As an engineer, God hit this one out of the park. Creating a physical act that literally, through the chemical reactions in our brains, renews marital affection; that costs nothing; that offers tremendous physical pleasure in a world filled with frequent pain; that becomes a shared and exclusive experience that protects the stability of the entire family—just from a creative aspect, how can we not be in awe of the amazing invention of God that our culture describes by that little three-letter-word, sex?
When married Christians begin to understand the role, importance and blessing of healthy marital sexuality, that it has the potential to become such a positive, holy force for good, they will embrace it with a new enthusiasm and sense of purpose. Experiencing sexual intimacy on this level will help us to fully live out God’s design for intimacy, creating such a powerful experience that any thought of infidelity is shut out. In fact, positive sexual experience is like pulling the weeds of temptation from the ground; they’re removed before they have a chance to grow.
How God Uses Sex
The past decade has led to an explosion of understanding about the chemical interactions of our brains, and many insights about love and marriage have become more readily apparent. For starters, that wonderfully transcendent, carry-me-away feeling of infatuation will not last more than about 24 to 33 months. This sudden affection is intense, but it’s a “sprinter,” not a marathoner; it has no endurance, and will begin to fade about the time that most couples come home from their honeymoon.
As the inventor of our brains, our Creator knows this, so He also designed a follow-up act that literally renews a couple’s affection: sexual intimacy. Here’s how it works. At any given time, the female brain contains up to ten times more oxytocin than the male brain. Oxytocin is the bonding chemical that creates feelings of affection and empathy. You want to know why women tend to be more invested in close relationships than men? Oxytocin is one of the reasons.
There’s only one time in human experience when the husband’s level of oxytocin begins to approach that of his wife’s: immediately following an act of sexual intimacy. A man’s brain literally re-bonds with his spouse, making him, at that moment, more committed to his family, more satisfied with his wife, more invested in his home. Wives, why do your husbands want sex with you so often (whether they know this is the reason or not)? It’s because they never feel closer to you than immediately following that encounter.
You might wish this wasn’t the case; you might prefer that your husband feel closest to you after he fixes the garbage disposal, or after he spends forty-five minutes talking about his feelings. You might wish this, but that’s not how God created your man, and with good reason.
We men are not, by nature, altruistic beings. One of the most common complaints I hear from young brides is that shortly after the wedding, the husband suddenly gains a new sense of fervor about his job. Now that he “has” his wife, his focus and energies shift to other arenas. None of this is hidden from God, so he gave men a physiological reason to stay connected to and invested in our marriages—the hormonal desire to become physically intimate. Wise husbands will learn that for the wife to be enthusiastic about physical intimacy, we need to maintain our marriage on all levels. We need to listen to her, be considerate and respectful toward her, grow even in spiritual intimacy, or the sexual relationship is likely to fade.
Thus God has created a physical motivation for men to keep growing toward their wives.
Though sex can be extremely pleasurable, that’s not God’s end purpose. Though sex can reduce tension, that’s not God’s primary design for it. Though it can satisfy, at least temporarily, hormonal urges, that’s not why God created it. First and foremost (beyond reproduction, of course), God created a physical act to preserve the marriage and renew the bonds of affection between husband and wife.
Without wanting to remove the mystery, sex is a very effective tool to keep the marital connection strong. Studies have shown a one-to-one connection between the frequency of sexual intercourse within a marriage and the overall satisfaction of that marriage. This doesn’t surprise me, as it reflects what is literally happening to a couple’s brains when they engage in the physical expression of their love–and why premarital sexual experience can preserve an unfortunate relationship. God knew what he was talking about when he prescribed sexual experience only for marriage.
Enjoying the Gift through the Seasons of Marriage
Okay, we’ve established that sex is an effective neurological “glue” that can be applied and re-applied to help keep a couple feeling intimate. The challenge is that, in the words of Dr. Juli Slattery, the “gift” of sex is more like a Legos set than it is a finished toy—you have to build it, rebuild it, and put some effort into fully enjoying it.
Sadly, some Christians feel guilty for doing this. They may be dealing with some residual guilt from pre-marital sexual experience and as a result, they have mistakenly assumed that sex and sin are all but synonymous. They don’t have the spiritual freedom to think about sex, read about sex, or plan a sexual encounter with their spouse without feeling like they are dishonoring God.
