Written by Pamela K. Orgeron, M.A., Ed.S., BCCC, ACLC
“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” (The Holy Bible, Genesis 2:24-25, NKJV).
Shameless oneness is the biblical foundation for sexual intimacy. In an ideal situation, when a couple gets married, the man and the woman are both virgins. They have never been sexually united as one with anyone else in their lives. When they are married, their spiritual union is sealed with intercourse (McPherson, 2001, pp. 16-17).
Is sexual intercourse the ultimate goal in a marriage? Or is there more than the physical act required to have a fulfilling sexual relationship in a marriage? A lack of proper sex education; poor communication skills; past sexual abuse or experience; and, unhealthy perceptions in one or both spouses, such as a negative body image, low self-esteem or feelings of inferiority, superiority or unresolved anger towards the mate can result in unfulfilled sex in a marriage relationship.
Sexuality involves more than a physical act of intercourse. Sexual identity, sex roles, sexual orientation, sexual behavior and sexual values make up a person’s sexuality. Sexual identity, also called gender identity, refers to an individual’s subjective sense of oneself as male or female. Sex roles, also called gender roles, are the collective body of attitudes and behaviors that a culture accepts as appropriate for a man and a woman. Sexual orientation, or sexual preference refers to whether a person is homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, transsexual, or ambivalent. Sexual behaviors, such as coitus and masturbation, can produce erotic gratification.
Most sex therapists consider the sexual functioning of an individual healthy when physiological. behavior, attitudes and feelings are in sync. Furthermore, what an individual sees as a sexual problem is culturally influenced. Sex therapy cannot be value free.
As a Christian, I reviewed the writings of Christian psychologists, such as internationally known psychologist Kevin Leman, Ph.D. and nationally acclaimed clinical psychologist Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D. to develop a theory of what healthy sexuality entails and what are biblically based treatment methods for overcoming sexual dysfunction. In reviewing the literature, “common themes” were sought out. For example, a common theme is that better communication leads to better sex. The ultimate conclusions on what treatment approaches are appropriate for treating sexual dysfunction are weighed against both The Holy Bible and modern psychology.
One common theme found in the literature of Christian psychologists is that sex belongs only in the context of marriage. Why? Here are the reasons given:
- God’s plan is for one man and one woman to be bonded in marriage in all areas, including sexuality.
- Danger exists in playing around, whether premarital sex or sex with someone other than your spouse. Unplanned pregnancy with the wrong person can devastate individuals and couples. Some sexually transmitted diseases can be deadly.
A second common theme is that sex belongs in every marriage. The consensus is that a man and his wife should have intercourse often enough for both partners to feel fulfilled sexually. In the book The Act of Marriage, Tim and Beverly LaHaye (1998) identify reasons why sex is significant to both the husband and the wife. For the husband, sexual intercourse meets his physical need for sex, fulfills his manhood, enhances his love for his wife, brings contentment that can reduce friction in the home, and provide life’s most exciting experience. Sexual intercourse offers the wife in a marriage the opportunity to fulfill her womanhood, the reassurance that her husband loves her, satisfies her body’s need for sex, relaxes her nervous system, and when consummated to orgasm appropriately, sex also offers her the ultimate thrilling experience in life.
“Sexual Dysfunctions are a heterogeneous group of disorders that are typically characterized by a clinically significant disturbance in a person’s ability to respond sexually or to experience sexual pleasure” (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013, p. 423). Masters and Johnson first identified four stages to the sexual response cycle. These stages include excitement (initial arousal), plateau (advanced arousal), orgasm (release of sexual tension), and resolution (return to the unaroused state). These stages occur whether an individual is having intercourse or self-stimulating, although the type of stimulation may affect both the time of onset and the duration of each stage. Dysfunction can occur in any of these phases.
Sex therapists believe the majority of sexual disorders are psychogenic disorders. That means they stem from learned patterns and values. As children grow up, they perceive messages from their parents and others about sex and sexuality. Sexual problems in marriage can be transmitted to children resulting in the development of unhealthy attitudes about sex, sex organs, or the body in general.
