When Physical Intimacy is Hard

Note: This post is directed at those who are in a marriage in which both husband and wife profess to be Christians and strive to follow him. There are marriages in which intimacy is difficult because one spouse is not saved, not pursuing the Lord, or in a pattern of unrepentant sin. In these cases, please seek counsel from someone who has experience or training in your situation.


Our friendship started at work. The entire summer in between his freshman year of college and my senior year of high school was spent making shakes, bagging burgers, smelling like tater tots, and bonding over our shared love of Dr. Pepper. We were acquaintances before, but the pressure of the lunch rush forged an excellent working relationship. That relationship grew into a friendship, then bloomed into a gradually deepening affection. Adding to our excellent working relationship was our similar upbringing, easily agreed upon boundaries, and common friends. Our relationship started out with such compatibility that it was hard to imagine ever encountering serious conflict.

After we were married, we continued to work well together. We were baby-twenty-somethings just learning how to run a home, so premarital counselors and well-meaning parents gave us a list of issues we would likely confront: schedules, preferences, money, and responsibilities, among others. But those areas were not difficult for us to work through. Surprisingly, sexual intimacy was. I expected intimacy to be relatively unencumbered. I knew there would be awkwardness and a need to grow in knowledge of each other, but I expected us to continue to work well together in all areas. I expected unmet expectations, but not quite so many of them. While I was inept at communicating with my new husband about intimacy, I found ways to discuss these issues with my fairly diverse group of newlywed girlfriends who all had the same question—why is sexual intimacy, the thing often held up as the pinnacle of human experience, so challenging? Even when it is experienced as biblically prescribed?

Sex was created to be a union of two perfect humans in perfect, unashamed nakedness. It was created perfectly holy and good. But it didn’t stay that way.

The fall broke everything. The entry of sin into the world turned sex into a union of two imperfect people who are naked and ashamed. The fall turned the marriage bed into a battleground—a place for people to exert their independence and demand their own satisfaction.

Because we’re all broken by sin, we all experience some level of sexual brokenness. We all have sexual histories, but even for the theoretical “perfect couple”—with no premarital sexual exposure or experience who possess only holy and biblical expectations—there will still be sexual brokenness within marriage. Discomfort, dissatisfaction, or difference in desire, as well as other sin issues we face, will impact our intimacy in one season or another.

For those who have experienced sexual exposure or trauma—abuse, infidelity, pornography, misinformation, or dysfunction—having a reason to point to as the cause of sexual issues does not simplify them. Having to work through sexual trauma or dysfunction or deal with the far-reaching effects of sexual experiences or information that mars our view of sex adds another hurdle to be overcome when forming an intimate marriage bond.

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For all human souls, even the most blissful moments are tainted with the unconscious realization that it could be better. Even the most peaceful seasons are overshadowed by the knowledge that this peace is not universal or complete. Even the most fulfilling experiences leave a part of us empty, because nothing can fully satisfy a heart that longs for an eternity of perfect joy. Even the best experiences of marital intimacy are inhibited by the feeling that there are more pleasures to be had.

The world tells us that to attain sexual fulfillment we need to have varied and numerous sexual experiences. Instead, we need to recognize that God created and gifted us with sex for enjoyment and procreation in the context of marriage between one man and one woman. The Bible never promises sexual fulfillment and God doesn’t guarantee us complete sexual satisfaction. Sex can’t satisfy our souls, and even marital sex can’t fully satisfy our broken sexual desires. The Father invites us to experience lasting and eternal satisfaction by pursuing his will in all things. It’s good to spend time together figuring out what pleases each of us, but this should be done with the intention to create closer intimacy, not for independent gratification.

How can it be good to pursue fulfilling marital intimacy when God says that we should pursue satisfaction in him? In a letter to the church at Corinth, Paul conveys God’s command for husbands and wives to freely give their bodies to each other, without ever implying that one should demand the body of another.[1] Paul also, when explaining the characteristics of a true follower of Christ, implores us to outdo one another in showing honor.[2] The combination of these two commands describes biblical, satisfying, marital intimacy; the focus for each of us, a husband towards his wife and a wife toward her husband, should be to exceed the other’s expectations of pleasure—when we both have this view of intimacy, God is glorified and our souls are satisfied in his perfect will.[3] 

While marriage is not a post-fall idea, married couples can experience redemption. At our salvation, we’re set free from the bondage of our brokenness. We’re redeemed from the sin of our past, present, and future, and we’re set free to enjoy the good gifts God gives us. We are redeemed from the shame of sin committed against us and set free to enjoy the wholeness we have been given through the complete and perfect work of Christ. It takes a lot of pursuing satisfaction in God to feel this freedom, and the fact that we are free doesn’t stop us from putting the shackles of shame back on. God gave Jesus all our shame so that we can be naked and unashamed in front of our spouse. God gave us the righteousness of Jesus, which empowers us to affirm and endeavor to please our spouse in pursuit of closer unity.

Sex, like everything else in this world, is broken, but God is making it whole. In your intimate marriage relationship, he is restoring your broken souls. He is providing freedom from your condemnation and shame. He is conforming you to his image when you serve and do not seek to be served. He is supplying you and your husband with constant fellowship in a loving, holy covenant. The marriage covenant gives us a glimpse of the restoration of Christ and his bride, the Church. It’s a tangible reminder that our most intimate relationship will someday be fully restored and our souls will soon be whole, with him, forever.

  1. 1 Cor. 7:3-5

  2. Rom. 12:10

  3. Chapter 11 “Faith and Sex in Marriage” of John Piper’s book This Momentary Marriage, was instrumental in my connecting of the holy plan of God for satisfying marital intimacy to growth in godliness. I follow his reasoning in this particular section and cite the same passages he does. Matt Chandler’s Mingling of Souls deal with this topic well.


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Emily is a wife to her high school sweetheart and mom to three littles ages five, three, and eight months. She’s a teacher at her alma mater, a Christian hybrid school in Woodstock, GA, where she enjoys teaching World History, Economics, and Bible to high school students. She’s a member of a local church where she and her husband lead a community group and are part of other ministry teams. They dream of one day working together vocationally again, but for now, they work to enjoy our family and community.