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Are You Pursuing Sexual Intimacy or Just Sexual Activity?

Last Updated: February 13, 2023

A growing trend in our culture is the separation of sex from intimacy. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the “hook up” culture, described by Dr. Lisa Wade in her book The Great American Hookup. Dr. Wade explains that sex has been so divorced from relationship that a sexual experience can actually propel people to be more relationally distant than being a symbol of or vehicle for intimacy. She writes, “The rule is to be less close after the hookup than before, at least for a time. If students were friends, they should act like acquaintances. If they were acquaintances, they should act like strangers. And if they were strangers, they shouldn’t acknowledge each other’s existence at all.”[1]

By contrast, I believe that sex was designed to be inseparable from intimacy. It is an expression of the intimate knowledge that comes within a committed relationship. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for “sexual intimacy” is the word yada. This word means to deeply or intimately know someone. It is the same Hebrew word that is used to describe God’s intimate knowledge of His people and our longing to know God. For example, Psalm 139 is David’s reflection on God’s deep knowledge of Him. This word yada appears five times in Psalm 139, “You have searched me, Lord, and you yada me” (Ps. 139:1).  Not only is this truth written in the pages of the Bible, but it is also written within our bodies. Sexual intimacy is more than a physical act. It mysteriously reaches into our relational and spiritual beings.

Has the Hook Up Culture Invaded Your Marriage?

You might think that this trend of separating sex from sexual intimacy is only happening within the “hook up” culture, but I believe it’s also happening in marriages. Most married people know that sex is important to their relationship, so they may find time to share their bodies once or twice a week. But there is far more to sexual intimacy than just getting naked with one another.

A couple can be married for years, even decades, without ever taking steps towards true intimacy and deeply “knowing” each other sexually. This can happen for a variety of reasons. For example, while sharing their bodies, a husband and wife may nurture separate fantasies to become aroused. Or maybe one of them has experienced sexual trauma and learned to manage anxiety through dissociating during sex. Couples can also avoid intimacy because of unresolved conflicts or simply because they don’t have the energy to offer more than their bodies to one another.

The problem with this approach to sex is that what was meant to unite a couple can begin to divide them. When two people have sex without pursuing intimacy, emotional and spiritual conflicts begin to undermine their sex life with no resolution. One person may begin to feel more like a sex object than an intimate partner. Eventually, the couple will begin patterns of coercing, manipulating and avoiding within their sexual relationship.

4 Ways to Pursue Sexual Intimacy, Not Just Sexual Activity

In my experience as a clinical psychologist, the couples who have the best sex are those who truly pursue yada. They understand that sexual intimacy is more than a sensual experience. It is a journey of growth, expression and passion that can forge their hearts in a way that nothing else can.

Here are four things that can help you and your spouse pursue sexual intimacy, not just sexual activity.

1. Remember intimacy is a marathon, not a sprint.

Our culture has trained us to think about “great sex” as a momentary experience. It’s all about compatibility and the passion of the moment. Yet true sexual satisfaction isn’t what happens during a few sexual encounters, but through building and sustaining a long-term sexual relationship.

In 1994, researchers from the University of Chicago conducted one of the most comprehensive and respected studies of sexual patterns and trends. Shockingly they found that the most sexually satisfied people are those within in a long-term committed relationship. Regardless of what you might see on television, sexual satisfaction is built upon trust, commitment and consistency, not beautiful bodies, kinky techniques, and sexual chemistry.

I often tell newlyweds to approach sex as if they are opening up a box of Legos. If they expect to find an assembled product, they will probably be disappointed. The fun of Legos is learning to become an expert builder. The magic is in the making. The same is true of sex. Intimacy results as a couple learns to make great love with each other over time. Even the obstacles you face with your partner can be an invitation to learn and grow together. Couples that have been married for many decades often say their sex life just keeps getting better with time. Why? Because they have become experts at communicating, resolving conflict, and learning each other’s bodies. They have stored up memories of laughter and passion that make their intimate connection meaningful.

