Fulfilling the Sexual Stewardship in Marriage

By Sean E. Brotherson

Several weeks prior to becoming married in the Salt Lake Temple years ago, I realized that despite months of thought and communication with my wife-to-be, my parents, and friends about everything from finances and future children to educational plans and differing personality styles, there was still a gaping hole in my knowledge about marital matters.  I knew very little about sexual intimacy.  I understood the mechanics of the sexual act and had a clear understanding of the moral danger zones related to sexual expression, but felt otherwise unprepared for the experience that would become part of our spousal relationship after my wife and I had married.  Yet I did know that there were answers available, and so I began a rather intensive and self-administered educational seminar in understanding sexual intimacy in marriage.

Luckily, I accepted as true the scriptural admonition that we ought to "seek learning" on matters of ignorance "out of the best books" and that we ought to "teach one another words of wisdom" (see Doctrine and Covenants 88:118).  Even about sexual intimacy?  Let me answer that question affirmatively.  Of course.  God would not be very kind, in my opinion, if He were to create the means and the affection for married couples to express love to each other sexually, yet deny us the opportunity to gain the learning and wisdom we need to find fulfillment and mutual joy in this critical aspect of married life.  So, I started reading books and asking questions. 

What kinds of questions did I have?  Here are some examples.  How is your body designed to respond to sexual arousal?  How do men and women differ in how they express their desires sexually?  What is the best way to approach your companion if you are interested in intimacy?  Is satisfaction reached the same way for both men and women?  How often should a couple be together?  What is appropriate or not appropriate in terms of sexual expression?  And so on. 

Obviously, many of these questions are best answered through personal experience as a married couple after the wedding day.  It has been said that marriage is the school of love, and it is certain that a committed, caring marriage relationship is absolutely the best environment to learn the intricacies of sexual expression and intimacy.  But it is also important to understand that it is okay, as Latter-day Saints, to ask such questions and to seek meaningful answers.  I well remember a long conversation with my mother and my aunt about these questions one evening as I had been reading a book on intimacy in marriage, and I'd asked what that experience was really supposed to be like.  My mother laughed and said that sometimes it was fun, sometimes it was comforting, sometimes it was romantic, sometimes it was spiritual, and sometimes it was just a willingness to love.  I still think that's about the best answer I've ever heard on that question.

I'd like to address, in my mind, the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" for sexual fulfillment in marriage, specifically, ignorance, inhibition, ill will, and immorality.  I'll only address the first three of these issues.

Permission to Seek Answers About Sexual Fulfillment

As Latter-day Saints, most of the dialogue that we hear about sexual matters consists of two primary categories:

(1) The incessant chatter and noise of the world, Satan, and related sources that constantly hype and sensationalize sexual intimacy with distorted images of sensuality and misplaced or twisted values and expressions of sexuality.

(2) The powerful and compelling warnings of prophetic leaders and caring Church members who seek to steer us away from pornography, sexual exploitation, and immorality in sexual matters.

But there is a third part of the dialogue, seldom heard or discussed, and yet it comprises perhaps the most important and powerful portion of our understanding about sexual intimacy.  It is the dialogue about the sanctity, power and emotional depth of proper sexual intimacy in the companionship of a married husband and wife.  Too often we listen only to the first two strands of the dialogue, and if we listen long enough, we may come to believe that the only kind of discussion about sexuality that is warranted is the dialogue about what Satan tempts us to do and what the Church teaches us not to do.  Such a dialogue, however important, is not a recipe for fully understanding and creating sexual fulfillment as a married couple. 

Ignorance is the first enemy of sexual fulfillment in marriage.  In an unpublished manuscript on sexual fulfillment in marriage, a friend of mine has written:

"For some LDS couples, especially those where one or both struggle with negative feelings about sex, doctrinal permission feels needed to even discuss or study such things.  It is okay to read about sex.  It is okay to talk about sex."

President Hugh B. Brown, who served as a counselor in the First Presidency, wrote the following about sexual intimacy in his book You and Your Marriage:

"Thousands of young people come to the marriage altar almost illiterate insofar as this basic and fundamental function is concerned.  The sex instinct is not something which we need to fear or be ashamed of.  It is God-given and has a high and holy purpose. . . . We want our young people to know that sex is not an unmentionable human misfortune, and certainly it should not be regarded as a sordid but necessary part of marriage.  There is no excuse for approaching this most intimate relationship in life without true knowledge of its meaning and its high purpose." (Bookcraft, 1960, pp. 73, 76; emphasis added)

This statement came from a man, a prophet, who counseled thousands of Latter-day Saints about marriage.  Notice how strongly he counsels that sexual intimacy in marriage is not a topic to be illiterate, fearful, or ashamed of in our lives.  Yet it is common for many Latter-day Saints to be willfully ignorant on this topic.  He counsels clearly that sexual intimacy should not be regarded as an "unmentionable" human difficulty or as a "sordid," meaning degrading or evil, part of the marriage relationship.  Yet I have talked with many Latter-day Saint women, and some men, who seem to have adopted this view of sexual intimacy in marriage.  President Brown's answer to such challenges?  "True knowledge of its meaning and its high purpose." 

