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Now Reading: What’s The Deal With Emotional Boundaries?
4 years ago
If you’ve been involved with Christian dating culture for more than a week, you’ve probably heard some variation of the term “emotional boundaries,” “emotional chastity” or “guarding your heart.”
Emotional boundaries are like the Loch Ness monster of Christian dating. Everyone’s heard of them, but no one knows exactly what they look like or whether they’re even a real thing.
Physical boundaries are pretty straightforward. Sure, there might be a bit of controversy about how long you’re allowed to hold hands for (no more than 5 minutes at a time), but virtually everyone understands: sex belongs in marriage, don’t do other sexual stuff outside of marriage, yay physical boundaries.
Emotional boundaries aren’t nearly so clear. So, I decided to conduct some research on what prominent Christian authors who write on the topic of relationships had to say about them.
Honestly, I was disappointed. Writing about what a person’s emotional boundaries should be, Jeramy Camp in his book I Gave Dating a Chance, writes “Ask for guidance. The Bible instructs us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).”
Come on Jeramy. We. Need. Specifics.
Unable to find a solid low-down on emotional boundaries elsewhere, I thought what better opportunity to once again test whether WordPress imposes an upper limit on the number of words allowed in a blog post. Here are my thoughts (and some much-needed specifics) on the topic of emotional boundaries:
As human beings, we are hardwired to desire emotional intimacy. We desire connection, we want to be understood, and we need to be loved. In the right relationships and in the right amounts, emotional intimacy is a good thing.
However, the Bible warns to “Guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Prov 4:23). Why? Because inappropriate emotional intimacy can be damaging.
It can warp our perspective, preventing us for seeing a person or our relationship with them objectively. When a relationship doesn’t work out, the breaking of deep emotional bonds we’ve forged can be a source of significant hurt.
This doesn’t mean that we should approach our relationships like dispassionate robots. However, emotional boundaries are about recognising that there is an appropriate level of intimacy for every stage of a relationship.
Emotional boundaries also guard against the temptation to be selfish in fulfilling our emotional desires. Just as we can use other people for physical pleasure, we need to recognise that we can also use people for emotional pleasure. There are 3 areas where this can happen:
One time when I was at university, I dated a girl because she was pretty, she liked me, and my friends thought I would be crazy not to date her. Another time, it was because I was attracted to a girl and it was over a year since my last relationship, so I figured I was about due for another one.
If you’d asked me at the time if I cared about these girls, I would tell you I did. But looking back, I was mostly in these relationships because of how they made me feel. It was all about having fun together and enjoying the emotional high of being in love. When those feelings faded or the relationship got difficult, I would break it off.
My pattern of dating at university wasn’t unusual. We live in a culture that promotes unintentional and selfish dating. If someone wants to go out with you and you find them attractive, it’s just assumed that you’ll date them. If you’re lonely, it’s seen as a viable solution to jump into a relationship. We’ve probably all had that friend who avoided breaking off a relationship out of fear that nothing better will come alone.
When it boils down to it, all of these are cases of one or both parties emotionally using the other.
Lisa Cotter points out that “just as we can sexually fantasize about a person in our mind we can emotionally fantasize about a person as well.” We can spend our time daydreaming about the person, thinking about what it would be like to date or marry them, and playing through emotionally enjoyable scenes of being together.
This may seem harmless, but as Cotter points out, what we’re really doing here is reducing the other person to an object in our fantasy. Our thoughts aren’t born out of love for that person, but out the desire for the emotional high we experience by imagining a relationship with them. When we objectify people in this way, we fail to honour their dignity as a human person.
When I started my relationship with my now-wife Renée, there was a temptation to dive into a deep level of emotional intimacy really fast. I was finally dating someone who got me; I wanted to share my heart with this person, I wanted to know everything about them, and I wanted to stay up until 3am having deep conversations.
But if I had done that, it wouldn’t have been because I really wanted to care for Renée and do what’s best for her our relationship. It would have been because I wanted to experience that emotionally high that comes from sharing so intimately with another person and that would have been wrong.
Too much emotional intimacy, too soon, can also distort our perspective. When you’ve shared your heart with someone and told them things you haven’t told anyone else, it’s hard to your relationship with that person objectively. That’s a problem when you’re still discerning whether this is someone you want to spend your life with.
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So how do we set good boundaries in our relationships? In the context of physical boundaries, it’s simple. You recognise how far is too far, draw a line, and do your best not to cross it.
Emotional boundaries aren’t so clear. You can’t say “I’m only going to share this level of emotional intimacy” with the same clarity that you can say “I’m not going to get naked with this person” or “I’m not going to have steamy makeout sessions with him/her.”
There can also be differences in emotional boundaries based on the unique characteristics of your relationship. When Renée and I started our relationship, we had known each other for almost 10 years, and we had dated a couple of times previously (long story).
