The Books I Recommend Over and Over. And Over.

by Jonathan

I like books. I also like giving my pastoral counseling clients the option of accessing resources outside of the counseling room. Here’s a list of the books I recommend the most…

Dating/Relationships
Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love

 

Marriage
Created for Connection: The “Hold Me Tight” Guide for Christian Couples  (Read my review and how I use this in marriage counseling here.)

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert

 

Parenting 
Families Where Grace Is in Place: Building a Home Free of Manipulation, Legalism, and Shame

Hats: Reflections on Life as a Wife, Mother, Homeschool Teacher, Missionary, and More

 

Anxiety/OCD
Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

Loving Someone with Anxiety: Understanding and Helping Your Partner

Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior

 

Sex
Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship

For more recommendations on point, visit On Making Love

 

Emotions (in general)
Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: It’s Impossible to Be Spiritually Mature, While Remaining Emotionally Immature

The Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions About God

 

The Love of God/Perfectionism/Grace
The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out

The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith

From Good to Grace: Letting Go of the Goodness Gospel

Grace for the Good Girl: Letting Go of the Try-Hard Life

 

Cross-cultural Missions
Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie, or Weary Cross-cultural Christian Worker

Misunderstood: The impact of growing up overseas in the 21st century

Third Culture Kids: Growing up among worlds

 

Trauma
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

 

Miscellaneous 
Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life

Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward

Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder

Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering

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*Amazon affiliate links

 

A Guidebook for Dealing with PMS {Part 4: Tracking Your Cycles}

Today we come to the end of this PMS series. We’ve talked about changing the way we eat, about adding supplements to our lives, and about exercise, breathing, and rest. Now we’re going to talk about tracking our cycles.

calendar

1. Count Those Days, Ladies

For nearly a decade, I charted for both birth control and pregnancy achievement. I tracked my symptoms, including my morning waking temperature and cervical fluid. But after we moved overseas and decided for safety reasons not to have any more children (I tend to hemorrhage really badly at birth), I didn’t think I needed to chart anymore.

It felt like freedom not to have to keep track of symptoms, not to have to remember to take my temperature. So when my PMS got really bad and my husband suggested returning to some form of charting, I resisted. I didn’t want an extra complication in my life. I felt that life was heavy enough without charting. I thought that keeping better track of my cycles sounded like too much of a burden.

Honestly, charting felt like a cross I had to carry. This wasn’t fair, I thought. Why couldn’t my body work the way it used to work, so simply, so easily, without my doing anything to make it run nicely? Why did things have to change and force me to do extra work?

But as Simcha Fisher reminds us in her book, The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning, “A cross is a cross.” (Note: my copy of this book is underlined up and down. Regardless of whether you practice NFP, the wisdom Simcha offers on married sexuality is some of the best I’ve read anywhere.) This might seem like a small thing, but it felt huge to me at the time.

I started keeping better track of my cycles anyway. At first, yes, it seemed so obnoxious. But over time I’ve become accustomed to it again (though I’m not tracking temperature). And somewhere along the lines I realigned my thinking with Fisher’s: “I can see my fertility as a gift that I need help caring for, not as a burden.”

Because I’m keeping track of the days, I now know when to be more prepared for anxiety and OCD symptoms, when to work out harder or more consistently, when to do my breathing exercises, and when to try harder not to yell at my kids for something silly (because I’ll just feel terrible and have to apologize later).

I am not perfect at this, but I am more aware than before. I purposely try to stop myself from overreacting to little things in the second half of my cycle. I also have to be careful just before ovulation, because there’s a hormonal shift that occurs then too. I can become irrational just at ovulation instead of after. It varies from month to month, so I keep watch.

Some days I wake up and am angry at the whole world. Lots of people in specific and lots of people in general. That’s often a wake-up call that PMS is beginning. I try to be aware of when it happens and take my anger and angst less seriously. Thankfully I have a husband who, while taking PMS seriously, doesn’t take my extreme statements too seriously.

Do you remember Steve Martin’s Father of the Bride? I loved that movie as a teenager, and this clip in particular describes irrational, overreacting me at certain times of the month (in addition to making me laugh!).

Here’s some more cycle-related humor. A friend shared this photo, and “stupid fruit time” has become part of our family vernacular.

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But to return to more serious matter, my OB-GYN says this about PMS in the late 30s: “Your hormones will be getting more wacky as your girls hit puberty, so getting the PMS stuff under control NOW will significantly help you when they are going the reverse hormone process in a very few short years.”

This statement was another wake-up call for me. It forced me to consider the way my hormonal issues will impact my daughters, the way their hormonal issues will impact me, and the way all of our combined hormones will impact our family relationships. And if there’s one thing I don’t want to sacrifice on the altar of PMS, it’s family relationships.

So I am committed to feeding myself quality food, supplementing where I need to, exercising and resting regularly, and counting the days of my menstrual cycle.

If you have never kept track of your cycles, you might want to read up on fertility awareness with Toni Weschler’s book Taking Charge of Your Fertility. In it, she explains that not every woman ovulates on Day 14. Some ovulate earlier, some later, and it can change from month to month too. Likewise, the second half of your cycle, the luteal phase, can vary in length.

Although women’s cycle lengths can vary, here is a graphic my OB friend sent me that shows all the differing hormones and changes throughout the month. Weschler’s book has many graphics like this.

image

2. Beware Those Blood Sugar Dips

Also called being “hangry,” low blood sugar problems can be exacerbated in the pre-menstrual time. Some mornings I wake up feeling fine, but then I walk into the kitchen to find that someone has used my favorite mug. (But watch out family, because my favorite mug tends to change from month to month.)

Or I walk into the living room to find that someone has left a pile of books right where I want to sit and read and sip decaf out of that favorite mug. Or someone is already awake and making noise or asking me to do something for them, even though they know they’re not supposed to ask yet.

In these moments I try to remember that I need to put something in my mouth before letting rude or thoughtless words slip out of my mouth. There have even been times my husband has said something innocuous to me at the breakfast table, and I’ve wanted to snap back. In those times I try to remember not to respond in the moment but rather to say, “I need to eat something.” He understands this statement implicitly (or impliedly as it were – inside joke between the two of us).

Nearly always, I feel more in control of my emotions after I’ve eaten something. I’m usually not even upset about the offending person or event. And if I still am, I can discuss it more reasonably. So if you get hangry, especially in the mornings, try to be aware of it. Remember: eat before talking. Food before fighting.

The pre-menstrual time may also be the time that you are craving junk food. It’s really better if you don’t give in to that craving. As we talked about before, high-sugar and processed foods do nothing to lift our mood. Unhealthy food actually worsens our blood sugar highs and lows and consequently, worsens our mood swings (except for very dark chocolate – indulge in that one!).

 

3. Watch Your Self-Talk

Now a word about your inner world. Do not believe everything your brain says to you in the week or so before your period! Do not believe that everyone is judging you. Do not believe that everyone is angry with you or rejecting you. Even if they don’t respond to your text right away.

Do not believe that your husband, or your co-worker, or your children, or that your God, are out to get you. That’s the hormones talking, and we do not have to believe them!

