We will look at the healthy maturing of a relationship over two posts. It is important to understand that there needs to be an appropriate progression of every relationship for it to develop in a healthy manner. Healthy progression is characterized by observing limits appropriate to the relationship’s stage. These limits will change at each new stage but there will always be some limits, even in marriage. This is because we can only give ourselves fully and totally to God. To give ourselves to another person as we would to God is an act of idolatry. In addition to being sinful and while doing so may seem romantic at first, this puts impossible demands on the other person. No one can give another person what only God can give him. It also prevents both from loving in the way we were made because idolatrous love impedes one’s relationship with God.
The limits to what one shares of oneself include emotional attachment, depth and type of communication, and types of physical contact. The human person is created in the image of God. Because of this, man is a mystery who belongs fully, only to God. Thus, sharing of this mystery with others must be appropriate to the commitment and the type of relationship. During dating and courtship there is an understandable a tendency to share oneself and to rush the intimacy of a relationship. This must be resisted.
The urge to rush varies person by person and couple by couple. However, men tend to be inclined to rush the relationship earlier in its development, more often than do women. Women’s gifts lead them to be more aware of their feelings and so to be more cautious in terms of emotional attachment and physical intimacy early on. Whereas men tend to be less aware of the consent they give to their emotions and this consent often leads to bonding and emotional attachments arising more quickly. In addition, the analytically structured, male brain leads him to desire to know and to exhaust the mystery of the woman. This means he will want more quickly to know everything he can about her. His inclination to focus on certain aspects of her, such as her sexual value, will also leave him generally less likely to attempt to resist temptations to rush to physical intimacy.
St. John Paul II wrote a meditation on the book from the Old Testament called the Song of Songs that can be helpful in terms of understanding how emotional intimacy should proceed (see his book Man and Woman He Created Them also known as the Theology of the Body). He cites especially the verse in which the husband tells his wife: “You are an enclosed garden, my sister, my bride, an enclosed garden, a fountain sealed” (Song 4:12). The image of an enclosed garden for the woman is an important one. This is an image of the mystery of the feminine human person who has the gifts more appropriate to the task of being aware of and protecting her mystery. This protection is not just the protection of herself from the man, but the protection of him from his inclinations of which he may not fully be aware. Therefore, it is also the protection of the relationship.
The woman can help the man to recognize and so to live up to his obligations, and to overcome his temptations. She can help him to see her first as a sister and then as a bride. A sister and brother are those who trust each other completely, unconcerned with the possibility of the reduction of one or the other to only their sexual value. This reduction is a perennial problem in many other sexually complementary relationships. In dating, courtship, betrothal and yes, even in marriage, both partners must be able to develop a maturity which allows each to see and commit to the other’s full value as a human person. They must overcome temptations to focus on what the other’s complementary sexual value can do to meet their needs or desires.
The man must do so in order to arouse in himself the desire help her to guard the mystery of her personhood. He should resist the temptation to manipulate the situation or the woman to rush to fulfill the desire to possess her. He needs to wait until she allows him to enter into each level of the garden, and then only at the appropriate stage of the relationship. The innermost center of the garden of the woman (and the man) belongs only to God; this reflects that fact that only God can fully know any person. We can give ourselves completely only to God. The succeeding levels extending away from the center, her husband may enter but he must resist his urge to possess any stage. She is an end in herself, a gift to be received but not an object to be possessed. This is also true of the man.
The image of the garden and the person as a mystery together reveal that marital sexual relations, the intimacy of emotional attachment, and every conversation should reflect the tenderness and mutual respect of selfless lovers. Both must avoid the temptation to use each other as a means of satisfying a desire for pleasurable experiences, of satisfying the need for bonding, or of “using” the other person for any other aspect of one’s own fulfillment.
The husband respects his wife by entering for a time into her interior life, and then retreating to the outer levels of the garden. This can help him to overcome the urge to “possess” her or to consider her, his possession. She must do the same. The urge to possess the other will arise repeatedly, but it must continually be resisted. Each person must see the other as a gift to be received, and an end to be cherished and for which to be continually thankful. The man must also learn that while he may not be aware of it, that he also must honor his own mystery as well. He must realize that he can give himself fully only to God and in doing so, he can give himself more authentically to his bride.
If this is true of husband and wife, we must expect the man should enter only outer regions of the garden during intentional dating, increasingly interior levels during courtship and betrothal, but the most interior region permissible, must be saved until after the irrevocable commitment has been made. Let’s look at how this guarding of one’s mystery might look in terms of establishing appropriate limits for the different phases of a relationship.