Reflections On Sex, Vulnerability, and Spirituality After Five Years of Marriage

The lead-up to our wedding day felt appropriately chaotic.

Two days before we were slated to tie the knot, a “once-in-a-century” storm blew in and flooded the quaint forest wedding venue we had chosen to get married at before we were even engaged.

The rain fell in thick torrents all day, submerging streets and burying front yards under rippling sheets of swift water. We peered through streaked windows and waited for it – prayed for it – to relent. The throbbing thunder and sporadic tornado warnings an answer in their own right.

The next day, Shannon and I set out on a morose expedition to inspect the damage wrought by the storm on our venue, knowing the clock was ticking, a make-it-or-break-it decision imminent. In our vehicle, we forded our way slowly around shallow rivers where the day previous had been blacktop roads.

Our car left muddy ruts in the windy unpaved road that spun up to our venue, and by the time we pulled into the soggy parking lot, we knew it was a lost cause. Our bespoke naturalistic wedding vision had been reclaimed by nature.

For a moment, we stood in despair and frustration. But then put all of that behind us and pivoted to solving problems. We had guests en route from out-of-town and out-of-state with booked flights and hotel rooms. The food, beer, and wine purchased. The bridesmaids and groomsmen assembled. Honeymoon loaded in the chamber. We were getting married the next day, full stop. But where? And how?

Our “wedding venue”

Shannon’s mother had rented out a home in the historic district near downtown for the bridesmaids to sleep, get ready, and take pictures. We’d have the wedding there, hold the ceremony in the living room. Our caterers could work out of the kitchen. Dinner would be served outside in the backyard. Dancefloor in the foyer.

And so, with less than 24 hours to spare, we rallied to make some magic happen. We texted our guests, alerting them of the changes. We found tables for the backyard. Shannon’s bridesmaids shifted furniture and decorated the interior with flowers. My groomsmen sprayed outside for mosquitos and draped string lights. I knocked on doors in the neighborhood and politely asked the police not to be called if the music got too loud the following night.

The day of our wedding was hot and muggy, but at least it was sunny, nary a cloud to blot the blue tapestry cast above our heads. An hour before the ceremony, I shared a First Look with Shannon, a moment just for us. I can still recall the thudding of my heart as I heard her approaching with my back turned and the exaltation of seeing her in her wedding dress, bouquet in hand, dappled in sunlight, for the first time on that balmy day.

Our first look

Later that night, after the ceremony, plated dinner, champagne toasts, we danced so hard in the parlor room the floorboards visibly flexed and warped, straining under the rebounding weight of dozens of sweaty wedding guests jumping amid the dazzling bursts of laser luminescence and confetti downpour.

That was five years ago.

In the years hence, we’ve adopted two cats, been drunk in an underground winery in the French countryside, photographed and DJed literally hundreds of weddings, adventured across Iceland, endured job changes, moved from Texas to Colorado, and bought a house.

Those are some of the highlights, but the truth is there are just as many (if not more) moments of melancholy, boredom, and frustration nestled in between every track of our Greatest Hits compilation. This is the fifth article on marriage I’ve written for this medium, and the series remains one of the more popular recurring bits I published every year.

And I think that says a lot. In an era where “brand management” and “image curation” are just as readily applied to our personal need for validation as they are to a megacorporation’s transparent attempts to be “cool” on social media, we’re still very much drawn to the real human dramas that play out in intimate relationships.

I should note that this article is not an encapsulation of what we’ve learned about marriage and sex in five years, but what we’ve learned specifically during our fifth year of marriage. As always, I hope you find this piece relatable, encouraging, and helpful as it pertains to your present or future marriage.


This Is What You Came For

As I’ve written before, there’s a strange cultural silence surrounding sex between married couples.

Even outside of a “Christian” context, if you see sex depicted in television and film, it’s not often between two people who are married. And, if the onscreen couple is married, the point of the scene is often to show how rote and boring their sex life has become.

Shannon and I have always striven to be a “sex-positive” married couple, not only in writing (like these annual blog posts) but also in conversation with single friends and married couples. As such, we try to practice what I’ve heard described as “the gift of going first.”

According to this tried and true principle, an effective way to have more vulnerable (and interesting) conversations is to volunteer your vulnerability first. Not only is this an effective ice breaker, but it sets the tone for a safe, empathetic and shame-free space to let people know they aren’t alone.

