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Ask a Latter-day Saint Therapist: I’m Divorced and Chastity Is More Difficult Than Before I Was Married

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Q: Divorced singles like me are struggling. We’ve been counseled to avoid situations where physical intimacy could happen. Before we had married that was easier to follow, because we didn’t know what that felt like (physically or emotionally). But once you’ve been married and intimate and that’s taken away, it’s so much harder to be chaste. Are we to just pretend that those feelings and emotions never happened? . . . That is something that I haven't seen talked about anywhere.

A: Such a fantastic question, and something that so many wrestle with, whether they are divorced or widowed. Before marriage, many Latter-day Saints find it easier (not easy per se, just easier) to stop and say “no,” because they’ve committed to waiting for marriage and there are lines which they’ve never crossed before. But once one becomes accustomed to not stopping at kissing and cuddling, once one becomes accustomed to the beauty and closeness of sexual intimacy, it can be very difficult to go back to self-control and restraint.

The first thing to recognize is that, even within the marriage relationship, self-control and restraint should still be practiced. By this, of course, I mean that one must be considerate of the needs of one’s partner. One must still practice selflessness in order to not simply seek one’s own pleasure. And consent matters. Whether single or married, self-control and restraint are principles that should never be abandoned. Now, the specific application of those principles is different inside versus outside of marriage.

It’s crucial to know that you can’t go back to how you were. You are now someone who knows what marital intimacy is like. That will always be true. Your brain and body are now conditioned to “keep going” when before they would say “it’s time to stop.” And yet the commandments of the Lord remain. The law of chastity is the same for everyone in every circumstance: no sexual relations except with your husband or wife to whom you are legally and lawfully wedded.

So the question is not how can we go back to the way we were? The question is, how do I, having experienced what I’ve experienced, control my appetites and “bridle all [my] passions that [I] may be filled with love?” (see Alma 38:12).

For starters, like Nephi, you must trust that “the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he hath commandeth them.” (1 Nephi 3:7). You have to believe and know that there is a way to stay morally pure. If you believe otherwise then you’ll lose the battle.

Take comfort in the words of Paul, who assured us that “there hath no temptation taken you but such is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Those are the principles. But how? How do you do it? Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve explained that “with a game plan, a playbook, and a firm commitment to execute your role, you will find that temptation has less control over you." (“Your Priesthood Playbook,” April 2019 General Conference). So let’s set that up for you.

What’s your game plan? 

Know now that, while the expectations of chastity haven’t changed from before you were married, your experience has. So you need a revised game plan. You need to establish boundaries, not just for “how far you will and won’t go,” but how to manage your emotions and physical responses. You’ll find people attractive, and as you date and develop feelings for someone you’re going to have the natural desire to share yourself with them in the most intimate way.

So how do you stay spiritually safe? First, instead of assuming that you’ve got everything under control and can “handle” being in dark, private places together, go the opposite direction. Spend your time in the light, both literally and spiritually. Go on hikes, go to parks, go to matinees, plan to part ways earlier in the evening instead of waiting until late at night when bodies are tired and inhibitions are low. Want to stay up talking? Do so over the phone or go to an all-hours breakfast restaurant. Being places where there are other people, but enough privacy to have personal conversations, is a great guideline.

De-emphasize the physical in your relationships and emphasize the spiritual, mental, and emotional. We all want touch and companionship; the mistake so many make is in rushing into that at the expense of building a strong friendship and relationship of trust.

Have long conversations and find out if you share the same major values (spiritual, familial, financial) and are compatible in your differences over smaller things (compatible here meaning that you work well together, not that you are the same). Getting physically involved early on, or getting too physical at any time, can create a false sense of intimacy and closeness. You feel more “in love” than perhaps you really are. So save that for later. Always strive to be tender and respectful in your physical relationship while dating, not passionate and lustful. If things start to get too hot, have a plan in place. For example, I know a couple where he’d go for a walk around the block to cool down. For now, you’re laying the foundation of a healthy relationship, and giving in to your desires is not that foundation.

What’s your playbook?

Honestly, in order to shift your focus immerse yourself in the scriptures and the words of the prophets. You may be right that there’s not a lot of specific counsel on staying chaste after divorce. Even so, the doctrines and principles of the restored gospel will give you proper perspective, strength to honor your covenants, and peace to endure it well.

How will you create that firm commitment?

“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee before you.” (James 4:7). It really is true that our appetites and desires can change. “The Spirit of the Lord Ominpotent” can bring about a “mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we no more desire to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:2). I testify that is real.

Now, wanting a healthy sexual relationship within a loving marriage is not wrong. Quite the opposite, in fact. But craving that connection so badly that we might betray our covenants is a temptation. The Holy Ghost can change our hearts so that we desire to wait for the appropriate time. He can help us, even if it’s not easy, to be happy to do so.

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven,” including, pointedly, “a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,5). Until you asked the question, I’d never considered that scripture in the context of sexual intimacy, but it rings true to me. God can give you the courage and the power to “refrain from embracing” for a season, however long that season is.

Physiologically, our brains and our bodies can be rewired. Someone who has struggled with negative thoughts can change their mindset through meditation, exercise, and positivity. With the same discipline, time, and prayer a person who’s grown accustomed to sexual connection can be at peace with not having that in their life. They may still want it, but it’s no longer all-consuming.

Pornography and masturbation will not help you change gears. Quite the opposite, they will rewire your psychology to need more frequent sexual release, orienting your mind towards unhealthy, debasing relationships. They’ll chase out the Spirit, who you need on your side if you are to change your appetites and refocus your desires.

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “That which we persist in doing becomes easier, not that the nature of the task has changed, but our ability to do has increased.” This is an inspired statement and absolutely applicable here.

I know you can do this. The Lord will help you. Your bishop, family, and friends will help you. If needed, so will I. God bless you.

Lead image from Getty Images.
Jonwe

Jonathan Decker, LMFT

Jonathan Decker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical director of Your Family Expert. He offers online relationship courses to people anywhere, as well as face-to-face and online therapy to persons in several states. Jonathan has presented at Brigham Young University Education Week and at regional conferences in Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. He is married with five children. Contact him here and join his Facebook group for daily Gospel-based relationship tips. 

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