When I was growing up, there were a lot of rules governing how I, as a woman, should interact with members of the opposite sex. It was a joke in our circles to always have a “Bible between” as if an extra six inches of space somehow made you forget the person sitting next to you was attractive.
As an adult, I found myself attending a church formerly pastored by Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. It was there I was introduced to the awkward side hug, which was a step up from my Baptist upbringing that said, “Thou shalt not touch a man” but still a step removed from normal human interaction.
In the throws of the purity culture, relationships became complicated. Holding a man’s hand was ok or it made babies. It all depended on who you asked. And the whole “abstain from all appearance of evil” was literally in the eye of the beholder.
I followed all of the rules, but the rules were all about physical boundaries.
My problem wasn’t physical.
I didn’t have to touch a man to lust after him.
I didn’t have to sit next to him to imagine what it would be like to be in bed with him.
I didn’t have to be alone with him to fantasize about him.
There were lists upon lists of boundaries designed to prevent temptation, and they didn’t come close to doing that. The best they did was prevent opportunity to act on lust.
Sure, I was physically a virgin, and obeyed all of the physical rules, but my heart and mind were in the red light district. So, when I started dating, I had to take a hard look at boundaries, because it’s one thing to lust after some guy you’re crushing on. It’s an entirely different story when the guy you’re sitting next to is someone you might marry and who might actually be your lifelong sexual partner.
The Point of Physical Boundaries
Any boundary I had been taught as a teenager really focused on this idea: “Don’t put yourself in a situation where a lack of self control could get you in trouble.” That, I think, is the real heart behind “leaving room for the Holy Spirit.”
It’s this idea that sexual chemistry is so electric that once you flip a switch, you won’t be able to contain yourselves. The boundaries didn’t teach self-control, but more “avoidance of temptation.” That’s why you end up with fifty different sets of rules. People wrongly assume what tempted one person tempts everyone.
The physical boundaries we lay down are really just roadblocks on the pathway to sex.
If there were a map, sex would be the destination. The starting point would be “noticing each other.” I am sure there are groups with “boundaries” all along the way. Two miles in, some group will draw the line at long talks. A couple miles later, another group is going to draw the line at, being alone together.
The Problem with Physical Boundaries
But here’s the thing: this strategy only works if you stay on the road and you’re driving a car. For decades, people have been finding ways to off-road. The common question when I was growing up was “what about petting each other with clothes on?” Which obviously breaks a few physical boundary rules.
So, today’s teenagers have an alternative: how about we just send each other nudes?
No touching. No sex. So, it works, right?
And that’s the problem with depending on physical boundaries. So much of this battle is not physical. We sin when we are drawn away by our own lust and enticed- all of that is not physical. There is a mental/spiritual/emotional process that leads to physical action. Focusing only on the physical action cuts out a majority of the struggle.
There’s pornography. There’s lust. There’s fantasy. There is so much out there that isn’t technically physical sex. Physical boundaries do little but provide a false sense of security.
For me, one of my defenses for using pornography was that it didn’t cross any of the physical boundaries I was taught. In fact, it perfectly kept all of the rules. Never mind the fact that I had no sexual self-control. It didn’t matter, because I was still a virgin, right?
This has always been an issue of self-control, which is an internal boundary, not an external one.
The Need for Personal Boundaries
My fiance and I have decided not to kiss until our wedding day, which is funny, because a couple years ago I wrote a post entitled “Kissing is Not Sex.” The title basically explains it, but I was speaking out against a purity culture that makes rules out of everything. Kissing isn’t sex, I argued.
Now here I am saying “I’m not kissing until I am married.” A contradiction? Not in the slightest. I still believe everything I wrote. Kissing is not sex. My fiance and I are still waiting. It’s not because we have some personal belief that kissing is evil before marriage. If we happen to kiss before marriage (and it’s been tempting), we aren’t going to feel devastated.
