Emotional Chastity: Is That Even a Real Thing?

Marc Barns of Bad Catholic recently wrote a post that included his dislike of the phrase “emotional chastity.” I read the article. I read the comments. I thought about commenting. Then I decided to just write an entire post. As someone who gives talks on what one would consider the topic of emotional chastity, I couldn’t help but respond to clarify a few things on the concept.

First off let me state that I, myself, am not a fan of the phrase “emotional chastity.” I remember the first time I heard it and thought “That’s stupid.” I try not to use it when I speak and only use it when I write for SEO purposes because if someone is interested in the topic, the phrase they are going search is “emotional chastity.” When put together the words emotional and chastity don’t really make sense, so yes Marc, I’m with you. In fact it wasn’t what Marc said that initiated this post, rather it was reading through the comments. I was struck by the fact that some people seem to think that the concept which the Catholic buzz phrase “emotional chastity” is trying to convey is a made up idea that holds little to no value in the life of a Catholic.

**Enter the point of this post with a brief explanation of why this topic is important and real.**

In his book Love and Responsibility, Pope Saint John Paul II explains that there are two types of attraction, sensual attraction and sentimental attraction. He details that sensual attraction is related to the material value of a person, or what we find physically attractive about them, while sentimental attraction relates to the non-material value of a person, or what we find emotionally attractive about them. Both of these types of attraction can spark in us the instant we meet someone or grow with time, and they both are necessary for attraction to turn into authentic love.

Neither type of attraction is bad. It can be good, healthy, and normal for a person to find another person physically or emotionally attractive. The problem arises when these types of attraction are not directed by the virtues and run the risk of turning into use. As Christians we often address how we can use each other for physical pleasure, but what we don’t address is how we can use each other for emotional pleasure. At some point “emotional chastity” became the chosen buzz phrase for this issue, a lack of virtue in the realm of sentimental attraction.

I can agree that some have made the term too broad, which has led to confusion about a topic that is already confusing due to the various interpretations of the term. The virtue of physical chastity is needed to order sensual attractions, whoever came up with this phrase “emotional chastity” was trying to find a counterpart for sentimental attractions.

So why did the trendy phrase “emotional chastity” take when “using the virtue of prudence when considering the sentimental side of your interactions with the opposite sex” didn’t? Because the average Catholic teen or young adult might tell you that prudence is the name of their great-great-grandmother, and if you are lucky they might remember that she used to say that “patience is a virtue.”  “Emotional chastity” was simply a phrase that most people could relate to, perhaps a weak one, but one that didn’t require a course in Christian Morality to begin to grasp.

In the end, here is where it all comes together for me, and why these two types of attractions are related and important to consider. Where our hearts go, our bodies want to follow. If our emotions are saying, “I love this person, I want to give everything to them and be as close to them as I can,” then our bodies will want to manifest these emotions in a physical way. In its proper place (marriage) this is a good thing, but outside of marriage, broken hearts follow. If we want to be physically chaste, we need to begin by being emotionally… prudent.

So fine, let’s stop trending the phrase “emotional chastity,” but let’s not stop talking about how to properly order our sentimental attractions toward the good so our relationships can grow into true, authentic love.

For more on this topic check out my post titled, “What is Emotional Chastity” and Dr. Edward Sri’s article “Sense and Sentimentality”.


lisaLisa Cotter is a nationally sought after speaker on the topics of dating, marriage, motherhood, and femininity. While balancing sound theology with humor and practical insights, Lisa inspires audiences of all ages. Her work has been featured by Lighthouse Catholic Media, YDisciple, and The Chastity Project. She is a graduate of Benedictine College, where she earned degrees in Theology and Youth Ministry. Since 2007, she and her husband, Kevin, have served FOCUS as a family. When Lisa is not speaking, she is busy playing with her three young children and trying to avoid laundry. To schedule Lisa for an event, visit focus.org/lisa.



  1. Excellent.

    By April | 7 years ago Reply
  2. Thanks. This was a great way to clear up the jumbled mess when I think of why this topic actually matters. Reminding myself God is always first, helps me keep balance for both types of attraction.

