Abstinence... how does it work for adults?
September 3, 2014 8:45 AM   Subscribe

How do older couples abstain from beong sexually intimate? What sort of rules, tricks, and boundaries do they use? How do they reconcile sexual intimacy in past relationships in a new abstinent relationship? How do they keep a healthy power dynamic (where one person isn't the protector of chastity)?

Answers can be religious or not.
posted by jander03 to Human Relations (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

Response by poster: Ninja edit: abstinence here is abstaining from ALL sexual contact including vaginal, anal, oral, petting...
posted by jander03 at 8:46 AM on September 3, 2014

It would help to know why the couple prefers to remain abstinent, as well as the duration of time they intend to remain abstinent. I'd imagine that most truly helpful answers will be shaped by those factors.
posted by julthumbscrew at 8:59 AM on September 3, 2014 [16 favorites]

It wasn't my kink, and I didn't find it fascinating enough to fully finish the episode, but I did glean a few things from the Why Are People Into That? Chastity episode that you might find some elements in.
posted by straw at 9:05 AM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

This question has no context. Most couples don't choose abstinence. Relationship issues, pregnancy, health issues can mean forgoing sex. Most people are not choosing to enter into celibate relationships expecially if they've been sexually active. Why would they? Asexual people might do this but then you probably don't have to negotiate rules, tricks and boundaries in that case. I know folks who forgo intercourse to avoid pregnancy, i.e. rhythm method, but they do 'other stuff' or abstain during the fertile times.
posted by shoesietart at 9:19 AM on September 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

Context. I mean, if the question is something like "I am an adult who has had sexual relationships in the past but am now dating a Mormon man/woman and..." that is going to inform one kind of answer. If however, one partner has been a victim of sexual assault and is declaring an unknown period of abstinence for their mental health, that's going to inform a different kind of answer.

A cultural and/or geographic context would help to.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:23 AM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Born again christians will decide to adopt pre-marital celibacy.
posted by jander03 at 9:45 AM on September 3, 2014

Mod note: jander03, can you please state more explicitly what situation you're trying to understand with this question? It's fine if you're trying to nail down some specific/concrete issue or scenario, but you need to be a lot more clear about that or this just reads as sort of chatty "tell me about these sorts of things just because" stuff that's not really what Ask is for.
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:47 AM on September 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

Nthing that some context here would be beneficial. The answers you get will vary based on the circumstances. As an example, is this move towards abstinence trauma related? My hubby would consider himself a born again Christian but is fully comfortable with our sexual relationship in the context of marriage. Is there a religious basis or discomfort with this?
posted by snowysoul at 9:54 AM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Both partners have been sexually active in the past. Both partners would like to abstain from sexual intimacy in the relationship until marriage in a renewed attempt to practice God's will in everyday life.

The questions is, how can the couple succeed in that?
posted by jander03 at 10:01 AM on September 3, 2014

This sounds like a question to ask your church. Does your church offer counseling, either to couples or individually?
posted by decathecting at 10:17 AM on September 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

Well, this seems easy enough. Just don't have sex.

I was once a young lady who wasn't going to have sex with her boyfriend, and the way to prevent it was just to not do it. It's the same as stopping anything. I don't shop at Walmart anymore, and if I need something from there, or there's a really convenient one, or it's the only place in canada to buy a cadbury flake, it doesn't matter, because I just don't shop there. Sex is the same, it's just something you're not doing. If you feel like it, too bad. I guess the tip and trick is willpower and commitment.

If you're truly abstaining from ALL sexual contact it should be easier, since you won't be doing much of anything that will push you past the point where you feel like you can't resist. Stay clothed, stay standing up, keep your hands where I can see 'em, and just actually commit to not having sex. Most religious people I know hung out in groups, did outings as dates, no overnights, no staying in and watching movies cuddling on the couch, etc. Keep yourself out of the situations that are conducive to having sex if you really find it hard to resist.

Also, maybe just follow the christian tradition of most strong Christians I know, and get married SUPER fast. :P
posted by euphoria066 at 10:21 AM on September 3, 2014 [21 favorites]

My husband's best friend (BF) and his now-wife are renewed catholics who met at catholic christian outreach, both seeking to rehabilitate their lives and become better people. They were (and are) devout and actively involved in their church, attending bible study groups, catholic seminars, prayer groups, etc. They surround themselves with close friends, family, and church community.

