Let’s Talk About Sex!

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I’ll go ahead and start this post with a disclaimer that I will be frank about this subject. If you’re squeamish about sex in general this might be outside your comfort zone, and you can click away now. (On the other hand, it might be just what the doctor ordered!)

I’ve made it a bit of a life mission to understand relationships in general and intimate relationships specifically. I study people, and it’s not at all uncommon to make a comment in passing about an observation and to later find out that I was actually picking up on something correctly. People fascinate me. How people relate intrigues me. While this has served me well as a tool to nurture a strong and successful marriage, it wasn’t always that way.

The first eight years of my marriage weren’t always amazing, and it was mostly my fault. I was raised in a super conservative community that really didn’t provide much in the way of guidance on what constituted a healthy marriage. Because of my background, I don’t trust men easily, so I went into my marriage with the attitude that men were pretty much pigs but mine was mostly okay. (This legitimately embarrasses me now.) This caused a ton of conflict for me. My husband and I have always had a very strong intimate connection (ahem, we like sex), but I constantly felt a push and pull emotionally about it. I will never, ever forget when that shifted for me. We were arguing one day, and I yelled right in his face, “YOU ONLY WANT ME FOR MY BODY!” My memory of this unfolds in slow motion as I see the face of the most amazing man in my life crumple. I could see in his eyes that I had hit my mark in the most heartbreaking way. I immediately and profusely apologized, but it took many days for things to feel normal again. Some time after that fact, I found (just kidding – he brought it home to me, and I swallowed my pride and actually read it.) The Proper Care and Feeding of Husband’s  and had the most important paradigm shift of my life. Realizing that my husband’s need to connect with me was not only sweet but incredibly flattering was eye-opening, freeing and changed our marriage practically overnight.

My interest in relationships coupled with my abuse background means that I talk to a lot of women about these things and how they relate. (I’m not sure how it comes up, but it does.) What I’ve come to understand is that a LOT of women struggle with sex. A lot of women are conflicted about it. A lot of women aren’t well educated. A lot of women, especially religious women, can’t reconcile the messages they receive, and their relationships suffer. A lot of women eventually give up on it altogether. This makes me so, so sad because it doesn’t have to be this way.

I’ve had a few conversations over the last few weeks that have really made me think about how important this subject has been to my marriage and how I wish more women had a healthier relationship with sex. I guess you can think of this as my list of things I would try to communicate to, say, my daughters (who happen to read this blog – you’re welcome, girls!) about what I hope they won’t have to learn the hard way.

Sex is good for you. As in, active couples experience less stress, less pain, greater immunity, stronger self-esteem and consider themselves happier than couples who aren’t as connected.

When you look behind the curtain around social issues surrounding sex like pornography addiction, there is pretty strong evidence that shame plays a huge part. Unhealthy attitudes about sex can actually contribute to the perpetuation of what psych professionals classify as “intimacy disorders.” Regular sex in healthy contexts reduces  the shame, guilt and disconnection that are the root of these problems.

While there are many things that contribute to divorce and tons of complexity surrounding why marriages fail, having regular sex reduces your overall risk of divorce. Sex is not a band-aid that can fix or save otherwise crumbling marriages, but it does facilitate strong relationships. I have a hard time understanding how people not having regular sex overcome arguments, misunderstandings and the general stress of life. We would have sunk a long time ago.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying your partner. Nothing. If you have issues believing this, see point 2 – guilt and shame weaken families; do it for your kids. (So much innuendo! I couldn’t help myself.) My seemingly pretty conservative father-in-law pulled my husband aside after we said “I do,” patted him on the back and pretty much said, “Go enjoy each other.” I continue to be grateful for that gem of advice.

Regardless of what your personal religious beliefs are, there are very few things between husband and wife that are actually doctrinally prohibited in the bedroom. 95 percent of the things people get up in arms about are pure dogma. If you and your partner are comfortable, safe and connected, everyone else can shut up and get out of your bedroom. The quality of your relationship is the key here. It’s all about respect.

You’re biologically built to connect with your partner. Sex releases prolactin and oxytocin that are known as bonding hormones and literally makes you closer to your spouse. If you’ve noticed that it’s easier to have hard discussions after sex or to overlook things that might bother you when you’re stressed, this is what is at play.

If you genuinely don’t see what all the fuss with sex is about, read a blog, find a counselor or pick up one of the many books that are amazing resources.  It can be better than just something that you get through to have kids. These are a few of my favorites that I recommend regularly.

And They Were Not Ashamed by Laura Brotherson – This is written from an LDS perspective and is particularly suited for those who are either still LDS or those that aren’t but still find it hard to get past cultural messages that can interfere with intimacy.

