“You need to guard your heart,” says Christian YouTuber Becca Eller. I can’t say I disagree. There are real neurobiological mechanisms at play when we are dating. Getting attached to someone who doesn’t have our best interests at heart can be devastating.
But as I listen to Becca, and other Christians such as Mark Ballenger, I find flaws in this approach to dating.
The Christian boundaries they talk about would guard our hearts in the dating phase. But they’d leave us vulnerable to marrying someone who is, at best, unable to reciprocate intimacy, and at worst, abusive.
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The 5 Christian Dating Boundaries
- Don’t have sex until marriage. (For those of us who grew up in the church, this is Christianity 101)
All sexual experiences should be reserved for marriage. The reasoning Christians often point to is simply that it’s in the Bible. That’s not a compelling argument but I agree with setting physical boundaries in a relationship for reasons I explain in the section below on what Christians get right about boundaries.
- Don’t talk about your future together. Don’t talk about your future kids or where and when you want to get married.
I think the point of this is to prevent blank promises which are often used to manipulate people. But this is where I’ll argue we should replace excessive boundaries with a critical assessment of character. Manipulative tactics like “future faking” are easy to spot once you learn the signs.
- Don’t go to your partner for emotional support.
This one is hard for me to understand. The fundamental purpose of dating is to develop an emotional connection. My view is you should assess whether your partner is meeting you where you are emotionally. This would never happen if you guarded your heart 100% of the time.
Mark’s advice is essentially to guard your heart until marriage. “When you can guard your heart no longer, it’s time to get married so you don’t need to guard your heart towards this person anymore,” he says.
But I caution against viewing marriage as a holy grail of confirmation that you are now safe with someone. Just read about Chris Watts.
- Don’t study the Bible/work on your spiritual practice together.
Why? Because it’s another way to get attached. But how would you know if you were compatible on a spiritual level if you never discussed it?
- Don’t say I love you.
Because without a marriage proposal, its meaningless. And there is something of a valid point here. But the dating phase offers a time where we explore how things might be if we were to embark on a long-term partnership. Part of this exploration is understanding how well and how often your partner expresses their emotions.
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What Christian’s get wrong
The real healing power of relationships requires empathy, vulnerability, and authenticity. Strict adherence to these boundaries block opportunities to find out who someone really is apart from the roles and expectations of society. They make emotional connection and vulnerability nearly impossible and prevent opportunities to assess character and compatibility.
- They define the opposite gender in terms of their role in society
This point speaks more to the spirit of Christian boundaries than to the specific points above. Becca explains she does not go to her partner for emotional support. Instead she says, “I should just talk to my mom or to my best girlfriend”. Because “there are just things that I think it’s wise to go to another girl about.”
This is an overemphasis on the value of same-gendered relationships and an under-emphasis on the value of platonic, opposite-gender friendships. By this view, members of the opposite sex are defined in terms of their role in society, rather than who they are. This is a failure to see the opposite sex as peers, as friends, as potential confidants and sounding boards, or as worthwhile people from which to learn from. It’s a failure to see people as humans.
What if we viewed our partners as worth talking to regardless of whether they fill the role we are expecting?
- They underestimate the importance of vulnerability
Intimacy is built through meaningful shared experiences; and yes, that comes at the risk of getting hurt. In the critically acclaimed French film, Amélie contemplates running away from the guy she has fallen in love with. Amélie’s neighbor, who has brittle bones disease, convinces her otherwise.
So, my little Amélie, you don’t have bones of glass. You can take life’s knocks. If you let this chance pass, eventually, your heart will become as dry and brittle as my skeleton. So, go get him, for Pete’s sake!
We need to take the risk for love. We need to learn how to be vulnerable with someone. And in doing so, we need to have faith in our strength to move on when someone is not right for us. We need to give ourselves the opportunity to develop the skill of walking away.
- They prevent opportunities to assess the character of your potential partner
Putting you at risk for future abuse. No, really.
A relationship that applies the 5 boundaries described above is an abuser’s paradise. No obligation to share emotions, no obligation to provide emotional support, and no obligation to demonstrate personal development. The Christian dating formula is an easy cover-up for bait and hook.
It takes time and unusual circumstances to reveal someone’s character. If you shield your partner from the difficult parts of your life, you have no idea what type of relationship you’re walking into.
You could marry someone with lower emotional receptivity than what you need in the long-term. In the worst case, you could end up with someone who is incapable of empathy.
- They prevent opportunities to assess compatibility
Never talk about your future kids? Please at least agree on whether or not you will have them. If you never talk about where you want to live, desires for family, or future plans, how do you know whether you will want to live similar lifestyles? You need to get on the same page.
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What’s right about Christian boundaries
For one, it makes sense to be selective about who we sleep with. The health risks associated with promiscuity, and sometimes even with sex in a monogamous relationship should be carefully considered. Add in the bonding power of chemicals released after sex, there are real psychological risks as well.
But more importantly, the fundamental purpose of Christian dating boundaries is to ensure intimacy develops in proportion to commitment. It sets a standard for love that demands loyalty and commitment.
“Love is loyalty. Love is commitment. Love is you saying you are going to be there for the person no matter what.” — Mark Ballenger
The message behind Christian boundaries is that action and commitment are central to love. And I completely agree.
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In some ways, Christian dating boundaries are a crutch. They’re a way to stay safe (temporarily) without doing the real work of relationships. They may even attract people who want to take advantage of a lack of emotional expectations.
We need to guard our hearts, but we also need to let someone in to assess a relationship. So how do we do that?
My guess is it’s combination of developing intimacy in proportion to commitment; and shedding excessive boundaries as you assess your partner’s character.
What do you think?
Previously published on “Hello, Love”, a Medium publication.
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