Psychologist and author Dr. Juli Slattery offers advice to newlywed couples for overcoming and avoiding common challenges to sexual intimacy.
Dr. Juli Slattery: If you expect that in the first year of marriage you open up the box and it's immediately gonna be fulfilling and what you've been told to expect all these years, you may be very discouraged. But if you can say, "Hey, you know, this is the very beginning of an adventure that's gonna last, Lord willing, 40, 50, maybe 60 years. And we're just starting. We don't know what we're doing, but we're gonna figure it out together. That is the right mind-set
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John Fuller: A wise perspective from Dr. Juli Slattery and she's with us today on "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly. I'm John Fuller and today's conversation is especially for newlywed couples who want to experience a rich, physically intimate marriage.
Jim Daly: And John, I want to make sure we say right at the top of the program, this isn't for young children. You're gonna want to occupy them elsewhere. But as a father of teenage boys, I want to be having discussions around physical intimacy and the godly perspective that we need to bring into that.
This is God's gift to us and we tend to shy away from it. We think it's taboo and rather than go into it and talk very openly about it, we create a lot of difficulty, especially for young married couples, because they're trying to find their way and really in some cases, no one's talked to them. So, I'm lookin' forward to today's conversation with Dr. Slattery.
John: And she is a psychologist, author and speaker and founded a ministry called Authentic Intimacy and she wrote one of the chapters in the Focus on the Family book, Ready to Wed, which is for premarried and newly married couples.
Jim: Juli, welcome back to Focus.
Juli: It's always good to be here. Thanks for having me.
Jim: Many of our listeners remember your voice, as you did a lot of the interviewing with me back in the day.
Juli: Yeah, so many good memories and maybe I sound a little bit older now. I don't know.
Jim: Yeah. (Laughing) Hey, that was wonderful of you to contribute to the Ready to Wed book. Thank you for that. I am excited about that project. It comes with a curriculum, as well, but the book and the curriculum [is] really to help couples who are courting go through the process of thinkin' about, is this guy or this lady right for me?
And statistics show that if couples get about 10 hours of premarital counseling, which is what Ready to Wed is aimed at, they have a great likelihood of staying married the rest of their lives and I want to contribute to that. I know you do, too.
Juli: Definitely. You know, Jim, it's so sad to see that a lot of couples are divorcing even within the first few years of marriage because they weren't prepared. They didn't know what they'd be facing. So, a resource like Ready to Wed is a great inoculation for the kind of difficulties that couples are gonna experience in the first few years of marriage.
Jim: Well, and you've been really bold and courageous in this area of physical intimacy. You know, it's a passion for you that particularly Christian women understand better what God intended. So, when you look at the overall theme there, what signals do you find in newlywed couples where things are breaking down? What are they experiencing that trips them up in the area of physical intimacy?
Juli: Well, I think in a lot of marriages, this is perhaps the issue that will tear them apart or pull them together within the first years of marriage. Now why is that? Because it's such a vulnerable topic. It taps into who we are as people, our insecurities, our past, our shame. And so, I see all kinds of things that will derail a couple in those first few years, including we feel like we're totally incompatible when it comes to this and we don't know how to resolve those differences. And that can start a cycle of very destructive behaviors.
There are issues like just dealing with the past. Most young couples are coming into marriage with some baggage in this area, whether it's a trauma that's been done to them or choices they've made through their teen or young adult years. They feel shame, guilt and so, the enemy will use those issues to drive a wedge between a man and a woman. And so, physical intimacy becomes a place of contention, instead of a place of blessing.
Jim: And there are so many things that hook into this topic. You know, it's not just the physical aspect of it. It's the emotional attachment. It's the appetites of the two people and how often and all those jokes sometimes that we'll make. In your contribution to Ready to Wed, you talk about four ways to nurture intimacy in a young marriage. You say it starts with communication, but a couple may not feel safe to open up about those things you were just talkin' about. How does that bridge even get built where you're on your wedding night and you're saying, "Okay, there's some things we need to talk about," probably that conversation should be happening prior to the wedding night.
Juli: Yeah, but often it doesn't, you know and it's kind of ironic, 'cause in our culture, we talk about sexuality endlessly on TV and the media.
