How to Talk About Sex Before You Get Married

God intends sex to be hot and awesome inside marriage, and commands abstinence outside of marriage. That’s a difficult expectation! Our society says that abstinence is a waste of time and effort — maybe even harmful — but that’s how difficult endeavors often look to people who don’t want to try. Climbing Mount Everest looks foolish, dangerous, and difficult, and many people who make the attempt fail, but I can only imagine how fantastic the journey is for those who succeed.

In any event, my purpose here isn’t to advocate for abstinence. If you’re a Christian, God commands it. (See: 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 and Hebrews 13:4, among many other verses.)

However, it’s unfortunate that the command for sexual purity has been widely applied within the church so as to avoid almost all other discussions about sex. Most unmarried Christians are taught to abstain before marriage, but little else. There’s an unspoken expectation that right after the wedding ceremony a switch will flip and the newly married couple will somehow “figure it out” on their own. This is a recipe for disaster! And, in fact, it often leads to sad results: mismatched sexual expectations between spouses that aren’t revealed until it’s way too late — either so far into the relationship that it’s too painful to break it off, or even after the wedding.

So, my strong encouragement for unmarried Christians is twofold:

  • Give some serious consideration to your sexual expectations for your future marriage, long before you have a potential spouse in mind.
  • Have a frank conversation about sex early on in any relationship. It may quickly become obvious that your partner isn’t on the same page as you, and you can spare yourselves a huge amount of heartache by breaking things off quickly.

The difficulty is obvious: how can you learn any of this without having sex? How can you know what you like if you’ve never tried it? To some degree you can’t, but that’s fine. The point isn’t to be  a sexual dynamo before you get married. Think of it like you’re planning a vacation to a place you’ve never been — first consider for yourself the kind of vacation you’d like to have, and then discuss your ideas with your partner and compare. If you get excited about the same kind of things, great! But if you want to sit by the pool every day and your partner only wants to hike, then you need to figure if and how to compromise, or whether to just cancel the trip.

It isn’t only the specific sexual interests and expectations that reveal a lot about your compatibility, but also the way in which you and your partner engage in the discussion. There are no “wrong” answers, but if your answers and approaches are significantly different from each other then that might be a red flag. Is your partner open to your ideas and desires? Is your partner suggesting things that repulse you? When there are disagreements (as there are bound to be), is your partner eager to compromise? Or resistant and stubborn?

This conversation about sex shouldn’t be a one-shot, although one discussion may be enough to rule someone out. After the first discussion you’ll both probably have more ideas and questions, so bring sex up again in a week, and another week, and another. Eventually you’ll both either be super-excited at the prospect of sex together, or one of you will be dreading it. If you’re early in the relationship, that dread should be enough motivation to get out while you can.

So what kind of topics should you discuss? Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • What do you think is the purpose of sex in marriage?
  • What do you think are God’s expectations for sex?
  • What makes you most excited about sex? Most nervous?
  • How often do you think about sex?
  • Have you ever had an orgasm? Do you masturbate? How often? How do you touch yourself? Where? When?
  • What most turns you on? What turns you off? What sights, sounds, touches, experiences, smells, tastes…?
  • How often do you think you’ll want to have sex when you’re married?
  • What should you do when one spouse wants to have sex and the other doesn’t? What if this happens frequently?
  • When is it ok to refuse sex with your spouse? Tired, sick, angry, busy, pouty, worried, sad, distracted…?
  • Even if you know you wouldn’t enact them in real life, what kind of sexual fantasies do you have?
  • How should spouses compromise if one person wants to do something sexually that the other doesn’t?
  • What activity are you most excited to do sexually after you’re married?
  • Is there anything sexual that you definitely won’t ever do?
  • How do sex and romance relate in your mind?
  • Do you want to take charge sexually, or be led? Or both at different times?
  • What do you think about oral sex and anal sex?
  • Do you think sex should be playful or serious?
  • Would you want to try new things, even knowing that some you might end up disliking?

As you go through this list I’m sure you’ll branch off in many other fruitful directions. It you’re still excited about each other after having this discussion a few times then your sexual compatibility isn’t likely to be a roadblock to your relationship.

The key is that you have to be honest and vulnerable with each other — if you can’t, then that itself is a huge red flag. The internet is full of sad stories about “bait-and-switch” relationships in which one partner (usually, but not always, the woman) was sexually adventurous before the wedding, and a cold fish after. If a frank discussion about sex is had early enough in the relationship, then it will be easier for both partners to be honest because the stakes will be lower — you won’t already have invested several years into the relationship that you’re afraid of losing. Even if one partner wants to deceive the other, it will be harder for him or her to succeed at it over the course of a long, multi-part discussion.

Don’t just assume that you and your potential future spouse are on the same page about sex! Have the discussion and be honest — with each other and yourselves.

Got any other tips to share for discussing sex with a potential spouse? Leave a comment!

16 comments

  1. I was dumb as a post about sex when I got married. I could not answer many of those questions without some experience in marriage first, and I would have been too embarrassed to ask some of the others. I have to think back 50 years, but I think we started the conversation by asking “how many children do you think would be good for us?” We went from there to “should we have birth control, and what kind?” We had no idea about oral, anal, bondage, talking of fantasies, masturbation, and many other things. I suppose the modern generation has had much more exposure to those things and might be able to talk about them. However, I have some home schoolers in my church who do not know anything, and their parents like it that way. They even have chaperones who make sure the conversations and conduct do not get sexual. They enter marriage as virgins, but very naive.

