How Far Is Too Far?

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With more and more people delaying marriage, and with second marriages becoming more common, women of all ages are finding themselves wondering about physical boundaries when dating. If you are asking this question, then good for you!

This age-old question is not only one teens are asking, but also women in their 20s, 30s, and beyond. With marriage often delayed in today's culture, and second marriages becoming more common, women of all ages are finding themselves wondering about physical boundaries in dating.

If you are asking this question, good for you! More and more women no longer care about saving sex for marriage, even if they acknowledge it as God's best plan for them. Waiting just seems to be "too hard" for them. Giving the sexual relationship a "test drive" sounds like a good idea (even though research solidly debunks this thinking!). They fear losing the guy if they don't "put out." Or they may not even remember what they are supposed to be waiting for.

God's call to purity isn't just for teenagers. It's for men and women of all ages—married, divorced, and single. Yes, purity looks different at various stages of life, but the call to holiness doesn't change as you age. So what does it look like to date at 25, 38, 42, or 60? How far is too far?

The reason women ask this question is because the answer can be very complicated. The simplest answer is the "bikini rule": If you were wearing a fairly modest bikini, don't touch anywhere the bathing suit would cover. Yet that answer is unsatisfactory because it doesn't take into account variables like age, how long you've been dating, what causes your sexual engines to rev, or how pure your mind is even if you aren't touching.

Balancing emotional, spiritual, and physical intimacy

A helpful way to think of sexual intimacy is to put it on a spectrum with other forms of intimacy. Every dating relationship has varying degrees of physical, emotional, and spiritual closeness. In healthy relationships, each level of intimacy progresses equally. In other words, sexual expression shouldn't go any farther than trust, shared histories, seeking God together, and other aspects of intimacy. As a relationship slowly progresses, the couple becomes steadily more intimate in all areas.

The ultimate boundary of all intimacy is the marriage covenant. Marriage means making a lifelong promise of faithfulness. The wedding vows are meant to ensure that you will not be rejected or discarded by the one you share your body, your heart, and your soul with. Only marriage provides the "all systems go" assurance of safety and fidelity.

The problems I most commonly see in dating are these:

First, physical intimacy sometimes quickly races forward, bypassing other aspects of intimacy. A couple begins making out, touching intimately, and so on without any history, commitment, or connection. The ecstasy of physical touch becomes the center of their relationship.

Regardless of whether they have crossed some subjective line of "going too far" sexually, they've given away and taken more than they should have. Their relationship isn't based on mutual respect, but on mutual self-gratification. Even if they haven't had sex, the woman probably feels used, dirty, and defiled. For instance, have you ever felt "cheap" or "violated" just by kissing someone you hardly knew?

Second, Christian couples sometimes become hyper-sensitive to physical boundaries, but pay no attention to emotional and spiritual boundaries. A couple who has been dating for three months might act like they are married. They cut off other friendships and spend time together exclusively. They have "pet names" for each other, and celebrate an anniversary each month. They share their deepest secrets and temptations, including sexual failures. They plan their futures together, promising never to break up.

Please understand this: These boundary violations are just as dangerous as being sexually intimate! In many cases, sharing deeply on the spiritual and emotional level make staying sexually pure almost impossible. Just as a couple needs to "pace themselves" sexually, they also need to be careful about how quickly they progress in emotional and spiritual intimacy.

You may never have considered that you can be too spiritually or emotionally intimate in a dating relationship. In the sexual arena, you can see how far you've progressed. It is a little more complicated to assess intimacy emotionally and spiritually—plus, no one talks about it being a danger.

For example, I'm not sure it is appropriate early in a relationship for a man and woman to pray or study the Bible together alone. One older woman who had her heart broken in a relationship made the commitment that she would never make a meal for a man she wasn't married to. Why? Because to her it symbolized the intimacy and nurture of a marriage commitment.

These are very personal decisions based on the truth that giving away too much of your heart can be as painful as giving away too much of your body. Have you ever thought through "how far is too far" in these areas?

Making a game plan

I'll admit that I'm the uptight-planner type. For better or for worse, I think through everything. When my husband, Mike, and I were dating, I was hyper-sensitive to boundaries because I was afraid of making a mistake. I didn't want my hormones to hijack my reasoning. One day, Mike playfully kissed me all over my face. Instead of delighting in this romantic gesture, I stopped him by saying, "What do those kisses mean? They don't mean anything!" Yes, it's a miracle that the guy ended up marrying me!

Fortunately for my teenage boys, I've mellowed just a bit. I understand the fun of dating and the thrill of romance. However, I also recognize how powerful passions and drives can lead to disaster if not managed responsibly. You don't have to be as unromantic as I was, but you do need to be proactive about setting your boundaries. Here's what I suggest:

Using a graph like this one, chart your relationship on levels of intimacy. Where do you think it is appropriate to be at this stage of your relationship? What area of intimacy seems to be speeding ahead of the others? Realistically, how long would it be before there is the potential of marriage? Are you setting yourself up for trouble by the "pacing" of intimacy in your relationship?

Proverbs reminds us that "in a multitude of counselors there is safety." No one is beyond this principle. You are never too old, too experienced, or too wise to need godly counsel, especially in the area of romantic relationships. Be sure you have a few friends and mentors who will ask you hard questions, give advice, and pray with you as you make decisions about boundaries in all areas of your relationship.

Written by Dr. Juli Slattery

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