The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex by Sheila Wray Gregoire – I love everything that this blogger does. She’s Christian but very open and frank.

Intimacy Ignited by Dillow and Pintus – This is an excellent study of the Song of Solomon that can really help people to unlock religious shame around sex.

P.S. I also wanted to link up to my guest feature on http://www.inspireyourmarriage.com. I’m honored to be able to share with a wider audience how I make my marriage a priority. Check it out along with all the other marriage-strengthening stories! (And, welcome to any readers who found me through this blog!

 

 

 

 

 

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Wait – Are You a Mormon? Or What?

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I’m sorry I missed posting last week! That’s a first since I started the blog, but I was really sick with a bad cold/sinus thing, and something had to give. We’re all on the upswing now!

This blog is a sometimes awkward space for me. I originally started it completely on a whim as a way to speak to people who I actually know in real life, and I have sometimes written in a way that assumes the reader has at least some basic context. However, a good part of the readership growth does not fit into this category, and I find that the missing details sometimes cause confusion. Hopefully, I can do a better job of providing context, starting with today’s question. Am I Mormon?

While this seems to be a simple question, it’s kind of not. The answer is both yes and no. I was raised as a member of the AUB or Apostolic United Brethren which is a fairly liberal-leaning Mormon fundamentalist church, so I have never been on the rolls of the mainstream Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I was, however, baptized as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints because that’s how fundamentalists do that – there’s no “AUB baptism” or “FLDS baptism.” I also attended the modern LDS church for portions of my teen years and was probably more active as a non-member than a lot of my officially-baptized peers. I heard John Bytheway speak live at a stake youth conference in my father’s California ward when I was an older teen, played ward basketball and had plenty of bishop’s interviews. (Non-members have to have a new interview for every activity because guest recommends are one-time use.) In addition, my own church culture was pretty much identical to the mainstream church down to the manuals we used, except there was also polygamy. So, yes, I’m very Mormon while no, I’m not considered a member by many in the LDS church.

For many years, I hated this question, dodging and avoiding it. I felt embarrassed by my background and, frankly, found it very complex to answer. If I said “no,” it was completely overlooking the fact that I have deep-rooted cultural context in Mormonism. I have maternal family that goes all the way back to the first Mormon converts in England. My family was born, married and died in Nauvoo and on the trek west. (Not the same ones at the same time – ha ha!) I was raised on LDS primary and Sunday school, learning the same things from the same resources as my member schoolmates in Utah. On the other hand, answering “yes” in my circumstances felt dishonest and like I was pulling one over on people. While my husband thoroughly enjoyed engaging with missionaries that came to our door, I hated it and avoided it at all costs. Because, really, what do I say? Having any kind of open conversation required a level of transparency that I was just not comfortable with among strangers.

Taking my place as someone who has a rightful place at the table of Mormonism with something to add to the dialogue has been an interesting journey. Some of my first deep research I ever did into the history of Mormonism related to polygamy because it was a pretty huge catalyst for me (for some strange reason – ha!) In the process, I discovered the Year of Polygamy podcast and Lindsay Hansen Park who is now one of the top researchers on the history of polygamy and fundamentalist culture. I remember the first time I heard her interviewed (and I really hope this is the right one!) One of the things that struck me the most was her assertion that the entire spectrum of Mormon thought belonged at the table, and the mainstream church had neither the power nor the right nor the ability to insist that the conversation be a vacuum that they determined. This honestly blew my mind. It was the first time that I had heard someone who came from a mainstream LDS background say that my story was part of the picture and valuable and worthy of seeing light. As someone who was pretty traumatized as a child by LDS friends that were forbidden to associate with me when their parents heard about my background, this was a Big Deal and changed my perspective significantly. It continues to shape my approach to my engagement with Mormonism today.

So, I am a Mormon, culturally. I do have a Mormon Story, you could say. When I talk about things that are pretty consistent across all Mormon society, I don’t always even discuss the fact that I have a more complicated history. However, I do bring up the complexity when it’s pertinent to what I’m discussing, so you’ll also hear me talk about my fundamentalist background and the things that are unique about it. I apologize if that’s sometimes confusing for people – especially those of you who are not versed in the complexities of Mormon culture as a whole. Hopefully, this will clear that up and provide some context.

 

 

We Can Break the Silence

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This week, a woman took her own life. I don’t know her, but she travels in some of the same circles I do, and it’s given me pause. While I didn’t ever talk to her, this event is incredibly heartbreaking to me. I can’t tell you all the details of her story because I don’t know them. I won’t even say her name or give any more information because this story isn’t mine to tell and there are real people affected by this. What I can say is that this woman had experienced a faith transition and was in an unexpected and unplanned for mixed-faith marriage. This cuts me to the core and hits so close to home because, you see, I am also in a mixed-faith marriage. My husband is still a believer (though quite nuanced) in the truth claims of Mormonism while I am not.

