We found ourselves in Iceland on our sixth wedding anniversary.
It was our first “big” vacation in four years. Between moving to Colorado, buying a house, renovating said house, changing jobs, and the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, international travel just wasn’t in the cards (or, to be honest, the budget).
However, at the tail end of 2021, we decided it was time for a real vacation. So, we cashed in a lot of credit cards miles we’d accumulated (Pro tip: If you’re renovating a house, run every purchase and contract labor expense through a travel card), booked a flight to Iceland, and planned out a 2-week road trip along the famous “Ring Road” that traces the island’s coastline.
On the day of our wedding anniversary, we boarded a “Superjeep,” crossed multiple glacier meltwater rivers, and entered Þórsmörk, a beautiful valley in the southern highlands nestled between three glaciers and a volcano. It was also, to put it mildly, a beautiful day in Iceland – sunny skies, no clouds, and the occasional cooling breeze.
Our guide took us to the top of a narrow peak to eat our pre-packaged lunch. There, we sat and ate overlooking a landscape of braided rivers, glacial valleys, and volcanic upheaval. It felt, to be honest, like a high point – figuratively and literally – because the past year had been one of the most challenging and informative seasons of our marriage.
From leaving a highly volatile work environment and beginning therapy to (still) renovating a home and working multiple jobs each, our sixth year of marriage felt particularly difficult. Along the way, we’ve also rethought our approaches to sex, reckoned with interpersonal conflict, and wrestled with our spiritual expectations.
For those new to my blog, every year I write an open and honest article about the lessons I’ve learned in marriage over the course of the previous year. My goal is to tackle issues that appear (to me, at least) nearly universal in marriage through an extremely personal and vulnerable lens and write about them in such a way that’s wholly unique and refreshingly (sometimes shockingly) candid. As such, they aren’t your typical “Christian marriage articles,” and they dive into topics you may find incredibly raw and uncomfortable.
(But, hey, I also know that’s part of the appeal).
You can check out my previous articles on marriages below:
- Thoughts on Sex, Vulnerability, and Spirituality After a Year of Marriage
- More Thoughts on Sex, Vulnerability, and Spirituality After Two Years of Marriage
- Further Thoughts on Sex, Vulnerability, and Spirituality After Three Years of Marriage
- New Thoughts on Sex, Vulnerability, and Spirituality After Four Years of Marriage
- Reflections on Sex, Vulnerability, and Spirituality After Five Years of Marriage
Accelerators, Brakes, and Climaxes: A New Way of Thinking About Sex
In my previous article on marriage, I dropped the “bombshell” (for some readers…others, not so much) that we’d bought a vibrator to enhance our sex life.
Unfortunately, I don’t have anything nearly as “click-bait worthy” to share for this year’s reflections on sex (though we have added a couple of more toys to the mix – including this fun one). As I mentioned in that article, the reason we chose to introduce a vibrator into our love life really boiled down to one thing: To make sex a more mutually pleasurable experience.
Helping Shannon reach orgasm required a lot of effort from both of us. As a result, Shannon would usually defer to my pleasure because she felt like “it wasn’t worth the time and effort” for her to attain her own climax.
The vibrator, when used during foreplay and intercourse, helped us overcome the time hurdle (and it was fun), but it also helped reveal other areas of our sexual relationship that we needed to work on. Before we dig into that, I’ll need to provide a little bit of (very interesting) background on the field of sex research.
Okay, so for decades, the way people traditionally understood sex was through something called the four-phase model of sexual response. In a nutshell, the four-phase model assumes most sexual experiences move through (you guessed it) four phases of sexual response: Excitement (or Arousal), Plateau, Climax, and Recovery.
In general, men progress through the stages of the sexual response cycle in a very linear and predictable fashion. Thus, according to a bunch of male sex researchers in the early-1960s, the same four-phase physiological sexual response cycle should hold just as true for women as it does for men.
Yeah, not exactly.
Serious research into female sexuality didn’t begin until the early 1990s. Until then, male sexuality was considered the baseline for the sexual experience in men and women – women were just considered “more complicated.” However, the advent and cultural acceptance of the birth control pill helped make conversations around female sexuality and desire less taboo. In the ensuing decades, the field of sex therapy bloomed, more women entered the workforce and pursued higher education, and sex research became less dominated by male voices and perspectives.
Enter the dual control model. Pioneered in the 1990s by researchers from the Kinsey Institute, the dual control model proposed a new way of thinking about sexual response that went beyond descriptive physiological phases (and helped address some of the concerns many sex therapists were encountering when it came to female patients).
