How Far Is Too Far: How to Set Physical Boundaries in Dating Relationships
Written by Tiffany Dawn | May 15, 2017
I remember sitting on my bed after breaking up with my first boyfriend, thinking, I can’t believe I went that far. How did that happen? I was so adamant we wouldn’t go so far, and yet…we did!
I was still a virgin technically, but I’d done almost everything a person can do before actually having sex.
Through my next two relationships, I struggled through the same guilt, the same questions: How far was too far? Why did I seem to lose all willpower in the moment? Each time, the constant sense of guilt and shame made me want to hide from God.
It seemed like I was stuck in that cycle—until I met my husband, James. We weren’t perfect and didn’t have it all figured out, but I can tell you this: Our wedding night was the first time we saw each other naked, the first time we touched each other in…well, you know…and the first time we slept in the same bed.
It was beautiful. It was special. It was the beginning of the lifelong adventure of sex that we get to share with just each other. And I am so thankful for that.
I don’t have all the answers, but I did learn seven things that really helped me and my husband set physical boundaries while dating. So today I want to share them with you in the hope that they can help you as well.
1. Only date someone who shares your standards.
This was one of my mistakes. I dated one truly wonderful guy—but he didn’t share my standards. He said, “That’s fine; if you don’t want to do this and such, then we won’t”—and he meant it. I thought that was good enough, but when my willpower started slipping and I gradually decided I wanted to go farther, he was okay with that—as long as I was okay with that (which, eventually, I was).
Then I met James. He wanted us to live rightly before God just as much (if not more) than I wanted to. We could encourage each other and stand strong together. Wait for someone who loves God enough that he’ll put God’s way above his own desires.
2. Talk about it ahead of time.
When you’re in the moment—when you’re watching a movie in a dark room and everyone else has gone to bed—is not the time to talk about your boundaries. Because let me tell you: Everything is going to sound good in that moment! Talk about and choose your boundaries ahead of time. And then keep talking about it—keep the conversation going throughout your whole relationship.
3. Reframe the question.
When James and I started dating, we began asking God, “How far is too far?” But then we realized—hey, we’re asking the wrong question! Asking, “How far can I go before I get into trouble?” is like trying to get as close as possible to the edge of right and wrong. Instead, we started asking, “God, how can we honor you in our relationship—even the physical aspect?” That question changes everything. Suddenly it’s not about how much you can get away with; it’s about how much you can honor God. That’s a question we kept asking over and over the whole time we were dating.
4. Talk with other couples.
One of the best things we ever did was “interview” several married couples. We asked them “What did you do physically while you were dating? What do you wish your boundaries had been?” These married couples were generous with their honesty.
We spoke with one couple who hadn’t even kissed before their wedding day—and yes, they have a great sex life. (You know I asked them!)
We spoke with one couple who had sex while dating, and they said that even though they married each other, the fact that they had sex while dating really hurt their marriage. They had to work through trust issues with each other, along with the guilt and shame from not following their convictions.
Then we spoke with couples somewhere in the middle:
- Some hadn’t slept in the same bed until they got married.
- Some hadn’t taken each other’s clothes off.
- Some hadn’t touched each other where their underclothes were.
We learned from each of the couples, took these ideas home, and started praying and talking about them. We also talked with our mentors and another accountability couple about these ideas as we decided what our boundaries would be.
5. Don’t do it all at once.
Here’s the thing about physical relationships: They build. God intended them that way! So after you’ve held hands for a few weeks (or a few days), you naturally want to turn up the heat a little bit. So here’s the key to sticking to your boundaries: Don’t go as far as you can right away. Give yourself space to slowly build up to your boundaries as your relationship grows. Otherwise, if you’re just doing the same things for years and years, you’re going to feel rather frustrated!
6. Keep it congruent with how serious you are.
This is the one thing I would go back and change if I could. I think James and I started off more serious in our physical relationship than we were in our actual relationship. Meaning, we were kissing more than we should have been in a new relationship. We should have waited until we had gotten more serious and made sure we were on the same page with our intentions. I think the incongruence was hurtful to me.
Side note: My parents used to tell me physical relationships were like playing with fire. I was like “Blah blah blah, they’re so old school.” Now I realize it’s true! The Bible advises, “Do not awaken love until it so desires” (Song of Solomon 8:4). Wait as long as possible before awakening those physical passions. In fact, if you’re in a high school dating relationship, why even get physical? I know it can feel like you’re the only one waiting, but let me tell you: Down the road, it will be worth it. And your relationship with God will thank you for it.
7. Plan ahead.
Certain settings lend themselves to “heat-of-the-moment” decisions. Think about these two options: When you’re sitting in a Starbucks surrounded by people and sunshine, are you tempted to throw yourself across the table and start making out? Probably not. But when you’re snuggled up on the couch at night with all the lights off and you’re the only ones at home? Yep. Definitely a heat-of-the-moment scenario! Especially if you’re tired.
Be wise and plan ahead. The Bible says to flee temptation—to literally run from it! (See 2 Timothy 2:22.) That’s what planning ahead is all about.
Don’t put yourself into tempting situations. Maybe for you that means not being home alone, or parting ways by 11 p.m., or doing lots of double dates and group outings.
If all of this sounds legalistic, I don’t mean it that way. But think about what Jesus said: If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Now I’m not advocating cutting off our limbs, because otherwise we’d all be handless. Jesus wasn’t literally meaning we should cut off our hands. I think His point was: Do whatever you have to do to be right with God, to live in a way that’s honoring Him. And if that means you hang out in the other room at your parents’ house instead of hanging out alone in your apartment, then do it. Find out what “planning ahead” means for YOU.
The last thing I want to share with you is this:
God can redeem ANYTHING.
If you’re reading this and thinking—I’ve already gone too far. What’s the point in even trying to change? I’ve messed up too much!—here’s what I want to tell you.
Not only does God completely forgive us, but He also completely redeems our mistakes. Nothing is too big or too far for Him to make you new again. 2 Corinthians 12:9 says: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
When I broke up with my first boyfriend, I thought my life was ruined. I’d gone too far physically, and I’d begun struggling with an eating disorder. But guess what? My mistakes in that relationship are exactly what God has chosen to use in my life! He allows me to write books and speak around the country about eating disorder recovery and how to have healthy, God-honoring relationships. Those two things that I thought disqualified me? They’re exactly what He now uses for His glory. Now that is redemption!
So no matter what your story, it’s never too late to start honoring God. Because let me tell you: You will stand in awe at the way He redeems it all.