Busted Halo
feature: sex & relationships
September 26th, 2013

Struggling with Chastity



Question: My fiancé and I, both practicing and serious Catholics, are having major problems with chastity. Both of us had saved sex for marriage until we met each other so this is not something we have taken lightly.

I am so concerned about what this bodes for our future marriage. Does this mean we will have problems remaining faithful to each other? At this point, I just don’t know what to do. Are we bad for each other? Do we just give up and find other people? Is our relationship doomed? What are we supposed to do from here?

Aghh! I strive for excellence in all aspects of my life, but in this one area where I have no willpower or strength. I don’t know what to make of this.

Answer: I can hear your anguish and concern. It’s evident that living a chaste lifestyle is a value that has been very important to you. I want to affirm and uphold you in striving to live a life that is counter-cultural and honors the sacred meaning of our bodies.

Because you are now struggling with chastity does not mean you have failed. It simply means you have been handed a new challenge. God gave us our sexual desires to lead us to each other, to bond us together in marriage and for building families. And being engaged likely made your attraction even stronger. This is great news! It’s exactly how love and responsibility are meant to work. But to meet this new challenge, you are going to need some new strategies.

First, the blame and shame cycle is not going to help you. In fact, it’s going to make things worse. You can stop blaming yourself, and your fiancé. This does not mean you will have problems remaining faithful to each other. There are people who marry as virgins and cheat, and there are people who marry after having multiple sexual partners and remain faithful. Remaining dedicated to your spouse over a lifetime comes down to character. Yes, chastity is a good training ground for faithfulness, and you can use your previous experience with it to help you practice chastity now, and in the future within your marriage. Everything you learned up to this point is valuable. You haven’t “undone” all your hard work.

I’m not a fan of denial or repression; both eventually fail. Rather, be aware of when your desires demand attention. Meditate on lifting them up to God. I used the vision of a rope coming out of my heart and up to him. Find one that works for you.

Struggling to remain chaste does not mean you are bad for each other or that your relationship is doomed. In fact, your relationship can be strengthened during this time. A good principle we use in counseling is that you can’t change something that you haven’t accepted. You have to accept that you and your fiancé have crossed a boundary that you desired to maintain. You may even need to grieve the loss of your virginity since it didn’t happen within your marriage. And, you may need to recognize that the part of you that has been waiting for a long time to have sex just wants to have sex. It’s OK, it’s normal and natural, and it’s what scripture calls “the flesh.” Your body is not bad, it just has desires that must be managed in a way that grows us closer to each other and to God, not away from our values.

What can you do from here? Start by having an open conversation with your fiancé. You are going to need his re-commitment to chastity to make this work. If one person is the “gatekeeper,” it can move the relationship towards power struggles and resentment rather than growth and unity. Then, bring your fears and disappointments into the light. Consider going to reconciliation and adoration. This doesn’t mean, “Jesus I’m sorry, please fix me.” It means, pour out your heart to him, every aspect of how you are feeling, and allow the great Healer to work within you. You are going to need his supernatural strength to help you in times of temptation, because as you’ve noticed, your willpower is not enough.

Next, focus on the logistics. Start by avoiding the near occasion of sin. Sound old-fashioned? It is. But if you don’t want to go to Neverland, don’t get on the train that goes to Neverland. This likely means no sleepovers. It may mean setting physical boundaries on any act that will arouse you or your fiancé to the point that it is extremely difficult to stop (although you can stop at any time, why make it worse?). Be mindful of the movies you watch and the sexual conversations you have.

What do you do with your sexual desires? I’m not a fan of denial or repression; both eventually fail. Rather, be aware of when your desires demand attention. Meditate on lifting them up to God. I used the vision of a rope coming out of my heart and up to him. Find one that works for you. When you start to become tempted, call out to God. Use a phrase or a mantra that will help refocus your mind and body to your greater desire, the desire to uphold the virtue of chastity. Give this struggle over to God. Daily. Hourly. Whatever it takes. Instead of saying “no” to your desires, say “yes” to the opportunity to reach out for God’s strength.

