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How can I stick to the promise I've made to myself to wait?

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IthilienDude asks:

I'm a Christian, and I have decided to save myself till marriage. I'm perfectly fine with that. My boyfriend is fine with that too (we've been together a month), and respects my decision. However, like any celibate person would admit, sometimes I get these truly surreal urges for sex: I catch myself thinking that maybe even a little bit of touching while kissing would be fine, or I just think about what it would be like if we ever got married and ended up sleeping together. I have said nothing to my boyfriend, in case he misconstrues it as an invitation, but it has recently been very, very difficult to resist, especially with all these hormones making me want sex. I want to stay true to my decision to stay premaritally celibate, and I will pride myself on not being tempted, however my urges make the battle all the harder sometimes. Any suggestions?

Heather Corinna replies:

For starters, I think staying silent about this with a romantic partner isn't likely to help you out, especially one you're physical with. Unless you feel like your relationship is too new to be talking about sexuality at all yet, I also don't think keeping how you're feeling to yourself is going to help cultivate a relationship in which the other person can really get to know you, which is kind of the point of relationships, right?

You say he's supportive of your decision to save sexual contact for marriage. You say sticking with this choice is important to you. If both of these things are true, I don't think you're doing either of you any favors by not giving him the chance to really be supportive and yourself the chance to be who you really are, which includes your feelings and desires and the choices you want to make with them. In healthy, close relationships, we should be able to talk about the things that are most important to us and also about things we struggle with.

Talking about anything sexual shouldn't ever be construed as an invitation unless we are extending an invitation, such as "I've been thinking about X a lot. Would you like to do X with me?" or "I'm in the mood for X and would like to do it with you. You wanna?" Those are invitations. Something like "I've been thinking about X, but I don't want to do it, I just want to voice it and talk about it," is clearly not an invitation to do anything but talk. In a healthy relationship where we are earnestly respected, partners will respect the fact that sometimes we may want things or think about things that, for whatever reason, we don't actually want to do or don't feel right about doing at a given time.

If you are with someone who cares about you and respects you, I don't think you need to worry that voicing this will result in your boyfriend doing something that you don't want or pressuring you. If you truly think talking about this would result in that kind of response, I'd advise you to get away from this person, no matter what your values were, because that would be an indication he isn't a safe person to be close to.

If you two are going to keep seeing each other, especially long-term, radio silence about anything that feels big is not your friend. You're going to need to talk about things like this from time to time. And when you keep this stuff to yourself, it's more likely to make you feel like a corked bottle about to pop. Giving it voice is likely to help you feel a lot better.

So, first things first: start talking. You've made the decision to wait because your values are such that you want to choose to only do certain things with these feelings in certain situations, not because you don't have these feelings. You don't need to pretend you don't have desires, because having those desires, even if he shares them, doesn't mean you need to do things you don't want to or that anyone's actions will be outside their control. You can talk about this and brainstorm together to think of ways to manage it. Maybe that will involve spending less time making out and more time doing things together that aren't physical; maybe you can come up with creative ways to explore these feelings that aren't physical, like by writing them down and sharing them that way. Maybe you can come up with ways to be physically affectionate that feel less sexual. Think creatively together, especially since chances are, he's also feeling like you are, and could also use some help.

Talking about this can also provide an excellent opportunity to be clear on your limits and boundaries. Sex means a lot of different things to different people, so you'll want to figure out what "saving sex until marriage" means to you and then make that clear to anyone you're dating. That way, they can be sure they really can agree to what you're asking of them and you get to worry a whole lot less about misunderstandings, which should be a big chunk of stress you'll get to ditch.

It might help to recognize your sexual desires aren't surreal. The desires you're having are anything but surreal: they're real. They're common, and most people have them, including people who -- again, for whatever reason -- choose not to enact them. You talk about them being all about hormones, but those desires aren't just about hormones, even though many people talk about them that way, especially when they talk about young people. Even people whose levels of sex hormones and other chemicals that play a part in sexuality and interpersonal relationships are different than yours, or who have had decades to get used to the chemicals that play a part in our sexual desires will feel desires to be sexual or otherwise physically close to people.

You say you want to pride yourself on having never been tempted. I'd suggest you make more room for yourself to simply be human in that. Unless you're choosing to be celibate because you have never felt any sexual desires or don't ever expect to, I think it's very unrealistic to ask that of yourself.

I'm going to assume that for you, the value of this particular intention -- choosing to save sex for marriage -- is based in that intent and action, not about thoughts or feelings to the contrary. I hope so, because while you can control your actions and intentions, you can't control your thoughts or feelings. They happen and are what they are even if and when people try and exert control over them. I assume, too, that it's probably a more meaningful or powerful intention in your mind if you're choosing it despite it not being easy, and that if it were totally easy and just anyone could do it, it wouldn't be very meaningful to you.

Instead, what I'd suggest is that you just accept those feelings of being "tempted" when you have them. Let them be, don't judge them, don't invest pride in having them or not having them. Heck, I'd suggest not even investing pride in what you do or don't do with them: this isn't about pride after all, it's about your faith, which is likely bigger, more meaningful, and richer than pride. Desires tend to come and go if we just let them float in and out. If someone wants to do something about them that feels right and is right for anyone else involved, that's okay. But if someone doesn't want to, or has something else they want that those actions would be in conflict with, they can let them be there and then just let them go.

One thing that can happen, though, which you're probably experiencing, is that those feelings can feel way more intense when we choose not to enact them or when we can't enact them. Having something that we want be forbidden -- even if we are the ones making it so, and even if it's forbidden because we want something else more -- is a powerful thing, especially sexually. That doesn't mean you have no choice but to have any kind of sex you don't want to, just that you want to recognize that putting a kibbosh on putting those feelings into action is probably making them feel bigger than they actually are. While knowing that doesn't change the situation, sometimes being aware of some of why something feels a certain way can make it easier to deal with, and in this case, you can probably ground yourself some by recognizing some of the bigness of those desires is about you not pursuing them, and if you did pursue them, they may well feel less big than they do now.

