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February 21, 2007

Love And Marriage (And Sex)

Julian wonders:

Is it excessively cynical of me to think that the first casualty of an insistence on love and sex always going together might be your criteria for being "in love?" As in: "Holy hell, I'm 25 and have never had sex... You! SOUL MATE! NOW!"

Heh, indeed. Meanwhile, I've always wondered why folks like Ross don't think sexual compatibility is a useful metric on which to test relationships before cementing them into marriages. There are all sorts of reasons that two people may not work together sexually ("It's...it's so small!")("Why do you always sob and shower after we finish?*), and finding out if any of them are present before the union is permanent is probably a good idea. Maybe there should be a three-month, post-engagement/pre-wedding phase in which the sexual match is explored a bit? And this isn't facetious: I'm generally interested in whether folks who basically oppose sex before marriage envision some sort of other arrangement in which unexpected incompatibilities could be sussed out.

Update: (Because it's just so...so...sad.)

February 21, 2007 | Permalink


My parents and my church growing up always preached no sex until marriage. There was no alternative. We were supposed to mate for life, so if you got married and had sexual conflicts, you were just supposed to resolve them and stay married. Divorce was allowed, but you were really expected to do everything you could to keep the marriage together. Now, there was some pre-marriage counseling as a couple which I think was aimed at you being sure you really wanted to get married, but for the most part, no sexual "test drives" allowed. My dad used to tell me that the newly engaged should go on camping trips with one another (chaperoned) just so they could see each other all unkempt in the morning, but no sex of course.

Having said that, other church members told my friends that sex after the engagement was okay or just seemed to have a better grasp of human nature and were more tolerant of pre-marriage sexual activity, but officially you were just supposed to wait and work it out somehow after marriage.

Posted by: hbot3000 | Feb 21, 2007 3:28:27 PM

It's not small. She was just HUGE down there.

Posted by: tomboy | Feb 21, 2007 3:36:15 PM

How common is sexual incompatibility as a reason for failed marriages (putting aside issues of sexual orientation)? If there needs to be a test drive in relation to something that actually leads to divorce, maybe couples should open joint checking accounts before marriage.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 21, 2007 3:42:24 PM

That's probably why highly traditional societies which try to enforce that sort of thing also marry everyone off as early as possible.

And even the puritans sort of had what you're talking about. No sex, but they'd bundle up courting couples separately and then let them fondle each other and what not. I suppose that might at least uncover the sobbing issue, for example, before it's too late.

Posted by: Sam L. | Feb 21, 2007 3:43:24 PM


The folks you're talking about would deny the premises underlying the entire discussion. To enter into a commitment with the understanding that it might be smashed on the rocks of sexual incompatibility is not to enter into a marriage (properly understood) at all. Divorcing one's spouse for sexual incompatibility is a little like divorcing him for dietary incompatibility. ("What? You don't like green beans? I'm calling the lawyer.") If green beans are a deal-breaker, you haven't entered into the commitment with the requisite seriousness. Marriage, properly entered into, just isn't the sort of thing that can be ruined by green beans. And the same goes for being willing to end one's marriage because your wife, you find, doesn't like to be spanked or dress up like a French maid. If the maid costume is a relationship-ender to you, you weren't sufficiently committed to the union in the first place.

This isn't to say that couples with mature marriages and robust commitments to one another don't have sexual problems, nor that those problems don't ruin marriages. They do. But in those cases, the sexual problems are running proxy for other, more substantive problems in the marriage. So, for example, if your husband refuses to satisfy your sexual needs, say, that shows something about how he values your needs in general, which, in turn, says something about how he values you. If your spouse is unwilling to satisfy your needs because your happiness isn't a priority for him, that's a big problem, but it isn't an essentially SEXUAL problem. The problem isn't about what goes on in the bedroom, that's just where it's most obvious symptom manifests.

That's the sort of response I imagine to your post. To want a sexual "test period", where couples might discover whether they are sexually compatible or not before committing to marriage is to treat marriage as something that might legitimately be dissolved on the grounds of sexual incompatibility. It is, to them, a deeply unserious way to approach marriage, and precisely the problem they have with modern, liberal attitudes towards that union.


Posted by: Nate W. | Feb 21, 2007 3:49:07 PM

Didn't you know, sex is only to be used to create babies and nothing else.

Posted by: wratha | Feb 21, 2007 3:51:03 PM

All good points, Nate. But I would think a lot of these folks would agree that, all other things being equal, a good sex life is something one should be able to expect out of a marraige, no. And while actual incompatibility may be rare, there can be real problems.

Posted by: Ezra | Feb 21, 2007 3:54:30 PM

And the same goes for being willing to end one's marriage because your wife, you find, doesn't like to be spanked or dress up like a French maid.

I think that your idea of what constitutes sexual incompatibilities is extremely narrow and limited. There's a lot more to sexual relationship than compatible kinks. Especially since we're already talking about people that were raised in a culture of 'wait until marriage' and many of these people can be expected to be kinda repressed, neurotic, or otherwise having trouble relating to their own sexuality or that of other people. Expecting such people to suddenly be able to have a mature, adult, effective sexual relationship with someone is asking a lot, even if they're really truly in love and committed to making the marriage work.

