Note: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author’s and do not constitute an official stance of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Read part 1, Determining What’s Okay within the Intimate Marital Relationship, here:
Determining what’s okay and what isn’t within the intimate relationship of marriage is no easy task – nor is having an open discussion about it, as evidenced by some of the feedback we’ve received. Some were grateful for the thought-provoking nature of the discussion, while others were still frustrated by the lack of specifics:
Although I approached your article with some skepticism, my preconceptions were quickly dispelled by the maturity, intelligence and spiritual insight of your article. It was absolutely outstanding, and gave me much to ponder. I thank you and commend you for taking the time to make such an important contribution to this vital issue.
I wish I could have read an article about this stuff 20 years ago. It was such a blessing for me. Thank you. Just want to comment on how refreshing it is to finally read something honest and thoughtful regarding marital intimacy.
Your article, although well researched and written, still “beats around the bush” as far as simple, clear-cut answers. If there are clear-cut lines in the sand, then we should be told. I’m not even sure I know how to counsel my children when the time comes for them to get married.
What you have written has helped us. It’s been enlightening to receive such information from someone you perceive as sharing your values and testimony. But this article is a cop out! … Yes there ought to be Do’s and Don’ts. There needs to be specific answers in the face of a world that is answering very graphically, in large numbers, and with a loud voice.
Instead of rehashing the ideas suggested previously to answer the continuing interest in more specific answers to sexual questions, this article starts with the assumption that there is greater wisdom in not having a laundry list of intimate do’s and don’ts, and in allowing the stewardship for the sexual relationship to remain between husband and wife. Each couple has a responsibility to develop their own self-reliance – even within the delicate and intimate relationship of marriage.
In part I of this article we discussed the counsel we’ve received from scripture and church leaders to guide our thinking, as we seek to determine what’s appropriate within our own marriages. We discussed the importance of couples feeling free to express and develop their lovemaking within their own private sanctuary of marriage, so that there is a spirit of trust and openness, rather than one of shame and embarrassment or impending condemnation. In this article we’ll address additional issues that make it wise indeed to leave the sexual relationship specifics to husband and wife. We’ll also discuss ways we can be more effective at determining for ourselves, with God’s help, the appropriateness of any particular sexual behavior.
Dealing with Sexual Differences in Marriage
Determining appropriate behavior for the intimate marital relationship may be likened to determining what’s within the realm of keeping the Sabbath day holy. For some, there’s no TV on the Sabbath, whereas others see nothing particularly wrong with it. For others, there is always a special family dinner with all the fixings. But, others plan meals requiring minimal time and preparation. Everyone is different, and not necessarily more right or wrong than another. Beyond what has been definitively stated by God, such as, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” we are left to determine for ourselves what’s okay and what isn’t.
Dealing with sexual differences may not be much different than dealing with any other differences in marriage. One spouse may want a new car; the other thinks what they have is fine. You think it’s his turn to do the dishes; he thinks it’s your turn, because he just mowed the lawn. You may see a sexual issue in black and white, or as wrong versus right, while he or she doesn’t see it that way. Whether your differences involve sexual issues or other aspects of marriage, you must be careful not to let differences become stumbling blocks in your marriage. Working through sexual differences is part of the polishing process and divine stewardship of marriage.
Differences are a normal part of marriage. How we deal with them, especially when not necessarily right or wrong issues but just differing preferences, is key to building a strong marriage. Understanding that our spouse’s preferred behaviors have just as much claim to being right or important, as our preferences do, can help us see beyond our own limited and self-centered view of life and reality. Husbands and wives need to counsel together in a spirit of love to negotiate boundaries when differences arise.
Only within the personal and private context of a husband/wife relationship can couples assess the complexities of their individual personalities and circumstances to determine what is most fitting for them. Inevitably, what is acceptable to one couple will not be acceptable to another, making it very difficult for any one-size-fits-all statements regarding marital sexuality. No one but God can account for our personalities, boundaries, inhibitions, past experiences, etc. These issues must be worked out between husband and wife and God.
