Sometimes sexual guilt can be a real drag — acting like a wet blanket not only on your sex life with your spouse but also even dampening the joy you find in your marriage. And most Christian couples don’t feel like they can just throw off their moral boundaries in order to bypass the guilt. So it’s easy to get stuck. Today we want to help you get unstuck.
Sexual History and Guilt
If you feel that in some way, at some time, you have violated “proper” sexual conduct then you are likely experiencing sexual guilt[i]. Actually, sex guilt is not unique to Christians or even religious people, but there is indeed a link between strong religious views and feelings of sex guilt.
Causes of sex guilt for Christians include:
- Premarital sex: either with the person you are now married to or with past partners
- Sexual activity other than sex that you consider “going too far”: again, either with your spouse or with previous partners
- Beliefs: there are some very strict or conservative Christians who develop some belief that sex is sinful in itself and so feel guilty about having sex or feel guilty about their sexual desire.
It turns out that guilt around these issues, especially premarital sex, is a lot more common than you may expect. In one study of churchgoing young adults, 70% reported having had premarital sex. Within that group, 80% regretted and felt guilty about their sexual history[ii].
A Couple Caveats
We’re not here today to help you feel good about what you have done when those actions have gone against your own moral boundaries. We would like you to know and experience forgiveness and peace and to have relief from guilt — but that comes from God, not from us.
We also feel that that the best sex happens within moral boundaries as outlined in the Bible — and in other episodes, we have shared the research that backs this up with hard evidence.
And the last caveat is that we also want all of our listeners to know — in keeping with what we’ve just said — that it is possible to have strong moral boundaries around sex and an extremely satisfying sex life. It is not mandatory if you are Biblically conservative to also be sexually repressed.
Shame vs. Guilt
Let’s take a moment to differentiate between the feelings of shame and guilt.
Guilt is the belief that you have done something bad, or committed a sinful act. The negative feelings it creates are specifically tied to the action or behavior. In some ways, guilt can actually be useful since it draws your attention to something you have done wrong and motivates you to try and fix it (or at least not do it again). Being prone to feeling guilt is linked to acting in a good and moral way[iii]. For the most part, guilt is a useful, healthy, adaptive emotion.
Shame, on the other hand, is more all-encompassing. Shame is the belief that you yourself are sinful, or that you are a bad person[iv]. Research from 2007[v] defines guilt as “our conscience telling us we have done something wrong. If we go through the process of rectifying the wrong, then we feel better and our guilt is relieved. With shame, on the other hand, our whole being is at fault. Shame makes us feel condemned to our very core.” Unlike guilt, shame does not motivate people to try and right their wrongs or to act in a morally good way. Instead, it can create withdrawal and a sense of hopelessness, as the person believes they are permanently tarnished or damaged.
I often say that guilt says “I did something bad” and shame says “I am a bad person”. Guilt is about behavior. Shame is about identity.
Sex can lead to guilt when you believe you have done something wrong: for example, premarital sex. But it can also lead to shame because people who have lost their virginity often feel like their “purity” or their whole worth as a husband/wife is permanently gone. Since it affects your entire view of who you are, shame is much harder to get rid of, and more psychologically harmful than guilt[vi].
How Guilt & Shame Impact Your Marriage
Guilt about your sexual history can impact your current sexual activity in various harmful ways, even if you view your current sexual activity as not sinful. Possible effects include[vii]:
- Less sexual activity
- Less enjoyment of sexual activity
- Less favorable attitudes towards sex
- More difficulty becoming aroused
- Less willingness to talk about sex
- Less knowledge/understanding of how sex works and how to make it pleasurable
These factors negatively impact sexual satisfaction for both spouses. They can also have knock-on effects on overall marital satisfaction[viii].
Freedom Through Forgiveness
Once again we’ve created a bonus guide for our much-appreciated supporters. We are going to talk about forgiveness in a moment but if you want a much more detailed, step-by-step guide to lead you through the process of overcoming guilt and shame from your sexual history, you’ll want to download this forgiveness guide that we created just for this episode. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Forgiveness For Your Sexual History
To stop your past sexual slip-ups from continuing to haunt you, it may be necessary for both spouses to work through a forgiveness process.
The spouse with the sexual history may need to begin by repenting of that sexual history. That happens when you acknowledge the extent of the sexual sin without any minimization or denial or blaming, and then when you claim the blood of Jesus Christ as cleansing for that sin, as taught in 1 John 1:7. This means that your sin has been washed away and the guilt incurred has been paid for in Jesus Christ’s substitutionary death for you. Just like salvation is by faith, sometimes we need to remember that as Christians we can accept the forgiveness of past sin by faith as well.
For the other spouse, it will either be the case that your partner’s sexual history represents a betrayal or else it may not represent a betrayal, but possibly just a strong disappointment. Sometimes I speak to a spouse who is disappointed that they worked so hard to preserve their virginity for marriage and their spouse did not.
On the other hand, if the premarital sex was with another person and you are only just hearing about it now then this may represent a major betrayal. It doesn’t necessarily need to — but depending on the circumstances of that activity and whether you have been lied to or if it was disclosed in a straightforward manner — these things all affect the degree of betrayal you may feel.
