by Dr. Juli Slattery
When I meet with couples preparing for marriage, they can't believe that sex may someday become an issue between them. The thought of having your own apartment in which to make passionate love and enjoy guilt-free sex any time you want sounds like a dream!
These same couples soon learn that sexual intimacy can be complicated. Amid disappointment, conflict and fatigue, some resign themselves to disillusionment: "I guess sex isn't all it's cracked up to be."
But Christians don't need to accept the idea that a healthy sex life is merely a naïve newlywed dream or an optional bonus in marriage. Sex in marriage can be all "it's cracked up to be" — just not without some effort. And let me encourage you: It's worth the effort!
Why does your sex life matter?
By God's design, sex is a powerful force. He created it to be an incredible bonding experience between a husband and wife. Having sex releases important hormones in the brain, including dopamine (the "feel good" hormone), oxytocin (the bonding hormone) and endorphins (pain-reducing polypeptides). A couple that has regular sexual intimacy can actually become addicted to each other. The word addiction usually has a negative connotation in our minds, but God created sexuality to produce a powerful response for a reason. It's a wonderful thing when a husband and wife learn to find their greatest pleasure through intimacy with each other.
Unfortunately, the power of sex in marriage can quickly be inverted to become a negative force. Sexual issues are a primary cause of broken marriages. When a couple puts their sex life on autopilot, they are taking the risk of allowing the power of sex to become a harmful factor in their marriage. Granted, there are seasons in every marriage in which sexual intimacy cannot be a priority. Who would tell a couple with three children under 3 to make time for more sex? Or a woman going through cancer treatment that she's neglecting her marriage? However, many couples who avoid sexual intimacy do so because of normal busyness; they simply do not make it a priority.
I once heard a pastor say, "Satan doesn't create anything, so he distorts everything."
I challenge you to think of an area of life that is more twisted in our world than sexuality.
Your own sexual experiences may be so warped that you can't even begin to think of sex as a good thing. Most couples bring some kind of baggage into marriage — baggage like pornography, abuse, body-image issues, betrayal and even negative messages from the church.
Within marriage, you have the opportunity to reclaim and redeem the beautiful gift of sexual intimacy. So let me ask you a personal question: Is sex uniting or dividing you and your spouse? If it is a source of conflict and division, this dynamic will not change until you get serious about fighting for intimacy.
In my experience as a clinical psychologist, I rarely meet a couple that doesn't have some difficulty in the bedroom to work through. The problems vary, but just about every couple has something: a physical issue, guilt from past choices, a struggle with pornography or different expectations about how often to have sex, just to name a few. You'd be surprised to learn how many couples are dealing with these types of challenges. Everywhere I speak, I am overwhelmed with stories of pain and struggle.
The good news is that there is healing and redemption available, even for some of the most difficult marriages. While the barriers to intimacy can destroy the gift of sex, they can also be used to forge deeper intimacy when a couple determines to work together to overcome them.
How do you overcome the barriers?
As basic as it may sound, the first step to building a thriving sex life is to recognize that intimacy requires effort. When it comes to sex, struggling is normal. We live in a fallen world, and that means things don't work the way they were intended to. Our bodies are imperfect, memories from the past haunt us, and our selfish human nature demands we get our way.
M. Scott Peck is best known for his book The Road Less Traveled. My favorite part of that book is this statement: Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult — once we truly understand and accept it — then life is no longer difficult.
This quote can change our paradigm. Instead of expecting life to be easy, we can be prepared for challenges when they inevitably come.
Let's apply this perspective to your sex life: Sexual intimacy in marriage is difficult. Once you accept that fact, your sex life will become exceedingly less difficult. In other words, you won't be surprised by the challenges.
Couples spend an enormous amount of energy lamenting their sexual challenges and blaming each other. If they channeled that same energy into solving the problems together, they could find great intimacy — even in the midst of their struggles.
Here's a real-life example: Lynn and Joe (not their real names) began their marriage with high hopes. They met at church and were committed to loving each other through the ups and downs of married life. Lynn had a history of physical, emotional and sexual abuse in her childhood home, but she knew that God could deliver her from this pain and give her a new life with her husband.
