“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” –Proverbs 4:23

I was 21 when I drove from Texas to Colorado to attend a friend’s wedding. Unbeknownst to me, that very evening, my future husband sat across the dinner table at the reception. Soon after, we began a long-distance relationship, got engaged and then married. That was 31 years, three kids, three dogs and two mortgages ago. 

I still have every letter we wrote as we dated, carefully arranged in chronological order and tucked away in a shoebox in our storage shed. Recently I pulled out the box and reread them, experiencing anew the excitement of a new relation- ship, the uncertainty of reciprocated feelings and the hesitancy to put my heart at risk. “Does he really like me? How can I be sure I’m sure?” 

What I know now that I didn’t know then was that I had put in place pretty strong emotional boundaries. I had experienced heartbreak before and did not want to experience that again. So to prevent my heart from getting ahead of reality, I held back for quite a while. And I also know now that it was a smart move. 

As humans, we have the desire to know and be known deeply; God created us to yearn for that connection. And while dating can be a great way to achieve that, for many, the temptation can be to go too deep, too fast — especially emotionally.

Why are emotional boundaries important? Why is it vital to guard our heart above all else? Because “it is the wellspring of life” (Prov. 4:23). Here the Hebrew word for “heart” conveys not just emotions, but also our will, our physical being, our intellect — our whole being. And when we do this well, the re- ward is that our lives resemble springs of living water. 

The problem occurs when a relationship prematurely grows too intimate, too soon, leaving us vulnerable to heartbreak and emotional damage. So how can you keep emotional intimacy from pushing the limits? Here are six guidelines to help you set healthy, God-honoring boundaries: 

Time is your friend. Let your guard down, but a little at a time. Avoid sharing your most private details in the early stages of dating. Instead, protect those intimate parts of who you are. 

Maintain your friendships. It is normal to want to spend more and more time together, but avoid letting your dating relationship isolate you. Keep enjoying time with friends on a regular basis. 

Guard your spiritual heart. As you begin dating, continue pursuing your individual relationships with God. But wait a while before you pray together, because prayer is meant to be deeply intimate and vulnerable before God. However, don’t wait indefinitely either. Once the relationship has progressed to “seriously dating,” make spiritual activities together a key part of your relationship. If not, you’ll miss out on a vital aspect of the other person’s spiritual life. 

Wait to talk about a future together until you’ve taken the time to build a foundation of commitment and trust. Your heart will go where your conversation goes. Instead, slow down, evaluate, invest in and enjoy the relationship where it is now. 

Remember you are dating a brother or sister in Christ. If you are serious about following Jesus, then “be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above your- selves” (Rom. 12:10). Ask God to guide your heart and your actions in a way that brings honor to him and honor, not pain, to your date. 

Set your boundaries before you need them. Invite the Spirit to guide you in establishing healthy emotional boundaries that will protect you both. Put them in writing, and have a friend hold you accountable.

While dating can be a great opportunity to learn more about yourself and others, be aware that premature emotional intimacy can carry you much deeper into your relationship than you ever intended to go, resulting in a broken heart and a broken spirit. 

But if you guard your heart well, taking your time and committing your love life to the Lord, you can create a wise pathway forward and experience a measurably better relationship, like springs of living water.

This issue’s Last Word comes from the blog by the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships. This adapted article was originally published on Aug. 23, 2016.  

Alisa Grace (’92) is the co-director of Biola University’s Center for Marriage and Relationships, alongside her husband Chris Grace, the center’s director, and co-teaches a class on Christian perspectives on marriage and relationships. She speaks regularly on dating relationships, marriage and love, and also enjoys mentoring younger women and newly married couples.