More Thoughts on Sex, Vulnerability, and Spirituality After Two Years of Marriage

We tend to fight when we travel.

Which is unfortunate, because we really like to travel.

I don’t know if it’s the accumulated stresses of hurtling through the sky in an aluminum tube at 28,000 feet, navigating the wonders of baggage claim, driving in an unfamiliar city, or simply finding a place where my gluten and lactose intolerant wife can eat, but we both become hair-triggers of emotional outbursts and hurt feelings.

Or, maybe, it’s because Shannon and I are self-centered, short-tempered, and insensitive people.

I once heard marriage describe as a “grindstone,” in that it gradually grinds away the layers of lies and stories we tell ourselves to protect our blameless perception of self.

And if I could pick one word to describe the lessons learned during our second year of marriage, it would be “self-awareness.”

Whether it involves our sexuality,  interpersonal conflict or spiritual lives, our willingness to be self-aware has taken us to task time and time again.

And we begin, of course, with sex.

Private Parts

There’s a lot of really bad sex advice out there.

I can say this with confidence because Shannon and I grew up at two totally different ends of the sexual education spectrum – and neither of us walked away unscathed.

I came of age during the height of the Church’s obsession with “purity culture,” a well-intentioned (but poorly executed) movement that presented marriage as the only God-approved outlet for sexual expression.

Mine was a world of James Avery promise rings, True Love Waits devotional Bibles, and dog-eared copies of I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

The “hook” of purity culture was that if you did everything right – avoided porn, stopped masturbating, and didn’t engage in “sexual sin” with your significant other  – God would ‘bless’ you and your future spouse with an incredible sex life after you’re married.

And, unfortunately, for a lot of couples, this expectation is one of the first casualties of marriage.

If you’ve been conditioned to believe that your body is a source of shame and regret for the bulk of your life, it’ll take a lot more than a wedding ceremony and honeymoon to overcome these hurdles.

Meanwhile, Shannon’s experience couldn’t have been more different.

Shannon’s first sexual encounter wasn’t consensual,
and, for most of her life, pornography formed the bulk of her sexual education.

For Shannon, sex was a tool to gain control or power in a relationship. Her sexuality was an asset in an environment that valued personal pleasure and gratification at the expense of human connection and emotional vulnerability.

After all, Shannon would rationalize, What’s the point in investing in a relationship if the sex is going to be bad?

Given our divergent backgrounds, it’s absolutely astounding that our sex life isn’t a complete trainwreck.

But, though we don’t have perfect a sex life, I believe our personal experiences and lessons learned while navigating these convoluted waters are worth sharing.

Here’s what I do know:
The wounds created by unhealthy sexual attitudes, relationships and abuse are deep. No matter our sexual background, we all bring varying degrees of hurt and misconception into the bedroom.

And this is why I believe it’s vitally important to reflect on the events, experiences, attitudes, and ideas that formed your sexual identity. You owe it to yourself to process, reclaim or denounce the factors that shaped your sexuality.

And you may need a counselor (and that’s okay).

Our sexuality is an essential component of our humanity and our spirituality. In our vain attempts to compartmentalize the various facets of our lives, we tend to forget that sex is a holistic experience.

And by that, I mean our sexual experiences are informed by more than just our hormones and genitals.

One of the most provocative and reflective statements I’ve ever heard regarding sex is “the way you do sex is the way you do life.”

Or, in other words, your approach to life will inform how you approach sex, and vice versa.

And I see this attitude reflected in our greater culture – which tends to both over-glorify and undervalue sex. Our inclination in marriage (especially in Christian communities) is to reserve frank discussion about sex for the bedroom.

Whether it’s a conversation about frequency, positions, duration, location, foreplay, mood enablers, hygiene, masturbation, or the inclusion of new elements in the bedroom, we need to be intentional about creating “judgment-free spaces” within the architecture of our marriages.

And those conversations may be a little awkward and uncomfortable, but if we’re operating under the assumption that we want to get better at sex (and I hope that’s the case), that stigma needs to be the first thing to go.

And, to be honest, this has been a little hit-or-miss in our marriage (thankfully, we’ve had more hits than misses).

For example, if I desire a more mutually beneficial sexual experience for the both of us, I know one of the ways I can help Shannon is by giving her a massage before we really get going.

But, we only reached that point after a very practical discussion about her needs.