2. Commit to growing and learning together.

Sexual intimacy doesn’t just happen but results from investment. The most significant thing you can do to build sexual intimacy is not done between the sheets. It is the commitment to learn and communicate with your partner.

Intimate couples are those who have been in the trenches together. They have addressed problems head-on instead of avoiding them. They talk about sexual temptations, desires, difficulties and wounds. They have built trust to share their most vulnerable thoughts and struggles.

I think of Justin and Shelby who sought healing together for Shelby’s history of sexual trauma. Justin didn’t think of it as “his wife’s problem” but as their challenge as a couple. Together, they learned how to identify triggers and how to make their sexual relationship a safe place.

Or Lynn and Jonathan. In the early years of their marriage, Jonathan hid his porn use from his wife. Eventually, Lynn discovered porn on his computer and confronted him with anger and tears of betrayal. What could have torn this couple apart became a journey of intimacy, including confession, forgiveness, accountability and creating a pattern of honesty about weakness and temptation.

Every barrier you face in your sexuality is an opportunity to build true intimacy, rather than hiding from your spouse. If you are in a season of challenges, get the help you need. If sex is just boring, read a great book together (like Doug Rosenau’s A Celebration of Sex) to reignite your passion.

3. Promise never to use sex as a weapon.

In most relationships, one person has a stronger sex drive than the other. Over time, couples develop patterns of pursuit and rejection, avoidance and resentment. What was meant to build intimacy becomes a powerful weapon to divide.

One of the most damaging elements of this pattern is that one person begins to demand sex from the other. Some may even quote the Bible, coercing through the message that “this is your duty.” In I Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul writes about the importance of sexual intimacy within marriage. However, we must remember that marriage was created to be an expression of God’s covenant love. As Paul writes later in that same letter, “Love is patient, kind, does not seek its own way.” Married couples should make sexual intimacy a priority, not just having sex.

Intimacy requires trust and sensitivity to each other’s needs. As soon as one person uses sex to manipulate or punish the other person, sex is no longer about intimacy or love.

4. Make sexual intimacy a priority.

After a full day of work, parenting, and daily life, you’re exhausted. You fall into bed, excited to sleep only to find that your partner is excited about something else. Inwardly you groan, “Really? Sex is the last thing on my mind.” While this kind of sexual encounter is bound to be part of sex in marriage, it shouldn’t be too frequent. Having sex doesn’t take a ton of energy, but sexual intimacy requires that you be fully present. This is one of the negatives of those who encourage people to always say yes when a spouse asks for sex. You begin to establish a habit of sex around a sexual release rather than a sexual relationship. In fact, building sexual intimacy may mean saying “no” to sexual encounters that undermine relationship and trust.

Building sexual intimacy means you make time to anticipate, to enjoy each other, to communicate and to enter into the passion. It also requires that you work to address harmful patterns and triggers that keep you from feeling safe and valued. This won’t happen unless you proactively set aside time to build intimacy.

The Peril of “No Strings Attached Sex”

It is sadly ironic that our culture talks endlessly about sex, but most people have never experienced the fullness of what it was intended to be. Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy, had his fill of every sexual expression available yet lacked the mystery of yada. Near the end of his life he reflected, “It’s the key to my life, the need to feel loved… I think I’ve been searching to fill that hole that was left there in early childhood. I think that what I’m probably doing is avoiding being hurt again. Safety in numbers.”

The greatest peril within a culture of “no strings attached sex” is that we become splintered people, believing that a physical act can replace the relational and spiritual intimacy we long for… even within marriage.

[1]  Lisa Wade, American Hookup. p 47.

  1. Mara Dolores

    Funny how all these replies from men still center on sex. SO all consumingly important to men!

