It can take some time to get your voice back, but as you make the decision to say yes or no (when you mean them respectively), it will certainly come back to you. Third, you’ve got to listen to the stories of other women who are in a process of liberation and who are self aware. In my life, some of these women have gone a more traditional route and it worked for them. Some have not, and it is all okay. They gave me no stringent rules to follow, but they have held me accountable to be wise and loving as I walk through this process. I’ve learned that being a woman of faith or being in a relationship does not mean that I neglect taking care of myself, engaging in critique of theological lenses, or being docile.

Yet, perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that my self worth is not tied into whether an intimate partnership “works” or “doesn’t work.” My self-worth isn’t tied up in being “on track” for marriage, and it isn’t tied up in what I do sexually. It is an intrinsic truth that cannot be taken away from me.

Jade Perry is a regular contributor at ForHarriet.com, a writer, and higher education professional! Her mission is to offer information, ideas, & counter-cultural narratives that will empower readers to thrive and to lovingly and creatively challenge systems toward greater levels of inclusion! Connect with her at her blog, JadeTPerry.com or on Twitter @SAJadePerry1.

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