Both BF and his then-girlfriend had had sex before in previous relationships, and were in agreement that it had become the focus of (and essentially the downfall of) those relationships. So they decided to not have sex with each other until marriage, and instead focus on their relationship with each other. And they talked at length about it and relationships as a whole, with each other, with friends, and with their priest. They set very strict boundaries for each other to avoid temptation, i.e. not ever even sleeping in the same bed. And it was hard, they were sorely tempted, but they stuck with it. Because it was a team effort and they both believed in it, and because they sought and received support from all their loved ones.

Their families aren't catholic, but they were supportive of their decision. Their catholic outreach group couple friends were often MORE restrictive on themselves regarding abstinence (one couple never even kissed for 2 years, saying they were going to save their first kiss for their wedding), and so there were lots of people their own age-range to relate to in the struggle to stay celibate. And like any struggle to abstain from something, if they stumbled, they didn't give up. Instead they sought to understand why, and renewed their efforts.
posted by lizbunny at 10:36 AM on September 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I had friends like that. They stepped up the wedding date.
posted by PJMoore at 10:47 AM on September 3, 2014 [7 favorites]

I mean this seriously...grit one's teeth and masturbate a lot. Of course, teaching on masturbation varies from religious group to group. But most will admit that "don't ask, don't tell" re: masturbation is better than transgressing with a partner.

Stay in public places...parks, hotel lobbies...stop at one beer if you drink.

Good luck!
posted by 8603 at 10:50 AM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sleep in separate beds. Ideally separate bedrooms. Ideally ideally, separate houses.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:57 AM on September 3, 2014 [8 favorites]

How do they keep a healthy power dynamic (where one person isn't the protector of chastity)?
Clearly, this needs to be a mutual commitment. If there is a slip, the couple needs to talk about what happened and how to deal with it as a team. If one partner become the designated protector of chastity, I view that a big red flag for the relationship that the other partner is not willing to take responsibility for honoring his/her half of the commitment.
posted by metahawk at 11:35 AM on September 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Bornagain Christian here.

The simple answer to this is don't be alone with each other in situations which in other contexts could lead to sexual activity. Don't go to each other's homes when no one else is there. Avoid prolonged "socialization in parked cars" (THAT rule was from when I was in bible college, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.) Be outside in public when having private conversations (think park bench.)

And make it a short engagement. ;-)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 11:42 AM on September 3, 2014 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Blerg. What a wonderful question! And a tough one too.

lizbunny and 8603 are bringing some hot science here.

I think at a basic level, because you're a little older than you "were", you are coming in with an advantage. First, you have to determine what chastity means to you: no touching? No hugging? No kissing? Et cetera, et cetera. Then mostly you'll have to start monitoring yourself to discover which activities and situations are most solicitous or most encouraging towards violating that understanding.

Watching a movie on the couch together, alone, at night, is probably going to be something to avoid. That's a pretty typical non-starter. (And no sleepovers! NO SLEEPOVERS. Geez, are you two trying to kill yourselves?!) But movie theaters...? Might be a totally different thing for you two. Or it might be the same thing.

Once you determine your "line", you need to have enough of an understanding of *why* it's your line, what it represents, that you can resist the impulse to play "Reverse Kick the Can", where you two see how close you can get to the thing you don't want to do without doing it. You are in Spirit of the Law territory here!! If you're thinking about the letter of the law with kissing/petting/whatever, you're already setting yourselves up to fail.

And both of you need to sit down and be real clear about what you are okay and not okay with. Ambiguity on one side is practically asking the other side to have to make very, very difficult decisions at the crisis point. Don't do that! Take a walk in the park and hash things out; talk to pastors/priests and friends if you want to, but know what you're committing to before you commit to it, or else you may very well find that you will be more than happy to change the rules in the middle of the game.

Know when to get out and say, "I had a lovely time, but I need to get back home and do laundry. Let's text/call/email later, okay!" when you can feel yourself wanting to see "how close you can get without going over" (maybe I should have called it "playing The Price is Right" instead!). Don't flirt, don't hint, just boost. You'll have plenty of time later to let her know how flipping good she looked on that Saturday afternoon later; you're just punishing yourself to do it now.

Do stuff. Any stuff! Take a walk, go shopping, go to a sporting event or an art gallery. In other words, distract yourself. Go on dates, and AVOID BOREDOM. Like light pollution, when you don't have anything else taking up your attention it is waaaaay easier to notice that the person you're with is one fine human being. And you'll have all the time in the world to notice that later on.

