I recently received an email from a 14-year-old young man (definitely not my typical audience!) who read my once-viral post Kissing is Not Sex. He wanted to know more about boundaries and what sort of boundaries he should have while dating his girlfriend.
Good. for. you, young sir!
I recall many many (many) years ago sitting in church wondering the same thing. I wasn’t in a relationship at the time (I didn’t go on my first date until I was 27!) but was still curious about “the rules.” Unfortunately, the canned Christian response was almost always, “Stop asking where the line is and how close you can get to it and worry about drawing closer to Jesus.”
On one hand, it’s a fair response. On the other, it is wildly presumptive and anemic. At the end of the day, it’s really not helpful or even practical.
At the same time, courtesy of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, there was an entire debate around if dating was even OK or if everyone should just somehow know they were going to marry a person five minutes after learning their name.
So, I want to try to do better as a woman who grew up in purity culture, who did date before meeting and marrying my husband and who is now married.
Let’s talk about boundaries.
Boundaries is a bit of a buzz word in so many areas of culture. Currently, it tends to have more to do with things like boundaries with toxic family members or friends. About a year ago, a friend of mine wrote about boundaries and someone commented in response, “Boundaries aren’t in the Bible!”
Oh, but they are.
In the context of general relationships and interaction with people, we see where Jesus withdrew to pray (Luke 5:16). We see where Jesus tells his disciples to leave towns and people who are unwelcoming (Matthew 10:14). Perhaps most famously, we have Paul saying that just because he can do something doesn’t mean he should (1 Corinthians 6:12).
Each of those is an example of a “boundary.” They are lines in the sand, so to speak. In a general sense, it is good to have boundaries and convictions.
Boundaries in dating
When it comes to romantic relationships, a lot of us don’t have an example of what dating looks like. Most of us have never seen our parents date; we’ve only seen them married. We haven’t seen our pastors or ministry leaders date; we’ve only seen them married. We may see our friends or older siblings date but the reality is, they’re trying to figure it out just like everyone else.
Hollywood and pornography offer warped and unrealistic interpretations of romantic relationships, often short-circuiting the actual process of intimacy. Romance novels offer unrealistic ideals.
Bottom line: most of us don’t have an example to look up to when it comes to boundaries in dating.
We see the end result, but how do you get there? How do you navigate the road from “Hi, my name is Joe” to “will you marry me?” Because there needs to be a road there. There needs to be a lot of words and things that happen between those two phrases.
I think it’s helpful if we start by reframing how we view boundaries. For a lot of us, we view them as the barbed wire fence that keeps us from danger. This is one of the downsides of how the purity culture framed sex. Sex became dangerous. The thing that could get you pregnant and ruin your life. The thing that could turn you from a beautiful rose into a stem of thorns with no petals. The thing that could give you an STD.
We turned sex into this radioactive failing power plant and started throwing up walls around it.
Don’t look at it. Don’t think about it. Don’t talk about. Don’t you even dare ask how to avoid it, just stay far far away. This is at least the message a lot of Christian women got in youth group.
And then we’re supposed to somehow waltz into it unafraid on our wedding day. It’s like Cinderella in reverse. Now, when the clock strikes midnight, the nasty rotten pumpkin and field mice turn into a gorgeous white carriage pulled by prestigious horses. Everything that was “dirty, wicked, and bad” just moments before somehow magically transforms into amazing and beautiful after you say I do.
That’s not how this works.
So instead of viewing boundaries as something that keeps us from some big, dangerous scary thing, let’s talk about what boundaries actually are.
Boundaries are not about sex; they are ultimately about honor.
Regardless of their context and application, boundaries are about honor- treating with esteem, dignity, and respect. You could also say boundaries are about protecting what you cherish, what you find important. We can have boundaries in friendships, in family, in work relationships.
In the context of dating, we want boundaries that:
- honor God and His gift of sex
- honor the person we are dating
- honor ourselves (including our heart, mind, and body)
- honor our future spouse, in the event they are not the person we are dating
It’s less about a list of rules and lines and more about an overall attitude. Instead of asking, “Is this safe?” or “Is God OK with this?” a better question is “how is this honoring God, myself, or the other person?”
The tale of two suitors: Beau
I have a great example of this from my own life. About ten years ago, I was in the online dating world and met an amazing pastor and farmer from North Dakota we’ll call Beau (not his name). We chatted back and forth online for a bit before finally deciding to be official. From the beginning, one of the things Beau said was that we would be all in but the moment either of us felt there was no way we could marry the other, we would let the other person know.
