The Making Of Healthy Sexuality
(This conversation originally aired April 2018)
Chris Grace: Welcome to another podcast on the art of relationships, I'm Chris Grace.
Tim Muehlhoff: And I'm Tim Muehlhoff.
Chris Grace: We're here again talking to you about a number of things all related to relationships.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's right.
Chris Grace: One of the things we have spent some time talking about last time was sexuality, sexual intimacy, the way in which this has been something designed by God and something that has now really gone to places of disorder and chaos. And the pain that our culture is, and the pain of relationships that we find today revolving around this particular issue of shame, and hiding and vulnerability. How do we get there, what's happening, how do we recapture this love? And last time Tim, we read a little bit out of Song of Solomon and just the powerful poetic way of creative order in which this is designed and built into us as human beings. I know you have a great story, an example where we want to talk a little bit about where we're going next.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, about the complexity of sex is kind of what we want to talk about. I was a high school wrestler Chris, and I had a coach who made us cut weight. We had to all drop weight classes, which meant dropping 10 pounds, 20 pounds sometimes. Once person said to me "Man, you need to eat yogurt because you can't be eating other foods." I said, "All right fine." I'd never eaten yogurt a day in my life Chris. I go to the lunchroom, this is high school, grab blueberry yogurt, I like blueberries. I whipped that top off, I'm starving I haven't eaten breakfast or anything, and I just start to eat this thing. Chris, it does not taste like blueberries, it tastes horrible and looks horrible, it's all white and I'm like what? A girl sitting next to me is looking at me like you are a complete idiot and says to me, "You have to stir it up. The blueberries are on the bottom, you have to stir everything together."
I'm like "Oh, okay." I stir it all together and guess what Chris, it tasted like blueberries, it was pretty awesome. And to this day I love blueberry yogurt. Here's what I think culture's doing Chris, is they're just eating from the top. They're isolating one part of this and they're saying the sex act void of commitment, void of exclusivity, we're just identifying the sex act. This is the hookup culture, right? God is saying it's so much more complicated than that. If you want to get the full robust nature of sexuality, you got to stir up all the ingredients together. And today we're going to talk a little bit about what are those ingredients that have to be in place for sex to be everything god wants it to be.
Chris Grace: That's a fascinating illustration of the way in which you can isolate things and you have to take this into this whole context. When Jesus and Paul spoke about marriage, they often times referred back to Genesis. Genesis 2:24 as kind of this, for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and shall be united to his wife and they will become one flesh, right?
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. There are many ways in which God could have made us, but for whatever reason this is the way he did this, it implies that we are created sexual brings. In that however, some of those ingredients that he is now saying you need to mix and stir in are the following. A, this act, this togetherness, this bond, this creation must be exclusive, right?
Chris Grace: Yes, that's right. For this reason a man shall leave with his wife, yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: And so exclusivity is something that we hold powerfully dear to somehow recognizing God's creative order in this requires us to maintain an exclusive relationship. Some of the most damaging painful things occur when this exclusivity is broken because the betrayal and feelings that occur when someone steps outside that bound that we've made probably is some of the most painful, horrible experiences that a person can go through when they realize or they're involved in a situation in which there's a breaking of this exclusivity. And we're shocked today, well maybe not shocked, but how many celebrities have open marriages? With the idea we're together, but it's good every once in a while to include an outside element.
It's good every once in a while to go outside the bounds of marriage and have a sexual encounter, and somehow that spices up. And the Bible is saying, man that is not it. It is exclusive, it is you and this person learning about each other for your entire lifetime. Noreen said this to me when we first got married, I thought it was fascinating. She said "A woman may give another man sex, but will never bear his soul unless it's exclusive and unless that commitment's there." And today, remember there was a New York Times article about Tinder and the hookup culture today? And boy, it was an eye-opening article, but how many people said at the end of the day I can have unlimited sexual encounters and I'm empty at the end of the day. And God's saying man, that's no surprise. This exclusivity is really important to say one person, you and your spouse, for the rest of your life. Which leads us right to another ingredient, which is commitment.
