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Love's Little Secrets

Carla Fielder and Linda Perlstein
The Washington Post
Monday, February 14, 2005; 1:00 PM

Eighth-grade romance and marriage may be on opposite ends of the love spectrum, but in each endeavor it's important to play by the rules. Or at least know the rules.

The Rules of Engagement
A User's Guide to Middle School Romance

Carla Fielder and Linda Perlstein, who wrote separate articles about love in yesterday's Washington Post Magazine, were online Monday, Feb. 14, at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments.

Fielder is the Magazine's assistant art director; Perlstein is the author of "Not Much Just Chillin': The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers."

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Linda Perlstein: Carla and I are happy to be talking with you today. Fire away!


Harrisburg, Pa.: Carla Fielder:

What denomination of the Christian faith are you?

Carla Fielder: I am a member of a non-denominational church. I grew up in a Methodist church.


Hyattsville, Md.: As a teacher of 8th grade, I would like to thank you for your insightful and accurate article! I placed several copies outside my door today, hoping that parents coming in for conferences would be interested in learning more about their mysterious children!

Linda Perlstein: Thanks! Yeah, there aren't many ways for parents to learn this kind of stuff, except maybe talking with their kids about it ... ten years later. Glad you liked the article.


Alexandria, Va.: A question for Linda: I loved your wedding cake story last year and wonder -- you fell in love during the course of that project. Is he still around? Any Valentine's Day plans?

washingtonpost.com: Eating It, Too, (Post Magazine, June 27, 2004)

Linda Perlstein: Ah, yes, he's still around; we now live together. I almost never make cakes -- we live near a cupcake bakery and that is enough for us -- but tonight I'm making him ginger custard, and some other yums I'll keep a secret in case he's reading this chat.


Rockville, Md.: Carla: (1)What did you learn from the class that you could not have learn yourself about your man?
(2)How will the class make you a better wife.
(3) How will it make your man a better husband? (4) How often are the class held?
(5) What if a couple are from different churches, will your church perform the marrage? If not, Why?

Carla Fielder: (1) The class is eight months long and as you know there are many restrictions. I learned that Stephen is obedient. That he doesn't question his authority. I learned that he will do what God says is right regardless of my feelings. I learned that he can be faithful to me without any physical contact, not even a kiss.

(2)Wow. The class taught me God's purpose for a wife. Now that I understand my spiritual and natural responsibilities from God's point of view, I can carry them out.

(3) The class helped both of us differentiate between God's instructions for marriage and the world's take on it. With correct instructions, we both become better.

(4) The classes are held every other week.

(5) Any couple can attend the class. Rev. Cherry asks for a letter from the pastor of those who are not members of the church. The letter must indicate that your pastor is ok with your receiving instruction from another church.
I'm not sure if a letter will suffice for marriage there though.


Sterling, Va.: Dear Carla,

I want to tell you how much I loved your article -- Thank you, thank you, for sharing with Post readers that there are deeply committed believers who are sincerely trying to make the best marital commitment they can. My husband and I went through a demanding and lengthy pre-marital course and I am so thankful that it was required by our church. Your pastor is doing good work and I applaud him for that. I am so impressed with your commitment to chastity-I think it's tragic that so many women don't value this -- they are not "bad" or "immoral" people, but our society really tells people that there is something wrong or unnatural about reserving sex for marriage.

I wish you and your fiance all joy and health.

Please editors, publish more articles like this -- they work to inspire, encourage, and empower women with an awareness of their true worth. Women can aspire to more than blog-notoriety, or the accumulation of designer handbags, or doggie-ball celebrity: our lives are of much more worth than that.

Carla Fielder: Thank you so much. I have many friends who believe as I do and are enjoying healthy marriages because of it.


Washington, D.C.: So how are parents supposed to tell their kids what the "rules" are about dating at a youngish age? Without, of course, being so pushy that the kids rebel.

Linda Perlstein: I don't think parents will be able to explain these "rules," as they're set by the kids themselves, can be a mystery to adults and, at any rate, change with time. But that's different from the rules and mores that parents share with their kids. If you don't think it's appropriate for your 11-year-old to go on an "alone" date to a movie, you make sure they don't and you explain why. You explain to your children why it's wrong to pressure someone for a kiss, or a whatever. I think firm and consistent is different than pushy, but pushy is better than negligent...


Rockville, Md.: It's Valentine's Day. How might teachers/parents deal with the emotional ups and downs of who is getting flowers/balloons/a card, and who isn't? I remember that being such a hard day in middle school. And being completely distracted. I know current events class didn't matter on Feb. 14.