According to the dual control model, your progression through the sexual response cycle is dependent on a neurological partnership between a highly individualized series of sexual “accelerators” and sexual “brakes.” Your accelerators are part of something called your Sexual Excitation System (SES), and your brakes make up your Sexual Inhibition System (SIS).
Let’s break this down a bit more before we get into the application:
- Sexual Excitation System (SES): This is your sexual “accelerators.” Your SES scans your external and internal environments (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, thoughts, etc) for relevant sexual stimuli and encourages the physiological journey from arousal to climax.
- Sexual Inhibition System (SIS): This is your sexual “brakes.” Your SIS is also scanning your external and internal environments – but for stimuli that lets your body know it’s not “safe” to enter (and progress through) the sexual response cycle.
Your SES and SIS are constantly running – often in the background of your subconscious. So, while your SIS is often in the driver’s seat (and for good reason), your SES is still there – in the passenger seat – scanning for accelerators. Likewise, when your SES shifts to the driver’s seat (like when you’re having sex or masturbating), your SIS is still there in the background – scanning for brakes. That’s why it’s called the dual control method – sexual response is a constant interplay between your sexual accelerators and brakes.
(I should also note that your individual sensitivity to your accelerators and brakes can fluctuate wildly depending on your age, time of day, monthly cycle, the last time you had sex, and about a million other factors).
In general (but not always), men have more sensitive accelerators and women have more sensitive brakes. There are a lot of reasons for this discrepancy, but some sex researchers believe one of the root causes is gender differences in sexual identity formation.
Even before puberty, women’s views on their bodies and sexuality are typically shaped through cultural messages and environmental cues – or, in other words, how other people respond to their bodies and sexuality. (A classic example of this would be the one-piece swimsuit/t-shirt requirement for girls at a co-ed swim party).
In sharp contrast, a man is rarely taught to consider the passive impact of his sexuality or body on another person. And, by the time a man starts having sex with a partner, he’s probably already familiar with his sexual response cycle, accelerators, and brakes. Women, in general, are rarely afforded that luxury as a result of the less forgiving cultural scripts regarding their sexuality they’re often required to adopt. (For a look at how “purity culture” overwhelming targets women, check out this article I wrote a few years ago).
So, back to me and Shannon and what you can learn from all of this.
While the vibrator helped inhibit some of Shannon’s brakes (primarily Is this going to take too long?), it always brought some others to the forefront and exposed some areas of Shannon’s sexuality that I’d been neglecting.
How do I look? Am I safe? Am I desirable? Am I being too loud/too quiet? Am I being used? Should I orgasm? Do I even want to? What if I look funny if I do? These are not thoughts that cross my mind when Shannon and I are having sex. However, for Shannon, it’s this kind of recurring internal monologue that would apply pressure to her brakes and bottleneck her sexual response cycle.
It doesn’t take much for her intrusive thoughts to derail her build-up to a climax. Therefore, to help Shannon overcome those hurdles and “get her over the edge,” I need to help Shannon feel safe and desired while we’re having sex. Practically speaking (literally), this often looks like me telling her as she starts getting close what I find sexy about her body or how I fantasize about her when she’s not around.
In the words of the dual control model, this encouragement helps diminish the role of her sexual inhibition system as she progresses through the sexual response cycle.
But it’s also more than that. If I’m only making Shannon feel sexy and desired while we’re having sex, then my words can easily become perceived as “tools” used to manipulate her sexual satisfaction. I should be making her feel sexy and desirable outside of the bedroom, and, to be honest, this is an area of our “sex life” that needs a lot of improvement. But it’s something I’m working on.
I want to clarify that everything I said above is 1) very generalized, and 2) highly personalized to our sex life. If you’re looking to apply the dual control model to your own sex life, I recommend taking time with your partner to figure out your own accelerators and brakes.
- Questions for Accelerators: What thoughts, feelings, or sensations get you thinking about sex during the day? What sustains your arousal/excitement during sex? What thoughts, feelings, or sensations help “push you over the edge” to climax?
- Questions for Brakes: What thoughts, feelings, or sensations cause you to lose interest in sex? What decreases your arousal/excitement during sex? What thoughts, feelings, or sensations stifle your ability to climax?
For a more comprehensive overview of the dual control model (and its applications), I highly recommend the book Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. For an amusing look at the bizarre history of sex research, check out Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach. Oh, and if you’re curious about incorporating a vibrator into your sex life, we recommend this one.
Why I Started Going to Therapy
About two years ago, Shannon stopped taking birth control.
The reason was two-fold: For one, she didn’t particularly enjoy the side effects and, two, we wanted to start preparing her body for the possibility of pregnancy.
