A few weeks into the new year, I found out I was being let go from my job.
This wasn’t the way I thought the year was supposed to go.
Our third year of marriage was primed to be “The One Where They Buy a House.” In fact, Shannon and I were set to meet with a broker to seek pre-approval for a home loan the day after I found out my position was being “phased out.”
Suffice it to say, the meeting didn’t happen.
For the record, I wasn’t let go because I did anything inherently wrong. I was in charge of writing content for an educational initiative that simply evolved past the point of needing content written for it.
But it was still a shock. Up until that point, the biggest upheaval that happened in our marriage was getting kicked out of our previous apartment because of our cat, Fargo.
I suddenly found myself updating my resume, trolling job posting boards online, submitting applications, and awaiting responses from HR departments.
Of course, losing my job wasn’t the only thing that happened during our third year of marriage. But looking back, it does feel like a bout of unexpected turbulence in an otherwise autopilot year.
Like the previous two years, I want to revisit the lessons learned during our third year of marriage – focusing specifically on sex, vulnerability, and spirituality. Our hope is that by shedding light on our experiences, we can encourage other young couples to be forthcoming and/or feel less alone in their own struggles.
A few weeks before Shannon and I married, an older (and married) friend made a joke about the diminishing returns of sex within the context of marriage.
He said that if you put a penny in a jar for every time you have sex in your first year of marriage, and then take a penny out for every time you have sex in the subsequent years, you’ll always have pennies leftover in the jar.
It’s absurd observation, to be sure, but like many jokes, it holds an undercurrent of truth.
Prior to marriage, Shannon and I couldn’t keep our hands off each other.
Even though we instituted a strict “No Kissing Until Engagement” policy, we were quick to find creative ways around our well-intentioned purity rule. Left alone for any extended amount of time, it was inevitable that one of us would end up atop the other.
Fast forward three and a half years, and Shannon and I can share the same couch for two-and-a-half hours in the dark while watching a documentary on Netflix and not once think about the other’s genitals.
To be fair, Shannon and I still have a healthy sex life, and for that we’re grateful. But the differences between these two eras of our relationship are stark and unmistakable.
Instead of romance, titillation, and foreplay, a common initiator of sexual intercourse became “It’s been a few days since we’ve had sex.” As routine and familiarity seeped into our marriage, sex began to take on the form of a duty or obligation, rather than a rapturous “mingling of souls” (or whatever the trending lingo for married Christian sex is today).
These shifts, of course, are natural and often seasonal. But it’s important to recognize and acknowledge that it could be symptomatic of a broader cultural issue regarding our expectations toward marriage and sex.
In psychotherapist Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity, she writes,
“We seek a steady, reliable anchor in our partner. Yet at the same time we expect love to offer a transcendent experience that will allow us to soar beyond our ordinary lives. The challenge for modern couples lies in reconciling the need for what’s safe and predictable with the wish to pursue what’s exciting, mysterious, and awe-inspiring.“
In other words, our desire for relational security often robs our relationships of the factors that fuel erotic intimacy. And this can be a massive hurdle for married couples to overcome – especially if they place primacy on sexual chemistry.
Growing up in an evangelical Christian environment, I heard ad nauseam that “sex was God’s gift for marriage.” However, the schizophrenic message many of us internalized was “Sex is dirty; Save it for someone you love.”
And this means a lot of us don’t know how to talk about sex (even with our romantic partner) because we were routinely discouraged from thinking about ourselves as sexual beings prior to marriage – especially if you were raised in a religious community influenced by residual Puritanical thinking that equates pleasure with sinfulness.
Whether we verbalize it or not, we all bring preconceived sets of expectation, fantasy, insecurity, and fear into our sexual relationships, and many of those factors are informed by the messages about sex we’ve absorbed from our culture, religion, and environment.
And fostering erotic intimacy and desire after the mundanity of everyday life settles requires digging into fun and messy realities of our sexual identities. It may be scary and awkward, but to refuse to acknowledge and grapple with your sexual desires and expectations is to resign yourself (and your partner) to a lackluster sex life.
Because, at one level, sex is a mere biological function, a hormone-fueled cocktail of desire, friction, and release. But on another level, it’s a physical and spiritual act I’ve vowed to engage in with one person for the rest of my life.
