This is a post about sex. There are no details but if the thought of a married couple having sex is making you cringe, consider this is your warning.
This post is about intimacy in a long-term, committed, monogamous relationship. I don’t think it will resonate or be relevant to people in casual relationships or people with multiple partners. You’re welcome to read it anyway but don’t @ me if it doesn’t apply to your situation: I know!
There is a quote about sex attributed to Oscar Wilde:
“Everything in the word is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
When sex is bad or not happening, it’s rarely about sex. Many people believe that bad (or absent) sex causes relationships to wilt and die. I think people have it backward: sex is the proverbial canary in the coal mine. It gets weird long before your relationship expires. It’s a sensitive little thing that can tell you a lot about the state of your marriage if you care to listen.
Let me tell you a story and see what wisdom I can squeeze out of it. As a young adult, I went on the pill and it was not good. I had a horrible reaction to it: heavy periods, weight gain, mood swings. I had morning sickness, throwing up like clockwork after breakfast. I went off the pill, ended-up having to take the morning-after pill once, was so violently ill, I thought I would die. Went on/off the pill again. I met Paul and we had two children in close succession. I was 22 years old, halfway through my law degree and considering a lifetime of getting pregnant every nine months until my late fifties. It was a little scary.
My understanding of sex within marriage had been learned from culture: a healthy marriage hinged on having a lot of sex all the time. Having to worry about anything — fertility, inhibitions, morals — led to bad sex. Hormonal birth control had liberated women from all that worry and seemed to me like a good thing. It had brought fairness to relationships, giving women the opportunity to have sex without the looming threat of pregnancy. Except that for me, it came down to a choice between being healthy and being a loving partner. It made me feel broken, not liberated.
The worst thing is, I didn’t feel like having sex all the time. I was a full time student, I had two children in diapers, one nursing around the clock as it was. But when my husband and I heard people talk about sex, it was always about how much everyone was having. It really made me feel like I was failing at life and marriage. Sex was never bad, I simply didn’t have a sex drive like the movies.
I felt an obligation to have sex more often than I wanted. Everyone said that sex begets sex: the more you have it, the more you want it. So I tried to force myself and that made me feel used. I went off the pill and promptly got pregnant with my third child. Tried the hormonal IUD, bled myself stupid. Got it removed. Asked for a new pill prescription and while reading the fine print on the drug information sheet realized that I was only in my mid-twenties and already knew two women who had had a stroke.
Meanwhile, my husband wasn’t feeling all that loved. He also believed that married couples should be having tons of intimacy and here he was stuck with a woman who was starting to feel like sex wasn’t worth the hassle. He felt like the hassle.
After having my third child, people started asking if my husband would get “fixed” and it dawned on me that only when it came to sex did we take medications, use devices and have surgery to take our bodies from a healthy state to a broken one. Vasectomy doesn’t “fix” anything, it takes a healthy organ and it breaks it. Nothing made sense to me anymore.
The thought of having to go on hormonal birth control or have a foreign object stuck up my uterus for the purpose of making me sexually available at any time made me feel disrespected in my own marriage. I wanted to be loved for who I was: someone who could not take hormonal contraceptives and, therefore, would not be sexually available whenever the mood struck. I felt unloved. My husband felt unloved.
Once I started feeling like pills and devices were a violation of my integrity as a woman all intimacy started feeling tainted. I couldn’t shake off the feeling of being objectified, of being something to have sex with. I remember holding the pack of pills and telling Paul: “Please tell me you don’t want me on that bullshit anymore.” And he said it was ok, we’ll figure it out.
It took a long time to figure it out. We tried learning different methods of Natural Family Planning and most worked fine with a ton of discipline. But when you are in your mid-twenties and at peak (male) libido and (female) fertility, the amount of abstinence required to practice NFP successfully is not all that jazz. As a result, we were very disciplined during the year-and-a-half following the birth of a child, and when the urgency of not getting pregnant receded, so would the discipline and self-control, and I would get pregnant again. We never planned how many children we would have, they just arrived when our life was settled enough to allow for strict discipline to relax somehow. To this day, our level of discipline with NFP still follows the curve of how much we don’t want to get pregnant again.
Why am I writing all this?
When I was asked to write about sex in marriage, I thought that people would want to know how to keep the flame alive, to use a common trope. How to keep the desire going. How to keep things interesting. And I honestly don’t know what to write. We never really had to worry about desire, our struggle is still to find enough days in the month when I’m not fertile. When you factor in sick children, sick adults, work trips, and the general ups-and-downs of family life like falling asleep before your mate, a 28-day cycle goes by pretty fast. When we have time together, it’s great and we don’t need to be inventive. It just happens. I don’t have to contend with hormonal birth control messing-up my libido: we don’t need toys, movies, or different partners.
This is not a blog post trying to sell you on NFP. NFP is like democracy: it’s the worst form of birth control except for all those other forms (sorry Churchill…) But when I look back on 22 years of marriage, I see that turning to NFP has made our sex life an integral part of our day-to-day life. And that’s the wisdom I’m trying to share in this post.
In our marriage, sex exists alongside other ways of showing love and respect, because there are periods of feast and periods of famine. Sex lives and dies with the dishes, the way we speak to each other, the way we help each other, the way we make raising a family and living in the same house bearable day-to-day. If one partner is terrified of having another baby and the other is throwing all caution to the wind, conversations have to happen. Not about sex but about everything that surrounds it: why can’t we get pregnant right now? Does anything need to change so you are not living with this weight on your shoulders? These conversations are not always easy and we don’t always see eye-to-eye, but having them regularly as we adjust the throttle on the NFP discipline has allowed us to keep a finger on the pulse of our marriage in ways that weren’t obvious before NFP.
So there you have it. I wrote about sex in marriage. The ice is now broken. If you have more specific questions, I can address them anonymously in a post. Feel free to send me a message on Facebook. My blog page can be found here.