Since I’ve implemented the steps I offered in parts 1, 2, and 3, my mood is more stable, but I still have days and even hours when it’s not. I still have to be mindful of what’s going on inside me.

So I’ll echo the encouragement from my OB: “You are NOT ALONE!!” Truly, we are in this together. We are sisters in this messy, fallen, chemically-complicated, tech-driven modern world. That is unfortunately the world we live in. But instead of cursing it, let us choose life rather than death.

I love the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 30: “Today I am giving you a choice. You can choose life and success or death and disaster (verse 15, Contemporary English Version).

He continues in verses 19 and 20: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life (NIV).

A year ago when I realized I needed to make a lot of changes in my life, life was truly a disaster. I felt overwhelmed. I was in such a dark place that when I read about various changes I could make, I interpreted the advice as PRESSURE. I could not see it as possibility. I thought it was “pull myself up by my bootstraps” and “cure myself.” Changing, choosing life, felt like one more thing I could not handle.

But now after a year of making small changes, of making slow but steady progress, I feel the promise rather than the pressure. I know that I am not the Healer, but I see the ways in which God invites me to participate in my own healing. I now know that what felt like rock-bottom was actually an invitation from God to be a priest taking better care of my temple.

My mindset has morphed from Jacob’s begrudging “everything is against me” (in Genesis 42:36) into gratitude that I’ve been given this chance to make healthy changes. I am getting better at choosing life.

Together, we can choose life. We can choose what to put in our bodies, how to move our bodies, and what to think and believe, especially during certain days of the month. So resist the temptation to believe you have no control over your PMS. We have so many ways to manage it more effectively.

And remember, on the days when we don’t make good choices, there is grace. We don’t have to “choose life” perfectly. The God of peace is with us and within us. So make the best decisions that you can, and then, dear soul, be at rest.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Here are some of the main sources of information that I relied on over this past year.

Karen Hurd is a nutritionist with a Masters in biochemistry. She explains how to eat for better mental health and offers several free resources. I also rented her PMS seminar.

Dr. Aviva Romm is a midwife and M.D. I purchased her book The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution and also depended heavily on her website. Here’s a post specifically on PMS.

Christa Orrechio is also a nutritionist whose advice I followed. Here’s her post on PMS.

A Guidebook for Dealing with PMS {Part 3: Movement and Rest}

by Elizabeth

exercise

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed possible dietary changes for managing PMS more effectively, and in Part 2, we discussed supplements. Today in Part 3 we’ll discuss movement and rest.

Again, I’ll mention that I’m not a doctor. I’m not a physical trainer. I’m just a fellow human who needs exercise to cope with the stress of life. If you’re not already exercising, you should probably talk to a doctor first, and always be sure to modify any movement to fit your own personal fitness level or to accommodate past injuries.

 

1. Cardio and Weight Training for Irritability, Anxiety, and Menstrual Pain

Exercise helps with anxiety, stress, and sleep and hormone regulation. This is another area of our lives where we can’t just pop a pill. We have to do the work of getting our bodies moving.

Here’s what my OB says about exercise: “Moderation daily — it helps endogenous endorphins which can overcome the negative effects of progesterone.” (Remember that pre-menstrual syndrome is really post-ovulation syndrome, when our bodies are feeling the effects of progesterone.)

I’ve known for years that I need regular exercise to keep my moods level and manage my inner grouch. I need hard exercise to accomplish this. No half-hearted cardio will do. It needs to be high intensity cardio (though not necessarily high impact), or it needs to be strength/interval/circuit training with weights. Some research shows that exercise, when done well, can be as good as anti-depressants.

Even though I know I need the exercise to battle my stress and anxiety, it’s all too easy to let exercise slide, either because I’m too busy, too tired, or simply too hot (hello Tropics!). In the past year, however, I’ve realized more and more that I simply cannot afford to skip regular exercise. I make it even more of a priority than before, especially in the week or so before my period.

I’ve also concluded that weight or strength training is even more efficient than cardio in producing the endorphins/happy hormones. So I’ve increased my weight-bearing workouts.

When I sense I’m beginning to come unglued, I tell my husband, I need to workout right now. He smiles and nods and says, “I hope you have a good workout. You’ll feel better afterwards.” And I do. I fare much better doing the exercise than laying in bed and watching Netflix.

As to the moderation, here’s how I handle the scheduling of exercise. I aim for 5-6 workouts a week, but I’m satisfied with 4-5. Some weeks, depending on our schedule, I have to make peace with 3. I do the strength training 2-3 days per week and always give myself 48 hours in between strength training sessions.

I alternate difficult workouts with lighter workouts, and I will not do difficult workouts two days in a row. When you workout hard, you have to give your body time to rest. I usually plan at least one day a week where I don’t exercise at all. Your body can’t keep going, going, going all the time.

I’m not a fanatic about workout length, either. I workout about 30 minutes at a time, and sometimes only 20. What I’m saying is, you don’t have to workout for an hour or two every day to reap the mental health benefits. Twenty minutes really can suffice, if you’re putting in the effort to make it intense enough.

While I have to work out hard in the pre-menstrual days, I need to take it a bit lighter during my period. That doesn’t mean nothing; getting moving with some light cardio helps with the cramps. We think we want to stay in bed when we get cramps, but in reality, movement is better. Cramps start to dissipate when we start to stretch and move.

Walking is another good exercise option. When I lived in the States, I went on a lot of walks. Walking is truly moderate exercise and can be done every day. But the streets of Phnom Penh are dirty and crowded, and in general I choose not to walk here unless I can get to a safer, cleaner area. I love to walk and talk with my husband or with friends, and I do miss it while living here. But if it works for you, I hope you enjoy it!

 

2. Yoga and Stretching for Anxiety, Headaches, and Menstrual Pain

I’ll just mention this up front: I know yoga can be a sensitive subject for Christians. I’m not here to debate; I will merely tell you my experience. You need to make your own decisions.

First of all, I’ve never been drawn to yoga. I tried it a couple times in my 20’s because it was supposedly so good for you. I found it utterly boring, just laying there in uncomfortable positions, doing nothing. If I were going to set aside time to exercise, I wanted to be burning calories. I didn’t bother myself with any theological concerns because I simply wasn’t interested in it.

That was before last year, when my anxiety rose to unmanageable levels. It prompted me to do a lot of research into ways to manage anxiety. Yoga is one of those ways, so I tried it again. This time, I was surprised at how effectively the yoga reduced my anxiety. I could feel it dropping even as I moved into the positions.

Yoga requires a lot of concentration on your body and on your breath. This is in itself distracting from your anxieties. It helps you get in touch with the body God made for you, a body that God declared good.

I personally found that yoga videos for neck and back pain seemed to be pretty user-friendly. They stretched my body in new ways, releasing the tension that caused pain in my neck and back and even increasing my hip and leg flexibility.

I didn’t like videos with too much spiritual mumbo-jumbo or Eastern sounding talk, which is where people’s main concerns arise, I think. The way I handled this was to find and learn the yoga positions that helped my specific bodily concerns. (I mostly found videos for neck and shoulder pain, but I also discovered yoga positions for menstrual pain that really, truly work.) Then I would perform them either in silence or with worship music.