Sexual dysfunctions can be a result of medical conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or diabetes mellitus. A loss of interest in sex, the inability for the male to have an erection, impaired orgasm, and pain during intercourse can result from substance abuse.
A keynote speaker at MarriageBuilders conferences, Leman (2006) encourages couples who want to share with each other and to become one in marriage, to be able to recognize their own feelings, including why they do what they do and what preconditioning they have received. Couples need to understand how these influences have affected their way of thinking and to be willing to “reprogram” themselves in needed areas.
Based on the results of seventy-five research studies conducted between 1975 and 1985 about the cause and cure for marriage breakdown, happy couples possess five unique traits. These traits include:
- Happy couples exchange more pleasing and fewer displeasing behaviors when relating.
- Happy couples use more positive methods to change their mate’s behavior.
- Happy couples use more positive communication and problem-solving skills.
- Happy couples have more self-esteem.
- Happy couples share more time together (Halter, 1988, p. 18).
The “ABC’s” of marriage, with a D thrown in (for Difficult) established by Leman are listed in Table 1.
Table 1: ABC’s of marriage
|Assertively participate in sex.||Ask her opinion.|
|Become Interested in Your Sex Life.||Become Conversational and Open.|
|Creatively Please Him.||Commit to Listening to Her.|
|Develop Companionship.||Discover Her Love Language.|
“Love Languages” in the “ABC’s” of marriage refer to Gary Chapman’s five love languages. The five love languages are words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. According to Chapman (1995), these are the five basic ways people speak and understand emotional love. The primary love language is based on individual psychological makeup and the way parents and other significant others expressed love to a person as a child. Rarely do a husband and wife have the same primary emotional love language. Understanding one’s own primary love language and learning how to speak your mate’s primary love language are keys to developing a long-lasting, loving marriage.
When treating married couples, Harley (2001) insists that they abide by his Policy of Joint Agreement. This policy explained in the Marriage Builders website states that a couple is never to do anything without enthusiastic mutual consent. Harley reports that couples who educate themselves about how to turn lovemaking into a pleasant experience and who follow the Policy of Joint Agreement end up experiencing sex passionately and frequently. To facilitate fulfilling sexual intimacy in marriage, Harley (2001) shares in the book His Needs, Her Needs five laws of marriage. “Harley’s First Law of Marriage: When it comes to sex and affection, you can’t have one without the other” (Harley, p. 40). The consensus among most psychologists is that most women need affection before they can be fulfilled sexually. Most men can perform sexually without much affection. Affection is the atmosphere of the marriage while sex is an event. Most affairs result from a lack of affection (for the woman) and lack of sex (for the man), according to Harley. Thus, he encourages men to learn “sexless affection”. An example of sexless affection would be to call your mate from work during the day just to say, “I love you. I’m thinking about you”.
“Harley’s Second Law of Marriage: Meet your spouse’s needs as you would want your spouse to meet yours” (Harley, p. 60). Harley considers this law a slight revision of the Golden Rule taught by Jesus Christ: “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise” (Luke 6:31, NKJV).
“Harley’s Third Law of Marriage sums it up this way: Caring partners converse in a caring way” (Harley, p. 75). Barriers to healthy communication, according to Harley, include conversation to get your way at your spouse’s expense, using conversation to punish each other, using conversation to force agreement to your way of thinking, and dwelling on mistakes, past or present. Healthy communication develops between husband and wife as they develop interest in and converse about each other’s favorite topics of conversation; as they balance their conversation giving both equal time to talk; as they use conversation to inform, investigate, and understand each other; and, as they give each other undivided attention during times set aside to converse with each other.
“Harley’s Third Law of Marriage puts it this way: The couple that plays together stays together” (Harley, p. 91). By play, Harley refers to recreational activities. He encourages couples to make each other their primary recreational companion.
“Harley’s Fifth Law: Honesty is the best marriage insurance policy” (Harley, p. 106).
When honesty and cooperation exist in a marriage, you have a couple who is willing to share and to build together. They do not need to be secretive or “private.” Neither wishes to lie and shade the truth to “protect” the spouse. When you build your marriage on trust, you experience a joyful willingness to share all personal feelings with the one you have chosen for a life partner (Harley, pp. 105-106).