We decided not to kiss mostly because I needed that boundary for myself. He graciously agreed and valiantly defends that boundary. When I start to mention that maybe I’m being too strict, he holds that ground. We chose the boundaries we needed in order to honor and care for each other.
Temptation is very real. Being close to marriage has dredged up struggles I haven’t faced in years.
Yes, part of it is the anticipation of the sexual intimacy of marriage. A larger part of it is the non-sexual intimacy of our relationship. That has unearthed all sorts of deeper root issues- ones that used to drive me to pornography and fantasy. So, my heart and mind can struggle sometimes to choose being closer to him over running to other lovers.
There is a very real temptation to run to sex as a bandaid instead of pursuing the true intimacy of facing problems together.
I can see why people use sex as a way of feeling better about themselves or as a way to glue together and fractured relationship. It seems, at times, like it would be easier to resolve a discussion by sleeping together and saying, “See? We’re fine” instead of actually sitting down and talking it out. So, we need a certain set of boundaries. The boundaries we need may be different than what another couple needs. That’s ok.
I have one friend who couldn’t even handle holding hands with her fiance. The temptation was too great for both of them. Even though they were both in their thirties, they were happy to have “supervision.” That’s the only time they felt safe to hold hands. They knew nothing could happen because someone was there.
Unlike my friends, my fiance and I hold hands. My fiance’s primary love language is physical touch. Not holding hands at all would make him wither in a pile.
We have different boundaries that we have discussed together and agreed to together. Our goal is to be able to make it to our wedding day and have no regrets in how we’ve cared for and respected each other. If that’s your goal, the way you make that happen will be unique to who you are as a couple.
Here are some pointers to help you discuss and determine your boundaries:
- Listen to other people’s counsel- I wouldn’t have been concerned about kissing before marriage had it not been for several friends cautioning me regarding it. Many had pasts with porn addictions and felt that kissing too soon caused trouble for them. I didn’t think it would be an issue since porn is visual and kissing is physical, but I can see now that it definitely would have been harder for me to navigate our relationship well if kissing were involved.
- Discuss it with your partner– Communication is key to any healthy relationship and learning how to dialogue about sensitive and personal issues and desires is important. Talk about what boundaries you have or need and ask your partner what boundaries they have or need. Never assume. Boundaries are not the same as standards.
- Bend to the strong boundary- My fiance had no qualms about kissing before marriage. To him, it wasn’t an issue because he believes we both have solid self-control. Still, he respects that it is a boundary for me, and doesn’t continually test it. In fact, he has adopted it as his own boundary.
- Be willing to clarify and set “mini bounds”– Perhaps hand holding is fine, but when he rubs your hand a certain way, it sends your heart through the roof. Don’t swear off hand-holding all together. Instead say, “You know what, when you do that, it really riles me up. How about you just hold my hand like this and save that touch for later?”
- Allow for “time outs” -I borrowed that phrase from my fiance. Sometimes, the temperature rises even within the boundaries you’ve set. Don’t feel you need to muscle through and deal with it. I am guilty of this, of feeling very tempted by something benign he was doing and not saying anything, which isn’t healthy communication, for the record (see #2). When he found out, he assured me that I had permission to call a time out if I needed to and that he would do the same.
- Know they can change– Remember when you were little and some friend would always make up rules of the game as they went? Sometimes, establishing boundaries needs to be like that- in both directions. You might relax a boundary as time goes on because you realize it’s not an issue for you, or you might build a new one because something has become an issue. That’s ok!
There’s no rule book for exactly what boundaries you need to have in your relationships.
Your boundaries will be unique to you as individuals and as a couple. Setting down boundaries in dating and relationships is about caring for each other, respect, and healthy communication. If you break up, your boundaries will help stave off regret and heartache. If you move on to marriage, your boundaries will have laid a solid foundation for your future relationship. Think of boundaries as less about keeping you from something bad and more about helping you build something good.