Finally, through this process remain mindful of how you and your fiancé are handling it. This will not be the first challenge you face together! Is it growing you closer, or continuing to cause more pain? Are you supporting each other, or tempting each other? I don’t think failing to remain chaste is a sign that he is the wrong person, but I don’t have all the details. Are there other reasons you may be questioning if he is the right person for you? Do you get along? Can you be yourself around him? Have your friends or family expressed concerns? Before this issue, did you have peace about getting engaged? Don’t feel pressured to marry just because you are engaged or because you had sex. Make sure that by the time the wedding comes, you have worked out this issue to the best of your ability as a couple. It won’t doom your marriage, but if the two of you don’t come to a good place about it, it will contribute to stress and conflict.

Your heart is in the right place. Chastity is very difficult and is frequently a struggle for the most faithful Catholics. Thank you for your question and God bless you in your journey.

The Author : Michele Fleming
Michele Fleming, M.A., is a counselor, national speaker, and writer on Christian relationships for CatholicSingles.com. Michele has a master's in clinical psychology with an emphasis in the integration of Christian theology. She is currently completing her Ph.D. and her research is focused on dating and relationships. She is a member of the Christian Association for the Psychological Sciences and the American Psychological Association. Her website is www.michelefleming.org.
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  • George

    St. Paul stated clearly what to do when people are burning in lust: just get married! God has given us this relief to deal with the flesh; sexual desires are very potent by design. Why do you not just get married? Trust in God and He will take care of you and him. That is what faith is about, trust in Him. King Salomon said in Ecclesiastes that there will never be a perfect time to do things, so just do them with some caution, but do them and trust in God. Jesus said that God takes care of the ravens and the sparrows, and He said that He will take care of us. Have faith.
    You don’t need to do the “responsible” thing and wait until you graduate from college to get married. If this is the man you want for a husband, then get married to him. Ask yourself; do I trust this man to be my leader and head of my household? Do I think he loves me sincerely? If you get two YES answers, then get married.
    You don’t need to start off with the house, two cars, the professional jobs, the college degrees, etc… Those are things of the world.
    The RCC teaching on contraception and restrictions on sex in marriage are wrong, so do not limit your married sex life based on arguments from Aristotelian pagan philosophy. Marriage is meant to keep the spouses from being in lust as St. Paul stated.

    • Shannon_D

      I agree with everything about this but the last bit. I definitely agree that it is best to just take the plunge and avoid temptation and sin! My husband and I married when I was a teacher and he was finishing his last years of engineering school. We knew from probably the third month of dating that we were going to end up together. Both of us had made mistakes before but really wanted to do things right with each other- often going to Mass and Adoration at his request (even though he wasnt yet Catholic.) When he wanted to join the Church with me for a sponsor, the Religious Ed director asked him, ‘What happens if you all break up?’ He just looked at him dead serious and said ‘We’re not breaking up,’ with such certainty, the guy said, ‘well, Congratulations.’

      We managed to stay chaste 10 months which was a feat, though failed for the next 4-5, as I had had to move away for work, and the long distance eventually got to us. [Sometimes we’d stay over as I lived 3 hours away] Every time we failed, we’d will to do better- make it a few weeks or a month- then mess up again. I noticed that once we started messing up, we started to fight [sin causes division], though the times we’d behave properly and do something wholesome, it was just like the good old days. There was never any doubt regarding marriage, though. At one point, I went to confession frustrated at the state of things, and the priest (who was really intense) said, ‘Why bother torturing yourselves? If you both agree God wants you to marry- what are you waiting for? Move home. Even if you have to work at Walmart for a year it is better than endangering your eternal soul.” Hard words, but very well timed. We married two months later due to getting super lucky (the day after contacting our back-home priest, he told us if we dropped everything and went that weekend, we could meet 3/4 of the Church’s pre-marriage requirements on a retreat whose spot had just opened up.) After that, all we had to do was attend a couple classes and plan the wedding (which was easy cause as teacher/college student, we both had May/June off). We stayed chaste in that time too and everything was great. In less than a year and a half we went from meeting to married, and will have been happily hitched 3 yrs this July.