    By Laura | 7 years ago Reply
  3. Hey Lisa! I’ve never heard of emotional chastity, but I really like your post. It’s always refreshing to read truth related clearly.

    By Tim Turntine | 7 years ago Reply
  4. good article. one question though: why shouldn’t we use the phrase “emotional chastity”? to me it seems to be a worthy enough substitute for “prudence with regard to sentimental attraction.” it means the same thing, as far as i can tell – of course i could be wrong! at any rate, i understand what people are talking about when they say “emotional chastity,” and i heartily agree with you that guarding one’s heart is just as important as physically abstaining from sexual acts. so what is the problem with calling it “emotional chastity?”
    according to http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary “chastity” can be defined, in addition to “abstention from all sexual intercourse” also as “purity in conduct and intention”, “restraint and simplicity in design or expression”, or “personal integrity.” so, to say “emotional chastity” makes perfect sense, i would say, since being emotionally chaste could certainly be defined as “purity in intention,” since you’re not USING someone for emotional pleasure; or “restraint and simplicity in design and expression,” since you’re using moderation in the way you’re speaking to people to avoid “leading them on” for your own purposes; or “personal integrity,” since you’re trying to be honest with other people at the same time as adhering wholeheartedly to Christian standards for relationships, sexual or otherwise.
    hence my confusion.

    By Daniel H | 7 years ago Reply
  5. I’ve always hated the term “emotional chastity”. Not because the actual definition is wrong (as Daniel H pointed out), but because it has been used to mean that you don’t “give your heart away” till marriage. That is a concept that I completely disagree with! Here are my reasons: #1. Our hearts belong to God and we can only love ourselves and others through our love of Him, so by all technical definitions we should have “given our hearts away” to Him long ago! #2. If the meaning is taken to mean that we shouldn’t get attached to any one person till marriage, then that is false as well! According to St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila, and numerous other Doctors of the Church, we are to detach ourselves from all worldly things and cling only to God. So, in that sense, we should never “give our hearts away”! #3. Some people interpret the phrase “emotional chastity” as meaning we shouldn’t “love” or have strong feelings for a member of the opposite sex till marriage. That too is false! We should love every single person in the world with all of our hearts!

    That is a short version of my two cents, but I could write a whole book on it! 😀 I beg forgiveness if I haven’t been clear.

    By David C | 7 years ago Reply
    • good thoughts David C! thanks for sharing. however, i have to say that, personally, i have never understood emotional chastity to mean somehow locking your heart in a box and not showing any kind of emotional affection to anyone until my wedding-night. when it comes to physical intimacy, there are certain forms that should be saved for marriage (sex, for one thing), but there are other forms of physical intimacy (holding hands, etc) that are entirely appropriate before marriage when the couple has reached a certain point in their courtship relationship. i think that emotional chastity, PROPERLY UNDERSTOOD, is the same. there are certain forms of emotional attachment that are entirely appropriate for right now, and there are certain forms of it that need to be saved until marriage, or reserved for God alone. that, according to my understanding, is what “emotional chastity” is all about. i totally agree with you that the term has been used by people to mean ridiculous things, but simply because some people misuse it, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use the term “emotional chastity.” it simply means we should define our terms and use them properly.

      By Daniel H | 7 years ago Reply
  6. Hi,
    I know Sarah Swafford did not post this blog.
    However, I would really like to e-mail Sarah Swafford to talk more about Emotional Chastity with her, since I have heard her talks. How can I do that?

    By Michelle | 7 years ago Reply
  7. thank god for this website considering the catholic church teaches nothing on it and I had to write a 5 page paper over this topic !!!

    By catholicschoolgirl | 7 years ago Reply
  8. Thank you Lisa! Just to let you know, the link to Dr. Sri’s article at the bottom of yours that you reference doesn’t work 🙁

    Thank you for being a shining example of a striving Catholic!

    In Mary,

    By Brittney Morales | 7 years ago Reply

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