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The following is part 2 in a two-part series. To read part 1, CLICK HERE.
What Is Healthy?
To raise the bar on the intimate relationship in our marriages, couples need to know what healthy sexual relationships are if they want to be able to create a “sextraordinary marriage.”[i] In part 1 and part 2 of this article you will find 20 characteristics that help determine what defines healthy and unhealthy sexual relationships.
Many husbands and wives struggle to understand what healthy sexuality really is. One wife said to me, “I don’t even know if I know what healthy sexuality looks like other than that I need to have a voice in the bedroom and not have it be all about him.” Husbands also admit that they really don’t have an idea of what healthy is either given how much their sexual learning is from questionable sources like pornography.
One of the reasons I created this list is to help couples understand what a healthy or ideal sexual relationship looks like and what unhealthy looks like. I also wanted to help couples figure out how they might need to relearn healthy sexuality as they unlearn some ways of thinking, being and behaving in their intimate relationships.
Broader Context to Sexual Characteristics
Most lists of this kind have a focus on the unhealthy characteristics related primarily to pornography or addiction. Author and sex therapist, Wendy Maltz created a simple list of differences between healthy sex and porn-related or “unhealthy” sex[ii]—concepts that have been integrated into this chart. Additional insights have been gleaned from the book Every Man’s Battle by Christian author Stephen Arterburn and Men’s Sexual Health by renowned sex therapists Barry W. McCarthy and Michael E. Metz.
I didn’t want this list to be solely about addictive or compulsive issues since that is just one of many dimensions of unhealthy sexuality. So, I have added my clinical experience as a marriage counselor and sex therapist helping couples develop healthy sexual relationships. This added context creates a broader perspective on healthy and unhealthy sexual relationships. Additional insights come from my Male Sexuality Survey of nearly 900 respondents.
This list is a rare resource not only due to its comprehensive look at healthy sexuality and the uniqueness of both male and female sexual wiring, but also because it seeks to include God’s designs for sex. With such a broad perspective, this list can help both husbands and wives move toward a healthier, richer intimate relationship—a “sextraordinary marriage!”
The table is meant to be a simplified listing of the 20 characteristics of healthy and unhealthy sexuality with additional commentary below the chart to clarify and expand on each item for greater understanding. Part 2 of this article contains characteristics 11-20.
11. Mutually agreeable variety vs. Non-existent or pressured variety
Especially given the desire for marriages to remain strong and vibrant for the long haul, variety, adventure, novelty, fun and playfulness are needed to keep intimate relationships from going stale. Oftentimes one spouse needs to work on their playfulness and adventure while the other needs to tone down their desire for variety and novelty. The key is both moving toward the other to obtain a healthy balance essential in their healthy sexual relationship.
The brain does long for some novelty and adventure to keep it fresh and new, but sexual compulsivity in the relationship will tend to push the demand for variety too far—negatively affecting many of the other healthy characteristics mentioned in this list. Having an overall light, playful and fun tone to the sexual relationship is so helpful not only in the very beginning of the learning-together stage of the intimate relationship but also as challenges come along including the natural aging process.
12. Mutually fulfilling vs. Self-gratifying
Obviously healthy sexuality ought to be mutually enjoyable and satisfying. When the sexual experience is more for the gratification of one person it will be difficult for the other to enthusiastically want to engage regularly. Effort should be taken to ensure that both individuals are able to experience an orgasm if desired or at least have it be a positive connecting experience for both. Because an orgasm for her tends to be a little more complex and requires more time and effort than a climax for him, sometimes just the emotional connection of a foot rub or intimate cuddling is desired.
There could even be a quickie for him on another day when it’s coming from a positive and connected foundation in the relationship. Win/win marital intimacy doesn’t always have to equal orgasm/orgasm for both. Rarely is it a good idea to consistently engage in sex that is one-sided, not agreed upon and/or is occurring too often as that can lead to accumulated frustration, bitterness and resentment.
We don’t want more stories of the woman who lamented, “My husband doesn’t seem to care that I don’t have an orgasm. It seems like sex is mostly for him.” Men need to do their part in seeing that their wife is getting the necessary emotional and sexual stimulation. Women also need to do their part to be mentally, emotionally and physically active and engaged to increase their chances of a satisfying sexual experience for both.
13. Open and honest vs. Secretive
Healthy sexuality means you are both open and honest with each other about your thoughts, feelings, needs, etc. You are willing to be vulnerable even though that can be scary. Vulnerability means you are willing to be fully seen and are willing to fully see each other—body and soul. Healthy sexuality requires a healthy, solid sense of self. If you need to hide yourself emotionally or physically in order to feel safe or acceptable then something needs to change.
