Latter-day Saint Life

Latter-day Saint Therapist: How Research Supports Gospel Views of Sexual Intimacy That the World Gets Wrong


Note: This article contains a frank, though not crass, discussion of intimacy. If your marital intimacy is struggling because of pornography or infidelity, please sign up for my online course, free for LDS Living readers. 

Chasing After Mirages

The headlines scream at you from the magazine rack at the grocery store, promising secrets to amazing lovemaking. Your SPAM email likely contains invitations to try supplements guaranteed to enhance your anatomy. Our culture has become obsessed with sex, as evidenced by the rampant popularity of internet pornography and erotic novels. In society’s craze, many may think they’re tapping into sexuality’s full pleasure potential, but it’s never enough. When things don’t satisfy like they used to, they go for something more extreme.

Some think that sexual confidence comes from having a movie-star body and going to unhealthy lengths to get there. Others believe that the key to sexual satisfaction is learning new techniques and varied methods. People try to maximize their pleasure by “hooking up” with as many partners as they can, pursuing the novelty. Through it all, they try to quench their thirst for sexual satisfaction by chasing after mirages, but the overflowing fountain lies in a different direction.

Sexual Fulfillment is Found Through Commitment and Love

The key to sexual fulfillment has always been the marriage relationship. It provides the soul and beauty of human sexuality. Without the trust of commitment and the affection of intimacy, the sexual experience fails to meet its potential. This is one of the greatest reasons behind the Lord’s law of chastity, which reserves sexual intimacy for married couples. In his seminal address “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland described sexual union as “the physical manifestation of what is a far deeper spiritual and metaphysical bonding” and “a most beautiful and gratifying expression of . . . that larger, more complete union of eternal purpose and promise.”

He goes on to explain that the Lord’s commandment to truly be one “cannot be fulfilled, and that symbolism of 'one flesh’ cannot be preserved, if we hastily and guiltily and surreptitiously share intimacy in a darkened corner of a darkened hour, then just as hastily and guiltily and surreptitiously retreat to our separate worlds—not to eat or live or cry or laugh together, not to do the laundry and the dishes and the homework, not to manage a budget and pay the bills and tend the children and plan together for the future. No, we cannot do that until we are truly one—united, bound, linked, tied, welded, sealed, married.”

As truth comes from many sources, it should come as no surprise that research and pop culture are beginning to recognize what prophets have taught for millennia: there are harmful long-term effects of casual sex, committed marital relationships yield greater sexual satisfaction, and delaying physical intimacy helps build commitment and trust. Below are just a few examples, with my accompanying observations.

“Hooking Up” Now Can Impair Lifelong Commitment Later

In their book, Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children, Dr. Joe S. McIlhaney and Dr. Freda McKissic Bush explain that physical intimacy naturally creates a strong emotional connection through the release of bonding hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin. These uniting effects of sex facilitate lifelong pairing. Combined with the release of the “pleasure” neurotransmitter dopamine, these bonding hormones create a sexual experience that is both physically and emotionally satisfying.

When a relationship dissolves (often because too-early physical intimacy has created an illusion of emotional intimacy which fades), the rupturing of these bonds can cause intense depression, much more so than if sex were never part of the relationship. As this cycle is repeated, with bonds made and broken time after time, the brain releases less and less of the bonding hormones in order to curb the emotional damage of breakup pain. Over time, therefore, a person associates sex less with commitment and emotional closeness and more with simple pleasure.

While sex without attachment may seem appealing in today’s hook-up culture, it’s actually second-rate sex. Scientifically speaking, you’re getting the effects of dopamine release without the full pleasure of emotional bonding. What’s more, down the road this process can impede a person’s ability to bond sexually with a long-term partner. Staying faithful can be difficult if the brain has come to associate sex with variety instead of intimacy, affection, and fidelity. Today’s fun lifestyle can be tomorrow’s relationship devastation.

The good news is that, with considerable effort, these associations can be reversed as persons enter into, and stay in, committed and healthy relationships. Oxytocin and vasopressin levels can gradually start to increase again and bonding may resume over time. On a spiritual level, past mistakes can be remedied and lives restored through sincere repentance and faithful reliance on the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

Quality Requires Time and Care

The instant gratification sex that is marketed across our culture is a poor shadow of the fulfillment that comes from deep emotional and physical intimacy within the commitment of marriage. Odd as it may sound, physical intimacy is a lot like pizza. During my bachelor days, I microwaved my share of pizzas. They always came out soggy. I contrast that to a date I had where we made our own pizza from scratch, rolling the dough, grating the cheese, chopping the ingredients, and cooking it in a brick oven.