For the first few years, Lynn and Joe's marriage was filled with the normal highs and lows of newlywed life. They fought about who would clean the house and how often to have sex, but they also had great times loving each other and seeking God together. And then the bottom dropped out when their first child arrived. Lynn was anxious all the time and would never let their daughter out of her sight. She found herself blaming Joe for her frustration and sadness.
Through the pregnancy and anxious depression that followed, Lynn gained more than 50 pounds. She also began having flashbacks of the abuse from her childhood. Sex became nonexistent in their marriage. Lynn rejected Joe's advances and neglected her physical appearance in an effort to send a clear message: I'm not available.
In the midst of experiencing sexual rejection and living with an angry wife, Joe turned to pornography. He rationalized that he was entitled to sex, and his wife wasn't meeting his needs.
It was at this point that Joe and Lynn ended up in the counseling office. At first glance, their marriage appeared to be a Gordian knot of conflict and resentment. However, everything Joe and Lynn were experiencing was perfectly understandable — even predictable. Memories from childhood abuse don't just magically disappear. Weight gain and depression impact a woman's view of her sexuality. And men often look for other sexual outlets when their wives reject them.
Joe and Lynn had been naturally optimistic in believing that marriage meant a new beginning. So they were caught off guard by the difficulties in their sexual intimacy.
Remember who the enemy is
When Lynn and Joe first began conveying their story, it was clear that the battle lines had been drawn. Both had compelling arguments as to why the other was insensitive and unloving. They assumed that marriage counseling was a contest to see who was right and who was responsible for their current troubles.
In fact, one purpose of marriage counseling is to help you see that you and your spouse are on the same team. You have the same goal — to have a great marriage, including a fulfilling sex life. No matter how much he or she has contributed to the problem, your spouse is not the real enemy.
We are told in the Gospel of John that the Enemy has come to "steal and kill and destroy." Satan knows what a powerful tool sexuality can be to bind a couple together, so he is intent on using that power to destroy true intimacy.
In the crucible of marital intimacy, it's easy to blame your husband or wife for everything that is falling apart. As long as you and your spouse fight each other, you will never recognize the real battle going on in your bedroom. It's not about your way versus his way, but a question of whether God will be glorified through your marriage.
The most effective thing you can do for your sex life is pray about it together — regularly. Ask God to unify you and to show you how to be a team in reclaiming the gift of sexual intimacy.
If you need a doctor's or counselor's help in working through issues, by all means, get it. But don't forget that God is the Great Physician and the Holy Spirit is the Wonderful Counselor.
Make sure you are playing offenseLynn and Joe had a lot of issues to work through, including Lynn's abuse, Joe's use of porn and the walls that had been built between them through the years. However, a big part of their journey of healing included learning to have fun together sexually.
There is a time to problem solve in marriage, and there is a time to actively nurture and enjoy your relationship. In the area of sexual intimacy, I've found that people often get stuck in problem-solving mode. I call this "defense." It involves getting rid of all the junk that destroys intimacy. While this is an important part of having a pure sex life, it is an incomplete strategy. You also have to learn to play "offense." In other words, you and your spouse need to work on building a healthy, exciting sex life. As the saying goes in sports, the best defense is a good offense.
I'm not just a psychologist; I'm also a wife who has experienced her own set of roadblocks during 21 years of marriage. I understand that playing offense can be more difficult than it sounds. There are a million excuses for not working on your sex life. But when sex is not an important priority, it will become an urgent problem.
Making sex a priority isn't just about getting naked together. It means creating an environment that is safe and adventurous. Working on your sex life means creating time and space for conversation, relaxation and opportunity to enjoy each other.
If your life is like mine, this won't happen unless you are proactive about carving out time together. My husband, Mike, and I have learned to constantly ask each other, "When can we have a date this week?" or "When can we be intimate?" Sometimes we plan, other times we take advantage of an unexpected window of opportunity when the boys are busy or out of the house.
There are few things you could invest in that are more important to your marriage than sexual intimacy. So remember that God is the Healer, even of sexual wounds and confusion. Will you partner with Him in redeeming this important area of your marriage?
Dr. Juli Slattery is a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Authentic Intimacy. She hosts a weekly podcast called "Java with Juli," blogs for Today's Christian Woman and is the author of No More Headaches.
This article appeared in the October/November 2015 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was titled "Barriers and Baggage." Copyright © 2015 by Dr. Juli Slattery. Used by permission. ThrivingFamily.com.