Part of the continuing complexity of determining what’s okay in marriage is the fact that every spouse has differing ideas, beliefs and desires regarding marital intimacy. The number and degree of differences between spouses can be enormous, while comfort levels, personal boundaries, as well as the type and style of stimulation preferred vary greatly.
Looking at the number and significance of basic sexual differences between men and women almost guarantees a completely different fundamental perspective between men and women, adding complexity to the question of what’s okay in marriage. For one example, women tend to see sexual relations as an extension of emotional intimacy, whereas men tend to see sex as primarily physical. Even something as simple as whether to have sex with the lights on or off can be a question of what’s okay or what isn’t for some women. Just because we each see things differently, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It’s just different.
Although there are standard sexual response patterns in men and women, the expression of sexual responsiveness varies widely among individuals. What is pleasurable to one person may not be to another. And feelings and preferences can change over the years, as couples become more knowledgeable sexually, more comfortable with each other, and as they change physically and emotionally.
Over time different issues and life challenges may also arise, such as physical disabilities, periods of stress or illness, or pregnancy and childbearing, each affecting sexual response and desire, which in turn can affect what we see as appropriate in our intimate relationship. Allowing for variety and adaptation in how couples interact sexually makes it possible for them to change as needed to meet “the infinite variety of life.”
How to Distinguish Between Godly and Sinful Behavior in the Sexual Relationship of Marriage
To determine what’s okay for their own marriage, couples must start from a place of acknowledging and accepting each other’s differing realities and perceptions, in order to work out normal conflicting interests, since most of these fall into the category of two different “acceptable” choices.
Identifying differences that seem to be in a morally right or wrong category gets more difficult.
Distinguishing between godly behaviors and sinful behaviors in the sexual relationship requires so much more determination, thought and effort that it is easy to see why many couples still want someone to just make these decisions for them. But, the need for couples to grapple with these delicate issues creates an opportunity to learn and grow in vital ways that might not have otherwise occurred.
I have identified two main factors that affect the ability of a husband and wife to determine what’s appropriate in their intimate relationship, especially when they have competing opinions that at least one sees as moral in nature. These two factors are: (1) the degree to which one is worthy, ready and able to receive divine direction; and (2) the degree to which negative thoughts, beliefs, and conditioning affect one’s perceptions of right and wrong.
As shown below in the “Measures to Consider” diagram, a husband and wife each fall somewhere on the continuum between being spiritually in tune, or not, and being appropriately uninhibited, or not. These two measures must both be considered in order to correctly determine whether something is okay or not in the intimate relationship.
On a scale of 1-10 (1 being not in tune, and 10 being very in tune and able to receive God’s guidance) how would you rate yourself? How would you rate your spouse? Here’s the second question. On a scale of 1-10 (1 being very inhibited, and 10 being very uninhibited) how would you rate yourself? How would you rate your spouse? These subjective measures are difficult discrepancies to deal with in marriage.
These dilemmas identify the need for both husband and wife to understand the factors of sexual conditioning and the need to be spiritually in tune. Both spouses need to do some honest self-evaluation about where they each fall on the two scales. There is a significant need for removal of negative sexual conditioning that leads us to a foundational belief that sex is something shameful or dirty in general. We also have a need to be more in tune, and more confidently capable of receiving divine direction.
One man expressed his frustration with this marital predicament by wondering aloud, “Are there, by chance, two Holy Ghosts out there – one that the women seem to get their promptings from, and one that the guys seem to get their answers from?” For some women, who tend to be more inhibited by negative sexual conditioning, their internalized negative beliefs seem to be able to speak louder than the Holy Ghost at times. But to be fair, some men tend to be more motivated by their sexual desires, which also seem to be able to speak louder than the Holy Ghost at times.
Understanding negative sexual conditioning. Negative thoughts and beliefs we accumulate about sex create distorted perceptions and illusions about sexual intimacy that we may incorrectly see as reality. We internalize this conditioning, which manifests itself in varying degrees among both men and women, though women seem to absorb it more easily. These negative core beliefs can affect one’s perceptions of right and wrong.
