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Love and Sex: What is the Connection?
MARY BETH BONACCI
People use the word “love” a lot of different ways. Take me, for instance. I am often heard saying that I love my mom and dad and also that I love pizza.
“What are some of the characteristics of love?”
I once heard it said that every person has the same two fears: the fear of not being loved and the fear of not being able to give love. I believe that is true.
It’s not wrong to want to be loved. In fact, we were made that way. We all have a desire to interact with others, to share our lives and to join them to other lives. We all want to feel that there are people around us who genuinely care about us and who will be there for us no matter what. That desire springs from our creation in the image and likeness of God. God is love, and as His creatures, we were created for love.
The problem, however, is that it is sometimes difficult to understand what “love” means. People use the word “love” a lot of different ways. Take me, for instance. I am often heard saying that I love my mom and dad. (Those of you who know them understand why I would say this.) I am also often heard saying that I love pizza.
What am I saying when I say I love my mom and dad? I’m saying that I care about them. I’m saying that I love spending time with them and that I talk to them every chance I get. I’m saying that if they needed me, I would do everything humanly possible to help them. I’m saying that I always want what is best for them.
What am I saying when I say I love pizza? Am I saying that I care deeply about pizza? Am I saying that I have a relationship with pizza? Am I saying that if a pizza had a problem, I would be there for the pizza? (“What? Not enough pepperoni? I’ll be right there!”)
Of course not. When I say I love pizza, I’m just saying that I enjoy eating pizza until I don’t want any more pizza. Once I’m tired of the pizza, I don’t care what happens to the rest of it. I’ll throw it away. I’ll feed it to the dog. I’ll stick it in the back of the refrigerator until it gets all green and moldy. It doesn’t matter to me anymore.
These are two very different definitions of the word “love”.
It gets confusing when people start talking about love and especially about loving you. Which way do these people love you? Do they want what is best for you, or do they just want you around because it is good for them, and they don’t really care what happens to you?
Next time someone looks deeply in your eyes and says, “I love you”, look very deeply right back and say, “Would that be pizza love, or the real thing?”
“How do I find real love?”
The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (Latin for “Joy and Hope”) says that “If man is the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake, man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself.” (GS 24)
Let’s look at this quote for a minute. It says, first of all, that God created each and every one of us because, before we even existed, He already loved us. Before you existed, God knew who you were, and He loved you completely for your own sake. He didn’t create you because you would “come in handy” when He needed something done. He created you because He loved you, just as He still loves you and wants what is best for you.
The second half of the quote says that man finds himself “only in a sincere giving of himself”. Have you ever heard of people who go off to “find themselves”? They generally quit their jobs and go away somewhere, trekking through the Himalayas as if they had somehow “misplaced” themselves in the remote regions of a foreign country.
According to Gaudium et Spes, they are way off track. We don’t find ourselves through some kind of obsessive, self centered introspection. We don’t find ourselves through going on a vacation or isolating ourselves. We find ourselves through giving ourselves away, through caring about others and wanting what is best for them.
I’m sure you have experienced this “self-discovery” at some point in your life. Maybe you have volunteered at a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen or a crisis pregnancy center. Maybe you have stayed up all night with a sick child or a distraught friend. Regardless of the circumstances, there is a joy and a satisfaction in loving and helping others that far outweighs any inconvenience we may experience in the process.
This is why God created us to live, not alone, but in families and communities. We don’t find happiness in living our lives in our own little isolated worlds, spending all of our time and energy just meeting our own needs. We find fulfillment in joining our lives and our needs to those of others and in living lives of loving interdependence, knowing that we are willing to look out for the good of the others and that they in turn are looking out for what is best for us.
Nice system, huh? It’s real love — the way it ought to be.
“What does it mean to ‘use’ someone?”
God created us to live lives of loving interdependence. Because of this “original sin” problem we inherited from Adam and Eve, however, we are not always so good at real love. Instead of looking out for what is best for others, we all have a tendency to want to look out for what is best for ourselves, without caring about the consequences for anyone else.
Using is “pizza love”. In using, we treat people the way we would treat a pizza — making them mere “instruments” to satisfy our own desires and not caring what happens to them.
No one wants to be loved with “pizza love”. We all want to feel that the people in our lives are there because they care about us — because they honestly and sincerely want what is best for us, and they are willing to be there for us and to stick around when times get tough. It hurts to find out that someone who seemed to love you was only using you.
