New Thoughts on Sex, Vulnerability, and Spirituality After Four Years of Marriage

Moved from Texas to Colorado.
Started a new job.
Purchased our first home.
Global pandemic.

If I could sum up our fourth year of marriage in one word, I’d undoubtedly land on the word change.

That’s not to say the previous three years weren’t marked by significant shifts in circumstance, but Year Four upped the ante to an entirely new level.

In my third-year marriage retrospective, I chronicled how I’d been told I was to be let go from my job and the anxieties that followed. It was a jarring experience, but one we knew would eventually lead to a better and more fulfilling life for both of us.

Around the time that article was written and published last year, I was interviewing for a couple of out-of-state jobs. This was a big deal. I’d lived in Texas my entire life. And Shannon, who grew up in California and landed in Texas for college, has championed a move out of the state for an extended sojourn in Europe ever since we tied the knot.

Eventually, my job search heralded an exciting relocation prospect – Colorado. Several years ago, I spent one of the most important summers of my life in Colorado (more on that later), and I’ve always been a fan of the state’s unique ideological mix of conservative backbone and progressive social policies.

In the end, it was a no-brainer. I accepted a position in Colorado, and we began prepping for the move.

There’s not a lot of lost love between Texas and us. Of course, we’d miss our friends and family, and Texas has one of the most badass and riveting cultural histories this side of the original thirteen colonies (if you don’t believe me, check out Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas or Stephen Harrigan’s Big Beautiful Thing), but we could do without the insatiable heat, swampy humidity, and annual mosquito plague.

We also just don’t think Texas is a very pretty. Oh, a stark and desolate beauty exists in western reaches of the state, and parts of the Hill Country stir my soul, but our tolerance for driving nine hours through the desert to see sun-scorched canyons is very low.

Colorado, on the other hand, is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Towering peaks dominate the landscape, hiding sleepy mountain towns, pristine lakes, dynamic hiking trails, and lush forests. And, best of all, most of it is free to the public and within easy driving distance.

When we decide to have kids, we want to imbue them with a sense of awe and respect for nature and the great outdoors from an early age. Colorado will (hopefully) make that easier.

And when we told people we were moving (and where we moving to), the most common response was, “Wow. You’re so lucky.”

Shannon and I make an effort to be aware of and acknowledge the privileges that made this move possible. Most people can’t “pick up and go” when the desire suits them. But we want to extend a word of encouragement to anyone out there who is seeking to make a dramatic life change but the fear of disrupting the status quo is holding you back:

Be Brave.

Life is short and already filled with so many unknowns. Don’t get bogged down in a story defined by caring too much about what other people will think if it doesn’t work out. The pursuit of comfort rarely results in a story worth telling.

With that being said, in June of 2019, we packed our bags (and our cat), loaded our car, and headed north to lay down roots in a Colorado city nestled against the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.

And it was there – far away from friends, family, community, and the familiar – that we began our fourth year of marriage and learned new lessons in sex, vulnerability, and spirituality.

New Reader Note: Every year on our anniversary, I write a “marriage retrospective” article that chronicles what my wife and I have experienced/learned in the previous year. Follow the links to read Year One, Year Two, and Year Three.


Between the Sheets

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I know some people may balk at the prospect of a guy who has only been married for four years handing out sex advice, but I’ve heard enough accounts of sexless marriages or couples with passion-less sex lives (to the point of cliché) to know that it’s better to begin implementing healthy sexual practices into your relationship sooner rather than later.

Many Christian couples shy away from the word “erotic” for the negative connotations hoisted upon it by the secular culture. In most Christian communities, “erotic” is synonymous with internet pornography, late-night premium cable programming, and highway-adjacent sex shops.

Unfortunately, this aversion can lead to a sex life more defined by rote obligation than erotic desire. And that’s a shame, because the word “erotic” is derived from the Greek word Eros, one of the “four loves” described by C.S. Lewis necessary for human flourishing – alongside Affection, Friendship, and Charity.

