Religious beliefs and premarital abstinence: New study explores … – PsyPost

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New research sheds light on how religious beliefs among committed premarital Christian couples influence decisions and challenges concerning abstinence and sexual intimacy. The findings have been published in the journal Personal Relationships.
Religion and spirituality play a significant role in individuals’ decisions to abstain from sexual intercourse, particularly within the context of devout Christian communities. The researchers were interested in better understanding how these religious values interact with the challenges of modern dating and the dynamics of sexual intimacy.

“As a product of the evangelical ‘purity’ movement, I did not realize how culturally situated sexual communication was until I began studying interpersonal communication research,” explained study author Arielle Leonard Hodges, a Ph.D. student and graduate student instructor at Chapman University. “I became fascinated with the way that culture — including religion/spirituality — influences the way that couples develop and maintain intimacy. This curiosity has only grown over time and has continued to inspire my research.”
The study involved eight heterosexual Christian couples (16 participants in total) who were in committed, premarital romantic relationships. The participants were recruited through convenience and snowball sampling methods, utilizing social media posts and church flyers. All participants were required to be at least 18 years old, identify as Christian, and be involved in a romantic relationship with a Christian partner for at least three months.
The study specifically focused on individuals who were committed to maintaining premarital abstinence due to their Christian beliefs.
Hodges conducted in-depth, individual face-to-face interviews with each participant. To maintain objectivity and avoid social desirability bias, partners were interviewed separately. The interviews were guided by a semi-structured interview guide that was informed by the principles of relational turbulence theory, a theoretical framework that focuses on understanding the challenges and uncertainties that individuals experience during transitional periods within relationships.

The theory is grounded in the idea that relationships are not static but rather undergo shifts and transformations as individuals navigate different stages, roles, and expectations. These transitions can result in increased uncertainty and emotional turmoil due to the adjustments that partners need to make.
After analyzing the responses, the researchers identified seven themes related to uncertainty (feeling uncertain about their partner’s intentions, boundaries, or the progression of their relationship), partner interference (behaviors by a partner that complicate the negotiation of sexual boundaries), and partner facilitation (behaviors by a partner that support and assist in maintaining the agreed-upon sexual boundaries).

Assumption of Shared Values: Participants assumed that sex before marriage was not allowed due to their Christian beliefs, which helped avoid uncertainty about sexual behavior. They used words like “obviously” to express their choice not to have premarital sex.
“For many people, cuddling, kissing, and even hooking up are natural and expected in new dating relationships. However, this is not the case for everyone. The meanings that people attach to seemingly “ordinary” behaviors may be shaped by their cultural values and norms,” Hodges told PsyPost.
Relationship Talk: Participants often engaged in explicit conversations early in their relationships or upon renegotiating boundaries for physical intimacy. These conversations set clear rules for physical intimacy, helping to prevent misunderstandings and uncertainty.
Sexual Behaviors as an Uncertainty Catalyst: Participants faced uncertainty when their partners engaged in sexual behaviors that went against their values, such as when their partner viewed pornographic material. This could cause doubts and questions in the relationship. Participants also experienced relational uncertainty when their partners engaged in sexual behaviors that did not align with their desired timeline for physical intimacy development.
Snowball Effect: Participants believed that sexual intimacy could easily escalate due to verbal and nonverbal actions. Partners sometimes allowed or initiated behaviors that escalated intimacy past agreed-upon boundaries or their desired levels of physical intimacy. This created elements of partner interference.
Pinpointing Underlying Motivations: Participants recognized that underlying motivations, such as normal human desire or personal insecurities, could drive sexual intimacy escalation. Identifying these motivations and discussing them together helped facilitate sexual goals, while the absence of this discussion led to feelings of interference.
Gatekeeping Sexual Temptation: Participants also believed in the idea of “gatekeeping,” where both partners shared responsibility for preventing temptation and maintaining boundaries. While participants believed men should be the primary gatekeepers, it was often the female partner who initiated deescalation in the heat of the moment.
“Typically, research indicates that women in heterosexual relationships tend to be the ones who put on the ‘brakes’ in the heat of the moment,” Hodges explained. “In this study, men were expected to put on the brakes as the ‘spiritual leader’ of the relationship — however, consistent with previous research, this was often not the case. At the same time, I was surprised at how many times men were the ones putting on the brakes.”
Drawing from Shared Values of Sacrifice and Prayer: Sacrifice and prayer were emphasized as ways to honor each other’s desires and maintain sexual boundaries. Sacrificing sexual desires for the sake of the partner’s comfort and spiritual growth was seen as facilitation, while neglecting these values led to interference. Participants viewed their sexual goals as rooted in Christian values and reliant on God’s guidance and support.
The study sheds light on how participants prevent or manage relational uncertainty, how partners either hinder or assist each other in maintaining sexual boundaries, and how these processes are influenced by shared values and communication. The findings could help inform discussions about sexual intimacy, communication, and relationship dynamics within the context of Christian values.
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“Like many studies of interpersonal communication, the participants in this study were predominantly White and highly educated,” Hodges said. “They were also heterosexual, evangelical couples. Scholars should explore how uncertainty, interference, and facilitation are experienced by individuals within other cultural communities affected by norms and expectations for sexual intimacy development.”
The study, ““Some days are much holier than others”: Relational uncertainty and partner influence in Christian dating couples’ sexual intimacy negotiation“, was authored by Arielle Leonard Hodges and Jennifer L. Bevan.

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