For me, this approach handled any religious or faith-based concerns I might have. If ancient people stumbled across ways of stretching and moving the body that help with pain or anxiety, I consider that general revelation (as opposed to the special revelation we find in the Bible).

This is how I feel about acupressure and acupuncture (which can also help with headaches – google it) and even modern medicine (which might not be full of Eastern mystics but certainly has non-Christian practitioners, and most of us still feel comfortable with Western medicine).

If a drug or non-drug treatment can help to heal these bodies that God made, then I simply choose to thank God for the options and reject any religious talk that conflicts with my worldview.

In recent months I’ve been neglecting the yoga/stretching, and I can feel a difference in my mind and my body. I have more tension and anxiety. Last year when my anxiety was at an all-time high, I did yoga regularly. As the anxiety lessened, I stopped getting on the mat in the morning when my body was at its stiffest and the day was at its quietest. It’s a practice I need to return to.

 

3. Breathing for Anxiety and Irritability

I’ve said it in other places before, but breathing is like a drug:

Some drugs are free.
Like breathing.
I love breathing. It’s my favorite.
I recently announced this to my kids.
Some of them thought I was crazy, but one agreed.
It’s true though. I just love breathing.
Pause.
Inhale, exhale.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Release, receive.
When I stop to close my eyes and breathe deeply and slowly, I immediately calm down.
My body relaxes.
My thoughts stop swirling.
My emotions stop pressing.
So take a deep breath. Maybe take three.
And remember, some drugs are free.
If only we will use them.

Last year I looked into other breathing techniques beside this kind of simple, slow, deep breathing. My favorite breathing technique turned out to be triangle breathing. My husband first told me about it; he uses it himself and regularly teaches it to clients.

There are several ways to do triangle breathing; you can google them. One is to breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, and exhale for 4 seconds. Or you can choose 5 seconds, or 6, or whatever. Another method is to breathe in for 4 seconds and breathe out for 8 (basically taking twice as long to exhale as to inhale).

But my favorite form of triangle breathing — and the one I use most frequently, especially when I can’t sleep at night because of anxiety — doesn’t rely on counting. I actually get stressed out if I try to count. It just feels like one more thing I need to do right and could possibly do wrong. That’s not helpful for my anxiety!

So this is how I do it. I breathe in deeply through my nose for as long as it takes to get a full breath. Then I hold it. I might hold it for awhile. I might hold it only one count. I might even count during the breath-holding phase, but not usually. Then I release my breath slowly through my mouth, for as long as it takes to empty my lungs. In this way, I don’t feel the pressure of a time table for the inhale and exhale.

I like to triangle breathe in traffic, in between errands, or whenever I realize I’ve just been rushing through life forgetting to breathe. It helps me to purposely slow down and calm down.

Breathing exercises can reduce heart rate and blood pressure. It’s kind of wild to think about, but simply taking control of our breath can change our heart rate. (You can prove this to yourself with a pulse app on your phone.) We have more control over our minds and our bodies than we sometimes assume (which is what this series is all about!).

There are other forms of breathing, too. Some people have spoken highly of alternate nostril breathing, and though I’ve tried it, I’ve never gotten the same results with it that I get through the triangle breathing. But you can google alternate nostril breathing if you like. Whatever method you choose, just remember to breathe.

 

4. Sleep and Rest for making everything in life seem better

When you cut the caffeine, you may suddenly find that you need more sleep. This is your body talking to you. (Yes, she talks to you.) (And yes, PMS is one way she talks to you.)

It is way too easy to silence our bodies’ needs for sleep with caffeine, screen time, and a busy schedule that is always producing excess adrenaline in us. Too many of us are ignoring our bodies’ need for sleep.

When I cut the caffeine, I started taking naps again. When I was in college, I napped. When my kids were babies and toddlers and everyone had a naptime or quiet time, I napped. But over the years, as I drank more and more coffee, and the kids slept during the day less and less, I gave up the naps. I would tamp down my need for sleep on Sunday afternoons with coffee and some screen time.

I don’t do that anymore. Now I always take a nap on Sundays, and sometimes on Saturdays, and occasionally on weekdays if I absolutely need it. I know not everyone can do this. You may work outside the home, or you may have small children in the home who can’t be left unattended.

Thankfully at this stage of life I can sneak in a nap if I really need it. My kids are older, and they can work on some of their school work on their own, and the older ones can keep an eye on the younger ones. (Interestingly enough, I’ve found that when I do this, my younger children get really creative and imaginative in their play. Sometimes a little parent-free time is good for them!)

I’m so much happier now that I have reclaimed my naps (I really look forward to my Sunday nap).

But I’m not just talking about naps here. I’m also talking about resting from the exercise, at least one day a week. And I’m talking about getting good nighttime sleep too. My OB says this about sleep: “Regular sleep hygiene (going to bed and waking up at same time daily) with avoidance of electronics in bed helps.”

I have my husband to thank for a good bedtime routine. He gets up earlier than I do and wants to be in bed by 10:15 pm. If left to myself, I would stay up later than that, wasting time on Facebook or Youtube. It’s not that I have anything I’m accomplishing at that time of day. It’s that my brain is so tired by that time, that I don’t have the self-awareness or motivation to put myself to bed for the next day. Because as we all know, a good day really begins the night before.

Getting enough sleep means we’re less crabby, and it means we can think more clearly, because we are getting the rest we need. So it’s good to have some accountability in this area, because we all really need consistent bedtimes.

I still struggle not to check Facebook and email that “one last time” before bed. I have in the past kept the computer completely out of the bedroom. Lately I haven’t been very good about that. I know that when I stay away from the computer before bedtime, I have fewer distressing things on my mind as I try to fall asleep.

Instead, reading a light fiction book in bed can help put my mind to rest. My brain can’t function very well at that time of night, certainly not well enough to read difficult fiction or non-fiction. But light fiction, I can do. It puts me to sleep. Pretty quickly actually.

One sleep problem I have not yet solved: waking up to go to the bathroom! Nighttime bathroom trips are big sleep disrupters in our house. I try to monitor my water intake in the evening, but it’s not easy when it’s hot or when I exercise in the evening.

When I’m in a season of higher anxiety, as soon as I wake up to use the bathroom, my mind starts going. That’s when I use triangle breathing or sing hymns to myself (this one in particular has gotten me through a lot of bad nights). But I honestly wish I didn’t wake up in the first place.

 

 

As you can see, I’m still a work in progress when it comes to these practices! I’ve used them all to good effect in the past and want to keep using them in the future. Hopefully some of these approaches will work for you, too.

In the final installment of this series, we’ll talk about tracking our emotions and our cycles.

 

Part 1: Dietary Changes

Part 2: Supplements

Part 4: Tracking Your Cycles

A Guidebook for Dealing with PMS {Part 1: Dietary Changes}

by Elizabeth

PMS

From the title you can probably guess that this one’s for the ladies. (All you guys out there can take a pass.)

