By Anna Borkowska,
They have decided to live their lives together. They have asked for God’s blessing. And now it’s a reality — they are a married couple. Now they can look forward to the joys and labors of building a communion of love in all its dimensions: spiritual, psychological and physical. “So they are no longer two, but one” says Holy Scripture. “Man must not separate, then, what God has joined together” (Mt 19:6).
In the conjugal act husband and wife place the seal on a bond that is uniquely theirs. No greater expression of intimacy between two people is possible.
One might ask what exactly the spouses communicate to each other through this act. The answer will depend on the level of maturity of the individuals involved and of the love between them.
Let us consider the best-case scenario in which husband and wife have preserved their chastity for marriage. From the time they first met they have been building mutual understanding on many levels. They have come to know each other’s strengths, weaknesses and values. They have learned to forgive and to beg forgiveness. And now they have given themselves to each other, exchanging vows of love, fidelity and honesty. The time has come to put a seal on this unity. Sexual intimacy is a visible sign of the fact that the husband belongs to his wife, and the wife to her husband. The wife wishes to tell her husband that every particle of her humanity belongs to him. Likewise, the husband desires to convince his wife that there is no part of his life that he would not entrust to her. The following words become a reality: “I am yours, you are mine. You are mine, I am yours.” You might say that the sexual act at once portrays what already exists (i.e. a communion of love) and, by being lived out in truth, contributes to the ever deepening of this unique bond.
But this mutual devotion is only one part of the equation. The sexual impulse that leads to sexual intimacy is also ordered to the existence and perpetuation of the human species. Nature requires the human race to reproduce itself by way of sexual intimacy. Thus, by engaging in sexual relations, married couples enter into the dimension of procreation. “The love of two people, a man and a woman, is formed within this purpose, within its cradle as it were; it is formed from the substance which desire provides” (John Paul II, Love and Responsibility, Lublin 2001, p. 51). Aware of the purpose of sex, a man and women, by their very choice to embark on the path of marriage, agree to place themselves at the service of the transmission of life, to call new human beings — specific extensions of their own love — into existence. Married couples become co-creators with God. They cooperate with God, who is the final word and only source of life. “You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise you, so wonderfully you made me; wonderful are your works! My very self you knew. My bones were not hidden from you, When I was being made in secret, fashioned as in the depths of the earth” (Ps 139: 13-15). The human soul does not spring from the loins of the husband and wife. God’s agency is indispensable here.
Is this not a marvelous thing? The love of a woman and man is fruitful; it yields fruit that endures for all eternity. Married couples who realize this plumb the full depth and dignity of their union. Their intimacy grows ever deeper as does their mutual understanding on all levels: psychological, physical and spiritual.
Thus two dimensions come together in the sexual union: the unitive (loving) and the procreative (fruitful). Both are indispensable. To thwart or exclude either dimension is to wreak great perversion on this marvelous act. “Indeed, by its intimate structure, the conjugal act, while most closely uniting husband and wife, capacitates them for the generation of new lives, according to laws inscribed in the very being of man and of woman” (Humanae vitae, 12).
Naturally, all married couples want greater happiness and deeper intimacy to flow from their sexual relationship. Let us consider what factors contribute to this end. What attitudes are essential for a sexual union to foster mutual happiness and a greater intimacy between spouses?
a) Personal maturity of the couple. Maturity fosters harmony in all areas of life. It is achieved by applying gospel values to life’s problems, i.e. daily prayer, regular confession, diligent work balanced by adequate rest, exercise and recreation. In other words — a healthy dose of self-discipline. Mature people act not out of selfishness but out of love of God and neighbor. They are capable of controlling their desires, urges and sexual impulses. They can bend all their actions to the demands of love — for their own good as well as for that of others. Such attitudes guard against abuse and treating sex merely as a source of pleasure. They allow for the prudent use of sexuality, which can also mean abstaining from sexual activity when this is required.
