I like your shirt; do you want to get married?
Emotional chastity is a term that I only really started hearing about 6-7 years ago. Since then I’ve listened to lots of people talk about it from stages, on the airwaves, and in group settings; but it seems as if nobody is really saying the same things. What I do find is that so many people are hungry for answers or searching for guidance in their relationships. And while this can fill a book on human formation and living a holy life, I want to specifically look at this from the context of forming or maintaining a dating relationship. So, what is emotional chastity? Why is it important to understand? And how do we cultivate it in our lives?
When we think of chastity in general, we often look at is as what we can’t do. After all, chastity means to not have sex outside of marriage, not to dress provocatively, not sleeping at your significant other’s house, not going too far when you’re spending time with a girlfriend, or not indulging in your sexual desires, right? (Spoiler, that’s wrong.) It seems like most talks about chastity are actually talks about why unchastity is bad. When this is what we keep being fed we’re not actually learning the beauty of what chastity IS.
I can get lost for hours thinking about words and their meanings. The word chastity/chaste comes from a Latin root castus which means to be clean or pure. And our common definition for pure means “without stain, or dirt, etc.” But purity, in my reflection, is just like light, or heat, or love. Light is more than just un-darkness, even though darkness can’t exist without the absence of light. And heat isn’t just not being cold, heat has an essence all its own. And nobody would dare to say that love is simply the absence of sin or hate. In the same way, purity exists on its own as a GOOD rather than a “not-bad.” So if our purity is something in and of itself that is without stain or error, our chastity is a call to goodness! We are called to know God in His goodness and to live in that freedom He wishes us to have. And just like physical chastity, emotional chastity follows suit in inviting us to give over our emotions, thoughts, and hearts to Him in order to seek union with Him.
So now that we know what it means to be chaste and how our purity leads to freedom, how do we practice that with our emotions? Recently I asked a couple of our college students what they’ve heard about emotional chastity. Most of the responses were: “You shouldn’t talk about the future with someone you’re dating.” Or “Don’t bring up marriage in your relationships.” To my surprise, almost every comment had to do with things you should not talk about when you’re dating someone. And while I see the good intent behind this advice, really it seems more like a bandaid over a stab wound.
People everywhere are being taught that in order to stay emotionally chaste you just need to avoid talking about your emotions. But that is so far from the case! In order to practice good emotional health, you need to be FREE to share your emotions, wants, desires, dreams, prayers, etc. In fact, exploring the desires of your heart concerning the future and your vocation is the only way to actually follow the path you are being called to by God. But here’s the kicker, not every relationship is a safe place for those conversations. It’s not so much about what you shouldn’t say but more about where and when its okay to say it. And the real danger lies in thinking that a relationship is secure and safe for those conversations and thoughts when it’s actually not.
So here are a few questions on how to discern if you are in a relationship where sharing your emotions, or entertaining them, is going to be healthy, fruitful, and safe.
1. What is my relationship with God like?
Honestly. Take a real look at your relationship with God. We all like to think it’s a lot better than it is sometimes. But before we can even begin to love someone else, we first have to learn to accept and give love to the one who is most deserving. Have a real conversation with Him about your “love life.” Have you ever asked Him to show you why you even desire to be loved by someone else? Have you ever reflected on the fact that you exist solely out of an act of love, and every breath you take is a gift of pure love? We shoot ourselves in the foot if we try to jump into a relationship before knowing our true identity as sons and daughters of God. This is baseline for living as a Christian, to know your purpose and to allow yourself to be loved by God. He alone provides the ultimate emotional fulfillment and will reveal the longings of your heart.
2. Am I ready for marriage?
It’s fun to dream about the future isn’t it? Coming home from work to a house full of kids and a loving spouse. Or having someone to take on the world with side by side who will never leave. The married life is beautiful and comes with its own set of struggles and triumphs. But if we are only looking forward to marriage we’re going to miss out on the important things God is doing in our lives leading up to it.
Despite what you’ve heard, “keeping your eye on the prize” doesn’t work unless you’re running the race well in the first place. Focus can only take you so far. It takes actual effort and training to be great at something. The same goes in your relationships. If you spend all of your time thinking about being married, you will miss the opportunities to love the living and breathing people all around you. Your desire for love can become selfish and twisted and more about what you want rather than seeing the vocation of marriage as a call from God.
