Preparing for lasting intimacy in marriage

A strong and fulfilling sexual relationship after marriage takes some work and reflection before you tie the knot. Here are 5 tips all engaged couples should read and know.

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The ring is on the finger, the church is reserved, and the venue is booked. There are dresses to try on, cakes to taste, and invitations to send—not to mention engagement bashes, showers, bridal luncheons, and extended family members to meet. It’s nearly time “to have and to hold,” but hold on …What about engaging more deeply in your relationship with one another and not just in the planning details?

Counselors and relationship experts say there are good reasons for penciling in a new line item in your wedding planner: talking with one another about how you can make sure that your wedding day is the beginning of a truly fulfilling and intimate union. In fact, experts say that sex in marriage is far more meaningful when a couple is securely connected.

“Just like you can’t fly without wings, you can’t have a great sexuality in your marriage without a solid emotional foundation,” says San Diego-based marriage and family therapist Jennine Estes.

So just how can a bride and groom prepare to build this kind of foundation with one another? Here are five tips from professionals who work with couples every day on making sure marital intimacy is a mutually satisfying and foundational part of your partnership together.

Make room on the couch for a counselor

Counseling is a smart way to build a solid foundation for a marriage. While celebrity adventurer Bear Grylls was in the news recently for his admission that he and his wife sought counseling while still happy newlyweds as a proactive strong relationship measure, most experts are universal in their opinions about counseling during engagement and the link between emotional and sexual connection.

“A couple should schedule pre-marital counseling early in the engagement period,” says Dr. Dale Keeton, a Christian-based marriage and family counselor in Washington, D.C. “If they wait until a month or so before the wedding date, they’re likely to get too caught up in the physical preparations to give the mental and emotional attention to the counseling process.”

Keeton even says that an ideal wedding gift from close family members would be a gift certificate for pre-marital counseling or a pre-marital enrichment retreat.

“I have often thought it to be somewhat ironic that a couple would spend $10,000 (or much more) on a wedding and not be willing to spend $400 or $500 for a few hours devoted to developing a healthy marriage,” says Keeton.

Relationship counselor Nancy Piña says that before marriage, it’s vital to address specific challenges from your past experiences and formative years. “Going into a marriage with severe barriers to intimacy is unfair to your future spouse and will cause stress, tension, and anxiety in the future,” she says. “An emotionally healthy marriage will provide a level of healing, however, expecting a spouse to be the source of the healing is not only unfair, but also unrealistic.”

A counselor will also have the tools to deal with issues that may affect a couple’s marital life, such as past trauma, body image problems, addictions, etc.

“Certainly some major issues, such as fear of intimacy and [addiction to] pornography, need full understanding and a clear expectation of how this might affect the marriage going forward,” says Mike Hattabaugh, relationship coach, writer, and communications professor. “The more open you can be before you say ‘I do,’ the better the likelihood you’ll be able to adjust to the problems.”

Seek the advice of a happily married couple

For millennia, young couples have been encouraged to seek out long-married couples for tips and wisdom about how to have a happy marriage. This includes all parts of a couple’s life together, including their physical intimacy. Brides and grooms can stand to hear about how a couple who has weathered the ups and downs of marriage has maintained a strong emotional and physical relationship.

Obviously, it takes some openness and courage to discuss and share deeply personal aspects of a relationship such as sex or emotional issues that impact a marriage over the years, but many spouses who’ve been happily married for a long time are glad to share their secrets about how they’ve made it work.

“The reality is most couples don’t know a lot about how sex will work in their relationship,” says Hattabaugh. “Another couple can help them understand that [it] can be a great part of their marriage if they realize it will take time and effort.”

It may feel a bit awkward to ask personal questions to a couple you may not know well, but take advantage of the wisdom you can glean from those whose marriages have weathered much and are still thriving.

Forget what society tells you

In many ways, our society is sex-saturated and doesn’t support those things that make a marriage healthy and happy. The advice we glean in popular magazines can also dispel some of the mystery of physical intimacy and create the false assumption that there’s a “right way” to be with your partner. But it’s actually the opposite: a marriage is a union of two unique people and only they can determine the way their relationship should be and grow.

“It’s the daily strengthening of the marriage bond and deepening the intimacy in the friendship aspect of the marriage that raises the satisfaction level more than anything else,” says Piña.

