No More Headaches Enjoying sex and intimacy in marriage
By Julianna Slattery
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2009 Julianna Slattery
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-58997-538-5
Chapter One You Got Me What?
I was sitting in my parents' living room when my boyfriend, Mike, said he had a surprise for me. He pulled from behind his back a little box. You know what I mean when I say that the box was just the right size. Mike and I had been dating for more than three years, and the "M" word had begun springing up quite regularly in conversation. I opened the box with great anticipation, only to find ... a key chain.
Reading my expression, Mike realized that he had made a huge blunder. He meant the key chain as a little gesture, never thinking that I would assume it was a ring. (Yeah, 25-year-old guys can be a little clueless.) I was embarrassed by my assumption, and Mike felt awful about the mistake. We both began tripping over our words, trying to get past the awkwardness of the moment.
Have you ever had an experience like mine-expecting a gift that didn't quite turn out to be what you thought it would? Trying to show some gratitude through your disappointment, eking out a "thank you" for the electric drill you thought was a KitchenAid or the fluffy socks you hoped would be a necklace?
When Mike finally did pop the question (with a real ring!) a few months later, webegan to look toward marriage. As part of our preparation, we skimmed through books about sexual intimacy, including Intended for Pleasure by Dr. Ed Wheat and The Gift of Sex by Cliff and Joyce Penner. The titles of those two books by themselves appropriately summarized what I had hoped and dreamed our sex life would be like-a gift given by God for the purpose of pleasure. Fourteen years later, I feel like I'm still trying to figure out the gift!
The gift of sex can sometimes seem like the key chain in the ring box-we got our hopes up for nothing. When married women share honestly about their frustrations and dashed hopes, sex often tops the list. Instead of creating the oneness referred to in the Bible, sex seems to provoke conflict and division. Couples steam and fight over issues ranging from the frequency of sex to pornography. More than one bride has wondered if she could exchange this "gift" for something at the local department store!
Sex, the Gift That Keeps on Taking
Over the past several years, I have been speaking to women's groups on the issue of sexual intimacy in marriage. The first time I spoke on the topic, my face was beet red, I had hives on my neck, and sweat trickled down my arms. To make matters worse, the audience was absolutely silent. I was going out on a huge limb, feeling like I was making a complete fool of myself. Surely these silent women were judging me. From the looks on their faces, no one could relate to the "headaches" I was sharing.
Lord, why am I here, humiliating myself by talking about this topic? They all probably think I'm a freak. Then and there I determined never to publicly tackle the topic again, if only I could get through the next 45 minutes.
It didn't take long before I realized that the silence in the room had nothing to do with judgment. When I finished speaking, women flocked to me, many with tears in their eyes. Secrets, frustrations, and questions came pouring out as I spoke with each one. Finally they had found a safe environment to address the deep concerns they had harbored for so long.
Some confessed that they hated sex. Others felt guilty for going months, even years without having sex with their husbands. A few had questions about what the Bible says about role-playing, oral sex, vibrators, or sexual videos. Still others wondered how they could ever get past the loss of trust resulting from a husband's infidelity. A few secretly confided that they wanted sex but their husbands didn't.
Now I no longer fret about speaking to women about sex. Experience after experience has taught me that practically all wives struggle in this area in one way or another. Rarely have I met a woman who consistently embraces sex with her husband as a gift. Most women view it as a chore, a burden, or a heartache; it's a source of conflict, rejection, and perhaps shame. In even the healthiest of marriages, couples struggle with issues such as how often to have sex, finding time for sex, what is appropriate, and how to combat the constant temptations in our sexually explicit culture.
I remember speaking one day to a group of women on this topic. I joked that many women prefer a good book and a piece of chocolate to sex. A woman from the audience yelled out, "I'd take an accounting textbook and a plate of broccoli over sex any day of the week!"
How about you? Can you relate to these feelings? Do you see sex as a blessing or a curse in your marriage? Or maybe it depends on your season of life. How do you make sense of the idea that sex is God's gift to you?
A Different Kind of Gift
Have you ever gotten a gift that was wrapped in several boxes? First you open a big box, only to find one slightly smaller. You open that one and find yet another wrapped box. The exercise continues until finally you get to the real gift. By this time you're thinking, "This had better be good, like car keys or jewelry."
In many ways, the gift of sex is more like this kind of gift. Throughout the course of your marriage, you'll continue to unwrap layers of the gift. The sexual relationship between a husband and wife is a long journey with many seasons. Each season potentially presents new joys and unique challenges. Unfortunately, many women (and men) give up when the first few legs of the journey disappoint. After a few years of frustration, fighting, and disappointment, they presume that this is their lot; sex just isn't going to be that great. These words are seldom audibly spoken, but both husband and wife settle into a ho-hum routine. They look forward to the infrequent times when sex is actually pleasurable, and they bear with the dry spells. Every now and then their disappointment bubbles to the surface and the accusations fly.
