Please note that this post contains mature content.
This article was originally going to be about “Five Questions to Ask Before Marriage,” but I think it’s a mistake to think of marriage preparation as something you finish before you get married. “Marriage prep” should be a period of intense discernment and, if you do get married, the beginning of a continuous process of formation and sanctification. You might discover that you shouldn't get married (or not yet, at least), but these questions are meant to be a starting point for a long series of conversations, not a litmus test. With one major exception, these questions aren’t about giving the correct answers. They are about whether the two of you can talk to each other honestly and respectfully — and what you learn about each other and your relationship when you do.
1. What’s in your past?
What experience does each of you bring into marriage, and how do you think it will affect your sexual relationship? This includes past sexual relationships: How will you both feel if one spouse has more knowledge about sexual technique or already has a clear idea of their preferences? Does one of you worry that you’ll be compared to a past partner or that you’ll resent your spouse for not waiting until marriage? If you and your fiancé have already been intimate with each other, how has that experience affected your expectations for marriage, and how do you think intimacy within marriage will be different?
If either of you is a survivor of assault, how can you make your sexual relationship healing and not re-traumatizing? Does the survivor feel safe talking about potential triggers and asking for whatever space and support they need? And is their fiancé(e) secure enough to be there for them without taking anything personally?
You should also discuss your exposure to and/or use of pornography, as well as the ideas and attitudes toward sex you were taught by your families.
2. What are you expecting in the future?
What role do you imagine sex will play in your marriage? Do you plan to try to have a baby right away or wait? How often do you think you’ll want to have sex, and how often do you think you “should” have sex?
You can’t predict the answers to these questions perfectly (and they will almost certainly change over the course of your lives), but it’s good to start marriage on the same page or at least having had an open conversation. For example, if one of you is already more physically affectionate, it’s worth looking at how you handle it in your relationship now. Does one of you feel unloved if the other doesn’t want to cuddle as much? Does one of you feel nagged or chased by the other’s stronger desire for physical touch? Those feelings will probably grow stronger once sex is in the picture.
To a large extent, you don't know what to expect — and that’s OK. The fact that sex is reserved for marriage means that you can’t really know what it’s going to be like until you’re married. Talk to each other about your expectations, and be ready to let go of them once you’re actually married. You’re probably both nervous, and that’s OK, too. You can be nervous together!
To a large extent, you don't know what to expect — and that’s OK.
3. Do you (or are you willing to) understand the science of sexual desire ...
You don’t need to be sex experts before marriage, but your beloved should be just as invested in your pleasure as he is in his own, and that requires a certain level of understanding beyond the basics of sexual anatomy and mechanics. NFP instructors will usually tell you that you’re more likely to desire and enjoy sex when you’re fertile, and they usually have advice for how to deal with that desire when you're abstaining, but they’re often not focused on what you need to know when you are having sex.
Married people should understand the science of sexual desire and how it’s affected by other aspects of their life and their relationship. They should also have a sense of what women and men generally need for a healthy and satisfying sexual partnership. I recommend the book Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski; it’s written from a secular perspective, but you should be able to easily sift out what isn’t applicable.
To be clear, the most important part of this education is the “hands-on learning” you do after marriage, because that’s when you learn about each other in particular. Learning about the unique person that you’re married to matters more than anything you can learn from a book about how “women in general” or “men on average” experience sex. Cultivating your sexual relationship in marriage will be easier if you both go in with some background information and the expectation that it will take more than just intercourse and affection.
Learning about the unique person that you’re married to matters more than anything you can learn from a book.
4. … and do you know why it matters?
I have written before about the theological importance of sexual pleasure, and I want to emphasize again that we should include this topic in pre-marital formation. God wants married couples to have good sex! Do you know that? Does your fiancé? Do you both really believe it? Do you think you’ll be able to talk about what you want and enjoy, or do you feel like that would be dirty or otherwise off-limits?
It’s normal if you feel embarrassed talking about sex a lot before marriage, and I am not advising you to speculate immodestly or to start experimenting early. But how comfortable are you now talking about kissing, for example? Do you feel like you can ask your fiancé to kiss you more or less or differently, or does that feel selfish? Are you too anxious about hurting the other’s feelings to be honest? Are you not careful enough about hurting the other’s feelings? Does one of you feel steamrolled?
If thinking about these questions reveals some issue that makes this topic especially difficult for either of you (such as hang-ups from purity culture), you may want to go to counseling, pray together, or invest in some deeper discussions to help you heal and learn to talk to each other openly. And be ready to continue those discussions into marriage!
5. What's your understanding of “marital debt”?
What should happen if one spouse wants to have sex and the other doesn’t? Is it selfish to say no without a good reason, and what is a “good reason,” anyway? Sexual intimacy is a gift, and it should be unselfish, but does that mean it’s reasonable for someone to expect their spouse to agree to have sex if they don’t feel like it? If they’re upset or angry with them? How do you understand Paul’s admonition, “Do not deprive each other, except perhaps by mutual consent for a time” (1 Cor 7:5)? If one person wants to have sex and the other doesn’t, when is it selfish to try to convince them?
More specifically, when does convincing becoming pressuring? Does your fiancé think the wedding vows constitute blanket consent to sexual activity within marriage? The Church doesn’t. Here’s that exception I mentioned: If your fiancé thinks it’s acceptable to coerce or force someone to have sex, it should be a dealbreaker. It shows a grave misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of sexual intimacy. Someone who believes that is not ready to be married, and you deserve better.
If your fiancé thinks it’s acceptable to coerce or force someone to have sex, it should be a dealbreaker.
Now: Talk amongst yourselves!