We were starting our relationship with a level of emotional intimacy that I hadn’t reached after months of being in past relationships. There were topics of conversations that would normally be off-limits in the first few months of dating that we were already comfortable with.
In many ways, this level of familiarity made it harder for us to ensure that our emotional intimacy stayed at an appropriate level. It would have been easy for us to go deeper than we should have, on the basis that we had already shared a lot over the course of the past 10 years.
Whether you’re starting a relationship with someone you’ve known someone for 5 years or 5 days, your physical boundaries should look exactly the same. But your emotional boundaries probably won’t.
With all that in mind, I’ll share as many specifics as I can, but a lot of this is general principles that you’ll need to apply to your own life and relationships.
Often, the temptation to emotionally use people, either in our minds or in relationships, arises because of emotional voids in our life – loneliness, low self-worth, or a lack of meaningful relationships. Not only is relying on one person to fill all these needs unhealthy, it’s doomed to fail.
To fill any emptiness we are feeling, we should first and foremost look to God. If you don’t have a faith, that might sound silly or unhelpful, but I can only answer with my own experience. At the times in my life when I’ve neglected my relationship with God, it has left me empty and directionless.
I believe that we had been made for meaningful relationship. Yes, with other people, but first and foremost with our creator, God.
In God, we find a creator who loves us, who has created us with a purpose, and who reminds us that we are enough. At the times when you’re feeling empty or alone, turn to God in prayer. Ask Him to fill those voids.
As Lisa Cotter points out, solid friendships are another great safeguard against the temptation to use others emotionally. If we’re feeling a lack of companionship, our first instinct should be to invest in our relationships with family and friends, not to expect a girlfriend/boyfriend to fulfil those longings.
Even in marriage (some would say especially in marriage!) you cannot rely on your spouse to fulfil all your emotional needs.
At every stage of my relationship with Renée, finding fulfillment first and foremost in my relationship with God, and maintaining solid relationships with friends and family, has been the bedrock for ensuring that our emotional relationship stays healthy.
The human mind, I’ve released, is a lot like a YouTube webpage. In the same way that you can just keep clicking to the next video, if you mindlessly move from one thought to the next then by the time you stop it’ll be 3am and you’ll be in a pretty strange place.
It is a general principle that if you want to live a healthy and successful life, you need to exercise discipline over your mind. This is especially true in relation to thoughts about someone you’re attracted to and your relationship with them.
When we are tempted to emotionally fantasize about someone, it’s important not to consciously dwell on these thoughts.
This isn’t to say that every thought about someone you’re attracted to or in a relationship with is bad. When Renée and I were dating, I would often think about her. I would reflect on a date that we had been on, I would think about qualities I found attractive in her, and I would miss her if we hadn’t seen each other for a few days.
None of these thoughts were wrong, because they were grounded in reality. The positive emotions I experienced as a result of these thoughts didn’t come from reducing Renée to the object of fantasy; they came from my love for who she truly was as a person.
The same is true with thinking about what it would be like to be in a relationship with someone or to marry them. There’s nothing wrong with this – if you’re actually discerning whether to start a relationship with them or marry them.
What’s important here is keeping your thoughts grounded in reality, and appropriate to the level of relationship that you are in.
So, looking forward to a romantic date that you’ve planned with your significant other? Totally fine. Fantasizing about sharing a candle-lit dinner with them on a private island in the Caribbean? Probably too far.
Thinking about what type of spouse and father/mother your significant other would be as you discern marriage in a more serious way after a year of dating? Fine. Daydreaming about what type of spouse and father/mother that good-looking new co-worker would be? Not fine.
Guarding your thoughts against emotional fantasising can be a challenge. What’s the first thing that crosses your mind when I say, “DON’T think about purple elephants?” Purple elephants.
Rather than vainly attempting not to think about something, let me recommend a couple of strategies. The first would be to use these thoughts as a prompting for prayer. When you find yourself thinking about this person, rather than daydreaming, intentionally use this as an opportunity to pray for them.
You might like to pray some variation of the following, “Lord, I pray that you would bless [name]. I pray that you would give me grace not to think about [name] in a way that is inappropriate. I trust in your plan for my life. Amen.”
The second would be to deliberately focus your thoughts on something else that demands your attention. If you’re struggling not to emotionally fantasise about someone, but you’re parked on the couch watching a romantic movie, you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle. Call a friend, play competitive Tetris online (seriously), take up welding – do something that requires your focus.
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There are few things as overpowering as the emotional cocktail that accompanies a new relationship. Every time you think about that special someone it brings a smile to your face, you cannot wait until you’re together again, and when you are, it feels like there’s nowhere you’d rather be.
There’s nothing wrong with this stage in a relationship; enjoy it. But recognise it for what it is – an emotional high that 100% prevents you from being objective about the relationship.
In the midst of this emotional high, it can be tempting to spend all our time with the person, to show them how much we care with big romantic gestures, and to tell them things we haven’t shared with anyone else.
