Much mainstream coverage of sex refers to the physical aspects only. But most people know, whether from experience or intuition, that human connection is more nuanced. So, we decided to explore the more deep, personal meanings sexual relations can have, drawing from the experiences of people in committed relationships. We invited women to anonymously share their experiences with their first name only or with a pseudonym, not sharing technical details about sex but instead reflections on relational areas of growth that intimacy in marriage may have brought to the fore.

Several themes emerged from the experience of these women. Perhaps the most commonly shared experience was growing in intimacy, like growing in a relationship more generally, is a work in progress.

Sexual intimacy can be complicated, doesn’t just click instantly, and can take effort

Connie from Minnesota shared one thing she hadn’t expected is that “intercourse only generally doesn’t result in climax for the woman,” but, she added, “this created open conversation and honesty between us. Our main goal was to express love through welcomed pleasure for the other; it is not our personal fulfillment we strove for, but our spouses; that grew the intimacy. It is what we can give, not receive; but if we both feel that way, we both receive in ways that put smiles on our faces.”

KP from Florida shared that she wishes she knew beforehand that sex “takes a lot of effort mentally especially for women!” Emily from the Midwest shared that she hadn’t realized “it was going to be six months before we knew what we were doing . . . three weeks before we were even successful. I wish I would have known how to take care of myself better at first, I had so much pain and discomfort for months.” Jane from New York City noted that she learned “foreplay is part of sex, and shouldn’t be rushed!” After marriage, she “realized I needed to feel ready for intercourse, and if I wasn’t then I needed more foreplay. My husband and I learned each other's pacing. . . . My husband has been great about helping me feel empowered and feeling ready during the act.”

Sex is not a generalized skill but very personalized

Marta from Poland learned that sex is not just a skill that one develops, but “that one needs to learn having sex with the specific person; that the sexual relationship is something that spouses create and build.”

Deon in Canada shared, “Intimacy in my marital relationship revealed how my spouse and I both needed to learn what we each wanted and needed individually and with one another. It has revealed how difficult and important it is to discover our needs and then to ask for and communicate them.”

Ann from Texas shared, “I wish I knew that it would take time for us to learn each other and that was good. I wish I knew that you could talk to each other while you were having sex—what feels good, what doesn’t.” Sophie from Connecticut added that sex “definitely revealed layers of selfishness and gaps in communication and understanding each other.”

Sex within a committed relationship like marriage can be better than uncommitted sex

Sophie shares that she was surprised “how much better [sex] can get as intimacy and the relationships grow, contrary to the idea that wild youthful sex is the best or most perfect kind.”

Allie from the Washington D.C. area shared that she found “sex while married is drastically different from premarital sex (my husband and I hadn’t had sex with each other prior to marriage, but both had sex with other people). The commitment of marriage made it better.”

Joy from Ohio shares that she didn’t know “how talkative and ‘love drunk’” she would be afterward, or how the love they shared in intimate moments would “spill over into loving my husband in the day-to-day aspects of life.”

Briana from the Midwest shared that she learned in marriage that their sexual relationship “chemically bonds the couple, building a stronger relationship. . . . It adds a deeper layer to its function.”

Emotions play a large role in sex

Elizabeth shared that intimacy revealed, “I need more emotional connection and emotional intimacy to feel even remotely interested in sex.”

Helen from Texas shared that she wished she’d known how “sex in marriage can be hard and isn’t always ‘good.’ It’s okay and not shameful to be unhappy with your sex life and work on it with your spouse.” She added that now she thinks “men and women experience sex so differently. I guess I ‘knew’ that, but seeing it play out in real life was a bit of sticker shock. Men are so physical but women want the emotional component. Intimacy in marriage has been about finding how to make both of those things be present for both parties.”

Lust can get in the way of intimacy

KP shared, “I believe the social changes [surrounding sex] have hurt us. . . . I mean the distortion of sex’s importance and deep connection has been thrown out the window. Casual sex was detrimental to my mind and body—and it led to a lot of pain and barriers to intimacy later in life. I still struggle with breaking past them all and enjoying complete pleasure due to my past.” Briana shared that marital intimacy helped her identify she needed “healing from lust and learning that sex is not a shameful thing when appropriately lived.”

Vivian from the East Coast explained, “We’ve both been wounded by pornography and masturbation and were concerned about that. Part of our marriage prep was meeting with a marriage counselor and something he said stood out to us: your past experiences don’t have to ruin your future experiences. You can make new memories, form new neural connections. Even if you’re damaged, it doesn’t mean you’re tainted. Our intimacy as a married couple has helped us to heal.”

Ann shared that, “22 years into my marriage I learned my husband had a sexual addiction (pornography, infidelity, etc). Praise God he is being healed, and so are we.”

Intimacy can reveal areas that need healing

Sophie shared, “Growing in our intimate relationship revealed opportunities to grow in trust and acceptance and respect for each other, and in love for and acceptance of ourselves, some healing of body image negative patterns, and vulnerability, and much more.”