Chris Grace: Yeah, permanency or commitment. Let's talk about that. Permanency as a notion of a relationship that I'm committing to until God calls us home, until death do us part.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's right.
Chris Grace: That one is really an ingredient that people are more and more unwilling to stir in there because it goes like this, if you meet my needs today, if my desires, if my emotional longings, if my feelings and need for intimacy are met by you, then we are in a good relationship. But when those stop being met, when I am no longer feeling loved by you, I need and feel the freedom, the world says, to be able to break this bond. To break this commitment because it's predicated on the fact that I am receiving from you all of my needs and desires, that's what love is, love is this meeting of me, my needs. And when it's no longer met, then I have the freedom to break this off. And there goes your ingredient of permanency.
Tim Muehlhoff: And I was teaching an undergrad class at UNC Chapel Hill, and it's when Jennifer Aniston, this is going to date me, Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt got married. And I said to the class, I said "Listen I'll take bets right now, let's make bets this marriage does not last five years. I'll take anybody's money." They're like, "Why are you so negative, why are you such a downer?" I said, "Listen because I read an interview with Brad Pitt." I read an interview it was Rolling Stones magazine, and they said to Brad Pitt, "Are you into this til death do you part thing?" And Brad Pitt said "No, Jennifer and I are just gonna kind of see where this takes us." Chris, there is no way you're getting past the pressures, challenges of life with that kind of a flimsy commitment to each other, and certainly sexually. I'm not saying sex wouldn't be pleasurable, but it is never going to get to the depths that God says when he says I want you in this for life, and I want you to be this one flesh relationship that you are not to tear apart. There's no way we're gong to get to the depths of sexuality unless we have that kind of commitment to each other that nothing's going to separate us.
Chris Grace: We make this commitment to one another in an exclusive permanent bonding, but we also do this publicly. Right, we do a public pledge. Cohabitation, the act of living together as non-married people, which is going up in numbers, does not require a public pledge.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's right.
Chris Grace: And in so doing sexuality now begins to take on a very different role, that is you are meeting my needs, I'm feeling this pleasure. But no one else necessarily needs to know that, what we do with a marriage is we commit in front of our friends, our neighbors, at least some witness is still required to get married. Somebody that says okay I saw you and now I know you're getting married. But this idea of public pledging, what does that mean?
Tim Muehlhoff: We're at Cambridge, we went to Cambridge my wife and I and we're standing in this long line to go into this one museum, they have great museums. And there's a couple in front of us, we just strike up a conversation with them. And then I say to them "Are you guys married?" He said, "Well we're dating." She says, "It's more than that we're living together." But do you notice what just happened? Me and Noreen say "We're married," he says "We're dating." You could tell that bugged her just a little bit because it's more than dating, we're actually living together. But what most separated us, right Chris, is that Noreen and I stood up in front of all of her brothers and sisters, her parents, my parents, my brothers, our best friends and God and said we're in this.
And I know there's a bunch of psychological studies, but com studies, there's a million of com studies where two groups commit to doing something. And the only difference between the two groups is group B, they're required to get up publicly and say "We're going to use the air conditioner less over the summer, we're going to do this or that." And the only thing that separates the two groups is the one group was made to get up publicly and state what they were committing to. And studies have shown the group that does that publicly, man there is some kind of social glue that they outperformed the group that said "We're going to do it," but they only did that privately.
Chris Grace: That reminds me of something we've talked about on this podcast before Tim, is a study by James Cowan at the University of Virginia. Where he took married couples and he found out as they were about to get shocked, these women were about to receive a shock, that by simply holding the hand of a stranger their stress level went down. They were about to get shocked, a high stress level, hold the hand of a stranger, shock level goes down. Hold the hand of their married partner, and their shock level, their stress level, goes down even further. What surprised James Cowan was when he brought in people that were simply living together, we just live together, they were cohabitating. And he determined that when they held the hand of these women that were about to get shocked, their cohabitating partners held their hands, that he could not tell any difference between the brains of those who were strangers and those who were cohabitating.