b) Respecting the unique value of every human being. Love is the only fitting way of treating a fellow human being. Man is the crown of creation. He is capable of determining his own fate. He can make choices and enjoys free will. Only Man has been endowed with a spiritual life. He is different from other earthly beings. He can recognize the purpose of existence and seeks the meaning of life. We owe special regard to this “quintessence of dust”. No one may ever treat another person as a means to his own ends. This precludes a hedonistic approach to sex, by which couples serve as objects for each other’s sexual gratification.
c) Seeing sex as something good and pure. The effects of old prejudices and traumas must be dealt with and removed. Fears regarding sexuality can be a barrier to achieving true intimacy. It was my pleasure once to counsel a very fine, religious young couple. They had kept themselves chaste for marriage and were full of love and understanding. However, instead of bringing them the happiness they had expected, their sexual experience proved to be an ordeal. Why? It turned out that the girl had been raised with very restrictive attitudes toward sex. Whenever she and her husband became intimate, fears of sinfulness set in. These blocked her from giving herself fully to her husband with the result that she found every intimate approach a highly unpleasant experience. In this situation it was enough simply to call into question some of the harmful notions inculcated in her and present her with the Church’s true teachings on human sexuality.
d) Accepting without fear the possibility of having children. In other words, respecting the double function of the marital act — the unitive and procreative. Psychology and psychiatry have shed a great deal of light on fear as an obstacle to full sexual satisfaction. It is impossible for a wife to give herself fully to her husband if her mind is constantly preoccupied with thoughts such as: ‘We can’t have a child now!’ ‘Will I get pregnant?’ ‘When is my period going to come?’ Horrors… If a couple wish to experience the full joys of the sexual act, they cannot fear its natural “consequence” i.e. conceiving a child. Perfect love drives out all fear (1 J 4:18). ‘Why should we be afraid? After all, we do love each other. Besides God is watching over us. If a baby does come, we will welcome it, even if it is unplanned.’ Such an attitude fosters inner peace. Sometimes a wife is afraid of her husband’s reaction to the news that she is expecting. “If he accepted it, I wouldn’t be worried, but….” This is not uncommon. I have run across such situations myself. A change in attitude on the part of the husband can work wonders. It is so sad when the very one who is supposed to provide a sense of security to the union does not do what he is called to do, but rather does the opposite — become a cause of fear. Of course, not every sexual act has to end in the conception of a new child. There are times when couples should space their births. Besides, a woman’s fertility is cyclical. At the same time, the procreative function should never be consciously thwarted, nor should the unitive and procreative dimensions be separated. It is a matter of inner resignation — of accepting the possibility of a child. ‘True, we are not planning a pregnancy, but if a child should appear, we will certainly accept it.’ Couples who are not resigned in this way behave as though they wish to steal something from God. They are like those who play with fire, who feel the flame’s fascination and wish to come closer, but at the same time are fearful of being burnt.
e) Working on the marital relationship every day. Couples who want to make the most of their sexual life must pay attention to their day-to-day relations. This means resolving conflicts, talking to and caring for each other as well as showing visible signs of love. It is a great lie for spouses to engage in sex when they are negatively disposed to each other, when they do not nurture their love through affection, consideration, mutual interest, help and solicitude.
f) Knowing each other’s needs and desires. For this the couple must engage in continuous dialogue and share their joys, fears and experiences. They must listen to each other intently. ‘Because you are important to me, I want to know your feelings on this or that matter.’
Hard work on oneself, constant building up of the marital relationship, integrating the various dimensions of our humanity, the removal of distorted views of sexuality, mastery over selfishness and fear — these, then, are the factors contributing to a fully satisfying sexual life. God intended the sexual union to express the true unity of the couple and their openness to the gift of life. Let us not fear to take this road. A sense of profound happiness and the knowledge that with God we are building a community that nothing and no one can destroy — these are the fruits of keeping faith with God.
The above article was published with permission from Miłujcie się! in November 2010