I’m old enough to remember when checking baggage on an airline was free, as long as you only checked two bags per person. Nowadays, every bag seems to cost you. I wonder if they’ll soon start charging a no-bag fee.
Bringing baggage into a marriage has always been costly. The price may not be apparent up front, but in time it exacts a toll. This is particularly true of sexual baggage. Indeed, with the rise of porn use and addiction, sexual abuse and exploitation, and casual sex throughout the teen and young-adult years, almost every couple lugs some amount of baggage into the bedroom. Some luggage perhaps was the result of personal, foolish choices, while other bags may have been thrust upon you without your knowledge or consent. Either way, ignoring their presence won’t eliminate the cost to your marriage.
Understanding the influence of sexual baggage
Your past plays a significant role in how you see the world and interact with others. Think about your religious convictions, your hobbies, your passions. They are all probably linked in some way to your childhood, your teen years or your relationship with your parents. The past is the lens through which we view the present and the future.
The past also influences your attitude and reaction to sex. Did your parents display healthy affection in their marriage? Did they take the time to teach you about sex from a biblical perspective? Were you protected from sexually exploitive material, comments or contact? Were you sexually active during your dating years? What about your relationship with your sweetheart before your marriage?
Every person is different, and every piece of baggage a husband or wife carries is unique. Past events may impact individuals very differently. As you reflect on the baggage that you’ve brought into your marriage, remember that there’s no formula for how you should feel. However, the following points can help you make sense of the influence of sexual baggage in your intimate life.
Sexual baggage promotes untrue assumptions
If you want to know the difference between the work of God and the work of Satan, just look for the contrast between the truth and a lie. Jesus said that He is the Truth, while Satan is the father of lies. The work of the Enemy in your sexuality will always result in you believing lies. Whatever your sexual baggage may be, it has planted seeds of untruth in your mind and heart.
As a child, Kendra was repeatedly sexually violated by her grandfather, who was a pastor. As a young married woman, she began confronting the lies that were planted in her mind many years before as a consequence of her grandfather’s abuse. Here are a few of them:
I’m only valuable to a man if I give to him sexually.
My body and sexuality are repulsive.
Men are perverted — especially religious men.
Sex is something shameful that should be kept a secret.
Love and sex have nothing to do with each other.
Although Kendra wasn’t aware of believing these lies, they played out as she became sexually active with her new husband. Without knowing it, she associated her husband’s healthy sexual desires with her grandfather’s perversion.
All baggage, not just sexual abuse, results in lies. A woman who was sexually promiscuous as a teen may believe, “I’m damaged goods. God can’t fully bless my marriage.” A wife who has been cheated on may have fallen for the lie that “I can never be good enough.” The little girl whose father left for another family may grow up believing, “Men always leave. I’m destined for rejection.” The woman who was involved in porn believes that “sex is just about the body.”
Until you voice the lies, you cannot confront them with the truth.
Sexual baggage creates an atmosphere of distrust
I was recently talking with a woman in her mid-20s who is in a serious dating relationship. Her boyfriend shared with her that he had been pretty rebellious through his teen years, experimenting with drugs, sex and porn. Since then, he had become a follower of Christ and had drastically changed his lifestyle. This young woman wanted to talk to me about the effect that her boyfriend’s baggage might have on their relationship if they were to someday marry. “Will he compare me to other women he’s been with?” she asked. “Do you think he’ll be more prone to fall sexually because of his past?”
Even though her boyfriend had demonstrated character and purity in their relationship, her trust in him had been tainted by his past behavior. Because sexual baggage always involves sex outside of God’s intended plan (even if unwanted), it always brings up trust issues. “Will he be faithful to me?” “Can I be vulnerable with him?” or even “Can I trust my own sexuality?”
Sexual baggage also erodes trust because of the element of secrecy. Affairs, porn addiction, sexual abuse, teen pregnancy and abortion are almost always hidden. It’s not uncommon for a man or woman to hide a secret like this for decades. When the secret is finally discovered or revealed, the other person naturally wonders, If she hid this from me, what else might she be hiding? The kind of trust necessary in marital intimacy means no secrets. This does not mean that husband and wife should give a moment-by-moment account of every indiscretion. In fact, raking through the details of an infidelity can create more wounds. However, a foundation of trust means no skeletons hiding in the closet.