For better and worse, we live in an age of endless sexual opportunity. None of us are more than a swipe or DM away from a marital indiscretion or catastrophic one-night-stand. Coupled with that reality, I know for a lot of people, the sexual exclusivity of marriage is one of the biggest arguments against marriage.
I mean, why should you commit yourself to an institution that’s going to drastically limit your options?
In a culture of excess, we tend to value the breadth of experience over depth of experience. But instead of a handicap, my commitment to Shannon actually opens the door to opportunities, experiences, and rewards that can only be made available through time, struggle, and exclusivity.
Sex in marriage is its own journey, filled with ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys, but complaining about the ebbs and valleys is routine and boring – a punchline with no punch.
Enhancing eroticism in your marriage is an intentional quest for pleasure and play. It’s one of the few areas in life in which we’re encouraged to succumb to our desires, indulge in gratification, and celebrate our body’s capacity to delight.
And bad sex happens when we don’t give ourselves permission to enjoy ourselves.
Prior to this year, I didn’t realize I struggled with anxiety.
And, more than anything else, that’s probably because up until this point, everything in my life had basically gone according to plan. My problems and stresses were, more often than not, a result of something stupid I said or did.
But when I learned I was losing my job, everything changed.
On the outside, I could portray a strong front. I was good at that. My side hustle as a wedding DJ requires me to be a consummate showman – a winning smile, unflappable confidence, and an innate ability to roll with the punches.
I could easily slip into this persona when we were out in public and people asked me how my job hunt was going.
But there often were days when I would come home from work and want nothing more than to flop onto the bed, close the door and stare at the ceiling until nightfall.
I felt unwanted and inadequate, paralyzed by choice, and incapable of making a decision.
And, to top it all off, I was embarrassed for feeling these things because our situation wasn’t even that dire. My employer was giving me plenty of runway to find a new job, and our wedding photography/DJ business was more successful than ever.
Around the same time, Shannon began visiting a counselor to root out the underlying causes of recurring bouts of depression. Her counselor often sent her home from each session with “homework,” of which I was expected to also participate.
It was at this juncture that Shannon and I unearthed an invaluable truth about marriage: We can’t fix each other, and trying to fix the other often does more harm than good.
In the fantastic (but unfortunately titled) The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson writes,
“The mark of an unhealthy relationship is two people who try to solve each other’s problems in order to feel good about themselves. Rather, a healthy relationship is when two people solve their own problems in order to feel good about each other.”
If our desire to change our partner is primarily motivated by a desire to shape our partner into someone we’re more comfortable being around then we have lost sight of the true meaning of sacrificial love.
Do I want the best for Shannon? Absolutely.
Does Shannon want the best for me? Yes.
And while we can encourage and support one another toward becoming better versions of ourselves, we ultimately aren’t the solution to the other’s problems.
Granted, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be mindful or respectful of our partner’s preferences – if your partner wants you to rinse out your bowl before putting it in the sink, then you should rinse out the damn bowl.
But trying to change another person so you can be happier with them is a self-serving motivation, and it will almost always spiral you into cynicism and bitterness.
In Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel writes,
“Marriage is imperfect. We start with a desire for oneness, and then we discover our differences. Our fears are aroused by the prospect of all the things we’re never going to have. We fight. We withdraw. We blame our partners for failing to make us whole.”
When I sat Shannon down and told her I was losing my job, she responded with enthusiasm and excitement. I think the words that literally came out of her mouth were, “This is the best thing that could happen to us.”
At the time, I was mortified. All I could see were the unknown factors – my termination date, our finances, the mind-numbing job application process, the location of our upcoming move.
I’m not sure what I expected. Maybe I wanted Shannon to affirm my anxiety and panic alongside me, or perhaps I wanted to her to chastise me for being so ungrateful and overreactive.
What I got instead was a hopeful outlook on a demoralizing situation. It didn’t solve our plight or cure my anxiety, but she helped point me toward a vision of the future that was less scary and more exciting.
Shannon doesn’t complete me, and I can’t do the same for her. But our proximity exposes us to other’s faults and shortcomings in ways that present opportunities to provide encouragement, support, and grace.
If you wanted, you could probably call our third year of marriage “The One Where They Took a Break From Church.”
For the most part, our absence was an unintended consequence of our wedding business. As it grew more successful and prolific, we find ourselves working more on the weekends and, thus, unable to attend Sunday services.