As we have already mentioned, healthy sex is not something done alone or in isolation. If either spouse is secretive or hides any of their sexual behavior it leads to distrust, fear, shame, feelings of betrayal and weakens the foundation of trust healthy sexuality and healthy marriages require. Secrets of any kind are poisonous in a marriage, but sexual secrets are even more pernicious.
14. Organic vs. Compulsive
Healthy sexuality can be hot and heavy or fast and furious but flows out of a genuine sense of connection in the overall relationship. Women are capable of having their own healthy drive for sexual connection with their spouse but often need to cultivate it. Men also must work to tune into the relational emotions that fuel a wife’s desire in order to have an organic, naturally flowing movement into intimately connecting. When one is preoccupied or seemingly obsessed with sexuality and the drive for it feels compelled, impulsive or needed so desperately that you can’t live without it, agency is affected.
The healthy, spontaneous, organic connection is overpowered. Sex at that point often feels like it is something taken versus given or shared. The sense of entitlement and self-centered focus on one’s own needs can feel compulsive versus spontaneous and nurturing to a woman who doesn’t always have that same strong drive for sex that many men do. Many women have related ongoing resistance to their husband’s constant, seemingly obsessive need for sex and their insistence on particular unpleasant activities, which leave them feeling offended and like a mere object for his gratification. This is poisonous to a healthy sexual relationship regardless of his reasons for such urgency.
Men also speak of the pain caused by wives who never seem to “want to.” Some women shame their husbands simply for having a healthy sex drive because they have put sex in a carnal, not-okay category due to past negative experiences and/or trauma. With so many wives who have yet to embrace, develop and enjoy their own sexuality any attempt at connecting sexually may feel like an unhealthy “take” to her. And yet there are times that men do “take” in ways that are unhealthy.
Both husbands and wives need intimate understanding and self-awareness in order to stay in the healthy realm of naturally sharing in the sexual experience versus compulsively seeing sex as something you can or deserve to take. Couples often have to do some repair work of past resentments, wounds and unhealthy behaviors in order to get to a healthy place. There is a need for balance and equal effort on both the husband’s and wife’s part to achieve a healthy sexual relationship.
15. Passion vs. Lust
Passion and lust often get confused with each other when it comes to sexuality. Since dictionary definitions of passion and lust are quite similar, biblical references provide more clarity on the unsavory nature of lust versus the positive nature of passion (see 2 Peter 1:4; 2 Timothy 2:22; Titus 2:12; 1 Peter 2:11). Lust is selfish, insatiable, illicit, course, carnal, objectifying and focused primarily on the physical while passion is a more wholesome sentiment of ardent enthusiasm, emotion or love for one’s spouse and/or the shared sensual experience.
Passion is an intense, positive relational experience whereas lust is an intense selfish and carnal experience. With lust, compulsivity or objectification there is additional risk of desensitization where the simple ecstasy of sexuality is not enough. Engaging in virtual sex with an idealized image makes it more and more difficult to be excited by the real thing with a real person. More and different and almost perfect is constantly needed. It’s not just about wanting some variety. It’s as if one is unable to be satiated.
16. Personal vs. Objectifying
Healthy sexuality as designed by God is personal and reserved only for one’s spouse. Additionally, lovemaking requires learning that is specific to your spouse since what will be arousing and satisfying is unique to them. One of the most commonly understood characteristics of unhealthy sexuality is that the partner is objectified. Objectification is to degrade one’s spouse to an object or mere means of satisfying carnal lusts. This means it’s not really personal or about them and their needs since any partner will do.
Another angle on objectifying is to assume, expect or demand that your spouse think like, act like or be like what you’ve seen in the movies, media, pornography and other stereotypes versus checking in with each other to create a shared sexual style that is specific to you. So many in today’s society have been sexually trained by pornography that it will take some work to undo the damaging beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that have been instilled. Personal and connected sex is very different than objectified, self-satisfying sex that is solely focused on physicality.
17. Purpose is to connect vs. Self-medicate
Other than procreation, the primary purpose of healthy sexuality is to connect husband and wife in a uniquely bonding, powerful experience of expressing love, affection and passion as they become one—body and soul. It can even be a great stress-reliever if that is true for both spouses and not inconsiderate of one spouse.