That might seem like a horrible way to kick off a relationship, but it actually was a very honoring way to start things. He was letting me know that he was going to honor my heart by not stringing me along and he was asking me to do the same. I agreed. We made it our purpose to make sure that if the relationship ended, the other person would leave whole and hopefully better for knowing each other.
Well, I’ll tell you, we got to a point in our relationship that we decided the next best step was to meet in person. Beau’s dad was sick with cancer and it was some special season on the farm, so we made arrangements for me to fly out to see him and stay on the farm in his parent’s house, where he also lived. There were no hotels nearby (it is North Dakota, after all) so I stayed in a guest bedroom in their house. His parents were in their room on the first floor and Beau’s room was across the hall from the room where I was staying.
But Beau was not.
For the few days I stayed there, Beau slept in the basement, with the door open so there was accountability. He would only go up to his room if he knew I was elsewhere in the house. Honor.
He didn’t do it out of fear of me or what could happen. We were two grown adults who deeply respected each other and truly cared for each other. He chose to do that out of honor.
We were alone together often in those few days, having meaningful conversation. One day, we went for a ride in his truck to a nearby park, walked, and talked. That was actually the beginning of the end for us. He shared some of the struggle his heart was having, how he was really wrestling with a relationship he had just lost months before we started talking. How he just couldn’t explain how he felt.
He was honoring me by letting me know how he was feeling. I honored him in return by acknowledging that his healing was more important than whatever we may or may not have going on at the time. I actually gave him permission in that conversation to reach out to his ex to see if there was still something there. I still remember him being blown away by that level of grace.
As we drove back to his house, I was fairly sure we were done. The cold North Dakota air made the windows of his truck fog up as we talked about how to face his parents (who had straight up told him he would be an idiot if he didn’t marry me). As we sat in the driveway with fogged up windows, I held back some laughter. It would have been funny if the content of our conversation wasn’t so sad.
Keep in mind, I grew up in the purity culture, and a lot of the “rules” around dating looked like: never be alone with a man, ever. Because you never know what is going to happen and even if nothing happens you never know what people are going to think happened.
To anybody outside of that truck, it looked like a scene from a rom com- two lovers alone with steamy windows. But inside that truck, we were two people desperately trying to honor each other while navigating the pain of a break up.
When Beau dropped me off at the airport, he walked with me inside. My flight was delayed for hours due to the North Dakota winter and, wanting to be sure I got home safely, Beau sat with me and waited. Honor.
We didn’t really talk much. I remember staring at his muddy farm boots a lot as he quietly asked for space and time to sort through what was going on. Even still, he rode with me to the top of the escalator, escorting me as far as he could before waving goodbye.
About a week or so later, we had the official conversation that ended it all. One of the things we asked each other was if there was anything we could do to help the other walk away whole.
Beau got married to the next girl he met- a farm girl, like he had always imagined. They have three beautiful children and he is living his dream. How do I know this? Because his mom absolutely insisted she and I stay in touch. So every year I get a Christmas update on their little family. Beau and I have emailed a handful of times over the years, just checking in on each other’s families.
In the culture I grew up in, there were so many different “boundaries” that were broken in that relationship (and I’m going to talk about that in a second), but that relationship is far more God-honoring than the one that followed.
The Tale of Two Suitors: Alaska
The relationship that followed Beau was another online relationship with a young man from Alaska. I highlight this relationship in my book, Beggar’s Daughter. We talked back and forth for a year, but there was never any committment on his part to honor my heart. For nearly a year I wondered what exactly we were. He would call me his best friend and we would talk a LOT but there was never intentionality about anything. I finally pressed the issue nine months in asking what would need to happen to move things along.
Little did I know at the same time we were having that conversation, one of his pastors was trying to set him up with a young woman from church. The pastor reportedly asked him, “What’s going on with that girl from Maryland?” And he shrugged me off, “Eh, nothing much. I don’t think we’re going to amount to anything.” So, off he went on a date with the woman from his church, and he continued to date her for three months until she demanded honor and gave him an ultimatum. Either he felt they were going somewhere or she was going to head back home (as she was in Alaska for a job).
He chose her. I didn’t even know about her. I didn’t know about the conversation three months earlier when he told a pastor that we weren’t going to amount to anything. For three months, I had believed we were making steady progress toward a future together, talking about whether we wanted kids, what life could look like in a couple years and why he didn’t own a microwave.
