October 30th, 2012 by admin

20 Comments

The Intimate Side of Marriage

The Intimate Side of Marriage

Jennifer Finlayson-Fife

At A Glance

As a psychotherapist practicing in Chicago, Jennifer understands how important sexual intimacy can be to healthy, honest marriages. Jennifer professionally helps LDS women find ways to overcome cultural and psychological barriers to sexual desire, and shares some of her wisdom in this interview.

You wrote your dissertation on LDS women and sexuality and have given presentations on making marriages more passionate. How did you become interested in this?

I began my studies at BYU in 1985. At the time, I wasn’t very educationally driven. Honestly, my bigger goal was to get married, but because I had to pay for my own education, I recognized it would serve me well to get scholarships, so I became more of an academic and really enjoyed it. It shifted my vision of who I could be. I was initially interested in design and architecture, but when I returned from my mission to southern Spain, I decided I wanted to be a therapist. I graduated with degrees in psychology and women’s studies. I also returned to BYU in the midst of the turmoil happening in the early 90s when Tomi-Ann Roberts, a non-Mormon psychology professor, and English professor Cecilia Konchar Farr taught there. I was fortunate to be at BYU during that time, grappling with questions about women’s status in the church and how it related to my own experience and anxiety and grief about who I believed I was supposed to be as an LDS woman. It was very helpful for me to be exposed to feminist ideas and thinking; I’m very grateful to have been there during that time.

I went on to get my master’s and PhD in counseling psychology from Boston College. New England was closer to the culture and geography that I was most happy in (I grew up in Vermont). It is also where I met John, to whom I’m now married.

In grad school, I remember someone presenting a case about a woman who, at age 25, was still a virgin for religious reasons. The senior clinician who was giving feedback said that the client was obviously sexually repressed and must have had a lot of anxiety about sex. I remember speaking up and saying I didn’t think that was necessarily the case—her sexual abstinence could be because of her own integrity, a reflection of her own convictions. I was—not surprisingly—the only one with that viewpoint.

I grappled with how feminism often mischaracterizes conservative religious women’s choices. Most feminist theories see religious women’s choices as a result of fear and limited exposure, and not necessarily a result of genuine conviction and empowered choice. Yet at that time in my life, I saw many smart, strong, capable LDS women who were choosing to be active members of the church, women who wanted the good things that the church offered.

During my graduate studies, and in part because I was asked to teach an undergraduate course on human sexuality, I became more reflective about the sexually conservative environment I had grown up in. I saw that our perspective on sexuality gave it deeper meaning than I thought the larger culture did, and I was grateful for that. At the same time, I saw LDS friends getting married who had a lot of unhappiness in their sexual relationships. There is a lot of cultural anxiety about sex among our membership, and I had inherited some of that as well, so it made me interested in what Mormon women’s experiences are with sexuality and how they compare to non-LDS women’s experiences, as well as if they fit with the feminist perspectives I was familiar with. So I decided to write my dissertation on LDS women and sexuality.

I saw that our perspective on sexuality gave it deeper meaning than I thought the larger culture did, and I was grateful for that.

How has your faith helped you in your profession?

While I was in my PhD program, I was told that I took the pursuit of truth very seriously in comparison to other students—I think that was a reflection of being a Mormon. Discovering what is true really matters, and I think that’s been an important part of my own evolution as a thinker. I deeply value the reference point the church has given me as I’ve explored other ideas and viewpoints. The church’s positions have enriched who I am, particularly around being a mother.

What are some of your core beliefs about sexuality?

First, I think sexuality is God-given and fundamental to our human experience. It’s not peripheral. Our sexuality is fundamental to our spiritual and moral development. Our theology, more than any other Christian faith, teaches us that the body is fundamental to our spiritual development; we were given a body to become more like God, with all of the parts and passions of our heavenly parents.

Second, I think a healthy sexual relationship is fundamental to a good marriage. When sexual relationships aren’t working well, they account for about 65 percent of people’s stated dissatisfaction; when a sexual relationship is working well, it accounts for about 20 percent of people’s satisfaction. In other words, sex has a more powerful negative effect than positive effect. When it’s working well, it really enhances and makes people happy to be in their marriage. When it’s not working well, it deeply undermines a marriage relationship. Of course, it’s not the most important part of a marriage, but it supports a happy, healthy marriage.