But the best thing you can do right now is take your time. If the relationship is meant to be, you’ll have plenty of time for all of the above in the months and years to come.
Anyone who writes or speaks on the topic of relationships will tell you that they’ve never met anyone who regretted going too slowly in a relationship. But we’ve all met our fair share of people who regret moving too fast.
This is one of the reasons I cringe when I hear about people going all-out on first dates [link] and incorporating some combination of breath-taking landscapes, 5-course meals, and horse-riding. You aren’t meant to be sweeping the other person off their feet on a first date, you’re meant to be getting to know them. You’re meant to be discerning, with some degree of objectivity (hopefully), whether you want to start a relationship with this person.
To give another example, I have an extended conversation with my wife every day. If I’m travelling for work, I’ll make sure to call each evening. We’re at a stage in our relationship where this level of constant communication, and the emotional connection it brings with it, is not only appropriate, it’s important.
But it wasn’t appropriate when we first started dating. To call Renée every day in the first few months of our relationship would have been too much emotional connection, too fast. Having space from each other at the start was important to discerning our relationship with a clear head.
Recognise that there are certain things that are going to accelerate the emotional intimacy in your relationship and steer clear of them until the appropriate time.
One of the most important aspects of taking your time is being intentional about conversation. There are some topics that are automatically a lot more emotionally intimate than others and should therefore be off-limits until you’re in a serious relationship.
Renée and I knew that one of these topics was our past relationships. In the first few months we were dating, there were a couple of times when this topic naturally came up, but we intentionally shut down any conversation on it.
It wasn’t until about a month before we got engaged that we finally had this conversation. As expected, it was emotionally intense; it spanned a couple of hours and a lot of tears from both of us.
Afterwards, there was an almost tangible difference in the emotional intimacy of our relationship. It felt like we had stepped from the shallow end of a swimming pool into the deep end.
In the days that followed there were so many times when I thought about how glad I was that we had waited until we did to have this conversation. I knew it wasn’t somewhere we should have been swimming in the first few months of our relationship.
This is one area where I can be specific. Emotionally intense topics of conversation to be mindful of, in no particular order, include:
These are conversations that should be reserved for when you’re in a serious relationship. Reaching that stage will be different for every relationship, but generally, I’d say you shouldn’t be diving into them before the 5–6 month mark at the earliest.
I’d recommend having a conversation about this boundary near the start of your relationship. Make sure the person you’re dating knows that these topics are off the table initially and why this is important to you.
Be firm. When these topics come up naturally (and some of them definitely will), it can be tempting to think that this is the perfect time to tackle a tough conversation. But if you’re only a few weeks or months into the relationship, I can promise you it isn’t.
While it might feel a bit awkward, the best thing to do here is to hit pause and gently tell that other person you don’t feel comfortable talking about that yet. Explain to them that it’s not something that you don’t want to talk about ever, just not at this stage of the relationship. Steer the conversation towards other topics that allow you to keep getting to know each other, but without stepping into the emotional deep end.
Avoiding certain topics of conversation is one of the only specific emotional boundaries that you can have. For the most part, maintaining a healthy emotional relationship involves less-tangible principles like finding fulfilment in the right places and taking your time.
With this in mind, it’s important to check yourself by regularly reflecting on how you’re going with emotional boundaries. Looking back over the past week or two can give you perspective on what you might be missing in the moment.
For example, if you’re in a relationship with someone and you end up staying up late talking on the phone, that can be a pretty normal and enjoyable one-off. But if you were staying up late talking to them on the phone most nights of the week, that would probably be a situation where you need to slow down.
If you’re unsure whether you’re crossing boundaries, take it to prayer and ask the advice of people you trust (ideally those with a bit more wisdom when it comes to relationships than you do).
Also, don’t let emotional boundaries just be a one-off conversation that you have with your girlfriend/boyfriend at the start of the relationship. In the same way that you should check in regularly about how you’re going with physical boundaries, you should check in regarding emotional boundaries. Kill two birds with one stone and talk about both in the same conversation.
If you’ve crossed a line, identify those factors that are tempting you or causing you to overstep your boundaries and respond to them as necessary. Recommit to your boundaries and start over.
Emotional intimacy is a good thing. We are hardwired for a life of meaningful relationships. However, emotional boundaries are about recognising that there is an appropriate level of emotional intimacy for every stage of a relationship.
When we go past this level of intimacy, we can end up emotionally using other people, rather than treating them with the dignity they deserve. It can warp our perspective, preventing us from seeing the relationship that we’re in objectively. And if the relationship doesn’t work out, breaking the deep emotional bonds that we’ve formed can result in a lot more hurt than is necessary
As with physical boundaries, emotional boundaries can often sound like a lot of “no, no, no.” But the truth is that these boundaries are actually about saying some much bigger yes’s. “Yes” to finding fulfilment in the right places, “yes” to healthy emotional intimacy and most of all, “yes” to relationships based on authentic love.