Shannon and I have been lucky in that we’ve never really had to dodge or navigate the thorny “So, when are you having kids?” inquiries from friends and family members. And, to be fair, the last few years have seen a lot of disruptive change in our lives.
A part of our reluctance and hesitancy to have kids came down to figuring out how we were going to afford to have kids in a country that offers little to no support for bringing a child into the world (especially in comparison to all other developed nations). So, we had to make sure Shannon’s insurance and my income were in a good place (sadly, this is one of the main reasons the birthrate among people our age is declining in the U.S.).
And, the other part of the delay was me.
Late last year, I left an unhealthy work culture, and I found myself increasingly anxious, irritable, and paralyzed when it came to any conversations involving any decision related to the future – especially when it came to kids. After a particularly distressing argument, Shannon lovingly suggested that I probably needed to seek out some professional help.
So, about six months ago, I started going to therapy.
Probably the biggest bombshell I’ve discovered about myself thus far is that I’m an introvert who’s really good at masking as an extrovert. Plus, it’s possible I might be slightly on the spectrum (Cue Shannon: “Well, this helps explain why I’m always apologizing for something you said out loud in public”). So, obviously, there’s a lot to unpack (but slowly).
But here are some of the lessons I’ve learned in therapy:
- It’s not my responsibility to change anyone’s mind.
- The beliefs I hold in my head that actually matter are the ones that directly affect my day-to-day life.
- Just because something unexpected happens doesn’t automatically mean it’s bad.
- Attempting to control every input or mitigate every output of my life is a recipe for perpetual anxiety.
- Learn to enjoy and appreciate what you have while you have it (nothing is guaranteed).
So, what does this look like in practice?
It means giving myself permission to not chime in on every current event (and disengage from the news cycle) and reminding myself there’s far more going on in the world that I CAN’T control, influence, or impact than I can. It means being intentional about exercise so I can burn off my nervous energy. And it means being honest with Shannon when I need to go to a bookstore alone to process.
One application is that I’ve scaled back – way back – the amount of news I consume on a daily basis. I’ve disabled all “Breaking News” push notifications on my phone and unfollowed a lot of news organizations that exist only to keep me in a state of constant crisis and agitation. Through this news “diet,” I’ve come to understand that most of what sparks our collective outrage is either A) Completely outside of my sphere of my influence, or B) Completely unrelated to how I live my day-to-day life. (To stay informed, I mostly rely on unbiased aggregators like AllSides and Ground News).
Another lesson I’ve learned is that my fear of parenthood is directly correlated to my fear of change. I’m really good at maintaining the status quo and managing my expectations when it comes to the short term. But get about three months ahead on the timetable and my anxiety begins spiking. A big part of my therapy journey has been learning to accept instability and “surprises” as a necessary – even beautiful – part of living.
I’ve also learned that therapy isn’t about sitting down and trying to solve all of my problems, but more about opening myself up to the possibility of change through vulnerable introspection and guided help.
Thankfully, the stigma around therapy has been fading in recent years, but it still very much exists for men. The first 2 sessions were very hard for me. But if you’ve been thinking to yourself, “Should I go to therapy?” (especially if you’re a guy), then here’s your sign: Just do it.
Going to therapy isn’t admitting defeat. It’s a sign of maturity and responsibility. I’m already a healthier man because of it.
Though it feels even more personal to share than the sex advice above, Shannon and I have set about “trying” to get pregnant (which has to be one of the worst sex-related euphemisms ever conjured). We have several friends who have wrestled through infertility and miscarriages, and it’s quite possible those struggles could be part of our story as well. It also, to be honest, can still feel a little crazy to want to bring a child into a world that looks as if it’s continuously in danger of spinning off its axis.
However, at the same time, I’ve learned that just because a story unfolds differently than I originally planned that doesn’t mean it’s somehow less than the inevitable sum of all its plot twists and surprises. In fact, a life that goes “according to plan” probably isn’t much of a life anyway.
For those curious, I found my therapist via BetterHelp, an online service that connects people with certified therapists. I began going once a week, and then after a few months, shifted to once a month. If you’re not quite ready to make the jump to therapy, I recommend reading Maybe You Should Talk To Someone by Lori Gottlieb.
An Introvert Goes to Church (and the Modern Perils of Searching for a Church)
I have a confession to make.
I’ve always felt like an imposter during prayer and worship services.
I grew up going to church, oftentimes three times a week. And that doesn’t even count all of the Christian summer camps, evangelical youth conferences, mission trips, and vacation Bible schools I participated in throughout my high school and college years.
