Love and Sex: Marriage Changes Everything

Marriage is more than a piece of paper. It is more than just a human commitment. But how … and why? St. John Paul II has the answer.

First consider how. Consider how many high school sweethearts thought each other were “the one,” or how many engaged couples end up calling off their wedding. Clearly, the certainty one feels in the thick of a relationship is not the same thing as actually being married. Marriage, therefore, is not just a piece of paper.

This point came home to me when talking with a young woman who was in a very serious relationship just after college. Even though this couple was committed to the Catholic Faith and seeking to keep Christ at the center of their relationship, she expressed slight anxiety about his commitment to her and whether other women might catch his eye. She went back and forth, realizing that this was largely in her head, since her boyfriend was a very devoted and upstanding Catholic man.

On the one hand, this anxiety was largely in her head. But on the other hand, her anxiety was also due to the fact that they were simply not yet married. In other words, the mere good will of a boyfriend — even a good Catholic boyfriend — is not the same as an objective vow sworn before God and the Church, resulting in the supernatural union forged by God in sacramental marriage.

An Illusion of Union

In other words, despite what couples might say — believing their relationship to be already the virtual equivalent of marriage, supposedly giving them a right to sexual intimacy — deep down they know this isn’t true. They know the foundation of their commitment is not an objective union forged by God, but remains at the level of each fulfilling the other. Without the liberating freedom of the indissolubility of sacramental marriage, the basis for their union never goes beyond the supposition of each satisfying the other at a psychological and emotional level, which is not deep enough to totally remove anxiety and suspicion. In other words, it’s quite natural for one’s trust level to increase significantly after marriage (especially when the couple believes in and understands the full reality of marriage).

Therefore, the sexual act — which speaks in a bodily way the total gift of each to the other — is a lie before marriage: one is saying something with their bodies that they have not yet said (and cannot yet say) with the commitment of their wills — not until the marriage has actually taken place.

It’s precisely in this context that a young couple often has temptations against chastity: in other words, make-up sex is a real thing. It’s a constant temptation to use sexual intimacy as a Band-Aid, giving the appearance of deep intimacy, but often masking or suppressing latent problems in the relationship. Sex can make a couple feel like their union is deeper than it actually is.

The Price of True Love

In my experience, many young couples will acknowledge that chastity is the higher road. Sometimes I’ll ask them what advice they would give to their hypothetical children someday if they were in the same situation. This helps to remove themselves from the situation and think more objectively about it—since when we’re in the middle of it, it’s all too easy to let our desires and feelings override objective truth.

At the end of the day, if love entails willing the good, it ultimately means willing the ultimate good for the other — the “good without limits,” God himself, in the words of Karol Wojtyła, who would become John Paul (Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 119-20). Commitment to this love and bringing the other to the Ultimate Good is more important than the experience of physical and emotional intimacy. This is the great challenge of love: to subordinate the experience of love to the virtue of love.

And if someone is willing to do this for you, what could they not do for you?

Nothing worth having in life comes without a price; why should a riveting and virtuous love be any different?

How can we build a Catholic culture that prizes authentic love enough to fight for it, to struggle and sacrifice for it? For true love is never automatic or ready-made.

True love comes at a price. What are we willing to pay for it?

Andrew Swafford

Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension Press and host of the video series (and author of the companion books) Hebrews: the New and Eternal Covenant, and Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, both published by Ascension. Andrew is also author of Nature and Grace, John Paul to Aristotle and Back Again; and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas.