Recently I put on a free intimate foundations for marriage course. Over the next two posts you’re getting a version of that training. If you would like to listen to this training, tune into the Get Your Marriage On! Podcast
I think the principles taught here are really important and apply to all. Even though at the time I recorded it, the primary audience for this training was for men, I think the principles apply to both men and women.
Normal People have Problems
I want to talk to you about why normal people have marriage problems. Because if you don’t have marriage problems, you’re not normal 😉 .Then, I’m gonna introduce to you my three level framework on how to get some growth and improvement in the intimacy of your marriage.
I believe marriage is a divine institution. It’s God’s way of helping us grow up and learn to love as He does. And sex plays a very important role in a marriage relationship.
What makes marriage different from all your other relationships? It’s sex. And that sexuality is so core to who we are. We are spiritual, intellectual beings… and we’re also sexual beings. Sharing this sexuality with someone binds us to our spouse in really unique ways. Because of its intimate behavior, sex opens up a number of issues as well. And those issues I believe are by design because they force us to grow.
Conflict Leads to Growth
In any intimate relationship, there is a paradox of two competing things. The first concept is that we want to belong to ourselves. I want to be me. I want to be independent. And the other part of the paradox is I want to belong to someone else
And oftentimes these two things appear to be at odds with each other. Growing up is a process of learning how these two seemingly opposite things can coexist within us and within a relationship. Belonging to yourself and belonging to your spouse. Because of these two opposing things, we can have conflict in our marriages and in our relationships.These challenges are really designed to help us grow up, but we have to choose to grow.
If there’s one thing I know about my brain and probably your brain too, is that it likes to gravitate towards things that are pleasurable. It likes to avoid things that cause pain as our brains like to be really efficient. Thinking critically is mentally expensive,so our brains don’t want to think critically more than they have to. Overcoming our challenges in marriages requires us to sometimes do away with a little bit of pleasure and engage in very expensive, deep thinking.
In other words, like working out at a gym, you need to work those muscles that are weak to make them stronger. If you only work the muscles that are easy to work or you don’t work out that hard, then you’re never going to gain strength to your muscles. That same concept applies in our marriages.
If you’re married and you have conflict, you’re normal. If you’re like most couples, you’ll go through phases in your marriage of calm, where the relationship is great and things feel wonderful. Then you’ll go through what I call growth cycles. That’s when you’re coming up against conflict in your marriage. But these are cyclic.
We don’t want to always be in a cycle of growth, growth, growth, because it’s very taxing, stressful, and uncomfortable. If you just live in that place, you’re going to always feel really stressed about your relationship. We don’t want to be in that space all the time, but you also don’t wanna be in a place of calm all the time. If you’re always in a calm status quo, there’s no growth.
In fact, you may hear of couples that never fight. This usually means they avoid conflict at all costs and their marriages sometimes drift apart into divorce. It’s not because they had bitter fights; it’s because they never grew. They preserved the calm at all costs and their marriage died.
I think about deciduous trees; trees that lose their leaves in winter and during the spring and summer, they grow and expand. And then in winter they contract and conserve. This growth cycle is tracked by the rings. The trees are just like our marriages; we’ll go through growth cycles and calm cycles, and those are healthy and normal parts of having a marriage.
I’m gonna offer specific tools that will help you efficiently navigate your growth phases. Because if you don’t, things will have to get really, really, really bad in order to wake you up to the fact that you’ve got some work to do and force you into a growth cycle.
Speaking of conflict and marriage, the type of conflict I’m talking about specifically is called gridlock. Gridlock is just how it sounds. You’re both locked into your opinions. You can’t move forward without the other person.
This includes having different opinions around sex. Things like, “I really want to do this thing sexually with you”. And she absolutely does not. Or around many other issues. Like, “I really want to save money in this area” and she wants to spend it. Or on parenting issues,“I really think that our kids need to do X and my wife thinks the kids can’t do X and there’s no compromise”. You can’t both do the thing you wanna do sexually and not; you can’t both spend the money and save it at the same time. It’s an either or type of situation where you find yourself in gridlock.