    I have been suffering sex with no intimacy for over 35 years. Yes, the frequency has slowed down quite a lot. (That being said, he gets a LOT more than I do.)
    I do not deny my husband sex, but he has denied me intimacy, touch, communication, foreplay, kindness, empathy, orgasm, compliments, or even bothering to look at me or so much as make a sound during sex. I haven’t been kissed, aside from the dry ritual goodbye peck since 1995.
    After achieving his all-important orgasm, he rolls over and goes to sleep because HE is now satisfied, and that is what really matters, isn’t it?

    1 Cor 7:5 says do not deprive EACH OTHER. Men always fixate upon this as meaning do not deprive THEM of their orgasm. Maybe there are other things that a wife needs, too?

    My husband has deprived me of so many things, has said countless things to make me feel unattractive, unworthy, and unloved over the years, but somehow something is wrong with ME for being “frigid”.

    I have practically begged him to go to counseling over the years, but he scornfully refuses, asking “well what’s a counselor going to say, and how will this do any good?” I have tried talking to him exhausting time after time after time. He gets angry, defensive and sarcastic. He usually makes a lame formulaic apology, and makes promises that he then can’t be bothered to keep. He blames me for having no self confidence, after actively destroying it over the years. His default attitude with me is normally harsh. There is no true intimacy in our marriage, but so long as he gets his jollies, and I cook, clean, do laundry, pay bills, etc… ad infinitum, and I keep my mouth shut, he is content.

    Yet 1 Cor 7:5. I don’t have Biblical grounds for divorce. Our marriage is low-level torment and misery for me.

    I feel like such a stupid fool for believing him and loving him. Goodness, I volunteered for this, so it really is my fault!
    I cry every day (but not where he can see me, because it irritates him), and have cried during sex but he has never noticed. I have told him I am desperately lonely. Oh well.

    I am firmly convinced that he has never loved me, and I come least, lowest, and last to him. I am nothing but a useful appliance to him.
    He is a deacon in church, and will pray for anyone in church without a second’s hesitation, but doesn’t want to pray with me at home. Ironic, to say the least. Intimacy? I wish.

    I am just trying to do what is right in this. I pray for strength and help to forgive my husband, keep me from sinning with my temptation to bitterness, and to renew a right spirit within me despite the harshness of my marriage. I am trying to lean into God, devour His Word, and pray that God will use this and use me in this. Lastly, I pray that God will redeem these bleak years. I don’t know, aside from God’s intervention to get across to my husband how deeply has wounded my heart over the years.
    I so long to go Home. No suicide, but I am ready to go when He has decided it is my time. I look forward to being with my LORD, my Redeemer who loves me, and there will be no more tears, and those who mourn shall be comforted.

    To these men who say their wives just don’t want sex anymore, to you I say that there might just be another side of the story to which you are (willfully?) oblivious.

    I am not saying that I haven’t done wrong in this, I absolutely have, but I cannot fix this alone. So long as he gets more or less what he wants, apparently he is content.

  2. Ken Ryder

    So, all of this commentary is couched in the Bible, God and Christianity. Where does that leave all of us who are agnostics, aetheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and so on and so forth. One can come away feeling (but not necessarily believing), that pornography, problems with sexual intimacy, etc. is a problem confined to Christians or, that in order to overcome addiction, one must be or become, a Christian. I say nonsense to all that. All of us on this beautiful planet are first and last humans of every stripe imaginable. I see Covenant Eyes as one way among many to overcome addiction.

  3. Marcia

    Nate Meyer, men often forget that women need to be wooed. You say she ignores your attempts to initiate sex. What kind of attempts are you making? Are you buying a bunch of greeting cards (with a romantic theme) and hiding them some where in the house and from time to time (maybe 3-5 times a month) pull out one of those cards and write a heart felt note inside and then leave it in a place where she is bound to see it. Small gifts are always good. A single rose, some costume jewelry, maybe a night out or stay home and watch a movie together. I think the best thing you could do is get Gary Chapman’s book “The Five Love Languages”. This book will help you figure out how best to express love to your wife and she will respond better to that.

