Your sex life has the capacity to become the best inside joke between you and your spouse.
I remember one particular guy who called me not long after getting married, concerned that something was wrong with his sex life. It seemed to be causing him and his spouse more anxiety than unity. They were told tales of a voracious honeymoon period of constant sex and happiness. They found that they were tired amidst the transition to a new town with new jobs and a new life living under the same roof together, and that sometimes they wanted to just watch a show or talk instead of have sex. And they thought that meant something was seriously wrong. That conversation made me wonder where all this pressure for their sex lives to be the main source of satisfaction had come from. Why couldn’t they just enjoy a game of cards in and of itself? Why was sex preying on their minds all the time? Is it even possible to enjoy it if you’re thinking about it this way?
That conversation reminded me of going to the movie theater to see Mr. & Mrs. Smith with my friends in high school. In the opening scene, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (a married couple in the movie) are in marriage counseling and are asked how often they have sex. And they respond, awkwardly, “I don’t understand the question” and stammer their way through a non-answer. By the end of the movie (spoiler alert), they patch things up, and the last scene shows them back in the counselor’s office. Brad Pitt interrupts the counselor’s off-screen line of questioning about how things are going now and says, “Ask the sex question again.” He proudly proclaims they have had sex 10 times in the last week.
These scenes point to a prevalent cultural principle: sex (frequent and good sex, to be exact) is the measuring stick for a healthy married relationship. And while there is some truth to that, I think it has also contributed in a large way to the strained anxiety of married life.
The way sex is emphasized in everything from pop culture references to casual conversation with friends, you would think it’s the only important thing in marriage. That’s a lot of pressure. It seems like we’re on a cultural tightrope in between the pull of sex being worshiped like a god in our secularized climate and our Puritan roots demonizing it like some heinous crime. And life on that tightrope can be extremely anxiety-ridden.
Before diving into this topic more deeply; a little caveat: I don’t mean this article to be a critique of our culture’s disordered view of sex. I’m pretty sure that’s been written about to death, to the point of it being a cliche. But I do hope I’m able to act as a little light-hearted chill pill in the midst of the tumultuous terrain of love and marriage that I’ve experienced and seen others experience in the modern world.
Archbishop Chaput, in his new book Strangers in a Strange Land, quotes French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s commentary on this principle:
… in the bedroom, [today’s] lovers take the exam of happiness and ask themselves: Are we up to snuff? It is from their sexuality … that they are asking tangible proofs of their passion … they test their marriage or their relationship, draw up balance sheets of orgasm … and try in this way to reassure themselves as to the state of their feelings … Thus they use the magic of numbers to evaluate the harmony of their relationships and check to be sure that the yield in pleasure is adequate.
Sex is vitally important to marriage. But if that vital importance is viewed as the only important thing in a relationship (as Bruckner describes it to be above), it can become a source of anxiety instead of affection. The sum of happiness in a relationship can’t be solely measured on some type of sexual score card, and I’m fairly certain that there isn’t a written-out conversion chart teaching us how much sexual pleasure yields how much marital bliss.
Yes, sex harmonizes and brings joy and happiness to a marriage, but it’s hard to harmonize over something that’s become so high-stakes, when the neurosis bouncing around in our minds puts so much emphasis on how good our sex lives are, with an endless stream of questions and insecurities that are implanted there by a principle that tells us that the worth of our relationship is bound up in a fleeting window of time.
So what do we do about it?
C.S. Lewis would tell us to chill out and have a good laugh. In The Four Loves, he writes that we tend to take sex “… too seriously; at any rate, with a wrong kind of seriousness.”
“We have reached a stage at which nothing is more needed than a roar of old-fashioned laughter,” he says. “Banish play and laughter from the bed of love and you may let in a false [god].”
Why take something as transitory as our sex drive as the ultimate measurement of our love? In that case, a serious bout of indigestion could destroy a marriage. People who are naturally unable to have sex would be incapable of passionate feelings of love for another person. Right after the birth of a child, the married couple would be in dire straits as you’re not able to have sex for weeks on end. Lewis pokes fun at it as the force that can overcome people so powerfully that it pushes all thoughts out of their mind on their commutes home, at a shop, or a party, and then mysteriously disappear by the time they’re home alone and are finally able to act on their desires.
It can be frustrating, and there are some important discussions that have to take place when there are issues in the bedroom. But that frustration can also drive other aspects of your relationship. All that energy can be channeled into other expressions of love. No amount of pleasure can staunch the frustration of someone looking for happiness in the wrong or incomplete place, but a good laugh at the circumstances can help (maybe with the aid of a couple hundred push-ups and a cold shower). We just have to be ready for some clumsiness in our relationships.
Yes, sex is an integral part of married life, but if your litmus test for happiness or health in your relationship is your sex life alone, I would argue that your view is too narrow. That view may actually set you up for the very thing you fear most: “Bad,” anxiety-ridden, and possibly even self-centered sex.
Your sex life has the capacity to become the best inside joke that no one else can be let into. It just keeps getting better and bringing you closer the more it’s shared out of joy. But it gets laborious if the whole relationship is centered on that one joke as the only source and measurement of joy.
So laugh it off every once and a while, dive into a serious conversation when need be, and kick back with a shameless game of cards when you’re feeling a little bloated or tired.
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