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Why Sex Matters: Setting Emotional Boundaries

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

By Lisa Coutras, Contributing Writer and PhD Candidate at King's College London

Part of knowing and respecting our limits as individuals is recognizing that men and women operate in fundamentally different ways. Brain chemistry is different; hormone production is different. These alone produce patterns of thinking and behavior often associated with each gender, which is no bad thing! But recognizing the difference can be immensely helpful in approaching relationships. In the third season of the hit television show How I Met Your Mother, Ted’s girlfriend Stella makes an interesting observation: ‘Guys regret the girls they didn’t sleep with. Girls regret the guys they do sleep with.’ While the physical and the emotional are important to both men and women, the difference lies in the order of priority. For most men, the physical is primary and the emotional is secondary. Because of this, men are more commonly able to separate a sexual experience from emotional bonding, giving rise to the notorious notion of ‘male conquest.’ This is not to say that men don’t value emotion. On the contrary, men can experience deep emotions and intense love, such love makes up the great stories of the ages. Rather, because the physical takes precedence, it becomes the way by which they express emotion. For example, it might be more common for a man to express anger through an intense ball game or a work-out, or even a fistfight. On the flip side, he might express romantic love through a kiss or a caress. This also means that he often draws worth from what he does, like a fulfilling career, an academic degree, a musical project. His identity is found in a state of action. But this also explains why ‘macho culture’ encourages a man to get a woman into bed as quickly and as often as possible. It’s an action and a challenge that affirms his worth as a man. ‘It’s not that men don’t get emotionally attached,’ a male friend recently explained, ‘it’s that it’s easier for us to compartmentalize and detach ourselves from it.’

For most women, on the other hand, the emotional is primary and the physical is secondary. This means her identity is often shaped relationally, as a friend, daughter, girlfriend, or as a state of being: for instance, independent woman, intelligent student, caring teacher, successful lawyer. Because the emotional is primary, the physical is interpreted and received through the emotions. This means that for women, sex is a powerfully emotional experience, a bonding like no other. This is why it can mean so much to her and also why it can be devastating when the relationship goes wrong. Early negative experiences can leave lasting emotional wounds and lingering regret. As a solution, our culture has encouraged women to detach their emotions from their sexual experience, a feat more easily said than done. For many women, it takes a lot of time, and a lot practice, and more than a few heartbreaks, before they can arrive at a point where their emotions are numbed or detached from sex. But not all women can achieve this, and in the end, is it really worth it?

‘Women suffer more than men when the world goes wrong with them,’ muses protagonist Jack Durrance in A.E.W. Mason’s classic novel, The Four Feathers (1902). ‘I think women gather up into themselves what they have been through much more than we do. To them, what is past becomes a real part of them, as much a part of them as a limb; to us it’s always something external, at the best the rung of a ladder, at the worst a weight on the heel.’ At the start of the book, protagonists Ethne Eustace and Harry Feversham experience a devastating break in their relationship. After he receives the four white feathers of cowardice, Harry embarks on a harrowing mission to regain his honor, spurred on by his love for Ethne. Despite the fact that the various film adaptations center on Harry, the book focuses almost entirely on Ethne and her psychological journey. Though Harry displays external acts of courage spanning an agonizing six years, Ethne has suffered inwardly and silently, yet bravely. It is telling that the author continually calls her ‘brave.’ Indeed, Ethne’s courage matches or out-matches Harry’s by the end of the book. The author is suggesting, among other things, that men and women experience relationships differently, or rather, from a different angle. Both can love, both can suffer, both can show courage, but the manner in which this is displayed comes from a different starting point.

Consider the emotional and physical dynamic between men and women. When sex is a recreational activity to be casually exchanged, or automatically expected at the start of romantic involvement, I believe it’s especially taxing on the woman. She must either detach her emotions from the experience, or take an emotional gamble: will he stick around in the long run? If it’s true that, for women, ‘what is past becomes a real part of them, as much a part of them as a limb,’ then I would suggest that sex affects women deeply, far more deeply than men. This means it has the potential to be a beautiful bonding experience, or, at worst, an emotionally damaging one. If you are searching for a lasting relationship, it is important to wait for the man to arrive at a place where he values you above his sexual desire. Remember, for a man the physical is primary, and the emotional is secondary. When he arrives at a place where his deeper emotions become integrated with his physical desires, for example, when he falls in love with you, the physical becomes a profound way of expressing love. In a letter to his son about relationships in 1941, J.R.R. Tolkien explained that when a man is a lover, he is “engaging and blending all his affections and powers of the mind and body in complex emotion powerfully coloured and energized by ‘sex.’” It is precisely this blending of all his faculties that is essential. You don’t want him to start off detached and hope that he falls in love eventually. Rather, you want him to fully integrate the emotional with the physical, sustained by a commitment of the will. See, it’s more than just waiting for his emotions to catch up to his physical desires; it’s also about his will, his choice to value you by ‘forsaking all others.’ It shouldn’t be a matter of physical conquest and emotional gamble. It should be a matter of building a secure and loving relationship, for both the man and the woman.