By contrast, unhealthy sexuality is a means of self-medicating, self-soothing negative emotions, such as anxiety, and used as an unhealthy escape from the challenges of life. The spouse becomes simply an object or the means for his release if she is included at all. When sex becomes something one does compulsively because it has become hard-wired into the brain as the go-to drug of choice for managing negative emotions it has slipped into an unintended realm of a counterfeit of God’s designs.
18. Relational vs. Autonomous
Healthy sexuality is relational and relationship-strengthening where your spouse is a high priority and you work together as an intimate team in the sexual relationship. The secular world may say it is healthy to engage in sexual activity with yourself. God is pretty clear about us overcoming the carnal man, denying ourselves of all ungodliness and working to bridle our passions rather than letting them rule over us (see Mosiah 3:19, Moroni 10:32, Alma 38:12).
It may be tempting to impulsively engage in pleasurable sexual sensations in isolation for our own enjoyment, but God’s gift of sexuality is reserved for husband and wife to share in a healthy, relational, marriage-strengthening manner. If one spouse rarely makes it to the top of the other’s “to-do” list, that creates problems as well. Divine sexuality is not meant to be taken into our own hands, diminishing the power of the spirit over the flesh and weakening the relationship as well. In the Bible we are reminded that our body is a temple for the Spirit of the Lord and is not our own but is bought with a price paid for by the Savior of the world (see 1 Corinthians 6:15-20).
19. Results in greater connection vs. Disconnection
Healthy sexual interactions will have a positive result including greater connection as husband and wife and enhanced feelings of self-esteem. The opposite is true for unhealthy sexual interactions where disconnection, guilt, shame, regret, emptiness and despair may result. A husband who talked his wife into doing something she really wasn’t okay with is going to make it more likely for them to both feel disconnected and increase negative feelings about sex, self, spouse and the relationship.
If someone suggests a “quickie,” and it is coming from a place of connection then even though it may be physical focused and mostly one-sided satisfaction wise it can still be a healthy component of the sexual relationship. One who views porn and masturbates tends to have feelings of shame, regret and despair resulting in disconnection. Results of the sexual experience will help you know whether they are in a healthy or unhealthy vein.
20. Spiritual experience vs. Secular counterfeit
One of the most overlooked and misunderstood aspects of healthy sexuality is the spiritual dimension. Many couples struggle to connect sex with spirituality despite the fact that it was God that created sex. By divine design healthy sexuality is defined as a spiritual experience symbolizing oneness. The term ‘spiritual’ means relating to or consisting of spirit. Sex itself is designed by God to join husband and wife together as one—body and soul. This is a spiritual symbol of our being one with our spouse and with God (see John 17:11, 21-22).
Contrary to what many may believe, healthy, passionate sexuality doesn’t have to be somber or solemn to be spiritual. With an understanding of the divine nature of sexuality and its healthy use within marriage there can be an overriding sense of sacredness and spirituality within the act of lovemaking. With so many unhealthy forms of sexuality we can clearly see and feel the difference between God’s designs and the many secular counterfeits. Understanding the ultimate divinity of the sexual experience allows us to recognize that even within arousal and passion the Spirit can still be present. Couples need to have this realization of the sacredness and incredible oneness of the one-flesh experience as divinely designed into God’s multi-dimensional creation of marital sexuality.
Knowledge is power, so I hope these insights on the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy sexuality will help you raise the bar on the intimate relationship in your marriage—allowing you to create your own “sextraordinary marriage.”
BIO — Laura M. Brotherson, LMFT, CST, CFLE
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Sex Therapist, Laura M. Brotherson is the founder of The Marital Intimacy Institute with a mission to help couples create “sextraordinary marriages.” She counsels with couples, individuals and families in private practice (and online). Laura is the author of the best-selling book, And They Were Not Ashamed: Strengthening Marriage through Sexual Fulfillment, and her latest book, Knowing HER Intimately: 12 Keys for Creating a Sextraordinary Marriage.
Laura is actively engaged in providing marriage education through Couples Cruises, articles, newsletters, radio and television broadcasts, and presenting at conferences and workshops. Laura is passionate about helping couples navigate the intricacies of intimacy to help build strong marriages and families. Laura and her husband are the founders of StrengtheningMarriage.com—your trusted resource for education, products and services to strengthen marriages … intimately!
Connect with Laura:
[i] Laura M. Brotherson, Knowing HER Intimately: 12 Keys for Creating a Sextraordinary Marriage (Boise, Idaho: Inspire Book, 2016).
[ii] Wendy and Larry Maltz, The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography (Collins Living, 2008), 182.