This is the first time I have really come out and said this in any open forum. I’ve hinted. I’ve danced around it. I’ve even been quite bold in some of the statements I’ve made. But, I’ve never been completely transparent about this. I don’t owe this information to anyone, really. Faith and how a person relates to it is quite private and personal. While I’m nervous to publish this, I find myself compelled to do so. For no other reason than the fact that I have come to believe that silence can be deadly. I know this woman’s battle. I know what she fought, can imagine how she felt and understand what would cause such a deep and cutting tragedy. Because I’ve been there.

There is a incredible shame in religious community associated with “losing one’s faith.” It is seen as an act that only happens to the lazy, the unmotivated, the weak. You haven’t tried hard enough. You didn’t study enough. You don’t know what you don’t know. This is a narrative that hurts people, and it is deeply unfair. Until you have walked a mile in someone else’s shoes, you really do not understand. (And, if you ever do, I’ll be the first one to step on that path with you because it’s incredibly lonely to walk alone.)

I’m in a good place right now. We spent many months redefining our marriage, but I know this woman’s pain. My daughter had surgery in July and was given a too-generous dose of hydrocodone. I made her flush it as soon as her pain was manageable, partly because I was concerned about its addictive nature, and partly because I was having way too many days of despair to trust myself with it in my home. This is hard to say out loud. However, it is the reality of a faith transition. When the emotional bottom drops out of your life and your most trusted loved-one feels it as a personal affront, it is devastating. When you would do anything to just go back to the paradigm you had for so long, but you are unable to force yourself to see things in the way that you’re supposed to, and the person you trust the most to hear your innermost thoughts reacts to them with anger and defensiveness and hurt, the fear and loss and heartache are unimaginable.

I am one of the lucky ones. My husband has processed this in a pretty healthy way. We’re differentiating. We’re focusing on the health and well-being of our marriage and family. We’re doing our level best to work as a team and support each other. Many, many families are not this lucky. There is no current narrative in Mormonism that allows for people to step away from the faith with respect, dignity or honesty. (This recent devotional given by Elder and Sister Renlund is a perfect example of how this is still preached in such a harmful way.)

So, why am I talking about this now? I don’t need anyone to respond to this post with sad faces and worry that I’m lost forever. (If you think that and don’t want to have an honest and open conversation with me, please keep the random response to yourself.) I don’t want anyone to glance at my husband and feel sorry that he has to be stuck with me. (Even now, I think he’s happy to be married to me most days.) I don’t intend to start proselyting anyone with my thoughts or beliefs outside this blog (which any of you can choose not to read.) If we meet in person, I’ll talk about the same benign things I always have – my kids, schooling, what’s going on in your life, what we may have in common. However, what I do want is that this woman and others like her will not die in vain. I hope that what I have to say will strike a chord and that it might, in some small measure, change the way that you interact with the people like me in your life. If you hold callings and leadership positions, I hope that you will choose to support the families in your congregation wherever they may fall and not make them the punching bags of a dogma that is long due for reform. I hope that feeling crushed to death by abandonment, public punishment and shame becomes the exception in our communities rather than the rule. I believe that it’s what Jesus would want.

Finally, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. I did not lose my faith because I couldn’t hack what we went through this last year. I experienced my faith transition due to extensive and intense study of church history via primary source records about two years ago – a good year before the details of our story became public. The two events weren’t really related in any significant way. I likely would have attended as a silent non-believer indefinitely had there not been extenuating circumstances, and none of you would have been the wiser. (I would put money on the fact that there’s people in your congregation right now that are doing so.) I’m not bitter. I’m not angry. I’m not out to drag anyone down. (I would actually prefer not to share the specific details of what I’ve studied because I have no desire to complicate other people’s lives.)

In life, one of the most consistent expectations we can have is that it will change. We can not always control how things change, as much as we try. There is a deep unfairness in putting people in a box where there is an intolerance for natural change. As the foundational building block of society, I believe that there should be no institution that should get a higher priority than the family and that its destruction ultimately undermines the strength of everything, including our churches. While it may not always be possible to be helpful in every situation, I think we can all make a commitment to be the change we wish to see in the world. To borrow a medical term, every one of us, in any faith, any community we may travel in, can first, do no harm. We do not have to continue to make this experience so painful that people choose to end their lives rather than walk through it. People are going to walk through it. Put down the stones and take their hands.

What’s Wrong With the Modesty Message?