Juli: Absolutely, so when it comes to a husband and wife actually communicating their desires, their frustrations, a lot of couples are totally tongue-tied. And I can remember working with one couple where I gave them the assignment. You know, "Here are some questions that I want you to ask each other" and they were pretty basic questions about their physical intimacy. "And then when I meet with you next week, we'll just go over what you learned about each other."
They came back the next week and hadn't done anything and they said, "We tried. We can't talk about this. We don't know how to." And that's what I think is true for many of us. We can talk about finances. We can talk about jobs, kids, but this is such a sensitive, vulnerable and a sometimes explosive issue, that if we don't talk about it the right way, it ends up being a huge argument or fight that feels like it distances us.
And so, I think the best way to begin talking about physical intimacy is taking advantage of resources. We've got great resources, books written on the topic of physical intimacy from a Christian perspective. We have broadcasts like this one, podcasts that maybe go even deeper on the topic.
But what happens when you read a book like that together or you listen to a broadcast, is you let someone else bring up the sensitive issues. You let someone else say the words that are difficult to say. And then you can press pause or stop reading and just say, "You know, can you relate to this? Is this how you feel?" And so, it teaches you how to communicate in a safe way about physical intimacy.
Jim: In fact, you talk about couples seeking a coach—
Jim: --to help them with that. That would be kinda difficult I would think. I mean, you're talking to a third-person mentor.
Jim: Would they do that individually? Or do it as a couple?
Juli: I think either way and I think even having both, individual and a couple is super helpful, because a young man can talk to an older guy who's willing to say, "I remember exactly where you are. I remember feeling the way you feel. I remember the struggles. Here's how we overcame that difficulty" or a young woman, the same way.
But when you meet with a mentoring couple who's been through years, decades with some of these struggles, they not only can help you learn the language to communicate, but they put perspective. You know, when you're a newlywed, they don't have the history. You don't have the history to look back on and say, "You know, well, we've come through more difficult things before. It's gonna get better. We can do this." And so, mentoring or an older couple can give you that perspective of just having hope that it's not always gonna be the way it is today.
Jim: I think it's a great idea. Satan, you know, when you look at the spiritual context of this, it's so obvious that Satan is trying to destroy, particularly I think, Christian unions in this space of marriage. And really this is one of the vital ways that he does it, by destroying their physical intimacy and then it leads to a lot of discord, which is, you know, part of his fruit, not fruit of the Spirit. It's the other guy's fruit.
And in that way, it should be important to us as couples to work through these issues, not to bury them under the rug and to just hope they go away, that my husband stops asking me. But sometimes you trip on that. You don't know how to go about resolving that conflict. What would you recommend for couples who are newly married and there are some issues. Who should they call? Or what should they do first thing?
Juli: Well, I think it starts with what you've already alluded to, Jim, is that some couples don't understand the importance of working out intimacy in marriage. They feel like, hey, if it's good, then that's a blessing, but if we have difficulty or we're fighting about this, we can just put it on the back burner for a while. It's not that important. I think particularly women can think that.
But when you look at Scripture even, the Bible gives very little specific advice on marriage if you read it from cover to cover.
Juli: There's principles, but as far as "You should do this," there aren't many places where the Bible teaches husbands and wives. But one of those places in 1 Corinthians 7 addresses specifically physical intimacy and it says, this has to be important in your marriage. Don't neglect it. The only reason you should ever neglect it is for a short period of time, for prayer and fasting, which I've met with a lot of couples that neglect this area of their marriage and I've never heard the reason, "Well, we've been praying and fasting for the last 15 years."
Jim: Right. (Laughing)
Juli: You know, there are all these other things that get in the way, so I think it really starts with understanding that this is a spiritual space in your marriage that God wants to be a part of restoring. And if you're not actively pursuing that restoration, as you said, the enemy will really own that and use it to create great discord.
Jim: Well and there's always that debate between emotional intimacy and physical intimacy. And sometimes, not always, it'll break down by gender. You know, wives for the most part, are saying, "I don't feel drawn to him physically, because I don't feel attached to him emotionally." And a husband's gonna say, "Well, I don't feel, you know, attached physically, so I don't feel attached emotionally." 'Cause it['s] in the wiring, it seems that God provided us, I don't know if it was His sense of humor or what, but He kinda gave us each an emphasis in the other direction. (Chuckling)
Juli: Yeah, I think it's His great wisdom, because if we were wired the same, something would get neglected.