God's gift of sex to a married couple is a mysterious gift indeed. On the surface, it promises two things: pleasure and intimacy. There are times in most marriages when these two promises are fulfilled. Sex can be very pleasurable, and it can also heighten emotional intimacy between husband and wife. However, the time comes in all marriages when the "gift" brings neither pleasure nor intimacy. Then what?
Shelly and Jack were in exactly that spot. Looking over the 15 years of their marriage, they could pinpoint only a few stretches when sex was a blessing. Far more often, it had become a source of conflict and pain. Jack complained that Shelly was never interested.
"Why do I always have to be the one to initiate and pursue you?" he asked.
Shelly retorted, "Jack, we have four children, and I'm exhausted! Besides, when was the last time we actually went on a date? I'm not a vending machine that can meet your needs whenever you want!"
When I talked with Shelly alone, she explained further how the issue of sex was tearing her apart. "I feel like a terrible wife, but I just don't like sex right now. I feel like it's just one more need I have to meet. I have nothing left to give. When we have sex, I just lay there, and I hate it. But I know that Jack faces all kinds of temptation. I suspect that he's into stuff on the Internet, and I feel like it's my fault."
Not all couples experience the stereotypical problems represented by Shelly and Jack. Sometimes the headaches come in other forms.
For Alyssa and Brad, sex has created tension almost since day one of their marriage. Early on, Alyssa experienced tremendous pain during intercourse. In fact, the couple didn't fully consummate their marriage until almost a month after their wedding. This early setback wreaked havoc. Brad was not only frustrated but felt like a failure as a lover. He began avoiding sex. Now, several years later, Alyssa can't figure out how to get her husband interested. She wonders, "Am I not attractive? What's wrong with me?" Although neither gives voice to their feelings, both are overwhelmed with rejection and insecurity.
Still other couples fight through issues of infertility, impotency, depression, infidelity, and spells where they can barely stand to be in the same room. "This is not what I signed up for," each partner internally concludes.
Are We Normal?
Underlying much of the frustration and disappointment in your sexual relationship may be the question about what is normal. Based on everything you see in the media, read in books, and observe around you, you may conclude that the setbacks you and your husband may be experiencing in the bedroom are unusual, that somehow you're missing out on the gift so many others seem to be enjoying. Because sex is a private and intimate topic, you may not often hear about the struggles and doubts that other women face. Even if you talk to your friends about sex, the conversation never gets to your underlying fears and disappointments.
Almost everyone wants to know whether they're normal. Is it normal to go months without wanting sex? Is it normal to never have an orgasm? Is it normal to need something risqué or forbidden to become excited? Is it normal for a woman to be drawn to porn? Is it normal for a guy to have no sex drive? How often does the normal couple have sex? Is it normal for sex to be boring?
Every sexual relationship is unique. Research can help us understand the basics of how marital sex works and how men and women tend to function sexually, but it can't define what is normal or, more important, what a healthy sex life look likes. What research can tell us is that it is very, very normal for a couple to struggle with various "headaches" throughout the journey of sex. Although the obstacles vary, every couple has a series of them to overcome. The fact that the obstacles exist is less important than how a couple deals with them.
The Lies We Believe
One of the biggest mistakes we make in marriage is to embrace a superficial understanding of the gift of sex. After unwrapping the first box, we assume that's all there is to the gift. Once the promises of pleasure and intimacy wane, we store the gift with the boxes of unused china and crystal we once took so much care to select. Oh, but there is so much more to the gift-so many layers yet to discover!
I believe that most women struggle with three lies that keep us from embracing the gift of sexuality. These lies are so subtle that we don't even know we've bought into them. Yet they generate most of the questions and frustrations that keep us from "unwrapping" the deeper levels of God's gift. As with every other good gift, the Enemy and the effects of sin have tainted married sexuality. Satan is a deceiver, twisting the meaning of God's intent for sex and blinding us from the truth that brings freedom. Throughout our time exploring the "normal" headaches of sexual intimacy, be aware of the following lies and the extent to which you have bought into them.
Lie No. 1: God Created Sex Primarily for a Man's Pleasure
One of the facts we'll explore in this book is that female sexuality is far more complicated than male sexuality. For one thing, a man's sexuality is generally more compartmentalized, while a woman's sexuality tends to be more intertwined with emotions and relationship. Authors like Bill and Pam Farrel use the analogy that men are like waffles (with boxes) and women are like spaghetti (everything connects). Eastern cultures liken men to wood and women to water.
