By Juli Slattery
You must determine now what kind of lover you will be. How will you respond to the inevitable disappointments and discouragements of sexual love? Will the challenges prove that you are quick to hold a grudge or eager to forgive? Defensive or humble? Selfish or sacrificial? Demanding or sensitive?
The conflicts and disappointments you'll encounter in marriage will have little to do with whether you married the wrong person. More likely they'll reveal whether you're willing for God to make you a great lover.
The best marital advice I can give you is to determine to be a team in sexual intimacy, no matter what. God has given you sex not just for pleasure and procreation but also to glue you together in profound ways. Sexual oneness is more than naked bodies touching; it eventually demands that your love is tested and shared with vulnerability and ultimate intimacy.
Here are four practical suggestions for nurturing sexual intimacy in your marriage. These qualities are true of every great team and all great lovers:
1. Great teams communicate with each other. Talking about sexual intimacy can be a challenge. To start with, what words do you use to describe sexual acts, desires and the sexual parts of the body? The words you like might be offensive to your husband or wife. Or maybe you feel awkward talking about the whole topic.
Sexual conversations can quickly escalate into raw conflict. Why? Because sexuality is core to who you are as a person. It's humiliating to admit to a porn struggle. It's embarrassing to ask your spouse for more sex and devastating to hear that you aren't meeting his or her sexual needs. Sexual conflict usually taps into issues of shame, control, body image, trust, masculinity and femininity. A lot of couples choose not to venture into this emotional land mine, so they avoid the topic.
It doesn't take a psychologist to figure out that you can't solve problems together if you don't communicate. You can't learn to please each other if the very topic is off limits. So how do you learn to talk about sex together? I have a couple tried-and-true tips for you:
- Let someone else start the conversation. When my husband, Mike, and I encountered this roadblock, we used resources like books, marriage seminars and radio broadcasts to bring up the topics that we didn't know how to address. When authors such as Cliff and Joyce Penner explained a common problem, I could just say, "I feel like they just described me." These outside resources gave us the permission and the words to start the conversation.
- Make sexual conversations safe. I can think of at least a handful of times when I hurt Mike with insensitive words on this topic. Sometimes it was a flippant remark; other times my cutting words came out of my own hurt. Be aware that your spouse is probably very sensitive about sexual issues, just like you are. Ask questions and listen. His or her perspective will be very different from yours, so don't assume anything. If you have a "complaint" about your sexual relationship, share it with grace, remembering that you are both learning how to love each other.
2. Great teams have solid coaching. If talking about sex with your spouse is difficult, admitting a sexually related problem to a doctor, therapist or pastor may feel even harder. Yet that's exactly what might be required to get through challenges like a sexual addiction, physical problems, infertility or healing from sexual abuse. I've heard of couples who stopped having sex altogether because the husband or wife was too embarrassed to get help.
A great sexual relationship will require you to fight through barriers. At times this will mean admitting that you need help. Getting married, establishing a sexual relationship with your spouse, and even having children can trigger wounds and memories of sexual trauma for both men and women. It will be very difficult to move forward in intimacy in marriage without addressing past trauma.
As a psychologist, I've had the privilege of working with many marriages through difficulties related to intimacy. I have the greatest respect for a young man or woman who is willing to ask for help and engage in the healing process. If you have sexual trauma in your past or think you have a sexual addiction, please don't try to convince yourself that your wounds will go away. The great news is that God is the Healer, even of sexual pain. His truth can set you free from lies, His peace can calm your anxiety, His forgiveness can cleanse the darkest sin and His love can be a healing balm over violation and betrayal.
How do you know whom to ask for help? The best place to start is to ask the Lord for wisdom and healing. Very few Christian couples ever pray together about their sexual relationship. Has it ever dawned on you that God cares about your sexual intimacy? He does. He created it and He blesses it. He is also able to provide the wisdom and direction you need through His Word, His Spirit and the advice of wise counselors and experts.
Be aware that some "sex experts" offer immoral and destructive advice. When I was in my doctoral program, I took classes on human sexuality that encouraged married couples to do everything from visiting strip clubs together to divorcing if they were "sexually incompatible." Be sure that any books you read or advice you take comes from someone who recognizes God as the creator of sex and the ultimate source for how it should work.
3. Great teams never confuse a teammate for the opponent. Sexual temptation is nothing new. Just read Proverbs, which was written thousands of years ago, and you'll see that even then, young men were strongly warned to avoid the deception of an alluring harlot. Then and now, there have always been avenues to seek out illicit sex; today it is actively pursuing us — whether we're male or female, married or single.
