Sex at its very best is a form of intimacy: knowing and being known. There’s something whole-hearted and whole-bodied about it. It’s a blessed space to be with your spouse. Our sexuality allows us to see beauty in life. It’s a marital sacrament full of pleasure and sensuality. Really good sex is a place to play that doesn’t always have to be cleaned up.

But that’s rarely what sex looks like in the beginning. Today I want to talk about three stages of sex that couples can move through. I’ll talk about what the three stages are and how to move from one stage to another. 

Stage 1

Joe and Jennifer have been married a while. Like most couples, Joe and Jennifer both have had anxiety and unrealistic expectations about sex going into the marriage. Joe felt his wife should give him sex when he wanted it; after all, they were married now, and he had an attitude that she’s his only legitimate sexual outlet. Jennifer felt used and smothered, feeling that her own sexual needs weren’t important to him. She didn’t want sex as often as Joe did, and Joe perceived her lower interest level as her being broken and needing to be fixed. He would send her podcasts and blog posts with good intentions but the underlying message Jennifer heard was that she wasn’t good enough sexually for him. This made Jennifer want to resist sex even more. She got good at avoiding sex. She would also use sex as a way to get Joe to do what she wanted in the relationship. When they would have sex (mostly because Jennifer felt guilty and also to get Joe to stop bugging her), it wasn’t great because of the pressure they put on making it good took the fun out of it. Over time, sex became frustrating and they avoided bringing up their complaints because it often led to arguments that didn’t feel productive. Joe didn’t feel desired by Jennifer, which triggered his anxiety around his legitimacy as a man and as a husband. Joe would do more dishes and laundry, and be extra nice to Jennifer but she could pick up that these overtures always had strings attached. Then Joe would get upset that after all he was doing for her, she was not giving him sex. As a result, intimacy suffered in their relationship.

Couples like Joe and Jennifer are at stage 1. You could be married for 20 years and still be at this stage. Sex is viewed as satisfying a physical need, scratching an itch. It’s self-referencing and self-centered with limited intimacy. “Mercy sex” and “duty sex” are stage 1 sex and can be the source of a lot of pain in the marriage. One spouse can feel a lot of resentment from feeling used by the other person for their pleasure and orgasm. The other spouse feels resentment from not being desired.

The mistake couples like Joe and Jennifer make is that they approach their frustration from a point of view of their spouse’s limitations. It’s an easy approach to take because those limitations are easy to see. It’s even justified sometimes: you honestly do see something and you’re calling your spouse’s attention to it. But it’s not productive because your spouse sees your limitations just as well, and how you’re contributing to the limited sexual relationship.

Transition to Stage 2

One night Jennifer got the courage to talk to Joe. She got the courage to stop ignoring the suffocating elephant in the room and brought up the topic of their sexual relationship. Although sex has been a big source of contention in the past, this night was different. It was the beginning of many long nights of conversations but Joe was open and accepted his wife’s influence. Joe was able to open up about his own insecurities around his sexuality and his validity as a husband.

Good sex is a team sport. Couples begin moving to better sex when they stop avoiding the issue and approach it as an intimate team. You begin to talk in terms of what you observe about yourself and what you wish were different. You speak up for what you want in an attitude of advocating for something good for the marriage.               

To transition to Stage 2, think about what you wish you could address to make sex better for the both of you. You approach sex as a team sport. You collaborate, consider, persuade, listen, listen some more, and figure out together what’s getting in the way and how to get to a better place together.

Working out your sexual relationship as an intimate team requires both people to take full responsibility for themselves. This process requires both individuals to also be completely and totally honest with each other. If you feel resentment around your sexual relationship, chances are you have either not been fully honest in the past about the situation or you have some growing up to do. As you can see, this takes a great deal of courage and authenticity. No wonder some people prefer resenting the bad sex they’re having to something more intimate because intimacy requires that we really expose our hearts, limitations, and shortcomings. These conversations can feel scary, like taking a step into the unknown, not knowing exactly where it leads.

Stage 2

Joe and Jennifer worked out a number of their issues and overall sex feels a lot more fair. They worked out a schedule and promised not to go more than a week without a sexual encounter. Joe’s slowed down to take more time to focus on Jennifer’s needs during their encounters, which helps Jennifer reach orgasm more often and find pleasure in the process. Joe is working on not feeling entitled, and Jennifer is working on not making sex be a bargaining chip. 

Stage 2 acknowledges the couple’s dynamic and is much more relational. There may still be a bit of tit-for-tat or sex feels more like an orgasm exchange, but it’s a lot better than stage 1. At stage 2 you also become an even more skilled lover. You’re finding an increase in connection and much more pleasure in the sexual  experiences.

You can be a really skilled lover at Stage 2, but there’s much more ahead for Joe and Jennifer.

How you are in relationship to yourself and your own sexuality deeply impacts how you are in relationship with your spouse. When you are solid about yourself, your own sense of worthiness, and at peace with your own sexuality, you no longer depend on others (such as your spouse) to legitimize your sexuality. When you’re no longer preoccupied by trying to prove the worthiness of your sexual desires and eroticism, you’re free to love through your sexuality. And this is when things get really amazing.