This is yet another argument to reserve sexual activity for marriage; it sets us up to embrace sex (rather than fight it as a temptation) for the rest of our lives. We don’t have space to deliver you from this dilemma in this article, but if this sounds like you, please talk to your pastor. Sex is so important to a marriage that it’s worth fighting the embarrassment and pain of dealing with your past to create a richer present and a more hopeful future with your spouse.
When we can embrace sex as a good gift from God, we have the freedom to plan moments of sexual intimacy with our spouse. This becomes a different kind of challenge at all stages of a marriage.
The first real challenge to sexual intimacy often occurs right around the birth of the first child. Because childbirth stops the full expression of sexual intimacy for a number of weeks, and a new baby takes its physical toll on both parents, full sexual intimacy needs to be intentionally re-introduced to the marriage once it’s possible to do so. Psychologically, our brains create ruts after forty days of any particular habit. Going forty days without sex thus becomes the status quo.
It needs to be broken, or it will become a habit.
I encourage wives to make a big deal about this. Just remember that your husband’s sexual needs haven’t vanished, and it’s a wise wife who understands that while full intercourse may not be immediately possible, there are other ways for couples to still express physical affection and care for each other. But when the full expression does become available, make it an event. Buy something special to wear. Get someone to watch the baby so that there will be no interruptions. If you can, go to a hotel, so you’re not surrounded by a house that needs to be cleaned, a phone that might ring, and certainly, a baby that might cry.
When you understand how important sex is to a relationship, and when you realize that preserving your marriage is one of the best gifts you can give to your children, you’ll also understand that leaving your baby for a few hours to reconnect as a couple is a tremendous gift to that child, not just to each other. It’s dangerous, as well as selfish, to ignore your spouse while caring for a baby. You’re putting that baby’s home at risk. You may not feel like leaving your child to enjoy sexual intimacy, but sexual intimacy is one of God’s tools to help you and your spouse reconnect.
When your kids become toddlers, the challenge is often physical exhaustion. Though younger kids often go to bed rather early—thus giving couples time to themselves in the later evening—caring for small children can be so exhausting that there is often little energy or inclination to do so at the end of the day. Couples need to fight this; trading baby sitting with a friend, having family members watch the kids, getting a little proactive to preserve energy and time to reconnect sexually is vital—and wise. It’s okay—in fact, it’s a good idea—to have someone watch your kids in the afternoon and use that time to take a nap or rest up, so that you’ll have energy later in the evening. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your spouse.
When the kids reach their teens, the issue usually isn’t energy as much as it is privacy. Again, spouses looking at the empty nest will need to be proactive, taking time away to reconnect, unless they want to face the empty nest with an empty marriage.
Every season of marriage seems to fight against frequent sexual expression, which is why if a couple isn’t intentional and committed to keeping this aspect of their marriage alive, it will surely die. Here’s the danger of that: most people’s desire for sexual intimacy doesn’t die, which sets up a fierce temptation for destructive extra-marital sexual activity.
Making Sex Count
How can couples use the power of sex to keep them together, through all seasons of marriage?
1. Keep it Exclusive
If you’re frustrated with your sexual relationship, the worst thing you can do is to “cope” with a substitute—trashy novels and television programs, pornography, or an affair. Every marriage is going to endure some dry spells. You can respond by learning to communicate with each other on deeper levels, becoming vulnerable and open to change, growing in empathy and being committed to meeting each other’s needs, or you can take the “easy” way out by falling into the trap of settling for a readily available substitute, in which case sex will surely pull you apart.
Remember the bonding power of sex—something really positive when it connects two spouses, but extremely destructive when it causes one spouse to bond with something or someone outside the home.
Shortcuts often become habits. What “gets you through the night” can be used to weather a difficult month, and then endure a challenging year. Pretty soon, you’ll realize you’ve developed an addiction and feel alienated from, and bitter toward, your spouse.
For sex to work the way God intended it to, we must preserve the exclusive nature of marital sexuality—in thought, word, and deed. When sex begins to wane, your sexual drive and frustration is God’s physical reminder that you need to pay more attention to your marriage, not less. Use your energy to address the frustrating issues in your marriage instead of ignoring your problems and making them worse yet by “coping” with a substitute.
2. Share Your Vulnerability
If your sexual relationship is disappointing at best, that doesn’t mean you merely have to suffer in silence. Guys, learn to be vulnerable without going on the attack. I’ve heard men complain about their wives’ lack of interest on innumerable occasions. My response: do you have the guts to talk to your wife instead of your friends about your frustration?
By “talk,” I don’t mean cruel, cutting sarcasm, but respectfully sharing your struggles and frustration, and being open to how you may be contributing to your wife’s lack of interest.
