“It’s so hard to maintain chastity during engagement! How do we build intimacy without sinning?”
“It’s hard to maintain physical boundaries with my boyfriend. I know physical stuff isn’t wrong, but what is ok for us to do?”
“We’re trying to avoid, and the long windows of abstinence are rough. What can we do as a married couple that’s licit? And why the heck are there even limits?”
Whether from dating, engaged or married folks, the questions I have been getting A LOT in my inbox essentially boil down to “How far is too far in a physical relationship?” What is the line between sin and not sin? I’ve gotten it so frequently, I decided I needed to save myself some time, and just write a blog post.
I do think it’s interesting that the three categories of people asking this question are in very different stages of life, but still struggling with the same issue. Personally, I believe the reason is because we’re all asking the wrong question. It is at its core a manipulative question that almost always ends with going “too far”. Asking “how far is too far?” limits us to respond to one another in fear. Fear of sin is certainly good, but since it is negative, if it’s all we’re concerned about, we make it impossible to grow in love.
Asking that question leads to crazy answers like, “well, you can make out for 20 minutes sitting up, but once you go beyond that or change positions, it’s a mortal sin!” That was a response someone actually received when trying to find an answer to this question. It’s fundamentally arbitrary and unsatisfying because it misses the whole point.
So let’s chuck that question once and for all, shall we?
The question we should be asking is this:
“How am I called to love myself and my significant other right now, and how do I avoid using either them or myself?”
See what I did there? Instead of just being worried about avoiding sin, which is only a negative, now we’re concerned with how to love, which is fundamentally positive and fruitful. Simple!
Simple, yes. Easy, no. Because what this question forces us to do is be honest about our motivations. Dangit! Why do I want to make out with my girlfriend right now? Is it because I want to express my love for her, or because it feels really good and I want to get some satisfaction because we’re alone and it’s dark and that just seems to be the thing to do? Am I a pent up and frustrated spouse needing an outlet, but refuse to develop the maturity and discipline to channel my urges in a way that respects myself and the person I vowed to love? Am I afraid to talk to my significant other about my weaknesses in an honest way? Do I just want to avoid an awkward conversation? Am I afraid to admit the truth about myself?
What is Love? Baby Don’t Hurt Me!
Love in this context means to will someone’s good. That’s how St. Thomas Aquinas defined it. When I love myself and another person, that means that I strive to do only that which will result in our good, and will avoid all that which could cause harm, spiritually, mentally, physically or emotionally. It means I will not engage in actions that torment myself or another person, and disrespect the beautiful and integrated design of our bodies, minds and souls. It means I know that certain actions were designed to arouse and excite, and that my body and mind responding to those actions in that manner is good, and therefore must be treated with great care and respect.
Dating or Engaged.
When sex isn’t on the table, it can be pretty easy to define the lines in this context of love not use. Kissing and touching certain areas (and I don’t care how many layers of clothes stay on) are designed to arouse us. That’s just a fact. That doesn’t mean you have to date and court Amish style in bundling bags. But it means that you develop a physical language of love rooted in clear communication where you seek to understand the way your body and mind respond to certain situations and stimuli – and to respond in a respectful and loving way, always seeking to will one another’s good. For some, that may mean even chaste lip grazes are a no go. For others, the lines may not be so strict. No matter what, succeeding in this practice requires radical self-awareness and honesty.
When sex is on the table, the lines do get a little gray, and this makes many people uncomfortable (especially those who are scrupulous and like clear cut rules). The reason is due in part to the fact that we are all unique and unrepeatable beings, and the way we all receive and give love will be unique to us. For those who don’t like the gray area, this becomes a call to surrender. In marriage, our bodies belong to one another to cherish and nourish (Ephesians 5:29). It’s our job to learn how to nourish and cherish them.
For couples who struggle to maintain boundaries during long windows of abstinence, I do not recommend board games. Who ever thought board games were a great substitute for sex had a horrible sex life. I said it. What I recommend is for couples to learn and develop a non-sexual physical language of love when sex IS on the table. That way there’s no pressure to find a substitute for sex, but rather a genuine desire to explore, learn and discover the whole person. Take baths or showers together. Sleep naked together. Go at a hardcore makeout session on the couch during a movie. Give each other touches and kisses throughout the day, maybe varying in intensity. Communicate clearly with each other how all this makes you feel. Learn how your bodies and minds respond to one another in these contexts, and learn your limits at a time where pushing them won’t backfire. That way when you are in a long dry spell, you know what you can do to show love and reassurance, and what activities would probably lead to baby making.
Yea, but still…
I always like to point out in this conversation that sex and sexual desire both predated sin. Both are fundamentally good and beautiful. We are not broken because we want to rip each other’s clothes off (come on, we have to have a little levity). Rather, our brokenness blinds us to the reality that sex and sexual desire serve a purpose. They are not ends in themselves.
Our root desire behind sex is intimacy. It is this deep longing to know and love another person fully, and be known and loved fully in return. When we feel that longing, that urge and push towards sex, that is our bodies orienting us towards that deep knowing that springs from both our minds and our souls, the physical pointing to the spiritual. When sex is off the table, that can feel like a cruel punishment, a joke that God plays just to make us hurt. We have to remember that God’s original design for us was to never leave Eden. We were not designed to suffer, and suppressing our longing for sex out of love at certain times is suffering. It is sacrifice and a crushing of the ego. We feel it as an injustice, which in a way it is. It is unjust that we freely choose to use rather than love, but that is our choice, and living in a fallen world is the consequence.
When we take the time and have the courage to be curious about our motivations and wounds, to be honest about our deepest desires, we create the possibility to truly know both ourselves and our beloved. It’s not easy. I know many of us are struggling with sexual sin or the sexual sin of our significant others, or lies and false expectations from heretical ideologies. These wounds harm our relationships deeply, and make it feel next to impossible to love and be loved as we were designed. I hear from many who feel their situation to be hopeless. I don’t want to oversimplify the complexity and intricacies of our sexuality, but alas, this is a blog post, not a book.
I merely wish to encourage and invite you if you struggle in this area or with these questions to make the hardest first step today – acknowledge your weakness, your inability to truly love without healing, your need for a Healer. More often than not it is pride that holds us back from love, pride that blinds us to the truth of who we are, pride that is at the root of our difficulty to cultivate intimacy. And make no mistake, it is intimacy, a deep knowing and loving, that we truly long for.
“Humility is not self-contempt but the truth about ourselves coupled with a reverence for others; it is self-surrender to the highest goal.”Venerable Fulton Sheen