Too Much, Too Soon? Setting Emotional Boundaries in Dating
“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” – Proverbs 4:23
I was 21 years old when I drove from Texas to Colorado with my friend Christie to attend the wedding of a friend from Japan. At the reception we discovered with delight that the bride’s mother had arranged to seat all the single people at the same dinner table so we could “mingle.”
“Who knows what might happen?” she must have thought.
She was right! Unbeknownst to me that very evening my future husband sat across the dinner table from me. It wasn’t long before we began a long-distance courtship, got engaged, and then married. Our wedding took place just 14 months from the day we met, and that was almost 30 years, three kids, two dogs and three mortgages ago.
I still have every precious card and letter we wrote to one another during that time. They are lovingly arranged in chronological order and tucked away in a shoebox in our storage shed. Not long ago, I pulled out the shoebox and reread each letter, experiencing all over again the excitement of a new relationship, the uncertainty of reciprocated feelings and the hesitancy to let my heart run away with me. I remember constantly asking myself, “Does he really like me?” “How can I be sure?” I also remember reading and rereading every card to decipher any hidden encouragement that he might truly like me as much as I was growing to like him. In fact, now I can’t believe how obvious it was that he was falling in love with me. How could I have questioned it?
What I know now that I didn’t realize then was that I had set some pretty strong emotional boundaries in place. I had experienced heartbreak before, and I certainly didn’t want to experience that again. I didn’t want my heart to get ahead of reality, so I held back for quite a while. And what I also know now is that it was a smart move.
As humans we all have the desire to know and be known by others. We are created by God to connect and yearn for relationship with one another. And dating can be a great way to do that. It’s only natural that as you get to know and like someone, that you desire for them to know and like the real you. But for many, the temptation can be to go too deep, too fast – especially emotionally.
Why are emotional boundaries important? Why is it vital for us to guard our heart, as the writer of Proverbs puts it, above all else? Because “it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23). The Hebrew word for “heart” conveys not just emotions, but also our will, our physical being, our intellect, in other words our whole being. And when we do this well, the reward is that our lives will resemble springs of living water!
The problem is that when a relationship prematurely moves too deep, too soon, it leaves us vulnerable to heartbreak and emotional damage. Debra Fileta, professional counselor and author of True Love Dates, says this:
“More powerful than a kiss, more seductive than an embrace, there is something that happens when two people connect emotionally. Something that has the capacity to outweigh even the physical. A sort of ‘emotional sex’ that can be just as harmful and heartbreaking, when it moves too deep, too fast.”
Guidelines for Setting Emotional Boundaries
So how can you tell when emotional intimacy is pushing the limits? How far is too far? How fast is too fast? Here are some guidelines to help you set reasonable, healthy, God-honoring emotional boundaries in dating that will help protect both you and your special someone.
1. Time is your friend.
“Slow and Steady” are the words that should come to mind. Let your guard down, but do it a little at a time. Wait until you know you can trust someone with those things that matter to you. Don’t share your most intimate personal details or your darkest secrets in the early stages of dating. Protect the deepest, most intimate parts of who you are both emotionally and spiritually. “Be real, be genuine, and be honest,” adds Felita, “but never without the anchor of boundaries and the weight of wisdom.”
2. Maintain your friendships.
It’s normal to want to spend more and more time with someone you enjoy. But don’t let your dating relationship isolate you and keep you from enjoying time with other people. Keep interacting and participating in your existing relationships with family and friends on a regular basis.
3. Guard your spiritual heart.
As you begin dating, it is important that you each continue pursuing your individual relationships with God. But wait to pray together. Prayer is meant to be deeply intimate, baring your heart and your emotions before God. You definitely don’t want to go too fast in this area. However, don’t wait indefinitely either. Once the relationship has progressed to “seriously dating,” make spiritual activities a key part of your relationship. Otherwise, you miss out on an important facet of the other person and discovering how he or she responds to the Lord.
4. Wait to talk about a future together.
Wait to talk about a future together until you’ve taken the time to build a foundation of commitment and trust. Fileta calls this process “a journey of building trust.” She recommends that you take your time, allowing your relationship to go through the necessary seasons before allowing your conversation to jump ahead. Why? Because where your conversation goes…your heart will go, too. Instead of allowing your hopes for a future together to blind you, she advises you “savor, assess, invest in, and engage in your relationship where it is now.”
5. Remember that the person you are dating is a brother or sister in Christ first and foremost.
Scripture is full of specific instructions on how we should treat each other. If we're serious about following Christ, we will heed Paul’s instructions to “be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). Start by asking God to purify your heart, your thoughts and your actions in a way that honors Him and brings honor, not pain, to your boyfriend/girlfriend.
6. Set your boundaries before you need them.
Set aside time to think through and pray through them. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you in establishing reasonable, healthy, God-honoring emotional boundaries that will help protect both you and your special someone. Then actually put them in writing and have a friend hold you accountable to them. Revisit them now and then to assess whether you are keeping your commitment.
Dating is a great opportunity to learn more about yourself, and to know and be known by others. Just remain alert and watchful. Be aware that emotional intimacy can carry you much deeper into your relationship than you ever intended to go, resulting in the double cost of a broken heart and a broken spirit.
And also remember that if you do indeed guard your heart well, if you go slow and steady and you commit your way to the Lord, you’ll create a wise pathway forward by the decisions you make. You’ll be blessed with a qualitatively better life and relationship. And, the reward is that your life will resemble springs of living water!
“And the LORD will guide you continually… You will be like a well-watered garden; like an ever-flowing spring.” Isaiah 58:11.
Alisa Grace ('92) serves as the co-director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships where she also co-teaches a class called "Christian Perspectives on Marriage and Relationships." While she speaks and blogs regularly on topics such as dating relationships, marriage, and love, she also loves mentoring younger women and newly married couples, speaking at retreats and providing premarital counseling. Alisa and her husband, Chris, have been married over 30 years and have three wonderful children: Drew and his wife Julia, Natalie and her husband Neil, and their youngest blessing, Caroline.