If you’re like most marriages you’ll find a list of 6 to 10 things that you’re gridlocked about. And every marriage has items that they’re gridlock about. And the only way out of it is to grow.
So you have these diametrically opposed opinions in your marriage. You both can’t do your thing. So the only direction you’ll be able to go is to grow up and out of it. That’s the process of maturing. So marriage is an amazing tool to help you become a better person, a more capable person, a more loving person, and to bring out the godliness within you.
If you choose that path, you choose the path of growth.
The Biggest Issue in Sex
One thing I’ve learned in my coaching as I work with many others, and also in my own experience is the biggest trap a lot of people fall into is they’re too preoccupied about whether or not their spouse loves them, or they’re too preoccupied about whether or not they’re getting the kind of love they want from their spouse.
These are the complaints I hear “How can I get my wife to [blank] so that she’ll have sex with me more?” or “I do all of these things for my wife and she just sits and scrolls social media instead of engaging with me”. Instead of this preoccupation with whether or not I’m getting the love that I want, the better question to ask is “how am I as a lover?” or “Am I really giving what I want as a lover?” That’s the question I think ought to be asked.
I believe men and women are equals in almost all areas when it comes to sex. I’ve learned though that, in general, women have a higher capacity for sexuality than men do. And here’s why I think that.
On a biological level, women are hardwired to have more pleasure in sex. Their clitoris has 8,000 nerve endings compared to only 4,000 for a penis. A woman has the capacity to have multiple orgasms easily compared to a man. And when she is sexually excited, she can stay at that high level of arousal for longer stretches of time than men can in general.
So women have this immense capacity for sexuality. Yet they are a lot pickier, and I think there’s also a biological reason for that too. For instance, let’s look at a typical sexual encounter; the involvement required for both people to orgasm is very differnt. Six minutes he’s done, right? His job is done. But for a woman, there’s a lot of risk that six minutes can turn into nine months of pregnancy. And after the baby is born 18 years of raising that child.
So it’s no wonder that even though women have a higher sexual capacity, they’re gonna be a lot pickier and choosier about who they’re going to open up their heart and their body to receive. Because of this, I think God’s given women and, and men too, to an extent, this amazing ability to track whether or not this man in their life is worthy to open up to.They’re always mapping, “Is this someone that I can really open up to? Can I trust this person?”. And thank goodness, there’s a lot of really good men out there that women trust and open up to, and they’re worthy of all that love and trust. And our work as husbands is to be worthy of that trust and to show even in the smallest little ways everyday.
Our wives are always tracking us asking, “is this someone that I can really open up to?” You want that answer to be yes.
The Three Levels Framework
I want to share with you my framework that was developed by Dr. Jennifer Finlayson Fife (one of my mentors) that’s really helped me understand my marriage.
I call it the three levels of sex.
Everyone starts at level one. Some of them moved to level two and some of those even moved to level three. And I want everyone to learn how to be a level three lover. Let me explain what the three levels are.
At level one, sex is very much about me.
It’s very self focused. It’s about my pleasure. It’s being really wrapped up in yourself. Your level of awareness in the sexual encounter is really limited to yourself and your own sensations. There is little regard for the other person and how they’re feeling. At this level, sex feels very needy becuase it’s something you extract from other people.
It’s really focused on safety, control, and self reinforcement. An extreme example of a level one is someone hiring a prostitute. It’s sex and it can be really exciting sex as far as sex can be, but you’re not going to find a lot of heart in it because you can’t put your whole heart into investing in this person you hired to gratify you sexually. The whole setup of the encounter is very self-centered. It’s really wrapped up around what I need and what I want. It’s probably an extreme example.
In most marriages, level 1 is going to be very narcissistic or egocentric. We’re having sex for me because I want it, or because I want a release. I need you to do your wifely duty. It’s been three days and you’re my only sexual sexually legitimate outlet. Things like that are very much level one thinking.