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When you’re raised in Mormon culture, you hear a lot of messages about modesty. Modest is hottest!! Just say no to porn shoulders!! This subject has been ruminating on my mind quite a bit and more especially lately because it was brought up in the marriage group I participate in. There are some issues that break on faith lines, but I don’t think this is one of them. I think women tend to be more bothered by this regardless of their level of orthodoxy, but that is most likely merely because they are more aware of it. My own opinions about how modesty is promoted in religious contexts have evolved a lot since I was a teen myself and as my own daughters have grown toward the autonomy of adulthood. So, what IS wrong with the modesty message?

  1. Shouldn’t it be their body, their choice? Although this hasn’t been something that’s been a part of my parenting for the duration, it has evolved over time to become a message that even my youngest children are very familiar with now. Simply put, I don’t own my children. I teach them my values and dialogue with them about pros and cons of potential choices. But, at the end of the day, it IS their body, and it IS their choice. (Seriously, if people ask their name and they don’t want to share it, I don’t. If you try to coerce them to hug you, Mama Bear comes right out.) The modesty message reinforces the idea that body choices don’t belong to the individual, and that’s a problem for me. My kids don’t need to think about who might be looking at and assessing them whether it be me, my husband or their church leaders, friends or neighbors. You can’t be comfortable in your own skin if you’re not sure who’s in charge of it.
  2. It puts all the pressure on girls. I have sat through countless young women’s lessons about dress, decorum and standards. (And, based on what I’ve observed, the boys don’t focus on this. Statistics show that teen girls receive six times as many modesty messages as teen boys.) I’ve seen people sit in front of a classroom and hold up specific people as examples of either what to wear or what not to wear. (Seriously, ewwww.) Modesty is promoted as the idea that we are worth more than an objectified standard (which we are.) However, objectification cuts both ways. When girls hear over and over that they are better without their shoulders showing, that is pretty objectifying. I know girls that have stopped participating in church activity because they’re so tired/bored/annoyed by the one-dimensional nature of this message. In addition, the modesty message suggests that girls need to worry about what boys think, and that if they aren’t careful, they could be responsible for someone else’s poor decision. This is pretty gross to both men and women, frankly. Men are better than that and, if they’re not, the absence of a tank top is certainly not going to inspire them to be decent because it’s a much bigger problem than anyone’s clothing choices.
  3. There is no cultural context. Simply put, modesty means different things to different people in different environments. It is the cultural norm in some countries, for example, for women to be topless to promote bonding and easier access to breastfeeding for their babies. In sharp contrast, Victorian cultures found ankles to be titillating which seems downright ridiculous in our modern era. The only difference is context. I think it is pretty shortsighted to preach modesty as if this context isn’t fluid. It is. (Did you know that the 1964 BYU Homecoming queen wore a sleeveless dress? Yep. It was pretty common in that cultural context and not considered taboo at all.) Our children, both boys and girls, would be much better served to learn self-respect, responsibility and accountability than to focus on a checklist of dress standards.
  4. It interferes with the development of healthy sexuality. This is an issue that I don’t think most young women really understand because, sadly, it only begins to rear its ugly head when they are adults. The standard modesty message does not promote healthy sexuality. It promotes the idea that “good girls” stick to a narrative that is prescribed, and they are broken and used if they don’t. Except, once a girl is married, then the narrative changes. The problem is that girls can’t flip that switch overnight, and many, many religious women find themselves mired in shame, heartache and misunderstanding with their partner because they literally do not know how to be comfortable as sexual beings. This is so, so sad to me. (How I escaped this attitude myself with my background is a miracle to me.) And, again, young men don’t get this same message. The modesty message gives a wink and a nod to the idea that boys will be boys, leaving the majority of the long-term burden of this consequence to women.

I need to make it perfectly clear that this is not a treatise on what anyone should or shouldn’t wear. In fact, it is just the opposite. I have a great deal of respect for anyone who follows a strong internal compass. I just happen to think that every person should feel free to choose these priorities themselves. I don’t always approve of everything that my kids wear out my door. I hope that my children will choose to invest intimacy in a long-term, committed partnership that includes marriage because I think there’s pretty practical benefits to doing so. We talk about these things, and I give my kids my opinion. But, I am pretty dang defensive about anyone who tries to leverage cultural messages in a way that is unhealthy to them. I haven’t always recognized the modesty message as harmful, and I internalized an awful lot of it myself as a teen and young adult woman.  But, when you know better, you do better, and I hope to give my kids better than what I got in this department. For the rest of my readers, maybe it will, at the very least, provide a different perspective that will give you something to think about. Could we do better? Is there a healthier way? I think so.