Posted by: NBarnes | Feb 21, 2007 3:57:16 PM

Sexual Incompatibility is never the stated reason for why couples fail. But it is a far more common reason for couples to break up than you might think. It's a lot like when two people can't get their fin ancial situations to mesh, when people have incompatible sex drives, urges or hang-up it tends to raise the over-all stress level in a relationship. You'll fight a lot more, and your fights are going to be more severe in either case. The couple will just have a lot of pent up animosity towards each other.

Posted by: soullite | Feb 21, 2007 4:05:49 PM

I wonder how often sexual incompatibility is at the root of infidelity.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Feb 21, 2007 4:09:07 PM

I wonder how often sexual incompatibility is at the root of infidelity.

That's interesting; I've never thought of it that way.

Within the Church one of the great myths that refuses to die is that once people are married, any attraction to anyone else in the world simply vanishes. That's what "true love" means. When you have people who have never been rationally taught about their own sexuality and what constitutes human love, it creates a crisis the first time that the husband or wife meets someone and there is chemistry. They start to question whether they were every truly "in love" with their partner.

Posted by: Stephen | Feb 21, 2007 4:18:16 PM

The traditional method was that women suffer if they aren't sexually satisfied and men visit prostitutes/have mistresses. Since they're all for tradition, I imagine that's basically the ideal they're striving for.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Feb 21, 2007 4:27:34 PM

"They start to question whether they were every truly "in love" with their partner."

Love used to be a behavior, as in Romans, rather than a feeling or an affect.

Hey I watched Gandhi the other night. They were married at 13, had a few kids, then gave up sex about age 30. Like the non-violent thing, if Mohandas can do it, why can't we?

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 21, 2007 4:30:30 PM

Sanpete, I do believe the second most common source of fights for couples is sexual incompatibility, after money. Jokingly shrugging off the seriousness of these issues is why the divorce rate is so high. One thing a lot of churches do that I think is wonderful is promote a lot of talking about money and household responsibilities before marriage. In my long experience of serial monogamy, the more you know going in about certain issues, the less you'll fight about them.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Feb 21, 2007 4:32:12 PM


I agree that a good sex life is a reasonable thing to expect out of a marriage. But think about the qualities that make someone a good sexual partner: An ability to be honest and forthcoming about one's desires, the ability to withhold judgement when hearing about the desires of others, a genuine concern about what your partner wants and about his or her satisfaction, a willingness to experiment with things your partner finds erotic even if you don't necessarily find them so, a willingness to compromise, etc.

But note, these are all qualities that you need in a marriage ANYWAY, and qualities discoverable (in principle at least) without actually having sex. The qualities necessary for a good sex life JUST ARE (some of) the qualities necessary for a good marriage. When we divorce love from sex, we blind ourselves to the qualities that actually make for a good sex life.

Of course, some will define a good sex life in rather different terms than the one's I just used in defining a good sexual partner. One might define a good sexual partner as one who's sexual tastes run pretty much exactly as one's own. The guy into heavy bondage wants someone who's driven wild by the feeling of rope on her skin, the girl who's into role-playing wants someone similarly turned on by fantasy. But, says the cultural conservative, to view a good sex life as that specific, as that tied to your current tastes - tastes which will undoubtedly change over the course of a lifetime - and to give it such sway over who you marry, is, once again, to treat marriage as deeply unserious. Marrying your girlfriend because she's beautiful is a bad idea. She won't always be beautiful. And so with marrying your wife because she has the same sexual tastes as you. Your tastes won't always be the same, and neither will hers. What matters, when you're looking at the long haul, isn't what your spouse is into and what she isn't, but the underlying qualities that will guide and shape your sexual life: how well you listen to one another, how honest are you are with one another, how much you trust. And it is precisely these qualities that are usually absent in the current sexual culture of one-night stands, friends with benefits, hook-up parties and the rest of the modern sexual baccanal.

Posted by: Nate W. | Feb 21, 2007 4:36:37 PM

Here's the problem with Nate's proposed "green beans" analogy - the reason that "dietary incompatibility" is not a deal-breaker is that married couples are (1) not required to eat the same foods and (2) not forbidden to share meals with other people. If your spouse doesn't like green beans, you can still eat green beans yourself. If your spouse doesn't like the same kind of sex as you do, and you're monogamous, you can never have that kind of sex - which may mean that you can't have satisfying sex at all. (And it doesn't do any good to say, "if he or she really loved you, he or she would engage in the kind of sex you like" - unless you think that sexual acts performed as a duty or a chore are a good basis for a healthy sex life).

Posted by: Kevin | Feb 21, 2007 4:37:48 PM

In my very conservative Christian youth, I knew many people who used marriage as a sort of "going steady". Or more specifically, they got married so they could have sex at a young age (late teens, early 20s). Pretty much all of them got divorced a few years later. Some remarried to other people in this circle of friends.

