What are the marks of a healthy sexual relationship?
It’s not inappropriate to ask what is most pleasurable or most exciting for married couples, but meaningful lovemaking is so much more than creating greater sexual arousal and climaxes. In my view, “healthy” protects happy pleasure it doesn’t threaten it.
Some people find that after they get married that their spouse has some sexual hang-ups. At first, they thought the best thing to do was to “go along.” Going along never works; it just prolongs the inevitable crisis. Nursing an unhealthy inclination never makes things better; it just makes the way back a little longer and ultimately more difficult.
Seeking a healthy sexual relationship is a fair, good and wise pursuit.
These six marks aren’t exhaustive; I’m sure there are many more, but here’s a short, non-scientific test to see how you and your spouse are doing in regards to sexual intimacy.
Sex is good when it’s relational.
Any sexual experience divorced from relational connecting isn’t healthy sex. Pornography, voyeurism, predatory touching, any form of paying for sex, exhibitionism, group sex, anonymous sex, or objectifying marital sex all have the same common denominator: sex divorced from relational connecting. Most forms of sexual deviancy include a separation between sex and emotional connection.
Physical intimacy draws couples closer together. After the intimacy is over they smile, hold on to a very pleasant shared memory, and their bond is deepened accordingly. Unhealthy sex further isolates an already damaged person. They “wake up” from the sexual experience, feel increased shame (making him/her a little less capable of authentic intimacy) and want to hide what just happened from everyone instead of remember it fondly with a special someone.
Healthy sex says to each (willing) participant: “You matter. You are desired. You are cherished. I am not having sex with a body but making love to you as my special 3-dimensional (body, mind mixed with emotions, and spirit) spouse. I affirm you and want to please you.”
Be wary of any form of sexual excitement or fulfillment that is separate from appropriate relational connection. If it’s not drawing you closer together, it’s not healthy.
Healthy sex supports a relationship rather than being the relationship.
Healthy sex serves a relationship; unhealthy sex becomes the relationship which is asking too much of sex. Sex should be an expression of what is, not a way to momentarily and artificially create what you hope to be true. Our culture tries to make sex the pathway to intimacy, rather than healthy sexuality flowing out of an expression of intimate connection.
By nature, sex can last only so long and be performed only so often and sexual chemistry eventually slows down. Sexual desire simply cannot sustain a lifelong marriage. But an intimate sacred marriage can sustain a tremendous lifelong sex life.
When sex becomes the relationship it’s like trying to support a fifty story hotel on a foundation made of toothpicks. You build a healthy sexual relationship by building a healthy marriage on all levels: emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and relationally. As Dr. Harry Schaumberg so ably puts it, “To be spiritually mature, you must be sexually mature; to be sexually mature, you must be spiritually mature. And I’d say that to be spiritually mature, and sexually mature, you need to be relationally mature. In other words, a mature marriage is a three legged stool of spiritual, relational, and sexual maturity.”
Dr. Mitch Whitman points out that the absence of healthy sexuality sometimes increases the aggrieved spouse’s focus on sex almost to an obsession, so that it becomes practically the only thing that matters to the frustrated spouse.
If one spouse says, “The rest of our relationship is so strong you shouldn’t need sex,” that’s tantamount to the other spouse saying, “Our sex life is so good you shouldn’t need anything besides sex.” In other words, we can fall off the rails on either side of the equation: asking sex to do too much, or not taking advantage of its power at all.
Healthy sex confronts rather than perpetuates sexual brokenness
Many of us stumble into marriage as sexually broken people. We think marriage will cure our sexual brokenness, but problems re-arise when we want to express our sexual brokenness as part of our marriage. That’s like asking a doctor to serve your addiction instead of curing it.
Beware of coercive marital sex. Some couples will use their partner to serve a sexual addiction. Let’s swap partners. Some people use sex to deaden their own pain—anesthetizing themselves—and thus put inordinate physical demands on their spouses. Those who insist on daily sex (I’m not talking about the honeymoon phase here) may be using their partners to fight back an addiction or an intimacy problem rather than cherishing and affirming their partners by giving them pleasure.
In our culture today, the most common silly notion (not even questioned by many) is that all desire must be legitimate, equally respected, tolerated, and even indulged. That’s foolish, ruinous, and not true in any other life experience. It’s possible to desire something that is harmful. You can eat yourself sick, you can spend your way to bankruptcy, and you can “sex” your way to disaster. So no, you are not obligated as a spouse to indulge every one of your spouse’s desires. Healthy sex is mutually affirming in all aspects: spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
Dr. Douglas Rosenau stresses that a poor body image, sexual shame, repression of healthy sexuality, and sexual immaturity are also aspects of sexual brokenness. In other words, not wanting to do something that is holy can be every bit as much evidence of brokenness as does wanting to do something that is wrong.
