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The Delights of Holding Back

Sexual self-mastery has a place in every marriage playbook

By Jason Godin

Football requires strength, discipline, self-control and the ability to play by the rules and obey the refs. These virtues came into play recently in the 2014 Divisional Round matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers. With a shade under five minutes to go, and the Cowboys facing fourth down, wide receiver Dez Bryant leapt over Packers cornerback Sam Shields to make what appeared to be an athletic 31-yard reception before stretching for the end zone. But upon review by the game officials, and according to Rule 8.1.3, Item 1 (more commonly called the “process rule”), Bryant was not credited with a catch because he failed to “maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground.”

Regardless of your thoughts on the play, the process rule invoked during the game underlines an important lesson to remember at every point of your marriage. Others may see you and your spouse outside your home and think you couldn’t be healthier, happier or any more successful. Your children may look both ways at the dinner table and see you sharing serene smiles. But if you’re both elevating your own sexual satisfaction above mutual self-control in your relationship, focusing more on your own immediate pleasure than the overall health of your marriage, you’re going to find yourselves out of control and incomplete.

In his 1968 encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), Pope Paul VI observed that the practice of self-discipline in marriage, particularly “periodic continence,” is “a shining witness to the chastity of husband and wife” and “far from being a hindrance to their love of one another, transforms it by giving it a more truly human character” (21). Such a form of chastity brings what the Holy Father listed as blessings beneficial for any marriage: tranquility, problem-solving, thoughtfulness, empathy, aid “to repel inordinate self-love,” awareness of responsibilities and “a deeper and more effective influence in the education of their children” (21). “As their children grow up,” Paul VI stressed, “they develop a right sense of values” and “achieve a serene and harmonious use of their mental and physical powers” (21).

Our present cultural climate celebrates discipline and control in sports arenas, academics and business. Daily planners point to our seeking to control time. Diet ads demonstrate our search to conquer weight, perhaps even age. Yet when it comes to sex, the trends of our time dictate that any degree of denial and discipline must be set aside. The reach for our own satisfaction, we are led to believe, must eclipse our possession of self-control, even if it means selfishly using the person we should treasure most.

It is time, one might quip, for climate change. As the 2015 World Meeting of Families approaches, the moment has arrived for married couples to start seeing sexual self-control not as a sorrowful cross too costly for them to bear, but a testament to their collective strength. By carrying it together with wide eyes of faith, the delights of holding back can bring joy into your relationship, cast a fresh light of longing into your lives and, most importantly, move you both one step closer along the path of peace toward the glory of God.

Jason Godin is associate editor of Fathers for Good.