I’ve attended worship events that rival the production spectacle of Coldplay concerts and spontaneous acapella “worship nights” held in dimly lit college apartments.
Suffice to say, I spent a lot of time in praise and worship settings. I’d stand when I was expected to stand, sing along with the words on the projection screen, and sometimes even raise my hands with my eyes closed (most often during the key change at the song’s bridge).
But, if I’m honest with myself (like, really honest), I didn’t do any of that because I felt a supernatural compulsion to do so. I did it because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. I did it because I wanted to fit in.
As I mentioned in the section above, one of the things I’ve learned about myself through therapy is that I’m an introvert. And as I began to dive a little deeper into what that meant for my mental health, I began to consider how it might affect my religious experiences as well.
For example, a lot of the modern church’s religious activities and worship gatherings are geared toward meeting the needs of extroverts.
And if we’re not careful, we can subtly (or not-so-subtly) paint the picture that an authentic Jesus follower is relentlessly optimistic, tirelessly energetic, emotionally expressive, and magnetically sociable.
In other words, pure nightmare fuel for introverts.
In You Are What You Love, professor James K.A. Smith writes,
“We have effectively communicated to young people that sincerely following Jesus is synonymous with being ‘fired up’ for Jesus, with being excited for Jesus, as if discipleship were synonymous with fostering an exuberant, perky, cheerful, hurray-for-Jesus disposition like what we might find in the glee club or at a pep rally.”
Portraying Christianity solely as a gregarious social club of unbridled enthusiasm can be extremely off-putting for those who are easily overwhelmed and prefer thoughtful contemplation to expressive displays of religious affection.
When I think back to those times in my past when I felt like a deeply-embedded outsider, I’m coming to realize that a person’s relationship with God is not dependent on their brain chemistry or the strength of their feelings at a specific moment in time.
In Introverts in the Church, Adam Hughs writes,
“The upfront piety of evangelicalism and the expectation of outward, emotional displays of faith, can feel invasive and artificial to introverts. Meanwhile, the anti-intellectual stream can alienate some introverted thinkers who find their love of ideas, comfort in solitude, and powers of concentration translate into a life of intellectual pursuits.”
Coming to terms with my introversion has helped me better tailor my expectations toward church and make sense of my “spiritual imposter syndrome” over the years. I now have the words to explain what I’ve felt for most of my life. Tracing the ups and downs of my “Christian walk” in light of this revelation also gives greater context to my frequent disillusionment and frustration with some aspects of Christian culture I’ve found increasingly intolerable over the years.
This isn’t to say extroverted expressions of faith are somehow “less than” or “inferior” to the spiritual experiences of introverts. It’s just that, for most of my life, I’ve felt pressure (whether real or imagined) to conform to a particular extroverted model of what “authentic Christian faith” looks like.
This understanding couldn’t have come at a better time. After moving to Colorado, Shannon and I have struggled to find a church community to call “home.” There are several reasons for this. The pandemic disrupted our initial church search, our wedding business keeps us busy a lot of weekends (not to mention we both have full-time jobs), and, to be totally honest, the allure of resting or getting outside and hitting a trail (we do live in Colorado, after all) on our rare free weekends is simply more magnetic.
However, within the past year, Shannon and I made a more concentrated effort to seek out a faith community to call our own. When we were able, we started exploring churches close to home. Being a huge fan of N.T. Wright (Surprised By Hope remains of the most spiritually influential books I’ve ever read), one promising prospect was an understated Anglican church. However, after a few weeks, Shannon confided in me that she found it more than a little dull (for all the same reasons my little introverted self probably felt drawn to it).
So, after a busy fall/winter season, we started attending a non-denominational church in our neighborhood. It was more charismatic than I was used to, but the atmosphere and passion on stage was undeniable. And then, just as we were settling into the familiar pattern of weekly church attendance, one of the pastors decided to unexpectedly go full-on “culture war” and “secret Hollywood agenda to turn your kids gay” at the most inopportune moment (Shannon had invited a friend from work to come with us, and we spent the lunch afterward profusely apologizing for the mortifying experience).
I’m familiar with the consumer-related perils of “church shopping.” But Shannon and I find ourselves in the unenviable (but larger than you think) demographic of disenfranchised Christian millennials who feel spiritually homeless but recognize the necessity of Christian community. It’s a tough spot to be in, especially after such a tumultuous few years for the Christian witness, in general.
However, we’re still hopeful and on the hunt, so to speak. Just as Jesus hasn’t given up on us, we haven’t given up the search for a welcoming, future-oriented, and challenging community of faithful Christian believers.