I am convinced that ignorance is perhaps the most costly deficiency when it comes to sexual fulfillment between marital partners.  A failure to understand your own body, your partner's responses, and the essential ingredients of a healthy sexual relationship quickly becomes a failure to find sexual satisfaction as a married couple.    Problems in this area of a marriage relationship can severely impact couple communication and caring, and leads often to insecurity, anxiety, frustration, anger, emotional alienation, and even divorce.  President Spencer W. Kimball noted this common challenge when he stated:

"Divorces often occur over sex. . . . If you study the divorces, as we have had to do in these past years, you will find that there are [many] reasons.  Generally sex is the first.  They did not get along sexually.  They may not say that in the court.  They may not even tell that to their attorneys, but that is the reason."  (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 1982, p. 329; emphasis added) 

President Kimball's insightful analysis also highlights part of the challenge of this issue in marriage:  it is often a "silent wound."  Couples may argue in private or simply isolate themselves in anger and emotional hurt, but to the world outside all may appear just fine.  Too often a couple will admit to no one else, not even to themselves, that sexual difficulties are polarizing and paralyzing the love that they once committed themselves to share and sustain.

What is the solution?  Simply, the first step is to give yourself permission to seek answers to your concerns.  Surely, if President Kimball and President Brown can speak so clearly and directly of the need to give proper attention to this dimension of marriage by acquiring knowledge and communicating openly as husband and wife, or if needed with other appropriate persons, then the admonition to "seek learning" applies as a potential source of hope. 

As couples learn to communicate about sexual intimacy, they must learn to become comfortable with the topic and expressing their feelings and thoughts in specific ways.  This is something that does not happen immediately, but over time as a couple trusts each other and learns to talk about a subject that may have been glossed over quickly or left undiscussed previously.  The eminent psychologist John Gottman has noted that couples in such discussions often tend to "vague out," making their communication unclear and less than helpful.  Gottman recounts in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work:

"So often when a husband and wife talk to each other about their sexual needs, their conversations are . . . indirect, imprecise, inconclusive.  Frequently both partners are in a hurry to end the conversation, hopeful that they will miraculously understand each other's desires without much talk. . . . The problem is that the less clear you are about what you do and don't want, the less likely you are to get it.  Sex can be such a fun way to share with each other and deepen your sense of intimacy.  But when communication is fraught with tension, then frustration and hurt feelings too often result." (1999, pp. 200-201).

God himself is not vague in communicating about sexual intimacy as part of the marriage relationship.  In the opening chapters of Genesis, he instructs Adam and Eve to "be fruitful, and multiply" (Genesis 1:28), a reference that includes the meaning of having children, and teaches specifically that one of the primary reasons for marriage is for a man to "cleave unto his wife" and for the two of them to "be one flesh" (Genesis 2:24).  These powerful scriptures have multiple meanings and symbolize the commitment and emotional union of a husband and wife, but implicit in their message is the frank understanding that sexual intimacy itself is a powerful symbol of the meaning of marriage. 

Overcoming Inhibition to Sexual Fulfillment in Marriage

After ignorance, a second challenge to sexual fulfillment in marriage often occurs due to inhibition.  Inhibition, in this sense, refers specifically to an avoidance of dealing with one's thoughts, feelings, desires, or behaviors related to sexual functioning in marriage.  Many husbands and wives who have an adequate understanding of sexual matters in marriage still struggle to overcome negative thoughts or feelings associated with the expression of sexual love.  I have discussed this phenomenon with a large number of couples who, despite their love for each other, have found it difficult to become comfortable in verbalizing their feelings or touching each other in intimate ways after marriage.  They may have a somewhat functional sex life, but they often find it disturbed by thoughts of unwholesomeness, feelings of anxiety or uncertainty, or inability to express themselves physically in ways that are open and comfortable and pleasing to each other. 

