August 31, 2016

Celebrating “Okay” Sex

Gary Thomas — 

Celebrating Okay Sex (1)


What if “okay sex” is okay?

Where do we get our expectations that every act of marital sex is supposed to be a candidate for the highlight reel of marital ecstasy?

In our ever present desire to “one up” the world, Christians are fond of exaggerating. That’s in part what led me to write Sacred Marriage. Most Christian books in the 1990s were presenting an idealized view of marriage: “Apply these five principles and marriage becomes easy.” I thought someone needed to be honest—marriage can be wonderful, but it’s rarely easy.

And now I fear we’re occasionally doing the same exaggerating with marital sex. With new blogs, books, articles, and seminars, there’s so much focus on having a fantastic sexual life that we risk creating expectations in which “okay sex” seems like a crime. I’m grateful for those women and men who are serving the church by speaking and writing and blogging about improved sexual experiences—it’s a good and holy work. Many couples used to struggle for years without any such help and I’m glad so many can anonymously receive great and specific advice today.

But let’s remember that for the vast percentage of human existence, parents slept within about six feet of their children with, at most, a curtain between them. Even worse, for many people, you shared a room with your in-laws. I remember that famous scene from Dances with Wolves when the Kevin Costner character wakes up in the teepee to see the holy man making love to his wife. He’s at first transfixed but the holy man motions for him to turn away.

Historically, most marriages were far more similar to sharing a room than a married couple being tucked away in a penthouse suite or even a distant master bedroom. In such circumstances, it goes without saying that the wife couldn’t scream out her pleasure, “talk dirty,” get into any position that would leave her uncovered, and the couple most definitely did not leave the lights on.

Even going back to the 1970s, almost all the homes in my childhood neighborhood were maybe 1200 square feet, at most. “Master bedrooms” might be on the corner of the house, but they often shared a thin wall with one of the kids.

Today’s houses tend to be bigger, but all the stuff usually mentioned by blogs to increase the quality of marital sex today (lingerie, lighting, sounds, certainly anything like “sex toys”) just wouldn’t have been practical for most of human existence.

And yet marriages survived and thrived.

I celebrate the fact that many slightly larger modern homes (though I realize many of you still have much smaller homes) have given married couples greater freedom and possibilities, but what I see happen so often is that when a couple discovers these blogs, realizes something is “wrong” with a boring sex life, and starts reading and then implementing all the ideas, putting the kids to bed early, creating a drawer or closet with a lock, they may see a renaissance of sorts in their marital passion—for a while. But it’s like building a fire with newspaper. You get a big flame, but you can’t keep it going.

The husband gets sick. The wife gets pregnant. Kids have nightmares. Real life keeps showing up.

Let’s be honest: normal marriage means many moments of “normal” sex and that’s okay. Healthy couples will take advantage of making certain times special, but what makes these times special and keeps them special is the fact that they are “different” from the norm.

 River Cruise BoatLisa and I have some “foodie” friends who own restaurants and love Michelin 3 star restaurants. In an act of unbelievable generosity, they invited us on a French canal cruise that featured gourmet meals three times a day. Desserts, salads, and entrées weren’t just delicious—they were veritable works of art.

I’m not a foodie, but Lisa certainly is. The main enjoyment I get from eating is that I hate being hungry, and eating makes me feel full. Lisa likes being hungry because then she gets to eat something yummy. For me, eating is utilitarian; for Lisa and our friends, it’s an experience and a delight. That’s why Lisa enjoyed the cruise with our friends so much—it wouldn’t have been nearly as fun for her to share it exclusively with a Joe-lunch-bucket like me.

When we got off the cruise after seven days of being spoiled gastronomically, our friends decided to hit up another 3 star Michelin restaurant with a tasting menu. I had had so much good, fancy food that I was more than happy to settle for a hamburger at a local stand (which is sort of what we did). I can appreciate the very best cuisine (though not as much as most), but I don’t want a 3 star Michelin meal every night; maybe not even once a week.

Marital sex can be a little like food. Sometimes, it could be really special to go to a 3 star Michelin restaurant. Sometimes, I can be just as happy with one of Lisa’s organic, no preservative, 100% grass-fed beef hot dogs on a gluten free bun (Lisa keeps up certain standards even for comfort food). I don’t have to evaluate every meal by asking, “Was that one of the best ever?” Sometimes, I eat whatever is in front of me, wash the dishes and am just grateful that I’m not hungry and the food was okay.River Cruise Meal

Is it wrong for us to look at sex like that? We’re in a new age, with new possibilities of sexual freedom within marriage. There are more blogs, information, help, and creative accessories to make sex more pleasurable and more exciting than ever. Thank God for that. But if our expectations rise proportionally, then are we really all that better off? Will we be truly more content? Not if every act of sex is supposed to rival the best ever. We’ll be like the 3 Star Michelin snob who complains when he has to eat at Applebee’s (while many people in the world starve). He’s not really any happier, because he’s raised his level of expectations beyond reality.

