It’s been a year since I’ve become one flesh with my wife.
We married in a muggy parlor room in a historic home surrounded by friends and family after our wedding venue was flooded by a torrential downpour the day before our wedding.
“And the two became one flesh” is one of the Bible’s favorite ways of saying two people had sex.
But it’s also so much more than that.
The phrase “one flesh” is the Hebrew word echad, which can mean “one from many.” It is a very special word and is also used to describe the triune relationship between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
This relationship is sometimes described as a “divine dance.”
Becoming echad means that we are committed to each other’s spiritual, emotional, and sexual wellbeing at the expense of our own selfish desires.
Becoming echad means that even when I’m not physically present with Shannon, I’m still with her.
I’m entangled with her on a level that goes beyond sex or a legal contract or shared physical space.
And that’s what is so cool about marriage.
It is as if our souls are singing together at a molecular and divine level. And sometimes that song is harmonious. And other times it is dissonant and out of tune.
But we’re still singing.
And this is why marriage can be the most beautiful, fun, frustrating, exciting, maddening, complicated, sensitive, resilient, and joyful relationship of your life.
Can marriage be difficult at times?
Of course, but that’s also one of the prime indicators in life that something is worth doing at all.
The biggest surprise about marriage is that sex isn’t near as important as I thought it would be.
Our word “sexuality” comes from the Latin word secare, which means “to cut, separate.”
From secare, we also get words like “bisect” and “section.”
Our sexuality stems from our awareness of being disconnected from other people, and it also represents our best efforts to remedy our disconnection through reconnection.
Sexuality is bigger than sex.
Sometimes sex can be intense and passionate, and you’re both totally in-sync with each other’s bodies.
And other times, you’re just going through the motions and it feels like all that kinetic energy is missing.
Sex is messy. And sometimes it’s hilarious.
One night – before we had furniture in our apartment – a piece of Shannon’s lingerie literally burst into flames after it was carelessly tossed to the floor and landed atop a candle that I had lit to set the mood.
The following moments were some of the most jarring and disorienting seconds of my entire life.
But our expectations and attitudes toward sexuality will always guide our relationships with ourselves and our partner.
When we demonize sex, treating our bodies and desires as sources of shame and regret, we’re missing out on an essential component of what makes us human.
When we cheapen sex, reducing it to its bare mechanics of anatomy, instinct, and orgasm, we begin to objectify and evaluate our partners on their appearance and sexual performance.
When we over-glorify sex, elevating it to the epitome of human pleasure and delight, then no amount or quality of sexual experience will ever leave us satisfied.
In the Song of Songs, a collection of Hebrew love poetry, the young bride says to her husband on their wedding night,
Blow on my garden, that its fragrance may spread everywhere. Let my beloved come into his garden and taste its choice fruits.
In the ancient Hebrew literature, garden imagery was very sexually charged language.
And anytime the Bible mentions a garden, it’s a callback to the Garden of Eden.
Back to the way things are supposed to be.
The hardest experience during our pre-marital counseling was a session called “assertiveness training.”
In assertiveness training, Shannon and I sat facing each other in our counselor’s office. We were given a simple task: tell the other person three areas in their life you want them to fix or improve during the first year of marriage.
And after I finished, Shannon had to repeat back what I said using the phrase, “What I’m hearing you say is that I need to work on [X]…”
And then Shannon did the same to me.
It was excruciating. It seriously caused one of our biggest fights up until that point.
But it was one of the most helpful exercises we did in premarital counseling because it gave us a crash course in one of the most difficult truths about marriage.
Marriage is about honesty.
Honesty, trust, and bravery are the hallmarks of vulnerability.
And vulnerability is more about acknowledging your weaknesses than it is about proving your strength.
According to researcher Brene Brown, vulnerability
“is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in.”
The most common complaints marriage counselors hear from women about their husbands is that they’re “distant” or “disengaged.”
Men are rarely raised in environments in which they are equipped with the tools necessary to be vulnerable. Instead, we are told “women are the emotional ones,” “don’t let it get to you,” and “don’t be a p*ssy.”
It should come as no surprise that most men’s default coping mechanism to shame, inadequacy, and fear is to withdraw emotionally or lash out with aggression.