What would you say are the most common cultural or psychological barriers for healthy sexual relationships?

For Mormon women, and I’m speaking in general terms, I see a deep disownership of their sexuality. In other words, they often say to themselves: “This isn’t really my domain. My way of relating to sex is accommodating my spouse’s desire.” Often, when women first get married, they might be a little excited and curious and interested, but when they transition into marriage, it quickly becomes about duty and obligation, another job, someone else to care of; it isn’t passionate or desirable, and then they feel guilty about that.

I think part of that disowernship comes from a sexual double standard that tends to bleed into our theology. While we expect both men and women to be chaste until marriage, it often gets communicated in ways that create different meanings for them. For women, it’s often conveyed that they’re less sexual than men and that because they’re inherently less sexual, they shouldn’t associate sexuality as part of their identity. This is problematic for women because they don’t feel like they should think “I am sexual” or “I have desire.” For many LDS women, the idea of loving sex and embracing their eroticism seems so incongruent with the idealized Mormon woman, and therefore a lot of women have a hard time seeing the possibility of healthy sexual desire in themselves.

Women in my research who were comfortable with themselves as sexual beings rejected this double standard completely. They understood that physical intimacy doesn’t have anything to do with placating a man or earning his approval. It’s about expressing themselves to the one they love and maintaining and respecting their own dignity and desire at the same time. They also saw the law of chastity as being positive and protective for them—that it held men to a higher standard than men in the larger culture, and this provided them with what they wanted: committed sexuality, domesticated sexuality with men who were willing to commit to them and create a family with them.

Physical intimacy... is about expressing yourself to the one you love and maintaining and respecting your own dignity and desire at the same time.

Also, many of the women I meet often have a spouse who thinks they’re attractive, but the wife has a hard time feeling sexual when she doesn’t fit an externalized standard of beauty. Part of the work I do is helping women embrace themselves—to stop living for everyone else, to develop deeper self-acceptance. When people say they want intimacy, they imply that they want to be validated and to hear that their partner approves of everything about them. But true intimacy is a willingness to bring your very flawed self to somebody else, to be fully seen by that person, and to embrace yourself enough to let your flawed self be known. I think that truly letting ourselves be known to another person is something both men and women need to learn in order to have positive, intimate relationships.

True intimacy is a willingness to bring your very flawed self to somebody else, to be fully seen by that person, and to embrace yourself enough to let your flawed self be known.

So how do you suggest women overcome those cultural and psychological barriers?

I don’t know why, as a church, we need to be invested in telling women who they ought to be, because if we are so naturally those things, then let us just be what we naturally are. Let women define themselves, because as soon as you tell a woman that she is inherently nurturing and giving and happily goes without, it tells her that wanting and desire and self-care are somehow not feminine and therefore not okay. Yet I think those qualities are inherent to good sexuality.

One example of this is found in the Young Men and Young Women lesson manuals. One of the chapters in Aaronic Priesthood Manual 3 is “Choosing an Eternal Companion” and the Young Women’s corollary lesson is “Preparing to Become an Eternal Companion.” It’s indicative of the way we talk about men and women—men are agentic, making choices, deciding what they want, while women are passive, preparing to be chosen, trying to be wanted, supportive of male roles, etc. That kind of language and ideology doesn’t prepare someone to have pleasure and desire in sex and life. It preps them to feel needless and wantless and depressed. To be clear, I don’t think it has anything to do with the gospel. I don’t. It’s a cultural thing. I believe there are natural differences between men and women, but we would do much better if we would express our uniqueness to one another rather than trying to live up to cultural dictates of who we are supposed to be.

One way to reverse this is to talk about what you want in your relationships, and what you want in life in general. Define who you want to be, what you want your relationship with God to be, and then be true to those desires as they relate to your sexuality and to men in your life. I think it’s a much more powerful way to motivate young women to obey the law of chastity and other gospel principles. She’s doing it because she wants the positive benefits of living by it, and she expects the men she’s with to live by it, too. Knowing what you desire gives you the courage to go after the things that matter to you. It’s the best antidote to depression.

In one of your presentations you mentioned that sex is like learning a new language. How so?

