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Ask Margot-When physical contact is off-limits


If you’re abstaining from sex before marriage, where should you draw the line at physical affection: no kissing, holding hands or hugs?

By Margot Carmichael Lester

ear Margot,
I’m all for abstaining until marriage, even for someone like me, who’s a widower. But the woman I’m currently seeing takes it too far. She doesn’t like to kiss good-night or even hold hands. I don’t see what the harm is in that kind of behavior, but she insists it’s wrong. Is she right, or is there something else going on here?
—Wondering in Washington, D.C.

Dear Wondering,
Even for an avowed abstainer, this must be a very frustrating situation. I have to say that I agree
That’s not anything you’re going to change in her, so it’s really up to you.
with you: Hand-holding and good-night kisses are pretty innocuous. From our point of view, these activities are still well within the realm of abstention. But I know some folks here in the South who are just like your lady friend and believe that any physical affection, no matter how minor, is just plain wrong.

Looking at your situation, I reckon there are two possible things going on.

In the first scenario, let’s say your gal is like my pals and has a deep-seated belief that any sort of romantic contact is off-limits. That’s not anything you’re going to change in her, so it’s really up to you. If you think you can respect her no-contact edicts, then there’s no reason you can’t keep seeing her. But I sense you’re feeling a little resentment about the impact of her rigid requirements. If you’re really interested in her, you should work on managing those feelings. Perhaps talk to your own pastor about how to deal with your emotions more effectively. Maybe even talk to her — but not in a way that’s accusatory or makes her feel bad.

This is challenging, but here’s a script I use when I have to have difficult conversations:

“When I offer affection you don’t welcome, I feel [insert your emotion here], and I make up a story that…”

That last part can be tricky. That’s where you tell her what you’re thinking about those feelings. For instance, maybe her behavior makes you think
There is another possible scenario: She really might not be that into you.
she’s not that into you and wants to see other people? Whatever your emotions cause you to think is what you need to share. I like this model because it helps us be honest about our feelings and thoughts, allows the other person a chance to understand and react more effectively, and it’s the basis of a more constructive conversation.

Now, there is another possible scenario: She really might not be that into you. Many times, we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings by saying “I’m not interested,” so we put some actions out there in hopes the other person picks up on them. It’s entirely possible this woman is letting her beliefs do the heavy lifting here instead of telling you she’s not attracted.

How can you know? Again, using the script outlined above, you can start the conversation and get to the bottom of it. The power in this way of communicating is in separating the “data” from the “story” we make up about it. Things happen in relationships all the time, and we go out of our way to find meaning in them. But that meaning is not necessarily the truth; it’s just our truth in that moment. When we separate what happens from how we feel about it — and communicate those two things separately — we free ourselves and our partner from a whole mess of misunderstanding.

If she really is interested in you as a long-term romantic partner, then you have some decisions to make about whether you can learn to accept her beliefs or not. But at least, get her side of the story first. That information will enable you to determine whether she’s the right person for you. And if she cops to not actually digging you, bow out gracefully and be grateful that you’ve now got an opportunity to pursue someone whose beliefs and practices are more in line with yours.

The real challenge for you, Wondering, is to decide whether you’re interested enough in this woman to have an open and honest dialog with her — a dialog in which you take the first step by truly owning your side of the story. If you are (and I hope that’s the case), the two of you can then figure out the best path — and whether you take it together or separately.


Margot Carmichael Lester is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. Send your dating questions to AskMargot@match.com.
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