And I’ve seen this play out in my own marriage over the past year.
For example, when I was struggling with my value at a previous job, it was difficult for me to articulate my feelings of worthlessness to Shannon. In a weird way, it felt like I would betray her confidence in me if I let her know I found little to no purpose in my day job.
Or when I served as a backup photographer for Shannon at a wedding and I messed up the settings on my camera, so most of my shots ended up unusable. And yet when Shannon tried to coach and correct my mistake, I became angry for no reason other than the fact that my pride took a hit and hated being called out on it.
When you hide behind cultural expectations, tired gender stereotypes and your own carefully crafted mask of invulnerability, you are robbing your spouse of true intimacy.
You cannot fully love whom you do not fully know.
The key quality of a spouse you should be looking for (and developing within yourself) is the ability to lovingly acknowledge and confront the weaknesses, flaws, and darkness within the other without fear.
And that’s what they call grace.
The woman I love is no longer the woman I married.
People are irreducibly complex and dynamic. We are in a constant state of flux.
Adapting. Reacting. Evolving.
Every day, my wife is slowly being transformed.
Through her relationship with Jesus. With me. With friends.
And so am I.
Marriage is about being along for the ride.
In his book The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller says marriage
“is to look at another person and get a glimpse of what God is creating and to say, ‘I see who God is making you, and it excites me! I want to partner with you and God in the journey you are taking to His throne.'”
When we try to take apart marriage and examine its individual components, we miss out on the magic.
Love is not some perfect ratio of attention, affection, and respect.
There’s nothing sexy about a formula.
It’s hard to get excited about a legal partnership.
Love is mystical.
Love is not something you can give or receive.
It is not like a loaf of bread.
Love is the energy that crackles between two people when they decide to take on this world together. It is the connection that emerges out of the divine dance between sexuality, vulnerability, and spirituality that is at the heart of our most intimate relationships.
During our wedding ceremony, Shannon and I took a moment to privately read aloud vows we had written to each other. In my vows, I told Shannon that our relationship was like a campfire.
And what I meant is that in the midst of this wild, wild world, my relationship with her is a source of refuge, comfort, and excitement. There’s something simultaneously safe and adventurous about gathering around a campfire in the wilderness.
And every morning, you pack up and trek through the woods, carrying the flame of the last night’s campfire so you can make camp later that night.
You are unsure of your destination, but your spouse is at your side and you are guided by the light burning between the two of you and also the light at the horizon from The One Who Holds All This Together.
Sometimes the terrain will be difficult.
Sometimes the weather will be rough.
Sometimes your journey may be monotonous and irritating.
And sometimes you may not be sure you’re headed in the right direction.
But you and your spouse are echad.
You experience it.
Addendum: East of Eden
Like all matters of the soul and the heart, sex is an extraordinarily complex topic and our attitude toward it is shaped by our upbringing, environment and past experiences.
Maybe you’ve been told the only part of your sexual identity that God cares about is your purity. And the point driven home again and again at every conference or sermon is that your identity in Christ is inextricably intertwined with not having sex.
Or maybe you’ve been hurt sexually. Maybe someone you knew and trusted took advantage of you without your permission or before you were old enough to handle that experience and because of that sex is an open wound and part of your identity feels corrupted or tainted.
Or maybe you thought sex would be so much more. You stayed abstinent and refrained from sexual immorality during “the best years of your life” and now you feel cheated because you’re married and finally having sex and it just doesn’t live up to the hype.
I know the Church believes that secular culture and the media has “distorted God’s design for sex,” but that doesn’t put us in the clear.
Misinformation and distortion can also originate from well-intentioned sermons and marriage books laced with thinly-veiled misogynistic undertones.
To our men, we often treat sex like an entitlement.
To our women, we treat sex like a duty.
And the collision of those two perceptions creates an atmosphere of shame, guilt, and misguided expectations.
If we as Christians believe we have the best approach to sex and marriage, then we need to find a better way of talking about it.
Because God is for marriage.
And God is for sex.
4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Sex, Vulnerability, and Spirituality After a Year of Marriage”
Wow Joe! Thank you for this. Such a refreshing perspective for someone not married and wanting to learn as much as she can as she walks into a new season of life soon. Blessings, friend! God is using you.