When Renée and I started dating, the most important conversation we had was about physical boundaries.
We talked about our commitment to save the gift of sex for marriage and the boundaries we wanted to set around virtually every other expression of physical intimacy in our relationship. The blog post I wrote about that conversation continues to be the most viewed post on this website.
What I’ve learned in the almost two years since that first conversation is that it’s one thing to “know” that respecting these physical boundaries is going to be hard, but it’s entirely another thing to live it.
Honestly, it has been a real struggle for us. There have definitely been times where we’ve caught ourselves pushing past the boundaries we set.
Most of what I had read on the topics of physical boundaries didn’t help much either. In her book, How to Find Your Soulmate without Losing Your Soul, Chrystalina Evert wrote “When I was dating Jason… we never had to tell each other to stop. Because we valued purity, we didn’t put each other in compromising situations.”
Which is awesome for Jason and Chrystalina, and the two of them could well be saints of our time. But it’s not a big help when struggling with physical boundaries is a very real challenge in your day-to-day relationship.
So, instead, I started talking to other Catholic couples. To my surprise, just about every couple I spoke with admitted having difficulties maintaining their physical boundaries at some point. I started to feel like I had uncovered this widespread, mostly secret struggle, that went unacknowledged outside the private conversations with other couples.
The more of these conversations I had, the more I realised not only that we weren’t alone, but also that there were a number of practical steps these couples recommended to overcome the struggle.
In the months since we started having these conversations, here are four things Renée and I have found particularly helpful:
1) TALK ABOUT IT
After a moment where you’ve gone past your physical boundaries, it can be tempting to leave it unaddressed. I’ve definitely been guilty of thinking “that shouldn’t have just happened, we both know it shouldn’t have happened, so let’s just move on.”
But when you’ve pushed (or sailed clear past) your boundaries, it’s important to bring that into the light and acknowledge it.
One reason this matters it to recognise why what happened, happened. Were you home alone together when normally your housemates would be around? What were you doing? Just snuggling on a couch gazing romantically into each other’s eyes? Was there a particular desire for intimacy because you hadn’t seen each other all week?
Becoming aware of tempting situations and triggers helps to identify what you can do differently in the future. Maybe next time you’re home alone, you can go for a walk around the neighbourhood rather than put on some Marvin Gaye music and giving each other massages.
Communication is also important to make sure you’re on the same page. Now, depending on the situation, this might be abundantly clear that you’ve gone past your boundaries. But maybe not.
What seems totally innocent to you could be a form of touch that has the other person very caught up with your hand placement. If in doubt, have a conversation to clarify what you’re both comfortable with and what (specifically) you need to avoid.
2) ADJUST YOUR BOUNDARIES
After you’ve identified those situations that can be a source of struggle, it’s important to adjust your boundaries. This is something Renée and I have done on multiple occasions.
At one point, we introduced the boundary of no tickle/play fighting. That might seem super random, but what would start as just tickling each other would usually end with the two of us in very close proximity, hearts racing. NOT an ideal context, we learned, for keeping your boundaries. So, after having an honest conversation about this, we decided to rule out this kind of play fighting, to protect our physical boundaries.
I’m yet to meet a couple who was serious about dating with physical boundaries, who didn’t have to make adjustments while dating. It can take a bit of trial and error to figure out what does make you want to go further, and what doesn’t. That’s totally normal.
So if you are struggling, be bold enough to have that honest conversation and adjust your boundaries as you need to.
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3) BE ACCOUNTABLE
Sharing your struggles with someone you trust takes courage, but for us it has been an absolute game-changer.
Renée and I have a married couple who we check in with regularly to receive mentoring and share any difficulties we are having. We also have individual accountability partners, friends of the same sex who are on a similar journey to us.
Often, the people we are accountable to see our struggles with a clarity that we lack. They help us identify the situations that are causing us to stumble, and share their own practical insights on overcoming temptation.
They’re also important voices of encouragement. When you struggle with boundaries, it’s easy to get discouraged. There can be a lot of shame that comes after breaking your boundaries, and you can feel like a massive hypocrite besides.
It’s our accountability partners who help us process of those feelings in a healthy way. They are the ones who remind us that the attraction we have for each other is a good thing, that we are strong enough to stick to our boundaries, and that the wait for marriage is 100% worth it.
4) PRAY FOR PURITY OF HEART
When you’re struggling with boundaries, taking the three practical steps above can be incredibly helpful. But what I’ve come to realise is that none of these steps are going to matter much if you aren’t seeking purity of heart.
If you don’t believe in your boundaries, if you don’t deeply desire purity for both yourself and your partner, then all the practical steps in the world aren’t going to mean much.
Jesus was pretty clear on this. For him, even looking at someone with lust was committing adultery with them in your heart (Matt 5:27-28). So, if we want to uphold our boundaries, that’s where we’ve got to start: with the heart.
When Renée and I started struggling with physical boundaries, the most important thing I did was begin praying for purity of heart. Since praying that prayer, my focus has shifted in a major way.
Upholding our physical boundaries is still a struggle, but I’ve come to recognise that this struggle has a purpose.
The struggle is my reminder that my selfish desires should always come second to what is best for our relationship. The struggle is my chance to invite God’s grace into our relationship. The struggle is my opportunity to love each Renée in a very real, self-sacrificial way.
Have there been times when I’ve wished physical boundaries weren’t the major struggle they have been in our relationship? Absolutely. But looking back, I can see how the struggle has prompted me to rely more on God’s grace and better love my fiancée. That’s worth the struggle.