But how often do you use other people? How often do you date someone, not because you want to explore the possibility of spending your lives together, but because this person is good looking and makes you feel good or makes you more popular? How often do you get friendly with someone, not because you are genuinely interested in this person, but because he has a nice car or a business connection you need? “Pizza love” works both ways. If you want to receive real love, you have to be willing and able to give it. And learning to love—sincerely to want the good of the other—is a lifelong process.
How can you tell whether someone loves you or is using you? Ask yourself one simple question: Is this person genuinely interested in what is best for me? Does this person see me as an image and likeness of God and treat me with dignity and respect?
Love is not just about dating or romance. It is a daily requirement — we need to live it and to give it in all of our relationships — with family, with friends and with everyone we meet in our lives. To fail to love is to miss the entire point of living.
“How do I find love, as in ‘the love of my life’?”
We will talk about the connection between dating and love later on in the book. But please read the stuff in the middle first. It all goes together.
Sex and marriage
“I don’t understand why sex is so bad, bad, bad before marriage, yet it is sacred in marriage. In general, is sex good or bad? The Church always says things are good or bad only in certain situations and not all the time, which bugs me.”
I’ll bet a few of you have asked this question yourselves. Actually, I think it would be difficult to be alive in this day and age without asking this question. Why does the Catholic Church teach that premarital sex is wrong?. There are a lot of voices encouraging sexual activity — and sometimes they are pretty convincing. Why should you listen to the Church?
When I was in high school, I thought that God was just some kind of “cosmic kill-joy” trying to ruin our fun. But as the years went by, I started to look around at my generation and at some of the consequences of the sexual revolution. Suddenly I saw God’s plan in a whole new light.
Sex was created by God, which puts it very squarely in the “good” category. Otherwise we’d have to picture God thumping His divine forehead and saying, “What was I thinking? I made sex bad, bad, bad. I sure blew it.” God doesn’t operate that way. He knew what He was doing. He created the world the way He did for a reason. “God saw everything He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). That includes sex.
But there is more. Not only is sex good, but it is amazingly good, for more reasons than you may think. Why did God create the world? To fill it up with individual, irreplaceable, unrepeatable people — each one of whom He is madly in love with and wants to share eternity with. When He said, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it”, He wasn’t talking about geraniums. He was talking about people. He wanted lots and lots of people, because He is madly in love with every single human being He creates.
How are we supposed to “be fruitful and multiply”? How are all these new people whom God loves supposed to come into the world? This is where sex enters the picture. God needed to design a system to get all of us here. Bear in mind, of course, that God was working from scratch. He could have come up with any system He wanted to bring new life into the world. The stork could have delivered babies. Maybe Federal Express could have done the job. Or perhaps we could have ordered babies over the Internet. Anything could have worked.
But God chose a different system. He designed this system called a “family”. In this system a man and a woman love each other so much that they pledge to spend the rest of their lives together. This, if you stop to think about it, is quite a pledge. Have you ever spent a week with your best friend? Did you get along very well by the end of the week? Imagine spending the rest of your life with someone — living in the same house, sleeping in the same bed, even going on vacation together. You would have to love somebody a lot to make that kind of promise.
When two people get married, they promise to love each other with “real love”, not “pizza love”. They promise never to use each other but rather to look out for what is best for each other for the rest of their lives. They give themselves totally and completely to each other. They give their entire lives to each other.
As they make this pledge before God, something happens to them. God doesn’t just transfer their records to the “married” file in the heavenly database. Marriage is a sacrament. Through that sacrament, He actually changes these two people. He joins them together spiritually, binding their souls together so that the “two” really do become one
After the wedding, these two people generally go on an expensive trip to a tropical place — otherwise known as a “honeymoon”. On that honeymoon, they do something very important. They make love. They give themselves to each other sexually. In doing that, they express with their bodies what they said on the altar. On the altar, they gave their lives to each other. In sexual union, they make that gift real and visible by giving their bodies to each other. In giving their bodies to each other, they give themselves and their lives.
Sex speaks a language, the language of giving ourselves to another person. John Paul 11 says that sex speaks “the language of self-donation”. This is the language God built into it, and it is the language the heart hears. It is a language of real love, not “pizza love”. It is a language of permanent love and commitment, “for better or worse”.
So where does new life come from? It comes from that act of love. When a husband and wife come together in sex, God is there, in a very real way, prepared to perform His favorite, most creative act: creating a completely new human being made in His image and likeness. Through sex, the language of love and commitment, new life comes into the world. People come from love!
