Physical Intimacy in Dating & Marriage

Physical Intimacy in Dating & Marriage May 2, 2019
Too soon?
Married Couple Still Testing the Waters

Having considered why Christians might date and the chemical realities involved in dating, it’s time to explore the place of physical intimacy. I find it helpful to locate intimacy within a four-stage process leading to marriage: (1) pre-dating, (2) dating, (3) engagement, and (4) marriage.

These are not timelessly right or even biblical categories. They are a modest proposal for how to plan for lifelong marriage in ways that factor in the chemical reactions that govern our bodies.

Pre-Dating

Since marriage is a lifelong bond, we should only enter it with someone we can be best or at least close friends with until we die. To choose a lifelong friend and partner in kingdom witness is a rational choice that should follow the Spirit’s leading. Nonetheless, science has taught us that chemicals play a strong role. And the chemicals most associated with sexual activity actually incapacitate the most rational part of our brain—the part best suited for making life-altering choices.

It seems wise, then, to build strong friendships before introducing erotic activities that compromise our powers of discernment. When people become romantically involved, chemical reactions designed to unite a husband and wife begin to forge a powerful bond between them. Yet these positive sensations wane with time, and the relationship must press on without them.

So it’s possible for sexually active couples who’ve met only recently to feel like they’ve known each other their entire lives. Erotic activity generates that feeling. This leads many to make lifelong marital commitments while being quite ignorant about each other. Then, after the chemically-induced feelings fade, they discover what little friendship actually exists between them. Affairs and divorce soon follow.

This being the case, those serious about lifelong marriage should include a pre-dating stage in their search for a spouse. During this stage they should strive to build a strong friendship with their potential mate prior to any romantic involvement.

Since truly getting to know each other is the number one priority, physical intimacy must take a backseat. Yet there’s no need to treat one another like lepers. That’s not what good friends do. Close friends routinely engage in appropriate non-sexual physical contact. This sort of contact should serve as a guide for couples who are pre-dating.

Since I have three daughters, we sometimes playfully refer to their pre-dating friends as “friendboys” rather than “boyfriends.” Sure, it’s corny, but it’s worked for us.

In sum, the key question to ask while pre-dating is “Can we be best friends?”

Dating

Since marriage involves forging a new family from two previously distinct families, it is wise for potential couples to evaluate whether they can merge their previously distinct lives and families. It’s one thing to get along well at school, work, or out and about, but it’s another to share life together. And, let’s be honest, it’s quite possible to be good friends without being good roommates.

This does not mean that those dating should leave their families and move in together. That doesn’t take seriously enough the deep impact of the attachment chemicals discussed in the previous post. Cohabitation binds a couple together in ways that obscure their ability to discern whether they are truly attracted to the whole life of the other. It then becomes difficult for them to see that they are merely infatuated with each other’s appearance and hooked on the hormones generated by frequent sexual activity.

Instead, the dating phase should involve getting to know each other’s families and learning what values, priorities, and customs they do and do not share in common. They should ask probing questions, like

  • Is it possible to merge our highly cherished values?
  • Are we able to continue some meaningful customs, but not others?
  • Out of two distinct life rhythms might there grow a shared rhythm that both of us eagerly embrace?

To answer such questions, potential mates should delve deeply into one another’s lives. They should spend enough time together to gain a true sense of what their everyday lives are like. Still, this is only an evaluation stage, so clear physical boundaries should be maintained. Otherwise, a chemically-induced sense of unity might lead a couple to prematurely make a lifelong commitment.

What sort of physical contact is appropriate to dating? Healthy family relationships might serve as a guide (1 Tim  5:1-2). It won’t be exactly the same, but it should be close. Since Scripture strictly prohibits incest, family members ought not be romantically evolved with one another. Likewise, a new couple at this stage should hold off on erotic activity.