Hattabaugh says the media often leaves couples with unrealistic expectations about sexual intimacy. “Our culture has made the act of sex look like a performance,” he says. “We have unrealistic expectations about sexual positions, length of time, and many other false ideas about what ‘good sex’ is. The more you can make it your own, the happier you’ll be.”

Which brings us to what experts say is the most important when it comes to having a sexually satisfying relationship in marriage …

Focus on the emotional and spiritual connection

Forgoing sex until after marriage is fast becoming an outdated notion, often dismissed as old fashioned, anti-feminist, and controlling … with many people arguing that it actually helps you to get to know your partner better before making a lifetime commitment. But there’s a less often talked about psychological wisdom for waiting—separate from reasons of religious beliefs, personal values, or even cultural propriety.

“When the primary focus is sex, as most new relationships are, the mutual discovery portion ceases and many people marry those who do not truly know each other’s needs and desires on an emotional level,” says Piña. “When the spotlight turns away from sex, couples can benefit from discovering their true compatibility outside a physical relationship, which determines if the source of their foundation is based on love or lust.”

Life-long intimacy has very little to do with sex in and of itself. Rather, it’s about staying connected emotionally and spiritually. And this should begin during the engagement period. One way to do this is to really get to know your spouse before walking down the aisle.

“Understanding how a future spouse processes information and comes to conclusions regarding daily life is an essential compatibility marker, as incompatibility in this area will create mutual frustration and misunderstanding,” adds Piña.

The period of engagement is a critical time for a couple to focus on their spiritual development. The combination of building a strong emotional and spiritual intimacy can lead to an enduring and solid union.

“Exploring the real depths of a future spouse’s faith and their convictions are vital elements toward solidifying the marriage bond,” says Piña. “A successful marriage is based on the preparedness and commitment to work through the varying circumstances of life together.”

Hattabaugh and other professionals believe that abstinence during the engagement period is also an important way to keep your marriage strong.

“Taking your focus off sex allows you to talk about other important things in your relationship and upcoming life together, which can significantly enhance your marriage,” says Hattabaugh.

Go into it with the right attitude

A newly married couple should plan for a satisfying emotional and physical relationship in marriage, which means making time for each other before they even walk down the aisle.

“It’s very easy to get into a routine, allowing the demands of career, children, and daily life to push the physical expression of love to the bottom of the priority list,” says Piña.

One way to keep intimacy a focus in marriage is to begin your union with a strong value system and sense of priorities.

“The most important relationship outside the connection you’ll have with the Lord is the one with your spouse,” says Piña. “God created us to express love physically, as well as emotionally, and it is the level of closeness couples gain that strengthens their unity.”

To reinforce the fact that a marriage is between two unique individuals, experts say couples need to take into account all the life factors that make up their own individual relationship.

“You’re not marrying a ‘wife’ or ‘husband’—you’re marrying a person,” says Hattabaugh. “Their ideas will be different from yours. You may find the stereotypes of marriage don’t apply to your relationship.”

There is no one way to prepare for a deeply satisfying marriage—everyone is unique and has their own unique situation, past history, etc., that leads up to their union. Therefore, couples should understand this and have patience with one another.

“One partner will probably have a higher [sexual] desire level than the other,” says Hattabaugh. “One will probably have some boundaries that one person can’t cross. Be content with that. Those boundaries can expand over time, but only if you nurture [the] relationship. “

Pope Francis spoke to this when he addressed engaged couples preparing for marriage in February 2014, in Saint Peter’s Square in Rome. One couple from Ciociaria, Italy, asked him about how to best love one another in marriage, and the Pope responded with some helpful tips about treating each other with respect, saying thank you, and remembering to say “I’m sorry.” He also reminded them:

“Living together is an art, a patient, beautiful, fascinating journey. It does not end once you have won each other’s love … Rather, it is precisely there where it begins!”

Colleen Sheehy Orme
Colleen Sheehy Orme
Colleen Sheehy Orme writes and speaks on the topics of love, relationships, divorce, and healing for Beliefnet.com and several other national media outlets. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area with her three great boys, who seem to tolerate her candid, life musings, and their wild, chocolate lab Hazel.

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