Sex is amazing—what it does for a couple. How it can create children. The neurochemical bonding that follows. The memories that last longer than the passion. The sense of anticipation. The special hugs or smiles later in the day when just the two of you know what you’re smiling about… I love and am grateful for all those things. I’m also grateful for the new opportunities suggested by new homes and new information. And there will always be a special place in my heart for what Lisa and I affectionately call “hotel sex.” But if I don’t adjust my expectations to what is commensurate with real life, I’ll let a really good sexual relationship feel somewhat below par because every act doesn’t quite measure up to the Super Bowl of passion—even though we may have had more times of wild abandon than ninety-nine percent of our ancestors ever could have dreamed of.

Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, sex is okay. And that’s okay. It’s always a gift. Whether that gift feels like a Rolex or a Timex, I want to receive it gratefully. I can tell time with either and my great-great-great grandfather had to make do with a sundial.

What do you think? Let’s start a conversation here. I’d like to get your reactions to this post.

(P.S. Please do not use this post as an excuse for putting too little time and energy into the sexual relationship, particularly if your spouse already feels cheated in this area. It’s more directed toward evaluating our own personal expectations and bringing them in line with reality.)

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54 responses to Celebrating “Okay” Sex

  1. I think your post has hit the nail on the head. It reminded me of another illustration from the automotive world…with apologies to those who aren’t interested in cars…NO2 comes in small bottles for a reason…the engine can only handle small doses of it at a time…too much and the top of the engine will start to melt…lots of excitement once in a while, but always on the button and things start to melt.
    And from another marriage site, there was a fairly lengthy thread on “sexcations” where a couple planned once or twice a year for a hotel weekend where (at the risk of offending) they planned for “swing from the chandeliers till the neighbors call the police” type of weekend, just between the two of them, committed to each other…the rest of the year, was “Okay” sex.
    Just some thoughts.

  2. YES!!!
    I LOVE it !!!

  3. My husband is the only sexual partner I have ever had. I was not abused, and I was never taught that sex is “dirty.” I feel it important to point that out because when I tell people that sex grosses me out, they always jump to one of those conclusions.

    Sex has no emotional meaning to me. It has physical consequences that are unpleasant for me. I do it to make my husband happy, but I’m not sure it actually makes him happy because he knows that I don’t enjoy it. I have not ever denied him when he needed sex, but I don’t enjoy it.

    I have absolutely no need for sexual fulfillment. I am completely okay with providing for his need for that, but I wish I could find a way to do it that doesn’t require my doing something that disgusts me. (I feel the need to qualify that statement. I know that sex is not disgusting to God. But I am not God, and other people’s bodily fluids are disgusting to me.)

  4. Gary me and my spouse have been married for 4 years and I dread sex with him. I have no idea what to do with my dissatisfaction. He has ED and I am disappointed 90% of the time. I don’t feel comfortable asking anyone for advice and I have a lot of deep seated rage and bitterness. What should I do?

    • Tough situation. Unless both of you are committed to staying together and working through it, it can’t last

    • Liz, I empathise and also go through the same. I’ve been married 6 years and have 3 children. For the past one year, my libido’s come back after ‘having babies’ and its driving me crazy. I’ve expressed my feelings and needs but My spouse tells me i’m comparing him to others and being unrealistic. I ask for caresses or kisses but he doesn’t like and only does that when he ‘feels like it’. And as I go through this, I hear my next door neighbours every evening and at dawn ‘getting down’ for more than 30 minutes. Every day. (We have thin walls separating our apartments). This just drives me crazy coz I really love my husband but am at a point where I don’t know what to do anymore. Please help me. I’ve no-one to turn to since he doesn’t see this as a problem but I do.

    • Liz, the challenge of a comments section is that I can’t modulate my tone or use appropriate gentleness. Typed words are just words, so I hope you can read the pastoral concern when I say that my advice is to overcome your discomfort with asking anyone for advice and seek counsel as soon as possible. You need to find out if the ED is related to physical malfunctioning, porn (which will affect the brain), or something else, and treat it accordingly.

      I’ve seen married couples put up with decades of sexual frustration because they couldn’t handle a painful sixty minute conversation. In my view, that’s foolish. Even if a man struggles with ED, there are ways he can pleasure his wife, if he has the heart to do so. If there’s a physical problem, he needs to address the causes, as it goes beyond sexual function to overall health. If it’s a porn/brain issue, he needs pastoral care.

      I’m guessing that this is beyond you and your husband being able to address it on your own. For starters, he needs a physical (doctor’s) evaluation. Relationally, you might consider a marriage intensive, like ones offered by the Smalley Institute.

      In the end, you’re either going to have to get over the discomfort to seek help, or continue to be disappointed–and many couples haven’t survived long-term disappointment.

      • Thanks Gary. We’ve seen multiple counselors and when I mention to my husband that I’d like to talk about this with them, he interprets it as a threat.
        We’ve gone through seasons where he will put in the extra effort but lately it’s been him falling asleep while I finish off myself, as I understand how dangerous it can be to married and sexually frustrated, as it opens the door to the enemy everywhere.
        Thank you for taking my concerns seriously. It’s tough to find someone with whom to discuss this, as it’s obviously a sensitive subject. I will bring it up at our next counseling session. I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t just being selfish and petty.
        Also, I’ve gone through “Sacred Marriage” several times, and it has helped me stay sane over these few years. So thanks for writing that too.

