Shannon Winklepleck needed a hiatus from dating. After ending a two-year relationship with her boyfriend in 2010, Winklepleck realized just how much of her heart she poured into the relationship - and how emotionally unavailable she was for the Lord.
As churches and campus ministries emphasize the importance of maintaining physical boundaries in dating relationships, emotional boundaries often get overlooked. In many cases, this leaves students like Winklepleck with a misplaced sense of identity and a dependence on others for fulfillment.
Winklepleck, a senior at Indiana State University (ISU) in Terre Haute, Ind., described her first lengthy relationship as an idol. With a preoccupied mind and packed schedule, she made less of an effort in pursuing God and placed her identity in the relationship.
"I had no life separate from him," she said of her boyfriend.
Stephanie McCarty, an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship staff worker at ISU, believes that while emotional boundaries are just as important as physical ones, the latter often receive more attention from churches and Christian groups. The command to remain physically pure is more overt and apparent in scripture, which means emotional purity often gets ignored, McCarty said.
Giving away too much emotionally in relationships is also difficult to detect. Many students remain unaware of the problem until someone addresses them directly about the dangerous outcomes.
Consequences of disregarding emotional lines look different for each person, said Adam Dell, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at ISU. But common outcomes include a loss of personal identity, dating out of desperation and being overly dependent on others, he said, referencing the book Boundaries in Dating.
God did not create us to be completely fulfilled by other people, but he did intend for us to be in relationship with others. Women, in particular, desire connections through relationships, Dell said.
Because of women's natural tendency to value relationships and emotional connectedness, it's easier for them to overlook emotional boundaries, McCarty said. While this issue certainly doesn't exclude men, most of the students who come to her for relationship advice are women.
It's necessary to create widespread awareness of emotional boundaries and their importance in relationships, McCarty said. She hopes the church will take an active role in talking about the issue, as physical and emotional boundaries go hand in hand. In many relationships, physical struggle comes after emotions have gone too far, she said.
As Winklepleck became aware of her emotional investment, she decided to end the relationship and take a "sabbatical" from dating in order to rediscover fulfillment in her first love, the Lord. One scripture that remains with her is Philippians 4:11-13, Paul's teaching about finding contentment in every situation. Her six-month sabbatical produced a dramatic amount of growth in her spiritual journey.
Although Winklepleck is happily dating again, she feels better equipped to keep her identity rooted in Christ, rather than another person.
Relationships ultimately are meant to glorify God, McCarty said. Because of this, seeking the Lord's guidance in relationships is the best way to monitor the emotional investment: "If you're truly seeking after God and listening for his guidance in the relationship, then I think he will guide you into a relationship that is glorifying to him."