For a lot of Christians I know, “sex education” amounted to a single book read during premarital counseling a week before the wedding. As I wrote in my article on purity culture, I heard way more about sex (and how to avoid having it) from the Church when I was single than I’ve heard about sex (and what it takes for it to be good) after I was married.

I assume this is based in part on the assumption that “good sex” is supposed to be happening because it’s “God’s gift to married couples.” However, the more we talked with couples, the more I realized that’s often not the case. In fact, the assumption that “good and holy sex” should be happening can be its own shameful hurdle to overcome.

We tend to annex our sexuality from the bulk of our daily lives, like something to hide away in a box and take out only when it’s deemed necessary to do so. But sensuality and erotic desire were not meant to be isolated from the mundane rhythms of our lives.

This is why Shannon and I try to make a point of talking with each other about our sex life outside of the bedroom. If you limit your sexual expression solely to the act itself – a ten-minute interval once a week or so – your sex life with your spouse will probably not improve.

These conversations are Shannon and I’s attempt to revise and revamp our “script.” According to “sexual script theory,” many of our expectations and attitudes toward our bodies, sex, and pleasure are shaped by messages embedded within our broader cultural contexts.

And when two people enter a relationship, they inevitably bring their scripts with them. Over time, our scripts are edited, remixed, and expanded by the acquisition of new experiences and knowledge. Sometimes these additions can be joyful and enlightening; sometimes they can be painful and non-consensual.

In a long-term sexual relationship (like a marriage), whether we verbalize it or not, our scripts speak to one another, respond, and attempt to sync. It’s here the two scripts clash and merge, our sexual identities seeking comfortable rhythms, beats, and patterns. A new script is produced, co-written by the two leads.

Sexual scripts aren’t synonymous with sexual history or “baggage” (that cringe-worthy Evangelical term for past sexual transgressions). Even if you’re the most inexperienced virgin, you still have a script. Remember, scripts are more than the things you’ve done – they’re also the attitudes, preconceptions, expectations, and messages about sex you’ve internalized your entire life.

And that’s why it’s important to revisit and examine them from time to time, jettison what isn’t working, keep what’s working fine, and introduce new elements if necessary. But you’re going to have the conservation.

To illustrate what this looks like in practice, allow me to use an example from our marriage. As we entered our fifth year of marriage, Shannon and I began to get frustrated with an aspect of our sex life, specifically, despite both of our best efforts, it often took Shannon a considerable amount to reach a climax.

As a result, to pursue sex as a mutually satisfying experience began to feel like a chore for the both of us. This is not a script either of us wanted to become ingrained into our sex life.

And, so, we bought a vibrator.

I know, for some of my readers, this admission will come as a near-scandalous shock. And, for the rest of my readership, it’ll barely register at all (and might garner a few “What took you so long?” rolls of the eyes).

It’s an admittedly low-stakes addition to our sex life, but it was borne out of our frank discussions about how we could have better sex. After all, why wouldn’t we seek to add more pleasure into this aspect of our lives?

Once a script establishes itself and becomes firmly rooted in the relationship, it can be extremely difficult for a couple to go “off script” and learn to improvise again. And that’s normal. All humans have a natural inclination toward routine and rhythm – even the most sexually “adventurous” couples. Sexual scripts aren’t inherently good or bad; they just set the stage for what’s to come

For example, I’ve talked to some couples who made the leap from only having lightly kissed throughout their relationship to full-blown intercourse in a matter of minutes after entering the hotel room on their wedding night. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with enthusiasm, but even in those moments, a script is being written and patterns are being established.

In her book Girls & Sex, sociologist Peggy Orenstein writes about how a high cultural fixation on virginity can inadvertently elevate sexual intercourse at the expense of other essential aspects of sexual discovery.

Orenstein says,

“After all, moving slowly and intentionally with a partner is not only incredibly sensual, it’s vital to learning, truly learning, about desire, pleasure, communication, mutuality, intimacy. That’s ultimately far more life-altering than achieving intercourse.”

What can happen is a “reduction” in the sexual experience, a race to “get it in” before it’s too late. (And, it should go without saying, these cultural sexual scripts can gradually lead to the de-prioritization of female pleasure during sex). Many of us may need to learn (or relearn) what it means to have sex without having sex. And these observation aren’t limited to couples who “waited for marriage” or abstain for religious reasons.

