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Building a Sexual Relationship in a Christian Marriage

One tendency of the modern sex manual is to reduce love-making to a matter of technique. But it takes a lot more than technique to create a rewarding sex life. Sex in marriage is primarily a relationship between husband and wife, a relationship designed not only to produce physical stimulation, but also to express love.

A couple's sexual relationship involves their emotions, minds, and spirits as well as their bodies. They need to devote a certain amount of time and attention to building a close relationship, and once it is established, they have to take steps to ensure that the relationship continues to grow. They must always be learning more about each other; they must always be adjusting to problems that appear or new circumstances that affect them.

There are also many practical elements involved, as in any love relationship. Time, communication, practical knowledge - a couple has to pay attention to these things if they want to establish and maintain a satisfying sexual relationship.

Some practical considerations are so fundamental to the sexual relationship that a couple has to take active concern for them from the very beginning. That is true whether they are a newly married couple just establishing their sexual relationship, or a couple trying to re-establish a relationship that has been unsatisfactory for years.

The considerations include learning about each other's sexual responses, determining how often to have intercourse, agreeing on what sexual behavior is appropriate, and facing the question of family planning. One other practical element is tied up with all of these, and may be the most important of all - communication.

Despite the very open climate for sexual discussion that now exists in our society, many husbands and wives still find it difficult to be open with each other about sex. yet without open communication, there is simply no way for one partner to understand what the other experiences in their sexual relationship. There is no way to settle even simple problems they encounter. A couple who will discuss their sexual feelings honestly and freely have gone a long way toward budding a strong, satisfying relationship.

Usually, however, the best time to talk about sex is not right in the middle of making love, but during time set aside specifically for communication.

Learning About Each Other

One of the practical elements that go into a sexual relationship is simple knowledge about each other. Each husband needs to know what kind of person his wife is sexually - her feelings and attitudes about sex, what she finds stimulating and what she dislikes. Each wife needs the same knowledge about her husband. Many of the problems that couples encounter with sex stem from ignorance of what they each want and need.

Most couples learn quickly that there are big differences in their individual sexual responses. Men and women in general respond differently; any two individuals respond differently. Sometimes these differences seem like obstacles, but they can become a real asset to the relationship once we learn to understand and respect them.

Some differences in sexual response seem to be keyed to basic differences between men and women. A man can usually be aroused very quickly, almost automatically, by direct stimulation - touching his wife, or seeing her undress, or getting into bed with her. His sexual response may not depend a great deal on the rest of his relationship with his wife; he can often be aroused almost independently of his feelings or emotions.

A woman's sexual response seems to be more closely tied to her overall emotions. Women tend to be stimulated gradually rather than immediately, and the amount of tenderness and affection they receive during the day - not just at bedtime - will affect their sexual response. A woman's response also has more to do with her whole relationship with her husband. Factors like good communication, warmth and closeness in the marriage can be as important as direct physical stimulation.

Differences between men and women are not absolutes - each person's sexual feelings are unique. But most couples find themselves affected to some degree or another by differences like these. Often, these differences lie behind problems that a couple encounters.

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For example, a man might barely speak to his wife when he gets home from work, but then be surprised that she doesn't immediately respond when he tries to initiate intercourse. His wife's response, however, is perfectly normal for a woman who doesn't see any affection until the moment her husband shuts the bedroom door. Many women who have trouble experiencing much enjoyment or pleasure in intercourse complain of husbands who fail to express love in the rest of their life together. One wife told me, “When it's time to go to sleep, my husband just rolls over and doesn't even say good-night. It leaves me feeling unloved.”

Husbands need to learn how to show affection to their wives at other times than when they get in bed. The fact that they have a sexual relationship based on a commitment to be available does not mean they can dispense with sensitivity and love. One husband decided never to go to sleep without first kissing his wife good night. Just these ordinary ways of expressing affection can make a real difference for a woman's sexual response.

Frequency

The question of how often a couple should have intercourse causes considerable tension in many marriages. One partner complains that the other never wants to have intercourse, while that partner is exasperated by the first's demands. There are no set rules for how often a married couple should make love, but there are some general guidelines to help couples consider this issue.

At the same time it is important to note that Paul's understanding of the importance of regular sexual relations in a marriage was almost certainly in the context of Leviticus 15:19 which established regular periods of abstinence from sexual relationships as the normal pattern of life for a Jewish couple. This teaching was most probably taken over by the first Christians.