      I will admit, while he was in school, it was a little hard supporting two people on teacher’s pay at times- but nowhere near impossible. He worked part time and had internships to help along the way, and if we’d been truly desperate, we could always have taken a friend as a roommate. [Most people we knew worked nights in restaurants and would never be around, though thankfully it never came to that.] The hardest thing was when I lost a baby prematurely after 5 months of marriage, 3 months of my new job, and hadn’t gotten enough paychecks yet, with unpaid medical leave, his root canal, and a speeding ticket, we got down to like $500…. but even then God provided. A few days after our baby died at the hospital we got a call from his parents saying some people from [their Church] brought something by the house- and, just like that scene in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ where everyone comes and pitches in for Jimmy Stewart, there was literally a big basket of money waiting, which held us over til I got paid again in December. The next year was much better….I invested our married/his student tax return $$ in the stock market, which paid for our 2nd car and some other things. The priest was totally right- God provided in every way and I didn’t even have to work at Walmart ;)

      The only thing I take issue with is your disparaging of Natural Family Planning [NFP]. After losing the baby, my husband and I decided it would be best to wait til he’d finished school before trying again as I would be considered high risk and almost certainly be put on bed rest, and we had to eat. We have used NFP for 3.5 years (yes-even in our dating lapses, we used it, because why double the sin) and have had no troubles whatsoever. Once he graduated this past May, we bought a house in honor of his awesome engineering job which just started, so we will be trying to conceive again as soon as his benefits begin in August. NFP is NOT the rhythm method- it’s actually very accurate. You usually start with three methods (temperature, and two types of cervical observations) to be most accurate- though now I only use the cervical ones cause I’m way too lazy to use a thermometer at the same time every day and it matters way less if I do get pregnant.) You get to know your body really well which helps a lot not only trying to avoid pregnancy, but also when you’re trying to have a baby, too, and the openness to life and periodic abstinence really brings you closer together, so you value the gift that you share. My two cents.

  • Griselda

    such beautiful advice

  • Jim Lewis

    My dad’s an alcoholic. For him, hanging out at a bar “just to be with friends” is not only a “slippery place”– and it’s a whole lot easier to slip in a slippery place! (same goes for being alone with the love of your life!)– it’s also an act of anamnesis– immersing oneself, so that even the neuro-chemistry reacts– into a place where alcholic behavior patterns are the accepted norm.
    Immersing yourself in surrounding where chastity is the expected norm, and where even the neuro-chemistry that supports a chaste lifestyle is supported, certainly helps. The “purity ring” concept can be a part of that “anamnesis.” If that concept sounds familiar, it also goes with the Mass– the liturgy, the elements, the acts that make up the Mass are all a part of the process of anamnesis as well–even shaping neuro-chemistry into a spiritual receptiveness. Hearing a jingle of your favorite restaruant, talking about it, the smell of burgers on the grill, literally makes your mouth water– that’s anamnesis at work. Pretty cool stuff when you can do that with chastity as well!
    Jim Lewis/ J. Richard Lewis, author of “Marriage SOS: Spiritual, Obcordate, SEXY First Aid for YOUR Marriage!” at Smashwords

  • Shannon Marie Federoff

    As a happily-married-for-22-years woman, I can tell you HOLD EACH OTHER ACCOUNTABLE. Yes, “near occasion of sin” is old-fashioned, but its true. DON’T be alone, at night. Stay in public, be with friends, avoid situations where you will be tempted.

