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. That’s why it’s not a bad idea to also ask, “What are the markers of a wholesome sexual experience that is accomplishing God’s relational intent?”
In my view, “healthy” protects happy pleasure. It doesn’t threaten it.
I write this post with a bit of pastoral concern: Lisa and I have met some wives (and the occasional husband) who felt tempted to compromise their faith and even their own sense of sanity because they realized after getting 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 and good and wise and holy 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.
1. Healthy sex is always relational sex.
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.
In a biblical view of sex, physical intimacy draws husband and wife ever 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 three-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 husband and wife closer together, it’s not healthy.
2. 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.”
My friend 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.
3. Healthy sex confronts rather than perpetuates sexual brokenness.
Be careful here — this discussion may hurt some people, but I pray it’s a therapeutic hurt that gently confronts and leads to healing rather than further shame. I don’t want to shame anyone. I write as a Christian who respects God’s creational intent and accepts the Bible as the best expression of that intent. If you disagree with that, you’ll disagree with these conclusions.
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 men and a few women will use their spouse to serve a sexual addiction — let’s watch pornography together. Let’s swap partners. Sometimes, men will use sex with their wives to deaden their own pain — anesthetizing themselves — and thus put inordinate physical demands on their spouses. Men who insist on daily sex (I’m not talking about the honeymoon phase here) may be using their wives to fight back an addiction or an intimacy problem rather than cherishing and affirming their wives by giving her pleasure.
Women, you’re not helping your husband if he tries to fight the urge to cross dress by openly doing it with you. A potentially ruinous desire will grow — not diminish — by being indulged.
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.
Specialists who I respect have told me that in their work with men who demand anal sex, there are usually two reasons: they are trying to re-live sexual exploitation from when they were young (but now they have the power by demanding it, instead of being the victim hurt by it) or they are acting out a desire that was cultivated through pornography. Neither is helpful; neither should be indulged. I’d be at least suspicious about ever wanting something that the medical community generally says is not healthy for a woman’s body. 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.
Sex outside of God’s lines is like a snowball. If sexual coercion, obsession, or immaturity is allowed to “roll” it only gets bigger, not more manageable. By giving in to your spouse’s unhealthy urges, you’re not “managing” anything; you’re creating a snowball that may bury you, your marriage, and your family. The sooner we stop the snowball from rolling, the better chance we have to attain sexual health. Allowing your husband to wear your undergarments or indulging some other fetish so that he’s not shamed by it is sort of like holding a needle while he injects himself with heroin. He’s no longer doing it alone, but he’s still doing it. It’s still harmful and the longer he does it, the more harm it does.
One of the most common ways for women to let marriage perpetuate sexual brokenness is by being non-sexual. Instead of challenging deep-seated feelings that sex is “nasty,” she expects her husband to develop and share her aversion to sex rather than develop a mutually satisfying sexual relationship. If she allows past sexual abuse or faulty thinking to undercut or even annihilate sexual activity in her marriage, she’s perpetuating her brokenness, not confronting it. In such instances, she will want to talk to an experienced, professional counsellor who has dealt with this issue — few women 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. (Resources are listed below.)
4. Healthy sexuality is about mutually shared pleasure; perverse sexuality is about numbing the pain with selfish indulgence.
Sex was created by God to (in part) produce offspring and renew intimacy between a husband and a wife. It offers a very pleasurable moment for husband and wife, 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 marital 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 as I read a classic book on sexual addiction (Don’t Call it Love by Patrick Carnes) that’s over 20 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. Chains, whips, sadomasochistic games, self-torture, self-strangulation — how can these 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 most of us, the combination of pain and sex is as repugnant as violence.”
That quote, just a couple decades old, is already outdated, isn’t it? Our culture no longer laughs at S and M, nor does it make it seem repugnant. Instead, the agenda seems to be to tell us that we are missing out on something if we’re not practicing it. 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 spouse experience more) of something positive.
A due warning here: Our Christian culture has often promoted a husband’s selfishness by stressing the wife’s duty to serve her husband sexually, rather than discussing how together a couple can create the mutually shared pleasure of a healthy sex life. Dr. Rosenau, Sheila Gregoire, and others have been strong dissenting voices against this vicious strain, for which I am very grateful.
5. Healthy Christian sex is based in truth.
Christianity 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, fantasy, 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 married couple needs 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 all forms of fantasy (within marriage) are 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. You’re sinning against your spouse even as you are using him/her. As they give themselves to you, you are taking what’s offered to you and handing it over to another.
A man who wants to dress like a woman to get sexually excited (there may be other reasons; I’m focused on something specific here) misses the point of biblical sexuality that affirms a man as a man. He will be most satisfied and his wife will be most satisfied when he embraces who God made him to be. If you have to pretend you’re something you’re not in order to experience pleasure or be fulfilled, by definition you will never be fulfilled, because even doctors can’t turn you into something other than what your Creator made you to be.
The same is true for a wife who believes she has to turn herself into a “centrefold” to keep her husband’s attention. She deserves to feel cherished and desired for who she is, not who her husband wants her to be.
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.
6. 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), as a believer in Christ (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 re-affirm 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 marriage full of deep, connecting moments.
As a side note, one of the ways it does this is to remind us who we are as people on the way to eternity. As wonderful as sex can be, as intoxicating as marital passion can feel, we were made for more than this world, and the fact that something as marvellous and even transcendent as sex doesn’t completely fulfill us reminds us that healthy sexuality actually points us toward heaven as our ultimate destination.
If after reading this list you sense you are in an unhealthy or coercive sexual relationship, please note that you’ll want to receive some professional care. This post is to unmask unhealthy relating in order to point you elsewhere toward a place of healing and redemption.
So, for help:
- Harry Schaumburg’s website offers many additional articles and advice for those facing sexual brokenness and addiction (including articles and information about intensive programs). His offices are in Wisconsin.
- My friend Dr. Mitch Whitman specializes in helping men and couples overcome sexual brokenness; he lives and works north of Seattle, Washington, but often counsels via remote website connections.
- I’ve referred several couples to Dr. Doug Rosenau, whose office is near Atlanta, and who co-founded the organization Sexual Wholeness. Doug is a Christian sex therapist and author. You can find more information about Doug at dougrosenau.com.
- My friends Dr. Juli Slattery and Linda Dillow have a wonderful site geared for women. I’m also a fan of Shelia Gregoire’s blog. Though Sheila doesn’t exclusively address sexual intimacy, she frequently does, and her advice is well thought out and biblical.
Please understand that I’m neither qualified nor able to deal with specific questions via email or Facebook.
If you disagree with me or my conclusions above, please don’t take offence. I don’t have any authority over you, and my intention isn’t to slander anyone — it’s just to offer sincere help to genuinely confused couples where one partner senses something is wrong but isn’t sure why. You are free to disagree with any of the “lines” I’ve drawn — I’m just trying to respond to those who have raised genuine issues and have sought my opinion. I write as a Christian who believes our authority is found in Scripture — if you don’t accept that belief system, or if you think I’ve handled Scripture poorly, I don’t expect you to understand or accept my conclusions.
I’d like to thank Dr. Doug Rosenau, Dr. Harry Schaumburg, and Dr. Mitch Whitman, who all made many helpful suggestions for this extended blog post.