Dating is ultimately, or at least it should be, a call to discern marriage. (Which we will talk about later)
If while you’re reflecting you see that you’re not called to marriage at this moment, that’s okay. And if nobody has ever told you this – It’s okay to not be in a relationship. It’s okay to not be married at 25. I know the fear of feeling called to marriage while not seeing anybody on the horizon. But God is not going to call you into marriage without someone to be married to. Despite what the culture has shown you, you don’t have to date around and try to find the right person by yourself. It’s okay to have standards, and it’s okay to not just jump into a relationship just because the person asked. You will never be called into that vocation alone because it would be impossible to live it out alone. Just like at the wedding of Cana, if Jesus is there he will provide the wine.
So if you believe you’re called to marriage, begin fostering that vocation by loving those around you well. Learn how to be friends with someone. Learn how to selflessly give to someone. Learn how to be friends expecting nothing in return. And learn to trust God and wait.
If you don’t believe you’re being called to marriage, begin fostering whatever your future vocation is by loving those around you well. Learn how to be friends with someone. Learn how to selflessly give to someone. Learn how to be friends expecting nothing in return. And learn to trust God and wait.
3. Do I actually know that person? Like in reality.
It’s a story that’s played out over and over on college campuses and single lives everywhere. It’s the story of “I saw a cute girl/guy in the grocery store wearing a t-shirt that I liked and had a rosary. I think I might marry them.” Take a moment to stop and think. Knowing what we now know about emotional chastity, let’s break this down. You are neither IN a relationship with this person, nor do you even HAVE a relationship with this person if you haven’t actually spoken to them. So if you were to fantasize about my future with them, it would be just as misguided as sexually objectifying them. Because, at the heart of both, you’re only using them for your own pleasure rather than seeing them as an actual person with thoughts, feelings, dreams, and emotions of their own. And use is not the place to begin a relationship of any kind.
What does practical emotional chastity look like here? Before you go off and dream about that person, maybe offer a prayer instead. Ask God to give you peace about the future and patience in waiting. Chances are you’re seeking love and comfort, so find that in Jesus and among the friends that he’s given you. And if this is a person you’re interested in, bring that to prayer and ask God why it is that you are attracted to them. Is it just to cure loneliness? Or is He calling you to do something about it? Pray for them and their future vocation as well, selflessly. Not asking to be included in it but truly out of sincerity and respect for them. This will flip the temptation of use on its head and turn it into a beautiful offering and sacrifice of love to God.
4. Am I actually dating that person?
On the other hand, let’s say you actually do know the person and have a relationship with them of some sort. Have you made that into something more than it actually was? Are you actually in a committed dating relationship with this person (that both of you know about)? Do you even know if you’re dating? I’ve seen the first one happen enough times to know that this is something most people have experience of. It’s the dreaded friend zone. But – news flash! There can be no friend zone unless one of you is not practicing emotional chastity. Harsh. I know. But hear me out. The very word itself is a delusion of reality. Rather than having the joy of friendship with someone, the friendship to the one being “friend zoned” revolves around their own plan and desire. All the while, the other person who thinks they have a well-intentioned friend is being deceived. Neither person can be free in that relationship due to the fact that it is not a mutual exchange of love.
And maybe you don’t see yourself as in the friend zone, just on the edge of a possible relationship. I’ve seen that too. If you’re in this position listen very carefully. If you are entertaining thoughts of a life with this person and they do not know you feel that way, you are not loving them. This is not the fault of them being “too blind to see it,” this is using that person for emotional comfort without actual commitment. I’m sorry to drop the bomb on you, but I love you too much to let you ruin your own life by picturing it with someone who may or may not be interested in you.
What does practical emotional chastity look like here? Reflect on your motives. If this person were to admit to you tomorrow that they have absolutely no romantic feelings for you and never would, would you still be their friend? Would you still think they were great? Or is your friendship something you’re just hoping will turn into more one day? Then pray about it. Ask God to give you the purity of heart to love this person in the way they need, not the way you want. Pray for humility, ask God to remove the pride from your heart that blinds you from seeing the other for who they are rather than what they may become.
Trust me, I know this can be a difficult thing to realize. I once had a girl give a guy her number while I thought we were on a date together. It’s okay to laugh, I find it hilarious honestly. Because rather than being upset and offended, I realized that it was really only my fault. She had been perfectly in her rights to seek a relationship with someone because I didn’t express my intentions. But how to date well as a man is another blog entirely. So pray for the grace to love purely and humbly and watch the temptation to obsess fade away.