- Educating a couple about sex and the sexual response cycle is all some therapists need to do for that couple for them to feel mutually fulfilled sexually. Other couples possess myths about sex and sexuality that need to be refuted. Common myths with facts to refute them, according to Penner and Penner (1993), include:
Myth 1: Some men fear their penises are not big enough to “satisfy” their wife.
Fact: The length of a man’s penis is irrelevant in satisfying a woman. The erotic area of a woman’s vagina is the outer one-and-one-half to two inches. Most erect penises measure about four to six inches from the base to the tip.
Myth 2: The man is responsible for turning on the woman.
Fact: Sexual intercourse is a joint effort. Thinking that a woman’s lack of arousal is from a man’s sexual incompetence is erroneous. A mutual lack of knowledge may be the problem.
Myth 3: It’s the wife’s responsibility to give her husband sexual release.
Fact: Women should want to make love with their husbands to keep them at home and content.
Myth 4: Being sexually aggressive is unladylike.
Fact: Women are sexual beings. They need to feel free to express their sexuality and learn how to initiate sexuality with their husbands. A man’s body and his wife’s body are each other’s to enjoy is a principle taught in I Corinthians 7.
Myth 5: The ultimate goal in a sexual experience should be simultaneous orgasms or female orgasm during intercourse.
Fact: Most women do not have orgasms during intercourse. Simultaneous orgasms occur in only a very small percentage of marriages.
Myth 6: Senior citizens are not sexual beings.
Fact: Men and women are sexual beings from birth until death. Although, as a person ages, changes do occur. These changes include:
- The sexual urgency men feel decreases as they age. Although, they can still enjoy sex every day. The more sexually active they remain, the greater the need. A common saying is “If you don’t use it, you lose it”. Some truth lies in this statement.
- A man may need his wife to directly stimulate his penis to cause an erection, whereas in younger years, words, thoughts, or the sight of his wife’s nudeness produced arousal.
- Erections become less firm as a man ages.
- More time and stimulation are needed in men as they age to bring about ejaculation.
- For women, as they age, the vaginal walls thin and vaginal lubrication decreases. Using a vaginal lubricant or an estrogen-replacement cream relieves these problems
“Hearing each other is the key to effective communication, which opens the door to sexual pleasure” (Penner & Penner, p. 27). Active listening is required for couples to communicate most effectively, and includes: carefully observing and listening to each other, reading each other’s “body language” for messages expressed, and empathizing with each other.
Positive communication and healthy marriages go together.
If a couple doesn’t have positive skills to solve problems, resolve fights, and negotiate conflicts, problems stockpile and unhappiness sets in. The research with the two groups of couples clearly shows that communication skill deficits are a major cause of marital stress (Halter, p. 112).
Listed in Table 2 are “communication helpers” and their polar opposites, the “communication killers” in marriages (Halter, p. 114).
Table 2: Communication Behaviors and Problem-Solving Skills
(* Happy couples out perform unhappy couples especially in these categories.)
|1. Positive Problem Description||1. Negative Problem Description|
|2. Validation||2. Cross-Complaining|
|3. Active Listening: Summarizing*||3. Interrupting|
|4. Accepting Responsibility||4. Denying Responsibility; Excuses|
|5. Compliance||5. Noncompliance|
|6. Approval*||6. Criticism|
|7. Agreement*||7. Disagreement|
|8. High Agreement-to-Disagreement Ratio||8. High Disagreement-to-Agreement Ratio|
|9. Composed||9. Complaining|
|10. Seeking Information||10. Making Assumptions|
|11. Accurateness||11. Exaggeration|
|12. Positive Mind-Reading||12. Negative Mind-Reading|
|13. Taking Turns||13. Overtalk|
|14. Cooperation: Collaboration||14. Blaming|
|15. Negotiations; Contracting||15. Excessive Counterproposals|
|16. Compromise||16. Polarized|
|17. Brainstorming||17. Limiting Options|
|18. Proposing Solutions||18. Problem-Oriented|
|19. Paying Attention*||19. Divided Attention|
|20. Tracking||20. Sidetracking|
|21. Positive Specific Requests||21. Negative Vague Demands|
|22. Social Support*||22. Put-Downs; Rejection|
|23. Positive Physical Touch||23. Aloofness|
|24. Positive Nonverbal Communication* (smile, gentle voice, etc.)||24. Negative Nonverbal Communication (angry voice, angry face, etc.)|
|25. Positive Reciprocity||25. Negative Reciprocity|
The process of sexual therapy is a retraining process, according to Penner and Penner (1993), in which couples need to learn to behave with each other in ways that enhance pleasure, reduce anxiety, and eliminate demand. Behavioral retraining exercises include sensate focus exercises (touching), talking exercises, and teaching exercises (each to the other). Benefits of sexual retraining include changing previously destructive behavior, providing an opportunity to learn to love in the most pleasant ways, helping to resolve sexual conflicts and unconscious issues so they can be resolved by more effective communication and therapy, as needed.