Jim: Well, and I think, too, it also teaches us to be selfless.
Jim: And that's what [is] making us more like Him.
Jim: And so, even in that aspect, you know, you mentioned that Scripture. I want to go ahead and state it, because it's so powerful in that 1 Corinthians 7 passage. "For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does." Now I know a lot of you right now just went, "No way." Then it goes on. "Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 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."
I think and Juli, this may be a provocative statement, I think when we look at the issues of pornography and adultery, that right there is leading to the caution sign. If it's not healthy, someone in that relationship may look elsewhere for that need to be met. It doesn't justify it. Don't hear that, but it opens the door to that person's heart if there's a lack of intimacy in the relationship.
Juli: Uh-hm, I totally agree and what makes this more complicated is that I'm gonna stereotype a little bit here, but I think a lot of women will hear that teaching and they'll say, "All right, you just put a huge guilt trip on me. You're saying that if I don't make this important in my marriage, then my husband's gonna look elsewhere, but there's nothing within this area of my marriage that's satisfying. I actually have grown to despise this area of marriage."
And I've met with so many women who are in that situation, that now I already have trouble with this and now you've just made me feel guilty. And I think that's where people get stuck and they don't know how to move forward, is okay, the Bible says it's important. It's my "wifely duty." I'm using little air quotes there and I think what we miss and we don't emphasize enough is that passage before that one that talks about a wifely duty, it actually talks about a husband's duty to his wife, to fulfill her in this area.
And guys, you're gonna relate to this. If you're a married man, understanding how to fulfill your wife in physical intimacy can be an enormous challenge. And I think a lot of young husbands give up when immediately they don't feel like they know how to satisfy their wives.
And the marriage can go for decades without him ever being convicted that, all right, Lord, You're gonna have to really teach me how do I understand this woman? How do I learn to meet her needs emotionally and physically? And that's where that passage breaks down, when we don't take that seriously, that it's mutual fulfillment and love and caring and satisfaction.
Jim: Juli, you're a psychologist, but really you and Mike, your husband, you had to learn this even in your own relationship, didn't you?
Juli: We did. My goodness, the first 10, 15 years were proof that in this area of marriage is probably our greatest struggle. So, you know, sometimes they'll say that research is really "me-search," you know.
Jim: Yeah, right. (Laughter)
Juli: You know, we're drawn to the things that we need help with and God has used just our journey to even give me a passion for this topic and helping other couples, particularly helping other women. But Jim, let me go back to something that you said a few minutes ago and it relates to what God has taught Mike and I through the many years of marriage, is that physical intimacy in marriage for many couples, including my marriage, has been the greatest test and refiner of our love.
Jim: How has that come about?
Juli: Well, I think when I'm upset at my husband or I don't feel that he's been kind or sensitive to me, I can make myself love him enough to maybe make his favorite dessert or to take his shirts to the cleaners. But when it relates and translates into how I love him physically, I can get so self-protective, self-righteous, bitter. And I've seen in my marriage that God has tested the depths and the quality of my love in this area of marriage more than any other area of marriage.
Jim: Let me ask you, 'cause I resonate with that. I can understand that, thinking of Jean. But why does a woman go there? Why is this area kind of the core of that trust and that, I guess, hope in her that he will say the right things, do the right things and if so, then he gets rewarded. But why is this so close where doing things for him, like you mentioned, if it's cookin' a good meal or doing an errand or you know, I can do that with a good attitude. But this, he's really gotta earn it.
Juli: Well, I think, you know, there are a couple reasons for that. One of them, if I'm gonna look at the more cynical side of us, it's I realize I have power in this area of marriage. And I can be cynical enough to withhold with that power and manipulate, but I think another piece of this is that, it's a mystery, but there's nothing that touches the core of who we are more than sexuality. It's so vulnerable. And in our culture, we try to make it as if it's nothing, the hook-up culture.
But God has created us in such a way and Scripture will speak to this mystery, that there's something very precious and sacred and spiritual about sexuality. And we don't feel safe exposing that without having the assurance that I can trust this man. He's for me. He cares about me. He loves me. And so, I think it's just natural for a woman when she doesn't feel that, that's the first defense that goes up.