And, likewise, if I’m having a particularly stressful week at work, Shannon knows my libido will be operating below average (or it’ll take a little more time and effort for me to become aroused).

Prior to this revelation, I thought there was something wrong with me (and Shannon thought there was something wrong with her) whenever my body wouldn’t perform to its usual standard.

Listen, I’ve only been having sex for, like, 2 years, so I’m no “sexpert” or the guy you should come running to for sex advice, but here’s what I’ve learned over the past couple of years:

Be generous toward one another.
Be open to new experiences.
Don’t try or do anything that you think will humiliate or degrade the other person (if you’re not sure, ask).
The goal is connection, not simultaneous orgasm.
Be mindful of the other’s past.

And, the more you and your partner talk about sex, the more sex you’ll probably have and the better that sex will be.

Discussion Point: Think about the statement “The way you do sex is the way you do life.” Do you agree or disagree? What does your sex life say about your approach to life? Ask your partner to answer the question for you and vice versa.

What’s Your Number?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

The Enneagram has changed our lives.

An ancient personality type system (with roots in Christian mysticism or spiritual pseudoscience, depending on who you ask), the Enneagram explores how people experience and react to the world around them.

More than any other resource, the Enneagram has helped me and Shannon understand our relationship with each other and our selves. It’s been useful in navigating our recurring marital conflicts and exposing patterns of unhealthy behavior that routinely manifest in our relationship.

Constructed around nine distinct personality “Types,” the Enneagram encourages personal development, spiritual growth, and relational capacity.

(If you want to discover your Type, scroll down to the Addendum at the bottom of this post – but, c’mon, finish the post first).

I’m an Eight, or “The Challenger.”
And Shannon’s a Four, or “The Individualist.”

One of the most attractive elements of the Enneagram is that each Type encompasses both healthy and unhealthy behaviors.

For example, as an Eight, I’m energetic, confident, reform-minded and a passionate defender of the underprivileged. But if left unchecked, I become overly domineering, dogmatic, confrontational, and critical of others (something I’ve never – cough – been accused of).

And while Shannon, as a Four, is profoundly creative, empathetic, and honest, she can just as easily withdraw emotionally, indulge in self-pity, and harbor fears that she’ll never “fit in”

On relationships between Eights and Fours, in The Path Between Us, Suzanne Stabile writes

Eights have a difficult time being present to the mood changes of a Four. But once Eights learn to allow for that they may discover that Eights and Fours actually have a lot in common: they are the most passionate numbers on the Enneagram, and they are both committed to being honest regardless of cost.

As an Eight, I’m not prone to vulnerability. And that means I tend to withdraw or retreat when I feel overwhelmbed or frustrated. It also means I’m far more likely to dole out criticism than I am compliments or encouragement.

As a result, I’ve been working on an “if you think of something nice, say it” mindset to help bind some of the wounds I’ve created in our marriage.

And as a Four, Shannon tends to experience bouts of negative self-image and low self-esteem. It’s easy for her to retreat into a fantasy world of “what could be” at the expense of reality.  For Shannon, this means focusing on cultivating gratitude and investing in relationships now.

Learning to be in a relationship is a lot like learning a second language – you need to learn the basics, move on to more advanced material, and finally transition into an immersion experience.

Within the context of a relationship, the basics are learning about yourself, the advanced material is learning about your partner, and the immersion experience is learning how the two of you work together.

Unfortunately, we tend to leap into complex and intimate relationships without truly understanding ourselves or our partner. It’s like trying to learn French by immediately moving to France. Sure, Paris is beautiful and you’ll definitely make some wonderful memories, but it won’t take very long for trouble to arise if you haven’t taken the time to study the basics.

There is not a single person on Earth quite like you, and your partner is just as unique. Your personalities are more than a set of fixed preferences.

Continual self-discovery is an essential component to the flourishing of any relationship – take the initiative and start today.

Discussion Point: Take an Online Enneagram Quiz together. After you’ve both discovered your Types, research them. Ask yourself and your partner, “In what ways do I exhibit the healthy behavior of my Type?” and, “In what ways do I exhibit the unhealthy behaviors?” And have your partner do the same.

Uncharted Waters

Throughout my entire life, I’ve been told the husband is “the spiritual leader of the household.”

I accepted this mantle of responsibility when I married Shannon, but no one told me what to do if my spiritual life was ever rocked by a philosophical and intellectual crisis.