This is import for those seeking to begin with the end in mind. In a lifelong marriage, sexual activity eventually decreases and may stop altogether. In some cases, this happens quite early. So dating couples should deliberately test whether their relationships can survive without romantic behavior. If not, marriage might not be a good idea.

That said, family members tend to be more physically intimate with one another than with strangers and casual friends. So the dating phase will naturally see an increase in non-erotic expressions of affection.  Such expressions might include hand holding, hugging, non-erotic kissing, and placing arms around the other.

In sum, the key question to ask while dating is “Can we be family?”

Engagement

Engagement differs from dating in that couples are done evaluating and have decided that they want to marry. They then begin making concrete wedding plans. That being the case, it is tempting for engaged couples to throw off restraints on physical intimacy. Now that the big choice has been made, they often begin having intercourse or engaging in foreplay.

Yet, from a biblical perspective, to begin sexual activity is to begin the marriage. In God’s eyes, intercourse makes a man and woman “one flesh” regardless of public ceremonies. Failure to own up to that is why people are so confused about sex and marriage to begin with. Those wishing to embrace God’s design will therefore refrain from sex until their wedding day.

Though it seems better, those who engage in erotic activity that stops just short of sex are quite literally torturing themselves. Experience teaches us that foreplay prepares male and female bodies for intercourse. When we prepare our bodies in this way and stop just short of intercourse, we frustrate both our bodies and our relationships.

Consider this analogy. I love cherry pie. It would be absolute torture for me to cut myself a slice, set it on a plate, slather it with whipped cream, sit down at the table with silverware in hand, bring a forkful up to my nose, take a strong whiff, and then abruptly set it down, dump the pie in the trash, and go about my day. I would never dream of doing that. It’s masochistic.

If I wasn’t planning to eat pie, I’d stay away from the kitchen. I certainly wouldn’t dish out a serving to myself. Yet this is precisely what couples do who engage in foreplay and fail to finish what they started by having sex. To do this to someone else is worse, it’s sadistic. A couple that has been careful to make a good decision based on thoughtful pre-dating and dating might consider a shorter engagement period to help avoid this temptation.

In sum, engaged couples are better off sticking closer to family-level physical intimacy. Spouse-level intimacy is, after all, for spouses.

Marriage

If a couple has made it this far, congratulate them! They are free to be fruitful and multiply. But, according to Scripture, not just anything goes—not even within marriage. Four guidelines should inform sexual relations within marriage:

  1. Affirm the sacredness of blood by abstaining from intercourse during the woman’s period (Lev 18:19). This principle isn’t just for Old Testament Israel. The Jerusalem counsel affirmed the blood laws’ relevance to all Christians (Acts 15:19-20).
  2. Protect yourselves against sexual immorality by engaging in intercourse on a somewhat regular basis (1 Cor 7:1-5). Though there are times when it makes good sense to abstain, both spouses should agree upon this since their bodies belong to each another.
  3. Honor Christ by treating one another with love and respect (Eph 5:21-33). If your spouse is uncomfortable with a specific erotic activity, you disgrace your spouse by pressuring him or her into it. This is especially so if it stands outside of God’s design for how intercourse produces offspring.
  4. Uphold the sacredness of marriage by abstaining from adultery and various forms of sexual aberration (Heb 13:4). The Jerusalem council also required all believers to avoid fornication, by which they probably meant the activities listed in Leviticus 18 (To hear why, listen to episodes 2.12-13 of the After Class Podcast).

Though the Bible says little about dating, it says a lot about marriage, which is the primary reason for Christians to date. God calls his people to be salt and light in a world deeply wounded by reckless dating, abusive sex, and broken marriages. Let us not put salt on that would by mirroring the world’s recklessness, abusiveness, and brokenness. Rather, let us shine light on God’s good design for our bodies and our families. May the world then see our good marriages and give glory to our Father in heaven.

About John C. Nugent
John C. Nugent is the author of "Endangered Gospel," professor of theology, and co-host of the After Class Podcast. You can read more about the author here.
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