  5. Great perspective! Going to share with friends as well as the ladies I lead at church. We cover the book Intimate Issues and encourage the ladies to enjoy the gift of sex God created for us for many reasons. I’m married 32 years to my favorite person on the planet and I’m grateful for these open conversations! Growing up as a pastors kid I had as much damage done by the churches misrepresentation of sex as I did being molested and coming across porn. Gods word is the best place to get your answers… Thankful Gods people are realizing the value in honest open conversations about this awesome gift! Love the simple truth that sex with your spouse is a gift!!! To be enjoyed not compared! Thank you!!!

  6. The longer I write about Christian sex in marriage, the more I find myself focusing on attitudes and priorities, rather than techniques and tips. Yes, I’m happy to give the latter, but what makes for great sex is the security, vulnerability, and intimacy of the marriage bed. And I often remind people that sexual intimacy with your spouse isn’t about one particular encounter, but a long line of experiences that meld together into something special that only you two share.

    Great reminder here! Thanks, Gary.

  7. I agree with what has been said in this post (and the comments) about unrealistic expectations in today’s culture fueling dissatisfaction and unrest. We do need to be grateful for our many blessings from God. I also understand that as Christians we are called to a life of unselfishness; this is particularly true in the marriage relationship. However … I have to wonder what, in this discussion, constitutes “okay” sex. I suspect that for most men “okay” sex really means a quick time of “intimacy” (parentheses intentional) in which they themselves receive release but no extended time is given to ensure the wife receives the same. Husbands, imagine routinely going 3/4 of the way down that road and then suddenly having to stop in the heat of the moment. Sure, cuddling afterward is nice and there are all kinds of ways to experience intimacy without “sex” – – but if during sexual intimacy only one partner habitually experiences release, this is not “okay” sex and shortchanges what God intends for our marriage beds.

    • Good point, so let me be clear–it’s not okay if the wife isn’t “done!” I understand that for some women it’s not always that easy but if she wants to keep going I don’t think stopping is okay. It’s selfish and can even be cruel

    • Thanks anonymous. I feel similar and have bitterness brewing.

  8. I’m on the fence on this post. Sure, we all can easily go overboard. We can take things too far. We can become obsessed about sex and build unrealistic expectations that lead to disappointment. But we can also minimize the value of sex, ignore our spouse, or treat sex just like taking care of business (and not seeing the emotional and spiritual components). I think this is such a delicate dance for couples. And couples are so different. Obsessing about sex is not good. But it is also not good to ignore deep, God given, legitimate needs of your spouse. I guess prayer, honesty, love and humility are needed by both spouses as the figure out the role and meaning of sex during all phases of their marriage.

  9. Thank you for this wonderful post. Over the past ten years I have noticed the dramatic increase on Christian radio programs on the subject of marital sex. From my perspective, it seems that the Christian culture has bought into the world’s thinking about sex. Some of these shows, I believe, have gone way too far, the discussions often cheapening the beautiful gift that God gave us in marriage: the simple, profound and incredibly beautiful closeness of the marriage bed. The more we succumb to the world’s talk and view, the more dissatisfied we will be — just as they are, and forever looking for more, and even for that which doesn’t really exist. We have been married for over 40 years, and both of us are still often moved to tears following our times of closeness; we are so thankful and so appreciative of this beautiful gift from our Lord. We cannot help but thank Him. And, even without trying, it’s amazing how much it has become more and more beautiful over the years, through all the times of normal life that you describe in your post. Thanks again for opening up this discussion. As we learn to be content and grateful for what we have been given in the everyday (as well as those super special times) we will glorify God and find that “okay” is actually “incredible”.

  10. I would love to have more sex ,but my wife and I rarely have time with a 4 month old baby. By the time we get home we barely have enough time to talk, make dinner, entertain the baby and get ready for the next day. Where do we make the time?

    • You have to be realistic with a four month old baby. That kind of care certainly does affect certain aspects of the marriage and your expectations have to be adjusted. But you’re also far enough along to intentionally begin to reconnect sexually by setting it as a priority. Get a baby sitter to watch the baby outside the house, and then go back home! One of the best things you can do for that child is to keep your love and affection for each other alive.

  11. Thank you Gary for this article and the wonderful books you have written on marriage. Our small group loves you! Concerning this blog post, I believe the Church in America is quite worldly and this subject is no exception. When will we learn to be different in every way including our sex lives? We have been bombarded by the worlds view of Sex for years and quite frankly I’m not sure we can “see” beyond what we have been fed by the media, television, books, and movies.
    We really need to ask God to give us pure hearts and minds and eyes to see what He wants for us in this area. It’s difficult to not have expectations in every area of this life when we compare constantly to what the world says we need to be happy. Yikes! There’s that word “happy.” We need to focus on “holy” even in the bedroom and God will be glorified even there and we will be most satisfied in Him when we love and honor our spouse even with “okay” sex.