When a woman has her menstrual flow she shall be in a state of impurity for seven days. (Lv. 15:19)

The normal abstinence from sexual relationships each month in a Jewish marriage was usually about twelve days; about five days for the menstrual flow to completely cease, and then seven days afterwards. On the evening of the twelfth day after bathing and prayer sexual relations could resume.

Orthodox Jewish scholars commenting on this practice, which is still followed today by observant Jews, offer several reasons for it, apart from it being an integral part of obedience to God.

One reason given for this regular monthly period of sexual abstinence is that it is a God-given provision for keeping the sexual relationship fresh. Just as fasting from food helps us to appreciate the blessing of food when the fast is over the same is true of the sexual relationship. The rest it provides for the woman is also important in preserving her enjoyment of the relationship.

It is interesting in this connection that when sexual relationships are able to be resumed according to the Jewish law it is likely to be at the moment of ovulation, when a woman's sexual desire is usually at its peak and when conception is most possible. This provision may also be part of God's plan for his people to increase in number and fill the earth.

Another reason given for the Jewish practice of periodic abstinence is to stress the importance of the man establishing sexual self-control. It is unfortunately possible for men to be in bondage to sex within marriage as well as before marriage, with the ensuing diminishment of his own and his wife's dignity. The regular practice of sexual abstinence is seen as a way for the man to gain freedom in this area and to make sure that sex is a servant of God's purposes and not the master of a man.

To this day, among Orthodox Jews, where this practice of abstinence is still observed, the divorce rate is extremely low, even though it is permitted. Following God's law in this area is often cited as a reason for the success of Orthodox Jewish marriages.

While following Leviticus 15:19 in this area may not be binding on Christians, it is of importance to note that Christian tradition has always seen the importance of being able to abstain from sexual relationship to honor God's purposes. Also it is of interest to note that methods of natural family planning that many contemporary Christians are adopting call for periods of abstinence virtually identical to the Leviticus pattern; those advocating these methods cite similar benefits to the marriage as the Jewish commentators do. This is a recommended practice of periodic abstinence to evangelical Protestants.

How can a couple determine the right frequency of intercourse for their relationship?

Some ancient Jewish teachers tried to answer this question by considering the particular circumstances of different ways of life. The Babylonian Talmud, a compilation of Jewish law and custom written shortly after the birth of Christ, tried to specify the correct frequency for people according to their professions. (This of course presumed the twelve-day abstinence period.) Unemployed laborers were to have intercourse with their wives every day; students, twice a week; camel-drivers, once every two weeks; sailors, once a month; and so on during the time of the month that sexual relationships were available.

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Obviously a Christian couple is not bound to follow the standards of the Babylonian Talmud or even the premises of Leviticus 15:19. But a husband and wife should talk together about their sexual life and agree on the frequency for them They can consider such factors as, What are my personal sexual needs? Is our sexual relationship growing? Is it meeting our needs? What other circumstances in our life affect my sexual desires - does work often leave me too exhausted to make love?

The goal here is not to set up a monthly quota for their sexual life but to determine as a couple, what they need for a satisfying sexual relationship. Circumstances may occasionally prevent a couple from having intercourse as frequently as they had judged appropriate, but that is not a big problem. It is not so important to actually have intercourse some precise number of nights, but to have intercourse regularly enough to constitute a real sexual relationship.

Once a couple determines the frequency right for their relationship, they may find some rough scheduling helpful in maintaining it. The idea of introducing any scheduling into our sex lives may sound like the death of all spontaneity. But important as spontaneity is, a couple sometimes just has to make sure that they have enough time in their lives to make love. If a busy husband and wife leave everything in their sexual relationship to spontaneity, they may find that they don't have intercourse very often. Few couples actually need a regular schedule for sexual intercourse but every couple has to pay enough attention to scheduling to ensure that other activities and commitments do not crowd out the time they need for an adequate sexual relationship.

Sexual Expression

Ten or twenty years ago, the question of what types of sexual expression a couple found acceptable for their relationship might never have arisen. But with all the emphasis now placed upon sexual experimentation, it is wise for a couple to be able to communicate their feelings on this question. The tension that arises when one partner wants to try things that the other feels uncomfortable with can be a serious problem in their relationship.

It is encouraged for couples to discuss this issue as one of the fundamental practical elements of their relationship.

Family Planning

The primary biological function of intercourse is to bring the ovum and sperm together. And that means that any discussion of the practical elements of a couple's sexual relationship has to take family planning into account. With modern methods of birth control, it is now possible to avoid pregnancy completely, but a couple capable of having children should usually have them. It seems obvious that God meant marriage to result in children, and the deliberately childless marriage seems out of line with his design.