He has speculated, and is currently even researching the idea that okay there is something about a public commitment, there is something about a vow. Marriage seems to be more than just a piece of paper because people that are in this state of just living together, cohabitating, somehow their brains aren't convinced of the fact that their partner has their back. There is something that doesn't seem to translate in their hearts, like this couple you were standing in line with. It's as if you haven't really committed to me, I'm not sure I can trust you. And when times get bad, when things go difficult, I'm not sure you are going to be there for me.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's right, let's have some disclaimers. First, we are not saying that couples who live together have no commitment, no intimacy, no love for each other. We're not saying that at all. We're saying if a relationship, if you want it to flourish as God intended it to flourish, if you want to be firing on all cylinders, very proud that I used an automotive illustration right there but that's it. Firing on all cylinders, then that's what God wants. We are not saying that any married couple has more intimacy than any couple living together. I'm sure there's some couples living together that are doing a great job raising kids, but we're talking about levels of flourishing here.
Second, I also want to say that if you're listening to this and you're on your second marriage, you're on your third marriage and you're thinking great I just blew it. I wish I would have heard this 10 years ago, but I didn't and I'm divorced and I'm remarried. Am I a second class citizen, will I never get to that level of intimacy? And we're saying no, that one of the great things God does is that he redeems relationships. The relationship that you're in now is make that kind of commitment, say "I'm committed to this for the rest of my life." And I do believe that God can give you a level of flourishing his pleasure affirmation as much as a couple that this is their first time being married, right? I think that that's really important to say there's no second class citizens in God's kingdom.
Chris Grace: I think that's right, I think that's good Tim. That's a good clarification because this simply it's a reality that we face that people really do struggle in some areas. But one of the things they have to realize is God has taken who we are and our relationships, provided us a pathway, a blueprint, and a model. And he also recognizes who we are as human beings, we're sinful, we mess these things up a lot. And the powerful idea of not only his redeeming call to us, but just how he is able to redeem many of the decisions and poor things we've made. Simply the act of who we are as believers, forgiveness, and that we can come to him and find wholeness. We can find almost this restart again because of who Christ is.
Tim Muehlhoff: A couple other ingredients that we want to stir together, and if you pick up any book from a Christian perspective, even a non-Christian perspective when it comes to sexual intimacy, they're going to say how are you doing physically? We can't ignore our bodies and worry about we eat whatever we want, we don't exercise, and then we wonder why is our sex life suffering? Really things like diet, regular exercise, even just functions. I think we need to say Chris that the older you get it's just natural that things are just going to start to happen to your body. It's crazy that some people out of pure embarrassment will never go to a doctor to do a checkup.
It would be like saying "Yeah my car doesn't really run very well," boy two car illustrations in one podcast, this is remarkable. "It's not running right, but I'm embarrassed to take it to the car mechanic." No, we need to get past that. If your sex life is not flourishing, then absolutely one of the first steps is you and your spouse need to go to a doctor, and by the way Chris and I are not those kind of doctors, do not send us questions like that. But go to a doctor and just say "Things aren't going well." And have a medical professional sit down and say "Okay it's time for us to take a look at some very natural things that could be happening or the areas that you might be neglecting."
Chris Grace: I think that's really good Tim, and really helpful for just as a reminder for those out there that could be struggling in this are. There could be other things that your doctor knows about, medication, age, pain.
Tim Muehlhoff: The effects of other medication, yeah.
