Like any groom on the eve of his wedding, I found sleep elusive as I contemplated the imminent vows.
My fiancé and I had been together for nearly five years. Most of that time had been spent in cohabitation. We were comfortable. We were confident. We were committed. The ceremony was little more than a formality, we told ourselves. In our hearts, and considering how we had been living, we had felt married for some time.
Why then was I so unsettled before the ceremony? If saying the words and signing a piece of paper were just pomp and circumstance, why did I feel so anxious?
I couldn’t give you an answer then. Eleven years later, God has taken my wife and I through a master’s course in the meaning of marriage. I realize now what I was too stubborn and naive to know then. Cohabitation differs greatly from living as one flesh.
Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, I had been taught to remain abstinent until marriage. For Witnesses, that was more than a theoretical sentiment offered with a wink and a nod. It was an ironclad expectation enforced by institutional discipline. Witnesses caught in sexual transgression could be excommunicated easily. Given the extremely insular nature of Witness culture, such “disfellowshiping” meant losing your entire support system. Your own mother wouldn’t talk to you. That’s how seriously they took their rules.
When I cut ties with the faith as a young adult, I tossed aside its many prescriptions for how to live my life, including the exhortation to remain celibate. While social awkwardness kept me from becoming too adventurous, I did have sex before marriage. A sense of shame haunted me, a residual effect of my upbringing. That shame wasn’t informed by reason, either secular or biblical. I felt bad about having sex because I was taught to feel bad about having sex.
That bled into my relationship with my then-future wife. Having been raised in a far more conventional manner, she had far less baggage when it came to intimacy. To her mind, there was nothing wrong with having sex before marriage, the prevalent sentiment in the culture. I didn’t argue. Why would I? No longer guided by tradition or institutional authority, I followed my instincts.
Once married, the comfort, confidence, and commitment we felt when we shacked up beforehand was challenged. I soon realized that, while I had never before thought to end the relationship, some part of my subconscious had been comforted by the option. It was like life on a submarine. Cohabitation had been like cruising on the ocean surface. Getting married was like submerging for an indefinite tour of duty. I felt subtly but noticeably claustrophobic. I imagine all new husbands feel that way to one extent or another.
The effect of this paradigm shift upon our relationship was unsurprisingly deleterious. When the honeymoon glow subsided, little annoyances which we had each let slide before became grating pet peeves, and fodder for arguments. What once had been dismissed as quirky or even cute was now a form of Chinese water torture. Why does she do that? Why is she like that? Why won’t she change?
To most of the world, such marital experience is considered typical, and ranges from comic to tragic. At best, it’s the sitcom view that we’re all accustomed to, something couples deal with because it proves marginally better than the alternative. At worst, it’s a form of self-denial that robs men and women of their soul. The latter view comes from the “monogamy is unnatural” crowd. Of course marriage is torture, they would say, because we’re not meant to live like that.
Religion offers answers which prove no more satisfying. You should abstain until marriage and remain faithful once married, til death do you part, because God says so. But is that truly an ideal, obligatory fidelity? Is that what couples celebrate on their anniversary, another year of reluctant soul-crushing obedience?
Without going into the gruesome details of exactly how we found our way, my wife and I discovered true love well into our marriage. The path to that point led us through hostile territory. We endured (and inflicted) great pain. But through the grace of God, we came to understand the real meaning of fidelity. Now, we crave each other wholly and exclusively. No one else will do. No one else possibly could.
I have thus come full circle. Having once been taught to abstain until marriage, only to abandon that conviction, I now embrace it anew. I will encourage my sons toward purity. They’ll have an advantage I did not, a reason and a model. They should abstain, not only because God says so, but because it honors their future spouses. That’s a tough concept to grasp before you have a spouse. But once you do, and once you learn to truly love her, you won’t want to have been with anyone else, and you won’t want her to have been with others either.
Sex for its own sake can certainly be fun. But sex between committed lovers, man and wife, is sacred bliss. Knowing that someone else went through the motions with the one you love, without the meaning inherent in the marital bond, casts a shadow upon that experience. So too, to a lesser extent, does knowing you settled for a lesser experience with your spouse before marriage. That’s what the world misses in their critique of “old-fashioned” values like abstinence and fidelity. It’s not about denying yourself. Quite the opposite, it’s about preserving for yourself an exclusive and irreplaceable pleasure, doing honor to yourself and your spouse. It is a wedding gift you give to one another. What could be sexier than that?