The end result of all this is a brand-new family. Again, God brings us into the world through families for a reason. He created the family to be the primary way for us to find the fulfillment for which He created us—the fulfillment referred to by the Council fathers in Gaudium et Spes . We find ourselves only in a sincere gift of ourselves. In the family, we all give ourselves. No one exists just to have his own needs met but rather to love and to look out for the good of the others, knowing that the others are looking out for what is best for him. Parents earn money, educate the children and sponsor the Cub Scout troop for the sake of their families, not themselves. Children, in doing chores and helping each other, learn to look out for the good of others and to contribute to the larger family unit.
Families are about love. And families come into existence through sex.
So, yeah, I would say that sex is a pretty good thing.
“Couples who are infertile can’t create a family. Is their love still fruitful?”
In order for a couple to get married, they need to be able to complete the “marital act”. It is that act — self-gift as expressed in sexual intercourse — that defines marriage. If for some reason they are physically unable to have sex, they can’t get married.
But a couple who can function sexually need not be able to guarantee that the act will result in conception. Women are fertile only some of the time and for a certain period in their lives. Some women are more fertile than others. Statistically, then, it is certain that some will have more children than others. Some will have fourteen, while others will have zero.
What is important is that a couple perform the act that brings the family into existence, remain open to whatever God wills and then put the results in His hands. He may bless them with children. He may not. If He doesn’t, He will make their love fruitful in other ways. The act of marital sexual love between a man and a woman is always fruitful, because it is a reflection of His fruitful love.
“I didn’t come into the world because of the love of a husband and wife. In fact, I was adopted, so I don’t know what the circumstances of my conception were. If God meant new life to come into the world through love, what does that say about me?”
We need to get one thing very, very straight here. God is madly, madly in love with each and every single human being He creates, regardless of the circumstances of any individual’s conception. He doesn’t love those who were conceived in marriage any more than He loves those who were conceived outside of marriage. You have value because you were created in His image and likeness, period.
Because God loves you, He wanted you to be born into a family where you could be protected and nurtured. Your parents, however, may have had other ideas. They risked bringing you into the world when they weren’t ready for you. But because God can write straight with crooked lines, He still found a family where you could have the love and protection you needed. Regardless of the circumstances of your birth or your childhood, God loves you madly.
Remember, your parents didn’t create you. God did.
“If God wants children to be born into families, why does He allow unmarried women to get pregnant?”
In sex, God has given us a tremendous privilege. He allows us to cooperate with Him in the creation of new life. He makes us active participants in His favorite, most creative work.
With every privilege, however, comes responsibility. We can use this privilege well, or we can abuse it. if we risk bringing new life into the world when we’re not ready to love and nurture that life, God won’t act as some kind of “Divine Birth Control” and keep us from getting pregnant. He treats us like grown-ups. He allows us to use our freedom — for better or for worse.
We will talk more about these issues in Chapter 2.
“Does sex have really complicated emotions with it?”
All of this talk about sex being a beautiful thing and leading to this wonderful family who all love each other is very nice, but we all know that families aren’t perfect. Human beings, being tainted by original sin, don’t always act in a loving way, even when we are supposed to. And that can be dangerous to marriage and to families.
Think about marriage for a minute. You are promising to spend the rest of your life with someone. That’s a long time. My grandparents were married for sixty-eight years.
That is an extremely long time — and there is a lot of opportunity for someone to get on your nerves.
But God has a lot of reasons to want to help a couple stay together. There is a family to think about. There are children who need to be taken care of. There is the promise they made to be there for each other. But without some help, most marriages probably couldn’t even survive petty irritations like dirty laundry on the floor or scratches on the car.
So He built in some help. The same act that creates their family — sexual intercourse — also creates a strong bond between the husband and wife to help them live out their commitment. Psychologists have known for years that sex has an emotional element. Sex is not something you can just “do” with your body and leave your brain at the door. Sexual activity is powerful, and it has profound emotional consequences.
Sex causes a bond to form. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the concept of bonding. Mothers bond with babies after birth. Guys experience “male bonding” when they play sports together or sit around complaining about women. Dogs bond with their owners and follow them everywhere.
A bond is a strong emotional attachment with no logical explanation. Babies aren’t even capable of being logical, yet they love their mothers. A mother doesn’t have much of a logical reason to love this tiny creature who will eat up all of her time, money and energy for the next twenty years. But that bond is eternal and virtually impossible to break.
I recently discovered that this bond actually has a biological basis. That basis is found in a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is produced by the brain during sexual arousal.
Women’s brains also produce oxytocin in giving birth, and in nursing a baby. The effect oxytocin has on the brain is to create a strong emotional attachment—whether between spouses in sexual activity or between mother and baby in labor and nursing.
