I always thought I would be an absolute pro at dating.
I had read all the books on the subject – everything by Jason Evert, everything by Joshua Harris, everything by Dawn Eden – and I felt totally prepared.
That feeling lasted until exactly five and a half months ago – the moment I actually started dating someone.
For both my girlfriend and I, dating was a big deal. We were each starting the relationship after long periods being single, following (and to some extent, probably motivated by) previous relationships that hadn’t been the best. We wanted our relationship to be different. We wanted to do it the right way.
As Christians, that meant having a conversation about physical boundaries in our relationship.
The problem, I very quickly realised, is that none of the books I’d read had actually prepared me for that conversation. Don’t get me wrong, there was bunch of great stuff written about what your boundaries should be in a relationship (which you find here, here and here). But what every single one of these books was missing was a guide to actually awkward, vulnerable, insightful and, at times, hilarious conversation with your significant other.
So, in the hopes of helping even one guy or gal nervously trying to being a conversation with the words “we should talk about boundaries”, I wanted to get real on this topic. The next 3000 words (I know, long freaking post) are a no-holds barred discussion about the most importance conversation to have when you start a relationship: the conversation about boundaries.
BEYOND ‘SAVING SEX FOR MARRIAGE’
If I was going to sum up the fundamental physical boundary in a Christian relationship, ‘saving sex for marriage’ is the phrase I would use. For anyone who was brought up Christian, this mantra was probably right up there with ‘Say NO to drugs’ and ‘What would Jesus do?’ on the list of four-word phrases you heard endlessly as a teenager.
However, this standard, by itself, doesn’t mean a whole lot. If we don’t understand why we should save sex for marriage, if this standard isn’t based on coherent, meaningful understanding of our sexuality, then it doesn’t make much sense.
When saving sex for marriage doesn’t make sense, even if we don’t give up on it completely, we can end up living it out in the wrong ways, for the wrong reasons. Typically, this can take a couple of different forms:
The first is to get technical about not having sex. We convince ourselves that everything short of actually having intercourse is okay. Making out, getting naked, oral sex – it’s all fine, so long as we don’t go all the way.
The second is to get zealous about not having sex. This was the defining feature of the purity movement in the 90s and books like Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Any and all physical intimacy beyond the occasional “side-hug” was to be avoided. After all, it was a slippery slope to sexual immorality.
While these two approaches might seem like polar opposites, they actually have one core characteristic in common: they both fail to truly understand the meaning of physical intimacy.
THE MEANING OF PHYSICAL INTIMACY
The culture we live in often tells us that physical intimacy means whatever you want it to mean. If you want physical intimacy to be an expression of your loving commitment to someone, then great, that’s what it is. But if you want intimacy to be “no big deal,” just a bit of fun, then fine, that’s what it means instead.
The problem with this logic is that what we do with our bodies, especially physical intimacy, “says” something. If you were walking down the street holding hands with someone, what would people think? They would assume that the two of you were in a dating relationship. Why? Because that’s what the body language of holding hands “says.” It expresses affection and commitment towards the other person.
The same is true for other acts of physical intimacy as well. Kissing, touching, and having sex all express something with our bodies. These acts say “I care about you,” “I am committed to you,” and even “I love you.”
This is why, for example, Christians believe that “hooking up” with someone just for the fun of it is wrong. You’re expressing to someone with your body that you care about them, but really all you care about is your own enjoyment. It’s like you’re telling a lie with your body.
Boundaries aren’t important because physical intimacy is “bad” or dirty”, they’re important because what we say with our bodies should be consistent with the intentions of our heart and appropriate for the stage of relationship that we are in.
STARTING WITH THE HEART
Often, the temptation when setting boundaries is to ask “How far is too far?”; “How far can I go with my boyfriend/girlfriend before we do something we shouldn’t? The problem with this question is that it’s focused on all the wrong things. It’s focused on how close we can get to the line before we do something wrong, rather than being focused on how we can do what is best, both for ourselves and the person we are in relationship with.
Instead of asking “How far is too far?” we should instead be asking “How can I protect the heart of my boyfriend/girlfriend?”; “How can I lead him/her closer to God?”; “How can I make sure that what I’m telling this person with my body lines up with the intentions of my heart?” Until our heart is focused on these questions, setting healthy boundaries in a relationship will be almost impossible.
STARTING THE CONVERSATION
This post is titled “The Most Important Conversation When You Start a Relationship” for a reason. It’s not the best time to start thinking about boundaries when you’re already in the middle of a steamy-couch-make-out-session. Instead, you’re going to be better off (and probably a lot more clear-headed!) if you think about appropriate boundaries in advance and have this conversation at the start of your relationship.
Now, when I say the start of the relationship, I don’t mean your first date. Asking someone over that initial coffee what their thoughts are on kissing with tongue probably isn’t the best first step to relationship success!
Instead, a great time to have this conversation is at the point when it’s clear that a romantic relationships is developing beyond a couple of dates. If you’re already past that point with your boyfriend or girlfriend, then a great time to talk about boundaries is the very next time the two of you are together.
Going into this conversation, you’re probably going to be be a bit nervous. That’s normal. Uncomfortable? Yup. Guarded? Probably. These feelings, while not super pleasant, aren’t actually a bad thing. They show that this stuff matters to you; that you’re going to be putting yourself out there and getting a bit vulnerable with your girlfriend or boyfriend.
There’s no single right way to have this conversation, but one thing that is important is being specific. Nervously mumbling something about “not going too far” isn’t going to be super helpful for either of you. Instead, there are a few particular areas that you will definitely want to talk through:
Saving sex for marriage was a given in my relationship with my girlfriend, but it was still important for us to say it out loud. There was something powerful abut acknowledging this boundary, talking about why it was important to us, and making that commitment, both individually and to each other.
Our commitment to saving sex for marriage was the foundation that informed the rest of our conversation about boundaries. A lot of the other boundaries that we agreed to, around stuff like kissing or lying down together, didn’t make sense outside of this commitment.
There are a whole bunch of resources that explain why it’s worth saving sex for marriage better and in greater depth than I will (which, again, you can find here, here and here) but to attempt a simple explanation, I think it comes back what we “say” with our bodies when we have sex.
During sex, our bodies speak a language of self-giving and commitment. Sex doesn’t just say “I take you for a little while” or I just like your body.” Sex says, “I totally give myself to you.”
There’s an enormous amount of vulnerability in the act. Imagine standing before someone, completely naked, and instead of taking you into their arms, they laughed at you, or recommended that you work-out more often, or took a snapchat to share with their friends.
The thought is terrifying, it’s sickening, and the reason why is because you’re putting it all out there. In that moment, you are totally giving yourself to the other person.
When you completely give yourself to a person in this way, a bond forms. I’m not just being poetic here. When two people have sex, the brain releases chemicals like oxytocin and vasopressin which facilitate a bond forming between the two lovers – it’s called “making love” for a reason.
A lot of people believe that sex is just a bit of fun, that it’s something they should be able to walk away from afterwards without it affecting them, but that isn’t the psychological reality. Sex is made to bond two people together in a powerful way. Deep down, I think every person having casual sex but trying not to “catch feelings” knows this.
Once you understand the meaning of sex, it also becomes obvious that you can’t get technical about sexual intimacy. Everything that is part of sex – the physical bond, the emotional intimacy, the spiritual sacredness – doesn’t suddenly vanish because you don’t technically go all the way. It might be present to a lesser degree in acts like oral sex or sexual touching, but it’s definitely all still there.
Recognising this, my girlfriend and I decided to save not only sex, but all forms of sexual intimacy, for marriage. We made this commitment not because sexual intimacy is dirty, bad or impure, but because it’s good, it’s deeply intimate, and we knew that it belonged in marriage.
Kissing can be kind of a grey area in Christian relationships. Some people don’t have any issue with it, while others think kissing should be reserved for serious relationships, or even marriage. There’s also a big difference between a simple kiss and a steamy couch make-out session!
When my girlfriend and I first had this conversation about boundaries, we decided that kissing would be part of our relationship, but we set a couple of boundaries around this form of physical intimacy.
The first was that we wouldn’t start kissing right away. My girlfriend and I had both been in previous relationships where the bond that formed from getting too physical, too quickly acted as a cover up for the absence of real love in the relationship. We didn’t want that happen with us, so we decided to take it slow.
We also didn’t want physical intimacy to be the focus of our relationship. Kissing is great, but the purpose of our relationship is to get to know each other on a deeper level, not just to be able to kiss each other! Too often, I’ve seen relationships that started off well, but as the couple becomes more focused on the physical side of their relationship, they neglect the emotional, social and spiritual aspects.
My girlfriend and I decided to take the time to build up these other aspects of the relationship first. Only when we had a solid emotional, social and spiritual foundation did we introduce kissing into our relationship.
The second boundary we set was to save passionate kissing for marriage. To get painstakingly specific, this meant drawing the line before tongue kissing or lengthy make outs.
Again, this came down to what we were saying with our bodies. A simple kiss expressed affection, whereas passionate kissing expressed a desire to go further.
Something that was important for us both to understand here is that generally, men and women are different when it comes to sexual arousal. Women tend to be aroused sexually more gradually than guys are. I’ve met some young women who find it surprising that guys are sexually aroused by passionate kissing, but generally, we will be.
Since these desires can’t be morally satisfied outside of marriage, my girlfriend and I knew that this kind of kissing didn’t belong in our relationship before then. Instead, we decided to keep our affection simple.
Which brings us to everything else: massages, play fights, cuddles on the couch, and the countless other expressions of physical intimacy in a relationship. While I think there are definitely firm boundaries that every couple should adopt around sexual intimacy, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for everything else.
Setting boundaries around all of these different forms of intimacy comes back to where your heart is. If an act is just a way of expressing your affection and showing the other person how much you care about them, it’s probably a healthy part of your relationship. If an act creates to a real temptation to go further, it shouldn’t be part of your relationship before marriage.
Navigating this isn’t easy. It requires you to be painfully honest both with yourself and with each other. While discussing these boundaries, you will probably realise that the two of you are wired very differently (we definitely did!). There may be some forms of intimacy that are totally fine for one person, but a source of temptation for the other.
You also need to recognise the significance of context. Physical intimacy can have very different implications depending on the situation. For example, cuddling with my girlfriend in my living room, where the other people I live with frequently come and go, is fine. Cuddling in my bedroom late at night with the door closed, on the other hand, would probably be a significant source of temptation. My girlfriend and I set boundaries that recognised this.
We also decided that we wouldn’t lay down on a bed together. Can two people remain perfectly chaste while lying on a bed and watching a movie? Of course. But for us, this was about recognising that lying down together would probably be a significant source of temptation and deciding that we didn’t even want to get close to a situation where we might compromise our other boundaries.
CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION
Finally, this isn’t a one-off conversation. It’s great to establish some solid boundaries at the beginning of your relationship, but it’s just as important to be constantly communicating about physical intimacy. At least once every couple of weeks, my girlfriend and I will make an effort to ask each other how we think we’re going with our boundaries.
The human sex drive is, frankly, all over the place. Cuddling on the couch might be fine one day, and a massive turn on the next. When it’s a massive turn on, it’s important that you are able to communicate with each other about this and put a temporary boundary in place.
Bringing this up in the moment requires a bit of bravery on your part, but you should also be sensitive to the emotions of your significant other. If you’re cuddling and you suddenly turn to your boyfriend or girlfriend and tell them to “back off!”, he or she probably won’t take it too well. Instead, you should gently say something along the lines of “this is a bit much for me right now” to let the other person know where you’re at.
There might be some trial-and-error in your relationship. You might not have thought that a particular form of physical intimacy would stir up a desire to go further at the start of your relationship, but it turns out that it does. You don’t need to lock yourself in a panic room if this happens, you just need to be self-aware and put a new boundary in place.
There might also be times when you screw up. Maintaining these boundaries in a relationship is hard work! There have definitely been times when my girlfriend and I have caught ourselves pushing the boundaries. However, whenever that has happened, we’ve always had an honest conversation about it and recommitted to our standards.
SAYING “YES” TO LOVE
It might sound counterintuitive, but putting these boundaries in place has given my girlfriend and I such a sense of freedom in our relationship. We find joy in even the simplest forms of physical intimacy (holding hands on a date, cuddles on the couch, a simple kiss) and we are learning to love each other in so many non-physical ways.
Boundaries can often sound like a lot of “no, no, no,” but what I’ve come to realise is that they’re actually about saying “yes.” Yes to recognising the true meaning of physical intimacy, yes to having integrity in what we do with our bodies, and most of all YES to relationships filled with authentic love.