And truly, I never thought I would blog about this. But someone recently asked me for advice on dealing with PMS. I didn’t know the specifics of her situation (PMS symptoms run the gamut of the physical and emotional), so I just threw everything I had at her, hoping something would stick. My husband looked at my list and told me that it could help a lot of people and that I should turn it into a blog post.

So here we are, talking about Pre-Menstrual Syndrome in a public forum.

First let me give you all the caveats. I am not a medical professional. I am not a nutritionist or dietitian. I am just a 38-year-old woman who has had to get better control over her physical and emotional states in the past year, because the situation had become desperate. I dreaded half of every single month, and so did my husband.

I’ll simply be sharing things that worked for me. I recommend that you do your own research and talk to your own doctor before making any changes. I talked with both my nurse-midwife and a friend who is an OB-GYN about most of these things, and I’ll note their advice in each section.

I would also recommend that you start slow. You want your changes to be sustainable over the long run. I’ll be sharing a lot of options here. Starting small and getting a handle on just one or two things first, before adding anything new, can go a long way in making these changes permanent lifestyle changes. And that’s what you want – permanent changes. You won’t be able to sustain the benefits if you can’t sustain the habits.

I would also encourage you to be patient. Your mind and your body will improve in response to your changing choices, but it takes time, sometimes a lot of time. In my experience the physical symptoms improved long before the mental symptoms improved, but they did improve over time. Some sources say to wait at least 3 months before expecting meaningful change – that’s how long our hormonal systems need to adjust.

Everything is cumulative, so there’s a sort of snowball effect that happens when you’re able to implement a bunch of strategies at once, but it’s also true that every small change can be helpful. So don’t lose heart in the beginning.

Ok, now that that’s done, here’s a little medical definition of PMS, according to my OB-GYN friend: “Ovulation is marked by massive progesterone surge, and progesterone stays elevated until just before the next menses.  Hence the ‘premenstrual’ syndrome is more accurately a ‘post-ovulation-syndrome.’ Progesterone causes fluid retention, can be associated with irritability and depressed mood, and in general is a pain in our heads!”

Here are the main pre-menstrual (or post-ovulation) symptoms I was dealing with: anxiety, moodiness, snappiness, irritability, recurrent female infections, breast tenderness, and to a lesser extent, acne.

I was also dealing with menstrual cramps and migraine headaches on first day of my cycle and/or the day before.

In this article I’ll be discussing diet. In the following articles in this series, I’ll discuss supplements, movement & rest, and emotion/cycle tracking.

I’m starting with diet because that’s a place where a lot of us fall short. I don’t think we can just pop a pill or swallow a supplement and watch our symptoms magically disappear, not if we are dumping garbage into our temples. We have to do the work of changing how we eat.

I have a history of an eating disorder, and for years I ate a highly unbalanced, carb-heavy, nutrient-light diet. However, I paid very careful attention to my eating when I was pregnant and nursing, because someone else’s well-being was depending on me. But when I was done with those precious childbearing years, I let a lot of my healthy eating habits lapse. This has been especially true in the midst of stressful overseas living. So believe me when I tell you, I had a lot of room for growth.

Here’s a list of some changes you can make, along with the potential symptoms they relieve, according to what I’ve read and experienced. Explanations and plans for implementing the changes can be found in each section, along with my personal stories.

  1. Decrease caffeine intake: reduces anxiety, breast pain, and sleep disturbances.
  2. Decrease sugar and refined carbohydrates: reduces mood swings, acne, and female infections.
  3. Increase quality protein, fats, and fiber: reduces anxiety, acne, and mood swings.
  4. Decrease alcohol: reduces sleep disturbances.
  5. Decrease dairy: reduces breast tenderness.

 

1. Decrease caffeine

I had developed a dependence on coffee in language school and over the years had increased my intake to 3-4 cups per day. That’s how much I needed to get through a day. Now that I’ve given it up, I realize what a large amount of caffeine I was consuming.  And interestingly, now that I don’t drink coffee, I actually have the energy to make it through my days without coffee.

Caffeine can be problematic for many reasons including sleep, anxiety, and breast tenderness. Caffeine is a stimulant – that’s how it keeps you awake. It can make your heart race and worsen your anxiety. With all the extra stress and screen time in our modern lives, the last thing most of us need is an extra stimulant.

And indeed, I initially decided to cut out caffeine because of my rising anxiety. I had anxiety every day of my cycle, but it spiked really high after ovulation (mid-cycle) and didn’t drop until my next cycle began. And even then, the anxiety didn’t really disappear. It was just less than the anxiety of the pre-menstrual period.

But it was so hard for me to give up the caffeine! It took me a full 2 months to cut out all the coffee. I cut out a cup at a time and waited for my body to adjust. It basically took me two weeks to adjust to every cup (or half cup) that I cut out. I was tired all the time and got a lot of headaches. Eventually I was able to switch to decaf coffee.

I love a hot drink. It’s so comforting. But these days you’ll find me drinking either that decaf coffee or various herbal teas. My favorite herbal teas are peppermint, spearmint, chamomile, and rooibos (red). These teas are all supposedly good for anxiety. Even if they have no positive effect on anxiety, at least they are all caffeine-free and thus have no negative effect.

It’s important to note that decaf coffee still has caffeine in it, but it’s greatly reduced. I seem to do fine on the decaf, though, even when drinking it at night with my husband. I also still eat dark chocolate and will occasionally drink green tea (but I’ll explain that in another section).

After I gave up coffee, I drank black tea (which has less caffeine than coffee) on vacation and noticed a marked increase in anxiety that week/month. And then there was that one boiling hot April morning without electricity when I drank an iced coffee trying to cool off. I thought I would be fine, but my body reacted really badly to the caffeine. My heart began to race, my breathing sped up, and I felt flushed all over (the opposite feeling from what I was going for), so I really do avoid regular coffee.

 

2. Reduce sugar and refined carbohydrates

Just like the coffee, the sugar and processed food consumption sneaked up on me. I was busy homeschooling four kids and running a website. I began depending more and more heavily on packaged foods for myself and my kids, simply because it saved time. Super sweet yogurt drinks, packaged crackers or cookies, lots of white pasta and canned sauces.

But sugar wreaks havoc on our hormones, beginning with blood sugar dysregulation and ending with terrible moodiness. When we consume sugary or sweet things, our blood sugar levels spike, forcing our pancreas to pump out a bunch of insulin to shuttle that unnatural amount of sugar out of circulation and into our cells.

Unfortunately, the pancreas usually overshoots. That’s because it is sensing the rate of the blood sugar rise, not the amount of sugar. (I will refrain from geeking out over calculus here.) Our bodies don’t know that the sugar intake will stop; they just know that the blood sugar is rising too rapidly for safety. So the pancreas dumps too much insulin into our systems.

This leads to a blood sugar crash. Blood sugar drops below the normal level, making us hungry again very quickly and also making us moody. So we reach for something sugary again. When we eat this way, we are willingly putting ourselves on an emotional roller coaster. We end up snapping at our families, and they don’t deserve to be snapped at simply because we haven’t taken the time and attention to nourish ourselves well.

