Emotional Unchastity: Giving Your Heart Away Prematurely


Dating Chastity

I gave a talk on a Catholic college campus last weekend. It was an awesome, awesome experience.

Catholic colleges – the really Catholic ones – are among my greatest sources of encouragement for the future. All of those great kids who actually take their faith and their relationships with God seriously. It’s a beautiful thing.

So I spoke to them about a topic that I have addressed here at CatholicMatch about a half-billion times: the importance of centering our lives around Christ and not around our search for a spouse. Not that searching for a spouse is a bad thing. But when we make it our sole motivating principal for – well, pretty much everything we do – we risk missing out on what God has in store for us if we were following Him instead of the cute guys (or girls).

In the course of that discussion, we happened upon a subject that is apparently all the rage among Really Catholic College Students. That topic is called “emotional unchastity.” Here I’ve been speaking on chastity since before these students were born, and now these young upstarts have come up with a brand new take on chastity. 

Well, sort of.

And no, “emotional unchastity” doesn’t refer to entertaining sexually lustful thoughts. That’s still covered under the normal sins against chastity. To be emotionally unchaste means to be prematurely intimate emotionally, or to give one’s heart without commitment.

Now that I know what it is, I think they’re onto something.

But I think “emotional unchastity” is a really, really bad name for what it is they’re onto. I’m lobbying hard for a different moniker. Maybe “emotional boundary-less-ness” or something.


The problem

First, what they’re onto. We women know the phenomenon well. We were particularly susceptible to it when we were young.  We’d meet an interesting guy, and two hours later we were combining our last names and imagining our children. We’d talk to him and spill our guts and our life stories, all hoping our vulnerability would somehow prove charming and win him over. We’d lay our hearts on the line prematurely. And reality would generally slap us back into reality, but not before we had wasted a lot of time and probably shed a few tears.

So this emotional unchastity is analogous to physical unchastity, in a sense. Just as we give our bodies in premature sexual activity, we give our hearts in premature emotional intimacy. 

But the use of the word “chastity” in the second sense is just an analogy. It’s not an accurate description.  And I’m concerned that using it to describe these emotional indiscretions can create a lot of confusion in young men and women.

The word “chastity has a very specific meaning. It refers to the respect, or lack thereof, that we pay to the sexual function of the body. That function, and the language that God created it to speak, are uniquely important. And thus, offenses against that language are described using that very specific term. Sins of chastity are sins against the meaning and the beauty of human sexuality. 

And that’s just it. Offenses against chastity are sins. When the Catechism lists sins against chastity, it names pornography, fornication, masturbation and sexual lust.  It does not mention excessive non-sexual daydreaming or prematurely sharing feelings.  Don’t get me wrong, those things are probably a bad idea. I don’t recommend them, and I think they can trip up your lives in a lot of ways. But they aren’t, in and of themselves, sinful.

What concerns me is that I know that there are a lot of very conscientious, perhaps even scrupulous young men and women out there who don’t get this distinction. They may be living extremely chaste lives, but thinking they aren’t because – like every other young adult under the sun – they’re having a hard time figuring out where their emotional boundaries should be. That’s important work, but it doesn’t belong in the moral realm in the same way that sexual morality does.


Another difference

The analogy breaks down in one other important way. Physical chastity means saving all sexual intimacy for marriage, for the wedding night. The same cannot be said about emotional intimacy.

Can you imagine saving all of our deeper self-revelation for the wedding night?  “Okay, here we are in the honeymoon suite. Now, I have an inferiority complex, I struggle with intense feelings of jealousy, I’m deathly afraid of parrots, and once in fourth grade…”  

And you think we have a lot of annulments now?

There is an art to learning how and when to reveal ourselves emotionally. It takes time and maturity to learn it. We need to help young men and women (and perhaps even the older ones) to find that balance, and we need to warn them against getting caught up in their emotional or romantic fantasies.

But let’s call it something else.



  1. Judy-986208 May 5, 2015 Reply

    There is a song about Love is a Dance, sometimes you lead; sometimes you follow. . .

  2. Robert-3483 November 26, 2013 Reply

    You’re on the button Mary Beth Bonacci on this topic. The term needs clarification and refinement to avoid damaging scrupulosity. Sin, including acts of silent omission, damages or destroys fraternal communion (CCC 1469). As a modestynik described in Wendy Shalit’s first book but going further by cutting off communication with the opposite gender near my age for nearly all things if the Sacrament of Marriage was not likely (being overprotective of the Sacrament of Marriage), can be destructive. I was good at not doing things, but I was not very good at doing things that God gives the grace and freedom to do for Him. I was essentially burying my Talents and gifts. I can attest to it. If it weren’t for St. Francis de Sales’ “Intro to the Devout Life”, I would have a much less blessed life and would not be a godfather to two unrelated children on opposite ends of the planet because of women I knew before and during their current marriage.

    The false assumption with emotional chastity is that all love falls under eros. It’s more of a protestant and Kantian notion. Agape, philia, and storge in the practice of Virtues will always have some degree of risk, the hope for Resurrection through Christ. Virtue-based ethics beats Kantianism. Duty is not the highest moral good. Love is.