Linda Perlstein: That's a rough one, and on that note today my heart goes out to my ninth-grade cousin who gets to be in the middle of all that at school today fresh after a breakup. It sucks. It sucks for kids and it sucks for grownups, and the best you can do is tell your kid that it sucks, you know it does, but that it does get better. Make sure they get flowers/balloons/a card from you, from their grandparents...make sure they feel loved.


Bethesda, Md.: As a Christian mother of two daughters, 14 and 10, I really appreciated both your articles. Parents who want their kids to see chastity as a virtue need all the support we can get!

Linda Perlstein: Thanks! It is refreshing to realize that despite what we hear on TV, when it comes to romantic relationship, most children are still just that: children. There are vastly more crushes in today's middle school than there are oral sex parties.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Carla,

First of all I want to say that your article was a blessing to my sister and me. We read it last night and almost cried! (I'm overly emotional!) It's so refreshing to hear that other sisters share the sentiment that there ARE some good brothers out there that not only wear the Christian title but live a lifestyle that reflects this.

Now for my question: A friend and I are in the process of getting to know each other better with the intention to marry. Although we're not yet in the courtship process we are moving in that direction. I'm curious to know how you and Stephen refrained from the temptation of sex while spending time with each other. My friend and I are struggling in this area and don't want to fall. Any concrete advice you could offer?

Your Sister in Christ.

Carla Fielder: First of all, Stephen and I set rules very early in the relationship. We also made sure that we didn't put ourselves in that position. We didn't hang out late. One thing that helped us both was that he didn't have a car, so he had to be gone before the metro stopped running. Also, we did as much group dating as we could. I have a group of friends who act as chaperones for one another.

We don't pretend like we can handle situations on our own. I am very much attracted to him, so if I'm feeling especially "frisky," I won't see him that day.

And there's lots of prayer of course. Instead of sitting in your apartments with the lights off, or listening to music that can get your mind going, have a date centered around outdoor activities. We did a lot of bowling. Trips to ESPN Zone and other arcades. Basketballs games on outside courts in the summer.


Washington, D.C.: Carla,

I loved your article. I burst into tears and prayer upon reading the last word. I know that there were/are bumps in the road, but I was like "Lord, how can the rest of us live up to that ideal?" Your fiance definitely sounds like a keeper, and as a follower of Jesus who has recently met a man I hope may be the one, I took great encouragement from your story.

God bless you both as you prepare for your life together as husband and wife.

Carla Fielder: Thank you. Praise God.


Laurel, Md.: Linda: In Middle School, do you find that the girls are into the "going out" thing more or the boys? Which gender tends to be the initiator? What about peer pressure? Do you think every middle schooler feels they have to participate in order not to be labled or all they all curious and testing the waters in M.S.?

Linda Perlstein: On the outside, it's all about the girls. You'll never find a boy drawing hearts on his hand. But boys feel it just as much. I do think there is a lot of outside pressure to have a crush, not just from friends but from parents, too! Think about it: A kid mentions a new friend, who happens to be a girl. The adult says, "Is she your girllllfriend?????" Ugh.


Wheaton, Md.: I know of some of what From The Heart church does and it is excellent. Did Rev. Cherry hold any of the marriage seminars on their cruise a couple of years ago for anyone?

Carla Fielder: I don't know.


Madison, N.J.: I apologize for the loaded questions, but here goes:

How do I know if my girlfriend of 6-3/4 years is the one? She's the only one I've ever been with and knows everything there is to know about me. I've always been curious about dating other people, but when I step back and think about it, I convince myself that the one I'm with is far better than everyone else. I know that's a naive statement to make, but I feel like I would be throwing away a great relationship/friendship if I decided that I wanted to see other people. I think the two of us realize that our innoncence will be lost if we venture out into the dating realm. I only say that because so many people tell me that we should try the dating scene for a bit to get a feel for what else is out there, then after that, make the decision regarding if I want to marry my current girlfriend. I can't even fathom her with another guy! I know now that I'm not interested in getting married. I worry though that after being with someone as long as I have, that I should know if they are the one. The problem is that I don't know. Am I in an unhealthy relationship? I have no idea what I should be doing.

Any advice?

Carla Fielder: I think honesty is best. If you're not ready to be married now, you should be clear about that.

Don't rush.


Arlington, Va.: Carla,
I so was facinated by your article that I read it twice. The first time I was blown away by the extremely traditional aspects of your "courtship." It was hard to get past the no dates, no kissing, no sex part. The second time I read it, I realized what a romantic story it was. I wish you and your husband the best. Thanks for sharing your alternate viewpoint.

Carla Fielder: Thanks for taking the time to read it, twice even.


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: You all don't have to post this (but you can if you want), but I just wanted to tell you both how much I enjoyed the articles! I loved the insights into middle school love, and I can definitely agree with them as I recall my own years as a middle schooler! Carla, I really appreciated your story, and I share your beliefs and values. I hope that one day my own story of romace, engagement, and marriage is of the same commitment, purity, and love that yours and Stephen's is.

Carla Fielder: Thank you.


Laurel, Md.: Linda,

Do kids in Middle School have crushes on their teachers? We have been hearing some of the teacher/pupil love stories in the news lately. How common is that? Is it Middle or High School?

Linda Perlstein: I am sure many kids crush on their teachers -- we all loved Mr. Knoebel in 1988. In early adolescence, many people are able to see flaws in their parents but almost idolize other, non-related adults (coaches, friends' older siblings, etc). But fortunately for society (and unfortunately for the TV movie industry), very, very, very few wind up in Mary Kay Le Tourneau situations.


Laurel, Md.: Ms. Perlstein,

Often our anxieties (as a society) about the love lives of teens are based on our view of what we wish for them today, not on the fact that they're preparing for a future in which they'll need romance skills to someday court a member of the opposite sex and start a family.

In your background research, did you find any studies relating the dating success of teens and whether they ended up happily married at some future point. (E.g. are the popular guys and girls in high school more likely to be married but also to be divorced; are the nerds who never dated also less likely to be married by 30, etc.)

Linda Perlstein: No, there's nothing I'm aware of -- and I've looked hard -- that provides longitudinal data on people's dating lives from childhood. I wish there was more research on such things. As I mentioned in my piece, adolescent dating is largely ignored as a field of study, and all the attention is devoted to sex itself.


St. Paul, Minn.: Carla, will your pastor accept couples into the class who have already had premarital sex but now have decided that was wrong and want to start over?

Carla Fielder: Absolutely.


I wish I knew!: Cupcake Bakery? Where?

Linda Perlstein: On Fort Avenue in Baltimore. Much yummier than any cupcake you can buy in D.C. (And I know -- I've bought them all.)


Arlington, Va.: Hi, thanks for the chat. I found your article very interesting, Ms. Fielder. I'm curious about how you relate to any married Christian friends who approached things differently than you did when it came to premarital sex and even deciding to get married? Does it ever get "touchy" in terms of discussing different choices and trying to withhold judgement (by either party)?

Thanks! and best wishes to you!

Carla Fielder: My friends know me and they know what I believe completely. So when we talk they're not surprised at what I have to say. At the same time, they know that I am not perfect and because of that we can encourage and support one another.


Laurel, Md.: Linda, What role should parents play in their middle schooler's romatic journey. Should we wait for them to come to us (will that ever happen?)? Or should we start a line of conversation?

Linda Perlstein: By all means start the conversation -- but sneakily. "Tell me about Adam" -- you've heard her mention him to her friends. Make opportunities for natural conversation: "Wanna go for a caramel apple cider?" It's more like giving them entrees than, god forbid, interrogating. And be careful not to freak out when you hear what they have to tell you, in any circumstance. Respond, but after several deep breaths!


Annandale, Va.: For Carla -- Your article, understandably, focused on the challenges you faced during the course of your marriage course, and the changes you made as a result of better understanding yourself. What challenges and changes did your fiance undergo?

Carla Fielder: I have Stephen on the line now. He says it was relief when we learned that he didn't have to have all of the answers as a Godly husband, he just had to know where to find them.

He also says the class gave him a clearer since of his responsibilites. It is one thing to take care of himself, but the thought of being responsible for a household was challenging. He was glad to found out that I was his help and he didn't have to do it all on his own.

He also learned that love was much more than a feeling.


Venice, Calif.: Linda -- What's the appropriate verb form these days for middle-school romance? Is it "go with," or "go together" or "go out with?" Or does it vary from school to school (as I seem to remember it from my day). And when they're older and presumably actually doing something, rather than just "going," are they "hooking up" or "getting with?"

Linda Perlstein: "Go out with" is the norm these days in middle school. (Though it would more accurately be described as "Go nowhere with.") In high school you can "go out with" someone or "hook up" with someone, but they're mutually exclusive. You "go out with" a steady boyfriend; you "hook up with" the hot tennis player who's never going to call you after tomorrow morning, much less send you flowers today. You're lucky if you get a text message.


