Dating and engagement are interesting periods. It’s so fun to move together from intrigued by each other to twitterpated to loving, at home together, and a good team. But it’s an in-between time, it’s temporary. It’s a time with the unique quality of becoming-close while needing certain distance. And it is really hard to keep our thoughts and actions chaste.
That’s worth repeating: it’s really hard. It’s not just you. We’re not broken or wrong, we’re designed to yearn to be close to someone else. That’s a healthy thing! It leads us closer to one another.
People are wired differently, so we all have different things we yearn for most and different boundaries that work for us. But no matter where we are in life—single, dating, married, widowed, monastic, celibate—we have to strive for chastity. And like all virtues, it is a struggle.
Specifically for the dating/engaged days, here are a few things that help.
- Don’t escalate. It’s lovely when sparks fly, but chasing them isn’t kind to your sanity. There is nothing wrong with being attracted to someone. That’s a lovely thing, healthy and beautiful. But if you keep seeking more and more sparks, your attraction ends up in charge of you, which is when admiration becomes lust.
- Have firm, mutual, no-shame boundaries. Know your limits before you walk in the room.
- It’s not about things being objectively right and wrong*, it’s about “right for me”.
- They’re non-negotiable. If you’re comfy with X, that is your boundary. If he’s comfy with Y, that is his boundary. End of story. In practice, this means that you go with the more conservative boundary, but both boundaries are still there, and both matter.
- Check in with your heart from time to time. Have your comfort levels changed? Have your needs or goals shifted? What about your partner’s? “Firm boundaries” doesn’t mean “a brick wall (that you invented) that you’re now stuck with forever”. The point is your sanity, not a bar to live up to / an unrealistic ideal to belittle yourself with.
- No pouting, and no dramatic speeches about how good you are to make this sacrifice for them. You both have to actively work to protect each other’s boundaries. Anybody who whines about or pats themselves on the back for basic decency isn’t worth your time.
- Keep a measurable distance at first. Sit on different couch cushions, or maybe different pieces of furniture. This is advice with an expiration date for most couples, but in the beginning it’s useful.
- Don’t drink alcohol when alone together. You don’t need extra warm-fuzzies or lowered inhibitions.
- Both of you can wear courteous clothing. While everyone mentions that women need to watch their cleavage and hemlines, men also need to keep their shirts on, and long pants are preferable to shorts. It honestly does help. (But it’s about courtesy and thoughtfulness, not modesty.)
- Pay compliments other than physical ones, at least in the early days. It’s fine to say “You look so handsome in that shirt” on occasion, but if you focus on their kindness, skillfulness, companionship, etc. it helps you keep your mind off the physical. It also helps you recognize their best qualities, so you get to know each other more deeply.
- When it’s really hard, stop reading love stories and watching rom-coms for a little while. If doing XYZ gets you into hot water, watching it on the silver screen tends to lead to envious daydreams. Envious daydreams suck. Watch something else instead.
- Pray together. Say “O Heavenly King” when you meet up, do evening prayers together, say an Akathist, read a Psalm. Make it a regular part of your routine.
- And above all else, remember the goal. Why are you striving for chastity? What does chastity mean to you? You’re on the same team, so what are you working towards? It has to be meaningful, and you need ownership. The struggle is yours. The reason has to be, too.
- Finally, remember that this is temporary. In a year or two, you’ll have different problems to tackle, either together or separately.
*Yes, obviously some choices are pretty objectively better for your spiritual life, but that’s not what’s most important in this conversation. For some, it’s easy to be pretty close without going nuts. For others, holding hands leads to daydreaming leads to the torture of wanting what you can’t have. Ask Your Priest (or matushka) if you need help figuring out what boundaries are healthiest for you right now.
It’s rarely helpful to say “X and Y are always wrong, A and B are always right.” We’re all different, and our needs shift over time. Look at the effect your actions have on your spiritual life and your sanity. If a kiss on the cheek makes you daydream so much you stop saying your prayers, then re-evaluate. If holding hands gets you hot and bothered while you’re fertile, do things differently this week (and mark your calendar for next month). Doing X or Y may work just fine in a week or a couple months, but if it doesn’t work right now, don’t shame yourself. Just set your boundaries so they work for you.