How to Set Physical Boundaries in a Relationship

11:00 AM

Dear Bethany,

NetNanny will block this post from your view because it contains the word "dating." Among other things. I hope you can eventually see it. :) I love watching your relationship unfold -- tentative in hope, bold in love, pure in all respects. It refreshes me to see a relationship so unworrisome and drama-free as yours! In some ways, I wish my relationship started as yours -- with fewer mistakes and heartache. Right now your relationship honors God 100% and ought to encourage every girl who currently envies your position. ;)

While you're walking strong, I want to confess something to you: I did not walk strong. By the grace of the most merciful God, my boy and I remain together despite all odds (the details of which you mostly know, especially if they occurred with your shoulder nearby to cry on). He blessed us despite our confusion and flat-out sin.

You know how often I rolled my eyes at the silly courtship books that obsessed about physical purity. Yeah, yeah, yeah. . .we heard that lesson a million times at awkward Sunday school or youth group talks. Moving on!

What everybody told me then, I never listened to. Why in the world would I need to be reminded about sexual purity? That's for those public schooled girls who date for pleasure only. And besides, I didn't want to be a prude. Please -- people can kiss without taking it all the way. Couples can hold hands. No. Big. Deal.

I laughed. But when I found myself miles from the line of true physical purity, tempted and continually tempted to actually do the real thing, I found nothing to laugh at. I saw a hypocrite with a ruined reputation and a conscience in shambles, doing and desiring things I never thought myself even capable of. Other people too -- friends I trusted, friends who grew up with the same sort of lectures, fell hard like we did. It seems almost every relationship became marred by sexual sin -- not actual sex, of course, but almost anything leading up to it or toeing the line. Beautiful people in otherwise beautiful relationships saw their innocence, their conscience, and their days of never knowing temptation broken about their feet.

It is ugly, ugly, Bethany, to sin against yourself and the one you love most in this way. It is ugly to hear your conscience flaming mad at you -- or worse, completely dead from neglect. It is ugly to face the battle against passion awakened before its time because of physical acts, because of one moment of letting your guard down. It is the worst thing ever. It makes everything more difficult. It's like living with an emotional and spiritual disability -- this temptation to sin again, if not the guilt of sinning the first time.

Just don't even ask the question, "How far is too far?" Just run. Don't hold hands. Sit on opposite sides of the couch, opposite sides of the room. Just don't do anything that gets you anywhere close to sinning physically.

I say this to you because sinning physically can happen to your beautiful relationship. The odds are stacked way against you. You are hardwired as a physical, sexual being -- a beautiful thing in its proper context of marriage. Slipping into sin of that sort feels far more natural and loving than backing away and saying no.

Picking up the pieces of a relationship marred by hints of sexual immorality is another post -- one I can hopefully write someday from a positive, triumphant position. This post is about avoiding it altogether. . .by putting up boundaries. Just four simple, profound guidelines.

(1) Never ignore your conscience. Ever. The conscience of one person trumps the desires of the other person. If anything you ever do feels off, not right, questionable in any way, stop. Stop right there. We've talked about the whole saving-your-kiss thing. You don't need to decide that question for the whole world -- decide for you what feels comfortable, listen to your conscience if it starts flashing caution lights. Be a prude if you have to -- i.e. you don't need a logical reason for saying no to kissing, no to holding hands, no to any sort of physical contact beyond a hug. Stick to your gut and say no. Truly, you will not regret sparing yourself any hint of sexual immorality or temptation.

(2) If your conscience isn't clear enough, listen to your sex drive. (Sorry to be awkwardly blunt.) If anything gives you those chills that turns off your brain and your conscience and makes you desire something beyond the innocent -- that is, if any touch starts awakening a passion unable to be fulfilled while unmarried -- stop. Literally get up and flee the room until your senses and conscience kick in back to normal. Sure, maybe making out one time won't lead to anything worse than learning that kissing is actually grosser than you imagined, but feeding that desire, that raw hunger for a passion you never knew existed inside you, will always lead to something really regrettable.

(3) Remember your relationship with your twin brother! Kevin DeYoung points out that Paul instructs young men to treat young women as sisters in all purity. Until you marry your man, he is your brother. You are single. You are unmarried. How gross and wrong would it be to make out with your biological twin brother? As equally gross and wrong it should feel to make out or cross any other lines with your spiritual brother! Stick to platonic expressions of physical love. If something is questionable, ask yourself, "Could I do this with my twin brother?" If not, just skip it.

(4) Physical boundaries protect you from the burden of greater temptation and the scars of sexual error. Temptation and sin is your enemy -- not each other and not your physical touch. If you ever feel that the boundaries hinder your relationship with each other, think again. What's worse -- purity and a guilt-free conscience with unmet excitement and longing or a wounded conscience that fails to keep you out of trouble as you sin again and again, worse and worse, and struggle to come clean again?