Just as the idolization of sex can lead to unfulfilled expectations in the bedroom, the cheapening of sex is another form of script reduction – same coin, different sides. You could be having a lot of sex with different partners, and it still be bad sex. When it comes to sex (and a lot of things) depth of experience is far more satisfying than breadth of experience.

Maybe a sex toy feels like too much for you and your relationship right now. That’s okay. But I’d still challenge you to periodically reevaluate your sexual scripts with your partner. Take a critical look at the thought processes, expectations, and patterns that shape your sex life. Ask questions like, how can we make sex a more mutually beneficial, reciprocal, and pleasurable experience for the both of us?

Maybe you’re single, not in a sexual relationship, or waiting for marriage. You’re still writing a sexual script. Teach yourself to appreciate your body as something that’s your own. And, if you’re comfortable, masturbate with intentionality and learn to separate pleasure from shame. Your body is a gift to yourself before it’s a gift to someone else – a lesson that may be more vital for women in environments that place a primacy on male-centric scripts.

Oh, and about that vibrator?
(It was this one, by the way).

It took little bit of trial and error to find the best settings, but it totally changed the game. What once a frustrating hurdle in our sex life is now an opportunity for increased pleasure and intimacy in our marriage. We don’t use it every time we have sex, but whenever Shannon retrieves it from its discreet little box, the results speak for themselves.


Alone Together

For most of our marriage, Shannon was the one who worked from home while I left every morning for the office.

At the outset of the pandemic, our roles reversed. For the past few years, Shannon has worked full-time as a wedding photographer. However, with the pandemic, the wedding industry took a major hit. To supplement our loss of income (and fund our extensive home renovations), Shannon took a position at a local charter school.

And I, like many people around the world, found myself working exclusively from home. As a result, we experienced a substantial shift in our relationship dynamic during our fifth year of marriage.

First, there was the practical shifts.

For the back half of 2020, Shannon would return from a day of corralling two-dozen multilingual kindergarteners to editing wedding galleries and engagement photos at night (the wedding industry may have contracted during 2020, but that didn’t mean people stopped getting married or wanting to have their pictures taken). Effectively working two full-time jobs, Shannon found herself locked in an exhausting cycle of work from which there was little respite.

To alleviate her burgeoning workload, I took over almost all of the cooking, dishwashing, cleaning, and laundry duties. For the record, I’m fully aware of all the funny (and often too accurate) memes of men doing the bare minimum of housework and expecting a parade to be thrown in their honor. Nor do I want to imply that Shannon and I previously maintained a rigid patriarchal division of labor around the house.

Simply put, we both found the ways we spend the hours of our day and how we support one another changing dramatically.

The second noticeable shift was in our communication struggles.

With her new job, Shannon is often out of bed and off to work before I awake. And I now spend most of the day sitting at my kitchen table/makeshift office writing and attending Zoom meetings in an empty house with no one for company but our two cats (who don’t make for the best conversation partners no matter how hard I try).

Though I identify as an extrovert, like most “writer types” I have introvert tendencies. However, as I learned this year, the longer I’m isolated and spend time alone, the more insular and self-reflective I become. And, as I mentioned above, Shannon spent most of the year overworked and overburdened.

Couple all of that with the pervasive sense of doom that hung over every Breaking News alert this past year, and it’s fairly easy to see how and why communication breakdowns happened more frequently in our relationship. Like most couples, Shannon and I have two to three recurring fights that tend to rear their heads every four months or so.

I sometimes wish I could take those moments, those fights, and hold them in perpetuity, so I could revisit them in the aftermath, examine them like a crime scene, shift the gem of the memory, in hopes of gleaning some insight that will help us avoid the next conflagration. But, another part knows that wouldn’t do much good – the fights themselves are often endemic of broader conflicts roiling beneath the surface.

In a blog post, relationship therapist Esther Perel breaks down the three most common types of recurring fights couples experience: Power and Control, Care and Closeness, and Respect and Recognition.