Alternatively, if we can’t get to food when our blood sugar drops low, our adrenal glands will work to increase our blood sugar without food consumption. This is quite an elegant system, but when we abuse it by depending on it on a daily basis, we can wear our adrenals out. (Caffeine is another one of those adrenal stressors, and depending on it to get through your day is another way of wearing out your body.)

Additionally, sugar consumption (in all its forms) tamps down on our immune systems. So even though we crave sugar and may even claim that we feel better when we eat it, it’s just bad for us, all around. As my OB-GYN says: “You have insulin jumping in here to help confuse the picture, so take the avoidance of simple carbs part seriously.”

Practically speaking, cutting out sugar can be harder than it sounds. Sugar lurks in a lot of places, including cereal, yogurt, peanut butter, pasta sauces, salad dressings, and salsa. I didn’t even have a sweet tooth. I wasn’t craving or eating a lot of desserts. I just ate too many simple carbs.

So I had to find and eliminate the hidden sugars and refined carbohydrates (which are so broken down already that they act nearly like sugar in the body). I was really dedicated to eliminating sugars because of repeat infections in the pre-menstrual period. I was losing my mind and could not handle any more of these painful infections.

Here are a few examples of the changes I made.

  • Boxed cereals. Oh how I loved Cinnamon Life and Cheerios (when I could find them on the shelves). Now I will occasionally eat cooked whole grains like buckwheat, millet, quinoa, or oats, but not every day.
  • Refined grains. I stopped eating packaged crackers (there are some really yummy ones here, but they are all made with a lot of white flour and sugar). I stopped eating Pringles (in years past I could down half a can in one sitting, especially when I was really hungry). I will occasionally eat popcorn with a movie. I eat tortilla chips with our favorite bean soup probably once a week.
  • Pasta, rice, and bread. I stopped eating white rice with our Khmer lunches and just eat the main dish by itself. I stopped eating pasta, couscous, and bread. {If you’ve known me since adolescence, you’ll know what a big change this was for me.}
  • Yogurt. I stopped drinking sweetened yogurt drinks and stopped eating regular sweetened yogurt. I started buying an unsweetened yogurt (made locally here). It was so sour at first I could hardly stand it, but I forced myself to keep eating it. Now it tastes only slightly sour to me. I’m sometimes able to find unsweetened kefir here locally too. (Kefir is a fermented dairy drink with more probiotics than yogurt, but it definitely still tastes sour to me.)
  • Peanut Butter. I love peanut butter! But I stopped eating regular peanut butter and started buying natural, unsweetened peanut butter (also made locally). I also started eating nuts for snacks.
  • Salad dressings, pasta sauces, salsas, and seasoning packets. I still use these on occasion, but I’ve also made my own sometimes. Since I don’t use them very often, this hasn’t been an area of too much concern for me, although it is another way to cut down sugar if you want to.
  • Coffee creamers. Yes, I used to put these non-dairy coffee creamers in my coffee. Yuck. They contain extra sugars and bad fats and are full of strange-sounding chemicals. It’s shocking to think about how many of these little creamer packets I used to use! Now I stick to plain coconut milk.

 

3. Replace the junk with quality proteins, fats, and fiber.

I’ve heard it called “carbage” — a clever combination of “carbohydrates” and “garbage.” But you can’t just cut out sugar and refined carbs; you have to add in the good stuff too. Protein, fat, and fiber blunt your blood sugar response to any carbs you might eat. They keep you feeling full longer and supply sustained energy over several hours. This will help with the moodiness and irritability.

There are other reasons for protein, fat, and fiber too.

  • You need a sufficient amount of amino acids (which are found in protein) to make your neurotransmitters (happy chemicals in the brain). Eating a lot of protein is therefore especially important for dealing with anxiety. In fact one counselor told me that “anxious brains need a lot of protein.”
  • You need enough healthy fats for your body to produce and stabilize your female hormones as well as build healthy skin and tissues.
  • And you need fiber (both soluble and insoluble) to feed the good bacteria in your intestines, keep your digestion regular, and to eliminate excess hormones in your body.

I will be honest with you. I made mistakes on this road. When I first cut the carbs, I suddenly couldn’t find enough to eat. Everything I had been eating was processed or taboo in some way. I was afraid to eat nearly everything except eggs, yogurt, chicken, and nuts. I was afraid of the dangerous, hidden carbs in everything. I wouldn’t even eat complex carbs. That made for a hungry, hangry momma.

It also made me accidentally lose some weight, weight I probably shouldn’t have lost. (I have since regained it.) I was so afraid of foods that could potentially make me sick again. I developed so much anxiety around food, and that just added to all the anxiety in my life. I kept thinking of food as potential poison rather than nourishment. It took me a while to relearn how to eat complex carbs.

So this is where I will quote my midwife: “Complex carbs are fine.”

And here’s what constitutes a complex carb: beans, vegetables, and the occasional whole grain. Complex carbs are not, as I thought in high school, a dish of pasta or a bowl (or bag) of pretzels. Complex carbs are slow-burning. The fiber in beans and vegetables is especially nourishing to our systems. (In my opinion, whole grains don’t offer the same amount of nutrition as beans and vegetables.) But when I first started on this healthy eating journey, I was even afraid to eat them. Now I find that I feel so much better when I do eat enough plant foods. So don’t be like me. Eat your veggies and beans.

In fact, my anxiety and breast tenderness spiked even higher when I first cut out the carbs. I could tell the very instant I ovulated, because my hormones shifted, my progesterone soared, my anxiety spiked, and strong breast pain appeared out of nowhere. What I eventually figured out was that I was depending too much on animal products. The first form of plant fiber/protein I added back in, as a way to counter all those animal foods, was beans. I found that when I put the beans back in, the breast tenderness very quickly subsided.

This is the advice my OB-GYN friend gave me: “Eat many anti-oxidant foods (blueberries, spinach, kale), other veggies, legumes, complex proteins.”

And here is where I get my protein these days:

  • Yogurt, kefir, and cheese.
  • Beans of all kinds. (Hummus and other bean dips, along with bean and lentil soups.)
  • Chicken and eggs.
  • Nuts, seeds, and nut butters. (I like walnuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, and flax seeds the best, but I can’t always find them cheap enough or at all, so I take what I can get, when I can get it.)

Here is where I get my fat these days:

  • Eggs.
  • Yogurt and cheese.
  • Nuts, seeds, and nut butters. (Notice how several of these items do double duty here? Nice.)
  • Butter (for cooking eggs), olive oil (for dressings and hummus), and coconut oil. (Yes, I know that last one is controversial, but I’m sufficiently comfortable with it to eat it, especially when mixed with a nut butter and some cocoa powder – yum!)
  • I eat 85% dark chocolate when I can find it. I still consider 70% too sweet.

Here is where I get my fiber these days:

  • Beans
  • Vegetables (My go-to veggies are carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, bell peppers, cucumbers, and leafy greens.)
  • Garlic and onions (They’re good for the immune system and have a special kind of fiber that feeds the good bacteria inside us.)
  • Flax seeds (They also do double duty on fats.)