Chris Grace: All of them can have an impact and to just take care of this area is really important. Mostly too Tim, I think for couples that struggle in this area there is something else. There is some physical things, there are ways in which our bodies break down or medication has an impact. There are also emotional traumas that we have faced that can also impact pleasure, past relationships, and then past harm done. And those things really do require professions to talk about, to be able to bring to light, and then to be able to process and get some healing from. And a lot of these can just simply impact the physical, but those are done best by professionals who are trained in these areas. And there's some amazing, we could even put on our website some areas for receiving some help. Especially when it comes to psychological counseling and help, there are a lot of organizations out there that do some great professional work in the area of sexuality and the area of healing. And the area of trauma, and abuse, and pain that can affect our sexuality.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's right, and that kind of bleeds into another one, unresolved conflict. If there's something between you and your spouse, now this is something where movies really sell us a bill of goods. Only in the movies can you be really mad at each other and it ends up you making love, right? I mean movies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith where they're literally in a physical altercation with each other, and again this is Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, this is where they actually met in this movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith., and then it winds up in a passionate love scene. The Notebook, you got Ryan Gosling and I forget her name, but they're having this argument in a rain ... Chris, it's a thunderstorm, it's a thunderstorm. Noreen and I have never had an argument in a thunderstorm, I'd look at her and I'd say "Noreen, let's go inside, this is crazy." But they're mad at each other and they wind up in this passionate kiss, but that's only in the movies.
If there's unresolved conflict between you and the other person, that is going to of course register in the bedroom. There's actually a phrase we use called make-up sex, you're heard that right, that term? Which is kind of funny right Chris, but it means that when you and your spouse are having this intense disagreement or argument, but you actually resolve it and do it appropriately. We've talked about this on a ton of our podcasts, how to resolve conflict. People actually find that arousing, like hey I feel really great about you now because we resolved this, and we call that make-up sex. Which I think is hilarious, and I think we should do a whole podcast ... no we shouldn't, I'm just kidding.
And then last one I want to say Chris is spiritual dynamic is so incredibly ... we're spiritual beings, and if we are neglecting that connection with God or if there's unconfessed sin in our lives. That's going to register between you and your spouse because this dryness that you have with God is absolutely going to bleed into your sexual intimacy. You can't ignore God and expect to flourish in other areas including your sexuality.
Chris Grace: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And so as we stir these ingredients together, Tim there are people who will still point out that this causes for them a little bit of concern and angst. They've tried, they work on this, maybe they're in a relationship in which they're both trying to work on this but they still feel as if there's a barrier. An inability to talk, an inability to really get down to the heart of this issue or to the issues that really are important, and they feel unheard, or they feel that they can't express themselves. What do we do for couples that are at that point where there's conflict or certain issues are there, but they have a hard time even just talking about it with another person. These feelings of shame and vulnerability are pretty powerfully attached to our sexuality. And this idea of spirituality, we realize okay God loves and accepts me, but this can be influenced by the way we see what God does and what he says about us.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. I think the key is going to be we need more information, we need perspective when it comes to our sex lives. Because one, it's kind of awkward for couples to talk about it. And then I think even couples would say okay maybe I'm up for marital counseling, but not sexual counseling. Chris, one time I was at a resort, we were on vacation. Have you ever played tennis with a tennis pro, someone who's actually a pro? I play with this guy, we did it for 45-minutes. He says to me "Hey I'm going to analyze your game for a second." I said, "Okay." He goes, "You hit a ball against a wall, don't you?" I said, "Yeah I do, I was taught that that's really good." He goes, "No it's horrible. Don't ever do that without somebody there to coach you, you really pick up some bad habits." I kind of feel like Chris, that's true of a lot of married couples is they haven't stopped having sex per se, but there's just something that's not clicking or instead of fostering intimacy, it's fostering isolation. I think that's when you bring in a trained Christian counselor where you sit down and you say ... Now if that's too much of a step then there are some awesome books out there from a Christian perspective, one that we like is Sheet Music.
Chris Grace: Right.
Tim Muehlhoff: I forget who the authors are, do you know off hand?
Chris Grace: I'll remember probably by the end of the ...
Tim Muehlhoff: But again to sit down and read it where they do a good job of saying listen this is a problem we've had, and you sit there and you go oh thank you for saying that. Because we do, and remember not to over spiritualize this, but Satan loves to isolate. He loves for couples to think we're the only ones who struggle in the bedroom. We're a committed couple, we love each other, we go to church, we do all of these things, and still our sex live just isn't that great. We have some good friends of ours, we speak at marriage conferences together, and I won't mention any names obviously. But they shocked us one day and they said "Hey, guess what we did last month?" We said, "What?" "We went to a sexual therapist," Chris you could have heard crickets. You know what I mean, I was like "Really?" And they said, "You know what, it was phenomenal." We just said we love each other, we're committed to each other, we're in full-time Christian ministry together, and our sex life has fizzled. And this guy sat down with them and said, "Okay one, this happens to everybody, everybody goes through seasons, and here are just some things to think about." And what he did is he honestly did a checkup, he said "Okay let me ask you physically how are you guys doing, medications you're taking, stress, business?" And they said, "Tim it was absolutely liberating."