Fairfax, Va.: I agree "is she your girlfriend" when kids are really young is ridiculous and sexist -- definitely does not promote a healthy understanding for friendships of varied gender. But at what age do you think that should no longer be the case? Parents have to ask kids questions, and kids, according to your article, will not feel comfortable telling their parents about their dating interests. So when, if ever, does failure to ask about a relationship become neglect?

Linda Perlstein: I think it's fair to say to your kid who is clearly spending lots of time with a new gal, "Is there something more than friends there?" That's different than the teasing question "Is she your girlllllfriend???" It's all in the tone and the respect.


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C>: Carla,
I come from an entirely different, more secular, background than you and your fiancee. I found your article fascinating in that it showed me a philosophy I'm not at all familar with. What are your thoughts on relationships that take a different, less spiritual route? And would your relationship had been a no-go if your fiancee had different religious views?

Carla Fielder: I would not be with Stephen if he was not a born-again Christian who specifically believed that the only way to the Father is through the Son.

Jesus is my creator and I believe success in marriage and in life comes from following the instructions of He who made me.

The relationships that I've had in the past that weren't Christ-centered, failed miserably.


Laurel, Md.: Linda: Following up on the parent's role; When we do talk to the kids, do they want advice or do they just want us to know what is going on and listen, but not give them advice? I feel awkward sometimes not knowing what the proper response is.

Linda Perlstein: They want you to listen and to empathize. If they want advice, they'll ask for it. "He sounds like fun," or "I hope he's treating you well," or "Is he friends with your friends?" Just regular conversational stuff....the talk can flow from there.


Washington, D.C.: Could you explain what the difference between dating and "courtship" is? I didn't understand the distinction, and it seems important-- if it's just the physical aspect, that's one thing, but it seemed like there was more. On the other hand, you were hanging out and watching television together, getting coffee at Starbucks, apparently with no chaperones sometimes -- things that wouldn't have been allowed in the 1800s when people actually courted. What's the line?

Carla Fielder: I thought courtship was dating with the purpose of marriage


Linda Perlstein: One more thing: "What do you like best about him?" That's a good way to get your kid thinking....and a fun question both to answer and to hear the answer to, at any rate.


Ft. Washington, Md.: Hi Carla,

I just started reading your article this morning when my friend suggested that I read it. I haven't finished it just yet, but I applaud you for writing the article. There are a lot of young women out here that are trying to go out courting/relationships the right way, so it is very helpful and inspiring to see it in action. I was wondering how receptive (or non receptive) was your peer group about your courting process? Do you or did you have alot of friends that were on the same path as you? As of now, I only have one friend(who sent you a question early this afternoon) who is trying to do her "Godly best" to operate in the correct spirit. It's definitely a blessing to have someone who is on the same path as you.

Another question is do you think it's appropriate to confess your love to each other before/during the courtship?

Thanks Carla and God's blessings to you and your future husband.

Carla Fielder: I think it's important to be honest about your feelings if you are sure of them. I think it's important to surround yourself with people who are like-minded. My friends believe as I do and are very supportive and encouraging. Conversely, if they seem me behaving contrary to God's word, they have NO PROBLEM calling my on it.
We are accountable to each other.


Washington, D.C.: Carla,

Thank you so much for sharing your story. I had no idea about that class and probably would have sought it out earlier if I had. My friend and I are currently enrolled in a pre-marital course at a church in Bethesda and are delighted with what we are learning and with the marriage mentors with whom we've been paired.

Congratulations on everything, most especially for maintaining your walk... this is coming from someone who knows how difficult it is to take the path not many choose to travel.

Carla Fielder: Many blessings on your journey.


Arlington, Va.: I'd also like to say THANKS for the middle school romance article. My son is in 6th grade - and got a friend of his to ask a girl to go to the last school dance with him. I'm not sure it was because my son is so interested in this girl, as much as all his friends would have "dates" at the dance. They all just meet at the dance. So, as far as I can tell, having a date means that you are supposed to dance - at least one dance -- with her. Beyond that, he has no interest in calling her or doing anything else with her. I asked if he considered the girl his "girlfriend" -- and he says he doesn't really know. So, is this within the "rules of the game?" I remember in sixth grade -- going with a boy meant nothing more than a public admission that you liked him. Is that sort of what's still going on?

Linda Perlstein: Yeah, that's about it. He likes her, but he probably wouldn't know what to do with her if given the chance. Very normal for a sixth-grader. As for dates to the dance: You're right. It just means they'll walk in the door together -- maybe -- and dance together once -- maybe. It's more an affiliation than an actual interaction, and by all means DO NOT make him buy a corsage.