    Also, if you are doing something to sabotage the marriage like watching porn or openly ogling other women when you wife is around, then you are crushing her self esteem and intimacy with you is the last thing she wants. So stop it! Are you sabotaging the marriage in other ways? Do you belittle her, scorn her, laugh at her or ignore her unless you want sex?

    There could be a hundred different reasons why your wife is giving you the cold shoulder. A great resource that My Husband and I found is call “The Conversation Challenge” It asks very specific questions about how each of you feels, wants or needs regarding sex. It can be very eye-opening. And if you remember what you learn about her and change some of your behavior patterns to reflect what she wrote in that tool, it can make an amazing difference in you intimacy and sex life. This resource is available for free at XXXChurch.com. Use this link and if that doesn’t work go to the website and go under “Contact Us” and ask them to send you the questionnaire. http://www.bestsexlifenow.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/The_Conversation_Challenge_Workbook.pdf

    Good luck, I was a reluctant wife for about 25 years out of our 32 year old marriage. There is a reason she is avoiding sex. And if the two of you can work together to discover and change or compensate for the issues that she might be having, there is a good chance of a great sex life just around the corner.

  4. David J. Myers

    @ RJB3369: I had the same reaction you did to this article, and I knew as I read it that I would have to respond. But you did it for me, and for a number of others, as you can tell from the other comments. Good for you. Ignore the (few) comments from people who (1) have no idea what you’re going through and (2) are bound and determined to evade clear scripture (or, worse yet, blame you).

    My story was very similar to yours over the course of a 29-year marriage. A number of times I contemplated either divorce or suicide, but I could never punish my kids for their parents’ inadequacies (her proud frigidity and my failure to reach the point of spiritual maturity where it didn’t matter). Surprisingly to me, she ended up divorcing me without biblical grounds (per our marriage counselor and our pastor). Much ensuing (and continuing) pain for our children. Sin upon selfish sin. Believe it or not, as bad as things are in your situation, divorce will be worse, at least if you have kids. I pray for God to work a miracle in your wife’s heart.

    As for the article itself, I will make one comment. Dr. Slattery says, “In fact, building sexual intimacy may mean saying ‘no’ to sexual encounters that undermine relationship and trust.” This blows a hole in the marriage vows and in 1 Cor. 7 that a selfish wife will drive a truck through, while trumpeting her virtue. “If I have sex with you, it will undermine our relationship and my trust! I’m doing our marriage a favor by depriving you! Don’t you get it!” Slattery has no clue how deceived these women are or how numerous they are, nor of how devastating their behavior is to their husbands. The whole point of her article is to chide Christian husbands who are stupid enough to expect their wives to keep the vow they made at their wedding and the marital obligation Paul reiterated in 1 Cor. 7. “Are you pursuing sexual intimacy or just sexual activity?” One thing is guaranteed: you can’t have the former if you’re not having the latter. And the (presumed) fact that a handful of men in Christ’s church may be sinfully pursuing only the latter is no basis on which to give a pass to the many women in Christ’s church who are denying the latter. They claim to want intimacy, so they sinfully withhold sex until they get it intimacy to their satisfaction, which is never because it’s unachievable (by design).

  5. David J. Myers

    @ RJB3369: I had the same reaction you did to this article, and I knew as I read it that I would have to respond. But you did it for me, and for a number of others, as you can tell from the many supportive comments. Good for you. Ignore the (few) comments from people who (1) have no idea what you’re going through and (2) are bound and determined to evade clear scripture (or, worse yet, blame you).

