When I was dating and engaged, I often wondered what chastity in marriage looked like. Having just celebrated my fourth wedding anniversary with my dear husband, and also having counseled couples in a faith-based therapy setting, here are a handful of takeaways that I’ve gathered so far. It’s not an exhaustive list, but I do hope it proves to be helpful for anyone discerning marriage or already married!
Marital sex is a good and holy sacramental act where each spouse gives his or her unique “gift of self” to the other. Spousal union reflects the quite nuptial imagery that Jesus Himself gives us regarding His own relation to His body, the Church: Christ refers to Himself as a Groom, and the Church, His Bride. Moreover, Christ gives His body, blood, soul, and divinity as an offering to His Bride, the Church, at the altar at every Mass! In similar fashion, two spouses are called by God to offer Him their “one flesh” union on their own domestic altar, their marriage bed, within their own domestic church. In fact, every time a marriage couple has sex, they essentially renew their marriage vows! In this sense, sex is essentially a prayer that a married couple can offer up to God. Remembering this imagery when you are married helps you never to forget how sacred and holy your vocation to marriage is (and yes, even your sex life!).
Neither spouse should ever feel used by the other, but only like he or she is loved as and treated as a whole person, body and soul, not just body– the latter of which would basically make him or her feel like a nobody, anyway! A spouse should lovingly consider how the other spouse feels mentally, physically, and spiritually before initiating sex. Moreover, a spouse shows they care by offering genuine respect to the other spouse if he or she is not in the mood for sex. Indeed, spouses are called by God to “will the good” of the other spouse (“willing the good of the other” is how St. Thomas Aquinas defined “love” itself!). Thus, neither spouse should ever feel objectified, but only loved and cherished, including in the realm of their shared sex life. Marriage is a balancing act of fostering healthy togetherness and separateness, sexual intimacy included.
When you marry someone, you vow to practice chastity of the eyes: looking at others– and yes, even your spouse– with pure intentions of the mind and heart. While love is characterized by a deep underlying desire for a bonding experience, lust is characterized by a more shallow desire for one-sided pleasure and possession– for objectification. When one looks at his or her spouse, one should look with love: with an appreciation of the spouse as a whole person, body and soul.
Our sexual attraction to others, including our spouse, is a good thing, as it shows that God is beautifully present in all of His creatures, especially the men and women that He created. It’s concupiscence, however– the temptation to lust over others, to think of using them merely for our own self-gratification and pleasure– that makes sexual attraction tricky. Chastity involves a firm discipline of the imagination that enables the soul to turn away from lust and toward love. Once your eyes and heart are trained not to lust over others– not even your own spouse!– living chastely becomes a joy-filled, second-nature skill.
Just as marriages grow in so many ways with age, so do the bodies of the two spouses. It is therefore important to show mercy to your spouse and even yourself regarding changing bodies during your marriage. Spouses would be wise to try not to fantasize about having a more “perfect spouse”: someone who is more physically, emotionally, or spiritually attractive or compatible. With the exposing of the more human sides of your spouse– which naturally comes with marriage!– some perfectionist spouses may fall into a toxic “grass is greener” mentality. This fantasy of a having a more “perfect spouse” can truly kill your marriage to your spouse, however: the very gift of a person that you already have. If you are married, remind yourself of these things: As spouses, you possess a deep and unique history that no one else shares, you possess a multi-layered love story that no one else can claim, and you possess a beautiful love worth fighting for and defending!
When we rely on the above things to fulfil our deepest marital needs– which only our dear spouse should meet!!– we start to go from being spiritually whole to being spiritually fragmented. Eventually, our marriage erodes and soon enough implodes, if not addressed, from the viewing or reading of unchaste materials. Why? Because as married spouses, our deepest sexual needs were designed to be fulfilled within the context of our deepest interpersonal relationship– our marriage!– and not just by cold, anonymous means like porn, romance novels, etc. Marriage is good– SO good– that its deepest wells of love can never be filled by any counterfeits of lust.
A couple is thus always “open to life,” and God ultimately answers the questions, “How many kids should we have?” and “When should we have them?” This means that God calls Catholic couples to be generously open to life within reason and resource. Wives and husbands ask themselves if there are any grave reasons not to have children at certain times in their marriage. If there are no grave reasons, Catholic couples are called to be open to life– to more children!– and space out potential births accordingly. All family planning is is thus done prayerfully and responsibly. NFP helps a couple plan family size not in a cold, calculating way, but in an intimate, warm way that trusts in God as the ultimate Creator in the “equation” of their marital love.
NFP therefore will be uniquely different for every marriage and family, and the amount of children a married couple has is not a “holiness indicator.” In fact, some of the holiest couples may find they are infertile. In the case of infertility, such a couple is called to use, together, their talents and gifts to bring spiritual fruit to the world. Marriages are fruitful not just in the children they produce, but also in the spiritual fruit and spiritual grace that pours out from them into society! Chastity in marriage calls spouses to grow their marital intimacy in several ways and not just through sex (and what a boring marriage that would be, anyway)!
NFP includes blocks of times in which a couple is fertile (that is, the wife is fertile) and needs to abstain from sex in order to avoid pregnancy. During these days of abstinence, couples have a great opportunity to work on sharing their love in a multitude of other ways, such as via favorite past times, intimate meals, and fun new activities and adventures, just to name a few! In the Creighton Model of NFP, the acronym “SPICE” is meant to describe the many facets of intimacy in marriage: spiritual, physical, intellectual, creative and communicative, and emotional.
NFP shows a married couple that while sex is a good and holy encounter, thousands of other ways for spouses to say “I love you” exist and are waiting to be explored! What couple wouldn’t want to enrich their marriage this way? Moreover, there is also a built-in “honeymoon effect” for when those abstinent periods wear off– just another plus to practicing the Catholic Faith in marriage!
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