    I would point to St. Francis de Sales’ “Intro to the Devout Life” on friendships, including mixed gender friendships and the Summa’s “affability”.

    Essay on mixed gender friendships (citing as much Church teaching as possible):

    Christopher West pointed out a relation between visual porn to men and literary porn to women (“Created and Redeemed DVD series). This may be a similar track that “emotional chastity” is attempting to take, but the term needs to be clarified an awful lot to avoid neutering the four loves, with agape being the highest and primary one for Christians. Prayer must be made for the grace of God to help keep “emotional chastity” from being a sin of omission against Christian love, either within the Body of Christ or even to our enemies.

    The sin of comission would be Mt 5:28:
    “whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This is straightforward. Confession should be made. 🙂 IF it becomes an occasion of sin, run… (St. Francis de Sales’ “Intro to the Devout Life: Part 3: False friendship”).

  3. Julia-163268 July 3, 2013 Reply

    The evangelical Protestants already have a name for this concept: guarding your heart. It’s a much less of a mouthful than ’emotional unchastity’ or ’emotional boundary-less-ness’. And, it offers the concept as a positive one- guarding your heart is something you can actively pursue- rather than as a negative concept to be avoided. Seeking a positive good is always a better way to frame ethical life choices.

  4. Kathy-635104 April 27, 2013 Reply

    I definitely think online dating presents a new set of challenges to this issue. How much to share and when takes time as you learn to trust, especially with a longer distance between the parties. Even then, boundaries can be crossed and people can be easily taken advantage of. Discussing intentions is no guarantee of emotional connection. Letting someone know you, your past, your dreams and then leaving without any indication that there was anything lacking is a deception of the worst kind.

  5. Lucia-551179 May 15, 2012 Reply

    The way I see this, I’d call it “emotional investment”. It’s about how we are using our minds and hearts when we respond to things around us. Are we putting our energy into a valid worthwhile endeavor, or do we get attached to the “next big thing?” While this phenomenon is not in itself a sin, it has the ability to harm us by sapping our energy when it needs to be placed elsewhere. We need to manage our emotional lives well in order to work through the times when we get swept away. Just like the body needs exercise to function better, so does our heart.

  6. Mary-272665 May 12, 2012 Reply

    Very good post that puts words on something I’ve struggled with (being a female).

  7. Eleanore-797494 May 11, 2012 Reply

    Great post. It reminded me of the following, which I read at SingleCatholicWoman.com (Amy Bonaccorso was reviewing “The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After”):

    A lot of Christian women have heard the phrase, “Guard your heart.” Or even better, “Find a guy who will guard your heart.” This book teaches women exactly how to guard their hearts. A lot of it is about pacing the speed that you emotionally attach to a guy. The book introduces the concept of admiration vs. attachment. A guy may admire you greatly and appreciate your time together, but not be in love and ready to choose you above all other women, i.e. attach. This is a very important point worth studying because women can start to attach to a man when he is merely in admiration-mode. This is risky and can lead to major disappointment. How do we know what pace to go by? Through the man’s words and behavior. It’s a dance. We should strive not to shift into attachment when he has not given us any reason to think he’s on that path.

  8. Ramona-652361 May 10, 2012 Reply

    I found this to be a very good posting. It will really help me. I never really thought about “emotional boundaries” before.

  9. Alejandra-845211 May 9, 2012 Reply

    I think we also need to consider that the early loss of emotional innocence comes from the inability to identify honesty and healthy friendships. We suffer for the lack of role models and people who can give pertinent moral and emotional advice as
    we need to learn to communicate.

  10. Tess-613285 May 8, 2012 Reply

    Giving your heart away prematurely can be devastating. This is especially true for the emotionally immature. It probably has happened to all of us at one or more times in our lives especially when we were young. Surrendering your heart prematurely can be a cause of suicide, murder or terrible suffering that can come from unrequited love. Some people never get past it and cannot have a mature loving relationship with healthy boundaries. So yes, care is required over your heart. Giving your heart to God for safekeeping is a good idea and a healthy one as well. Good article. Thanks!

  11. Cory-789423 May 7, 2012 Reply

    I agree with you Mary Beth. I think there is a difference between online dating and in real life (IRL) dating in terms of emotional discretion (which I think is the term you are looking for). When a couple meets online, it is wise for that couple to meet in person ASAP in order to see if there is any attraction and chemistry. That way time is not wasted in online communication. In online dating, I feel it should be a longer period before a couple begin to have emotional attachments to each other simply because the time spent together is reduced compared to IRL relationships. In IRL relationships, most cases have the couple knowing each other prior to dating. Thus that couple know more about each other and their views on the relationship. Therefore emotional attachment can happen earlier.

    Every couple is different so don’t take what I say as definitive for online and IRL dating. But I think that based on circumstances each couple has, the persons in the relationship should exercise emotional discretion based on where the relationship is at and how committed each person is.

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