Emotional chastity was a term that became popular in my late teens, when I had already started college. I had a difficult time wrapping my head around the subject, and even priests I knew had mixed feelings about the term. Emotional chastity, in the traditional sense, is an extension of physical chastity. It is guarding one’s heart against runaway thoughts and daydreams in a romantic setting. For example, like in physical chastity, your mind should not dwell on undressing your crush in your mind. In emotional chastity, your mind should not dwell on the imaginary future you have created with your crush, with you as Mrs. Smith, using Mr. Smith as a means to achieve your fantasy life.
As with most everything else, balance must be struck. This is where the virtue of temperance most obviously comes into play. One must have self-control in the daydream arena, particularly when someone as intimate as a future husband is involved.
To daydream is human. To imagine is human as well. As a single person, I read an article by a priest once where he labeled daydreaming as a sin – it was ingratitude over the place God has given you in life. We’ll have to break down daydreaming and emotional chastity together to really get to the heart of both of these matters.
Daydreaming at its core is pleasant thoughts that distract someone from the present. God can speak to you through daydreams, of course. For example, if you are unhappy at your job and daydream about switching careers, it may not be ingratitude at your current job that is leading you to daydream. It may be God speaking to you, letting you know that you belong somewhere else. Daydreams can also reveal insecurities or desires of the heart. A friend of mine often daydreamed about being a martyr or saving others; it is clear that she wanted to help others, but with the goal of individual glory and recognition. This type of daydream reveals being prideful; once this is recognized, it can help you overcome sin.
If daydreaming goes too far, it can become a sin, because it is then an escape mechanism. At this point, it is not a way for God to speak to you, but a way to relieve yourself from being diligent. This leads to sin through the vice of laziness. Daydreaming can also lead to lust too – stray thoughts can lead you to sin. Therefore, daydreaming should be taken with a grain of salt. It can help to recognize thought patterns and even the desires God has placed on your heart, but taken too far, can seriously damage your soul.
Tying daydreaming to emotional chastity and relationships, as a single lady, you may have a crush on a special someone. Daydreaming about being in a relationship may be an involuntary reaction; in this instance, allowing the thought to pass through is perfectly human, but developing it or letting it run further starts heading into the emotional un-chastity zone. Applying this to a current relationship, a nice daydream about marrying him and having his children can be very pleasant. At what point does it become “unchaste?”
The key to emotional chastity is to set boundaries. One of my priest friends commented that he didn’t like the term emotional chastity because it essentially prevented imagining yourself married. He said, “How can anyone discern a vocation if they are unable to imagine themselves in that vocation?” Not imagining yourself saying Mass or getting married is counterproductive when discerning your vocation. It’s crucial to be able to see yourself up on the altar or married to Mr. Right – if you can’t do this, or don’t let yourself do this, how can you be sure you are in the right direction?
This is not a pass, however, to commence planning your wedding and your future children’s names. It is healthy and productive to imagine yourself married to a certain person as a way to tell if you would actually be happy with him and your future together. Taking it too far creates the same problem as being physically unchaste: the person of your thoughts, albeit emotional, becomes an object. He becomes a tool with which you build a future; he is no longer a person with whom you journey, but an accessory to your plans. This is when practicing emotional chastity truly kicks in.
When you begin using a person as a means to your own fantasies, even if only in your thoughts, it will translate to reality, just as it does in physical chastity. There are repercussions for both you and the object of your thoughts.
First, you will no longer see that person as a human being. If you see him as a way to meet your goal of marriage and children, he is no longer a valued child of God but an object. Second, when your “object” no longer conforms to your vision, it will be devastating to you.
It is said that when men and women break up, men mourn the loss of the person, while women mourn the loss of the opportunity. When being emotionally unchaste, this becomes all the more true. It’s not just a boyfriend that you let go of, but rather all the plans and ideas you had set up for yourself. This makes the process of breaking up more difficult, understandably.
When single, the exact thing can happen, albeit on a different dimension. It is very easy to have a “mega” crush on someone, or even an online profile, and begin setting up an imaginary life together. I have experienced both! It was heartbreaking and unnecessarily devastating when either that crush did not feel the same way for me, or the online profile never responded to me. It wasn’t at all the crush’s or the profile’s action that caused this reaction; rather, it was my own doing that caused the reaction.
The main goal in practicing emotional chastity is not in preventing your daydreams from happening; it is being able to let them happen and letting them go. By doing this, you will prevent heartbreak for yourself, you will be able to respect your partner for the person he is, rather than what he can do for you, and you can set up better boundaries as you prepare for marriage.