Perel writes,

“It’s hard to remember in the heat of the moment, but when someone is extremely angry or deeply upset, it’s usually because they care. That care can be better utilized. It requires developing the skills and language to identify the underlying dynamics which serve as the backdrop to so many of our fights. When we work together in a healthy way to understand how these patterns came to be, we shift our relational trajectory toward how we can help each other through it.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you we’ve figured out the secret to disrupting the seasonal conflicts that throw a wrench in relational harmony. Maybe they’re a part of being in a long-term relationship, and they’ll never fully be eliminated. Maybe marriages are designed to function as “laboratories of grace,” where we’re repeatedly challenged to seek forgiveness and reconciliation for every careless word, misplaced tone, unspoken affirmation, and irked exchange.

And then we promise to be better.

2020 was the year our world shrank. We bought a home, and then find our social lives mostly confined to the walls of that home for the better part of a year. Travel plans were rerouted, and career goals shifted. The goal posts, to the say the least, moved.

And though the world may have collapsed in on itself, it didn’t stop turning and we didn’t stop living. Life didn’t stop. We fought, we loved, we lamented, and we adapted. We opened our home to weary travelers, we cooked meals, we made love, we hiked in the woods, and we mapped the interiors of our souls in painful and beautiful ways.

In William Irvine’s book, A Guide to the Good Life, the Scottish theologian wrote,

“There is a danger that you will mislive – instead of spending your life pursuing something genuinely valuable, you squandered it because you allowed yourself to be distracted by the various baubles life has to offer.”


A New Kind of Missionary

It was a tough year to continue to identify as a Christian.

In April 2020, I wrote an article about Christians and conspiracy theories, and it quickly became the most popular article I’ve ever published by a wide margin. Given the cultural climate, I knew it would strike a nerve, but I didn’t expect it to continue to be relevant throughout the entirety of 2020 and well into 2021.

From “Plandemic” and “Wayfair’s trafficking kids in cabinets” to anti-vaccine sentiment to “stolen election” claims, it seemed as if Christians were on the front lines of every conspiracy theory that tumbled across my social media feeds, no matter how ridiculous, outlandish, or dangerous.

Tragically, I know from the numerous private messages and emails I received this year, I know many of you witnessed beloved friends, family members, and Christian mentors fall into rabbit holes of misinformation, paranoia, and propaganda.

All of this came to head on January 6, 2021, stormed the U.S. Capitol in attempt to overturn the 2020 election results. In one particularly stomach-churning video, a group of insurrectionists pray for God’s blessings after breaching the Senate chambers.

During the past summer’s Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer, it felt as if many outspoken Evangelical leaders were more concerned with criticizing “Critical Race Theory” than addressing issues related to racial inequality and injustice.

And, if that wasn’t enough, the Christian world was rocked by a number of high-profile sex abuse scandals, extramarital indiscretions, and cover-ups.

Therefore, it shouldn’t have come as surprise, then, when Pew Research announced church membership has fallen to its lowest point in nearly a century. The decline is especially pronounced among Millennials and members of Gen Z.

To quote Amy Peterson in her magnificent book, Where Goodness Still Grows,

“People of my generation aren’t leaving the church because their devious atheist professors got to them, but because they saw a church more interested in defending political positions than in loving their neighbors.”

None of this occurred in a vacuum. The seeds were sown long before many of us born, but the rotten fruit is finally breaching the surface in ways that can no longer be ignored.

All of my life I’ve been told the best kinds of missionaries are representatives of their own culture, not white Evangelical expats residing in a foreign land. So, that got me thinking – What’s the current state of my culture?

A recent report from the American Enterprise Institute found that white Evangelicals were the most susceptible religious demographic to QANON-related conspiracy theories – a 2021 report by PRRI found identical results. A 2018 PRRI survey found that more than half of white Evangelicals believe that America becoming a majority non-white nation “will be a negative development” for the United States. Three in five white Evangelicals believe Joe Biden wasn’t “legitimately elected” as President.

A 2020 Barna report revealed that white Evangelicals are the least-motivated demographic to address issues related to racial injustice. From Vietnam to the War on Terror, white Evangelicals have reliably been the most “pro-war” demographic when polled. They’re also the most likely religious demographic to be “pro-death penalty.”

The question, therefore, that’s haunted me all year is, “If the transformative work of the Holy Spirit is real, why do so many Christians appear to be transforming into something worse?

Whether you’re approaching evangelical Christianity from a more traditional or progressive lens, I think we can all agree: Something needs to change. On a personal and institutional level, true reform can only come from within. Lasting change cannot be forced by outside opinion or criticism. Renovation is a process that only works from the inside out.