When this is the behavior, people are playing a games of semantics. It was okay to have sex if the relationship was called a "marriage" but it was bad to have sex if it wasn't "marriage". The result is a degrading of the institution of marriage more than any gay wedding ever could. It re-defines it as approval to screw as opposed to a commitment between two people. Once things don't work out, end the marriage and get married to the next sex partner. Kind of pointless, no?

Posted by: gonzoknife | Feb 21, 2007 4:38:17 PM

The joking around about what constitutes sexual incompatibility ("doesn't like to be spanked or dress up like a French maid.") is really glib. Incompatability could say be the husband wants to have sex and for whatever reasons the wife derives no pleasure from it. Some people are just asexual that way. Why should people commit for life without knowing things like that?

Perhaps this problems could be overcome if couples always talked about these issues and their desires before committing to marriage. But there's this weird coincidental correlation that societies that focus on "no sex before marriage" are also the ones that talk about sex the least and where people seem the most confused about what they want.

Regardless, I'm sure everyone reading Ezra's blog has the same opinion on this subject and we're just preaching to the choir here.

Posted by: Tony V | Feb 21, 2007 4:38:53 PM

Another aspect of sexual incompatibility is that it isn't an either/or situation. A person's sex drive can change over time or due to illness or physical changes like gaining weight. Children greatly complicate a couple's sex life, from simple exhaustion to each patner's willingness to overcome the obstacles that children present. Then there's job schedules, stress from issues like money or moving, there's a lot that can affect this.

It's not that trying to be in a monogamous relationship isn't worth it or that it's all work. But it isn't the magical fairytale that our society drums into our children either.

Posted by: Stephen | Feb 21, 2007 6:27:54 PM

Ezra is talking about me in this post :(

Posted by: Kelly | Feb 21, 2007 6:29:28 PM

It's true that people's sexual needs and desires change over time (sometimes dramatically). But it's important to note that an adolescence and early adulthood of 'Don't think about sex and save it for marriage' doesn't really prepare one to cope with one's own changing sexuality and that of a partner. Again, adolescent experimentation and adult experience in healthy, negotiated sexual relationships would equip our youth much more effectively to deal with lifelong commitments that require, among other things, honest sexual communication to build a solid sexual relationship.

Posted by: NBarnes | Feb 21, 2007 6:55:05 PM

We are genetically sexual beings. Marriage is a social institution, not innate in our genes.

We can consciously control some aspects of need for sex and how it is expressed, but we are animals, even though 'some' people will deny that reality as it pertains to marriage or sex.

Actually both males and females (male more likely, I think) should not just 'try out' sex with a prospective partner, we should explore the terrain well involving multiple encounters with different folks, so that sex never becomes the 'reason' for marriage, but just one of the important aspects of the relationship that both partners can enjoy with each other (and know they enjoy it in advance.)

Other than the possible occurance of an STD, exactly what is bad or worth suppressing about having early and often sex encounters with other people? Why should sex be 'saved' for marriage?

Several Euro nations have quite explicit sex education and do not frown upon teen pre-marital sex, and they are doing very nicely, thank you very much.

I just don't buy any of the premises for seeing sex as somehow different than the many other genetically-driven needs, or different than many other forms of social intercourse.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Feb 21, 2007 7:14:53 PM

Sanpete, I do believe the second most common source of fights for couples is sexual incompatibility, after money. Jokingly shrugging off the seriousness of these issues is why the divorce rate is so high.

Amanda, I don't know what the second most common reason for fights is, but it would be a mistake to conflate reasons for fights with reasons for divorce. I agree with Nate that sexual incompatibility is unlikely to be a leading cause of divorce, rather than a reflection of such a cause. The same applies to money. Nate and Stephen make a good point too that sexual problems can arise years after marriage. It's part of that "for better or worse, in sickness and health" thing. You were right to detect a joke, in any case. I hope I didn't cause any divorces by it.

I agree that the churches doing premarital counseling about money, sexuality and so on are doing a good thing. Parents ought to help their kids learn about marriage along the way, as they're in a perfect position to do so.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 21, 2007 7:32:22 PM

I generally agree with Nate on this point. There is a way to have a healthy marriage with a healthy sex life while still abstaining before marriage, but it involves trust, consideration, willingness to listen, etc. I think the problem a lot of abstainers have is that they go into the marriage with problems and hope that the sex will solve them. Whereas if the couple has a complete and satisfying relationship without sex before the marriage, sexual incompatibility shouldn't be too big a deal in the marriage, because they're a couple that doesn't need to have sex with each other to be happy together. Sex, no matter how good or frequent, is essentially a bonus.

Posted by: Greg | Feb 21, 2007 7:41:55 PM

What I think that society has forgotten about marriage is that it is not supposed to be about sex or children. Marriage is a contract between two adults who are committed to each other. In civil marriage, it is a contract that changes who is legal next of kin and deals with a host of property issues. Love, sex and children are a bonus but as an old Hindu woman once told me- "what do any of those things have to do with marriage?"

Posted by: Hawise | Feb 21, 2007 7:59:57 PM

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