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes,

Sexual desire, without Eros, wants it, the thing in itself; Eros wants the Beloved…Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.”

From an early age, many of us were taught to suppress our sexual imaginations and view all forms of bodily pleasure as sinful. (You can even see this with the way describe delicious food – a piece of cake can be described as either “sinful” and “heavenly” and it means the exact the same thing).

And this train of thought can be difficult to reverse. I’ve talked to many young married couples who found sex after marriage a frustrating and difficult experience in sharp contrast to their expectations.

In On the Road with Saint Augustine, theologian James K.A. Smith writes,

“What do we want when we want to have sex? We crave an intimacy that blurs the boundary between lover and beloved. We want to give ourselves away, to lose ourselves in a tangle of limbs and folds, to speak our love in tongues…at the same time, it is a hunger that craves satisfaction. Sex is that paradoxical combination of vulnerability and assertion, giving ourselves up and wanting all the more.”

However, in a data-driven culture where we’re conditioned to track and rate everything, sex can easily become another doomed exercise in narcissistic performancism.

In Seculosity, David Zahl writes,

“In this way, sex becomes one more column in which to excel, an opportunity not just to connect but impress…another arena in which to distinguish ourselves, to assert our prowess and signifigance, to build ourselves up rather than give ourselves away.

Eroticism isn’t about becoming great at sex. It’s about growing more comfortable with enjoying pleasure – and giving yourself permission to do so. Within your marriage, the enjoyment of one another’s bodies in bed (or, on the couch; or, in the shower; or, on the bedroom floor; or…seriously, try not to have sex in the same place every time) should be one of the safest and most sacred spaces you inhabit together  – free of judgment, shame, and comparison.

And, like any other aspect of marriage, your sex life should evolve and adapt to your current season of life. There’s nothing wrong with comfortable patterns and rhythms, and I’m not suggesting your lovemaking should be some boundary-pushing experience that makes one or both of you uncomfortable. But, I am challenging you to approach sex with a novel perspective.

In an article on her website, Esther Perel writes,

“The erotic landscape is vastly larger, richer, and more intricate than the physiology of sex, or any repertoire of sexual techniques. It’s worth repeating: the central agent of eroticism is our imaginations. The most overlooked erotic organ is our mind. If sex is a collection of urges and acts, the erotic is a receptacle for our hopes, fears, expectations, and struggles.”

If you’re new to these concepts, a helpful exercise to ease into spousal eroticism would be to talk during sex. Describe the sensations you experience as they happen and speak encouraging words to your partner. Let them know you’re grateful for their body and the pleasure you share when you’re together. Yes, it may be awkward at first, but embracing the erotic aspects of your relationship should make room for awkwardness.

At the same time, be open to fluctuating sexual preferences within your own relationship. A sexual position you dismissed a couple of years ago may become your go-to position tomorrow. Certain “extra-curricular” sex acts (like oral sex, mutual masturbation, sexting, etc.) may become a preferred form of foreplay. Or, a sexually-charged behavior from before you were married (like making out in the car after a date) may make a welcome comeback.

Someone once told me that married couples will spend more time driving to the grocery store together than they will having sex throughout the course of their lifetime. And that’s absolutely true. The amount of time we’ll spend shuddering in the throes of orgasmic bliss is minuscule compared to other mundane tasks that make up our day-to-day lives.

While I understand the nugget of wisdom behind the well-intended sentiment, I’ve found the advice rings false by equating quantity of time with quality of time. No single man (or woman) slips into dry-mouthed and heart-fluttering sexual arousal fantasizing about a grocery store commute with their significant other. No blushing bride or eager groom wakes up the morning of their wedding in anticipation of an endless reverie of Netflix binge-watching, waiting in check-out lines, or Instagram scrolling.

Coming in hot once again with the truth, theologian James K.A. Smith writes,

“Our self is its most self-interested as it seeks the titillation of nerve endings that lie dormant in our workaday lives. We yearn for the release, the exception, the explosion that we hope pours sparks on the mundane we inhabit the rest of the time.”

