For most of us, our wedding day represents a hopeful beginning, including the potential for greater emotional and sexual intimacy. We also often bring a lot of expectations to our new union. Some of our preconceptions about marriage are helpful and grounding, while others can get in the way of our being able to create an intimate partnership.
In my work as a relationship educator and therapist with members of the Church, I have frequently observed a problematic assumption that people sometimes make early on in marriage: that pleasure and passion during sex will come easily in marriage, simply as a function of being in love. Challenges come when couples start to measure their marriage choice based on the fulfillment—or lack thereof—of that flawed expectation.
The reality is that disillusionment is common in the early stages of marriage. As we face the differences and dissatisfactions that come from personal limitations, differing personalities, and sexual ignorance, our relationship is tested. The conflict in the relationship can hurt, but the good news is that likely nothing is going wrong!
When you embrace rather than resist the inherent and meaningful challenge of creating a true marriage partnership, it will help you better respond to the tensions inherent to early marriage. Here are three shifts in perspective that can help create a stronger emotional and sexual relationship.
1. See sexuality as a gift from God.
As Latter-day Saints, we understand that sexuality is a gift from God. We also understand that our bodies are not impediments to our spirituality; instead they are vehicles toward it. We believe that our embodiment facilitates our ability to become more like God. As early Apostle James E. Talmage taught, we “...look upon these bodies of ours as gifts from God. We Latter-day Saints do not regard the body as something to be condemned, something to be abhorred ... It is peculiar to the theology of the Latter-day Saints that we regard the body as an essential part of the soul.”1
The goodness of sexuality is determined by what we do with this gift. We can use our sexuality to uplift or demean. Learning to love and be loved through the body is foundational to our spiritual and relational capacity and allows us to experience something of divinity through such profound love. It is also critical to happiness in marriage.2 While many instinctively fear pleasure, the reality is that God wants this for us in the context of marriage because it is a blessing to us, because it sustains us, and because God wants us to have joy. “The fact is, God … planted in their bosoms those affections which are calculated to promote their happiness and union” (Writings of Parley Parker Pratt, 52–53).
To practice seeing sexuality as a gift, give yourself full permission to discover and receive pleasure. This is especially important for women who have learned too often that chronic self-denial is a virtue. To let oneself be nurtured sexually is a deep kindness to oneself as well as to a spouse.
Sexuality is a gift to both men and women. God has equipped both genders equally, albeit differently, for intimacy and pleasure. But many falsely learn that sexuality is critical to men’s well-being but not to women’s. Some women view their limited desire as an expression of femininity and believe that being a good wife requires taking care of the husband’s sexual needs. Not surprisingly, a wife’s passive accommodation of a husband’s desires quickly turns her initial interest into resentment. Feeling obligated to have sex will always kill passion. It further leaves both partners feeling undesired, misunderstood, and unloved.
2. See sexual intimacy as a developmental process and shared goal.
Couples should consider healthy sexual fulfillment to be a goal to work on together, and they should recognize that the process will take time. Newly married couples come to the relationship with a broad spectrum of feelings toward sex. Some might be well-prepared and comfortable in their sexuality, while others may be ignorant, have learned that discussing sex is taboo, or maybe even internalized the notion that sexuality is dangerous and a potential threat to spirituality and stability in a couple. It may take time for one or both partners to work through these kinds of feelings, so patience and communication is key to this process.
Having patience may mean that a newly married couple does not become preoccupied with immediately consummating their marriage but instead focus on shared exploration and pleasure, particularly at first. Because women usually arouse more slowly than men, it is important not to rush towards intercourse. Intercourse on the wedding night often leaves inexperienced wives insufficiently aroused. And when arousal is low (as will be the case when anxiety is high), women may experience pain, which need not be the case. Initial pain will create increased anxiety and lower arousal the next time, possibly leading to more pain and eventually sexual aversion.3 Starting slowly and developing a solid connection through sensual behavior is much more important to the long-term welfare of the couple than consummating quickly once married.
3. See your capacity for embodied love as a skill you can develop
It is important to see sexual intimacy as a language through which one can love and be loved, desire and be desired. It is a language you can become more fluent in with practice and attention. For example, you can use touch to communicate rejection or entitlement, or you can use touch to communicate love, desire, and gratitude. Consider what you already communicate in your intimate engagement with your spouse. What does your spouse understand about you in the way you touch? What do you express about how you feel about your spouse? What might you change in the messages you offer through your physical engagement?
Offering acceptance and kindness through sexuality is a skill you can develop. In this light, desire is not something that happens to you in marriage. Desire is, instead, an expression of choosing your spouse—choosing to prioritize and care for them and share your sexuality with them. This kind of meaning offered through intimate contact is what makes sex a unifying and anchoring experience and what makes sex desirable for happy couples.4
Finding Peace Within Ourselves
Growing in your capacity for emotional and sexual intimacy can be challenging, but it is entirely worthwhile. Marriage allows you to increase your understanding of God through developing your capacity for all forms of intimacy; to deeply know and be known creates wisdom and joy.
In loving your spouse—investing in his or her well-being—you come to understand more about the true nature of God. When Christ teaches us that in losing ourselves we find ourselves (see Mark 8:35), He is not teaching us to be pleasure-denying martyrs. He is teaching us to lose the need to see ourselves favorably, which will help us address our limitations honestly and courageously for the benefit of the marriage. In so doing we will find peace within ourselves and peace in the arms of a spouse. In creating this reality through our own courage, we’ll begin to understand a bit about heaven, too. As Parley P. Pratt taught: “Our natural affections are planted in us by the Spirit of God, for a wise purpose. … They are the very main-springs of life and happiness—they are the cement of all virtuous and heavenly society—they are the essence of charity, or love.”5
1. Elder James E. Talmage, Conference Report, October 1913, 117.
2. Willoughby, Brian J.; Farero, Adam M.; Busby, Dean M (2014). Exploring the Effects of Sexual Desire Discrepancy Among Married Couples. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 43(3): 551-562
A Psychological View of Sexual Pain among Women: Applying the Fear-Avoidance Model by Johanna Thometen and Steven J. Linton. First published in May of 2013 in Women's Health Magazine.
4. Schnarch, D. (2009). Passionate Marriage : Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships, W.W. Norton & Company. New York.
5. Writings of Parley Parker Pratt, 52–53.