Chris Grace: Yeah, good for them for taking that step, which can be really hard to do. The author by the way Dr. Kevin Leman.
Tim Muehlhoff: Okay, Sheet Music.
Chris Grace: Sheet Music, yeah and it's just a book that we recommend now when we do premarital counseling for all couples to read and go through. Because it really is a great practical book for both married and engaged couples, but helping those that are dealing with maybe a past, sexual abuse, or some other traumas in their past and so it really helps them in this area. Tim, as we wrap this up one of the things that I think comes into play here is these ingredients as we stir them up. What final ... we've given a couple of suggestions, what final things would you like to say to couples in this area is know and go back to the source, go back to where you have found this vow and this commitment that you've made in this permanent union, this exclusivity. And if there are issues around that, then the need to bring is professional trained help, like your couple friend did, is really important.
Tim Muehlhoff: It's really important, and I was so glad they did that. Think of all the couples who suffer in silence and frustration because they just don't want to do that. Here's what I'm going to say Chris, because we do premarital counseling, I know you and Alissa do premarital counseling as well. We had this one couple and they were great, they both were virgins, they saved themselves for marriage, they both grew up in Christian homes. And they had lived with this narrative their entire lives, certainly during dating and engagement, of boy when you get to that honeymoon night and you've saved yourself. Oh my gosh, you're going to be waking up the neighbors, it's going to be crazy passionate sex. Here's a couple who did it perfectly, and we have a followup time with them after they get married.
And they both just kind of looked at each other and said "Can we just be really honest with you? It just isn't that great, and we're embarrassed." And she said, "I don't know if it's me." And I said "Guys, I am so glad that you mentioned this to us." And we've got to stop with this mantra Chris, that hey you save yourself, you do everything perfectly then the honeymoon nights going to just happen. And what we're saying is I don't think that's true, there's a lot of things that go into the sexual act and sexual intimacy. It's more complicated than what you may have believed, and we've got to stop overselling that Christian couples somehow have this unbelievable sex life. No, we struggle as much as anybody else, and we need information, and patience, and grace, and intimacy, and the courage to talk to other couples about it, I think is important to keep in mind.
Chris Grace: That's good, and again as we mentioned a great book out there is this idea then of, Dr. Kevin Leman's book on Sheet Music where he talks about sexual intimacy in marriage. And then as we often times recommend, young couples take that book, go through a number of these chapters and read it and it can cover so many areas for them that could lead to problems if they don't take care of them early on. And so it's a great book to recommend as well.
Tim Muehlhoff: We even recommend that couples who are engaged and are I think three weeks out, two weeks out from their wedding date. I think it's great to sit down with a book like that and get just a little bit of a preview so that they're not taken by surprise I think is a really good thing to do.
Chris Grace: All right, well there's a whole lot more to talk about.
Tim Muehlhoff: There's so much more to talk about.
Chris Grace: Yeah, let's do that. And especially now when we look at some of the ways culture deals with this issue, let's spend some time talking about that. But Tim, it's good talking with you and look forward to next time.
Tim Muehlhoff: As always Chris, thanks, man.
Christopher Grace serves as the director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and teaches psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology. He and his wife, Alisa, speak regularly to married couples, churches, singles and college students on the topic of relationships, dating and marriage. Grace earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Colorado State University.
Tim is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, CA, and is the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project which seeks to reintroduce humility, civility, and compassion back into our public disagreements. He is the co-host of the Winsome Conviction Podcast and his latest book is, Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing without Dividing the Church (IVP)