How important is sex in a relationship? To answer that question, you need to understand the difference between sexual activity and sexual intimacy.
“We have never agreed about sex. It’s the one area of conflict we just can’t seem to resolve.” Couples in this situation may wonder if their marriage can ever be happy. Beneath the conflicts about sexual pleasure and frequency lurks this pressing question: How important is sex in a marriage relationship?
While you will never fix a dysfunctional relationship with sex, research suggests that a healthy sex life is correlated with a more satisfying relationship in general. Does having sex lead to a better relationship or is it the other way around? It’s both, really. Feelings of emotional safety and healthy communication will definitely help you navigate the challenges of sex, but the opposite is also true. Working on your sex life (if you are in a healthy relationship) can improve emotional intimacy and satisfaction in your marriage.
God designed sex to release neurochemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and endorphins that result in feelings of pleasure and general wellbeing. Sexual touch and orgasm also release the hormone oxytocin, sometimes called “the cuddle hormone” because it facilitates bonding and feelings of affection between husband and wife.
Yet for many couples, their experience of navigating sex in marriage is more frustrating than fulfilling. Arguments about how often to have sex take away any potential joy or unity. For others, sex isn’t even close to pleasurable. The impact of past trauma, sexual shame, low libido and physical pain can make sex something you want to avoid rather than pursue.
As you attempt to answer the question, “How important is sex in my relationship?” and address sexual conflicts in your marriage, it’s crucial to differentiate between sexual activity and sexual intimacy. Sometimes, emphasising sexual activity will actually sabotage a couple’s sexual intimacy.
Sexual activity or sexual intimacy?
For example, let’s say a Christian guy hears over and over again that when he’s married he’ll be able to have guilt-free sex. He brings to marriage a storehouse of expectations. His wife will always arouse him and be ready for sex whenever he has the urge. He can’t wait for the day that he can channel all his sexual energy toward his new wife.
Then they get married. He finds that he’s not always aroused by her, so he recalls pornographic images from his past. He’s frustrated any time she says no. It’s as if she never wants sex, he thinks. Even when they have sex, she seems to approach it with obligation rather than delight.
While this couple may have sex once or twice a week, they have never said “yes” to the invitation of sexual intimacy. God designed sex to be more than a negotiated outlet for physical desire.
Sexual activity focuses on what’s happening in your body. Are you having enough sex? Are you and your spouse sexually compatible? Are you sexually attracted to your spouse? Both the larger culture as well as some simplistic teaching from the church put pressure on a couple to be sexually active. The couple then evaluates their relationship based on those purely physical markers.
God’s larger story of sex presents something entirely different. He has given a married couple the gift of sex as an invitation to and celebration of intimacy. Sex is not just about what happens to our bodies; it’s also about the shared journey of vulnerability, pleasure and Christlike love.
Steps to intimacy and better sex
For sex to turn from a negative element of your marriage into a positive one, you need to focus on intimacy. Here are three steps you can take right now to start working toward sexual intimacy.
1. Have honest conversations
Talk about what sex means to you. Some couples who’ve been married for decades never talk about sex. Your sexual journey will be transformed when you pursue your spouse’s heart. You can do this by asking questions such as:
- Tell me about a time when you felt close to me during sex.
- How would you define a fulfilling sex life?
- How do you feel when I initiate sex? When you initiate sex?
- How does what you learned about sex growing up impact your view of sex in our marriage?
- What about our sex life makes you feel particularly vulnerable?
If you have never talked about sex this openly, you might want to involve a Christian counsellor who can help you navigate such vulnerable conversations.
2. Know that both of your sexual journeys matter
The sexual journey matters for both of you, not just the one who has the higher desire. We often believe that the spouse who has the lesser sexual desire has a “duty” or “obligation” to meet their spouse’s sexual need. This is a gross misunderstanding of the Bible, including Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5.
Whether or not you experience sexual desire, your sexual journey matters in marriage. The Bible says that both the husband and wife (regardless of who expresses a greater desire for sex) must minister to each other sexually. This is a call toward mutual pleasure and intimacy. If your spouse hates sex because of a variety of relational, physical or emotional barriers, you do not minister to them by demanding they meet your sexual needs. You minister to them by becoming a part of your spouse’s healing through love, patience and pursuing help.
3. Embrace hope
Realise that barriers to pleasure and compatibility may actually lead you to the deepest sexual intimacy of your marriage.
Over the past decade, I’ve heard from hundreds of couples who are navigating severe difficulties including porn addiction, sexual abuse recovery, debilitating physical illness, vaginismus (sexual pain during intercourse) and infertility. During such seasons, mutual sexual pleasure seems impossible. But we worship a God who never wastes our pain. His gift of sex is one that extends far beyond immediate pleasure. When sex is “good” it allows a couple to delight in each other. But when sex is difficult, it invites couples to experience the goodness of unconditional love.
Your sex life is calling you to go deeper: deeper into intimacy, deeper into Christlike love and deeper into faith in the goodness of God through trials.
How important is sex in your relationship? It’s an important part of marriage, but not the way you may think it is. Rather than focusing on “Am I happy with how often we’re having sex?,” instead ask, “How can our sexual journey prompt us to a deeper experience of intimacy?”