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“Ask a Priest: What Signs of Affection Are OK When Dating?”
Q: I am from a country where we have our parents arrange marriage for us. But some families do allow a girl and boy who fell in love to get married before a marriage was fixed for them. In my country falling in love with more than one person is considered wrong, and this is what Catholics, including priests and nuns, would say too. And even if they all support arranged marriages, some would say that if people love each other, then it is fine that they should get married. I thought of dating as a way to get to know the right person to make him my partner for life. But I see in Europe and North America that it is completely fine for a person to fell in love with one person and then leave that person and again fell in love with an another person. It is wrong and would it be considered cheating if a husband or wife kiss or become romantic with someone else other that their partners? And if dating is trying to get to know the right person, how is it OK to kiss and be romantic with that person? I mean, you don’t know for sure that he or she is the one you will get married to, right? Wouldn’t that also be wrong? Because it is same as cheating, but before marriage. -V.R.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: It would be good at the start to define some terms. “Falling in love” and “kissing” and “being romantic” can mean a wide variety of things.
Let me attempt a short answer to the question about kissing and romancing with someone you are dating. It is generally OK for an unmarried couple to show little signs of affection. I say “generally” because there might be some cultures where such displays of affection are frowned on. I wouldn’t want to show any disrespect for local customs that try to guard the chastity of young people.
“Little signs of affection” could include light kisses or hand-holding. Unmarried people should avoid prolonged contact or anything that would bring on strong physical reactions and tempt them into sinful behavior. Here, people need to be sincere and humble and to recognize their own fallen nature. Sins against chastity are among the easy ones to fall into.
Such sins would not be a good preparation for marriage. Intense physical activity can actually disrupt a courtship. It is easy to get too focused on the physical side of a relationship and not make enough attention to other areas, such as basic compatibility and shared beliefs.
It is good to remember that the best marriages are where spouses try to help each other grow in holiness. That process should begin long before they are married. That is why inappropriate signs of affection between a boyfriend and girlfriend can hurt their relationship. It can also hurt them later, after marriage, when spouses at times have to practice abstinence.
People who are not married do not have the same level of commitment as do married spouses. That is why spouses have to follow a higher standard – they simply should not show any signs of sexual affection to anyone other than their spouses.
If by “being romantic” you mean intense physical affection, then that is not permitted between unmarried people. It can easily lead to serious sin.
You mention about people in Europe and North America falling in love with one person, then leaving for another person. I would say, in these cases, that there never really was true love. Real love lasts. What people call “falling in love” might really mean they feel intense emotional and/or physical attachment to someone. Later, when the emotions fade, they get bored and look for someone else. This is not love; this is a case of using another person as an object. On the emotional plane, it could also be called infatuation, or simply experiencing attraction. Even married couples experience this from time to time toward someone who is not their spouse. In those moments, their true love, their commitment to fidelity and their deep respect for their spouse, will help them resist that temptation.
If you date, it is good to set certain boundaries with your boyfriend. These will help you. If he respects the boundaries, then that is a good sign that he has genuine concern for you. The best courtships and marriages always have Christ in the center of the relationship.
In the meantime stay close to Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Keep up a regular prayer life and sacramental life, and encourage a boyfriend to do the same. That is the best preparation for marriage. For further reading, see Fr. John Bartunek’s article on “Courtship and Engagement“. You might also find Mary Beth Bonacci’s resources interesting. You can learn more about her here. I hope this helps.