In high school youth group and various college ministries, I heard far more about sex from the Church when I was single (and horny) than I do now that I’m married. And I know I’m not alone in that observation. Unfortunately, this means many of us lack the vocabulary, maturity, and tact necessary to discuss our sexual needs, wants, and desires with our partners.

If you want some resources that offer practical advice and insight that go beyond the requisite “Sex is a Gift From God” chapter you’ll find in all Christian marriage books, I highly recommend Mating in Captivity, Come As You Are, She Comes First (for guys), and Passionista (for girls).


Stress Fractures

While in Texas, Shannon effectively built up and transformed the tiny DJ business I began in college into an incredibly profitable wedding photography company. Rarely did we have a weekend where we weren’t servicing a wedding through photography or DJing.

As such, we knew leaving Texas for Colorado would have a significant financial impact on our income. Being successful in the wedding industry requires fostering a word-of-mouth business. And when you move away from all of your mouths, you lose a lot of business.

Instead of shuttering the business with our move, we decided to downshift our expectations and commit to the hard work of re-establishing ourselves in a new city. To supplement our loss of income, Shannon began picking up substitute teaching gigs in the local school districts.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the spring semester around mid-March, flattening the near-constant demand for substitute teachers to zero.

Perfect time to purchase a house, right?

Like many married couples, we crunched the numbers and correctly deduced the amount we were spending on rent for our 1B/1Ba apartment was roughly equivalent to what we could expect to pay for a monthly mortgage payment on a home.

Shannon has always wanted to own a house, while I’ve typically been the one more cautious about home ownership (something about large consequential purchases makes me nervous). However, buying a house just made sense for our season of life, and I couldn’t deny the fact that home ownership appeared to be the only way a couple our age could build wealth.

The housing market in our city is incredibly competitive and fast-paced (apparently, a lot of people want to move to Colorado – go figure). And, unfortunately, this means by the time a house reaches a popular listing site – like Zillow or Redfin – it probably already has ten offers.

So, when our agent would walk us through an open house, we had about fifteen minutes to decide whether we wanted to place an offer. And there’s nothing quite like a season of high-pressure and time-sensitive decision making to really expose some blindspots in a marriage.

After four years of living with me, sleeping with me, and seeing me at my best and worst, Shannon knows me better than any person on Earth (and vice versa). And this mean we know exactly what to say to build each other up or tear each other down.

In The Meaning of Marriage, pastor Timothy Keller writes,

“Marriage does not so much bring you into confrontation with your spouse as confront you with yourself. Marriage shows you a realistic, unflattering picture of who you are and then takes you by the scruff of the neck and forces you to pay attention to it.”

While our journey into homeownership was relativity smooth, it proved to be emotionally complex and difficult for both of us – even after we closed on our home. More than a few times during this process, Shannon and I found our tempers far shorter and disagreements more heated.

And, let’s be honest, buying a home is an inherently stressful thing to do. But, instead of viewing each other as teammates seeking to honor and support one another, it became easier to shift into a defensive mindset while making decisions about household preferences we prioritize differently.

And there’s certainly reason for concern, because while the home we bought isn’t a total fixer-upper, it definitely needs a lot of work. For starters, nearly every walled surface is covered in a beige fabric-like wallpaper that’s a pain in the ass to remove without damaging the drywall. And every appliance – from the water-wasting toilets to the monstrous double oven – is a seventies-era original in desperate need of replacement.

I’m not a fan of disorder, and it’s clear our home will probably be in a consistent state of flux and disrepair for at least a couple of years. And, Shannon’s a dreamer, which means I often feel as if I have to cast myself as the villain when those dreams crash into the reality of our bank account.

We’re excited about owning a home and updating it to our liking (if you want to track our home renovation, follow @theterrellhome on Instagram), but we both know we’ll be stretched and forced to grow in new and unexpected ways during the next few years.