The happy news is that the vast majority of challenges that couples may encounter in their sexual relationship are usually able to be resolved by a combination of patience, effort, knowledge, skills and motivation.  Yet there must first be a willingness to address issues together, particularly if there are challenges with inhibition or avoidance of dealing with feelings or specific issues.  Dr. Corydon Hammond and Dr. Robert Stahmann, both LDS marital therapists, have written:

"A widespread myth exists in the LDS culture.  The myth is that sexual problems are only a manifestation of marital discord and conflict.  Therefore, if the relationship is enhanced, the sexual dysfunction will automatically resolve itself. . . . It is . . . true that some sexual problems originate from marital discord.  However, in most instances, sexual dysfunctions will not resolve themselves even if the marriage relationship improves." (cited in Brent Barlow, What Husbands Expect of Wives, 1989, p. 63)

I know a lovely Latter-day Saint couple who love each other dearly and both husband and wife are happy in most aspects of the relationship, yet the couple frankly admitted to me that they'd had only two or three mutually satisfying sexual experiences in a relationship of nearly a dozen years.  I know another couple who wanted to know if it was normal for them to be sexually intimate only three or four times a year.  Both were serving in responsible Church

leadership positions.  Were these isolated instances?  I do not believe so.  It is not at all uncommon for couples who share an otherwise meaningful marital companionship to have ongoing challenges as husband and wife in the sexual aspect of their marriage.  The important thing is for them to realize that sexual fulfillment is both possible and purposeful in marriage.

"Why is sex important?" I have been asked.  I believe it is important for a variety of God-ordained reasons, but particularly because it is a reminder of the need to give of ourselves in marriage to our spouse.  President Harold B. Lee taught:

"The divine impulse within every true man and woman that impels companionship with the opposite sex is intended by our Maker as a holy impulse for a holy purpose, not to be satisfied as a mere biological urge or as a lust of the flesh in promiscuous associations, but to be reserved as an expression of true love in holy wedlock." (Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 2000, p. 112; emphasis added)

For those who may struggle with feelings or thoughts that the expression of sexual desires is unwholesome or shameful, notice how clearly President Lee teaches that such impulses are intended by God as a "holy impulse for a holy purpose," indeed a divine purpose in marriage.  That divine purpose, I believe, is to serve as a specific and powerful symbol of reunifying commitment and love between a husband and wife. 

In our spiritual lives, we are counseled to return to the temple often after we have received our personal temple blessings to give of ourselves in service to others and be reminded of the great and powerful meanings of the standards that we have committed ourselves to live.  Likewise, in our marital lives, a frequent return as a couple to the union of sexual intimacy makes it possible to give of ourselves in service to each other and be reminded of the commitment we have made to unity and fidelity and love to our marital companion.  What a powerful blessing this can be to a marriage relationship!  And so, how disappointing it is when couples allow themselves to drift from seeking solutions in this area of marriage or fail to recognize that their inhibitions may be robbing them of marital blessings.

Overcoming some of the inhibitions that may plague a couple's expressions of love in the sexual relationship requires a willingness to explore your thoughts, feelings, and values about sexuality.  As a graduate instructor in Preparation for Marriage at Brigham Young University, I asked students to write a reflective paper on their sexual values, the source of those values, and what they planned to do in enacting those values in marriage.  The responses were always interesting and sometimes sobering.  I was saddened to find many students who described their feelings that sex was "filthy" or "wrong" or "ungodly" in general, without understanding that sexual expression within the bonds of marriage is both God-ordained and God-blessed.  Yet as we explicitly discussed such perceptions in class and read through statements from Church leaders about the proper and virtuous role of sexual expression within marriage, there often came light and comfort and understanding.  An important step for anyone dealing with inhibitions in this area could be to begin by writing about, reading about, or discussing with a trusted person your own thoughts and feelings and being attentive to negative perceptions or emotions that affect how you respond sexually to a companion. 

A second approach to overcoming avoidance of dealing with sexual feelings or challenges in marriage is to think of your sexual relationship as a gospel stewardship.  Dr. Brent Barlow, professor of family life at Brigham Young University, has long taught his students this concept using such scriptures as Matthew 25:14-30 and 1 Corinthians 7:2-5.  He explains:

"Implied are at least three elements that characterize successful stewardship: 

(1) agency, (2) diligence, and (3) accountability.  We may accept or reject the opportunity to become a steward, but once we accept the responsibility, we are expected to exert great effort, as indicated in the parable of the talents.  We are expected to improve or enhance what we have been given.  Ultimately there will be an accounting of one kind or another of our various stewardships." (What Husbands Expect of Wives, 1989, p. 60)

Think about your sexual relationship and how you have willingly improved or enhanced its quality as a marital steward, or whether you have avoided and ignored this aspect of your marital stewardship.  What would you say if the Lord asked you to account for your efforts in this area?  Have you been kind?  Have you sought greater light and knowledge?  Have you exercised patience and encouragement?  Have you pursued answers in faith?  Theses are all characteristics of a wise and caring steward.  It may be helpful to write out your thoughts about your shared sexual stewardship in marriage.

