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What's it like for a cohabiting couple headed for marriage to abruptly stop having sex until after the wedding? "Easy," says Mariah, age 23, who has lived with Jerry for a year and a half. "Hard. Really, really hard," says Kate, who abruptly stopped having sex with her fiancé Nick.
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Mariah and Jerry are two months into their sexual fast. She has no idea why she wanted to stop, except that she didn't feel like sex was a necessity in their relationship. She was nervous about how Jerry would react and had braced herself for a shouting match before bringing it up. But he surprised her by saying he'd been feeling the same way.
"It's different," Mariah says. "We've been close to each other. We haven't fought nearly as much. We've been more honest about our fears and things that we've wanted to talk about. There've been no secrets. It's been almost more intimate than it ever was between us. It's just been so cool!" As she talks about it, you can sense her welling enthusiasm.
"Before, if we fought, we thought it was sexual tension, so this has forced us to be more honest and open with each other. And say [for example], 'No, this is what I'm upset about.'" In other words, they've had to focus on communication and conflict resolution—the kind of skills that make for a healthy, enduring relationship. And as they do so, they're finding they enjoy one another's company more than ever before.
And there's more. "My self-esteem has picked up." Why? "Because I feel wanted," she explains. "I feel like I'm worth waiting for." Mariah grew up in foster care, and was sexually abused from a young age. She understandably had a skewed view of sex as a youth, and Jerry's faithfulness while they refrain from sex has provided a kind of existential nourishment for her female soul.
Kate, by contrast, knows exactly what prompted her decision. She and Nick were engaged, and they'd started going back to church. One Sunday—it was three months before the wedding—she clearly heard God speak to her as they walked through the door. "I want you to stop having sex with Nick until the wedding," the voice said. And he told her that blessings would follow obedience in this matter.
She was not happy about it. "I've always been more of a hypersexual person," she explains, "and especially with Nick because he's the love of my life. It was really hard." Nick was supportive when she told him, though, and they complied.
They were married in June 2011, and she is amazed at the blessings that did indeed follow. She, too, had experienced a measure of abuse. Although she lost her virginity by choice at age thirteen and regularly engaged in sex on the first date after that, she was also raped at thirteen and became entangled in another abusive relationship later in her teens. And so she also had a skewed understanding of her worth and the role that sex plays in a woman's life and concept of herself. And, like Mariah, becoming the object of faithful, disciplined love apart from sex was soul-nourishing for her as well.
Could it be that sensible people are discovering that the sex act, while a good and healthy part of a marriage relationship, is not the be-all-and-end-all it is often made out to be? Even a leading pop "sexpert" is recommending a break. In Sex Detox: Recharge Desire, Revitalize Intimacy, Rejuvenate Your Love Life, New York Times bestselling author Ian Kerner prescribes a 30-day sex fast, which he says can reset the mind and body and rebuild a broken love life. "The Sex Detox is a program where you take sex off the table for a period of time," he writes, suggesting that it can be an aid to separating fears and anxieties from their psychological underpinnings and learning to pursue healthier ways of meeting needs for intimacy and love.
Kerner writes from a purely secular standpoint and recommends the fast merely as a means toward a more satisfying love life, but Kate has a much better handle on the potential dynamics of it. Having grown up in the church, she had a theological context to help her grow personally and spiritually along the way. "I think I really started to learn who I was in Christ and the fact that I was loved," she explains. "I learned during that time that I had been using sex to make myself feel wanted and to feel desirable. And so I had to learn that I could still feel that and still be that without sex . . . and without a man, even."
Mariah didn't grow up with any kind of church or religious upbringing, but she does believe there is a "God-element" involved in her sexual timeout as well. Right now, she and Jerry are reading the Bible together and praying and figuring out their way through this important, premarital chapter of life. Some of their friends don't get it, but she's okay with that.
The Centrality of the Designer
In a hypersexed culture, it's refreshing to see young people taking a break from sex long enough to reconsider its place in a relationship, even if, as in Kate's case, it is done only in reluctant obedience to God. But Kate did find, and Mariah is thus far finding, the period of restraint to be a soul-enriching journey connecting them, together with the loves in their lives, to the God who is himself the source of all love and the author of sex.
This aspect of the male-female relationship—the God factor—when factored in, holds the potential to foster a far more satisfying love life, sex and all. Debra Hirsh, who was herself deeply broken sexually in her youth, makes this point in her book Redeeming Sex: Naked Conversations About Sexuality and Spirituality.
If anything needs a chaperone, it's our sexuality. Whether it's sexuality's deceptive nature or our proneness to messing things up (relationally speaking), we need someone to stand between each of us, to represent us, to mediate for us—someone to remind us what right loving, right mercy and right justice look like.
"Christian tradition talks about God being the third party in all our relationships—without him we are prone to both losing ourselves in the other and keeping them captive to broken expectations and faulty perceptions," she writes. Faulty expectations can include looking to the other to define us, for example, or to provide a sense of wholeness and self-worth. Only God himself is large enough to fully satisfy those needs.
Kate now believes that what God was saying to her during her premarital abstinence was this: I want you to step back from him during this period of time before you commit yourself to him so that you can find your self-worth in me. She did, and it opened her up to a whole new realm of sexual understanding and joy.
Today she's passionate about sharing that with other young women.
It wasn't until I learned what God truly created sex to be for—for the spiritual connection with your partner and becoming one not only in body but in spirit—that I truly found the freedom in God's design for sex. Our sex life is so much more than I think most people ever experience. It is a spiritual, almost out-of-body, experience. Because our souls are connected on such a deep level, you almost can't use human language to describe it.
Connection that runs deeper than two bodies having sex. That's a better love life. And that's what the Creator intended. •
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