If you missed Part 1, check it out here.
Part two! Time for the more expected piece on boundaries. We couldn’t talk about boundaries (especially to a group of high schoolers) and leave out those between boyfriends and girlfriends. People always talk about this as an awkward subject, but I’ve always loved hearing other people’s ideas and thoughts, trying to define my own. I hope that is what this can be for some of you. We are obviously talking about our personal experience and what we believe. We started our relationship wanting to live as God has commanded us, and we continue to be intentional about putting him first, including in the physical side of our relationship (in more frank terms – no, we don’t sleep together, and won’t until we are married). Good intentions don’t mean things are always simple though, and we’ll be real about that. We are so thankful for God’s leading and the way he has protected us throughout our relationship, and the way he will continue to do so until we are married. So, boundaries. Here we go!
Setting boundaries is an important conversation to have initially. If you’ve gone on a few dates, hung out, things are starting to get a little more exclusive – it’s time to have that talk. But don’t leave it at that, it’s important to make sure it’s a continuous conversation (I’ll explain further, sit tight). You have to be clear and realistic about what your standards are, and how those fit into your relationship. You also have to respect others’ boundaries, especially if they are higher than your own. Then you have to consider how you will actually maintain them. When I was fifteen, in Planning 10, we had a dating and sex unit. We talked about boundaries and it was asked how you could set a boundary for kissing (such a grey area!). Nobody was speaking up, so I decided to throw my two cents in. Being the sweet, young, innocent thing that I was (hadn’t even kissed a giraffe at this point) I suggested 3 seconds seemed safe and realistic. Apparently the mental image my classmates got was me kissing a future boyfriend holding my stop watch up behind his head, or better yet, a chaperone timing us.
Boundaries within romantic relationships are funny, because there are definite lines you need to draw, but at the same time, you need room to grow as your level of commitment deepens. Letting your emotional, mental, spiritual and physical intimacy develop slowly protects you if your relationship isn’t a forever thing, but it will make your relationship healthier if the person you are with ends up being your spouse. That is something I’ve seen in several friends’ relationships – they may be quick to kiss, say I love you, have sex, etc. but then the relationship breaks up and they’ve developed all this intimacy prematurely and recovering from that break hurts a lot. Trying to fit a healthy dating relationship into our ‘hook-up’ culture is hard, but so worth being deliberate about.
Stephen and I hadn’t deliberately talked about spiritual boundaries, but looking back we have had a really healthy progression – a total God thing that has been really helpful looking at the bigger picture of our relationship. When we were first hanging out, we didn’t avoid talking about spirituality, but it was more big picture. We did not talk about our deepest struggles, worship together, or pray together. We established that faith was important to each of us, and something that we admired in the other, but kept some distance. When we started dating, we gradually deepened the conversations to things we were learning or feeling convicted about. After several months, maybe even after a year, we decided to start being deliberate about praying together. I’m so glad we didn’t do this earlier, as there is something very powerful in having truth and love prayed over you by someone you are falling in love with. I was already serious about us, but this definitely set a new tone for our relationship. Even then however, there were things we didn’t share until we were talking about getting married, and then engaged. There are still levels of spiritual intimacy that I feel are reserved for marriage, and I’m so excited to see how we grow closer to God and each other through our marriage.
A similar progression should apply emotionally and mentally. This is a place where communication is key. You need to be aware and respectful of the pace your boyfriend/girlfriend progresses at. Stephen was excellent at this. I was in high school when we started dating, and he’d been graduated a few years. This naturally put him in a mental space where he was ready to commit a lot faster than I was. We had to have a few hard and scary conversations, but he totally respected my need to take things at a significantly slower pace than felt natural to him. His willingness to put me first in the pace of our relationship blew me away. He led our relationship from me having a panic attack the first time he told me he loved me, to a place where I didn’t hesitate when he asked me to marry him.
Physical boundaries are something that we’ve definitely made a constant conversation, and we are continuing about being intentional about that into our engagement. There are so many things you don’t know about yourself and the person you are dating at the beginning of your relationship. You need to be willing to be aware and maybe put new boundaries in place, even if they seem silly. Your boundaries may not totally match up either, and so again it is important to respect things that may be more likely to cause temptation for the person you are with, even if it seems silly to you.
An example of a boundary Stephen and I put in place even after a year of dating was tickling. I know couples for whom this will never come up, yet we had be be deliberate about saying that we felt it was too intimate to be allowed outside marriage.
Especially for physical boundaries, you need to consider two main things: your reasons for setting a boundary, as well as where to set the line so that it is a guard rail instead of right at the edge of a cliff.
So why do we set boundaries in the first place? Let’s go back to Ephesians 5:25-30:
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[b] her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body.
We set boundaries because our goal should be to present the person we are dating before the Lord, and their future spouse (whether or not it is us) as holy and blameless. If you look further back in Ephesians 5, it talks about not having even a hint of sexual immorality. This is how we love each other. Honestly, some of the times I have felt most loved by Stephen, is when I know he is being intentional about the situations we put ourselves in and reinforcing the importance of our boundaries. How incredible to know he is putting my holiness and obedience to the Lord above whatever selfish or worldy desires he may have!
So why the idea of guard rails? (thank you Andy Stanley for this analogy!) We need room to re-evaluate situations, time to put on the brakes before going over the cliff. Stephen’s sister (my future sister, yippee!) had a good thought when we were talking about this. If you think of yourself as a tiny little person (think Alice in Wonderland shrunk), standing on top of a slippery mushroom, the very top and centre is a safe place to stand. You can still hold on as you go down the sides, and you could even climb back to the top (though that would require serious effort), but it becomes easier and easier to slip right over the edge.
One of our guard rails is not putting ourselves in situations where we’re home alone. Being in a house without anyone else does not mean that we are automatically going to find ourselves crossing physical boundaries, but it certainly takes away accountability and makes it easier to “fall off the mushroom.” There have been times where we’ve found ourselves alone because people left or we were early, and we’ve let it slide. It seemed fine, because nothing happened, but we regretted it. Not because we took things too far, but because it was much to easy for us to climb over our guardrail. Once you take those initial steps towards the edge of the mushroom, it can be very difficult to back track. You’ll tell yourself, “oh, but we were fine. What’s the harm?” Your initial boundaries were set for a reason, there is never a good reason to lower your standards, but you need to fight for them.
One thing I’m really learning these days, is the importance of recognizing my own motives. Both Stephen and I have touch as our primary love language. This means that one of the best ways I can show him affection is by holding his hand, hugs, etc. This also means that I need to examine my own motives regularly. Am I giving “affection” just so I can receive personal affirmation? Love does not dishonour others, and it is not self-seeking. I cannot really love Stephen if I am trying to manipulate him into filling my needs. This can lead to dangerous places in terms of boundaries, but also just unhealthy attitudes in our relationship.
Before we can commit to another person, we need to know that God is the one who fills our needs. We were designed in a unique way, with specific needs, but we cannot expect the person we are dating to fill all of these. We would disappointed, and they would become exhausted and bitter. I hope you find someone who will love you, and strive to learn how to love you best, but they will also be a broken person with their own needs. If we look to Christ to fill our needs, He can use us to truly love the one we are committing ourselves to, without selfish motives.
Our motive in everything should be to encourage and uplift, to help them become more like Christ, to present the other as holy and blameless before the Lord. This is why boundaries matter.