For the past year and a half, I’ve been undergoing a major shift in my understanding and application of the Christian faith – a process of deconstruction and reconstruction that will probably last my entire life.

And for a long time, I kept my doubts about my faith a secret from Shannon.

I justified it by telling myself I was only “protecting her” from my own insecurities, but the truth was I was ashamed that Shannon would discover I wasn’t the “strong tower” of spiritual fortitude she had been told to expect.

Most of this was my own doing, but I had also internalized a subtle lie that a man has to have it all together before he even thinks about marriage – and this includes issues of spirituality and faith.

I think this is why there are so many men in the Church whose faith is on life support or animated by the disenchanted spirit of obligation.

If someone doesn’t feel as if they can safely explore their faith or ask questions, their faith will not grow. Instead, you’ll be left with the appearance of faithfulness masquerading as apathetic obedience.

For those who are suddenly very worried about me, I didn’t lose my faith – it just looks and feels a lot different. Before my faith could become a safe place for other people, it needed to become a safe place for me.

For me, being a “spiritual leader of my household” means being honest about my faith journey – it’s twists and turns, detours and dead ends, wrong turns and flat tires.

But when I look back on this chapter of my life, the most problematic issues weren’t my doubts and questions – it was that I didn’t trust Shannon.

In the second creation account in the book of Genesis, the author hones in on the formation of man and woman.

After creating man, God says, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

That last bit is “ezer kenegdo” in Hebrew, but (once again) English doesn’t do the beauty of the Hebrew language justice.

Ezer is roughly translated as “to help.” Throughout the Bible, it is overwhelming used to describe the spirit of God.

Kenegdo literally translates to “as in front of him.” This means God created woman as an equivalent match to man.

It means Shannon was always strong enough to handle my fears of inadequacy and shame, and I was foolish to believe otherwise.

Discussion Point: Talk to your spouse or partner about your faith and spirituality – but make it a real talk. Discuss your doubts and fears. What factors influenced your spiritual formation? How is your faith different today than it was at other stages of your life? And if you don’t believe in God, when and why did that happen?

Epilogue: (Comm)Unity Campfire

In last year’s post about the lessons I learned during my first of marriage, I compared our relationship to a wilderness campfire.

It was a romantic image, two people trekking into the wild with nothing but the flame of their relationship keeping them warm, safe, and on track.

But with one more year of marriage under my belt, I realize now that imagery is a little misguided.

It treats marriage like something that only happens between two people. And that is not true.

If you want a healthy marriage, surround yourself with healthy people (and that means other healthy married couples).

Without self-awareness and a healthy dose of critical feedback, you’ll find yourself locked in an absolute mindset.

And someone trapped in an absolute mindset is frequently in error, but rarely in doubt.

Heading out into the wilderness with an absolute mindset will end poorly for everyone involved. You’ll get lost, the group will fight, and you may get eaten by bears.

Find a community. People who will love and accept you.
But, also people who won’t tolerate excuses and self-deception.
People who won’t just affirm you, but will challenge you.
People who ask, “How are you doing?” and won’t accept, “Fine” as an answer.
People who are vulnerable and not afraid to show you their scars.

Because you weren’t meant to do this alone.
And that includes marriage.

Addendum: Don’t Ruin the Enneagram

The Enneagram is a tool,
and, like any tool, it can be misused and abused.

The first step is discovering your Type, and you can do that by taking an online assessment or determining which one of the Types resonates most with you (after talking with friends and family, of course).

However, this is where people often make the biggest mistake with the Enneagram – they take an online quiz, find their number, and only bring it up during social gatherings when the topic comes up.

The Enneagram isn’t a personality test in the vein of Meyers-Briggs or StrengthsFinder. It’s not meant to reduce the complexity of human behavior into a stereotype (in fact, you should be striving to emulate the healthy behaviors of each Type – not just your own).

Also, you shouldn’t use the Enneagram to excuse your brokenness. I’ve heard people make comments like, “Well, I’m a One, so it has to be perfect,” or “I’m sorry I come off like an asshole sometimes, but I am an Eight, so…”

The Enneagram is a journey. It’s an opportunity for personal growth, development, and maturity.

I strongly recommend picking up Ian Morgan Cron’s and Suzanne Stabile’s The Road Back to You and its sequel, The Path Between Us. Or, if you don’t have time to read, listen to The Liturgists Podcast episode “The Enneagram” during your commute.

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