I felt a prompting to reach out to him one day as I was finishing up Beggar’s Daughter and sensed something was up so I called him on it. That’s when I found out about everything and the relationship ended. I was hurt. I was angry. It felt like a betrayal, and I did look up the name of his pastor who set him up with this girl and I did write that pastor a long email about the importance of honoring people’s hearts and how I wasn’t just some nameless “girl from Maryland.” While I probably wouldn’t do that again, for me, at the time, it felt like defending my honor, since obviously Mr. Alaska had no intention of doing so.
We never met in person. I never sat with him in a truck with fogged up windows, but the relationship with the man from Alaska was far more damaging and dishonoring than the one from North Dakota.
This is what can happen when we make boundaries all about “staying away from sex” and not about honoring God and each other. We have broken and damaged hearts, not because they slept together but because they dishonored each other.
For years, I heard about how having sex could leave me like chipped china or chewed up bubble gum. Everything was about virginity. Never once did I hear a message about honor and value and caring for the other person in a relationship. It was all about being afraid that if the setting was right, or if I was wearing the wrong thing, or if I looked at him the wrong way, I was going to stumble out of that relationship a rose with one less petal.
Looking back as a mom, a former high school teacher, a former crisis pregnancy counselor, a former porn addict- it infuriates me.
Because the message that young men and women need is NOT “do not have sex.” The message they need is about their value and worth as human beings created in the image of God and the high calling and responsibility we all have to honor each other. We don’t need “boys will be boys” and “girls will be harlots.” We don’t need that.
Since I know that’s not ultimately what the original question was asking, here are my thoughts on boundaries around sex in dating.
Some things to consider:
- Physical boundaries– honor each other and God’s gift of sex by honoring each other’s bodies. Never ever do anything without consent but also talk about the physical boundaries ahead of time. Be aware of your own temptations in this area and think beyond physical contact. Consider physical situations like being alone together in a bedroom, etc. And know that it is ok if these change. You may think you will be fine with something and then find out you aren’t comfortable with it later.
- Emotional boundaries– honor each other’s hearts and each other’s future spouses (if it’s not you) by not leading each other on. Dating can be fun and it can help you learn about yourself and your own likes and dislikes and interests. Getting to know people shouldn’t be a fearful thing, but understand that hearts can be fragile. So honor each other emotionally. Don’t dive too deep too quickly but also remember people are not disposable. We are all created in the image of God and loved by Him. Consider certain topics being off-limits until a certain point in the relationship. Be mindful of how your actions may be perceived by the other person.
- Spiritual boundaries– I feel like people don’t give enough attention to the importance of spiritual closeness in a relationship and how that also can be a pathway to sexual struggle. Seems rather odd, doesn’t it, that praying together might be tempting. The reason it is is because spiritual closeness is perhaps the closest you can get. So it’s possible to “short circuit” intimacy through what appears to be very God-honoring means. I can tell you that I never prayed out loud with a man I was dating until my husband. He prays with everybody he talks to, even the complete stranger sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. But for me, letting someone into that part of my life is extremely intimate. So consider what spiritual boundaries might be needed.
Boundaries may look different in different seasons. A healthy boundary for a 27-year-old may be way too lax for a 14-year-old so it is important to understand your own limitations and your own temptations. Obviously, when you are younger, you also need to consider any sort of family expectations and honor those as well.
Boundaries when you’ve just met someone will look different than the boundaries when you are engaged. The boundaries when you are engaged will look different than the boundaries when you are married (because yes, there are still boundaries in marriage!). In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to this. What works for one person may be absolutely unhelpful for another.
Boundaries should care for the “weaker” person. This is a Biblical concept. Just because something is ok for you doesn’t mean it’s ok for the other person. If it’s not ok for the other person, then you shouldn’t be doing it. Again, this is about honor. It’s not honoring to use your perceived rights to steamroll another person’s conscience.
When you consider boundaries ask yourself if the boundary is honoring. Is it triggering for you? Is it triggering for the other person? Is it tempting either of you?
My husband and I didn’t kiss until our wedding day. Not because I have some rule about it but because I know me and I know full well that kissing that man would have made me dive headlong into trouble. So we saved that for the day when we felt free to finally dive headlong into things- our wedding day. We shared our first kiss about an hour or two before our wedding. He waited because I asked him to, because I needed him to. When it came to sexual struggles in our relationship, unsurprisingly, I was the weaker one so a lot of the boundaries were mine and he honored them.
That is something we carry into our marriage- a mutual love and honor for each other.
This is why it is important to frame boundaries less about what we’re “allowed” to do sexually and more about how people can honor each other. If you walk into marriage thinking that once you say “I do” all of the boundaries are out the window, you are wrong. Boundaries, respect, honor, and cherishing each other is something that will serve you very well before and during marriage.