One of the most common ways for anyone to let marriage perpetuate sexual brokenness is by being non-sexual. Instead of challenging deep-seated feelings that sex is “nasty,” some expect their partner to develop and share her aversion to sex rather than develop a mutually satisfying sexual relationship. If one allows past sexual abuse or faulty thinking to undercut or even annihilate sexual activity in marriage, one can perpetuate brokenness, not confront it. In such instances, one could talk to an experienced, professional counselor who has dealt with this issue—few people can just “get over this,” any more than they could give themselves a kidney transplant.
When the marital sexual relationship reveals an ongoing weakness that a change of mind simply cannot heal—whether it be desires for unhealthy activities or aversion toward healthy activities—it’s time to seek help.
Healthy sexuality is about mutually shared pleasure; perverse sexuality is about numbing the pain with selfish indulgence.
In addition to producing offspring and renewing intimacy, sex can offer pleasurable moment for couples, helping them to cope with (and giving them a vacation from) mundane or difficult duties in life. It is also comforting, and naturally reduces anxiety. These are all wonderful byproducts of healthy sexuality. Sex is not meant, however, to be used like a drug.
Unhealthy sex seeks to numb pain rather than serve your partner with true pleasure. Instead of enhancing the present life of your spouse, unhealthy sex tries to escape your past life or selfishly use your mate’s body for personal and ultimately unfulfilling sexual gratification.
I was fascinated recently reading a classic book on sexual addiction (Don’t Call it Love by Patrick Carnes) that’s twenty years old. It describes (as almost pathological) the kind of activity that The Fifty Shades trilogy and movies have tried to de-stigmatize. Carnes warns against “the use of pain to escalate sexual excitement. How can extreme sadomasochistic games, be pleasurable? The answer is that often they are not. But the associated emotions of fear, risk, danger, and rage are very mood altering. We can make fun of people who are ‘into pain’; media portrayal of ‘S and M’ roles often involves humorous exaggeration. Grim reality exists that we in our cultural denial attempt to avoid and deflect with humor. For many, the combination of pain and sex is as repugnant as violence.”
The agenda in this culture today, seems to be to tell us that we are missing out on something if we’re not practicing some of these habits. I emphasized the phrase “very mood altering” because that’s the marker of unhealthy sex–using it like a drug (as opposed to an expression of relationship). It’s not even pleasurable. It just puts us in a trance. Healthy sex affirms lasting pleasure; its focus isn’t to feel less of something negative, but to experience more (and help our partner experience more) of something positive.
Healthy sex is based in truth
Healthy Sex is about authenticity, reality, truth, being connected to a real person, and giving real pleasure. The world keeps promoting sex that is all about artificiality, deceit, and escaping from reality.
“Looking over your shoulder,” lying, afraid of being “caught,” not wanting anyone to find out—these are all markers of sex that is based on subterfuge and deception. No couple need be ashamed if others think they are being sexual. Nor do they have to pretend they are something or someone else in order to desire and please each other. I’m not suggesting that fantasy is wrong; just that the sexual experience should serve a real couple in a real relationship who know each other, value each other, and are truly present for each other.
To mentally imagine yourself making love to someone else while your spouse thinks you’re focused on them is one of the worst forms of fraud imaginable. As they give themselves to you, you are taking what’s offered to you and handing it over to another.
Healthy sex isn’t just about excitement or reaching a climax—it’s about the two of you relating, connecting, knowing, and authentically being there for each other. Of course, finding legitimate ways to enhance pleasure and serve each other is relationship-enhancing; planning something special, being creative, even searching for something “new” can be a generous act of love.
Healthy sex affirms your sense of self
In a healthy sexual relationship, you feel that the sexual experience affirms who you are: as a spouse, as parents raising kids together (and protecting/serving their family), (sex should never feel as if it is asking you to compromise your faith but rather be an expression of your faith), as a person who is cherished and loved. In unhealthy sexuality, the sexual experience leaves you feeling empty, alienated, almost like you’re role-playing or an object.
You may realize that, for any number of reasons, your sexual sense of self has become distorted. Maybe from a hook-up culture that promotes porn, a repressive upbringing, trying to medicate pain, or hoping sex can create a shortcut to intimate connection. If sex doesn’t affirm who you are, there’s a good chance you’re not being made love to; you’re likely being used. Perhaps you feel like you have to be someone you’re not to keep your spouse interested or from acting out inappropriately. That’s manipulative sex; that’s co-dependent sex, it’s not healthy sex.
Sex should affirm and reaffirm who you are, your sense of worth, your sense of being valued, and your sense of relationship. A healthy sense of your sexual self will promote both a profound sexual intimacy and an amazing sacred relationship full of deep connecting moments.
This article has been edited from an original article written by Rev. Gary Thomas. Rev. Thomas is a Christian counselor. To read the original article go to http://www.garythomas.com/6-marks-of-healthy-sexuality/. You can also sign up for his website by going to http://www.garythomas.com/feed/