Years ago, I was eating in a restaurant with a friend. As our meal progressed, the conversation devolved into a lament over the state of his marriage, particularly their sex life. He grew increasingly animated, finally exclaiming loudly: “I knew marriage would be hard, but sex was supposed to be easy!”
Struggling to ignore the turned heads and raised eyebrows at nearby tables, I focused on what my friend was saying. He’d grown up in the church and been taught that if he “saved himself” for marriage, his sex life would be awesome. The reality was, as other diners now knew, quite different.
Sex in marriage isn’t easy. This is due to many reasons, including profound differences between spouses. God designed sex as union with a mysterious other. Even beyond gender, couples must reckon with differences in desire, expectations, and particular preferences.
As I interact with Christian couples, I repeatedly hear of discontent in their sexual relationships. Our extensive differences mean a great sex life doesn’t just happen; rather, it takes time, intentionality, and lots of practice. And in order to know one another and to grow emotionally and spiritually in this area of marriage, open conversation between spouses is critical.
Scripture’s ‘How To’ for Sex
Discussions about sex between husbands and wives find their basis in the Bible’s own teaching about sex. Scripture may not prescribe (or forbid) specific sexual behaviors in marriage, but it does teach the importance of sex as an act of service and love. In fact, there is really only one “how to” passage for marital sexuality:
The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Cor. 7:3–5)
Each spouse’s body belongs to the other, and a primary function of sex is to serve and bless each other. The ethic that runs throughout the New Testament applies to sex in marriage: we are to selflessly serve, thinking of the other first.
But in order to serve one another, we must understand one another. Instead of feeling ashamed, couples should talk about their intimacy regularly. Here are three important aspects of this ongoing conversation.
1. What Is Preferable in Our Marriage?
Because we’re built and wired differently, spouses need to continually learn from each other. Unless you talk about your body—what feels good and what doesn’t, which behaviors are exciting and which are awkward, uncomfortable, or even painful—your spouse won’t know. Spouses need to talk before, during, and after physical intimacy. This is certainly true at the outset of marriage, but the conversation should be ongoing.
Spouses must have also frank conversations about frequency, allowing the call to selfless service shape expectations and navigate the differences between them. When does love for my spouse mean I need to surrender my desire for sexual gratification? Conversely, when should I bless my spouse and serve him or her, even though I’m not feeling amorous?
God wants us to learn the dance of loving service without manipulating to get our way or pouting when we don’t. Serving the other doesn’t mean suppressing personal opinions and desires. But honest communication minimizes relational missteps. Understanding the stressors our spouses are experiencing in the home, at work, and even physically helps us navigate our desires and discern how to serve in specific situations.
God wants us to learn the dance of loving service without manipulating to get our way or pouting when we don’t.
While Scripture doesn’t address every specific sexual act in the marriage bed, it does prescribe a self-giving framework. As you talk with your spouse, consider your desires in light of these questions:
- Will my spouse feel loved and cherished through this activity?
- Will our sexual expression promote a sense of comfort and safety in this vulnerable act of love?
- Will this behavior enhance my spouse’s joy and flourishing?
2. What Is Problematic?
Couples should also discuss how their sexuality has been affected by the fall. Shame from previous sexual experiences, as well as past (or present) porn use, can adversely affect the marriage bed and contribute to sexual challenges. The past sins of others can also have implications for marital intimacy, and survivors of abuse may find married sexual expression especially difficult.
Many haven’t shared their sexual history with their spouse, but shame is undone by exposing past hurts and sins in safety. Although your spouse is the most important person to be invited into these hidden places, it may be necessary to include pastors or counselors to help you navigate this path together.
But past sin and trauma isn’t the only potential problem in married intimacy. Know this: consent is a big deal even in marriage. There are going to be certain behaviors your spouse won’t desire or will even find repellent. Because God’s design for sexual expression is other-focused, there is no room for non-consensual sexual activity. Spouses must be free to communicate how certain behaviors affect them.
3. What Should We Expect in the Future?
Various life stages present different challenges. Over the course of marriage, a couple’s sexual relationship will change. In some ways (hopefully!) it will mature and deepen. A couple’s developmental stages will certainly affect their sexual relationship. The years with young children bring challenges, as do physical changes over decades. At every stage of your marriage, you will need to talk openly about your sexual relationship. Continuing to discuss your intimacy over the years will help both of you to manage expectations and to focus on each other, rather than just on yourself.
Sex may not be easy, as my friend in the diner learned the hard way. But a lifelong conversation will help. Start talking.
This article is drawn from David White’s forthcoming book, God, You, & Sex: A Profound Mystery, which releases September 30.