I know that we are “supposed” to get a lot of our proteins and essential fatty acids from fatty fish, but I will again be honest and tell you that fish is not one of my favorite things. I wish I could like it, but at this point, I don’t, and it’s not worth it to me to try to force myself. Neither do I like taking fish oil. It makes me gag and burp. I figured that out several years ago when I was looking into natural ways to prevent migraine headaches. But if you like fish or fish oil, more power to you.

Something I’ve noticed is that if I eat a lot of fatty meat in a month (like sausage), or if I don’t eat enough vegetables, I have more pre-menstrual breast pain. So while I’m not afraid of eating fat, and while I get a lot of fat from my nuts and seeds, I have noticed that the fatty meat affects my body. So watch how various animal products affect you, and cut down on the ones that most noticeably make your symptoms worse.

The upside to all this protein is that for the first time in my life, I can grow long, strong nails without the help of polish. I wasn’t going for that, but it’s a nice side benefit.

Another upside to all these dietary changes (and I don’t know whether that’s the reduced sugar intake or the increased healthy fat intake or both) is that pre-menstrual breakouts have lessened. My main complaint wasn’t acne, but I did break out in the week before my period, sometimes painfully so. That happens much less now. I never would have undertaken such extensive life changes just for the acne, but it sure is a pleasant side effect.

(Full disclosure: For years I have used a topical salicylic acid lotion once a day to treat and prevent acne. I still had monthly breakouts in those years. And I also still use that lotion, even while eating differently.)

All these personal changes mean I’ve changed the way we eat as a family too. I don’t force my children to eat the unsweetened yogurt or nut butter or to stop eating cereal, but I do cook them a whole lot more eggs and beans (and sometimes eggs and beans together), and we eat a lot more fresh veggies.

I use a lot more spices in my cooking, especially garlic and onions which are good for the immune system, as I mentioned. I also use a lot of turmeric and cumin. (I adore cumin.) That’s something else that’s happened — learning to use more spices means food tastes a lot better than before. And the children have definitely noticed that.

A note about some things I haven’t done: I haven’t asked my helper to change the way she cooks. She makes us one Asian dish per day, and know she puts sugar and maybe even MSG in the chicken, and she cooks the chicken in soybean oil. I have not known how to approach this issue from a culturally appropriate standpoint. Friends who have tried to have these conversations with their helpers have often run into difficulty. So at this point I just eat the meat dish without the rice and figure I’m doing the best I can in other areas of my life.

A word about eating out: I don’t stress about this either. I just choose the best option I can find. That usually means something with either a lot of protein or a lot of vegetables, or both. For a time I found that it was best for me to take little containers of nuts everywhere I went just to be on the safe side (and because I was constantly hungry). Or I ate something with protein before I headed out to a meeting that might only serve carbohydrate-rich foods. But I stress less about it now. What I’m saying is, make the changes you can feasibly make, and celebrate your successes. Then don’t worry about the rest.

 

4. Decrease alcohol.

Why is a Christian missionary even talking about alcohol on her blog?! Well, because some missionaries drink alcohol (shocking, I know). Some of them even drink alcohol as a form of stress relief. And my readers aren’t just missionaries, either. So I really felt I should mention this one.

I had never even tasted alcohol until I was 27. I was afraid to try it, convinced even one sip would inebriate me. There are some alcohol addiction issues in my extended family that made me want to avoid it altogether. In the years since first tasting alcohol, I only ever drank wine a few times a year, and the most I ever drank was 1/8 of a cup, which felt like plenty for me. I also love a good gin and tonic, ever since a friend introduced the drink to me.

However, alcohol was never something I “needed” for stress relief. So when I explained all my symptoms to my OB-GYN friend, and she told me that the “best natural remedies are diet: avoid high salt, processed carbs, artificial sweeteners, MSG, alcohol, caffeine,” I had no trouble giving up the alcohol. I do occasionally miss the gin and tonic, but with all the sugar in it, I simply don’t want to consume it.

Other women have told me that alcohol affects their sleep. Alcohol seems to relax us and even make us feel sleepy, but it actually interferes with the deeper cycles of sleep. So if sleep is an issue for you (especially if the fatigue makes you grouchy the next day), and you consume alcohol from time to time, you might consider stopping.

 

5. Decrease Dairy

A lot of sources claimed that dairy exacerbates PMS (specifically breast tenderness and acne) and recommend that people keep it to a minimum. I did not end up cutting out dairy. I love the protein and probiotics in my yogurt and kefir (not to mention the taste of cheese!). I’ve gotten such great results from all the other changes I made that I never made this one.

But I do have to watch the cheese. I usually eat cheese about once a week (it’s kind of pricey here), and I’ve noticed that, similar to the fatty meats, if I eat more cheese than that, I do notice more breast tenderness that month. So I can do yogurt and kefir daily, but not cheese. The moral of the dairy story? Find what works for you, and do that.

I think that’s enough information for now. Here’s a summary of the potential dietary changes I discussed and their potential benefits:

  1. Decrease caffeine (to reduce anxiety, breast pain, and sleep issues).
  2. Decrease sugar and refined carbs (to reduce mood swings, acne, and infections).
  3. Increase protein, healthy fats, and fiber (to reduce mood swings and anxiety).
  4. Decrease alcohol (to improve sleep quality).
  5. Decrease dairy (to reduce breast pain and acne).

 

Part 2: Potential Supplements

Part 3: Movement and Rest

Part 4: Tracking Your Cycles

Women have desire too: the thing we overlook when we talk about the Billy Graham Rule

by Elizabeth

So I decided to weigh in on the Billy Graham Rule. Sounds risky, I know. But realize before you read this that I’m not attempting either to criticize a rule OR to make new rules for people. I’m just reflecting on the atmosphere of sexual teaching I’ve personally encountered in Christian culture.

I’m not assuming that my interpretation of Christian sexual teaching is universal or even up-to-date. I speak only from my experience growing up in 1990’s middle America. Church culture in various places and in various times will likely be different, as will each of our interpretations of said church culture.

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Growing up in the Church, I didn’t get the sense that the power of a woman’s sexual desire was really acknowledged. A woman’s sexual attractiveness was certainly acknowledged; young men were taught how to fight their attraction to women, and women were taught how to cover their attractiveness. This led to an idea of women as temptresses, but only so far as their appearance goes. The temptation and attraction of the female wasn’t at the soul-level. It was only skin deep.

We were taught that women didn’t have the strong sexual desires or visual natures that men had. This of course meant that no one taught girls how to keep their sexuality under control in any way other than their clothing choices.

I think this does a grave disservice to both men and women. Men become dehumanized through this view: they are greedy creatures who must be sexually satisfied at all costs and who are incapable of looking beyond a woman’s appearance to see her soul. It reduces sexual desire to physical appearance, while I believe sexual desire is very much rooted in the emotional and spiritual.

Women fall by the wayside when we see through this lens. Girls are not taught how powerful their desires can become. They are not taught that forming an intimate emotional relationship with a man could stoke their sexual desire in ways that are later difficult to manage. They’re only taught that they must keep their bodies under wraps so that the men can manage their desires. But girls aren’t taught that they themselves might need to control their desire or given any practical ways to do so.

So the thing that concerns me about the Billy Graham Rule conversation is not whether it is wise to follow it, or whether it is legalistic to follow it. What concerns me is the way the conversation seems to reduce women to an object of desire and not a source of desire.

Perhaps I do not fully understand the conversation, but this is the way I see it: When we talk about women as temptations to men (because we tend to think more about the ways the Billy Graham rule protects men), we are talking about the way women’s bodies are tempting. The impression I receive, then, is that if a man is in a room alone with a woman, he won’t be able to contain his sex drive, especially if that woman is considered societially “beautiful.”

The way I hear it discussed seems to me almost to border on harassment or assault, the way a man wouldn’t be able to control himself in a woman’s presence. In this view a woman tempts a man passively but not consensually. I think this is ludicrous. It means we don’t think men have any self-control at all. It means we don’t think of men as being fully human with a mind and a will that can make self-sacrificing choices.

I know, through both personal experience and years’ worth of conversation and reading, that there is an abundance of bad men in this world. Many men are willing to take advantage of women’s physical and social weaknesses. But I have also met an abundance of good men who respect women as fellow humans and would not dream of taking advantage of them.

I’m deeply bothered when I sense men and women being categorized so simplistically. Men are not merely dominators who, at the same time, are helpless in the face of a pretty woman. And women are not merely seductresses unaware of their overpowering attraction to men. People are more complex than that.

Whether couples or singles choose to follow the Billy Graham Rule should depend on their personal and shared histories. It should depend on their consciences and their circumstances. But it should not depend on a distorted view of male and female sexuality.

For myself, having lived nearly 37 years as a woman in a woman’s body, I will say that if I were going to follow the Billy Graham Rule (but spoiler alert: we don’t), the reason would not be because I don’t trust men to control themselves. No, the reason would be because I don’t trust myself.

I know how strong sexual desire can become. If my husband and I remained virgins before marriage, I have to credit him with the “no.” I cannot possibly credit myself. The strength of desire surprised me — I think in large part because of the pervading idea that women aren’t sexual beings in the same way men are. But perhaps my experience is singular. Perhaps other women did not grow up in an environment that minimized their sex drives.

It is for these reasons that I consider my own self as a potential source of desire. Even as someone enjoying a very happy marriage, I have to be honest and say that temptation or attraction can still occur. This statement is true for both of us (and yes, we talk about these things). Temptation happens simply because human desire is powerful — including the female desire that is too often neglected in these Billy Graham Rule conversations.

So what I wish for the world is not that we would universally follow the Billy Graham Rule or universally disregard it. What I wish is that we could have more and better conversations about temptation and about what it means to be a human made in the image of God.

I don’t want us to treat other human beings as primarily sexual beings, thus reducing their humanity. Nor do I want us treat ourselves and others as immune to temptation, thus living in ignorance and arrogance. What I wish is that the world could be a place where both men and women truly see each other as the fellow humans that we are.

I want us to know ourselves and our spouses well enough that we know what kinds of boundaries to place around our marriages and our other relationships. I want us to pour into our marriages and live in love and trust with each other. I want men and women to be able to relate to each other in the Church and in the workplace with interest, integrity, and respect.

I want us to understand so deeply who God created us to be that we won’t waste time arguing over legalities but will work to build up the image of God in each other through thoughtful conversations, safe relationships, and a shared wonder and worship of the Maker of all things.

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Thoughtful readings on the Billy Graham Rule/Modesty Culture:

Misogyny in Missions by Jonathan Trotter

Misogyny in Missions Part 2 by Tanya Crossman

Women are Scary (and other lessons modesty culture teaches men) by Jonathan Trotter

It’s Not Billy Graham Rule or Bust by Tish Harrison Warren

An Open Letter to Men Who Broke the Billy Graham Rule by Tish Harrison Warren

What Christians Can Learn From a New York Times Article About Sleeping With Married Men

by Elizabeth

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The New York Times recently published an article by Karin Jones entitled, “What Sleeping With Married Men Taught Me About Infidelity.” A friend shared it, and I read it. I found I had a lot to say about it, so I commented on my friend’s Facebook share, where it received so much positive feedback that I thought I’d share it here. But my response will make more sense if you take the time to read the article first.

My worldview obviously differs from the author’s – in fact I might say it diverges greatly – but I think she makes some important observations. My thoughts on this subject are influenced, of course, by nearly 18 years of marriage. But they are also greatly informed by my husband’s readings on relationships and sex.

Before you think that sounds too weird, let me explain why he reads extensively about these issues: he works with a lot of couples in his pastoral counseling ministry. For the record, I don’t know who any of his clients are; I only know about the ideas in his books. (The only exception to this would be when a client of his walks up to me and announces, “Your husband is my counselor.” This is not frequent but has occasionally been known to happen.)

And now that I’ve finished all my caveats, we can move on to my thoughts about the New York Times article.

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I know it might sound crazy to say this, but I think a lot of “Christian” wisdom is not super helpful to marriage and that we can learn from “secular” or research-based sources. First off, sex is more important to a marriage than we in Christian circles sometimes like to think. Dr. Barry McCarthy, author of the 2015 book Sex Made Simple: Clinical Strategies for Sexual Issues in Therapy, claims that a counselor simply cannot afford to treat only the communication/relationship aspect of a marriage and assume good sex will follow.

Rather, McCarthy claims, sex must be addressed separately and intentionally, in addition to other relationship needs. Sex is too important to the marriage for a counselor to be silent on the issue. And it’s highly complex and individual. This is part of the reason it needs purposeful addressing, though even many counselors are uncomfortable talking about it.

The research shows that couples in America are having less and less sex, with a good percentage (around 15%) being in what is considered a “sexless marriage” (sex 10 times a year or less). The research also shows that when a couple stops having sex, it’s more often the husband’s decision, not the wife’s (this information was also found in McCarthy’s book, where he quotes H. Feldman’s 1994 article in the Journal of Urology).

The fact that sexlessness was primarily dependent on the man was news to me as women often get slandered in culture for being “frigid.” This mischaracterization seems key to common “Christian” teaching that women want affection and connection, while men want sex. Research shows that this traditional approach is unhelpful in the sexual arena: women want good sex too. This is something the author of the New York Times article touched on and something proponents of the traditional view often neglect. God made us all sexual beings, and satisfying sex is important for both spouses in a marriage.

Another aspect of relationships that the article’s author noted was that men do not just want sex. They want connection and affection as well. Maybe it’s modern American culture, or maybe it’s American “Christian” culture, or maybe it’s both, but men are sometimes expected to be emotionless and connectionless in favor of more “manly” behavior.

If you want support for that claim, you can listen to this radio program about the way men’s human needs are marginalized in modern American culture. I think the church needs to push back against this aspect of mainstream culture and show a better way — one based in our foundational beliefs of a relational Godhead and of humans created in God’s image. The Bible is actually good news for culture, even when culture accuses it of being otherwise.

This artificial differentiation between men’s needs and women’s needs is unhelpful for marriage and society in general. Men are images of God as well as women, and God is a relational God. Men and women both want loving, secure attachments, and men and women both want satisfying sex. I wish we didn’t have some of these stereotypes, stereotypes I learned before marriage as important for maintaining a happy marriage: a man should give his wife the affection she so desires, so that she will be more willing to give him the sex he so desires.