Over the years, wrestling with my faith has often felt like a bare-knuckle backroom brawl, and I’ve made my struggles very public through this blog. However, as much as I’ve been tempted to leave the faith tradition of my upbringing, the Jesus stories and Gospel message are woven into the fabric of my DNA. Leaving, in this particular case, would solve nothing.

In A Grief Observed, theologian C.S. Lewis wrote,

“My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?”

I still believe the Church, in all of its denominational, theological, and regional flavors, as the most effective vehicle for mass social change and cultural redemption. History is rife with real-world examples of Christianity being used to launch and sustain social justice movements, scientific advancement, environmental initiatives, and artistic achievement.

As Brian McLaren writes in The Great Spiritual Migration,

What might happen if we understand the core Christian ethos as creative, constructive, and forward-leaning – as an “organizing religion” that challenges all institutions (including its own) to learn, grow, and mature toward a deepening, enduring vision of reconciliation with God, self, neighbor, enemy, and creation?

For those who wonder, Shannon and I don’t see eye to eye on every theological issue, but the events of the past year were still a shock to both of our systems and forced us to rethink our allegiance to the Christian ethos. But the crusade for women’s equality in professional ministry, the affirmation and inclusion of gay Christian couples, an honest reckoning with the Church’s complicity in racism, and the denouncement of Christian Nationalism requires the prophetic imagination of a new generation of Christian visionaries.

We need more Christian insiders to call out and stand up against racism, conspiracy theories, misogyny, homophobia, nationalism, white supremacy, and scientific denialism. In short, we need more missionaries to white Evangelicalism.

Though the past year felt decidedly apocalyptic, I don’t believe the world is ending anytime soon, but a world dies and is reborn every day at sunset and sunrise. A “year” is nothing but an arbitrary unit of measurement inspired by the Earth’s orbit around a giant ball of flaming hydrogen.

The lessons you learned this particular journey around the Sun are entirely up to you. Each one of us is an architect – uniquely suited to remake our corner of existence. The world we decide to create in the aftermath of another world’s demise is up to us.

6 thoughts on “Reflections On Sex, Vulnerability, and Spirituality After Five Years of Marriage

  1. There is a LOT of words to wade through…

    Regardless, certainly the concept of the topic is great – especially if people feel like there is a need to address in themselves, in their marriage – and being open to interact with others as well….

    Understanding how our bodies and souls work is essential to a healthy life….no different than understanding how our souls work to walk with God in Christ.

    Like

  2. Thank you for being vulnerable, I appreciate your thoughts on these different topics.

    One question I have is: Where do you find it biblically and/or from God, that it is okay to masturbate?

    In His Grace, Laura K

    >

    Like

    1. Hey, Lauren! Great question! I’m actually going to expand on this point soon in an article I’m writing about a better Christian sexual ethic. But, long story short, the Bible doesn’t have anything direct to say about masturbation. It’s never mentioned in the Old or New Testaments (which is kind of odd, given the ubiquity of the act through all of human history). It’s common in the modern evangelical world for us to condemn masturbation for its connection to pornography, but I think it’s possible to unlink masturbation from pornography and dehumanizing sexual fantasy. I look to Paul’s instruction regarding meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8 as a template for this discussion – if you think masturbation will cause you to sin, then don’t do it. But if you think you can masturbate without sinning, then I think it’s something that can be healthy and helpful when done with intentionality. I view it the same way most Christians view drinking alcohol. Also, personally speaking, the shame I experienced during my adolescence trying (unsuccessfully) not to masturbate was objectively more harmful than the act itself.

      Like

    2. Laura
      Simply try being a normal male….

      They will be happy to clue you in…

      Apparently even some married/partnered males (which is odd…but apparently so…).

      Like

  3. Joe,

    Loved the below comment – but I would recommend more prophets calling fire out of heaven to on the Ba-alite worshipping white evangelical leadership…. Let’s start there – and then really pick up the pace…:-).

    “In short, we need more missionaries to white Evangelicalism.”

    Like

  4. re the Church

    Yeah, now try finding that….amidst the massive counterfeit and deceit…. When an avowed false prophet STILL has 173,000 subscribers on his YT channel – neatly monetizing himself…. all the while spewing hate, poison and destruction.

    I still believe the Church, in all of its denominational, theological, and regional flavors, as the most effective vehicle for mass social change and cultural redemption.

    Like

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