— by Jennifer Konzen, PSY.D., MS, LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist #51241
“Sex is going fine, but we have always wanted our intimacy to be great. We could use some help with how to get there.”
“We love each other, but it is so hard to talk about our sex life.”
“We have a happy marriage, but our intimate life is a source of pain, frustration, and disappointment.”
“We have had some physical challenges that have affected our sex lives, and we don’t know how to overcome them or talk about them.”
“There’s been a lot of damage that’s happened in our marriage, and we’re having a really difficult time being intimate with one another, not just in our sexual relationship, but overall as well.”
Maybe some of these words describe how you’re feeling about your marital sexual relationship. Or maybe you’re just looking for ways to make things more fun! You may be searching for answers. God’s plan for sexual intimacy in marriage is like the work of a Master artist and genuine intimacy is like a beautiful masterpiece. Like a fine artist, creating that kind of beauty in the marital relationship usually takes practice and dedication. Like many of you, we have struggled to create that work of art, to keep our marriage bed pure from anger, sexual sin, unfaithfulness, selfishness, worldliness, resentment, criticalness, and pride (Heb 13:4). There have been so many who have helped us along the way. We each have the opportunity to help one another make sure our marital sexual relationships bring glory to God and that sex is the life-giving joy that God intends it to be.
It’s been said that when sex is good, you might not notice as much how it affects your marital relationship, but when sex is not going well, it can affect how marriage is going significantly. This highlights the importance of dealing with the very real challenges that come up in the sexual relationship. In research and literature, intimacy has been divided into different levels, such as: clichés, facts, opinions, hopes/dreams, feelings, faults/fears/failures, and needs (see Kelly’s The Seven Levels of Intimacy). Most couples do not go below the first three levels.
Researchers found that only 15% of married couples experience these deeper levels of intimacy in their marriage. That leaves the majority of us sharing facts and opinions with our spouse but rarely sharing our fears, hurts, hopes, mistakes, and dreams. Couples are sometimes in danger of becoming like roommates or seeing their marriage disintegrate if they do not learn to stoke the fire in their marriage.
Over the years, we have talked with a lot of married couples in the ministries we have led about their sex lives, both about the fun and joy they are experiencing and the problems that have caused anxiety. Jennifer is also a marriage and family therapist and a sex therapist, so she regularly talks with couples about this part of their relationship. In both of these areas, in our ministry and professional lives, we have found that many couples are having challenges in their sexual relationship, but that the resources for help from a biblical view are scarce. The good news is that God has a beautiful plan for creating and maintaining a great sexual relationship in marriage.
One of the areas about sexuality that can be very confusing for Christians is how to fit God in the picture. For many of us, it seems that thoughts about sexuality have little connection to thoughts about God. Sex is over here on the far right, and God is over here on the far left, and they never interact. Even the two words, God and sex, in the same sentence seem kind of inappropriate. This is even truer for the words sex and Christ. When you think about it, really, Jesus never even had sex, so it seems so inappropriate or even sacrilegious to put sex and Christ in the same sentence, right? For some, part of improving the sexual relationship is a matter of learning God’s view of sex.
When we teach about God’s view of sex, we help couples understand that God designed sexuality in a way that would help us have a deeper knowledge and understanding of Him. Having an intimate knowing of God (John 10:14) helps us have a genuine depth of sexual intimacy in our marriage (Matt 1:25). It is our knowledge of who God is that can then guide and guard our sexuality. This knowledge and understanding of Him keeps us from doing what “ought not to be done” (Rom 1:24-25, 28). Sex, when it happens within marriage as God intended it, can draw us closer to God, closer to each other, and keep us away from the corruption of this world.
When you look at the Scriptures, the words God uses to describe sex include passion, burning, honor, pleasing, satisfying, and intoxicating (Prov 5:18-19, 1 Cor 7:9, 33-34, 1 Thes 4:4, Heb 13:4). God is very sex positive. The Bible shows us how to honor one another in the sexual relationship and how to enjoy the intoxicating pleasure of sexual intimacy. When we look deeply at the descriptions of the sensual relationship between the beloved and the lover in Song of Songs, we find a beautiful, romantic, and erotic picture of what God intends for our marriages.
Things may be going well in this part of your marriage. As a couple, you are a great intimate team. You may just want to explore new ways to deepen that intimacy. For others, you may look at the picture painted in Song of Songs and feel you are starving for that kind of intimacy—hungering for someone to hear you, to really know you, to want you, to touch you. A common refrain we hear is “We just aren’t close,” “My spouse doesn’t understand me,” and “We rarely touch.” As followers of Christ, you may have anticipated marital sexuality to bring great delight, but instead it has brought disappointment and conflict. You may have gone to multiple marriage classes or retreats and walked away feeling hopeless and left out of the picture every time someone taught about the sexual relationship. Our goal is that you may find here some resources to bring about hope and change.
