Building trust in a slow and steady way involves establishing emotional boundaries — 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. It’s 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.
But how do you gauge when emotional intimacy is pushing the limits? How far is too far?
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 and on my clients’ experiences, I have found that couples who develop emotionally healthy relationships usually keep the following boundaries in mind.
Guard Your 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
To gauge what degree of openness is appropriate in the development of a relationship, it’s important to understand that there are three levels of communication.
In the first level of communication, the focus is on sharing facts. Conversation at this superficial level can be carried on with a stranger with little or no risk, because talking about topics like the weather, last night’s football game, or the cafeteria menu reveals little of the self.
Level 2 conversation is a little more intimate, revealing more of the self as you express opinions and ideas. Rather than talking only about what happened during last night’s game, you offer your opinions about the game and share your thoughts about your favorite team. Instead of just talking about the weather, you talk about your favorite season and share your favorite autumn moment.
Level 3 is the most intimate level of communication because it reveals the deepest part of a person — the heart. At this level, conversation involves expressing feelings and opening up about struggles, joys, and fears, as well as sharing hopes and dreams.
The most important thing to remember about the three levels of communication is that they are progressive. They reflect the slow and steady deepening of communication as trust is earned. You may use them as a guide to help you protect your emotional world, as well as that of your significant other.
Your emotional world is one of your most intimate parts, so don’t allow it to be compromised. Healthy dating relationships call for an accurate understanding of your emotional temperament as well as the gradual building of trust. Protect yourself by guarding your heart, your mind, your time, and your conversation. Take control of your relationship; otherwise, it will take control of you.
To the ladies who are single or dating, what are ways you are preparing yourself to emotionally guard your heart, mind, time, and conversation to whoever your future spouse may be? To those who are already married, what advice would you give to the single ladies out there or for those who are currently dating? Share your thoughts and comments on our blog! We’d love to hear from you!