John: And we so appreciate Dr. Juli Slattery's insights on this matter, especially related to newly married couples. Regardless of where you're at in your marriage, if you're struggling and we've touched on some pretty common struggles, please know that we've got help and resources for you and we've got a counseling team and we do have the book that Juli contributed to, Ready to Wed, which is a great primer for couples who are getting ready to get married. All of that at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or when you call 800-A-FAMILY.
End of Program Note
Jim: Juli, before we move away from that, I've often thought the physical intimacy issue, the dysfunction within it is always rooted in something else. And what you just said there, I want to make sure we put an exclamation point on that, that for men, if you're leaning into pornography, it's probably because it's safe and you don't have to be vulnerable in that spot. You don't have to be exposed to your wife in ways that you may feel you're inadequate. What does a couple do? I guess it's either the man or the woman, for that young couple, maybe an older couple, how do they begin to address that, that it's not necessarily about sex; it's about what's going on underneath the physical act?
Juli: Yeah, I think even just acknowledging that is huge and getting to the place where a couple acknowledges we need help. And unfortunately, most of us will go through marriage way too long, struggling—his private struggle, her private struggle—before they raise their hand and they say, "We're falling apart. You know, Satan is really winning in this area of our marriage. We need help."
If you can get to that point as a husband and wife, where you just humble yourself and you just say, "We don't know what we're doing. This is going nowhere very quickly. It can destroy our marriage. Would somebody please help us?
And even just starting by asking the Lord to help, "God, would You bring us wise counsel? Would you bring us healing? Would You show us how to surrender this area of our marriage to You?" That is the first step that most couples won't take. And they'll go again five, 10, 15 years until this ends up destroying every level of intimacy.
And fortunately, wherever you are in the world, you have resources like the ones provided by Focus on the Family, like the local church and local Christian counselors, who are equipped to help you and talk through these things and offer practical skills.
Jim: You know, all three of us are parents and I'm sure you, like me, have discussions with your kids. You know, as Christians, we want you to know about physical intimacy, but we want you to treasure it. It's a gift from God when you get married.
But talk about that young person right now, the 15-, 16-year-old, five, 10 years from now when they get married and they've been faithful to that, they've waited for this great treasure, this gift from God. And the night comes and uh-oh. It either didn't measure up. It was full of disaster, clumsiness. They told me to wait for this?
Juli: Yeah. (Laughing)
Jim: What was so great about this?
Jim: It's embarrassing. Talk about that and how they need to maybe think that through before their wedding night.
Juli: Yeah, I think, you know, a course like Ready to Wed is gonna give you some great tools. Meeting with someone in premarital counseling to ask you the difficult questions, that's definitely gonna help. But even so, you know, I think this is something maybe I've shared on a previous broadcast, but it's an analogy that really helps me and helped me through these years of marriage, which is to think about the physical intimacy in marriage as a gift like the gift of Legos.
And we all have boys (Laughter) and we all have Legos in our house, but the gift of Lego is it's—
Jim: I just stepped on one.
Juli: Yes, (Laughter) exactly; there you go.
Jim: That's the gift.
Juli: That's the gift. That's what it feels like. But if you can think about the fact, if you go to a store and you buy a box of Lego[s] and you see on the outside of the box this elaborate castle or Batmobile and you open up that box (Laughter) and [if] you think you're gonna find that completed project, you're gonna be really disappointed. But the beauty of Legos and the reason why they never end up in garage sales is because this is a gift, a toy that grows with you and you create. You learn to be more creative.
And the gift of physical intimacy in marriage is very similar. If you expect that in the first year of marriage you open up the box and it's immediately gonna be fulfilling and what you've been told to expect all these years, you may be very discouraged.
But if you can say, "Hey, you know, this is the very beginning of an adventure that's gonna last, Lord willing, 40, 50, maybe 60 years. And we're just starting. We don't know what we're doing, but we're gonna figure it out together.
That is the right mind-set and just to share a personal story. When my husband and I got married, our honeymoon, without going into detail, was (Laughter) a disaster in this area. And I can remember being so disappointed and he was, too.
And we were in this little cabin in the woods of Tennessee and we were both at the point of just tears and frustration and anger at each other. And I had just very negative thoughts going through my mind about my husband at that point.