Finding sexual fulfillment starts first with embracing a biblical view of intimacy and sexuality. When we work with couples, we focus on intimacy—the kind of intimacy God intends when two of His children marry. Yes, we teach a lot about sex, but sexual intimacy truly resides within the quality of overall intimacy in marriage. God created us to be intimately connected. In Psalm 139, God expresses His intimate knowledge of us, how He knows our thoughts, discerns when we lay down, and created our innermost parts. God also created us to be intimately connected with others and to enjoy sexual intimacy with our spouse. The reality is that people can have sex and not feel intimate. That is not God’s plan. Like we mentioned, the very words God uses in the Bible for sex connote a deep and intimate knowing of one another. God wants our sexual relationship to be so much more than an obligation. He desires for us to enjoy, to be intoxicated by, to be set on fire by, each other’s love and our sexual time together.
So where do you start when you want to make things better in your intimate relationship? Sometimes it helps to examine your background. There are many different things that can influence how sex is going in your marriage, and there is no question that what we experience in the area of sexuality during childhood and adolescence is a big part of that influence. Different experiences during childhood and adolescence can give us a skewed view of sexuality. These can be experiences such as a lack of openness in the family to talk about sex, lack of touch and affection, harsh, shaming responses to childhood sexual exploration, exposure to dehumanizing or exploitative sexuality (including pornography), harsh attitudes about the body, and sexual violations and abuse. Though understanding how your background is affecting your sex life now doesn’t necessarily fix the problems you are experiencing, it can definitely go a long way toward having a more understanding attitude with yourself, your spouse, and the way you both respond in the sexual relationship.
To improve intimacy, you may also need to examine and grown in your overall intimacy skills in both your emotional connection and your sexual relationship in order to reflect what is found in the Scriptures. This includes deepening your emotional and verbal connection and being intentional about having more fun together. Sexual intimacy has a much better chance of going well and being mutually satisfying when there is a foundation of strong friendship and emotional connection in marriage.
You may also need to find ways to resolve conflict and deepen connection in the midst of conflict. Conflict, when it is done right, can open the door to having that deeper connection in marriage. Learning to share how we are feeling without attacking and earning how to listen with understanding and empathy are cornerstones to good marital and sexual intimacy.
Some couples also need to grow in how to touch and be affectionate with one another. When a couple begins to improve the affection in their marriage, they are then in a much better place to explore sensual and sexual touch, the necessary ingredients to mutually intoxicating sexual satisfaction. Sensual touch and sensual talk is found all throughout Song of Songs. Both the Lover and the Beloved describe each other in sensual, poetic terms. Growing in sensuality has a significant influence on the quality of the sexual relationship.
There are other influences on sexual intimacy. Some couples have been involved in affairs and in using pornography, both of which can have an incredibly painful influence on how sex is going in marriage. It is vital that couples get help and healing with the spiritual, emotional, and relational issues that may be making the sexual relationship difficult. Other couples are dealing with medical challenges that affect sexuality. It is crucial to address the distress that is caused by the very real physical and medical issues that come up in the sex, such as erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, low sexual desire, sexual pain, difficulties with orgasm, and medical and age-related challenges.
Couples also need to learn practical and creative ways to make their sex life fun, romantic, and exciting. The bible describes the sexual relationship between the lover and his bride with words like flowing water, stream, river, and cistern (Prov 5:18, Songs of Songs 4:15). These moving water analogies help us understand how important it is to have an intentional focus of keeping the sexual relationship refreshed.
So here are a few steps to begin improving your sexual intimacy:
1) Read this article together. Highlight the parts that stand out to you; things you learn, what you feel is a strength in your relationship, what areas you think you could grow in.
2) Talk about your overall relationship first. Start first with having an honest but loving conversation about how it is going in your friendship and closeness. Make sure this conversation does not descend into accusations and blame, or demands and ultimatums. Listen, listen, listen.
3) Make a plan to grow in your relationship. What are the areas you need to change? Do you need to work on your date nights? Do you need to spend more time talking? Do you need more time together doing fun, recreational things together? Do you need to pray more together or share more what you’re learning in your quiet times?
4) Talk about how your touch and affection are doing. This could be a very sticky topic (pun intended), so be gentle in this conversation. What is going well? What isn’t?
5) Talk about how sensual touch is going. Is that only reserved for sex or are you enjoying it at other times? Does it happen much before having sex? How do you both feel about it?
6) Make a plan for spending more time together cuddling and touching sensually. Be intentional about this.
7) Share with each other the memories you have of good times together sexually. Then talk about the areas of your sexual relationship that are not going well. What are the challenges?
8) Make a plan for ways you can improve your sexual intimacy. Who can you talk to about it? What can you read? What scriptural passages should you study? Have you been praying about it? What areas of your relationship do you need to change in order for your sexual relationship to get better?
You might notice that the words talk, share, and conversation were used a lot in the above steps. That is because that is one of the most important places to start. Read the scriptures and learn God’s view of sexuality. Start talking about how things are going. Get another couple involved and share with them what you’re seeing. Pray together and pray specifically about your intimacy. As disciples of Jesus, we have the opportunity to have a deeper understanding of God’s loving heart through being deeply known and erotically bonded with our spouse. What God gives us is a road map to experience growth toward a more rewarding, spiritual sexual relationship.
Tim and Jennifer are the authors of The Art of Intimate Marriage, a Christian Couple’s Guide to Sexual Intimacy, available on Amazon and at theartofintimatemarriage.com. They serve in a married’s ministry in San Diego and they speak internationally. They have been married 23 years and have 4 wonderful children.