    My story was very similar to yours over the course of a 29-year marriage. A number of times I contemplated either divorce or suicide, but I could never punish my kids for their parents’ inadequacies (her proud frigidity and my failure to reach the point of spiritual maturity where it didn’t matter to me). Surprisingly to me, she ended up divorcing me without biblical grounds (per our marriage counselor and our pastor). Much ensuing (and continuing) pain for our children. Sin upon selfish sin. Believe it or not, as bad as things are in your situation, divorce will be worse, at least if you have kids. I pray for God to work a miracle in your wife’s heart.

    As for the article itself, I will make one comment. Dr. Slattery says, “In fact, building sexual intimacy may mean saying ‘no’ to sexual encounters that undermine relationship and trust.” Guess who decides whether any particular “sexual encounter” supposedly undermines relationship and trust? (As one of our Christian counselors told me, “She who has the p***y has the power.”) This blows a hole in the marriage vows and in 1 Cor. 7 that a selfish wife will drive a truck through, while trumpeting her virtue. “If I have sex with you, it will undermine our relationship and my trust! I’m doing our marriage a favor by depriving you! Don’t you get it!” Slattery has no clue how deceived these women are or how numerous they are, nor of how devastating their behavior is to their husbands. The whole point of her article is to chide Christian husbands who are stupid enough to expect their wives to keep the vow they made at their wedding and the marital obligation Paul reiterated in 1 Cor. 7. “Are you pursuing sexual intimacy or just sexual activity?” One thing is guaranteed: you can’t have the former if you’re not having the latter. And the (presumed) fact that a handful of men in Christ’s church may be sinfully pursuing only the latter is no basis on which to give a pass to the many women in Christ’s church who are denying the latter. They claim to want intimacy, so they sinfully withhold sex until they get intimacy to their satisfaction, which is never because it’s unachievable (by design).

  6. Marc Regan Gardner

    Dear RJB3369,

    I too share your pain of a near sexless marriage; and as a husband who has done the very same things, your letter could have been written by me.

    The blog and materials that you desire would be ‘MarriedandHappy” by Calle Zorro.
    Great stuff on masculinity within a Christian context. Not cheap, but nothing worthwhile is!
    You probably won’t agree with all of it; it required a paradigm shift in my thinking.
    We here in the USA have not seen real masculinity modeled, so men are lost and women are confused, and scared that real masculinity is something like Harvey Weinstein, a Bible-thumping, scripture-wielding chauvinist, or a caveman.
    I think here in American Christianity many men are afraid to put our foot down, to have a boundary and say, ‘no more.’ As if that’s somehow unloving and un-Christlike. We’re afraid that we’ll be seen one of ‘those’ abusive men, so we give, we bless, we sacrifice, without any expectations or requirements.

    Since when did no sex become acceptable in marriage? Isn’t that the very definition of Torah/Biblical marriage? At its most basic form, a sexless marriage is a contradiction, an paradox; if there’s no sex, it isn’t really a marriage, it’s a roommate living arrangement.

    I also found “No More Mr. Nice Guy” by Robert Glover to be helpful with changing my ‘nice guy tendencies; I’m still ‘recovering.’

    As I’ve read your letter again, the replies, and your replies back, I see a few possibilities…
    You, as I can be, appear rather defensive – and I’ll just man up and take the hits – which is a sign of immaturity, lack of conviction and general insecurity about ourselves. Wives HATE defensiveness; they want a MAN who will take responsibility for his actions, who will own his part; ask me how I know!
    Second, your references to ‘choreplay’, etc. ring true with me, and as I am reading Calle’s materials and forum, I see that I did all those actions from the wrong (unproductive) mindset; I was giving-to-get, Classic ‘Nice Guy’ seduction, and very manipulative.
    Our wives are such a gift, they see right through that BS into our real motives. And it’s a huge turn-off to them!
    Did you and your wife ever have decent sex? Has this sex aversion existed from the beginning? If you ever have, then consider ‘cleaning your side of the street’; it’s the only one that you can do anything about anyway.
    If you are like me, you have been completely blind to how you are affecting you wife, and the feelings that you have been creating in her towards you.
    I myself am doing what I can to change my mindset to one that is mature, self-confident and okay regardless of what my wife or anyone else says or does. Where I give out of the abundance of God’s love in my heart, without expectations of reciprocity. Where if I do have expectations, I own them, speak them and talk them out. (Still working on that)
    What God says about me is what is true; will I truly believe it? and live that out?