A third approach to dealing with inhibitions regarding thoughts and feelings associated with sexual expression in marriage is to pursue a serious and careful study of the scriptures and teachings of the prophets on this topic.  Your study should focus on the role of sexuality within the marriage relationship and guidelines for its expression and fulfillment.  A number of books that approach this topic in a positive way exist in the Latter-day Saint or Christian marketplace, and a short list is included at the end of this article for further use.

A fourth approach to dealing with inhibitions if they affect your sexual relationship in marriage is to seek assistance from a wise counselor, therapist, or other trusted source who can direct you to information and guidance on this topic.  If you do seek assistance from a medical professional or counselor, attempt to find an individual who will be supportive of your values and encourage the health of your marital relationship. 

Abandoning Ill Will in the Sexual Relationship

The third "I" in my dictionary that may undermine sexual fulfillment in marriage is ill will between spouses.  "Ill will" is a catch-all term for emotional or verbal abuse, inattentiveness, apathy, isolation, anger, or other forms of negativity that couples may practice and thus perpetuate a cycle of ill feeling and willful hurt in a marriage relationship.  No aspect of marriage is more sensitive to emotional upheaval than the sexual relationship.  An angry word will pour cold water on a spouse's romantic "on" switch more quickly than you can imagine, while a meaningful apology can pave the way to a gentle invitation toward intimacy.  In several ways, ill will can undermine or sabotage the fulfillment of sexual love in marriage. 

First, the general emotional climate of a marriage sets the stage, every hour of every day, for the specific expressions of positive or negative feelings that lead to sexual expression and fulfillment.  In your relationship, are you generally happy?  Angry?  Depressed?  Frustrated?  These emotional patterns create the emotional climate in a marriage.  An easy way to think about this is to measure the number of "positive" expressions toward each other (compliments, kind words, affection, etc.) versus the number of negative expressions toward each other (sarcasm, criticism, put-downs, anger, etc.) over an hour or a day, or even a fifteen-minute period.  The higher the ratio of positive to negative expressions, the more "warm" your emotional atmosphere is.  You are warm toward each other and these positive expressions are more likely to create a climate of mutual interest and attraction.  The higher the ratio of negative to positive expressions, the more "cold" your emotional atmosphere is.  You are cool toward each other and these negative expressions are more likely to create a climate of disinterest or emotional distance from each other.  Sexual fulfillment flourishes in an atmosphere of warmth and positive expressions toward each other, while such fulfillment suffers when spouses are cool or emotionally disconnected from each other due to anger or apathy.

Second, ill will is a significant factor in shaping the sexual desire and arousal of spouses, particularly of women.  Women in general tend to require more of a warm-up and emotional preparation phase for sexual expression.  Ill will or emotional distance creates tension and stress in the couple relationship, and at such times women are much less likely or able to muster the emotional desire to pursue sexual intimacy.  Abandoning ill will is a prerequisite to emotional preparation for sexual intimacy for most women.  Additionally, it is interesting to note that for many women sexual desire actually follows arousal, it does not precede it.  This means that women who intentionally engage with their spouse often find that their desire kicks in after this intentional effort.  The catch?  A woman's willingness to "be intentional" about sexual intimacy is directly linked with whether she is currently feeling or experiencing any ill will in the relationship.     

Third, couples may get into an "ill will" cycle in their sexual relationship, particularly if one spouse has high desire and the other has a lower level of desire.  In this situation, the high-desire spouse often seeks intimacy only to find a lack of interest on the part of the low-desire spouse.  Too often, what then happens is that the low-desire spouse feels pressured emotionally and the high-desire spouse feels rejected or unloved, and so each goes away feeling hurt or resentful.  The high-desire spouse who feels rejected may soon become insecure and so returns to seek love through sexual intimacy, and again the low-desire spouse feels pressured again and resentful and the whole terrible cycle happens again and again.  This "ill will" cycle requires careful attention to monitor and break so that a couple can communicate, compromise, and develop strategies that help them diminish the hurt or resentful feelings while strengthening their intimate relationship. 

