Article Sep 7, 2015

Married couples and boundaries with the opposite sex

Marriage does not necessarily isolate one from the opposite sex. If, as Christians, we are in community, we will surely interact with men and women from church to work. It’s good and healthy. God created us for community, and if we are indeed a family as the church, relating to one another is not only necessary but also beneficial to the Body as a whole.

Yet, the question of boundaries has us asking and evaluating, once again, the when, where and how of male and female relationships.

Marriage is a covenant, and boundaries are important, but what should that look like? We don’t want to fear adultery, yet we don’t want to walk in an unwise manner; as it has been said, most people do not plan to commit adultery. But we also want to be careful not to add a one-size-fits-all set of rules and regulations for every relationship.

Courtney Ressig is the author of The Accidental Feminist and has written about the importance of boundaries in male and female relationships.  She and her husband of six years, Daniel, decided early on in their marriage to make engaging with the opposite sex an important topic and area for concern. I asked her how she and her husband operate and why she believes boundaries are important.

What is your general philosophy for male and female relationships?

Our general philosophy is to live transparently with one another. For us, that is key. For example, Daniel travels a fair amount for his job. In his industry, a lot of business happens over meals/drinks when they are at trade shows. Unless he is traveling with another co-worker or his boss, he doesn't do the late dinners with other salespeople after the shows end.

When he is away, he is open about the conversations he has with everyone he comes in contact with, especially the opposite sex. Basically, we try to have an open line of communication going at all times for our interactions with the opposite sex. We don't cut off those interactions; we simply try to keep the each other in the loop. If we always know what's going on with each other, it keeps us from retreating into a private relationship. 

You’ve written a book about feminism. Do you think the feminist movement has affected how men and women relate?

Yes. In my book I say that all of the results of feminism aren't bad. I think the fact that men and women can (and do) interact more than they used to is a good thing. Men and women shouldn't be afraid of one another — although sin has made us at odds in a number of ways. But what I think feminism has done poorly is made any sort of caution sound like chauvinism or unfair treatment.

In the church, I think we have adopted a mindset that if a man or woman has boundaries, they are assuming that either women are sex kittens waiting to pounce or men are unable to control their lustful impulses. While I don't think this is true, I do think feminism has influenced us into thinking that the differences between men and women really aren't as real as they actually are, which leads us to think that we can all interact without ever seeing any ramifications of that. A quick survey of our evangelical history shows us that can't be the case. 

You and Daniel set up boundaries from the beginning of your marriage. Why did you believe this was important?

Our boundaries started with each other before we were married. We were committed to purity, and Daniel led us in a number of ways to establish boundaries to protect each other from sinning against the other sexually. This carried over into our marriage as we wanted to set up a hedge of protection against outside influences coming into the marriage that could tempt us to sin against the other sexually. I carried a lot of baggage into the marriage from my past relationships with the opposite sex, so I personally needed to lean toward harder boundaries because I knew my own inclinations. But we both recognized the waywardness of our own hearts and knew that if we didn't set up boundaries before things got hard, then it would be all the more easy to let our guard down in moments of frustration with each other. 

What are some of the boundaries you have set in place in regards to interacting with the opposite sex?

One big one we have is related to Facebook. We don't accept or solicit friend requests from past boyfriends or girlfriends. That just doesn't feel wise to us. When we were first married, we copied each other on every email to the opposite sex. We don't do that anymore, namely because not every email warrants that. But when it comes to church emails to members of the opposite sex or emails of a personal nature, we copy each other. Again, transparency is key for us. We also don't eat alone with members of the opposite sex if at all possible. This hasn't come up much for us, but there have been times where he has been traveling and has had to, but again, he told me, and it was not a regular occurrence. For us, it's helpful to remember that situations and people are complex, and there is room for freedom and flexibility for situations that are outside of our control. 

You both travel — he mostly. What are some parameters you have in place for travel?

I've already touched on some of these, but another boundary he has in place is that when he's staying in a hotel, he always tells me what he is watching on television before he watches it. He also sticks to a few channels and only goes to those channels. Basically, he's not channel surfing the whole night. He knows what he will watch (usually a sporting event), and he sticks with it. He also plans on working in the evenings while he travels, so if something does come up (an invite to dinner), he already has plans in place to decline the invitation.

Boundaries are good, but perhaps we could re-frame the conversation to prioritizing them in marriage. What are ways that you and Daniel try to prioritize your marriage?

This one feels like it's always changing. We just had a baby (and we have twin two-year-old boys), so finding time is hard! But again, we try to keep running communication. We don't do this perfectly by any means, but we try to be open and honest about how we are feeling about things. Especially for me, I can get lost in my own head and spiral into scenarios that aren't even on the radar, so talking about what is going on in my head is really helpful for our marriage.

When he's in a busy travel season, I try to keep my evenings free when he's about to leave and when he comes home. I can get stuck in my routine of being a single parent with all my evenings to myself, so if I'm not careful to keep that time free for him, I can easily forget that I have a husband who wants to spend time with me! We try to reserve Friday evening specifically for time together and other evenings if our season allows for it. We also do a date swap with some friends who also have young children.

What do you say to the person who thinks that it's all "overboard" or not necessary? In other words, they'd say the safeguards aren't necessary.

I would say that Paul was serious when he said "let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12). I don't think everyone is a walking adulterer waiting to start on affair, but I do think that sin is serious, and we often underestimate the depravity of our own hearts. I would rather err on the side of caution then assume that anything is not possible for me. I don't think this means I run from any interaction with men. That doesn't seem wise to me. But I do think it means I am aware that based on my own understanding of my heart, I need to protect myself and my marriage from my tendency toward wandering away from God and his commands.

What I think is often missing from the debate about whether or not we should have guidelines is an understanding of the weaker brother/sister. We don't know the struggles and past sin experiences of everyone, so if someone has boundaries that are more or less stringent than our own, we would serve them well by respecting their boundaries instead of vilifying them for them. 

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Perhaps the question isn’t so much how should men and women interact, but rather are we willing to lovingly serve others’ boundaries and respect their marriage? Set rules for everyone is likely less than helpful, but remembering to respect the conviction of our fellow brothers and sisters is essential to brotherly and sisterly love.

ERLC2018