5. Have I defined my relationship?
Are you dating? Are you friends? Are you acquaintances? Do you want to date someone but that someone has no interest in dating you? What are you to them? If you’re already considering yourselves “dating,” what does that mean? What is your goal in dating them? What is their goal in dating you? These are questions that only you and the other person can answer. I know it’s safer to go to your friends. I know it’s safer to read a blog post and try to figure it out. But unless you have a one on one conversation about the state of your relationship, it will never have clarity. This is the first place – granted that the answer is that you both want to pursue a committed, holy relationship together – where imagining marriage and family life with this person is safe. As mentioned before, emotional chastity has little to do with what is said, but has everything to do with the state of the relationship. So while defining the relationship, do not be afraid to ask the questions that are true desires of your heart. Make sure you know each others intentions in the relationship. Chances are you’ve both been avoiding the question because you’re afraid to get hurt. So talk, don’t unload. This is the time to be honest about how you see this person.
What does practical emotional chastity look like here? Pray about what it is you actually want in this relationship. Is it romantic? Is it just a friendship? Ask God for the clarity of what he’s calling you to. Ask what He wants for a change. Then once you’ve gotten your answers have the conversation with this person. Be okay with their answers even if they’re not what you want. Nobody gets to this point accidentally. You had some sort of relationship before and now it’s time to solidify what it is. If you’ve discerned well and asked the Holy Spirit to guide you throughout your relationship with this person it should be easy to accept their responses. If you’ve loved them in friendship honestly and purely, even if they don’t see a future with you, then there’s no loss here. But the reason this can be painful is because maybe we weren’t loving as purely as we thought. So make resolve to pray for the grace to be more pure and chaste with the love that we give in the future.
6. Am I ready for a sacramental marriage with this specific person?
I know we talked about marriage earlier in general, but now I want to talk about that in the context of a relationship. So let’s say you’ve gone through the first 5 reflections and now you are in a clearly defined relationship. First off – I’m happy for you and I hope this is a fruitful time in your life, but you’re not off the hook yet. A relationship is not a place to just “let loose.” Just like there are boundaries we have to set with physical chastity outside of marriage, it is wise to be emotionally chaste as well. As time progresses in your relationship there should be a time of discernment of marriage. Not fantasizing, not daydreaming, but discernment. This takes place between you and God. Then continue to be clear and honest in your relationship about what takes place in that discernment.
In marriage you are blessed and the priest prays that God would make your relationship joined for life. “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” But before that point, the existence of your relationship is completely dissolvable. Which means that you are not sacramentally bound together, so you shouldn’t be acting as if you are. I see it time and time again in college relationships where people start to spend all of their time with the person they’re dating. They neglect friendships, responsibilities, and even their relationship with God. They begin to talk about marrying one another and what their life will look like. They ignore all of the realities of their situation and just become infatuated with each other, overlooking that they don’t have jobs or homes or a plan at all. They’ve found something good, no doubt. But then they push the pedal to the metal and, before you know it, they skip all the steps of marriage discernment and zoom right past God’s will to replace it with their own.
This isn’t how it was intended. While the goal is marriage, don’t be afraid to slow down a little bit. Date well. Prepare for marriage well. Give yourselves an advantage for when the time comes to enter into that sacrament. But never forget where you are in life. This person cannot be your everything and cannot be your God. They will never be your savior and they will never be your reason to live. You cannot give yourself fully to them because you don’t have the sacramental grace or the capacity to do so.
This isn’t the time to practice living together or vacationing in the same hotel room. This isn’t a test run of what waking up next to each other would feel like. It’s a time to learn about each other and pray for one another. It’s a time to offer up sacrifice and grow together. If you want to love them the best you possibly can, save those other beautiful moments for your marriage.
What does practical emotional chastity look like here? Always be aware of your state in life. Love as full as you can but know that your love is not yet a sacrament. This is a beautiful time to grow together, not to test drive. The things that you do in your dating relationship will echo into your marriage. If you are selfish and lustful in dating, you will have a selfish and lustful marriage. If you are living out a Christ centered relationship, He will be present in your marriage. Always remember that there is another person – that means a soul and a body – in this relationship with you. Don’t let your own emotions or wants take precedence over theirs. Know that your heart was not made for this one person. Pray for God to give you the special grace to share your heart as much as he shared his. Know that the call to love is specific (to one person) but universal (for everyone to receive). For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:21) If our treasure is in Heaven, we must always first remember where our hearts belong.
This is a huge topic. And these situations don’t apply to every person. But I pray that the right people find this blog. Your emotions are good, even if they can be a little tricksy sometimes. But they are not who you are. You are a beloved son or daughter of God. And above all I hope that all who read it know that they are loved beyond comprehension. No matter your struggle – past heartbreak, loneliness, abuse, discouragement, self-hatred, pain, or desire to be known – your emotional well-being will never be found in another person no matter what stage in life you are in. So above all things, seek Jesus.