The distinction between having sex and actually having sexual intimacy is the level of trust that exists in the relationship. A couple can have sex when trust is fractured, but they won’t have sexual intimacy. There is a huge difference between the two!
So, can anyone help me with these bags?
If you ever share your sexual baggage with a trusted friend, she will likely listen empathetically, maybe cry with you, and offer a few generic suggestions. But when she realizes that your pain and confusion are “above her pay grade,” she will likely ask, “Have you considered going to counseling?” Counseling seems to be a kind of catchall suggestion when a friend doesn’t know how else to help. There have been times when I’ve been in the middle of counseling someone and wanted to suggest, “Maybe you should go to counseling.” A second later, I realize that they are in counseling — WITH ME! What do I do if I get in over my head? Well, then I recommend that they talk to their pastor!
But I do believe that counseling is an important piece of handling sexual baggage. Counseling can provide a safe relationship where you can share past experiences, feelings and thoughts that may not be appropriate to talk about in other contexts. In a counseling relationship, counselors are legally bound to keep secrets. They have experience dealing with all kinds of sexual baggage and won’t be offended or shocked by what you share. Their job is not to judge you but to provide an affirming relationship based on truth.
There’s incredible power in sharing a secret you’ve felt compelled to hang on to for years. Voicing a secret to another person who won’t recoil in shock or condemn you can help shatter the cage of lies that the Enemy has constructed in the darkness.
Counseling can help you make sense of your baggage and how it impacts your marriage. As intuitive and logical as you may be in other situations, you can’t always see your baggage objectively. You may still feel like that little girl afraid of her grandfather, or that rebellious teen shamed by her choices. You can’t seem to get past the powerful barriers of anger, guilt or fear that haunt your bedroom. You can’t quite connect how an event in the past impacts your relationships today. A wise, godly counselor can help tremendously by giving you an objective understanding of what you’re experiencing.
Counseling is also very helpful in facilitating difficult conversations with your spouse. The sensitive nature of sexual baggage often keeps married couples from ever talking it through. They don’t know where to even begin or how to keep the conversation from drifting into the danger zone. A good counselor can guide those conversations toward a healing truth.
As a human being, you’re hardwired to understand and integrate the events in your life into a meaningful whole. The most painful events to deal with are those that fail to make sense. You unconsciously want to understand why the abuse or affair happened and what it means. Like a puzzle missing a couple of pieces, compartmentalized baggage will leave you feeling a lack of peace. In fact, you may find yourself dreaming about the event or thinking about it at random times. The more you try to push it out of your life or your marriage, the more intrusive it can become. Working through baggage in counseling can take the intrusive power of sexual secrets away. The dreaded topic is no longer something you’re afraid will randomly explode out of some box, but an unpleasant circumstance that you now understand and have talked through. Although the experience has impacted your life, it no longer defines you.
A gift through the pain
I want you to picture yourself and your spouse strolling through the streets of Venice. All around you are beautiful buildings, the smell of authentic Italian cuisine, and the sound of gondoliers singing as they paddle through the canals. Now picture the baggage you’re towing with you. Are you so weighed down that you can’t enjoy the beauty of your surroundings? Do your hands burn with blisters? Are you limping under the weight of bags far too heavy for you?
The Lord has designed a beautiful journey for you to experience in your marriage. Since the fall of man, some baggage on the journey is a given. God desires not only to help you with your baggage but also to teach you and strengthen your marriage through it. Stop ignoring the obvious deterrents to your intimacy as you journey.
True healing occurs when sexual baggage is no longer ignored but is understood and integrated into the larger truths of who you are and who God is. Just think about all of the characters in the Bible. Why did God lay out all of their baggage in His book of history? Why do we need to know that Rahab was a prostitute and that David was an adulterer? Why did God choose to include stories of rape, murder and infidelity with the stories of His heroes?
Your life and your marriage tell a story. Your baggage is part of that story. Although it may have begun as a shameful chapter that you’d rather burn, God desires to show His love and forgiveness through the worst of it.
The strongest marriages aren’t those without baggage, but those that have integrated their baggage into a larger story of love and grace. Remember that the Lord’s ultimate goal for your sexuality is to teach you about love. What might He desire to teach you and your spouse through your baggage?
Adapted from No More Headaches: Enjoying sex & intimacy in your marriage, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House publishers.