Getting Married When We (May) Want Different Things from Sex
Heather Corinna replies:I am 23 and I am getting married this fall. I have never had sex before because I have been waiting for marriage. My fiance is not a virgin. We have different views on the purpose of sex. His goals are intimacy and pleasure. I have a lifelong history of feeling guilty about any kind of physical pleasure and therefore trying to avoid it altogether. I really do not care whether I ever have an orgasm. I actually do not know what I think the point of sex is. How can we start a sexual relationship when our goals for sex are so different?
Before I say anything else (and I've got a lot, so go on and put your feet up: this is big stuff, so you deserve big responses), I want to make a couple things super-clear.
One: you get to have whatever kind of mutually consensual sexual life it turns out feels right for you, even if that turned out to be no kind of sexual life at all, or a sexual life that wasn't what you might currently think of as a sexual life, or what a given partner might want for themselves. Two: whatever it is you feel guilty about and because of, I hope some of what I say will help you feel at least a little less attached to that guilt, and at least a little able to see a future for yourself where you can walk into any experience you truly want without that guilt feeling like an insurmountable barrier.
If you can recognize that's all possible, start doing some things to get past and manage these hard feelings instead of just trying to avoid anything that triggers them, AND stick with choices with sexual pleasure, other kinds of pleasure, or other ways of being in your body that are only the things you really want for yourself, it's truly doable. I can't imagine you want to live a life where you feel you have to avoid or cut off pleasure and enjoyment in the body you inhabit: you can change that in time, if not entirely, at least a lot.
Please hear and try and know those things as facts, and as guiding principles, not pipe dreams. Spray-paint them on your proverbial walls. Make them your punk anthem, your gospel. They're big, they matter, and they're all possible.
I don't know for sure what you mean when you say "sex." Since you aren't saying, I'm going to talk about sex as all the ways we can be sexual with our bodies; I'll talk about it like I do in this piece here. If, when you say sex, you only mean some kinds of sex, then as you think about what I'm saying, you'll want to reference and consider the ways you have been sexual, and how you feel about those.
You say your issue is with physical pleasure: that potentially means anything to do with your body (not just sex), which at least includes all of your senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. In truth, that also involves your feelings and thoughts, since those things come from the brain, also a body part. In a word, any kind of pleasure we experience or explore is in some way physical. The division of mind and body isn't just artificial, how logically unsound it is is demonstrated well by framing like this, because our mind is part of our body, so what it does is necessarily physical. I'm not going to make those divisions, not just because I know them to be flawed, but because they may well be at the root of some of this with you. I'm going to focus more on pleasure in a larger way, and a way that recognizes the mind and the body aren't separate.
Sex is hardly the only place people experience or explore pleasure. Pleasure is often part of things like taking a walk in the woods, eating a great meal, feeling the sun on your face, enjoying a song on the radio, having a good time hanging with friends, or playing fetch with your dog. Feeling guilty (or ashamed: guilt and shame are not the same things, but people often use those words synonymously) about pleasure, and trying to avoid it at all costs because of those feelings, is probably not something you want to hold on to. Avoidance, with just about anything, after all, is rarely a behavior that serves people well. While I get how unpleasant these feelings can be, efforts to try and prevent them likely don't benefit you: they're bound to keep you from fully living your life and enjoying it, and while they might feel like that avoidance protects you, there are better ways to protect yourself in ways you're vulnerable and deal with your feelings that don't also cut you out of your own life and the body you live it with.
I lack the skills with which to predict your future. But I do know that most people, when they start exploring and expressing their own sexuality, start to explore and experience pleasure, especially when they're doing so by themselves, or when with partners, with partners invested in mutual pleasure and joy. That tends to be the primary driver in people's sexual lives and experiences.
Unless someone is intentionally -- or through often unintentional things like dissociation due to trauma -- shutting themselves off from pleasure, their partner isn't focusing on mutual pleasure, or sex isn't wanted or a real choice, people will tend to experience pleasure with sexual expressions they want to be part of, at least to some degree.
With sex that is about doing things with our bodies, and is emotionally healthy for us, we have to be able to, and want to, be present in our bodies. If we really don't want to be sexual with our bodies, we need to not be sexual with our bodies. When people go ahead and do so anyway, it tends to have deeply negative impacts on their lives and selves. In other words, the answer in this situation isn't: "Just do what your partner wants, shut down while that's happening, and suck it up." That's not a good answer for you, and since when he says he wants pleasure and intimacy, that's not going to be a good answer for him, either. Emotionally healthy people can't experience sexual pleasure while someone else is suffering or shut down, and we can't connect with each other intimately -- in sex, or in anything, really -- if one person has to shut themselves down.
This is more like it: If you can start to work through -- not avoid or shut down -- your fears and other negative feelings about pleasure, and identify, process and hold responsible what or who got you here, I can guarantee that in time you are going to feel SO MUCH better. Your whole life will benefit, not just your sexual or romantic life.
I'm not saying this to discount or dismiss your feelings, nor whatever experiences were part of you feeling so scared about pleasure. I'm hearing a level of guilt, shame, or both that must be awfully high for you to want so badly to avoid it. Whatever got you here was probably traumatic in some way for you to be feeling like this, and whatever those events, situations or circumstances were, I'm sorry they were part of your life.
But as someone very educated and experienced in what tends to create both healthy and unhealthy, happy and unhappy, sexual lives and dynamics, I can't suggest it's a good idea for someone to plan to engage in sex if and when a) they feel very triggered by pleasure, and they don't feel able to handle or manage the feelings that get triggered, or b) they and a partner want, and/or feel ready for, radically different things. That way just usually lies dysfunctional, unhealthy or unhappy sexual relationships or dynamics, and potentially more trauma, guilt and shame. I feel it's best to encourage you to recognize these hard feelings, and then to start doing some healing with them over time. Same goes for only engaging in sex that you really want, for yourself, not just because someone else does, or it feels required to be with someone in a certain way (like a marriage), and that happens at a pace with healing from these rough feelings that's right for you. That will not likely be in just a few months from now.
I'm missing big pieces here: I don't know where, specifically, these feelings have come from for you (or if you yourself know), and I'm making some assumptions about them having at least something to do with religion, since you're talking about guilt, sex, and pleasure, and saving sex until marriage, a choice that is most often religiously-based. But I also saw that you spent some time on the site looking into sex and body image, and the hard feelings you're having are just as likely to have come from, or partly come from, some kind of sexual abuse or assault history, or just plain living in a world that is so frequently so messed up in its views on sex, bodies, women and more. Regardless of where these feelings are coming from, I'd strongly suggest you do more of your own thinking, processing and start on healing, for yourself, and that you and your fiancee do more talking about all of this, now and later, and not while the meter is running. This just isn't the kind of stuff to put a deadline on.
In those talks, it's okay for you to only speak from what you know now. Like me, you can't predict the future. It's okay for you not to know much about something you haven't experienced: it's got to be, because you can't know much about something you haven't experienced. Sex is one of those things where we can have ideas and feelings about it ahead of time, but until we start exploring it, we're just not going to know much about how we feel about it, what we do and don't enjoy and want, what make us feel comfortable and excited, what scares us or is a total bore. He's had some sexual experiences, so he's going to know more about what he wants from sex, in general, than you are. Be sure that you're both leaving room for how much of this both of you just can't know or predict, and that extra room is being made for you, who has even less to reference than he does. You two can still talk through a lot of what you need to without you, or he, having to have answers you just don't yet. It's okay not to know things.
Be sure you're filling your fiancee in on the feelings you're having honestly. If you're going to stay together, and with the intent of a sex life, he needs to know how emotionally loaded this is for you. (In the event you don't feel able to be honest with him, I'd suggest you radically change your plans here, and not commit yourself to someone you don't feel safe with in this.) Assuming you feel able to be honest, you might start by talking about where you think these feelings have come from for you, and what -- based on the thinking you first have done by yourself -- you may need, or want to explore, to start working through them on your own, and how he can support you in that.
I'd say one big key piece is that he's in support of the fact that you will likely need some real time and personal space to work through all of this, start healing, and have anything sexual only happen at a pace that's right for you, not just right for him, or based in what you think you should do after a wedding. When people are in a situation where sex is something they are holding off for until after marriage, it's often assumed that once people are married, they will, or even must, do all the sexual things they haven't done straightaway. But if you don't really want to be sexual, feel very triggered by sex or pleasure, or still have your own work to do before sex is right for you -- marriage alone can't and won't magically erase guilt or shame -- that obviously is going to be very problematic for you. (It's problematic for a bunch of reasons, for the record, and not just for you.)
Make sure neither of you is assuming that marriage will automatically make either of you ready to be sexual together. It may be one criteria, but feeling and being ready to be sexual with others -- in all the ways we know are most likely to make sex something healthy and happy for people -- has a bunch of pieces, and marriage doesn't provide the vast majority of those, and for some people, it provides none. Talking about what each of you need to feel ready is important. If he feels he already has all of his pieces, but you have almost none of yours, that's something you'll need to remedy before being sexual together, marriage or not.
At the very least: he needs to be okay moving forward both understanding and accepting that you don't yet have any sense yet of what you want out of sex, or if you want it at all, and that you may be very uncomfortable, or disinterested in, exploring sex as pleasure, at least for now. You've got to be okay with the fact that he wants a sexual life that's primarily focused on pleasure and intimacy.
If either or both of you can't get on board with those things, then you should probably consider seriously rethinking either your plans to marry, or your agreements or expectations about sex after you get married. If you two want radically different things with sex, or one of you doesn't really want (any kind or some kinds of) sex, then married or no, sex should still stay on hold until or unless that situation changes, if the basic emotional well-being of both of you matters at all (and it should).