I don't know how you feel about masturbation, but that can give you an outlet for these feelings and desires without going against what you want in terms of saving sex with a partner until marriage. There isn't any mention of female masturbation anywhere in the Bible, if that matters to you. (Only a mention of male masturbation, and even that's really about male ejaculation outside sex for the purposes of reproduction and how that isn't okay, not so much masturbation. That bit was written, though, before people knew sperm cells aren't something guys can save up, only using when they choose, but that, instead, when not ejaculated, the body ditches those cells all by itself internally. So, even that's not really a statement that masturbation isn't okay so much as a sort of wishful-thinking about sperm that science has since shown us isn't possible. But I digress.)

Masturbation can be a satisfying outlet for sexual feelings, whether we're choosing to have sex with partners or not. It's not being with a partner, so it can't provide the social and interpersonal part of sex, but it can create a feeling of physical and chemical sexual release (the parts that are more about hormones) and give you a place to explore your sexuality that doesn't involve a partner. If that's not something you want to do, that's okay. It's one option, that's all.

I want to make sure you know that something else that's very normal and typical is to ask questions of our values and beliefs, even when we feel very strongly about them. That's how we tend to clarify them, and either check in and get stronger in knowing they are want we want and believe, or adjust them if they ever don't feel like a good fit anymore, whether that's developing a different understanding of the same values or changing those values.

I don't think any of us needs to be scared to ask questions of our value or belief systems, because the goal is to discover and live by whatever values and beliefs are right for us as individuals. The right set for us will stand up to questions. And if we've got a set that's wrong for us, or even just not quite right, it's important to make adjustments so that we and our lives feel right, and so we can always be engaging in and moving towards what is right for us, uniquely, and what we feel best about. If you haven't yet met people in your life who feel they must stick to a set of values that really doesn't fit them, or won't fully include who they are, trust me when I tell you that those folks are typically very unhappy people who ultimately not only don't stick to those values, but who sometimes wind up using them to keep themselves and other people feeling really terrible.

I know it can feel scary to have doubts about values, especially if you have the idea that any one value system is always absolutely right and everything else is wrong. But I hope you have the wisdom to know that's not true, especially knowing how many wonderful people there are in the world who have done wonderful things who have different belief systems. The Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi aren't Christian; Ghandi, Elie Wiesel, Malcolm X and even Mary, Moses and Jesus weren't Christian, but you probably recognize those are or were all people who've done things with their lives very much in alignment with the core of what your values probably are. There are also people who have shared your values and religion that I think you and I would agree have done terrible things, some that have even hurt millions of people. Clearly, being a wonderful person who does good for themselves and others is more about simply investing care, energy and intention in doing good for yourself and others than it is about one system of values or beliefs.

You might find some extra support in finding others to talk to who share your values and also share some of your struggles around this. I'd say that's even more important if this relationship feels too new for you to talk to this guy about this. I bet you can find someone around your age who feels the same way or similar to the way you feel, who is struggling with what you are: we hear from young people here in a similar spot often. Those other-you's are out there, I assure you. Self-constructed support groups can be such a big help with anything we need some help with in our lives. If you've had trouble finding peers who share your beliefs, you could ask other people in your religious community to help you make those connections.

One last thing I'd suggest is that you think about what you need in terms of dating and what's likely to be and feel best for you. Is dating a sound choice for you right now at all, especially if it involves being physical in any way? It may not be. If you think it is and you can manage it with your goals around sex, what about what kind of partner is a best choice for you? A partner who is only "fine with" your values and these choices, especially if they're only reluctantly okay, may not work out very well, especially when you've not been dating a month, but months or years, as this is likely to get more challenging with time, especially if the other person doesn't want what you do. What may be a better fit is dating people who aren't just okay with your values, but who share them.

If this guy doesn't turn out to be a person who this works with over time, that doesn't mean you have to change what you want or believe or do anything you don't feel good about. If this guy isn't that person, know that person -- probably more than just one, too -- is out there, it just may take time to find them, as it often does for any of us to find people with whom we have real affinity.

I'll confess that talking about what you are is sometimes challenging for me, especially in a world where not everyone is even given the right to get married when that's something they want and where some of the history around these kinds of ideals makes me uncomfortable. But just like you have a strong intention to save sex until marriage, I have a strong intention to support everyone in whatever they feel is or is not right and best for them in their sexual choices, even when I don't share the same values and wants, even when I don't understand them, because I don't always understand.

That said, I want to make sure you know that just like I support you in this now, I'd be supportive if at any point in your life, you decided you wanted to make different choices that felt right for you then. I'd be supportive if you didn't decide you felt differently, but did something outside your boundaries because you thought, in the moment, you might feel differently, or wanted to see how you felt if you tried something. We're all human, and sometimes that means that we're not always clear on what we want, or that we do something because we think it'll be okay for us, only to find out that it wasn't. We're human, and so we tend to often learn by making mistakes or by trying different things to find out how we feel more tangibly. If that ever happens, I hope you won't lose pride in yourself, respect for yourself or feel you have lost a "battle." I hope if any of those things ever does happen, you can be just as kind to you and supportive of you as I'd be.

I also hope that whatever you decide is the right path for you in this, now or later, you can find a way for it to feel less like a battle and more like a positive challenge to get what you want and to be whoever it is you want to be.

I'm leaving you with a few links I think might give you some additional help:

written 07 Feb 2011 . updated 13 Jan 2014

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