In its simplest terms, you may also need to forgive and let go of anger and resentment so that it’s not affecting your marriage. However, if you have been lied to for decades and you find out now that this betrayal maybe even happened while you were dating, then a discovery like this can represent a betrayal event akin to discovering an affair. In which case it may shatter your whole view of your spouse. That, obviously, is a much more impactful situation and one in which I would definitely recommend you reach out to our counseling team for help so that we can help you navigate your way through this.
Talk To Your Spouse About It
I want to frame this recommendation carefully. And I am assuming here that you let your spouse know you were not a virgin when you got married, or maybe this was about sexual activity between you and your spouse prior to marriage.
You may need to talk about it. I don’t mean discussing the details of who was wearing what, and sexual positions, but mainly talking about what you feel and how you see this impacting your marriage now. Because likely your spouse senses something is wrong but they may not know exactly what it is.
The challenge is that your sexual guilt can make sex into a taboo subject generally so that you cannot even talk about your sex life as a couple. So you may need to start with the guilt around your history and talk through that carefully and respectfully with one another.
This may be especially important if it is about sexual activity between you. And you feel guilty about that activity: how it happened, or when, or where or whatever the case may be. This may intensify the feelings of guilt and then, in turn, your marriage is affected.
The goal here is to learn to talk through difficult things, including your current sexuality. Inability to talk about sex also negatively impacts sexual satisfaction, intimacy and overall relationship satisfaction[ix].
Learning to talk about the issue without the spouse with the sexual history feeling condemned or unforgiven, and just learning to talk about sex generally, can reduce the feelings of guilt and make sex more enjoyable for both spouses. As tough as it is, sometimes you can’t fully heal until everything is out in the open and you’re comfortable talking about it.
Talk To God About Your Sexual History
Shame about sex can also lead to withdrawal from your Church community due to fear of being discerned and judged. It can also lead people to withdraw from God as hiding is a natural response to feelings of shame. This can create a bit of a cycle as a study in 2007[x] found that feeling alienated from God was a very strong predictor of feeling shame and guilt.
The way to counteract this is to urge yourself to move towards God, towards the truth, towards the light. Feeling more connected to the all loving, all forgiving God through the forgiveness that is found in Jesus Christ will strongly reduce the levels of shame you feel[xi].
Renew the Sanctity of Sex
Believing that your past sins are fully forgiven (by God and by your spouse) means that there is no longer any reason to feel guilty about sex.
Couples should, therefore, work on enjoying sex together and learn to view sex as something which God created for their pleasure, rather than as something sinful or corrupted. Research from 2016[xii] refers to this as the “sacred bed phenomenon”, where couples see their sex together as being something holy and special. This view is strongly linked to higher rates of sex and higher levels of the enjoyment of sex[xiii].
Another thing I like to point out is that we often place this huge emphasis on virginity. And I get that. But it’s easy to get stuck because you cannot get your virginity back. But what I think is maybe even more valuable than virginity is purity. And when sin is confessed and forgiven by God, then purity is restored. So you maybe can’t go back and change things so that you’re bringing virginity to your marriage, but: right now, today, you can bring purity to your marriage bed. And that’s a huge thing: that’s part of the sanctity of sex where we learn that our past does not need to define us.
[i] Jana M. Hackathorn, Brien K. Ashdown, and Sean C. Rife, “The Sacred Bed: Sex Guilt Mediates Religiosity and Satisfaction for Unmarried People,” Sexuality & Culture 20, no. 1 (March 2016): 153–72, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12119-015-9315-0.
[ii] Janet E. Rosenbaum and Byron Weathersbee, “True Love Waits: Do Southern Baptists? Premarital Sexual Behavior among Newly Married Southern Baptist Sunday School Students,” Journal of Religion and Health 52, no. 1 (March 2013): 263–75, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10943-010-9445-5.
[iii] Kelly M. Murray, Joseph W. Ciarrocchi, and Nichole A. Murray-Swank, “Spirituality, Religiosity, Shame and Guilt as Predictors of Sexual Attitudes and Experiences,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 35, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 222–34.
[iv] Murray, Ciarrocchi, and Murray-Swank.
[v] Murray, Ciarrocchi, and Murray-Swank.
[vi] Murray, Ciarrocchi, and Murray-Swank.
[vii] Tara M. Emmers-Sommer et al., “Implications of Sex Guilt: A Meta-Analysis,” Marriage & Family Review 54, no. 5 (July 4, 2018): 417–37, https://doi.org/10.1080/01494929.2017.1359815.
[viii] Emmers-Sommer et al.
[ix] Emmers-Sommer et al.
[x] Murray, Ciarrocchi, and Murray-Swank, “Spirituality, Religiosity, Shame and Guilt as Predictors of Sexual Attitudes and Experiences.”
[xi] Murray, Ciarrocchi, and Murray-Swank.
[xii] Hackathorn, Ashdown, and Rife, “The Sacred Bed.”
[xiii] Murray, Ciarrocchi, and Murray-Swank, “Spirituality, Religiosity, Shame and Guilt as Predictors of Sexual Attitudes and Experiences.”