If you’re trying to learn German, you’ll learn it a lot better if you truly want to learn how to converse in it. You bring a different energy to the process. So, desire is the first step. I don’t mean physiological desire. It’s truly wanting to want. Often in my work, I’m first helping people discover why they don’t want to even want sex. A lot of women don’t want to be sexual because they feel like they will be taken over by their spouse’s desires, or sex will be a way of condoning their husband’s bad behavior in their relationship. For these women, not wanting sex is their way to hold on to their sense of self or rebel against the pressures in the relationship. An important piece is learning how to hold on to your sense of self while expressing yourself to your spouse. For many people, as soon as they are intimately connected, and I mean even in an embrace with their spouse, they begin to feel anxious and start thinking about who they’re suppose to be or who they don’t want to be with respect to their spouse. Learning to be intimate is about calming yourself enough to actually be present and more genuine in those interactions.

I often have couples engage in physical interactions lower than intercourse, like hugging one another, and track what’s going on in their minds. This can expose what’s undermining the sexual relationship. One client’s throat literally closes up when she hugs her spouse because she thinks about all of the things she needs to be in order to please him. I help women learn how to calm themselves and understand that intimate interactions won’t work out of a sense of duty or obligation. Instead, you often need to learn how to be truer to yourself while you’re with your spouse in order to find more genuine pleasure. Being less reactive and more emotionally grounded becomes the emotional framework of all emotional and physical interactions. Otherwise, you’re just trying to be who someone else wants you to be, and interactions end up being stilted or uncomfortable, which eventually undermines intimacy and desire.

Any final advice you’d like to share?

It’s way too cliché, but be yourself. Don’t disown your strengths, and certainly don’t disown them and call it being Christ-like—that drives me crazy when we throw ourselves under the bus and then say it’s Christ-like. Women have tremendous capacity, creativity, ability and wisdom that’s needed in order for ourselves, our communities and our families to thrive. Don’t devalue your strengths and desires. Keep evolving.

At A Glance

Jennifer Finlayson-Fife


Location:
Chicago, IL

Age:
44

Marital status:
Married

Occupation:
Professional Counselor

Children:
Graham (13), Elliot (10), Jane (6)

Schools Attended:
Brigham Young University, Boston College

Languages Spoken at Home:
English

Favorite Hymn:
“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”

On The Web:
www.finlayson-fife.com and www.drjenniferfife.blogspot.com

Interview by Kathryn Peterson. Photos used with permission.

20 Comments

  1. Gudridur
    11:42 am on October 30th, 2012

    I think this is fabulous on so many levels. I also think it would be great if we focused a little on women who really enjoy sex, and husbands whose drives do not compare. Because that, if any issue in marriage, is so damaging to a woman’s self-image; the Mormon Jezebel.

  2. bmc
    12:06 pm on October 30th, 2012

    As someone who has struggled with my own female sexuality and only recently has begun to even feel comfortable acknowledging my struggles and discomforts, this interview was very gratifying for me to read. I related to some of the women she describes in this interview. Jennifer’s insights and thoughts on female sexuality in the LDS church as shared within this interview are thought provoking, show me I’m not alone, that answers will come and behaviors and thinking will change. Thank you.

  3. Jessica Jackson Drollette
    12:09 pm on October 30th, 2012

    Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your work with us. I am ever so grateful to have the opportunity to ponder this further in my own marital intimacy. It is a topic so rarely discussed in church circles that it often seems taboo when it should be an open forum topic. I’d love to read a book written by you in more detail on the subject someday! ;o)

  4. Christina
    12:38 pm on October 30th, 2012

    I agree with (Gudridur)…It would be nice to discuss the husbands issues. My husband has had no desire in years and I always feel like it’s my fault when he keeps telling me it’s not.

  5. Luisa Perkins
    1:16 pm on October 30th, 2012

    Fantastic interview. I hope this crucial issue sees greater light.

  6. Nollie
    5:42 pm on October 30th, 2012

    A very insightful interview on a topic very pertinent to Mormon culture. Thank you for your insights, I look forward to passing this interview on to others I know.

  7. Beth
    8:14 pm on October 30th, 2012

    I am so glad they updated the YM/ YW manuals!!