Matching Up is dedicated to helping you find and cultivate a lasting relationship, it’s about enduring love. Any happily-married couple who has lived and loved for decades will tell you that the success of a relationship must be founded on more than feelings; it is strengthened and tempered by the will. In his book I, Isaac, Take Thee, Rebekah: Moving From Romance to Lasting Love (2005), Ravi Zacharias writes, “Without the will, marriage is a mockery; without emotion, it is a drudgery. You need both.” In other words, no relationship can survive solely on feelings; feelings are fickle and unreliable. The will, however, gives your emotions a framework within which to operate; it means you act on your principles when feelings don’t agree. This includes the time when you are searching for that lasting relationship. When you know and respect your own limits, this will enable you to show wisdom and self-restraint in accordance with your principles.

It’s this very concept that Matching Up’s Alessandra Conti expressed in her article, “Why You Shouldn’t Sleep with Him, Especially if He’s a Keeper.” This is not unheard of in our culture; in fact, it’s reflected in the films and television of our time. In the first season of the popular sitcom Scrubs, Carla decides from the start that she wants a serious relationship. So what does she do? She refuses to sleep with Turk. It’s only when she sees evidence that he values her above his sexual desires that she takes the relationship to the next level. Or consider Tony from NCIS, the playboy constantly focused on conquest: when he finds a woman he truly cares about, he won’t sleep with her. Or even the romantic comedy, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days: when Ben is given the challenge to make a woman fall in love with him, he determines from the outset that love isn’t about one-night stands. Indeed, lasting love is higher and deeper than sexual desire; it’s about honoring the other person, as well as valuing yourself. A dear friend of mine held firmly to this principle when she first began dating her now-husband. She made it clear to him early on that she wouldn’t sleep with a man she wasn’t married to. As he had never dated a girl with this standard before, it stopped him in his tracks. He told me later, ‘I knew right then that this wouldn’t be a fling. If I was going to date her, I had to think about it seriously.’ In the end, he fell in love with her and married her. Of course, not everyone has this conservative standard, but it’s important to know your principles and to hold to them. Perhaps your standard is that he be fully committed to you in a serious relationship, or even that he is engaged to you. But ultimately, whatever your values, a lasting relationship integrates the physical with the emotional, forming a deep bond sustained by a commitment of the will. To arrive at that place, however, requires relational wisdom: you must know your values, and be prepared to hold to them. Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.

Learn how to set emotional boundaries through coming to Matching Up. Email Nina Scerbo:, to set up a meeting today!

We will leave you with this wisdom: Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. This ancient proverb, spoken by a father to his son, encapsulates a simple truth of human existence: the condition of our hearts influences how we engage with life. The strength and fullness of our inner being can generate a profundity of purpose through the joys and sorrows of life. On the other hand, a barrenness of soul can produce a sense of meaninglessness, even despair. This doesn’t necessarily refer to sorrow or suffering. In fact, the most admirable figures in life and history are those individuals who suffered greatly and endured bravely, often sustained with a deep sense of purpose. Your heart, that is to say, your inner being, the soulish part of you, is that which makes you who you are, whether it’s in life, or love, or suffering, or joy. This, the proverb says, you must guard above all else, for it is both your vulnerability and your strength; from this deepest part of you flows the fullness of your being, the wellspring of life. Consider this in the context of relationships. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel or fall in love, or that you’ll never experience a broken heart. I would even go so far as to say that a broken heart can yield a strength and depth of beauty that is experienced in no other way. Rather, to ‘guard your heart’ refers to cultivating relational wisdom, to disciplining the emotions, to knowing and respecting your own limits.

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