Tricks? Uhh, I wouldn't be alone with someone as much as possible, I'd group date, I'd probably try and avoid being together at night, when sleepy, or (as was already said) after more than one beer. Or maybe any beer! Find ways to communicate my interest non-physically, and keep an eye on how long my hugs were (I know, hugging is awesome!).

Rules? Pay attention to my impulses and respect them. Notice the circumstances in which they are strong and avoid those circumstances. I've already mentioned some potentials, but here are some more: praying together, early mornings, seeing the other person in their sleep clothes (no matter how G rated they are: Comfortable-looking people are sexy!).

Boundaries? That's on you two. If I were really going to try and pull this off and I felt really strongly that we were going to get married, I might put off kissing until the altar. But I'm older now and I have a little more perspective than I did when I was 20. Hug, don't caress. Don't get in there and "explore the space" with that hug; communicate greeting and get out. Holding hands would probably be fine (holding hands can be electrifying!). No lying down next to each other, no back rubs; you know when things become too "fun", and you can call it out!

Reconciling past sexual intimacy: hmmmmm. Well, that probably depends on what that means to the two of you. Do you mean, like, I'm all broken up because you did Y with Mr. X? That comes out of a false understanding (I think) of intimacy and sexual "purity". That stuff belongs to God now, and it's no different than anything else you did that isn't part of the Way of Jesus. IT'S NO DIFFERENT THAN ANYTHING ELSE YOU DID THAT ISN'T PART OF THE WAY OF JESUS. You're both here, now. When you get to a place in which it's appropriate to share the gift of physical sexuality with one another, you can look at what you have from your past that impacts your now and make some good choices, but right now your only responsibility is to respect and love one another and be kind in the way you treat one another. Okay? Just do that!! It'll be hard enough without trying to sort through a whole bunch of other stuff too. And you can't believe the stuff about people being damaged goods because of what happened in the past, or even worse that they have given themselves to someone else and now can't give all of themselves to you (or you to her). That way lies madness, straight up. You're both being sanctified by the King of All Good Things; act like it.

If you're talking about something else, like how to live in a world (i.e. chastity) that is alien to you, then enjoy the new world! Breathe it in! It's brand new, and you'll explore it together. You know, it really does have it's practical upsides. It doesn't have to be all tension and fear and trying to measure up to "God's expectations".

Healthy power dynamic: you both have to want it, and you both have to be willing to accept that "missing the mark", no matter what it ends up looking like in a given moment, is on both people. It sounds like one of you wants this more than the other. You should find out now if this is something you can both do or else you might be a sad puppy dog in the future. A sad and potentially overburdened puppy dog.

AND! If you end up dropping the football, just pick it back up and dust it off. You haven't dirtied the waters, anymore than lying means you can never tell the truth again, or that you might as well lie all the time now. Chastity isn't about purity, it's about intent and the way we value ourselves and each other, and the why of the how. IT'S OKAY TO MESS UP. Just like with any other "missing of the mark", you just get better at hitting the target. Okay? So get out there and have an awesome courtship (or whatever you're gonna call it). And for heaven's sake don't date for four years and have a two year engagement or some nonsense!! If you want it, make it happen. If you don't, accept it and get out so you both can find what you're looking for. Otherwise you're just going to give yourselves a complex! ^.^
posted by Poppa Bear at 12:01 PM on September 3, 2014 [11 favorites]

You might start by researching historical practices or practices of other cultures surrounding this issue. From what I understand, early Americans had practices like bundling bags so the couple could spend time alone, even all night, and not wind up with sex. Kissing and other forms of intimacy were not off limits.

I would research that angle and think about what boundaries seem to make sense and why. I have been celibate for medical reasons for a long time and I have thought a lot about sexual morality. Although I am not Christian, some of the people I discussed this stuff with over the years were Christians or grew up Christian or were even ministers. I think moral imperatives for celibacy include things like avoiding pregnancy and avoiding transmission of untreatable diseases. Part of why modern culture places less value on celibacy is because both of those things can be reasonably effectively addressed without being celibate.

However, being celibate has allowed me to grow emotionally. Part of that was via online relationships with men I had no means to be genuinely physically intimate with but some of our activities likely would have violated the guidelines you are intending to follow here. But, for me, it went a very long way towards helping me getting over the sexual abuse I endured as a child.

So with respect to that dimension, I think one thing you can do is substitute emotional intimacy for sexual intimacy. Have long, heart-felt talks with each other in place of sex. Read that longing as longing for real intimacy of the emotional and spiritual sort, something physical intimacy can be a cheap imitation of. Share secrets and long walks. Use this time to get to know each deeply in ways that you would not otherwise do if you were spending your time simply catering to your physical desire.