Personal Thank You, Virginia: This is a note for Carla Fielder. It's not so much even for the discussion, but I felt like I had to write in. It was such an encouragement to me to see a story about a woman in her 30s who had decided to wait for sex until marriage. I'm a 30-year-old single woman and someone who chooses to remain a virgin because of my faith. I'm more used to reading stories and seeing shows that imply my decision is unhealthy, impractical and freakish.

It meant so much to me to see that there was someone else out there who had made the same decision. Thanks for your story and thanks to the Magazine editors for running it.

Carla Fielder: Wow. That is truly awesome. I pray that Christ sustains you.


Washington, D.C.: Stephen seems extremely controlling of you. He doesn't "allow" you to spend your money on something you want (the couch) becuase someday, maybe, both of you will have to live on his salary? That makes no sense. And he didn't even discuss it with you at first, he just said no, and basically ignored you as you chased after him. Don't you feel that relationships should be more of a partnership?

Carla Fielder: Until we are married, Stephen wants to handle the finances concerning his household. I understand that now and it makes sense.

He saw too many women that were taken advantage of by guys who were more than willing to take the woman's money. He wanted to make sure that I felt no compelling reason (other than love) to stick around.

What if we had broken up and decided not to marry? Then I would have purchased furniture for his home already. That could have been messy. He suggested I put the money away and we'd use it when we shared the same last name.


Silver Spring, Md.: I enjoyed the article, and I wondered if using one's faith to demystify and desecularize a marriage proposal isn't the way to go. I am engaged to a very practical lady, and I consider myself lucky to have her in my life because of what is "out here" to choose from. If more men didn't have to face the pressure of an expensive ring, a lavish lifestyle and a luxury car, maybe it wouldn't be too much for men to stop expecting a size 4 after having two or three kids. Again, Pastor Cherry makes a lot of sense. Some may not like religion to be such a part of a relationship, but maybe it weeds out some of the weaker ones.

Carla Fielder: Well, we do believe that marriage a divine institution created by God. It was never meant to mean pricey rings, lavish lifestyles or wives who never gain a pound. We are committed to God to take care of an imperfect person for life.


Alexandria, Va.: I just wanted to note that you can do the premarital counseling in a non-religious way. I am an atheist and my fiance and I went to some very intense and rewarding sessions with a therapist before we married. The source for love and respect and happiness and "roles" within a marriage does not have to be the church. Just as the source for morality and faithfulness does not have to be. Doing the right thing can come from different sources. (I am not denigrating your experience and respect you for having gone through it).

Carla Fielder: As Christains we seek God's instructions for every facet of our lives.


Washington, D.C.: Carla -- How do you reconcile being a strong and independent woman with a career and your comment in the piece that you plan to "serve him even when you are tired?" What's up with that "serve" stuff? Where were you when the woman's movement handed out freedom from servitude?

Carla Fielder: As Christians we are taught that we will both be submitted to one another in marriage. A give and take. Stephen will also take care of me when I am tired. Since the story was told through my eyes, I did not include Stephen's responsibilities to me.

We must understand that Christian service is not the same as servitude.


Indianapolis, Ind.: My gentleman friend (62) and I (42) seem to have come to the end of our 18 month "honeymoon." It's been a very affectionate and joyful relationship up until recently. My problem stems from the fact that I give more: more effort, financially, physically, sexually, to the relationship. He's very rigid and set in his ways, he finds something he likes and never wants to change it, same restaurant, same menu item, same routines -- though the bedroom is good as long as I keep the momentum going. I try very hard to come up with novel ideas to keep our lives interesting. Still, he provides a minimum of financial investment into to our relationship, even though he's very successful and knows I struggle with my much lower income. There seems to be no way to jog him into a deeper understanding that his 'cheapness' is a tiring detractor. For that matter, he fully recognizes this fact but has allowed it to distress his two previous marriages to their end and now seems resigned to ruining this one for the same reason. I deplore discussing money issues with him but I'm weary from doing all the sacrificing. Any advice?

Carla Fielder: Counseling is a good option. Either way, married or not (I can't tell from your question) it will help you both step back and see the other objectively.

And if you're not married, I don't understand a willingness to communicate your desires physically, but not verbally.


Silver Spring, Md.: Carla, what do you mean by "natural responsibilities" from God's viewpoint?

Carla Fielder: Just caring for the needs of my family and household.


Washington, D.C.: As a Christian female who has values and a commitment to her beliefs similiar to those of Carla Fielder, I was deeply encouraged by her article.

Carla Fielder: Thank you so much.


Carla Fielder: Thank you all for taking time out today. Have an awesome day.


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