Sexual dysfunctions in clients resulting from prior sexual abuse challenge both psychotherapists and counselors. Based on references and personal experience, an individual recovering from sexual abuse needs to do the following: maintain spiritual disciplines, face the problem, recount the incident pondering what happened, experience the feelings, establish responsibility, educate themselves, confront the aggressor, forgive, repent, rebuild self-esteem, build healthy love relationships, and express concern or empathy with others. Figure 1 displays THE CROSS, a ten-step recovery plan based on the one shared by husband and wife Don and Jan Frank (1990) in the book When Victims Marry.
Figure 1 THE CROSS (Orgeron, 2017, Figure 6, p. 112): A Biblical path to healing, based on Don and Jan Frank’s 10 step “Critical Path Method for Emotional Recovery” from When Victims Marry: Building a Stronger Marriage by Breaking Destructive Cycles (Here’s Life, 1990), pp. 106-116.
Spiritual disciplines include prayer, fasting, and daily Bible reading. A prayer asking God to reveal, confirm, instruct, guide, heal, bless, convict, and comfort invites God to enter a situation and accomplish what He desires.
Recounting past abuse offers emotional release. The recounting step can be compared to a grief process. Nehemiah 2 is the scriptural basis for needing to ponder the effects of the sexual abuse. Before starting to rebuild the wall in Jerusalem, Nehemiah went from gate to gate, viewing and weeping over the devastation. Before a person sets out to rebuild a life that was damaged by sexual abuse, the losses and damages to that life must be surveyed. Complete recovery of “removing the debris” left by sexual abuse also requires a connection with and understanding of one’s emotions.
Throughout the recovery process, a person who has experienced sexual abuse needs to be educated continually on his or her particular issues. This education can come from reading books and articles, viewing documentaries, and tapping available community resources, such as rape and sexual abuse centers (Frank & Frank, 1990).
Confrontation can be a legitimate step in recovery if the purpose is not revenge. Sometimes direct confrontation is not possible. The aggressor may be dead or whereabouts unknown. At other times, direct confrontation is unwarranted if the person will react negatively in a way that would cause more problems. In such cases, unresolved issues are resolved through internally adjusting thoughts and attitudes. This may be done through journaling and/or writing letters that are never mailed.
Forgiveness is vital in the healing process. Many sexually abused Christians enter into a quick “forgive and forget” mode before working through emotions and allowing ultimate healing of the heart. Before a person can offer forgiveness, an injury and its pain must first be acknowledged, for in light of the cross, there is no difference between the abused and the abuser.
Repentance can be defined as feeling so much regret or dissatisfaction in circumstances, as to change one’s mind. Thus, the process of breaking through denial and, in time, of learning healthier behavior patterns is a form of repentance. Repentant behavior moves the survivor of sexual abuse away from the abuse and self-destructive or self-protective behavior patterns to deal with the abuse (Allender, 2008).
Revising the damaged self-esteem of a person who has been sexually abused is possible, although, a long-term process. Therapists should encourage clients to overcome negative beliefs and thoughts by using self-talk or affirmation. An affirmation is a simple, positive statement written or recited over and over, such as “I deserve love”. Halter (1988) reports two techniques that will help mates to improve each other’s self-esteem. The first method is to reflect on past accomplishments. Secondly, couples need to exchange positive feedback in their daily interactions. “The point to remember is that the past and the present are both important in changing a poor self-esteem” (Halter, p. 160).