I suspect that is part of the spiritual purpose of any edicts to remain celibate. I know long term celibacy has changed my emotional relationship to my sexuality and how I feel about members of the opposite sex and about relationships to them. It has changed it in ways I would have never expected. It has had a lot of positives. And I hope you can find your way to experiencing that side of it -- that the word "sacrifice" has come to colloquially be understood as a synonym for pain and suffering but it is really about doing that which upholds something you deem to be sacred. So don't view this as denying yourself physical release. View this as forcing you find deeper emotional intimacy before you engage in physical intimacy -- that is the positive thing here and that is the reason to do it. Devotion to God should not be about pain and suffering. If you believe God is a loving God and wants what is good for you, than you need to seek what is positive and beautiful about being emotionally intimate but not sexually intimate prior to marriage and not view it as merely some burden. You need to view it as a clue to how to live a more beautiful life together.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 1:06 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

where one person isn't the protector of chastity

If this means that only one person is really trying, then this is not going to work. Or else, one person (you, presumably, or you wouldn't be asking this question) is going to make it work.

This suggests that it is not a shared goal, and that one party will need to be made to not do something they want to do. Not a good start to a long term committed relationship, married or not. For my money, it is a red flag or near enough.

In any event, you need to start thinking about the consequences one party acting as Mr/Ms NO! on the dynamic of the relationship now, and for the rest of your lives together. You might also reflect on the role of shared values in your relationship, and what this situation means for future situations where there are differences between you.

I will say that for you two, maybe a long engagement may be useful, to allow this situation to be sorted out in the context of your suitability and compatibility for the long haul.

Good luck.
posted by GeeEmm at 4:32 PM on September 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's a two-pronged approach.

1. You are both equally committed to remaining celibate before marriage, so there's no pressure.

2. You never put yourself in a situation where you would be tempted.

Really, it is that easy. But do discuss it with your pastor. If this is a teaching in your church, your pastor should approach your questions and concerns openly with you both and give you some strategies that you can use.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:49 PM on September 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Speaking as a far from perfect but earnestly striving evangelical Christian, I will advise you in brief according to what seems prudent to me.

Continually pray about this matter to God, asking for his aid in your struggle. The two of you don't have to be in this battle alone--seek counsel (preferably together) from your pastor(s), elder(s), or some trusted member(s) of your church(es). Consider seeking out like-minded friends to act as accountability partners.

Don't live together until marriage--among other things, that would provide a situation ripe for temptation. Do not indulge in sexual fantasy (except when married, and even then only for each other)--for us sinners it can be something of a slippery slope. Regarding the suggestion that you masturbate in order to curb your desires, I reject that notion because I would argue it is both sinful and potentially counter-productive. Who cares what others think? What is important is what God thinks, and I doubt he would think very highly of engaging in what we view as a more minor sexual sin in order to avoid what we view as more serious sexual sin. In general, avoid situations which are likely to stoke erotic passions (e.g., watching "Fifty Shades of Grey" or even a tamer movie if it was still questionable). Even an activity as "mild" as making out is to be avoided if it causes either of you to stumble. I apologize if this guidance seems overly obvious--I'm not sure where each of you stands, so I'm providing basic tips.

I would strongly encourage you to try to attend church once a week, if you aren't doing so already, since that is a sort of spiritual feeding. Joining a small group is also highly advisable, as that facilitates closer fellowship with believers. Spending time in devotions (prayer, Bible reading, and contemplation) will help to center you on God's will.

Particularly regarding your question of "How do they reconcile sexual intimacy in past relationships in a new abstinent relationship?", I think it's important to understand that if each of you has accepted Jesus Christ as your lord and savior, and each of you is truly repentant of your past sins, you should no longer be afflicted with the guilt of what has already been forgiven. I can't speak with experience about your matter further than that, so if the matter isn't as simple as that for you, then I'm afraid I'm not of much help here.

I hope that my words have been helpful in at least a small way, and I pray for success in your joint endeavor for purity. Remember these truthful words: "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it." (1 Corinthians 10:13)
posted by halp at 7:11 PM on September 3, 2014

Chaperones and group dates from here until the wedding. Also be clear on what kind of physical intimacy is okay. My super-Catholic friends waited until their wedding for their first kiss.
posted by bgal81 at 8:27 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

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