Allie shared, “I had been in abusive relationships where sex was coerced and forced, and I had a lot of mental changes and healing to do to see sex as good and healthy and generous.” Linda shared that the intimate relationship led to “deeper healing for me than what I expected regarding the effect that early sexual abuse had on my emotional health.”

Patty, who is no longer married, shared her experience: “When I was married, I realized our sexual intimacy brought up my own fears and insecurities as a woman, while also bringing back to mind sexual assault when I was in high school. When those memories started to trigger me and resurface, I quickly discovered that I had more healing to do from that experience than I realized.”

KP shared that intimacy revealed “so many” areas that needed healing: “Unresolved hurts/trauma from the past that weren’t the typical abuse per say, but incorrect forms of thinking through experiences early on. It needed to be addressed and healed, allowing intimacy to grow between us.”

Joyce shared, “Healing of my past experience with sexual manipulation and abuse was necessary for a positive marital relationship. In the beginning, I didn't realize how much trauma-baggage I was carrying until I saw that being intimate with my husband would make me cry. He is wonderfully loving and very patient, and it was upsetting to him to see me so upset. With his encouragement, I worked through my past hurts with a lot of prayer, talk therapy, and discussing with him exactly how I was feeling.”

Emily shared, “We’ve both been in individual counseling because of severe problems in both of our family of origins. This is helping the communications and helps us feel like we’re not alone in figuring things out.”

Vulnerability is a must

Allie said a necessary element to intimacy is “radical openness and honesty.” Marta says her essentials are “trust, patience, giving ourselves time, and not making expectations.”

Joyce shared that what helped her relationship over time is “openness about everything: where you are at emotionally, what your [menstrual] cycle is doing, how things feel physically. And learning to laugh when being so vulnerable takes a turn for the embarrassing (pregnancy belches, postpartum jiggles, or exhausted-parent muscle fatigue).”

Cary says what helped her marriage intimacy is “being comfortable and knowing that my husband wants me and still chooses ME, as I do him, even with 20+ pounds and stretch marks!”

Helen shared, “Good communication is always hard, but communication surrounding intimacy is even harder. It’s hard to talk about ways to improve your sex life without it feeling like it’s a blow to the other person’s ego . . . perhaps because issues surrounding intimacy can make one seem like such a failure.” Ultimately, Helen says, “it’s about you BOTH working and talking through problems, not a reflection on one person’s failing. Intimacy should always be about the two of you together.”

Sex can be a spiritual experience

Ann shared, "I wish I knew about how spiritual it is. That it is not just a physical act.” Cary, also from Texas, shared she was surprised to experience “the spiritual aspect of sex. . . . Every time you have sex, you create a soul tie. . . . Sex is not just physical and emotional! It’s spiritual.” KP shared, “Generally speaking mainstream media does not allude to the deep mental, emotional, and spiritual impact sex has on us as humans. . . . [Ignoring those dimensions of sex] is doing us a disservice.”

Some added how their faith boosted their married life. Briana from the Midwest shared, “My marital relationship completely changed and became more than I dreamed when we put God in the middle [of the relationship] where he belongs.” KP shared, “Ultimately becoming more intimate spiritually with my Creator helped me release a lot of things that I needed to in order to be intimate with my husband physically. Also, understanding our differences as man and woman and how that contributes to a healthy sex life.”

Joy put it this way: “I don’t think I understood how sacramental sex within marriage was.” Now, she says, “We make it a point to pray together first before sex. It has given me a deeper insight into the great depth of God’s love for me, because the love of my husband is so overwhelmingly wonderful, but yet it is insignificant compared to the great love that God has for me. Also, we have found that when we give of ourselves completely, that then we feel the most loved.”

Over time, your sexual relationship mirrors overall relationship quality

Jane shares, “We’ve created a trust and comfort with each other that could only be achieved with the fierce commitment to each other, our marriage, and family.”

Sophie shares, “I think our challenges and relationship tough moments were played out in the intimate relationship, and in growing and working hard to have a great sexual relationship, it’s carried over and benefited all elements of our relationship.” Sophie says it helps that they prioritize time for each other and take regular romantic getaways, even while they have small children. “I had no idea how much better and better [our intimacy] could get, as knowledge and appreciation for each other has grown. A lot of open communication and expressing your desires as well as asking the other to voice theirs has been really helpful for us.”

Joy shared how things improved in both the relationship and intimate life as their relationship grew: “The better we know each other and are willing to give ourselves to each other the more intimate we can be with each other. When we are willing to focus on giving ourselves fully to each other, and focusing on each other more so than our own wants, we both receive greater joy from the experience.”

Vivian shared how one’s sex life is really just one part of a fruitful relationship: “If you are blessed enough to be able to have sex for 1 hour, there are still 23 other hours in a day. Make sure you’re marrying someone for the 23, and you can work together to make that 1 amazing for both of you. 😉”