Is Sexual Attraction Essential for Marriage?
Alex, a young woman, writes in to ask this: “Pastor John, is sexual attraction at the beginning of a relationship essential for marriage? Should you court someone you are not sexually attracted to? I’m currently praying about the possibility of courting a man who is on fire for the Lord and pushes me to be a better woman for Jesus, but I’m not sexually attracted to him (although I am emotionally). What should I do?”
I was so perplexed and moved by this question. I talked to my wife about it. And so this is a little bit of overflow from our conversation. At one level, this is easy to answer, and at another level, it is not so easy. The key word that makes it easy is the word essential. She asks, “Is sexual attraction at the beginning of a relationship” — I would say any time in the relationship — “essential for marriage?” And the word essential means of the essence. Does sexual attraction belong to the essence of marriage? And the answer is no. It does not belong to the essence of marriage.
Not of the Essence
But be careful. I didn’t say sexual relations. I said sexual pleasure. Sexual attraction doesn’t belong to the essence of marriage. The essence of marriage is the making and keeping of a covenant between a man and a woman to be husband and wife to each other as long as they both shall live. That is the essence of a marriage: covenant making, covenant keeping — to be a husband and a wife. And to be sure, that covenant includes the promise to give one’s self to the other in sexual relations (1 Corinthians 7:3). The husband should give his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife her husband. But there is nothing in the Bible that mandates any particular degree of physical pleasure in that relationship.
“Sexual attraction does not belong to the essence of marriage.”
And there are two other reasons for this — why I don’t think sexual attraction or sexual pleasure is of the essence. One is cultural. Throughout most of history, I think, and in most cultures, marriages have been arranged by parents. Couples did not look around to see who made them sexually aroused. They accepted the cultural pattern, and this means that most marriages in history have not started based on a sense of sexual attraction. That had to come later, if it came at all. And those were real, essential marriages.
And the other reason for saying this is that marriage has seasons of life as you grow older together. We have been married 45 years. We have walked through some of these seasons. We are still doing it. And this issue of physical pleasuring of each other rises and falls. I mean, it can rise and fall when you are young, because of all kinds of issues that come and go in life with broken children or strained relationships. And if you said that sexual attraction were of the essence, then aging would be the gradual end of marriage when, in fact, the glories of marriage may increase with aging and with the waning of sexual pleasures.
Physical and Emotional Intimacy
So my answer to the question is a flat out no. Sexual attraction is not essential for marriage. But that is the easy part of the answer. Here is what makes it not easy: I am not sure how to counsel this woman. I don’t want to say this is unimportant here. She says that she is not sexually attracted to him, but she is emotionally attracted to him. That is what I had to check with my wife about, because that is great for me to get a handle on.
“A man should never treat a woman as a mere source of titillation.”
Now, I admit it is hard for me as a man to get inside her skin and know what that is like. A man may be sexually attracted minus emotion. He can be very animal-like in this sense. But for women, generally they are more whole, more integrated. Their emotions are much more closely connected to their sexual pleasures. And I think that is a beautiful thing — a good thing and a very, very good thing for men to realize and own up to and adapt to. It means that a man should never treat a woman as a mere source of titillation. He should seek to know her and engage her personally and emotionally so that her experience of sex is person to person, eye to eye, heart to heart, not just body to body. So that is what I would say to her.
Can you see yourself gladly yielding this emotional intimacy to your husband’s desires for physical intimacy so that it becomes part of the emotional intimacy? I think right there is the issue for her — an extension of it. In other words, can this emotional tendency that she has, can she see it blending into a happy, glad, satisfied yielding to her husband’s physical intimacy even if, in that moment, she may not be having the same sensations that he has? If that seems unpleasurable to you, Alex, or even painful or unpleasant to you, this could be a serious problem and cause you to hesitate.
This is a sad story, but I married a couple one time, and the marriage did not last, because I failed to see that this woman really hated the thought of sex. She had all kinds of reasons I discovered later for why, but she hoped her marriage would fix it. She despised it, she told me. She thought it was dirty, and therefore it was over. She would not have any sexual relations with this guy, and he walked away from her. So I would say to this woman: test yourself.
Sexual pleasure is not essential to marriage, but the absence of the desire for it at the beginning could signal deeper problems of distaste for sex or resistance to the male desire. And I would try to see that changed before moving ahead.