Oxytocin is the bonding hormone.
So why did God create oxytocin? Why is there such a powerful bond in sexual activity? Simple—God knew married people would need some help staying married. Sex, and the emotional bond it creates, “blurs their vision” a little bit so that they don’t quite see the petty irritations as clearly. The bond is like the “superglue of the heart”, bonding their hearts together so they can weather the minor as well as the major problems of life together. In “giving themselves to each other”, they become even more united.
The two really do become one. It’s beautiful.
“Does sex have a built-in meaning, or does it just mean whatever we want it to?”
Sex has a meaning. It speaks a language. When we look at everything about sex — the fact that it brings new life into the world, the fact that it causes a strong emotional bond to form, the fact that in giving our bodies to each other we give ourselves — we start to realize that God created sex with its own built-in logic, its own language. And that language is forever . Sex doesn’t just say “I take you for a little while” or “I like your body.” Sex says, “I give myself to you forever, and I unite myself to you. I want to join with you and with God in creating, raising and educating children.”
Sex speaks the language of forever. It speaks the language of marriage.
“With so many divorces these days, marriage seems to be pretty empty. So why do you have to wait until marriage if you’re likely to get a divorce?”
Because people who save sex for marriage are much less likely to divorce. Most divorces stem from bad marriage decisions—deciding to marry someone you shouldn’t marry. Many of those bad decisions are fueled by the bond that comes from sexual activity. Those who save sex for marriage and spend their single years learning really to love tend to make better marriage decisions and to have much stronger marriages.
I know that many of you are disillusioned with marriage. You’ve seen so many families fall apart around you that often it is difficult to believe that a marriage ever works out. But trust me, it can be better for you. If you concentrate on dating well, keep your standards high, save sex for marriage, learn really to love and marry someone who can do the same, you will enter marriage with the odds stacked in your favor.
“How can you present your arguments to someone who does not believe the `ceremony of marriage’ is an essential commitment for lifelong partners?”
I’m assuming that this person is not a Christian and doesn’t believe that God binds people together in marriage or that sex is a renewal of that spiritual bond. What a shame. This person is missing out on a lot.
You can ask, however, why not have the ceremony? If these two people really plan to give themselves to each other, and to spend the rest of their lives together, why refuse to say it in public? Why refuse to sign a marriage certificate? Generally, it is because one or the other isn’t really sure about staying around forever. If there is no marriage, the back door is always open.
The marriage contract exists to protect the partners. Joining in a lifelong partnership involves risk for both parties. A woman, in particular, takes a financial risk. She often stops working or works at less than full capacity so she can raise children. The marriage contract guarantees that she and her children will be supported. If her husband leaves her, he legally has to give her a significant percentage of everything he earned while they were married. He has to continue to contribute to her support and to that of the children.
If, however, there is no marriage, there is no protection. Either partner can bail out at any time, no questions asked. Why would someone insist on that kind of arrangement?
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
“Doesn’t sex go downhill once a couple gets married?”
This is one of the most common and most ridiculous myths I’ve ever heard.
In fact, there have been a lot of polls done on sexual activity in America. Everyone loves to do polls about sex. Who’s having sex? Who’s having sex the most frequently? Who’s having the most satisfying sex?
Interestingly enough, they have done several of these polls over the last twenty-five years or so. I don’t know why they bother. All the polls reach the same conclusion. The most sexually satisfied people in America, the people who are having the most frequent, most fulfilling sex, are married people. Not just any married people, but highly religious married people who have saved sex for marriage .
Why would this be? Is it about technique? Are married people “better” at sex?
Not necessarily. This has nothing to do with technique. It has to do with context. Sex has an inherent meaning. It means “forever”. Committed married people mean forever. They understand what they are saying in sexual expression, and they are saying it honestly. And they know that the other is saying it honestly. They are truly “giving themselves” in their sexual union.
Married people also have nothing to fear. They don’t have to fear pregnancy and single parenthood, because they are committed to staying together. They don’t have to fear STDs, because if they are both disease-free and faithful, there are no diseases to transmit. They don’t have to fear being used and abandoned, because if they believe in their marriage vows, neither one will abandon the other.
Why do many of the studies mention that married couples who have saved sex for marriage have more satisfying sex lives? Simple. In the first place, people who save sex for marriage are people who understand the meaning of sex. They recognize the level of commitment it signifies and requires, and they abstained during their dating years (which isn’t always easy!) out of respect for that language and out of love for a spouse they may not even have known yet. Someone who can do that is someone who has gained a significant degree of self-control, someone who knows what sex says and someone who can be trusted to be faithful. With a partner like that, it is much easier for a spouse to give a complete gift of self, knowing that the other can be trusted with the gift.