Almost every young man and many young women will enter marriage with some history of exposure to pornography or erotica (often the female version of porn). Because of its widespread use, visual and written porn are often accepted as facts of modern-day life. But just because something is widespread doesn't mean it isn't also dangerous.
One of Satan's most successful strategies is to turn husbands and wives against each other. He constantly attempts to destroy, demolish and distort married sex. Not only will he use sexual temptation to water down your sexual intimacy, he will try to use the battle to divide you. Battling sexual temptation is difficult enough, but it becomes impossible when you are fighting each other instead of clearly identifying the true enemy.
If either of you struggles with sexual temptation, you must begin to identify your problem as a couple. I don't mean that you should take responsibility for your spouse’s purity. However, when sexual sin and temptation hits one of you, it impacts both of you. Satan will use pornography, inappropriate emotional attachments and other forms of temptation to further divide you if he can define your spouse as "the problem" or "the enemy." As long as you are fighting each other, you cannot stand together.
Standing together starts with humility and empathy. As Jesus taught, we cannot lovingly confront another person's sin until we've brought our own failings before God and sought His grace. You might not know what it's like to struggle with sexual temptation, but you do know what it's like to have a "besetting sin." Maybe yours is gossip, dishonesty, bitterness, pride or coveting. Once you're married, if you encounter sexual sin in your marriage, confront your spouse with the humility and awareness of your own weaknesses rather than feeding shame with a self-righteous spirit of judgment.
Empathy doesn't mean that you ignore the problem, but that you strive together in God's strength to honor Him. The thing I love about this is it turns Satan's strategies against him. Instead of letting Satan divide you, you and your future spouse will become more united than ever as you fight together for your marriage. Indeed, God can "[work all things] together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28).
4. Great teams play offense and defense. If you're a sports fan, you know the importance of a great offense and defense. No team can win the Olympics or World Cup without both. The same will be true in your marriage. For your love life to flourish and go the distance, you'll have to work together to build offensive and defensive strategies.
A lot of the information you get from Christian sources emphasizes defense. Many sermons and books teach about the importance of purity in marriage, setting up hedges against affairs and battling temptation. Building boundaries and safeguards to keep your marriage bed pure is extremely important. You'll need to talk about things like whether to keep old flames as Facebook friends and what boundaries to have with opposite-sex co-workers. What is currently an innocent connection may become a source of temptation when things in your marriage get difficult. As hard as it may be to imagine today, you will face sexual temptation at some point in your marriage. Start preparing for it now.
Just as important as playing defense in your marriage, you'll need to work together to learn how to "score." As they say in sports, "The best defense is a great offense." This definitely applies to marital sexuality. A couple who has a mutually satisfying, exciting sex life is far less open to temptation than a couple who doesn't.
How do you plan for an exciting sex life in marriage? First by realizing that you have permission to do so. A lot of Christians have a hard time erasing all of the "thou shalt not" messages. Even though you might intellectually know it's OK to have sex once you're married, you may still feel restrained or guilty for being too sexual. Are Christians really supposed to get carried away with sexual pleasure in the marriage bed? The answer is yes! And God said this was good!
John Piper encourages married couples to offensively battle Satan by pleasing each other in bed: "A married couple gives a severe blow to the head of that ancient serpent when they aim to give as much sexual satisfaction to each other as possible. Is it not a mark of amazing grace that on top of all the pleasure that the sexual side of marriage brings, it also proves to be a fearsome weapon against our ancient foe?"
There is nothing spiritual about settling for a mediocre sex life. Yes, there will be seasons of marriage in which sex might be difficult or may not be a high priority. But God's desire for you is that you work toward experiencing the greatest sexual delight in one another. As you look forward to marriage, take some time to talk together about what steps you think God would have you take to lay the foundation for intimacy that will last a lifetime.
Building a great sex life over the years will take intentionality, time and effort. But trust me, it's well worth the effort, and it's a whole lot more fun than just playing defense!
I'm so glad that the greatest sex isn't on your honeymoon, as some might have led you to believe. If you stay committed to "making love" after the honeymoon, your sexual journey will get sweeter and sweeter with time. Once you're married, don't neglect this important part of your marriage. With a little effort and patience, the depth of intimacy you can achieve will be indescribable.
Dr. Juli Slattery is a widely known clinical psychologist, speaker and author of No More Headaches.
Adapted from Ready to Wed, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. © 2015 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission.