What are the marks of a healthy sexual relationship?
We began exploring this issue with last month’s post. These two blogs are written with a bit of pastoral concern: Lisa and I have met some wives (and the occasional husband) who felt tempted to compromise their faith and even their own sense of sanity because they realized after getting married that their spouse has some sexual hang-ups. At first, they thought the best thing to do was to “go along.” Going along with an unhealthy sexual practice never works; it just prolongs the inevitable crisis. Nursing an unhealthy inclination never makes things better; it just makes the way back a little longer and ultimately more difficult.
Seeking a healthy sexual relationship is a wise and holy pursuit and ultimately is even the best preserver of long-term happiness.
Last month’s post (found here) listed these three markers of healthy marital sexuality.
- Christian sex is always relational sex.
- Christian sex supports a relationship rather than being the relationship.
- Christian sex confronts rather than perpetuates sexual brokenness
We’ll begin this month discussing number four.
- Healthy Christian sexuality is about mutually shared pleasure; perverse sexuality is about numbing the pain with selfish indulgence.
Sex was created by God to (in part) produce offspring and renew intimacy between a husband and a wife. It offers a very pleasurable moment for husband and wife, helping them to cope with (and giving them a vacation from) mundane or difficult duties in life. It is also comforting, and naturally reduces anxiety. These are all wonderful byproducts of healthy marital sexuality.
Sex is not meant, however, to be used like a drug.
Unhealthy sex seeks to numb pain rather than serve your partner with true pleasure. Instead of enhancing the present life of your spouse, unhealthy sex tries to escape your past life or selfishly use your mate’s body for personal, and ultimately unfulfilling, sexual gratification.
In his classic book on sexual addiction Don’t Call it Love Dr. Patrick Carnes warns against “the use of pain to escalate sexual excitement. Chains, whips, sadomasochistic games, self-torture, self-strangulation—how can these be pleasurable? The answer is that often they are not. But the associated emotions of fear, risk, danger, and rage are very mood altering.”
Healthy sex affirms lasting pleasure; its focus isn’t to feel less of something negative, but to experience more (and help our spouse experience more) of something positive.
God honoring sex builds wonderful memories; it’s not designed to make you forget bad ones. That’s a spiritual need best met through understanding grace, repentance, and forgiveness.
- Christian sex is based in truth
Christianity is about authenticity, reality, truth, being connected to a real person, and giving real pleasure. The world keeps promoting sex that is all about artificiality, fantasy, deceit, and escaping from reality.
A man who wants to dress like a woman to get sexually excited (there may be other reasons; I’m focused on something specific here) misses the point of biblical sexuality that affirms a man as a man. He will be most satisfied and his wife will be most satisfied when he embraces who God made him to be. If you have to pretend you’re something you’re not in order to experience pleasure or be fulfilled, by definition you will never be fulfilled, because even doctors can’t turn you into something other than what your Creator made you to be.
The same is true for a wife who believes she has to turn herself into a “centerfold” to keep her husband’s attention. She deserves to feel cherished and desired for who she is, not who her husband wants her to be.
In a healthy sexual relationship, you feel that the sexual experience affirms who you are: as a spouse, as parents raising kids together (and protecting/serving their family), as a believer in Christ (sex should never feel as if it is asking you to compromise your faith but rather be an expression of your faith), as a person who is cherished and loved. In unhealthy sexuality, the sexual experience leaves you feeling empty, alienated, almost like you’re role-playing or an object.
Healthy sex isn’t just about excitement or reaching a climax—it’s about the two of you relating, connecting, knowing, and authentically being there for each other. If sex doesn’t affirm who you are, there’s a good chance you’re not being made love to; you’re likely being used. Perhaps you feel like you have to be someone you’re not to keep your spouse interested or from acting out inappropriately. That’s manipulative sex; that’s co-dependent sex, it’s not healthy sex.
Sex should affirm and reaffirm who you are, your sense of worth, your sense of being valued, and your sense of relationship. A healthy sense of your sexual self will promote both a profound sexual intimacy but also an amazing sacred marriage full of deeply connecting moments.
- Healthy sex is fun
Husbands, life is so difficult for our wives. Their schedules get stretched, they get stressed, and they have so many demands on their time. Sex is an opportunity to have a whole lot of fun. If our wives think of sex as another chore, another “to do” item that needs to be checked off before they can be left alone and go to sleep, it’s not healthy. If times of sexual intimacy are draining our wives rather than pleasing them, we’re simply doing it wrong.
The good news is that God designed a woman’s body to respond to her husband with enthusiasm. He gave her an organ with one, and only one purpose: ecstasy during sexual relations. You can take a major step toward sexual health by spending an evening asking your wife when she’s had the most fun during sex. Use that word “fun” so she can be honest about what pleases her. Ask her what would make it even more fun, and make future plans accordingly.
Some people run to lose weight. Some people run to stay in shape. Some people run because they love it. In the same way, aim for your wife having sex not because she doesn’t want to turn you down, or because she’s afraid you’ll sin if she refuses you. Make it your goal that your wife wants to have sex because she really misses it and wants to have a superlatively good time.
She may say, “I’ll enjoy it more if we have it less.” Be willing to consider this. If you can increase the quality of the experience, her desire for quantity may eventually grow as well, but it will take time. If you maintain the long-term view, you’ll ultimately be serving your own interests.
Gary Thomas, GaryThomas.com
If after reading this list you sense you are in an unhealthy or coercive sexual relationship, please note that you’ll want to receive some professional care. There’s nothing I can say in the comments section of a blog to solve or even adequately address your problem. These two blog posts are designed to unmask unhealthy relating in order to point you elsewhere toward a place of healing and redemption.
So, for help:
- Harry Schaumburg’s website http://stonegateresources.org/ offers many additional articles and advice for those facing sexual brokenness and addiction (including articles and information about intensive programs). His offices are in Wisconsin.
- My friend Dr. Mitch Whitman mitchwhitman.com specializes in helping men and couples overcome sexual brokenness; he lives and works north of Seattle, Washington, but often counsels via remote website connections.
- I’ve referred several couples to Dr. Doug Rosenau, whose office is near Atlanta, and who co-founded the organization Sexual Wholeness (.com). Doug is a Christian sex therapist and author. You can find more information about Doug at http://dougrosenau.com/.
- My friends Dr. Juli Slattery and Linda Dillow have a wonderful site geared for women that can be found at http://authenticintimacy.com. I’m also a fan of Shelia Gregoire’s blog: http://tolovehonorandvacuum.com. Though Sheila doesn’t exclusively address sexual intimacy, she frequently does, and her advice is well thought out and biblical.