    1. Teaching about sex is a very difficult balancing act — how do you inform without tempting and titillating? A successful marriage requires more than virginity on your wedding night. Abstinence before marriage is a good thing that pleases God, but it’s not just a box to check off and then you’re done. Keeping kids so sheltered and naive does them a disservice.

      I don’t think there’s a single right approach to sexual education that will work for every young adult, but you’ve got to give it more thought than preaching abstinence alone.

  2. Sexual problems also arise because there is no “school for sex” to teach men how to give their wives great sex. They are many times stuck in that adolescent sexuality of “wham bam thank you ma’am. Many kids were taught in church that sex is “bad, dirty and wrong and that good girls don’t do it”. This often reflects in their married sexuality of a list of things that they won’t do including wearing frilly lingerie.

    Another problem impacting a couple’s sex lives are the lack of conflict resolution skills which don’t come naturally (fighting comes naturally) but have to be taught. The problem is that no one is teaching these skills, not the schools, the churches (criminal negligence I think) nor even traditional marriage counselors.

    It is for all of these reasons that I am starting a marriage seminar business to address these concerns

  3. Ok I’ve got a long-winded comment about when to have this conversation. See what you think!

    I would break the list down into a few groups. It depends on the social context, but in my experience (I’m 27) Christian singles can get TOO INTENSE early in a relationship doing spouse-auditioning before they’ve earned the level of trust the questions require.

    I think a conversation early on about God’s purposes for sex and marriage is a great idea. Early on, my DH and I talked about our parents’ relationships, marriages we admired, and what we saw as the biggest threats to a good and lasting marriage. We talked a lot about gender and situations our peers were in, and topics like sexual purity, differences and misunderstandings between spouses, God’s purposes, etc., came up naturally – it was personal and revealing without being inappropriate.

    What I mean by “inappropriate” has nothing to do with etiquette or taboo topics, I mean that early in a relationship you’re still learning the other person’s character and habits. I would not disclose sexual expectations, turn-ons, or even parts of my history to a man before I completely trust his maturity, discretion, and how he deals with temptations to lust. I don’t want to break up early in the relationship and have my sexual preferences to be a topic of conversation among his roommates or something.

    I wouldn’t personally discuss some of these questions (“How do you touch yourself? Where? When? What activity are you most excited to do after you’re married? Is there anything sexual you won’t do? Do you want to take charge or be led? Oral/anal sex?”) until after we are engaged. I DO think you should discuss them then, though, before you’re married.

    So in summary…
    Early in the relationship: theoretical topics to learn a person’s values and beliefs. At the same time you’ll be spending time together and seeing their lifestyle, faith, family background, and how they treat you and respect you.

    Soon after: discuss previous relationships, current struggles with purity (this should come out naturally since you’re probably figuring out your own physical boundaries) and gender roles, what you want in a marriage

    When you are headed toward marriage: personal sexual expectations, fears, any history of abuse or specifics re. porn that will impact your sex life together. You should know that the other person will accept you with those issues so you can make plans for your future together without fear.

    Once you get engaged: Go somewhere public and talk about everything you can! And remember if you’re virgins there’s a lot you don’t know. Re. specific sex acts, toys, etc., a good phrase is “I don’t know about doing that right away, but I’m not opposed to trying it!” And plan out your wedding night and honeymoon so you’re both excited about it! Put as much effort into that as your wedding ceremony.

    This is just my experience, though, and it worked great for us! We’re very evenly matched in terms of drive and expectations, and I felt very honored throughout the dating relationship.

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment!

      My concern is that by the time you’re engaged you’ll be very reluctant to break things off no matter how the conversation goes.

      1. I would hope the “dealbreakers” come out in the subjects I listed as “when you’re headed toward marriage” category, which for some could be only a few months in, depending on your age and maturity. (And should be multiple conversations over time, not just a one time relational checkbox) I just wouldn’t anticipate breaking off an engagement over an individual sex act or some other specific detail that might come out as you plan your honeymoon – but on the other hand, I wish people wouldn’t go through with weddings just because of social pressure if they really see a red flag! Some things are revealed during that stress that you shouldn’t ignore.

        Some of this is my context, too – if you’re sexually inexperienced, I think your attitude and beliefs toward sex, body image, gender, and marriage is much more telling than your opinions on sex acts. Your marriage bed grows out of the way the two of you fit together, as whole people, it’s not just a menu of things you each ordered before you committed to each other.

        1. I agree with you in theory! However, we receive *many* emails from people who are very frustrated and disappointed that their spouse won’t do some specific thing.

  4. I agree with Holly and appreciate the thoughtful comment.

    EF – Understanding that you get a lot of notes about specific acts, I think the question about ‘Is there anything you’d never do’ could happen early in an engagement. The danger is talking about specific acts can itself be a turn on, of course. I also think one specific act shouldn’t be a deal breaker. Our preferences change over time, as do our libidos. The spouses you hear from are certainly in a difficult place, but it seems unlikely that they got there overnight. I don’t mean to sound insensitive, I only mean that it will take a lot of time and work to either come to a compromise or accept the fact that you love your spouse more than you want a specific thing.

    I don’t remember much of our premarital counseling 16 years ago, but I do remember our pastor asking how often each of us would want to have sex. It’s like asking a blind person their favorite color. I had no frame of reference to accurately answer it.

    Thanks for the blog, I really enjoy reading it.

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