“Once upon a time, in a restaurant in downtown Chicago, a handsome man and a beautiful woman were deep in conversation. They had met the year before and had grown closer and more in love with every date. Not once had they argued or had differences of opinion. That evening, the man went down on his knees to ask the woman to marry him, promising his unconditional love. She joyously agreed to spend the rest of her life with him, and soon the fairy-tale wedding was planned! In the next few years, their married life was filled with the magic of their dating years. They loved their in-laws, they loved each other’s friends, and they couldn’t believe their employers were paying them so much money for a job they relished. The best part was that their sexual passion for each other could make a sailor blush. They just couldn’t get enough of each other! The happiness and passion continued for the rest of their lives and they lived happily ever after…”

Kind of sounds like your story, right? It doesn’t? That’s funny, it’s not mine either! This version of love, marriage, and sex is a fairy tale perpetuated by books, magazines, and Hollywood producers. The same world view that spreads the idea that we have to be skinny to be beautiful and rich to be happy brings us the fairy tale that having a healthy marriage means no fights, no stress, and lots of hot, passionate sex. The unfortunate result is that we often compare our less than perfect relationship to one that only exists in books and movies. When our marital relationship starts looking more like (gasp) our parents’ marriage than the “ideal,” we begin to doubt our spouse and ourselves.

So what is the reality?

  • Major studies have shown that the frequency and quality of sex is one of the main causes of marital unhappiness in the first three years of marriage. Strike one for the myth that newlyweds always have a fantastic sex life.
  • Biologically, men have a physical need for release of semen, with no similar counterpart in the female body. Strike two for the myth that men and women approach their sexual relationships with equal interests.
  • Although it is one of the most important aspects of a couple’s married relationship, most couples state that they feel uncomfortable talking about their sexual needs and desires. Strike three for the myth that being in love means you can talk about anything.

To go from fairy tale to a satisfied reality, couples need to be honest with each other about what they want and need from their sexual relationship. The very first step that should be taken is to always think and talk about “making love” rather than “having sex.” After all, the goal of our married sexual relationship is to express the love and passion we feel for the other, to give ourselves over to the other. When we simply “have sex,” it is a selfish act that is meant to relieve tension, physically entertain us, or possibly manipulate the other person so that we can get something we want. When we “make love,” we are conscious first of our spouse’s needs and desires, and then of our own.

In marriage, making love is a gift we give each other. After all, we were brought together in this sacrament to be there for each other, putting our selfish desires aside and making sacrifices, if need be, for the sake of the happiness of the other. When we are physically united in the act of lovemaking, we are totally vulnerable to the other, both literally and figuratively naked. We open ourselves up to giving the other the best of ourselves. Taking on the attitude of making love to our spouse is a life-long challenge, but one that is sure to be rewarded with a happier marriage.

The second most important thing to do is communicate honestly about our needs and wants. Our spouse cannot possibly know everything that affects us. Early in our marriage, when I was physically exhausted from a stressful day at work, I thought I was simply saying “no” to lovemaking, but my husband Kevin experienced it as my saying “no” to him personally, resulting in feelings of rejection or frustration. In other circumstances, Kevin needed to understand how important the emotional climate of the marriage was to me. I need to feel emotionally intimate with Kevin before beginning physical intimacy. Most men are quicker to become physically aroused and less likely to need “perfect conditions” in order to want to make love to their wives. (Hint: It is more helpful to communicate about our sexual needs at a time when the situation is not imminent. Once both of you are in bed naked is not the time to listen to the other person with full attention. Pick a time when you both have the ability to express your idea of what lovemaking should be like in your relationship, and remember, God gave you one mouth and two ears, so use them accordingly. Listen to each other!)

A final thought: the spouse with the stronger sexual drive (husband or wife) should be the one given the most latitude in determining the frequency of love-making. This is because offering oneself to the other and being turned down, whether for legitimate reasons or not, can be damaging to one’s self-esteem if it occurs on a regular basis. There have been times in my relationship with Kevin when I have felt tired or distracted and have not been enthusiastic about his overtures to making love. I now realize that my giving in to the inclination to roll over and go to sleep resulted in his thinking that his happiness was not very important to me. However, at those times when I have put aside my hesitation or tiredness, I am rewarded with both the emotional and physical intimacy that comes from giving myself over to him with complete love and trust. I find that making him happy makes me happy and realize that I am interested after all! The lesson I learned? When in doubt, just do it!

Questions for Discussion

  • Has there ever been a time in our relationship when my need for sexual intimacy have not been met? How did that make me feel?
  • What circumstances help me be enthusiastic about our love-making? What is the most harmful to our intimacy?
  • Is it difficult for me to talk about my sexual needs and desires? What could my spouse do to help me feel more comfortable?
  • “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” (Genesis 2: 24). God created husband and wife to be united in body and spirit. How is love making in a sacramental marriage like a prayer of thankfulness for our spouse?

Crystal Sullivan, M.A.P.S.

Crystal Sullivan, M.A.P.S., (Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies) and her husband, Kevin, are actively involved in ministry to both engaged and married couples. They have been married since 1985 and are blessed with two adult children and two grandchildren.

This article originally appeared in First Years and Forever and is used with the permission of the Marriage and Family Ministries Office of the Archdiocese of Chicago.