Is it a mistake to wait until you are married to have sex?
This question was embedded in a much longer email I received from an About.com reader struggling with abstinence. I asked permission to share this part of the email for a few reasons. First, I know it is something many people struggle with and thought the correspondence which followed may be of use to others. But more than that, I thought it was important to hear someone with doubt. So often when the topic of abstaining comes up in public, people on all sides of the discussion appear to be 100% certain in their beliefs about what is right and what is wrong.
You rarely hear doubt from people who are waiting to be married before they have sex. Same goes for people who think it's better to explore sexual relationships before marriage, or more broadly people who don't think marriage is a necessary component of a committed relationship or happy and fulfilling life, rarely talk about what might be difficult about having sex earlier in a relationship.
When you talk (or email) with people one on one what you learn is that none of us are so certain about our choices, and every choice comes with benefits and drawbacks. My exchange with this person took place over several emails, but I'm condensing it below.
Should I Wait for Sex?
First I want to say how much I appreciate that you are asking this question. This issue is so polarized in public discussions and media representations that coming out as uncertain takes a lot of nerve. So thanks for doing that since it gives us an opportunity to have a conversation that we usually don't get to have.
It seems important for me to start with my own opinion. Not because I think I'm right. Believe me, I don't, and I'm not. But because I do have a strong opinion and since you've shared your perspective I'd like to put mine on the table so we both have a sense of where we're starting.
When people say they are going to wait to have sex until they find the right person or until they are married or in a committed relationship, and they ask what I think, the truth is that I do hesitate. I'm always clear that it's not my choice to make, but my bias is toward concern.
When I grew up I was taught that sexuality is sort of like an infinite well of possibility and potential. A place that you can go back to again and again, and each time the experience may be different. Sex wasn't something to be guarded against or protected, it was a part of life like laughing, or homework. I was also raised to understand that marriage is only one of many ways grown ups choose to make families. That incredibly abridged version of my childhood meant that I never even considered waiting until marriage to be sexual, since I never assumed I would get married and was raised to believe that sex was an important and positive part of life.
Those early messages are not the reason why I hesitate when people tell me they are waiting to have sex until they are married. The reason I worry about that choice is the same reason I worry about people who get married (or enter into any committed relationship) without knowing about how they and their partner fit together. That "fitting" is about how you deal with money, how you feel about the balance between work and leisure, desire to have children, communication styles, religious values and beliefs, and more. And it also has to do with sex.
Usually the process of dating or courtship includes learning about each other in many of the areas mentioned above. When you learn all about your partner except about who they are as a sexual person, I worry that the potential for deal-breaker type surprises goes up.
But those are my values. They have everything to do with the time and place I was raised in and live in today. They have nothing to do with what makes a good relationship or good marriage. People around the world get married all the time without knowing much at all about the person they are marrying, let alone having had sex with them. Many of them probably regret that process, and many are happy with it. I could say the same for my way of doing things.
It's simply untrue to say that the way I do it or most people do it in the West is the right way. It isn't.
So where does that leave you?
I assume that when you ask if this is the "right" decision you mean will it end up hurting your relationship or helping it. I think first you need to consider that every relationship choice, including marriage, involves a leap of faith. There are no guarantees, no way to predict the future. There's no way of knowing what impact the decision to wait will have on your relationship.
All you can hope to know for sure is your own heart and mind. I can't help with your heart. But when it comes to your mind, it makes sense for you to think through the practical consequences of waiting to have sex until you are married. Below are four issues to consider as you think through this.
I would also encourage you to start talking with trusted friends and family, and seek out a counselor or therapist (or a minister or spiritual leader if you have one you trust) and ask them to help you think through these issues. Don't go looking for advice on what you should do, instead seek out people who will help you ask more questions, and think more deeply about what it is you want and why.
Sex Leads to Growth
If you think of marriage as a relationship that lasts, and you think of life as something that involves growing and changing over time, you have to consider the impact of sexual exploration on personal growth. Exploring your sexual self, which includes having sex but also experiencing your body and gender in new ways, will inevitably lead to some new discoveries. Every time we encounter something new we have an opportunity to change the way we think and feel about ourselves and the world. And if you've never had any kind of sex before, starting to have it definitely qualifies as something new!
I'm not suggesting that you need to have sex to know yourself, or that until you don you don't really know yourself or anything like that. But you will learn things when you start having sex simply because we always learn from new experiences. You may learn things that change how you feel about your relationship and about yourself in that relationship.
