This post is an excerpt from the mentoring manual that accompanies the upcoming “Creating a Gospel-Centered Marriage: Intimacy” seminar.
This seminar has been designed to counter the leading cause of sexual difficulty in marriage – a poor education about how sex works; either physically and relationally. Hopefully at this point you have a clearer understanding of the marital environment and physical process necessary to cultivate a satisfying sex life.
But sexual education alone will not guarantee a satisfying sex life; even the effective implementation of a good sexual education cannot make this guarantee. There are factors outside of being an informed and skilled lover than contribute to a satisfying sex life. In this appendix we will divide those factors into two categories:
1. Sin Variables – Factors that interfere with a satisfying sex life for which you bear personal responsibility. In this category we will provide initial guidance and recommendations for guilt over past sexual behavior, the effects of pornography on marital sex, and adultery.
2. Suffering Variables — Factors that interfere with a satisfying sex life for which you do not bear personal responsibility. In this category we will provide initial guidance and recommendations for the effects of having been sexually abused, the experience of pain during sex, infertility, and impotence.
The transition of sex from forbidden to frequent can be difficult for many couples. This difficulty can be compounded when one individual or the couple has participated in pre-marital sex; creating an association between sex and guilt (“I’ve done something wrong”) or sex and defiance (“Nobody is going to tell me what I can’t do.”).
These associations often make it harder to enjoy marital sex. In effect, when these associations are present pre-marital sex felt like an adventure (i.e., a trip into the forbidden) and marital sex feels like a trip to the grocery (i.e., an expected, normal routine of life). Here are some suggestions if you believe past sexual behavior is diminishing your present marital sex life.
Be honest and talk about it. Silence always echoes and multiplies any sense of guilt or shame we experience. If your spouse brings this concern to you, do not dismiss it with, “But sex is okay now.” Instead, hear your spouse and walk with them towards the experience of forgiveness.
If your past sin was with your spouse, then confess to one another and seek God’s forgiveness together. Allow this to start or reinforce the pattern that the two of you will openly talk about your struggles and take them to God.
Realize God forgives and restores. God wants you to have a satisfying sex life. God has no desire for you to experience a life of guilt, awkwardness, and inhibition about His gift to your marriage. You are not being a “good Christian” by punishing your past sin with present guilt. Christ died for you to be free from that.
If guilt and a sense of emotional restriction continues talk to a pastor or counselor. You must be more committed to knowing God’s freedom than you are living in your guilt. As you speak with a pastor or counselor, they may put God’s forgiveness into a better perspective, they may counter the lies you tell yourself in a new way, or their warmth towards you may simply be a more tangible example of God’s disposition towards you.
A common struggle for many spouses (not just husbands) is pornography and masturbation. These activities have many negative effects on a marriage: promoting selfish sex, generating the fantasy of an ideal and all-knowing lover, portraying sex for purposes other than covenant-bonding, robbing your sexual vitality from times with your spouse, and many more.
Another struggle that impacts many marriages is adultery; having an emotional bond with a member of the opposite sex that is greater than the one you share with your spouse, or any sexual activity that exists with someone other than your spouse. If either pornography or adultery has impacted your marriage, here are some suggestions.
Be honest. You will never be more pure or feel more loved than you are honest with your spouse. Beyond the sexual offense, the lying and deceit may be more damaging to the marriage. It allows you to believe, “If my spouse knew, he/she wouldn’t love me,” which fuels your fantasy escape and sabotages your marital efforts.
Do not try to deal with this alone. Shame causes most couples to deal with sexual sin alone. This is a mistake. Seek out a pastor or counselor to help you walk through the needed marital restoration.
“False Love: Overcoming Sexual Sin from Pornography to Adultery” (www.bradhambrick.com/falselove) is a seminar designed to walk you through how the gospel guides you to freedom from sexual sin. It is a study that can be done in conjunction with a pastor, counselor, mentor, or accountability group.
“True Betrayal: Overcoming the Betrayal of Your Spouse’s Sexual Sin” (www.bradhambrick.com/truebetrayal) is a seminar designed to walk you through the process of recovering from the impact of your spouse’s sexual sin. It is also a study that can be done in conjunction with a pastor, counselor, mentor, or accountability group.
For additional guidance on how these forms of sexual sin impact a marital sex life and what recovery looks like, chapters 26-29 of Doug Rosenau’s book The Celebration of Sex are recommended.
Sin is not the only thing that disrupts a satisfying marital sex life. There are also many ways suffering impacts a couple’s sex life. This means that you do not necessarily need to repent if sex is not what you hoped it would be.
The lack of a good sex education and the (often) presence of a bad sex education is part of this suffering. We live in a day when there is more mis-information about sex than accurate information. Parents and churches frequently do not prepare people to enjoy the gift of sex as God intended. This seminar is an attempt to alleviate that form of suffering.
Another unfortunately common form of suffering is the experience of sexual abuse (one in four women; one in six men). When sex has been a weapon used to violate you it can be hard to experience sex as a gift meant to bless you. If you have experienced sexual abuse, then here are several suggestions.