It’s not enough to believe you are spiritually in tune. You must also be self-aware enough to understand your internal programming about sex, and correct any incorrect beliefs you may have. Without understanding these two factors in yourself, following your instincts, or what you believe to be the Spirit, may not be correct.
Understanding divine guidance. The issue of being spiritually in tune is also a complex, delicate matter. Personal revelation involves preparation, knowledge, righteousness, and a well-developed sense of God, in order to be able to hear and heed the whisperings of the Spirit. Spiritual guidance is best based not solely on one’s personal promptings, but also on scripture and prophetic counsel.
From the illustration below, spiritual guidance may be likened to a three-legged stool where each entity must be strong and sure, working in harmony, or the stool will fall. A solid foundation in the standard works of the Gospel (or ancient scripture) along with the words of living prophets (or latter-day scripture) provides the insurance that helps us determine if our personal promptings are truly of God. Becoming fluent in the language of the Spirit is necessary to have spiritual self-confidence regarding our personal promptings, especially when it comes to questions regarding sexuality where the opposing voices are loud and imposing.
Distinguishing between sexual inhibitions caused by negative conditioning, and inhibitions prompted by the Spirit of God, is no easy task. Couples must consider the possibility of negative sexual conditioning, as well as how spiritually in tune they are when determining what’s okay and what isn’t in their intimate relationship.
Let’s take one example. Let’s say a husband wants his wife to participate in a particular behavior, but she feels uncomfortable with it, and considers her feelings to be a spiritual indication that the behavior is wrong. It is possible that the husband is not in tune spiritually, and sees nothing wrong with a behavior that is nevertheless not in keeping with God’s design for sexual relations in marriage. But, it is also possible that the wife is unaware of her underlying negative conditioning that causes her to believe the behavior is sinful when it is not. As the husband grows spiritually, he may come to see that the behavior he previously desired was not appropriate. As the wife overcomes her inhibitions, the sexual activities she previously felt were sinful can now be seen as perfectly acceptable within the loving and intimate relationship of marriage.
If one spouse seems to have an overwhelming desire for a particular behavior to the point that it is causing difficulties in the relationship, then the desire for the sexual behavior may be out of balance with the spirit of mutual respect in relationship. If the emotional climate and communication between the couple has become strained or hostile, then the spirit of the relationship has been offended, indicating an unhealthy attempt toward one’s sexual fulfillment. The spirit of contention is a definite killer of intimate closeness and enjoyment.
Though there is no clearly defined list of do’s and don’ts, the Lord has not left couples alone on the important issues of intimacy in marriage. Couples can counsel with the Lord in all their doings – even in the area of sexual relations – and He will direct them for good (See Alma 37:37). The Lord knows every couple, and is intimately aware of their lives and circumstances. He can lead each couple to the right counsel for them. He can direct them to certain books or information, or put earthly angels in their path in the form of friends, family or professionals to guide them to light and truth.
I have been humbled and inspired to watch the process that some couples have undertaken to determine for themselves what is appropriate in their marriage. Some have shared with me their spiritual wrestlings on the sensitive subject of marital intimacy.
Their serious desire for divine guidance on this delicate subject has evoked much prayer, pondering, fasting, temple attendance, probing discussions, and a significant search for light and knowledge on the subject.
I’ve seen the struggles and the triumphs – the feelings of hopelessness, as well as the windows of light. I have seen the spiritual blessings of seeking the Lord directly for answers to our intimate questions not only in my own life, but also in the lives of others. One wife shared the following regarding her and her husband’s search for intimate truths:
The last few weeks have been an emotional roller coaster for me, and my husband! It has been a real trial opening up communication in the emotional intimacy department for us. It is not easy seeing ourselves the way others see us, but it is necessary for growth. I have suffered for years feeling ashamed after being intimate with my husband. I would feel guilty, and yet I knew it was okay. I continue to be given further light and understanding on the subjects we have specifically prayed about. My husband and I have grown closer than we have ever been. I have gained a strong testimony that the Lord will enlighten your mind and guide you to give each other pleasure and joy within the lovemaking experience, if you will ask.