Physically, men are also easier to understand. It's obvious when a man is sexually aroused and when he has an orgasm; it's an all-or-nothing equation. A woman might not be able to tell if she's aroused and might not even know if she's had an orgasm. Unlike her husband, she may not be able to identify when she wants or needs sex. Her sexuality seems like a moving target.
Because women are more complicated sexually, the sexual relationship often revolves around the man's needs-when he wants sex and what arouses him. Many "good wives" have sex primarily because of their husbands' needs. A woman may or may not end up enjoying sex, but the primary motivation is all about her husband.
Later in this book, we'll talk at length about the importance of sex to your husband. As you read this information, keep in mind that sex is also God's gift to you. Male-oriented sex is not the best of what God intended for marriage. In fact, it represents an immature sexual relationship. I believe that God designed female sexuality in all its complexity not to frustrate you but to add incredible richness to the challenge of sexual intimacy. Unfortunately, most couples assume that when things don't "happen" naturally for her, the focus must just be on his needs.
God created women with a clitoris for her pleasure. Her body is capable of achieving multiple and different types of orgasm. But she is a complicated creature who isn't easily understood. While he's a paint-by-the-numbers kit, she's a blank canvas with unlimited artistic potential. He's a banjo; she's a finely tuned Stradivarius that only a great musician can play. Her sexuality will naturally take more time and effort to figure out. Interestingly, a man reaches his sexual prime in the late teens, while a woman reaches hers closer to age 30.
Beyond the potential for physical pleasure and emotional bonding, regular marital sexuality actually has a host of other benefits for women. Studies have found that women who engage in regular intercourse have lower blood pressure and have a better physiological reaction to stressful events. Those who have sex once or twice a week also produce more antibodies that help fight infection. The release of the hormone oxytocin during sex increases feelings of closeness and intimacy, acts as a pain reliever for everyday aches and pains, and helps you sleep better. Many experts believe that the release of hormones during sex slows the aging process, strengthening muscles and even delaying wrinkles. An added bonus: Having sex three times a week for a year burns the same number of calories as running 75 miles!
Perhaps you find yourself in a place in your marriage where sex seems to be all about your husband. That's okay, but don't stay there. Despite what the world portrays, God did not design sex to be a yoke of slavery for wives. Don't give up, and don't settle for a sex life that centers on his pleasure alone. In fact, most men find the greatest sexual fulfillment in learning how to be a great lover for their wives.
Lie No. 2: Eroticism = Sexual Immorality
One of the challenges of writing this book has been addressing women from different generations. Even within the past 20 years, the sexual climate of our culture has changed drastically. If you were born in the 1960s or earlier, you probably grew up believing that good Christian girls are not sexual. You may associate hot sex with guilt and have difficulty believing that God wants you to experience erotic sex with your husband. The sexual images and lyrics on MTV were pushing the limit in your day. Because sex was basically a taboo topic of conversation when you were younger, you may still feel uncomfortable talking about sex even with your husband.
If you were born after 1980, you likely found the topic of sex much more comfortable to talk about. When you were in junior high, your parents may have had to explain why the president was having oral sex in the Oval Office. You grew up with sexually laden chat rooms, texting, Facebook, YouTube, and Sex and the City. Through adolescence it was normal for you to talk to friends, even of the opposite gender, about sexual things. Psychologist Jean Twenge describes this contrast as "generation prude meets generation crude."
In some ways the problems of a younger generation of women seem to be the opposite of women born just a decade earlier. While women from one generation may feel guilty about erotic pleasures, women from another generation may not know where to draw the line. Younger Christian women tend to be far more comfortable with their sexuality but struggle with what is off-limits and to what extent it is okay to pursue their own pleasure. The commonality between the two groups is confusion about the place of eroticism in a God-honoring marriage.
The truth is that God created erotic love. Nothing the world offers can be more erotic than what God intended for a married couple to experience. He designed the most intense pleasure, the most satisfying intimacy, and the most fulfilling sex. The world can't top His creation. The Old Testament book Song of Songs attests to the fact that God wants married couples to pursue the highest erotic pleasures together. However, the greatest eroticism is meant to take place within the context of marriage and is guarded by the intimacy of a trusting relationship. The world sells the lie that sexual fulfillment results from looking outside the marriage relationship ... that pure marital sex is boring. Christian married couples believe this lie when they rely on pornographic images, extramarital flirtations, fantasies, and other outside influences to heighten their erotic pleasure.
Excerpted from No More Headaches by Julianna Slattery Copyright © 2009 by Julianna Slattery. Excerpted by permission.
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