In sum, err on the side of caution. Err on the side of the woman at church who told you not to hold hands. Err on the side of your parents who set up random rules and curfews when your boyfriend visits. It's easier to say not a chance in the beginning. Please trust me. I hope you never need to write a similar letter like this to our next sister. Be the example I can no longer be of a relationship wholly pure and without regret.

And lest I leave you on a despairing note -- the Holy Spirit is on our side! He leads away from and out of temptation. The fight for sin is already won, so we just need to walk in that victory.

Much love,

You Might Also Like

8 impressions

  1. First --

    "The conscience of one person trumps the desires of the other person."

    This. This should be kept at the forefront of the mind of any young person in a relationship in my opinion. It is the definitive answer to any sort of "If you really loved me . . . " pressure to do more than either person feels is right. And ideally, it would prevent such pressure from being applied too. What *either* person wants must take back seat to the most restrictive comfort-level.

    Second: It sounds like you did things in your relationship that you now regret. I think almost everyone, if not everyone, does at some point. I know I have regrets. It is still hard though. I am glad that you seem to be working through the feelings and your relationship survived intact.


  2. Thanks, Adele. Everything you said means a lot. :)

  3. Yes! That line that Adele pulled out... That is SO important. I knew in my relationship, that my conscience should trump his desire, but I was too awkward or shy to speak up that early in our relationship, and so I gave in to the incredible pressure from my boyfriend. We never went very far. In fact, we stayed well inside the boundaries of propriety that many good, Christian couples set. But it was wrong for *me*. I thought he would be hurt if I told him he couldn't hold my hand or give me very long, tight hugs. Now in retrospect, I wish I had just spoken up. Or pulled away... Forced myself to have that awkward conversation.
    I'm so grateful for God's grace to cover all these faults. And for grace to carry me through in the future.

    Thanks for speaking on this subject, Bailey!

  4. you have an interesting blog. thanks for sharing, I enjoyed reading your posts.

  5. Very well said, Bailey. I just might adopt some of these sentences at camp this summer.

    Love you.

  6. Thanks for sharing this. I find it so easy to feel condemned by others for the choices that we make with physical boundaries. It's so hard. I entered into my relationship a bit naive. I figured if we set some clear boundaries- no kissing and no sitting on the couch together (or the floor or a bed or wherever, cuddling)- we would be safe. Nope. It really is a matter of the heart. I also thought if we did something and it was fine and safe, then it was always okay. Not true. Doing something for a longer duration and with more frequency- even if it is something as "innocent" as hugging- can easily become a stumbling block. The boundaries are not just physical, but also mental.

    As much joy that comes with dating, sometimes I wish I was betrothed ;-)

  7. Bailey, I have always appreciated your openness and clarity. In my (admittedly limited) experience, not many people write about important things with the vernacular capability you demonstrate.

    Everything you say here rings true with me, both the hopes and the regrets; it means a great deal to have a peer articulate our thoughts and struggles so well. There's nothing new under the sun, but sometimes it's hard to remember that when I'm experiencing the pain of surrendered convictions with my fiancee.

    Just this past week, I finished reading Elisabeth Elliot's Passion & Purity... and though I'd read it many years before, its inspiration this time around was like a sunrise, complete with trumpets, an angel chorus, and a deep sense of peace. It's hard to imagine that Jim and Elisabeth Elliot faced the same struggles and drives to the degree that we feel them, but they did.

    Your post reminded me of the book, and if you haven't read it (or haven't read it recently), I think you would be encouraged if you did. It's both gentle and convicting, carrying the message "If we can make it, so can you!"

    You have my thoughts and prayers! Thank you for publishing this!

  8. How did you rip into my heart and express exactly what it has been beating as of late?

    I am ~very~ happily married to my beloved. But, oh, how I know the utter pain you express. I praise God now for being a Redeemer...not just of my soul but of my ashes! I don't know how but He is -- every day!

    Thank you for writing this, Bailey. I wish I could reach across the states and give you a giant hug and remind you (and your man) that He really did forsee this. That was one of the hardest things for me to accept. I never knew what was inside of me: the sin, the temptation, the giving-in ... but He did. And He saves for not only the times before salvation (you know, when we were heathens in ignorant sin) but for those times after. And He glorifies and redeems and sanctifies and finishes His work even when we cannot see how or why ... even when we are still in the difficult process of forgiving ourselves.

    So sorry this is long but I just can't help but try to love you as a sister in Christ through my saying, "He will redeem it."

    With love and prayers!!


Hit me with your best thought! I'm very interested in your unique perspective. If you'd like to discuss things in private, feel free to email me! :)