This has all been life-changing for me, and I am sure it is helping me be better prepared to stand strong when the winds of calamity and uncertainty come, which I suspect they will. I am sure Satan will use more and more subtle tactics to catch us off guard, if we are not sufficiently prepared spiritually.
The Lord expects husbands and wives to develop spiritual self-reliance, and to work together using wisdom to govern themselves. We must also be careful not to condemn or judge our spouse, or others, based upon our personal interpretation or perceptions of right and wrong. We must work together as husband and wife, with the help of the Lord, to determine what will enhance and strengthen our intimate relationships.
But what if our spiritual reception is not that great? One husband stated, “You ask if we need a handbook? Yes!!! Why? Because there is such a glut of information in the world, and frankly my connection with God is not such that I get the perfect reception you seem to suggest.”
So what are our options? It seems that we have two choices. We can work to improve our spiritual connection and reception to get our own answers directly from the Lord, or we can wait around hoping someone will pick up the job of bedroom police or permission giver. Though my heart goes out to all those who would just like this whole subject to be easier to deal with, I don’t think we dare wait around for someone else to figure things out and tell us what to do. They may do some of the difficult work for us, but we miss out on the needed blessings of strengthening ourselves spiritually.
It makes me think of the horrible calamities people have recently suffered in the hurricanes. Those who were not prepared to rely upon their own resources, had to wait around for help, and often found themselves wading through and even drowning in the toxic floodwaters. Spiritual self-reliance may be likened to the vehicle that can get you out of the way before the hurricane even hits. Spiritual self-reliance is the ability to receive direct information and guidance from the Lord, and to heed it.
Spiritual self-reliance is as vital today as ever, if not more so. Even though I understand the effort required to develop our spiritual senses, I suspect that may be part of the divine wisdom in not providing a Law-of-Moses-type handbook for couples to blindly follow regarding intimacy in marriage. We are instead required to develop our own spiritual muscles, allowing us to be better prepared, and more capable to team up with the Lord in these latter-days.
Identifying Negative Beliefs and Developing Spiritual Sensitivity
Although we might acknowledge that both negative sexual conditioning and one’s spiritual sensitivity are factors in correctly determining what’s appropriate in the intimate relationship, knowing what to do about these issues is more challenging. Identifying unnecessary inhibitions, or a need for greater spiritual sensitivity is necessary to overcome conflicting differences between husband and wife. Once the issues are identified, the inhibitions or negative conditioning must be overcome and the spiritual sensitivity increased.
There are many ways to recognize and overcome inappropriate inhibitions. Some suggestions include spending time pondering and writing everything you can about what you think and feel about sex, and what your experiences and learning have been regarding it. Removing unproductive and incorrect beliefs that have caused unnecessary inhibitions can help clear the way for divine counsel to be received more faithfully on complex marital issues.
To determine how you can tell the difference between appropriate sexual relations and inappropriate behavior, or to know when psychological barriers are involved in the relationship, consider the following suggestions:
1 – Develop a personal testimony of the sanctity of sexual relations in marriage. Reacquaint yourself with affirming scriptures and statements regarding sexual intimacy to internalize God’s approval of the sanctity of sexual relations in marriage. You must be able to start on a firm foundation of knowing the goodness and divinity of the gift of sex to a husband and wife within marriage. (See the Meridian Magazine article, “What the Scriptures Teach about Physical Intimacy in Marriage” http://www.meridianmagazine.com/familyconnections/040217intimacy.html.)
In addition to nourishing your mind with positive statements from scripture and church leaders, compile a list of your negative or unproductive beliefs, and then choose new beliefs to reprogram in their place. It’s as if you are pulling up a weed and planting a flower in its place. This can help create a new blueprint in your mind about sex, changing the blanket of shame, guilt and embarrassment so many people have accumulated regarding this subject.
