If married women graphed their sexual lives for enjoyment and frequency, most would have a visual that resembles a roller coaster. Almost all of the friends I informally surveyed agreed—predictable variances in our intimate life are inevitable.
Though people rarely talk about it, being aware of the ebbs and flows of sexual enjoyment in marriage can prevent us from being blindsided or feeling like there’s something terribly wrong with us.
Unfortunately, in Christian circles, communication about sex is often either avoided, sparse, or overly simplistic: “Wait until you get married—then everything will be amazing,” or “Your sex life will be rewarding because you waited for marriage.”
While I agree that it’s important to wait until marriage, the reality is slightly more complicated and complex. Even the honeymoon fireworks sometimes get rained out! Personally, I’ve experienced four stages of intimacy so far in my marriage—and I believe most couples will navigate these common phases as well.
1. The Early Years
Whether we marry at 22 or 42, the initial phase of married sexuality tends to be intoxicating. Even if we’ve had previous sexual experience, there is an excitement about discovering one another within the safety of the marriage bed.
Typically, couples who marry young have more energy and therefore stronger sex drives, but regardless of age, these first years of marriage often bring robust and frequent sex. (By the way, avoid comparing your frequency with the national average, which I believe is totally skewed due to the inclusion of college students.) During these early years, we learn how to laugh together when the inevitable missteps happen. Though sex always appears perfectly choreographed in the movies, most of us have our share of comic moments.
The transition to married life can also bring its share of tears. Health issues, prior abuse, or deeply embedded shame can cause unexpected challenges in the bedroom. This can lead to both confusion and isolation, in part because of the aforementioned struggle to talk vulnerably about sex—even with our spouses. Conversations about what brings pleasure, what causes discomfort, what we want to try, or what feels discouraging may feel awkward and sometimes even risky.
If conversing with your husband about sex has not been a regular component of your married life, and you’re uncertain how he might respond, consider simply flagging it for him as a conversation you would like to have whenever he’s ready. When the conversation does happen, start by expressing what you appreciate and enjoy about your intimate life before you bring up any concerns. And know, these conversations get easier with practice.
The length of the newlywed phase is not predetermined or universal; it might last two years or five, largely dependent upon the appearance of little people or other extenuating demands, like graduate school. As those of us who’ve borne children know, pregnancy, childbirth, nursing (if that’s happening), and months of sleep deprivation significantly impact how we feel about our bodies. This, in turn, also impacts the way we feel about sharing our body with another person.
To further complicate matters, zones that were previously erogenous morph into multipurpose areas, sometimes resulting in ambivalence about our husband’s touch. Additionally, there’s often so little energy that the notion of staying awake for 30 minutes after the children fall asleep seems downright irresponsible.
Though it’s both understandable and reasonable that sexual intimacy may happen less frequently during this stage of marriage, prioritizing it on a somewhat regular basis is important for a marriage’s well-being. Because demands—and the Enemy—pull us in opposite directions, intentionally choosing to connect with our spouse in this deeply powerful context turns us back toward one another, reaffirming our love and commitment.
When our children were young and I was home full time, my husband and I set aside a minimum of one night a week to be intimate. Throughout that day, I reminded myself not to work too hard, wanting to make sure I had energy left for him that night. It may not sound terribly romantic to add “have sex” to your calendar, but it worked for us.
This is the season where—if you haven’t already—you will probably hit your stride. You’re now familiar with the landscapes of one another’s bodies, you’re more comfortable expressing likes and dislikes, and you’re at least somewhat fluent in each other’s intimacy language. All of these factors will have positive implications in the marriage bed.
One of the dangers of this period may be stagnation. This is less a function of needing to buy sexy lingerie or trying new positions and is more connected to the overall health and maturity of the relationship.
Before I got married, I worried that sex would become boring over time. After all, how many ways can a couple be intimate without it falling into a predictable routine? Thankfully, what I’ve learned is that as our love, trust, and commitment deepen, our lovemaking becomes richer and more satisfying. After 24 years, no two times have ever been the same—and we’ve never been bored.
If you find yourself ambivalent or disinterested in sex (and you have ruled out health issues), consider exploring if you need a marriage tune up. Go on vacation—just the two of you. Read a book on intimacy together or spend the weekend at a marriage retreat. Look for ways to incorporate more date nights—even if that simply means holding hands while you watch a movie together. Get creative!
Passing through the portal of menopause impacts many facets of a woman’s sexuality. By this point, you’re (hopefully) at peace with your body. You no longer back talk to your ever-widening hips, nor do you feel the need to make love with all the lights off.
The confidence and self-acceptance that comes with this age lends itself to more freedom in the bedroom, even as women deal with the many seismic shifts happening in our bodies. (Dryness? Oh my. Lower libido? Sadly yes.) Orgasm has always mystified me, but now the path to that destination tends to be a bit less predictable. I enjoy sex more even though our lovemaking may not culminate in an orgasm.
Though having an orgasm is obviously wonderful, it’s but one of the many ways that we can connect and satisfy our longings for intimacy. This shift in perspective is crucial because sometimes intercourse is no longer an option due to health or aging issues. Cuddling naked, giving each other massages, deep kissing, and so on can be just as satisfying—but only when we let go of the belief that orgasm has to be the pinnacle of intimacy.
In It for the Long Haul
God created us with a longing for intimacy and the capacity to experience sexual pleasure, and then he established marriage as the exclusive place for that pleasure to safely thrive. The holy limitations he mandates (one man with one woman, for example) are meant to remind us who we are: women of inherent worth created in the image of a loving and holy God. Scripture repeatedly communicates that our intimate life is meant to reinforce that reality. It’s never meant to degrade or demean us.
All too often, contemporary culture not only degrades and demeans us (cue Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition or 50 Shades of Grey, for example) but also would have us believe that monogamy, mutual sacrifice, and patiently extending love and mercy are all misguided goals. What we really ought to do, culture says, is prioritize our desires and needs above our spouse’s. While that is an option, it’s ultimately shortsighted if we’re serious about following Jesus. The basic premise of the gospel is knowing that true life comes through sacrificial love.
As you consistently and intentionally sow intimacy into your marriage, I hope you’re able to navigate the various seasons with grace, humor, and faith—and experience an abundance of pleasure along the way.
Copyright © 2016 by the author and Today’s Christian Woman