Over time during the recovery process relationships need to change. Existing healthy relationships can be developed; but unhealthy relationships should be broken off so new healthy ones can be cultivated. Donovan and Ryan (1989) suggest:
If you are looking for new relationships, keep two simple questions foremost in your mind: is this person a kind, caring individual who is capable of intimacy and love? And is this person capable of and interested in loving me? If you can answer both these questions with yes, it’s fine to consider pursuing a personal relationship with this person. But if the answer to one or both is no, do not under any circumstances pursue an intimate relationship with this person (p. 388).
After a person who has been sexually abused works through the recovery process, expressing concern and empathy to others provides additional hope. God wants overcomers to comfort others with the comfort they received from Him (2 Corinthians, 1:3-4).
In concluding, the key concepts emphasized by Christian psychologists are that “God is the creator of sex. He set human drives in motion, not to torture men and women, but to bring them enjoyment and fulfillment” (LaHaye & LaHaye, 1976, p. 14) within the confines of marriage. Any sex outside the marriage relationship is sin. For couples experiencing sexual dysfunction, whether the cause stems from past sexual abuse, guilt feelings from premarital sex or for any other reason, hope can be found in the Lord Who forgives all sin and heals all diseases (Psalm 103:3).
Allender, D. (1990, 1995, 2008). The Wounded Heart: Hope for adult victims of childhood sexual abuse. Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress. Available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/Wounded-Heart-Victims-Childhood-Sexual/dp/1600063071
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author. Available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/Diagnostic-Statistical-Manual-Mental-Disorders/dp/0890425558
Chapman, G. D. (1992, 1995). The five love languages: How to express heartfelt commitment to your mate. Chicago: Northfield. Available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/Five-Love-Languages-Heartfelt-Commitment/dp/1881273156
Donovan, M. E. & Ryan, W. P. (1989). Love blocks: Breaking the patterns that undermine relationships. New York: Penguin. Available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/Love-Blocks-Breaking-Undermine-Relationships/dp/0140099646
Frank, D., & Frank, J. (1990). When victims marry: Building a stronger marriage by breaking destructive cycles. San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life. Available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/When-Victims-Marry-Destructive-1-May-1990/dp/B013J9QARU
Halter, L. L. (1988). Traits of a happy couple. Waco: Word.
Harley, W. F., Jr. (2001). His needs her needs: Building an affair-proof marriage (Fifteenth Anniversary Edition). Grand Rapids: Baker. Available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/His-Needs-Her-Building-Affair-Proof/dp/0800744233
Harley, W. F., Jr. (2001). Marriage Builders Home Page. [On-line]. Available: http://www.marriagebuilders.com/index.html
LaHaye, T., & LaHaye, B. (1976, 1998). The act of marriage: The beauty of sexual love. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. Available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/Act-Marriage-Beauty-Sexual-Love/dp/0310212006
Leman, K. (1981, 1992, 1999, 2006). Sex begins in the kitchen: Because love is an all-day affair. Grand Rapids: Baker. Available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/Sex-Begins-Kitchen-Creating-Intimacy/dp/0800731174
McPherson, M. (2001). I don’t want your sex for now: Purity for teens. Bloomington: Bethany House. Available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/Dont-Want-Your-Sex-Now/dp/0764223690
Orgeron, P. K. (2017). Food as an idol: Finding freedom from disordered eating. Nashville, TN: ABC’s Ministries. Available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/Food-Idol-Finding-Freedom-Disordered/dp/0997956534
Penner, C. L. & Penner, J. J. (1993). Restoring the pleasure: Complete step-by-step programs to help couples overcome the most common sexual barriers. Dallas: Word. Available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/Restoring-Pleasure-Complete-Step-Step/dp/0849934648
Sinclair Intimacy Institute (2001). Sex therapy [On-line]. Available: http://www.intimacyinstitute.com/sex_data/topics/sex_therapy.html