2 – Discuss each other’s needs and desires. As husband and wife, spend time to fully discuss each other’s needs, desires, and perspectives on any issues of concern. Be sure you both listen patiently, calmly, and respectfully until each of you feels heard and understood. Though each one’s perspective may be different than the other’s, each needs to feel acknowledged and accepted in their perception of reality. The following questions may be helpful as you discuss any disputed sexual activity.
- What do you want to do differently in your intimate relationship? What does your spouse want to do differently?
- Is either spouse demanding a particular behavior, or seem obsessed with it? Why?
- Does either spouse feel demeaned, degraded or objectified by the behavior in question? Does the behavior maintain the dignity of both spouses?
- What is motivating the desire for the behavior? What is motivating the other spouse’s response?
- Would God approve of the behavior? Why or why not?
- Once a resolution is reached, are both husband and wife willingly agreed to the action – neither feeling coerced, nor talked into it
3 – Seek divine guidance.
Couples will always be better served in overcoming conflicting desires if they will seek divine help through prayer, pondering and with faith that God will answer them.
God will answer prayers regarding the intimate relationship. By maintaining a softened heart, while discussing and praying about any question or issue a couple may have, husband and wife can be in a better position to receive divine instruction. Couples can be prompted regarding whether they are dealing with inappropriate inhibitions, destructive desires, or simple discrepancies in preference, and what they can do about it.
The Lord can guide us to know when an activity is genuinely wrong, and bless us with a lessening desire for it. He can also help us know when resistance to a behavior is due to an unnecessary inhibition, and guide us to overcome that. God can change hearts. The Lord is the best resource to guide couples in distinguishing between genuinely sinful behavior and inappropriate inhibitions caused by negative conditioning or past traumatic experiences. Keep in mind that the Lord sometimes answers our prayers through others, whether it is through friends and family, or ecclesiastical and professional help.
4 – Increase your ability to hear and heed divine direction. Sincerely and humbly desiring correct counsel can help us prepare our hearts and minds to receive that counsel. Referring to the three-part foundation for spiritual guidance illustrated above, both spouses need to increase their understanding of the language of the Spirit through intensive study of the scriptures and the counsel of living prophets, such as General Conference reports in the Ensign magazine.
With a solid foundation in scriptural knowledge and prophetic counsel one must then develop the ability to identify divine communication. Having a softened and humble heart is prerequisite to receiving the counsel of the Lord, knowing that it comes in the Lord’s own time and way. I have found that most divine counsel comes in the form of impressions, promptings or insights through the medium of distinct thoughts and feelings.
I like to carry a notebook with me to record any promptings or impressions that I receive. Over time you develop greater experience with how the Lord communicates with you and what it feels like, until you have a confident surety in your spiritual connection to the Lord.
If you are versed in the language and spirit of ancient and modern scripture you should be able to reconcile any promptings you receive as communication coming from God. I have seen many people experience direct divine guidance regarding their intimate relationship, and have experienced such myself. I know it’s possible for any of us.
Certainly, determining what’s okay and what isn’t in the intimate marital relationship is not an easy task, especially with the multitude of differing desires and preferences between husbands and wives. If we will take the opportunity to seek God’s perspective on these delicate matters, we can be blessed with greater spiritual wisdom and insight to keep us and those we love out of the toxic floodwaters that surround us.
(See Chapters 1, 2 and 7 of “And They Were Not Ashamed – Strengthening Marriage through Sexual Fulfillment” for more information about overcoming inhibitions.)
Laura M. Brotherson, CFLE, is a marriage and family life educator certified by the National Council on Family Relations, and is the author of a groundbreaking book on physical intimacy and marital ONEness entitled, And They Were Not Ashamed – Strengthening Marriage through Sexual Fulfillment. Laura also publishes an electronic newsletter entitled, “Straight Talk about Strengthening Marriage.” For more information visit www.StrengtheningMarriage.com. Laura welcomes your comments at Laura@StrengtheningMarriage.com.