Growing up in the church, I heard plenty of talk about avoiding premarital sex.

So, I did what many Christian kids do. I put up thick boundaries around the final threshold of sex and thought I was free to let every other aspect of my relationships go as far and as fast as possible.

This seemed like a good strategy, but I wound up trying to act like a husband to girls I barely knew. I would invest so much of myself in the relationship that when it didn’t work out, I would be devastated.

My intentions were honorable, but I missed one very important truth of relational health: Intimacy should never exceed commitment. 

While having sex with someone you barely know is a clear example of intimacy that exceeds commitment, the principle is not limited to sex. We must be careful not to let other forms of intimacy exceed our commitment levels either—things like sharing too much too soon, helping to pay bills, or even moving in together.

We’re all drawn to greater levels of intimacy with the ones we love, but intimacy is heavy. It requires a proper foundation to sustain it. We would never attempt to place a skyscraper on a foundation designed for a backyard shed, yet we often pile similarly heavy levels of intimacy on low commitment relationships. Then we get confused when the whole thing comes tumbling down around us.

To ensure your relationship has the best chance of success, it’s helpful to think in terms of stages. For illustration, we’ll compare it to the process of entering a house for the first time.

Stage 0 (Pre-dating – 1st date)

In this phase, imagine yourself standing in a field. On a hill in the distance, you see a fence and behind it, a farmhouse.

It looks nice from this distance, but you can only see the large details. You’re interested, but you really have no idea who lives there or if it is a safe place. At this point, you haven’t yet been invited onto the property. Your posture is guarded as you approach the fence and ask for permission to enter. You are on high alert and ready to leave at the first sign of trouble.

At this point in your relationship, you have made no commitments beyond perhaps a single date. There is no physical interaction or private prayer time. You share basic facts and high-level details about each other’s lives as you slowly begin to get to know each other.

You’ve given her the benefit of the doubt, but trust has not been established yet so you proceed with caution.

Stage 1 (Post 1st Date – Engagement)

You’ve made it past the outer fence and onto the property. As you approach the house, you learn more about the owner. The closer you get, more details emerge. You begin to notice areas that could use some minor work, but overall, the house is even more amazing close up.

You spend time sitting on the porch with the owner and enjoy a glass of lemonade. It feels great, but you are still clearly outside. If you needed to leave, it would still be relatively easy.

In this stage, you are beginning to build trust. You remain on the lookout for relational red flags, but you are more willing to invest in the relationship. You might begin praying together about circumstances and challenges. You learn how to have disagreements and work through minor conflicts in constructive ways.

As the relationship progresses, you may express affection physically by holding hands, hugging, or kissing. You openly discuss physical boundaries and protect each other from overly arousing activities. You wisely choose to spend time in public locations to protect the purity of your relationship as your emotional bonds strengthen.

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Stage 2 (Engagement – Marriage)

You have now been granted access to the inside of the house. You’re still on the lookout for major signs of danger, but you are far more comfortable than you were before. You’re given a tour of the living room, bathroom, and kitchen. You can see there are stairs leading to the bedroom, but you don’t go up there. Instead, you enjoy a wonderful meal with the owner and help clean up afterward. You begin to make plans to move in and put deposits down on utilities.

In this stage of your relationship, you are actively working toward marriage. You intentionally discuss expectations, fears, and desires. You begin to pray through deeper issues including fears and struggles with sin. You attend premarital counseling and intentionally address areas of potential conflict.

The likelihood of separation reduces as your commitment levels grow, but remains a possibility until you say “I do.”

Physically, the time between engagement and marriage are the most difficult. You have to work extra hard to maintain the physical boundaries you set up while looking forward to the lifetime of sexual discovery to come.

Stage 3 (MarriageDeath)

You are no longer a guest in the house. You’ve moved in and have access to all rooms, including the bedroom. You actively work together on home improvement projects. You buy curtains, paint rooms, make repairs, and if God so blesses, you add rooms. With each passing day, the house becomes more of a home. If the house is ever damaged by a storm, you rebuild it. If you discover a flaw, you work to repair it.

In this stage, two become one. Your wife’s problems are now your problems, and vice versa. Physically, you are limited only by the bounds of love and honor.

Your wife now assumes the position of your most important earthly relationship. Her needs take priority over those of your parents, your boss, and even your children. You will not only willingly die for her, you choose to live for her as well.

Ensuring that your intimacy level doesn’t exceed your commitment not only protects you from getting hurt, it helps to make each stage distinctly special. Your time spent dating can be wonderful, but it won’t compare to the engagement period. Likewise, no matter how fun the engagement period is, it will pale in comparison to marriage. At each phase, there is always something more to look forward to and something new to enjoy.

Take your time, and enjoy the ride.

Copyright © 2019 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

Living together before marriage crosses more than physical boundaries. Read “Why I Wish We Hadn’t Lived Together Before Marriage.”