Second, a couple who wait for marriage learn about sex together, from each other. They have no one to compare, no memories of other people to hinder their enjoyment of each other. No one likes the thought of being compared to another lover, and for a virgin bride and groom, no comparisons can be made.
[Note: I am not saying that people who have made sexual mistakes in the past cannot have a happy, satisfying marital sex life. See Chapter 7, “Healing the Hurt”, for tips on starting over after premarital sexual activity.]
“Why should the Catholic Church tell me what to do with my body? It is my body, and I should be able to do whatever I want with it.”
I hear this question frequently. First of all, it’s not exactly your body, is it? It is more like a rental. It was issued to you by Someone, and you will have to return it some day. And, at that point, you will have to explain to Him whatever you have done to it.
Even so, does the Church make you do anything with your body? Does the Church have some kind of SWAT team enforcing celibacy on you? (“We know you’re in there sinning. Come out with your hands up. You can’t escape — there is a Bishop at every door.”)
The Church is saying something entirely different: God created you, and He knows how you operate. Morality is just an instruction manual for your body. Sex speaks a language — a language of permanent love. You are free to take it out of that context if you choose to, but there win be physical, emotional and spiritual consequences. Abusing that language can hurt you — badly.
“What does ‘chastity’ mean?”
“What is that chased thing you were talking about?”
It’s “chaste”, not “chased”.
When people talk about saving sex for marriage, they generally use one of two words: “abstinence” or “chastity”.
I am not a big fan of the word “abstinence” in this context. It doesn’t sum up what we want to say. it doesn’t even necessarily refer to sex. All Catholics know that, during Lent, Fridays are days of abstinence. Does that mean that Catholics can’t engage in sexual activity on those days? (“We have to abstain from sex only on Fridays? During Lent? Wow! The Church isn’t as strict as I thought!”) Wrong. In this case, “abstinence” means that we abstain from eating meat.
“Abstinence” is a negative term. It means, quite simply, not doing something. It’s tough to get excited about abstinence.
The word “chastity” is different.
Chastity is about sex — about understanding and respecting sex. Chastity is about recognizing and respecting the fact that God created sex to speak a language — the language of permanent, committed, married love. Chastity recognizes that respecting that language is the best way to live love.
I also like the word “chastity” because it refers to everyone. “Abstinence” from sexual activity just refers to unmarried people. Those of us who are single don’t necessarily like to hear from others that we have to abstain but they don’t.
Chastity isn’t just for single people. Chastity is about respecting the language of sexuality, and everyone has to do that. I often hear people say, “It’s too late for me. I’m married — I don’t need to live chastity.”
Wrong. Just because someone gets married, he isn’t suddenly free to abuse the language of sexuality. Sex is an act of self-giving love directed to another person. Married people need to respect that and to live it. If married sex degenerates into “you are here to satisfy my desires, and I don’t care if you have a headache”, that person is no longer loving and no longer living chastity.
Chastity is about love, plain and simple. It’s about understanding the role sex plays in love. It’s about recognizing that sex speaks the language of married love, not “going steady” love or “I am lonely tonight” love. It’s about having the strength to respect that language and to walk away from situations where we’d be tempted to compromise it. Chastity is about loving—the right way.
In a world with a whole lot of sex and not very much love, I honestly believe that chastity is our only hope.
“How does sex affect an unmarried relationship?”
Good question. I could write a whole book just to answer it.
Hey, I did write a whole book to answer it! You’re holding it.
Bonacci, Mary Beth. “Love and Sex: What is the Connection?” Chapter one in Real Love: Mary Beth Bonacci Answers Your Questions on Dating, Marriage and the Real Meaning of Sex (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 21-40.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Real Love: Mary Beth Bonacci Answers Your Questions on Dating, Marriage and the Real Meaning of Sex may be ordered from Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 591090, San Francisco, CA 94159-1090. 1-800-651-1531. (ISBN 0-89870-613-0)
Mary Beth Bonacci has been giving talks on love, relationships and chastity to audiences across the U.S. and internationally since 1986. She is the founder of Real Love, Inc., and organization dedicated to promoting respect for God's gift of sexuality. She is featured in six videos promoting chastity, has a regular syndicated column and is the author of the book We're on a Mission from God. She currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona where she also acts as a consultant to the national Life Teen program.
Copyright © 1996 Mary Beth Bonacci.