It took nearly an hour because quality took time. It couldn’t be rushed. That was some of the best pizza I’ve ever tasted. People try to microwave their relationships so they can get to sex as soon as possible, but the best kind of physical intimacy is the kind that comes after a relationship has slow-cooked in the oven.

In his book How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk, Dr. John Van Epp explains that waiting in dating can improve sex in marriage. Here’s why: it takes time to really get to know another person, to build trust, and to truly commit. This process is distorted by early sexual involvement because the bonding hormones create a false sense of intimacy. This means that having sex (or engaging in passionate sexual foreplay) early in the relationship can make you think you’re more in love than you actually are.  It can cause you to trust someone more than you should or think you know them more than you actually do. Dr. Van Epp explains that saving sexual involvement until levels of knowledge, trust, reliance, and commitment are high minimizes the emotional risks of sex and maximizes a relationship’s potential to endure.

“Just a Kiss Goodnight . . .”

Physical intimacy can be one of life’s greatest joys, so why not do it right? Taking time to develop a committed relationship of trust, friendship, and respect before getting sexually involved isn’t about being prudish; it’s about being smart. This mentality is slowly making its way back into pop culture, as evidenced by Lady Antebellum’s hit song “Just a Kiss.” Consider these selected lyrics in light of the current topic:

So hard to hold back when I’m holding you in my arms We don’t need to rush this Let’s just take it slow I know that if we give this a little time It’ll only bring us closer to the love we wanna find It’s never felt so real No it’s never felt so right Just a kiss on your lips in the moonlight Just a touch of the fire burning so bright No, I don’t wanna mess this thing up I don’t wanna push too far Just a shot in the dark that you just might Be the one I’ve been waiting for my whole life So baby I’m alright With just a kiss goodnight No I don’t want to say goodnight I know it’s time to leave, but you’ll be in my dreams Tonight

Overcoming Sexual Performance Anxiety

Some media (especially pornography) paints sexuality in a deceptive light, as an earth-shaking experience that only occurs between young people with perfect bodies. Those whose expectations have been shaped by erotic movies and novels may feel inadequate when reality happens instead. There seems to be a standard of amazing sex that some chase after, resulting in a type of performance anxiety. Like speaking in public or interviewing for a job, the more nervous couples get about sexual performance, the more likely it is they’ll have a frustrating experience and feel embarrassed about it.

I was fortunate once to attend a seminar by noted psychologist, marriage counselor, and sex therapist Dr. Michael Metz, who introduced me to the idea of “good-enough sex.” His research shows that couples who focus on emotional intimacy, the pleasure of physical touch, and feeling happy together are able to relax and enjoy sex whether everything “goes right” or not. They know that sex doesn’t have to be amazing to be satisfying. It can be “good enough.” Here’s the kicker, though: couples who focus on affectionately enjoying each other, with “good-enough sex” as the standard, end up having amazing sex more often than the couples whose main concern is having amazing sex! (“Good-Enough Sex” model for couple sexual satisfaction. Sexual and Relationship Therapy; August 2007; Volume 22 No. 3 Pages 351-362)

The fact is, the human body is an imperfect organism. It’s not going to work perfectly every time you have sex (or do anything, for that matter). It’s nothing to be ashamed of, yet so many feel shame when it happens. “Dysfunction” happens to everyone at some time or another. Acknowledging this, and even expecting it from time to time, normalizes socially what is quite normal physiologically, which in turn minimizes shame and “performance anxiety.”

Being in a marriage where trust, reliance, and commitment have developed over time, where friendship is paramount and affection is unconditional, diminishes the shame of a less-than-stellar sexual experience. There’s no fear of losing one’s spouse just because things didn’t “go right.” There’s less anxiety over trying again, which makes sexual satisfaction much more likely in the future. What’s more, couples who communicate openly and honestly are more able to give (and apply) loving feedback about sexual needs.

Conclusion: “The Waiting Is the Hardest Part”

Our Heavenly Father knows what He’s talking about. The law of chastity is designed, in large part, to help us avoid emotional and spiritual pain as well as to enjoy physical intimacy in the beautiful context of marriage. Without the level of trust that comes with strong commitment, without the type of comfort that comes from unconditional affection, we rob ourselves of sex at its most satisfying. If we rush sexual involvement we’re likely to develop emotional bonds that end painfully and risk our ability to maintain lasting romantic relationships. Taking the time to develop a deep love and the abiding commitment of marriage before intense physical intimacy allows us to grow closer with confidence. Tom Petty famously sang that “the waiting is the hardest part.” That’s true, but it also yields the greatest rewards.

If your marital intimacy is struggling because of pornography or infidelity, please sign up for my online course, free for LDS Living readers.

Lead image from Getty Images

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