From dinner parties, cookouts, Bible studies, and the chance to offer a bed and room to traveling friends and family, we can’t wait for this amalgamation of wood, concrete, glass, and carpet (so much carpet) to become a home from which we can offer a refuge from the storm.

However, it’s just as important for us to view each other as a refuge from the storm rather than the storm itself. The renovation of a home makes a poor substitute for the renovation of a relationship.


Going Home

As I mentioned in the introduction, I spent one of the best summers of my life in Colorado, and I’d be lying if I said returning to Colorado didn’t have at least something to do with recapturing some of that magic.

While completing my undergraduate degree several years ago, I interned at a very conservative Christian nonprofit organization in Colorado. Though it probably doesn’t need to be said, I was a very different person back then – in a lot of ways – but that fateful summer was a catalyst that led me to the man I am today.

For starters, that summer in Colorado was the first time I had spent extended amount of time away from the familiar comforts of friends and family. And I was coming out of a four-year dating relationship that ended very unexpectedly.

However, in this new environment with new faces and new experiences, I finally began to accept that I was someone who had more to offer the world than whoever I was dating at the time and that I had a lot to say about a lot of different topics (and an innate ability to say it well).

And (ironically), my experience interning at a conservative Christian nonprofit opened my eyes to which parts of evangelical Christianity of which I no longer wanted to be associated.

I attended meetings where participants bemoaned “the homosexual agenda” and casually referred to then-President Barack Obama as the “most divisive President in U.S. history” for having the gall to acknowledge police brutality and racial inequality.

While it took several more years for me to shed some of my more harmful political/religious beliefs, it was the first time I had to acknowledge a brand of Christianity far more concerned with “winning” than “loving” that I had willingly participated in for most of my life.

My summer in Colorado marked the beginning of transitional period in which I learned to ask questions and challenge the established narrative – an era not without my own personal failures, missteps, and tactless critiques.

In last year’s marriage post, I wrote that Shannon and I had basically taken a break from Sunday morning church gatherings. Part of the reason was our wedding business had basically obliterated our weekends, but we were also burned out of sermons we forgot by the time we exited the church parking lot and singing the same feel-good worship anthems that felt antithetical to our lived-in faith experiences week after week.

At the same time, we both felt more in tune with the work of the Holy Spirit during small group meetings, dinner gatherings, and late-night conversations than we did listening to expository preaching. It was in those moments that we felt the live-wire current of our faith spark against the real-world struggles and doubts of our day-to-day lives.

I don’t believe moving to a different place solves people’s problems (as the familiar adage states, “Wherever You Go, There You Are”), but I do believe you can move somewhere better for you.

For example, late last year, I wrote a three-part series on the Church’s relationship with the gay community. I’m ashamed to admit it, but if I still lived in Texas I don’t think I would’ve had the courage to research and write those articles.

However, as our lives in Colorado finally begin to settle, I know Shannon and I are feeling the pull to discover a new church home and family. For most of my life, I cringed (and critiqued) the thought of “church shopping,” but I now understand the value in establishing roots in a faith community in which “Everyone Is Welcome!” is more than a marquee slogan but a full-throated declaration that everyone can also participate.

At the same time, there is a danger is sliding into a self-serving religious echo chamber that only exists to reinforce the notion that the people who think, believe, and worship differently than us are the problem. And that ideology is a threat to both conservative and progressive faith communities.

In Searching for Sunday, the late Rachel Held Evans wrote,

“Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.”

As Shannon and I wrestle with our complicated relationship with Church and our own personal spiritual idiosyncrasies, we know we’re not alone, and we haven’t turned our backs on the religious legacies that have led us to where we are today.

We may not know where we’re going, but we promise to be honest along the way.

Disclaimer: As an Amazon affiliate, I earn a small percentage from qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.

One thought on “New Thoughts on Sex, Vulnerability, and Spirituality After Four Years of Marriage

  1. Beautiful blog and congrats on buying a home!! I would highly recommend reading Letters to the Church by Francis Chan. Fantastic read about church…

    Like

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