    And chastity doesn’t stop when the rings go on. It is even more important in a marriage that each spouse doesn’t view the other as a means for pleasure and have a “now that we are married, anything goes!” attitude.

    The respect you show each other now will only grow in the decades (God willing!) you will share in the future. Its a small commitment now to be abstinent before marriage, but the practice of the virtue of chastity will bear fruit for your future together.

    Its is LOVELY that you are concerned about this.

    • Griselda

      this is so beautiful, thank you!

  • James

    You ask about whether you will have problems being faithful to each other, whether you are right for each other, whether you are bad for each other, whether you should give up and find other people, and whether your relationship is doomed?

    What I would ask is what makes you so concerned about your future marriage?

    Many well-meaning people like to tell young people that premarital sex dooms a relationship or that waiting until marriage for sex guarantees “happily ever after”. This is not the case on either end and it isn’t really Catholic. So, if you are getting these foreboding messages from some generic abstinence program or something you think is Church teaching, you can get that right out of your head. Your relationship is NOT doomed because you have had sex.

    The shame and blame cycle helps no one. Worse yet, it can continue into your marriage when there is no reason for either shame or blame. Being sexually attracted to each other is good in a marriage.

    So why wait, then? The most practical reason is that sex can lead to babies, no matter how “careful” you are. The way our bodies are designed, couples tend to be most attracted to each other when they are most fertile. So, if you’re having trouble, say every four weeks or so, that may be why, and it’s all the more reason to abstain. (I haven’t met a single bride-to-be who wants to be pregnant on her wedding day.) Taking a natural family planning class if you haven’t already done so will explain all this in far greater detail.

    But even without babies, sex works to bond couples together. The engagement period is a time of discernment—both of you are discerning whether you are truly called to marry each other. Sex while engaged makes you feel “already married” and makes this process less clear and more difficult.

    Put another way, you may have some genuine concerns about your upcoming marriage, but the “happy hormones” of physical attraction and sexual release are pushing these concerns to the background. You may not be right for each other, but the sex makes you feel right for each other.

    My suggestion is to acknowledge your failings, go to confession, let go of the guilt and shame, then take a good look at your relationship. Do an Engaged Encounter weekend or similar retreat if you haven’t. Hopefully, this will help you determine whether your concerns are needless worry or the sign of a possible problem.

  • Brenda from Flatbush

    It is incredibly touching that anyone still cares. Here in New York City, my pastor related that he hasn’t done a prenuptial counseling in 15 years for a couple (yes, Roman Catholic) who *weren’t* cohabiting already.

    • diana

      There are many Christian couples who still wait till marriage. (the ones I know aren’t R Catholic by the way).

  • infowolf1

    I think in addition to all this they should marry as soon as possible. St. Paul in I Corinthians chapter 7 makes it clear that the sex act itself makes the two one flesh, even if with a prostitute, therefore casual fornication is a sin against one’s own flesh. These two people are already one flesh in a context of commitment not loveless casual whatnot, and need to formalize the situation. I don’t think that not feeling pressured to marry in this situation is a good idea. And I also don’t think that financial or other issues should interfere. They are as at risk now for pregnancy and child related expenses as a result, as if married, and Natural Family Planning will slow this down.

    Big weddings can be expensive, why not something very simple that won’t require shelling out thousands of dollars on rental of the church and other issues? Back yard, priest comes over. Something like that. formal invitations but not black tie.
    Wedding dress white if she was a virgin when she came to her husband to be, since THAT is the issue, not per marriage itself, if you closely examine the Scriptures. But not something costing thousands of dollars, just real simple.

  • zebbart

    This is great advice. I had one near-engagement ruined by the “blame and shame cycle.” By the time I met my now wife I realized I should view chastity like I view prayer – it’s something I need to do each day, and every day I need to do it again, but it doesn’t matter that much whether I succeeded in doing it yesterday. Coupled with Confession when necessary that shift made chastity easier and made the occasional slip much less damaging.

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