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.
Lisa 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.
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.)