It’s a common refrain in the courtship crowd:
You shouldn’t do before marriage what you wouldn’t do with someone other than your spouse after marriage.
Typically, this standard is offered in relation to physical relationships. Is it okay to hold hands? To kiss? To cuddle while watching a movie?
In a culture that is often unhelpful in providing a path to marriage that honors purity, standards like this feel incredibly safe and helpful. Just ask yourself one simple question, and you can automatically know whether what you’re doing is okay or not!
Except it just doesn’t work that way.
Whoever came up with this guideline obviously did not have physical touch as their love language.
Imagine being in a relationship where your boyfriend or girlfriend never got you a gift, not even for Christmas or your birthday. Imagine a relationship in which your boyfriend or girlfriend never complimented you or told you how special you are. Or imagine that they never help you when you need it. Or hardly ever spent time with you.
That’s what a relationship with a very low amount of physical contact feels like to someone who has physical touch as their primary love language.
With good intentions to guard the sacredness of purity and marital intimacy, the courtship/biblical dating crowd has taken one expression of affection, which has just as much potential as any other to be beautiful and life-giving, and has, perhaps inadvertently, labeled it as bad and dangerous.
The truth is, all love languages can be beautiful and life-giving.
They can all also contribute to premature intimacy. It’s possible to say “I love you” to soon, to spend too much time together, to be too extravagant with gifts, and to communicate more intimacy and commitment that is appropriate for that stage in the relationship.
But just as growth happens in any area of a relationship–more time is spent together, communication becomes deeper, more of life is shared–it is natural to expect that an appropriate physical relationship will develop and grow alongside the rest of the relationship.
What that looks like for every couple will be different. Some couples hardly touch when dating, hold hands during engagement, and have their first kiss on the wedding day. And this can be beautiful. Some couples hold hands while dating and kiss when engaged. This too can be beautiful. Some couples have their first kiss while dating. And this, too, can be beautiful.
There is no one-size-fits all standard for physical limits. Each couple must seek God and decide for themselves where their standards will be. This does not mean that each couple gets to see how much they can get away with! Rather, they must ask themselves how to bless each other, how to point each other towards God, and how to help each other avoid lust and temptation. Sometimes, the boundaries a couple decides on will look very similar, if not identical, to “the rules” that many of us have been taught. But when boundaries are drawn from a place of freedom and a desire to honor God, they become blessings, not burdens.
I’m not advocating a free-for-all in dating.
Rather, I would propose that the question of, “What is okay?” should be traded for the question of “What will bless my boyfriend/girlfriend, communicating genuine and appropriate affection and showing them the love of Christ?”
Because when my boyfriend runs his fingers through my hair or kisses me on the forehead, he communicates care and honor. One-size-fits all standards that go beyond what God has said in the Bible and restrict Christian freedom, don’t.