However, there were some Sundays when we could’ve easily gone to church but decided to stay in or go out and do something else. And I would always feel a twinge of guilt and shame when that happened.
You have to remember, I grew up going to church three times a week – Wednesday night, Sunday morning, and Sunday night (and that trend continued in different forms throughout my college years). Attending church was woven into the fabric of my DNA, so missing a service felt akin to some kind of sacrilege.
When I told a friend this over lunch one day, he smiled and said, “Oh, so you’ve become one of THOSE Christians.”
I knew the type of Christian he was referring to. It’s that statistically significant percentage that drops out after they’re married and returns when their first child begins to walk.
But that didn’t feel quite right. While we rarely made it to the Sunday services, we still attended our weekly small group and gathered for communal meals with Christians friends and acquaintances.
In other words, we hadn’t exiled ourselves from Christian community. We still broke bread, read the Bible, cried and celebrated when members of our Christian family lost their jobs, prepped for surgery, graduated from med school, and moved to new cities. Sometimes we would gather just to pray and encourage one another.
I found myself resonating with the words written by the late Rachel Held Evans in her book, Searching for Sunday:
“It’s funny how after all those years attending youth events with light shows and bands, after all the contemporary Christian music and contemporary Christian books, after all the updated technology and dynamic speakers and missional enterprises and relevant marketing strategies designed to make Christianity cool, all I wanted from the church when I was ready to give it up was a quiet sanctuary and some candles. All I wanted was a safe place to be. Like so many, I was in search of sanctuary.”
At the same time, Shannon and I began actively seeking out people who believed, thought and lived differently than us. We shared meals in our one-bedroom apartment with members of the queer community, atheists, agnostics, people of different religious denominations and missionaries preparing for a sojourn in a foreign land.
I don’t intend for much in this final section on faith to be prescriptive. I’ve strived to be honest about my faith journey (sometimes to the displeasure of others), and I don’t want anyone to think they have to abandon church to be a “cool Christian.”
Let me make one thing clear: Shannon and I haven’t given up on Church.
Yes, I would love to see more churches less interested in maintaining a male-dominated hierarchy, and more accepting of nuances in sexuality and gender, and less tied to a lecture-style teaching format, and more focused on spiritual vulnerability than theological gatekeeping.
The church is the people (so we’re told), and that means it can exist outside the bounds of a program-based institution. Living room couches, backyard BBQs, strolls through the neighborhood and unlit booths in a local restaurant are all places where the Holy Spirit can show up in surprising and subversive ways.
But those things still require intentionality.
We still need each other, and that means we need to seek it out.
As Shannon and I look toward the next stage in our journey together, we’ve talked a little bit about what church could look like for us. Maybe it’ll be a traditional church, or a house church, or a small weekly gathering of new friends trying their best to follow Jesus together.
But, until then, I think we’re content being one of those kinds of Christians.
The photographs in this article were taken by the incredible Anni Graham during our trip to Iceland last summer.
4 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on Sex, Vulnerability, and Spirituality After Three Years of Marriage”
I can totally relate to the entire blog. And I think this happens with almost every couple and most of them end up with a broken relationship. Maintaining a harmony in a sexual relationship is necessary and there are various factors contributing to it. I think communication and trust are the key components of it.
I like your thinking and believe you made some wise choices along the way. But the idea of spirituality has to do with having the indwelling Holy Spirit and the guidance given by that Spirit continually – even when you don’t ask for it. The first thing anyone contemplating marriage must do is commit to Christ. Make Jesus Lord of your life. Turn it all over to God and then you will be prepared for the commitment of marriage. I married a month before my 32 birthday for the first (and only) time. My wife was a very young widow with a 9 year old child. If both of us had not had a relationship with Jesus we would not have been able to endure the challenges that these 40 years have brought. Our children (yes, we had one child together) both have wonderful children – my “step daughter” who I treat no differently from our son – has 3 wonderful children, 2 in college already. They too have committed their lives to the Lord and have already celebrated 25 years together. Whether one attends church is not the proof of Christianity. But we can be a part of Christ’s church even when we don’t belong to a particular church. There are lots of wonderful on-line services and we attend both a local church and watch Bobby Schuller every Sunday. His grandfather was instrumental in getting me to return to the faith and I think Bobby is an even better preacher. Enough said, and well done.