Spouses need to be sensitive about each other’s vulnerability. Let’s be honest about the spiritual reality of sex: biblically speaking, the only sex life my wife can enjoy is the sex life I choose to give to her. Anything I deny her, by definition, becomes an absolute denial, because she has no other outlet. You know what this reality produces?
The stereotype is that husbands usually want sex more often than do their wives; there are valid physiological reasons for this, but I’ve talked to plenty of couples where the wife feels cheated by her husband’s diminished desire. Whether it’s the wife or husband who feels denied, one thing is almost always true: whoever wants sex the least tends to have the most power in bed, because they possess the absolute power of denial. And the old adage, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is particularly true in the bedroom.
If you’re the spouse who holds the power, you’re going to be tested spiritually. Will you use that power generously, or to manipulate? Will you use that power to demonstrate kindness, or to pay back your spouse for perceived slights?
The apostle John tells us how Jesus used power. He tells us that while “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power,” (John 13:3) instead of abusing that power, Jesus got up from the meal, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed his disciples’ feet, becoming a servant. Two of those feet, by the way, belonged to Judas–the man who was even then plotting to betray him. Jesus still loved Judas in a very physical way, taking his smelly and dusty feet into his lap and washing them with his own hands.
The sexual relationship within marriage gives us a tremendous opportunity for spiritual growth, to become generous and kind like Christ even in the face of others’ unkindness. When we have power over another and we use that power responsibly and benevolently, whether they deserve it or not, we become more like Christ, and we reflect the fact that we were made to love God by serving others.
Too often, the sexual relationship is divorced from our faith experience; popular magazines tell us a fulfilling sexual relationship is all about passion, physical pleasure, performance, desire, and technical know-how. While these elements are all important, they are also all secondary. God can use the sexual relationship to teach us how to serve our mates, and when we do that, we become like our Savior: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…” (Mark 10:45)
Ask yourself honestly, if God looked at nothing other than my sexuality, would he see me displaying the mature qualities of a growing believer in Jesus Christ, or would I look like some selfish, non-believing pagan?
3. Make an effort
Since sex is a good gift, blessed by God, with so many positive benefits, it is our privilege to put time, thought and effort into making it happen—not just in terms of quantity, but quality.
With small kids, tight budgets, and privacy issues, a lack of intentionality is going to erode any sexual relationship. To be honest, most seasons of marriage don’t afford us the opportunity to create a “grand slam” sexual experience every week, or maybe not even every month. We can learn to appreciate those quick moments, the tender moments, the slow and sometimes even tired moments stolen at the end of the day.
But doesn’t it make sense that if a couple isn’t taking each other for granted, there will be at least several times a year when each one puts forth some additional effort to create some really special, even memorable, occasions?
Let me ask you: when’s the last time you’ve done that? What’s stopping you from doing it next weekend?
You may, like so many of us, wish you had a better body to give your spouse; you may lament your lack of skill, or the amount of energy you possess at the end of the day. But more important than these concerns—and even more of a blessing—is to earnestly become a generous lover, bringing the kindness of Christ to our spouse in a very physical and yes, pleasurable way. When we do that, our spouse will be blessed beyond measure—and so will we.
The Truly Intimate Couple
I know some wonderful Christian counselors who specialize in sexual issues. It is their contention that it takes a couple about 20 years to truly connect, sexually, as a couple. Now that my wife and I have celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, I’m inclined to agree with them. I believe a couple can build such a satisfying sexual relationship, getting to know each other so well, growing in intimacy on all levels—that the thought of an affair holds little appeal.
Here’s the test: if God told me he’d grant me a weekend away with any woman of my choice, at a luxury hotel, guilt free, in a millisecond I’d ask for my wife. I wouldn’t even have to think about it. When we talk about the kids for a bit, enjoy a good meal, and then all but melt together—who could ask for anything more? We have a lifetime of knowledge about how to please each other, we have common memories, we have a shared faith in God, and when the sexual act renews our bond—when there is no guilt but great joy—the entire experience approaches that of worship.
There, I’ve said it. Holy marital sex borders on being a religious act when it is done according to God’s design, with hearts full of gratitude toward God, and with the intention of celebrating what God has made and strengthening the family bonds that brings such joy and pleasure to our Creator.
Satisfying sex isn’t just about you and your spouse. It’s not just about affair-proofing your marriage. It’s about pleasing the ultimate engineer, the God who thought it all up in the first place. And for a believer, there is no greater joy than that.