    Your good will come, with the right mindset…

    Rorick

  7. RJB3369

    there’s more to a healthy marriage than the stopping of bad behavior.

    Of course this is true. But one of things I notice is that when someone says “There’s more to marriage than x” it is code for “Marriage is about everything except x“.

    In other words, isn’t stopping bad behavior one of the aspects of a healthy marriage? 1 Corinthians 7:9 anybody?

    Could you talk with your wife and say “I really want to invest in our relationship and feel close to you… is there one or two days a week that we can plan to be sexually intimate?”

    Good advice. I told her 6 months ago that I wanted her to identify two days a week that she would commit to being available for sex. I was open to her coming back and asking that it only be one day. I was also open to her coming back and saying she would be willing to make it three days. But true to form, she rolled her eyes and said “Whatever.” She never identified any days and three weeks went by and I asked her about it and she said she didn’t want to do that.

    I would get a pastor and/or marriage therapist involved if at all possible.

    Tried that. After 3 sessions of dealing with her issues I tried to bring up the sexless marriage. “I just need more sex,” I said. Counselor says, “You don’t need more sex. Sex is a desire not a need. You’re not going to die without it.” Then he shifted back to addressing my wife’s concerns and we spent the next counseling sessions on communication and trust issues. Sex never came up again and we ran out of money for more counseling.

    She and her flesh is/are an idol to you.

    My wife said something similar only just said “I was making sex into an idol.” I guess idolatry is a problem for a lot of things in our lives, but it seems like some bit of evidence is necessary for making such an incendiary charge. Wanting sex once to twice a week when the current situation is once or twice a year hardly constitutes idolatry. If I was demanding it every day or forcing myself on her, then you and she might have a point. But I am very gentle with my approach to sex with her.

    You basically just said that the reason you have “moral problems” (which I can only assume means some form(s) or sex addiction – porn, masturbation, prostitution, etc.) is because of your wife. In other words, you just said that your sin is your wife’s fault.

    What is the saying about what happens when we assume? Moral problems involves exactly what 1 Corinthians 7:5 says:

    Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

    No, it does not involve porn addiction but lust and sexual fantasy. I am still waiting for Covenant Eyes glasses that will filter out all of the sexual stimulus the world throws at us in the non-virtual world. Then I will need Covenant Brain pills that will eradicate the fantasies.

    But I have actually found another way to reduce the internal pressure to commit lust and have sexual fantasies. It works very well and it’s actually biblical. It’s called regular sexual relations with my wife. It reduces stress and diminishes the amount of semen in my body. It’s not a 100 percent solution, but it sure does help.

    So is that “blaming my wife”? It depends. If I sin as a consequence on being deprived, I am still culpable for my sin. 1 Corinthians 7:5 does not excuse the sin of the person who is tempted by Satan. But it is also very clear that the depriving spouse is also sinning. And in a marriage, which is a one-flesh relationships, it is not altogether an automatic process separating where my sin stops and hers begins or where her sin stops and mine begins. I think everyone would agree that her sin of depriving might be rooted in sins I have committed against her. But if that is possible, so is the opposite.

  8. RJB3369

    @Hunter,

    Just to give you an idea of how sexually deviant I really am, I was watching a Hallmark movie with my wife after 2 months of no sex and no masturbating because I was trying to stop. But I had to leave the room because the actress Jessica Lowndes was the star of the movie. And I got so turned on by her even though all she wore were coats and Christmas sweaters that I had to walk around the block to get my mind right.

    But you’re right. I have no one to blame but myself for my sick addiction.

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