A couple should, however, take responsibility for how many children they have. Almost all the major churches - including the Catholic Church - agree that parents have a responsibility for the size of their family. Pope Paul's encyclical on family planning, Humanae Vitae states:

In relation to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised, either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a numerous family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with due respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth.

A difference between Catholic and Protestant position on family planning has to do with the means of birth control; Humanae Vitae accepted only those forms of birth control that rely on the natural fertility cycle. However, natural family planning has produced some highly effective methods, so that Catholics can find reliable means of birth control that conform to the official church teaching.

Some Christians don't do anything about family planning because they trust God to give them the right number of children. That might sound good, but unless the couple is really prepared to raise a large family, their words may cloak a basic irresponsibility. Ordinarily, a man responsible for his family's welfare is not supposed to sit back and say , “Oh, I'm going to trust God to bring the money in.” He is supposed to work to the best of his ability to earn that money. He can trust God to provide him with a job, to give him the strength to do his work, and to care for his family if he cannot work. But he needs to take a personal responsibility for earning his family's income.

In the same way, a married couple should take responsibility to discuss their family size seriously, weigh the factors involved in having more children, and take appropriate steps to avoid conception if they see a need to limit their family. A number of factors enter into decisions like these. For one thing, changing social conditions have erased many of the advantages a big family once had. Children used to be sizeable economic advantage. They could work on the family farm or take a job to bring in extra income. They were the parents' sole economic resource in old age. Today, however, a large family costs a lot, but does not necessarily insure more income.

Also in the past, many children died as infants. A couple who had twelve children might see only five or six live to adulthood. Most children born today, at least in developed countries, will survive childhood. So it takes fewer births to produce a sizeable family.

Finally, there may be valid reasons for concern about world over-population. Although statements on this problem are often exaggerated, it remains true that the world's population has jumped very quickly from one to four billion, which puts a big strain on our resources. If resources were more evenly distributed, the problem might be less severe. But as it is, many people are already hungry and controlling population growth may have to play some part in preventing future famines.

It would seem that many factors in our current situation favor smaller families. Yet Scripture does present children - numerous children - as a blessing from God. There are good reasons for Christian families in particular to continue to have large families.

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For one thing, even with the threat of overpopulation the world could use more Christian children. Christian parents who have their own lives in order before the Lord are well equipped to raise strong, well-adjusted children who can further God's work in the world. Society itself desperately needs more healthy, balanced children to avoid a future of amorality and lawlessness. There can never be too many children being raised in the kingdom of God as servants of Christ.

It also seems that children play a part in God's plan for building up the church. It may seem funny to speak of having children as a form of evangelism, but it is a very real way in which the church grows. One reason why the Catholic Church has become the largest Christian body in the world is that it has encouraged large families.

As a couple weighs these factors for and against a large family, they also need to consider their personal resources. One important question is simply how large a family they can afford. With the cost of clothing, feeding, doctoring, housing and schooling a child going up, some families just can’t afford very many children. On the other hand, there is an important place for trust in God’s provision for our needs. Some couples find that by freely choosing a simpler lifestyle they can afford a larger family than they first thought.

Some couples also seem better equipped for parenthood than others. There are parents who seem able to do a great job of raising a lot of children, and others who find parenthood more difficult. Those couples who do reasonably well as parents should consider having a larger family.

In trying to think about all these factors and make a decision about family size, couples should remember that they don't need to decide all at once how many children they are going to have. The Lord doesn't line newlyweds up and say, “Okay, it's three for you; five for you, two for you.” God's guidance seems to come child by child, and it is encouraged for couples to make their family planning decisions child by child. If they do well with their first child, feel right about having another and are in the circumstances to do so, they should have a second. And if it again seems right to have another then they should have a third. Each decision should be based on careful consideration of all the factors involved and on whatever guidance the Lord offers.

What about an unexpected pregnancy? After all, the only guaranteed means of birth control is total abstention from intercourse. Whether through the fault of the couple or the method they are using, unplanned pregnancies do happen.

There is a tendency to think of unplanned pregnancy as an accident. But in God’s eyes, no human life is really accidental. The children we don't plan can bring us just as much joy as those we do if we accept them in a spirit of thankfulness and trust. We don't have to feel that we have messed up God's plan for our life if we end up with more children than might have seemed ideal. In everything, including this, God works things out for the best for those who love him.

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