    This interview struck a chord with me. I am reminded of when, at age 19, I was engaged to a man I wasn’t sexually attracted to. When he would kiss me, I would shut down because I didn’t think I was “allowed” to feel anything about it. I remember feeling repressed, wishing that it was ok to feel more comfortable about sex, and thinking that there was something inherently wrong with my relationship and situation. When I started to have nightmares about the wedding night, I broke it off.

    I don’t know if it was me who changed, or if it was just the dynamics of the relationship, but when I met and fell in love with the man I ACTUALLY married, I didn’t experience any of those issues.

  8. jen
    9:24 pm on October 30th, 2012

    Thank you!

  9. Katie L.
    3:19 pm on October 31st, 2012

    This was phenomenal. THANK YOU!

  10. James Quigley
    11:04 pm on October 31st, 2012

    As a happily married Mormon husband, I would also like to say thank-you! There are thousands of us out there (if not more) who have felt empathy and confusion for our loving wives. We watch them struggle with a new discovery of their sexual intimacy in courting and marriage and many of us don’t have the words to help or even know where to look for meaningful examples of dialogue. Some, I’m sure, don’t even know what’s going on. Talking about it is key and this article will be a great tool for many–for those who aren’t thrilled just yet, keep talking and working and trying…the results can be fantastically rewarding for your wife–and a happy wife means a happy life. Helping each other progress is really the point of this life anyways. Thanks for taking this subject seriously and doing real, meaningful good.

  11. Teresa
    7:45 am on November 2nd, 2012

    Thank you!

  12. Mark
    8:19 pm on November 2nd, 2012

    Great article. It seems like this would be helpful to a lot of Mormon wives. After 20+ years of marriage I find myself wondering if there is a pill to take to rid myself of all sexual desire so sex wouldn’t be an issue in our marriage. We haven’t had intercourse in years, though she does “accommodate” me a couple times a month. I guess one benefit of growing older will be my diminishing sex drive.

  13. Song of Solomon not inspired, yet not insignificant « Know it. Live it. Love it.
    10:27 am on November 7th, 2012

    [...] site. It’s titled “The Intimate Side of Marriage,” and can be found here. In it, Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, a practicing psychotherapist, speaks out about cultural and [...]

  14. Mmst
    7:23 pm on November 14th, 2012

    This was fabulous. I wish you would write a book so I could buy one for myself and for everyone I know. Seriously.

  15. Ashley R
    10:39 pm on November 24th, 2012

    So grateful for your advice about teaching Young Women– hoping that the much needed curriculum shift will focus on encouraging more “proactivity” in developing women to make conscious and informed choices for themselves about relationships with deity, societal/familial roles, and capacity to lead and influence for good.

  16. Marie
    10:50 am on April 4th, 2013

    what an insightful read! thanks Jennifer. I especially like this suggestion you gave, “talk about what you want in your relationships.”

    whenever I’ve expressed in a dating relationship what I want, the man has broken up with me. so unfortunately I can really see how the difference in YM/YW curriculum is really playing out now 15 or so years later. but I will not stop doing this!!

  17. Paola Núñez
    11:05 am on April 16th, 2013

    Really thougth provoking, I loved to question, I love to have the guidance of the Church to question in the good sence, this intervies invites me to revonect with myself, to keep pushing myself up toward being myself , free and precious individual, with such great capacity and individuality to bless my hole sorround. Thanks, thanks for letting this word spread… I am sure I will spread it here in Chile through my blog http://www.mujersud.blogspot.com tons of love from Chile.
    Paola

  18. Home courses to help make your marriage better! | LDS Gals learning to embrace sexuality
    11:37 pm on December 10th, 2013

    [...] Here is an interview with her printed in  “The Mormon Women Project”.  http://www.mormonwomen.com/2012/10/30/the-intimate-side-of-marriage/ [...]

  19. Kim
    2:52 pm on July 7th, 2014

    This was interesting to me. I was married very young(at 18), and thankfully have never struggled with any of these feelings…but it has taught me to not take my sexual relationship with my husband for granted! What an amazing blessing it is to have a spouse with whom you can communicate with, both verbally, and physically.

  20. Shmitty
    12:15 am on August 18th, 2014

    What about the sexual health and well-being of single people?

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