Transitioning to Sexual Intimacy: No, No, NO! to Go, Go, GO!
By Jeremy S. Boden, PhD, CFLE, LAMFT
Many years ago, a student of mine wrote in her paper that upon asking her mom one week before she got married to give her some advice about sex, her mother replied, “Well, Honey, people have been having sex since Adam and Eve, you will figure it out, too.” That was her sexual education. Pretty exhaustive.
Sexual intimacy is one of the most vulnerable experiences we will engage in this life time. Few experiences can replicate the deep emotional and physical exposure that accompanies being sexual with our partner. Despite the magnitude of the impact that sex can have on the marital relationship, our research of over 1000 married individuals has revealed that few people are prepared for this highly anticipated event. Here are some of the themes and findings from our study.
Overwhelmingly, one of the most consistent messages we received from our participants was that they just didn’t feel prepared with enough knowledge about the intricacies of sexual intimacy going into marriage. One female respondent stated, “I was so uneducated and unknowledgeable about sex and sexual acts. We learned to talk along the way but it took a few years.” In fact, only 28% reported any knowledge of human sexual response and less than 7% reported any specific knowledge in how to make love. Many individuals reported that their sexual education in the home could be summarized with one statement, “Just don’t do it.”
Take home message: Don’t be afraid to look for material that is in line with your values, get educated, visit a medical and/or mental health professional before and after marriage, and find answers.
Healthy Sexual Messages, Beliefs, and Expectations
From the time we can understand language to high school graduation, we will have received thousands of messages about how to view our own bodies, relationships, marriage, sex, and our own sexuality. Some of these messages can be positive but many are not and can contribute to struggles in the transition to sexual intimacy. One female stated, “I was taught growing up sex was bad, dirty and wrong and we didn’t talk about it. When I got married it took a while for us to talk through my fears and for me to grow out of shame and into acceptance and enjoyment.” Over and over again respondents indicated that they had unhealthy, unrealistic, or false conceptions of their own sexuality and what sex was or was not going to be like.
Take home message: Become aware of your own sexual beliefs and expectations and share these with your partner before and after marriage. Remember to practice empathy and understanding as you listen to your partner.
When we asked married individuals what advice they would give couples who are about to embark on their first sexual experience together, many encouraged couples to be patient with each other, go slow, and to practice kindness, gentleness, and love during their first time. As one respondent put it, “Be patient and understanding. It’ll take a while to get the hang of it, and be open and understanding to each other’s needs. Be loving and concerned about each other.” Study after study has noted that when spouses feel emotionally safe and connected, their sex life thrives.
Take home message: Your partner is the most important person in your life, and together, you are embarking on one of the best areas of marriage. Therefore, be kind, soft, patient, understanding, and gentle with each other.
According to our study, only 44% of couples talked about their expectations about the wedding night before marriage. Thus, the fourth key to a successful transition into sexual activity was that couples need to communicate before and after their marriage about their expectations, thoughts, and emotions about sexual intimacy. Further, both men and women strongly agreed with the statement, “Looking back, I wish we had communicated about sex more before we got married.” However, we’ve also learned that it is less about the discussion of specific topics and more about the comfortableness felt in talking about sex before marriage. In other words, if you are able to discuss your expectations about sexual intimacy before marriage, it is likely that this comfortableness will continue on after marriage.
Take home message: You must create a safe environment and push yourself to discuss these important issues surrounding sexual intimacy. Couples who talk about their sex life have better sex and more of it.
When couples can gain adequate knowledge, cultivate healthy sexual scripts, create an emotionally safe relationship, and learn to safely and frequently discuss their sex life, our research supports that their transition to sexual intimacy will be smoother.