Realize this was not your fault and the shame you may feel is not yours to own. Likely you have been silenced, blamed, and shamed so this may be hard to accept. But it is true.
Share your experience with your spouse. You may choose to watch or read some of the resource below first, but an important part of you being “fully known and fully loved” in your marriage is the assurance that your spouse does not love you any less because of what happened to you.
Do not try to deal with this alone. Sexual abuse is a complex experience. Some of the emotional dynamics may change when you get married, when you have kids, when your kids have their first sleep over, etc… Developing a relationship with an experienced counselor to guide you through these experiences is important.
“Hope and Restoration After Sexual Abuse” (www.bradhambrick.com/sexualabuse) is a seminar designed to overview many of the common experiences of sexual abuse. If you have not told anyone of your experience it can be a safe first step towards feeling understood so you can feel safer to talk to someone about your experience. It is also a good resource for your spouse to watch in order to understand how to best love and support you in light of your experience of abuse.
On the Threshold of Hope by Diane Langberg is an excellent book on recovering from the effects of sexual abuse.
Chapter 24 of The Celebration of Sex by Doug Rosenau discusses how to navigate many of the challenges couples face in their sex life while one of them is processing their experience of sexual abuse.
A third way suffering can affect sex is through pain. When sex is painful it means something is wrong; not with you morally but physically. Pain is the alarm system of the body like guilt is the alarm system of the soul. When you’re hurting go to the doctor, like you go to God when you feel guilty. There is no reason for you to feel shame. Allow God to care for you through the expertise of a OBGYN or other relevant physician.
“Painful sex does not get better by ignoring it or trying to play through it. Often, it further traumatizes and creates more sexual difficulties (p. 285).” Doug Rosenau in A Celebration of Sex
- In addition to seeking assistance from the relevant medical professionals, chapters 22 and 23 of The Celebration of Sex by Doug Rosenau are recommended for additional guidance.
A fourth experience of suffering that changes the experience of sex is infertility. Most couples do not think about the possibility of having children every time they have sex. But when a couple struggles to conceive, then they do begin think about it each time they have sex. What is not happening (i.e., conceiving a child) begins to overshadow what is happening (i.e., celebrating their marital love).
Chapter 25 of The Celebration of Sex by Doug Rosenau provides excellent material on (a) the common misconceptions and hurtful advice given to couples experiencing infertility, (b) how to walk through the medical testing, (c) considering medical and adopting options, and (d) how to protect your marriage on this journey.
“Taking the Journey of Grief with Hope” (www.bradhambrick.com/griefseminar) is a seminar designed to help individuals process their experiences of grief; not just the traditional grief of losing a loved one to death, but also less commonly considered griefs such as miscarriage and infertility.
A fifth experience of suffering that impacts sex is impotence. This is a highly common struggle, especially in its episodic form, which has a tendency to become chronic when men fixate on it.
“All men will struggle with getting or maintaining an erection at some point. Fatigue, alcohol, medications, and performance anxiety are common causes. The key is not to panic because that would just compound the problem (p. 36)… The surest way to become psychologically impotent is to worry about erections rather than enjoying the moment (p. 249).” Doug Rosenau in A Celebration of Sex
Medication has allowed for significant alleviation of erectile dysfunction.
“Remember that Viagra restores the capacity for an erection, not libido… The impotence pill reminds us again that a healthy marriage and intimate lovemaking are about connection and not penetration. It’s not about the penis, but about the person and the ability to relate intimately (p. 254).” Doug Rosenau in A Celebration of Sex
If impotence or erectile dysfunction is impacting your marital sex life, consider the following suggestions:
Do not mistake “good sex” with the ability to sustain an erection or ejaculate. This sense of failure will inhibit your sexual ability to a degree much greater than whatever physical challenge you may be facing and rob your marriage of a continued sense of romantic closeness.
Grow in your understanding of the complexity of impotence. Chapters 20 and 21 of The Celebration of Sex by Doug Rosenau offer excellent guidance on this subject.
Seek medical advisement. It is important to identify or rule out contributions from low testosterone levels, blood pressure, prostrate difficulties, or glandular malfunctions (especially the thyroid).
Seek counseling from a reputable Christian sex therapist. Once medical causes are ruled out, the emotional relational aspects of arousal and climax are the remaining variable. Performance anxiety about sex is the leading cause of psychological impotence. A trained and experienced counselor can help you understand and overcome the effects of anxiety and insecurity upon your sexual performance.
The purpose of this appendix was not to answer all of your questions about sexual difficulties, but to give you guidance on what next steps you can take to overcome whatever challenges are interfering with a satisfying marital sex life.
The main piece of advice is, “Don’t struggle alone.” Too many couples either (a) continue to do the same things over and over again hoping for a different result, or (b) give up and do nothing; both of these options result in sex being a subject that hinders your marriage rather than contributing to its flourishing.
Hopefully from the larger seminar and this appendix you have received two things to enable to reach out for help more effectively.
1. A vocabulary and example of what it means to more freely and openly talk about sex.
2. Direction on specific resources (seminars or books) or helping professionals (counselors or doctors) who are most appropriate to help you with the given struggle you are facing.
If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Sex and Sexuality” post which address other facets of this subject.