Loving another person through your sexuality is a very nurturing and generous kind of energy. You find profound pleasure in offering your spouse joy, bringing him or her to bliss, and being received on a whole new level. Your spouse is willing to be open and let his or her sexuality be known, which can be freeing for them too. There’s real collaboration, teamwork, and sex is profoundly transcendant.

Transitioning to Stage 3

Unfortunately there was a tragedy in the family. Jennifer’s father died in a freak accident and her mother died of an aggressive cancer just months later.

This event made Joe and Jennifer realize that life is short. These events caused them deep introspection into who they are showing up to be in their marriage, realizing that either one could be gone one day. Joe realized there’s much more to where their relationship can go and that the fear of taking the next step has been holding him back. By this time Joe and Jennifer have both grown a lot as individuals. Joe’s worked at being more honest in all he does, especially with Jennifer. He’s also put in the hard work of confronting his own anxieties about his worthiness and has more peace with who he is. Jennifer has confronted her anxieties too, especially around her sexuality and her body. 

A week after Jennifer’s mother’s funeral, Joe had the courage to approach Jennifer again with another conversation about their sex life, but this time it was different than the ones in the past. He sincerely apologized about the many times he had a hidden agenda to try to get Jennifer to have sex with him and to try to “fix” her. She apologized for the many times she used sex as a bargaining chip as a way to manipulate Joe into covering up her anxieties about herself. There was a sweetness to the moment of holding each other close as they talked through the night about their fears, anxieties, their children, and how they’ve been towards each other in the relationship. This conversation took a lot of courage and raw exposure, letting the other person see them for who they truly are. But it was electric and they felt fully alive and deeply in love with each other.

Courage is the cost of growth. It’s normal to feel anxious going through this level of growth and change in your relationship. It also requires letting go of trying to change the other person and giving up your agenda. This can be scary because you’re giving up your illusion of self-centered control and freely letting the other person choose what they want in the relationship.

In order to have passion in the relationship, each person must be free to choose. I hear many men say, “but if I stop sending her articles, podcasts, apps, and texts about how she can develop her sexuality, she won’t ever change.” They don’t realize that every article he sends also comes with the message that he thinks she’s broken and needs to change. This pressure doesn’t give her the freedom to choose for herself. This “letting go” of the outcome of what the spouse does is the only path to stage 3. Rather than focusing on the spouse’s shortcomings, one focuses on being the best lover he or she can be.

Letting go of trying to change or fix the other person is also morally right. It’s not fair to treat another human being as your stress ball or to make it the other person’s job to make you feel better about yourself when you’re unsure about yourself to begin with. It takes a lot of anxiety tolerance to make these changes because you’re not good at it yet and every cell in your body wants to go back to the old familiar pattern. It’s normal for these couples to have a period of higher anxiety as they work out a higher, choice-based (and courageous) new pattern.

Stage 3

Sex is a language that communicates love, valuing, cherishing, beauty, and celebration of life. There’s a temporal piece to it all — a feeling that life is short and you don’t want to take this special person in your life for granted.

The sex gets better the more capable you become in accepting yourself and in truly valuing and cherishing one another. The peak of your sexuality isn’t in your 20s. 50, 60, and 70 year olds that have put the work in over the years to develop themselves are far more capable of transcendent sexual experiences with their spouses than young newlyweds. Dr. David Schncarch, a renowned American sex therapist said, “cellulite and sexual pleasure seem to have a positive correlation.”

You make love with your heart. Your touch becomes an extension of your heart. By the way you touch her, kiss her, hold her, stroke her hair, breasts, and body, you’re communicating a deep cherishing of this beautiful woman in your life that’s been willing to grow, change, and evolve in meaningful ways. And you’re grateful for it. Humbled by it. You can communicate this deep loving without worrying if it’s going to lead to intercourse or orgasm. 

There’s no manipulation or agenda. You’re not trying to get the other person to do something in return. There’s safety in this form of loving touch. There’s room for both people in the relationship to freely choose each other.

Sex becomes super desireable at this level because who doesn’t want to be lovingly touched as if they’re the most beautiful person in the world? You’re not being touched like you’re getting taken from to fulfill the needs of another person, but the touch is rejuvenating, life-giving, and inspiring. 

Ravishing

Ravishing means embodied desire and cherishing for the other person. Couples that get to this stage learn to play with masculine and feminine dynamics in the relationship. For instance, the masculine gathers strength, pushes, pursues, and gives chase. The feminine energy complements it with its strengths: opening up, getting pursued, and getting chased. There’s a polarity – like two sides of a magnet, and using these energies within you to create positive sexual tension. 

Some people are afraid to admit that special someone really, really matters to them and that they could benefit from the other person’s strengths. A lot of us don’t want to be dependent on others in the name of self-strength. However, it’s only a pseudo-strength because it takes more courage to truly desire someone while at the same time allowing that someone to fully receive you. It takes strength to let another person know that they really matter to you and that they have an impact on you without feeling less for it. Ravishing love truly blesses both the giver and the receiver.