I don't advise anyone to choose to engage in sex they don't want, or don't feel able or okay to really be present in, rather than having to shut themselves down or tune out. My best advice for anyone in that situation -- for whatever reason -- is to seek out good support, counseling and/or therapy first, take real time participating in that help and healing, and to get to the point where they're only doing sexual things, if they're doing them at all, they want for themselves (not just to satisfy or "earn" a partner), are gladly open to, and don't feel they have to shut themselves down to get through. We may need to tune out to some degree if we have to pull a dead body out of a lake. I'm pretty sure everyone can agree that optional, wanted, and consensual sex should not resemble, at all, the dredging of a dead body.
This is a big, longtime issue for you, one where you have a lot to figure out and work through. Fall is coming up fast, so how about at least pushing that date back so that you don't have a ticking clock under all of this? If you've been honest about how scary some of this is for you, and your fiancee wants a relationship with you that really fits what you feel ready for and want -- not just what he does -- he'll probably totally understand and want to do what he can to make sure you're not agreeing to anything (like a sexual relationship) before you have a clear sense that you want to. After all, if a great long-term relationship, and marriage, is what you're both after, he's not going to want to do anything that makes that less likely or impossible.
In the event the guilt you are having is or has been based in something religious, I'd advise that if you seek out counseling or therapy, you seek out secular counseling. I say that because the kinds of religions or religious communities where people have learned big shame and guilt about sex both don't tend to be very well educated about emotional sexual health or healthy sexual dynamics, nor about current and general mental health and well-being, particularly when it comes to sex and shame. Secular mental healthcare professionals, or support groups they run, can still take any of your religious beliefs into account if that's a player, or something that's important to you.
If you'd like to talk more, please feel free to use our direct services to do that.
I want to offer you some links on site and off I think will be helpful:
- At Relevant Magazine: 4 Lies the Church Taught Me About Sex
- Another from Relevant and writer Lily Dunn: How I’m Overcoming Shame in My Sex Life
- Intimacy: The Whys, Hows, How-Nots, and So-Nots
- Ready or Not? The Scarleteen Sex Readiness Checklist
- Hello, Sailor! How to Build, Board and Navigate a Healthy Relationship
- Be a Blabbermouth! The Whats, Whys and Hows of Talking About Sex With a Partner
- An Immodest Proposal
- Self-Care When It's Scary
- Yes, No, Maybe So: A Sexual Inventory Stocklist
I think that if you and your fiancee each do the inventory in that last link, and share your answers with each other, it can give you some good information and insight for these conversations. It may even show you some places where you are in alignment, not just places you're not, which will probably make some of this feel easier for both of you. Assuming you really love being with this guy, while you're working through all this loaded stuff, be sure to do things together that involve physical pleasure together, but are within whatever your value system is, and don't trigger you too much. Being together and doing physical, pleasure-based things that might be a little outside your comfort zone, but worth the stretch -- like going swimming together and cuddling in the water, getting professional massages in the same room, making and eating a lavish meal together, or having a dorky pillow fight -- may give you more insight into these feelings, what triggers them, and what your road out from under them may be. Doing things like that will probably inform your thoughts and talks with all this, and it will probably also give you both some stress relief we all need when we're working through hard things.
I want to add that you may well find -- in this relationship, in others in life, or in your own masturbation -- that sex, itself, is one of your healing things. That's only likely if you go into it if and when it feels like a real choice, is something you truly want for yourself, and with someone you feel very safe with, though. If those pieces are all in place, and you have a sexual partner (when a partner is involved) who's caring, communicative and really invested in your pleasure and you as a whole person, and who's actively sensitive to any trauma you have, you may find a safe place to experience pleasure, after all, that can be one piece of helping you turn this around.
I know it may be hard to envision that without having done any healing yet, and when sex is also an abstract, but I want to put it out there so that you know it's a possibility. Sometimes, it's experiences with pleasure that most radically change our feelings about pleasure, and can play a big part in making what once seemed scary or awful a place we feel safe, whole and more liberated from whatever our emotional shackles have been. Given what you've said here about your partner's wishes for sex with you, it sounds like you may currently be with someone who would probably be very invested in doing what they could to support and encourage sexual pleasure, specifically, being something good for you.
Marriage or not, this partner or not, even no partners ever, should you choose, working through these feelings with an aim towards positive change so that you don't have to avoid any exploration or enjoyment of life in your body is a choice I'd encourage you to put in front of everything. My hope is for you to have a sexual and interpersonal life, however that looks, that feels good to you -- good in all the ways: in your skin, in your mind, in your heart -- like a right fit for you, and feels like it adds to the joy in your life. I am absolutely confident, even with no psychic skills whatsoever, that if you want it and aim for it, that can be your future.