And I looked over across the cabin and Mike was there with his Bible open and just praying and he came over to me a few minutes later and just put his arm around me and just said, "You know, honey, we've got our whole lives to figure this out."
And I think back on that moment, you know, 21 years ago and his attitude towards the discouragement we felt was the most important thing that happened on our honeymoon. If everything else was not great, his attitude, that I'm gonna go to the Lord first and then, I'm gonna encourage my wife and have a long-range perspective, builds a safety and a confidence in him that has just been there for two decades now.
Jim: Oh, it's a beautiful foundation to build on. Let me ask you as we're comin' to the close, in this world that we live in today with that media saturation that we talked about and with the, you know, the I guess highly sexualized environment that we're in, some Christians homes, the children have been promiscuous. It's happened. It grieves the parents' hearts. They're now in their 20s and they're getting married. They've recommitted their life to the Lord, but there is still history. How would you suggest that couple talk that through?
Juli: Well, I think we've gotta start with a perspective shift. We talk so much in the church and appropriately about saving sex for marriage. What we don't do is, here's the term that sounds weird, but sexually disciple people. And discipleship means all throughout our life, how do we view this area of who we are as human beings in the light of God's grace and mercy?
And the statistics will show that in America, only about three percent of people will save physical intimacy for marriage. So that means an awful lot of marriages are starting with a long maybe history of making bad decisions when it comes to sexuality.
When we can start thinking in terms of how do we disciple each other through this, discipleship means not just saying no, it means God's grace for us. It means embracing forgiveness. It means extending forgiveness.
And the whole Christian life is really about how God redeems our brokenness. If a couple can have that perspective of, "God, how do I help my spouse redeem brokenness? How will You redeem my brokenness?" Whether that's because of abuse in the past or the choices I've made or maybe the ways we've hurt each other. You know, that's really the Gospel and that's how God can use physical intimacy, even in its difficulty, to teach us to live out the Gospel within our homes.
Jim: This is such a good conversation. I hope if you know a young couple or a couple that's maybe been married a while, but needs some help in this area, get a copy of the download. Get a copy of Ready to Wed and Juli, I so appreciate you contributing to that resource, that Focus on the Family resource.
And I hope you keep pluggin' away, talking about this topic, because we need good information on how to parent our kids in this direction and how to apply it in our own lives. So, thanks for bein' with us.
Juli: It's been a pleasure. Thanks.
Jim: And just before we go, John, I'd like to add that with this particular topic, we've created an additional half-hour podcast that digs a little deeper into the dynamics of newlyweds and physical intimacy. Eva Daniel, one of our producers here at Focus, talked further with Juli and that's on an extended CD or download.
John: And that's a really important conversation and what we're gonna do actually is, put that together with the book, Ready to Wed and so, this bundle would make a great wedding gift. There are so many weddings that we'll be going to this summer. Also, if there's a couple in your church that is thinking about getting married, Ready to Wed and this CD would be great conversational tools. Go through it together with them. And we can tell you more when you call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
And please, when you call, make a generous donation to our marriage support team and we'll say thanks by sending that bundle of the CD and Ready to Wed to you. Our number again, 800-A-FAMILY or stop by www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: And as we're in the hot summer months here, I wanted to encourage you to continue to support Focus on the Family. We're all distracted in summer and most church and parachurch organizations get a little thin. So, if I could just ask you to think about Focus, certainly pray for us, and if you can help us financially, we would really appreciate it.
John: And the fastest way to donate is www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow. You'll hear from a remarkable mom who runs the home and cares for the children, despite not being able to use her arms.
Mrs. Saran Kovac: And I'm not saying that I like being like this. If God came to me and said, "Would you like to have normally functioning arms?" I would in a heartbeat say yes. At the same time, I wouldn't go back and change anything that's happened to me.
End of ExcerptJohn: What an amazing young woman, Sarah Kovac joins us next time, as we once again, inspire you and help your family thrive.
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Juli SlatteryView Bio
Dr. Juli Slattery is clinical psychologist, author, speaker and broadcast media professional. She is also president of Authentic Intimacy, a non-profit ministry aimed at helping women have better marriages. Dr. Slattery's books include Finding the Hero in Your Husband, No More Headaches and Guilt Free Motherhood. She and her husband, Mike, have three sons.