About 30% of people never grow out of level 1. Most people start there. Hopefully you don’t stay there very long.
in level two, you have more awareness. Instead of sex being just about me, you’re more aware of your spouse and her needs and you have a lot more consideration for her. In fact, you have so much consideration to her, sex is somewhat more based on validation.
For example, there was a time in my marriage where level two sex was the norm. In fact, I was so overly focused on my wife’s experience, I got lost in it. I wanted her to have an orgasm. I wanted her to have great pleasure and I would go to great lengths to help her have a great sexual experience.
And I made it all about her. That might sound really noble on the surface, but there’s no virtue in her having sex with an empty and hollow man. Does that make sense? I really wasn’t there to offer myself to her. And because she felt enormous pressure to perform, she felt like she had to have an orgasm in order for me to be happy with a sexual encounter.
This level is where people say to me, “how can I make my wife feel more safe with me so that she’ll open up sexually?” or “I really want her to have an orgasm because I know that if she’s having a good time and she’s engaging sexually, then she’ll want to have more sex with me in return”.
So level two is always gonna be stuck in this transactional frame of mind. Even though you’re not as caught up on yourself (like level one), level two is more of a dependency. I need the other person to feel a certain way or be a certain way in order for me to feel okay.
A non-sexual example of this would be having an argument with my spouse or there’s some conflict we’re going through. My wife is upset and I’m upset because my wife is upset. Somehow, I think it’s my fault that she’s upset or I need to fix it.
So I really worked on wanting her to calm down so that I feel good about myself. When you depend on other people to be oka, you’re going to start controlling other people. You start controlling them through arguing, fighting or withdrawing or pouting. Or the opposite; being overly nice and over functioning. All of these things are an attempt to control the other person so you can control their experience of things.
This applies to most people that I coach and work with. They’re in the middle of level two, trying to break through into level three.
All right. So let’s talk about level three. It’s not ego driven. In fact, at this level, you’re more interested in truth than winning or losing. You’re at peace with yourself enough sexually that you can truly give yourself. And you can love wholeheartedly through your sexuality. It’s meaningful to you and it’s meaningful to them.
When you’re at level three, there’s a sense of solidness in yourself. You’re able to calm yourself down and offer that to your wife sexually or in other areas.
At this level, sex takes on immense capacity for deep meaning. If you remember at level one, the extreme example was sex with a prostitute. There’s very little meaning involved. Stage three is the opposite end of the spectrum. This is where you have immense depth of heart.
Sex has incredible meaning for who you are and what this relationship means to both of you. And that’s when sex gets really good.
Let me give you a quick metaphor about a violinist. My daughter’s learning to play the violin and she’s a level one violinist right now. Practice for her is very much revolved around herself.
She likes to practice alone in her room where no one can hear because it’s for her. And then I know violinists who are at level two and they have mastered the notes. They know how to play someone else’s piece well. Well, not perfect. They know the music inside and out. They’re very good at performing for other people. It’s really about performance at that level. It’s about learning how to do things the right way so that other people are pleased with my performance.
There’s nothing really wrong with being at level two, except level three is better. I heard about this concert where the power went out in the middle of the concert. The main guest violinist walked out on level and said, “We had planned to do this other piece, but I can’t, but I’m gonna perform this other song for you instead”. So in the dark, because he had all the notes memorized, he played this piece with all this emotion. He wrote the piece when his wife died. It was his heart playing the song. Everyone in the audience was moved to tears by this expression of who he was. Do you see how he can’t be at level three until he has mastered level two and got through level one?
In order for you to make love with all of your heart, it requires you to really grow up and grow through your conflicts.
Questions and Assignments
I have some reflection questions for you. My first question I want you to think about is “what sorts of conflicts do you have right now in your relationship?”
What are some of your ongoing conflicts that come up over and over? What are your gridlock issues and what conflicts do you have around sex? I want you to reflect on how have you tried to go about addressing those conflicts. That’s the first assignment.
We talked about level three sex and how it requires you to become really solid within yourself and move past and grow through things. For the second assignment, I want you to talk about what level you think you’re at right now, sexually.
And we’ll talk about the rest in the next post!