The following is an adapted/shortened excerpt about emotional boundaries in Christian dating from my book, True Love Dates! Give it a read, and then do me the huge honor of getting your hands on a copy of the book for the full chapter and much, much more!
It’s what relationships are built upon. It’s the give and take that make a relationship work. It’s has the power to unite two people as one–and the ability to destroy all that’s been built in just a matter of moments. The building of trust in a dating relationship is by far one of the most important things. Like anything significant thing in life, it’s something that can’t be fabricated and shouldn’t be rushed.
Building trust in a slow and steady way involves establishing emotional boundaries in dating — a set of dos and don’ts that guides you through the exchange of emotions without going too deep too fast.
Emotional boundaries can be difficult to establish, because the truth is, it’s far easier to put boundaries on physical intimacy — hands kept to a certain place, kissing kept to a specific limit. When I was in college, there was an ongoing joke about the Three-Second Hug Rule. If you were caught hugging longer than three seconds, your peers would call you out for having entered the realm of the “inappropriate”. Sometimes pesky onlookers even counted out loud for you so you wouldn’t lose track of time. Needless to say, physical boundaries often come with tangible measures.
But how do you gauge when emotional intimacy is pushing the limits? How far is too far when it comes to emotional boundaries in dating?
Though I don’t claim to have all the answers, God really challenged my heart on this subject during my season of dating. Reflecting on my dating history, my friend’s stories, and on my clients’ experiences, I have found that couples who develop emotionally healthy relationships usually keep the following boundaries in mind.
1. Guard Your (I’m about to say it….) Heart
If you’re like me, you cringe whenever you hear the phrase “guard your heart.” It’s a cliché in Christian circles that carries a great concept but comes with very little practical application in that no one really knows how to put it into practice.
Guarding your heart means protecting the deepest parts of who you are — both your emotional and spiritual worlds — from anyone who could cause them harm.
Matthew 7:6 warns, “Do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” Sometimes people can be insensitive and uncaring. It’s important to hold on tight to the things that matter to you until you know that you can trust someone. Don’t be too quick to share your life story, your every thought, or your deepest secrets. Don’t commit to praying for hours on end with someone you’ve just met. Prayer is a time of exposing your heart and getting emotionally naked before the Lord. Talk about an intimate moment.
It’s vital to pray about your relationship and to seek God’s voice for direction, but make sure you wait before you seek it together. Pursue God individually so as not to allow your spiritual relationship to become a trio prematurely. Not only is it okay to wait, but it’s important to do so until the timing is right, until you have clarified your commitment, established trust, and experienced give-and-take in your dating relationship.
Don’t go too deep too fast, because emotional intimacy can pull you far deeper into your relationship than you ever meant to go and, in the end, leave you with the double damage of a broken heart and a broken spirit.
2. Guard Your Time
Naturally, two people getting to know each other in a dating relationship have a strong desire to spend time together. Being together seems like the natural route of relationship building, and so many couples try to maximize the amount of time they invest in one another, not realizing that there is great benefit in physical distance. Just as crucial as spending time together is spending time apart.
Time apart reveals so much about a relationship. The independence it allows will later translate to interdependence — two independent individuals choosing to rely on one another.
Couples who spend an unhealthy amount of time together may become enmeshed, losing their independence. Be cautious of the emotional entanglements that can arise when two become one prematurely by investing all of their time into a relationship.
Set aside quality time for your dating relationship, but be sure to set aside quality time for yourself — for your relationship with God, your ministries, your hobbies, your family and friends.
You were never meant to lose yourself within a dating relationship; rather you were meant to enhance yourself.
3. Guard Your Mind
Any counselor will tell you that there is a reputable kind of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy. The idea behind this method of healing is that how you think has a direct impact on how you feel. All through the Bible, God reminds us of the power of the mind and the repercussions of our thinking. We are told to renew our minds (Rom. 12:2) and to keep our minds focused on what is good (Phil. 4:8). For many people, even more significant than their external behavior are their internal musings. Consequently, our thoughts about dating can have a tremendous impact on our emotional world.
Not only that, but how often can we create a world in our minds that doesn’t actually exist in real life? We have the tendency to analyze, and over-analyze every word, action, and behavior of the opposite sex trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. These mind games can cause is to make something out of nothing–missing real life for what it actually is. Hours spent picking things apart and reading in between the lines can occupy your thoughts and consume your mind–immersing you in a world of dreaming that prevents you from experiencing real life. So keep your thoughts in check, and your emotions will follow suit.
4. Guard Your Conversation
It is so tempting to talk about the future when you’re dating. You want to dream together, to envision the future and create a life to live for. While it’s important to be on the same page in a relationship, I’ve met far too many couples who have jumped into these kinds of conversations way too fast. Discussions about marriage, children, and even sexual intimacy should be delayed until after you’ve laid a foundation of commitment and trust.
It’s a problem when you commit to the future before you’ve committed to the present.
Rather than allowing your hopes for the future to blind you, savor, assess, invest in, and engage in your relationship where it is now. Commit to the moment, allowing your relationship to mature before permitting your conversation to jump ahead, because wherever your conversation goes, your heart will always follow. First lay the foundation; then build the house.
Your emotional world is one of the most intimate parts of who you are, so don’t allow it to be compromised. Healthy dating relationships call for an accurate understanding of your emotional temperament (more details about emotional temperament in the first part of this chapter) as well as the gradual building of trust. Protect yourself by guarding your heart, your mind, your time, and your conversation.
Be deliberate about setting emotional boundaries in dating. Take control of your relationships; otherwise, they will take control of you.
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Debra Fileta is a Professional Counselor, national speaker, relationship expert, and author of True Love Dates: Your Indispensable Guide to Finding the Love of Your Life, and Choosing Marriage: Why It Has To Start With We > Me where she writes candidly about love, sex, dating, relationships, and marriage. You may also recognize her voice from her 200+ articles at Relevant Magazine, Crosswalk.com, and all over the web! She’s the creator of this True Love Dates Blog, reaching millions of people with the message that healthy people make healthy relationships! Connect with her on Facebook or Twitter or book a session with her today!