(In my mind this teaching is parallel to the teaching that women only need love and men need respect, which I believe is categorically untrue. Both men and women need both love and respect, and behaving otherwise treats human beings as too one-dimensional and cheats them both of intimacy and relational fulfillment. But I digress.)

The Bible does not even support this idea of “his needs, her needs” or “women give sex to get love and men give love to get sex.” The woman in Song of Solomon showed strong sexual desire and initiation. Paul, often accused of being misogynistic (though I no longer think he was), told married couples that sex goes both ways — the wife’s body belongs to her husband, and the husband’s body belongs to his wife’s. Meaning: the woman has desire too. Men aren’t the only ones who want sex. It seems to me that sex is actually a place in marriage where our theology gets worked out, but we rarely think about it that way.

I do appreciate the author’s note that even the urge to have an affair could be the beginning of an important conversation in marriage. Of course we as Christians believe this: temptation does not inevitably lead to sin. Temptation can be a wake-up moment and lead to increased marital intimacy, but only if we, like the author suggests, are willing to be honest with ourselves and with our spouses.

If we desire something we are not currently experiencing, we need to talk to our spouses about it, and not (if the Bible is our authority) seek out extramarital affairs. Research from the Gottman Institute indicates that being able to talk about sexual issues is essential to sexual satisfaction:  “Only 9% of couples who can’t comfortably talk about sex with one another say that they’re satisfied sexually.”

Meaning: if you can’t talk about sex with each other, the likelihood that you’re having mutually satisfying sex is pretty low. But, like Jones explains in her article, talking about sex can be risky. You might find out something about yourself that you don’t want to know. You might feel rejected. And that was apparently too high a risk for the married men she was sleeping with.

Esther Perel, who is referenced in the article, has a fascinating TED talk on the interplay and tension between love and desire. I’ve actually watched it several times as I believe its vocabulary is helpful. It may not be specifically Christian teaching, but there is nothing anti-biblical about it. It frames the monogamy conversation better than it has sometimes been framed, and I encourage you to watch it (TED talks are, after all, fairly short).

The Bible seems to indicate that the intimacy — including sexual intimacy — that we can experience in marriage is only a small picture of God’s love for us and what He intends for us to experience with Him for all eternity. So it only makes sense that Satan would attack our sexuality as it is intended to be lived out, both before marriage and in marriage.

Our cultures are obsessed with sex, but according to research, few people are actually having mutually emotionally and physically satisfying sex. So the ways we as a culture are seeking sexual fulfillment are not working. We’re seeking it in all the wrong ways. Sometimes because terrible things have been done to us, sometimes because we have simply believed the culture’s (Satan’s) lies. There are a myriad of reasons our sexuality gets broken in this world.

If we care about our own marriages and the marriages of our children, if we care about the marriages in the future Church, sex cannot be some taboo topic that we think will work itself out in silence. It won’t. It needs specific cultivating and sometimes outside help (in the form or medication or therapy), and there is absolutely no shame in seeking help and wholeness for a part of our lives that is not thriving.

But if we feel ashamed of needing help, we won’t seek it. So if this article can do any good in the world, I hope it can empower people in marriage whose sex life is less than they desire, to seek out help somewhere. I believe seeking healing is worth it.

 

References:

What Sleeping With Married Men Taught Me About Infidelity, by Karin Jones for New York Times.

The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship, a 20-minute TED talk by Esther Perel

Sex Made Simple: Clinical Strategies for Sexual Issues in Therapy, by Barry McCarthy.

Couples That Talk About Sex Have Better Sex, by Kyle Benson for Gottman Institute.

How American Masculinity Creates Lonely Men, a 48-minute program by Shankar Vedantam for NPR

From Jonathan: On Making Love (book recommendations about sex)

Other articles Jonathan and I have written about sex and marriage

On Making Love

By Jonathan

We read way too little about sex. Sure, we might talk or joke about it a lot, we might think about it a lot, and unfortunately we may even watch a fake version of it a lot, but we read way too little about it.

In an effort to change that, I’d like to give you a list of books that I’ve read and found, um, helpful. Remember, having sex doesn’t take much skill or special knowledge, but really making love to your spouse’s heart and body, now that can take some practice. And research.

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A few caveats.

  1. The goal in all of this is NOT mind-blowing movie sex. That’s too cheap, and in any case, aiming at it isn’t likely to get it for you. No, the goal should be intimate, connected, mutually satisfying sex. Love-making.
  1. Pressure is bad. If you read these books and end up pressuring your spouse in any way, you’ve missed the whole point. The goal is not for you to compare your spouse, or pressure your spouse, or anything of the sort. The goal is intimate, connected, mutually satisfying sex. Pressure will never get you that.
  1. You don’t have to agree with everything someone says to learn something from what someone says. You won’t agree with everything in these books. Rest assured that I don’t either. But there is physiology and psychology that these folks are experts in, and we can learn from them.
  1. If your spouse doesn’t want you reading about sex, he or she probably has a very good reason. You should look into that first. For example, if you’ve violated your spouse’ trust before, or pressured them in the past, they’re probably not going to be too excited about you getting more ammunition. And they’re probably right. Have a discussion with your spouse before purchasing any of these books. Do not read these books in secret.
  1. This isn’t about frequency. A healthy sexual relationship has nothing to do with frequency. It has to do with intimacy. Do you, as husband and wife, regularly connect with each other in mutually satisfying ways, both physically and emotionally?
  1. If you are currently fighting hard against porn, these books probably aren’t for you.

 

Thermometer or Thermostat?
Many people think that a couple’s sex life sets the temperature for their marriage (like a thermostat), and that if they can just improve their sex life, they’ll improve their marriage. Or they think that their bad sex life has ruined their marriage.

But married sex is more like a thermometer, revealing what’s already there (or not). Be careful not to mix up these two terms.

 

And Now, a List
I’m not giving much commentary here, and that’s on purpose. Check them out online, use discretion, and learn!

A Celebration Of Sex: A Guide to Enjoying God’s Gift of Sexual Intimacy, Dr. Douglas E. Rosenau

Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship, Dr. Stephen Snyder

She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman, Ian Kerner, Ph.D.

The Book of Romance: What Solomon Says About Love, Sex, and Intimacy, Tommy Nelson

Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters–And How to Get It, Dr. Laurie Mintz  [I think this book has one or two clinical photographs of female anatomy, similar to any medical or nursing textbook.]

Woman’s Orgasm, Georgia Kline-Graber‎ and Dr. Benjamin Graber

Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life, Emily Nagoski 

More on marriage and sexuality
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Wife (Jonathan)

The Purpose of Marriage is NOT to Make You Holy (Jonathan)

What I want to teach my daughters about married sex (Elizabeth)

17 years of marriage, and this is all we’ve got (Jonathan and Elizabeth)

 

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Photo by Luana Azevedo on Unsplash

I’m not writing this to make money. I’m writing it because I want married couples to really enjoy making love! That being said, these links are Amazon affiliate links, so now you know.