Some would say that it's better to learn those things before you get married. I'm not sure that's true. But what seems important is to know how you and your spouse feel about growth and change, and how you will deal with it if one of you discovers something about yourself that is a surprise to either or both of you.
A non-sexual example might be that one of you decides a few years into your marriage that you hate your career and want to change it completely. A sexual example might be that one of you discovers you really like a certain kind of sexual interaction that neither of you had ever thought of before. If you go into a marriage with the idea that you already know everything about each other and that no major changes are allowed, that seems to be a recipe for disappointment. If you've already created space and capacity in your relationship for dealing with change, even when it may be troubling, the timing of when you begin to learn about yourselves as a sexual couple seems less important.
Sexual Chemistry and Compatibility
It's hard to define, but most people seem to agree that there is such a thing as sexual compatibility or sexual chemistry. Some people believe that you either have chemistry or you don't. Others say you can develop it. Whatever "it" is, I don't think it only reveals itself when you have intercourse. So part of the consideration here is what exactly you mean by waiting to have sex before you get married.
Does no sex mean you won't engage in any sexual activities? Does that include masturbation? What about other kinds of sensual or physical intimacy? Kissing, holding hands, just being together. Sharing fantasies, exchanging sexy talk online, by text, in person. All of these are ways of being sexual that you may not think of as having sex, but they will all give you some sense of the sexual energy or spark that is between you. Some people say that kissing is one of the best indicators of sexual compatibility.
What will you do if, after waiting so long, the sex you have isn't that great? Or it isn't what you expected or hoped for? If you have a sexual history to use as a frame of reference, you would know that sometimes these things take time. But if you never had sex before, a few bad experiences could be overblown and lead very quickly to both of you being in a negative place when it comes to sex. This doesn't mean you shouldn't wait. It does mean that if you are going to wait, you need to be patient with yourselves at the beginning of your sexual relationship. You already know all about the pressure of living in a sexualized society where the expectations are high. Don't forget that it takes time to work through all that social distortion and find your own sexual way as a couple and as individuals.
The less you know about your spouse before you commit to a monogamous relationship that's meant to last a lifetime, the fewer deal breakers you should have. You can't go into a new relationship and expect things to turn out exactly the way you want, or else. You need to be flexible and patient. You need to want to compromise, understanding that doing so is an opportunity to learn and grow, and not simply a form of settling or giving in. If there are things that you absolutely insist on for your relationship, things that would be deal breakers if they aren't there, you should be up front about that before you get married.
One example might be about this whole waiting business. Lots of people want to wait, and try to wait, but then at some point end up having sex before they get married. If you and your future spouse are planning on waiting, what happens if, after you are married, it's revealed that one of you didn't wait? Is that a deal breaker that would make you want to leave the marriage? What happens if you start having sex and it turns out that one of you has a particular sexual interest that, at first, the other doesn't share? Are certain kinds of desires a deal breaker? There's no way to anticipate everything, but this is a conversation worth having with your future spouse. Just having the conversation may shift your thinking about waiting or not waiting.
There is a pervasive belief that after a while sex goes stale in every long term relationship. This seems to me a self-fulfilling prophesy as much as a natural fact, but in any case what is certain is that sex at the beginning of your relationship will be different from sex 10, 15, or 50 years into the relationship. The truth is that there is always something new to discover about yourself and your partner when it comes to sex, but the feeling of novelty and sexual newness is most obvious when you are having sex for the first time (or times).
One way of looking at the choice to wait until after marriage to have sex is to consider that it means you get to have all that great, new, first time sex, in the context of an already committed loving relationship, hopefully one where you feel safe enough to be more of yourself than you might feel if you're having sex with someone after the third date.
On the flip side, the novelty does wear off and it behooves you to think a bit about all those expectations you'll be bringing to the marriage bed. Our sex lives are often a place where we project other relationship issues, leading to sexual problems that are less about sex and more about the relationship. While waiting may mean that you get to do your sexual exploration from a more grounded place of a committed instead of dating relationship, it may also mean that you both put off having all sorts of conversations until after you are married; conversations about desire, about expectations, and about values and beliefs tied to sexuality, to bodies, to gender, and more.
Whether or not you decide to wait to have sex, waiting to have these conversations does not seem like the best preparation for a marriage.