I have an account with many boards on Pinterest that I use for collecting work related articles and pictures. Because I have boards about relationships and spirituality, Pinterest will often suggest pins to me that are about traditional Christian marriage values. While I can see where the algorithm is getting the idea these articles might be of interest to me, it couldn't be further from the truth in pinpointing my beliefs.
Lately I’ve been seeing quite a few pins that are variations on the idea that “True Love Always Waits.” Someone in the Universe must be encouraging me to do some deep healing because this is a very touchy (no pun intended) issue for me based on my personal history. I was raised Catholic and attended an all-girls' Catholic school from grades 6-12. As is required by Catholic teachings, we learned that sex before marriage was a sin. We also learned that boys who pushed us for sex rather than waiting didn't really love us. As young women, we were not expected to actually want to have sex except under pressure from our dates. These ideas are wrong on so many levels, and in many cases, they are psychologically damaging.
To start with, I do not believe that sex before marriage is a sin. In my view, sex is an intimate connection between two people. I believe it is sacred, and I believe that it can bring us closer to God. However, I also believe it can be a lot of fun and can help bond a couple regardless of their marital status. For many people, marriage is no more than a legal piece of paper. It in no way reflects the commitment and love shared by the couple in most cases. It’s merely a formality for the sake of society.
The idea that sex belongs in marriage began for two different reasons. The first was a male dominated culture that wanted to ensure that the bride was a virgin who would only bear the fruit of her husband’s loins. The second was an attempt to prevent the spread of STDs. The first is obviously irrelevant in today’s age of genetic testing. The second is still a legitimate concern, though we now have condoms to help with it.
When I was in high school taking a required love and marriage class in my senior year, the concept of sexual compatibility was not even remotely discussed. Sex was presented as having a magic formula of one man and one woman. With a little foreplay thrown in to satisfy the woman, that’s all that a couple needed to have a successful sexual relationship. The reality of that couldn't be further from the truth. Sex between two amazing people who love each other can still be truly awful if the chemistry is not there or if their sexual preferences are not in alignment with each other. Getting stuck in an unhappy marriage without sexual compatibility is a realistic situation when one believes that sex should not happen until after marriage. No amount of love or therapy can fix a situation like this.
Another topic that was very much omitted in high school and in our society in general is the idea of women wanting sex: That’s completely healthy and normal. However, if you pay attention to magazine article titles while standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, you’ll quickly notice that our society functions on a misguided belief that all women have low sex drives and all men have high sex drives. Women aren't supposed to want sex in the same way men do. That means that for women who do want to have sex but are partnered with a man who wants to wait, they can end up feeling like misfits, sexual freaks of nature or undesirable women.
Another common line is that men only want sex for pleasure's sake but that they don’t really love women if they have sex before marriage. Men wanting sex absolutely doesn't mean they don’t love the women involved. It means they are human. When men are wanting sex alone with no emotional involvement or commitment, women may find that situation to be problematic. However, there are a lot of variations between the two extremes. Finding that fine line of knowing he loves you and wants you for more than just your body is hard, especially when one is young. However, it’s entirely possible that a man may want to have sex with a woman before marriage to show his love and develop intimacy.
Then there’s that horrible idiom, “Why buy a cow when you can get milk for free?” This line implies that if a woman gives a man sex before marriage, he’ll never marry her. Aside from the terrible idea of comparing women to farm animals, this saying denigrates both men and women. Women are not objects to be bought or sold. Not all men are unable to control their sexual urges nor are they out to just use women for sex. Many do have good intentions at heart.
In today’s modern world, marriage is not always a viable or practical option. When my ex and I were dating, we were in high school and college; marrying would have meant that we would have lost our health insurance policies through our parents' employers. I have heard of other situations where elderly widows and widowers can’t afford to remarry because they would lose their late spouse’s pension and therefore would not be able to support themselves even meagerly in retirement. I know another couple who has chosen not to marry because it would cost them tax benefits on the two homes they own, one under each of their names. Sadly, finances are an important part of survival in our world.
In my own relationship with my ex-husband, the “true love waits” idea was a huge problem for us. We both grew up Catholic; my ex was far more strict in his moral beliefs than I was, though. (Ironically, he’s now an atheist.) He came from a family where sexuality wasn't ever a topic of discussion except to say how wrong sex was before marriage. Like most young humans, my ex deeply absorbed those views that were being presented to him. The problem arose when my ex and I had been dating for far too many years to remain celibate (5+ years before we married). There’s no magic number of how long any couple should or shouldn't wait. However, in our case, not having sex actually became very damaging to our relationship after several years even though all those Catholic tales swore that having sex before marriage was the damaging thing. My ex-husband eventually realized much later that his previous views were damaging to our relationship, and he regretted them. His apology during marriage therapy gave me an amazing amount of relief, though it didn't happen soon enough to prevent a great deal of pain in our relationship twenty years earlier.
So what do I teach my children? I have taught them that sex is intimate and powerful. It can be amazing in the right circumstances but it also can be emotionally painful and damaging if it happens in the wrong circumstances. My general belief is that if you’re not willing to deal with the logical consequences of sex (getting pregnant, a realistic risk since no birth control method aside from complete abstinence is 100% reliable), then you shouldn't be having sex. It’s just basic logic to me. Once you’re in a place in your life where you could support and raise a child, then you should wait to have sex with someone who truly cares about you and respects you. That person should see you as a whole person, not just a body to provide physical pleasure. Sex should be a part of an intimate relationship with your partner, an act that brings you closer together regardless of your marital status.
© 2015 Elizabeth Galen, Ph.D., Green Heart Guidance, LLC