Dr. Victor Cline, former professor of psychology at the University of Utah, noted:

"Some women I see may feel guilty because they are not more sexual or up to their husband's level of need.   Or sometimes the husband may feel chagrined or even apologetic because his sexual need is so much greater than his wife's.  I have heard endless variations on this theme for countless years.  It becomes in time a vicious circle.  The cold and angry wife versus the rejected, sexually frustrated, and angry husband." (How to Make a Good Marriage Great, 1987, pp. 36-37)

Couples who let themselves develop such a cycle of ill will toward each other sabotage the beauty of their love and prohibit themselves from a deep and caring experience of love through sexual fulfillment.  It is a self-inflicted pain.  Yet it is not inescapable or incurable.  It requires a substantial commitment of time, emotional energy, and love to change such patterns and pursue a more loving and satisfying alternative.

Resources for Finding Sexual Fulfillment in Marriage

Quality resources on sexual fulfillment in marriage that most Latter-day Saints could comfortably read are somewhat limited.  However, there are some excellent sources of information that provide a sound starting point.  Six sources are listed here as a point of further reference:

1 - The Act of Marriage: The Beauty of Sexual Love by Tim and Beverly LaHaye.  Excellent, Christian-based book on sexual love in marriage, frank and wholesome.  Great for engaged or newlywed couples, as well as couples at any other stage of marriage.

2 - Between Husband and Wife: Gospel Perspectives on Marital Intimacy by Stephen Lamb and Douglas Brinley.  Solid and interesting perspective on marital intimacy from a Latter-day Saint gospel perspective.  Very good resource.

3 - Intended for Pleasure by Ed Wheat.  Book by a Christian MD and therapist with his wife, very insightful and well-done.

4 - The Sex-Starved Marriage by Michele Weiner Davis.  Well-known therapist and marriage educator has written an engaging and positive book about dealing with sexual challenges in marriage.  Brand new, a great read.

5 - Purity and Passion by Wendy Watson.  BYU professor and marital therapist has written a book on intimacy grounded in gospel understanding and purpose.  Nice resource.

6 - Couple Sexual Awareness or Sexual Awareness: Couple Sexuality for the Twenty-first Century or Rekindling Desire: A Step by Step Program to Help Low-Sex and No-Sex Marriages, all by Barry and Emily McCarthy.  These are well-written, practical guides on sexual intimacy for couples by a well-recognized sex therapist and his spouse.

I should note that these are not the only books on this topic, but from my perspective they will be comfortable and informative reading for any Latter-day Saint who wishes to pursue more understanding in this area.  Additionally, many other books in the LDS marketplace that deal with marriage have one or more chapters dealing with the topic of sexual fulfillment in practical and insightful ways. 

Conclusion

This article has, in many ways, simply scratched the surface of a sensitive and challenging topic.  I have tried to be careful in addressing this issue, opening the door to a more informed and specific treatment of sexual expression in marriage while respecting the sanctity of this particular dimension of marital love.  I hope that I have not offended.  I believe there are answers for couples who have struggled in emotional pain or mutual frustration in this aspect of married life.  Sexual fulfillment is possible, desirable, and indeed, encouraged by our loving Father above, within the bonds of a caring marriage relationship.  If you would like to share any thoughts with me on this topic, write to editorial@meridianmagazine.com or write me directly at

sbrother@ndsuext.nodak.edu.

I would like to end with a thought from LDS psychologist Victor Cline, who wrote:

 "In summary, sex should be a celebration.  It comes from God.  He created our sexual appetites and natures.  He has ordained us to make love both physically and spiritually.  He is pleased when He sees us bonded together sexually, in love, for this is the plan of creation.  And this plan permits the husband and wife to jointly participate in creating new life and, in a sense, perpetuate part of themselves into eternity through their children.  The sexual embrace should never be a chore or a duty, but a loving part of a larger relationship.  Of giving to our partner, cherishing, respecting, protecting each other.  It won't always be easy.  But the rewards can be incredibly great if we choose to make them so." (How to Make a Good Marriage Great, 1987, p. 39) 

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© 2003 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.

 About the Author:

 

Sean E. Brotherson, PhD, is the state extension family life specialist at North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota. He is responsible for conducting research and designing educational programs related to children and families. He holds master's and doctoral degrees in family science from Brigham Young University and Oregon State University. He is married to Kristen Walch and they have five beautiful children.

Dr. Brotherson has conducted research and published articles on fathering, family policy, family life education, and how parents respond to the challenges of stress and grief. He has presented the findings of this research at conferences regionally and nationally. He has conducted seminars on topics including fathers and family life, marriage, parenting, building strong families, families and work, rural families and stress, stress management, and family influences on youth risk behavior. He also conducts research on the development and implementation of family policy at the local, state, federal, and international level related to marriage, children and youth rights, and parenting. He enjoys serving in the Church, reading good biographies, fishing and horseback riding, and playing with his children.