Joe and I recently saw the movie Hope Springs starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as Kay and Arnold, a 31-year married couple whose life together has become very rote. Kay insists they travel to Maine for a weeklong intensive couples’ therapy program with a psychologist played by Steve Carell. The focus of the week – and the entire movie – is their attempts to re-establish intimacy despite a serious rupture. They barely converse and haven’t had sex or even slept in the same bed for five years. Most refreshingly, their awkwardness and vulnerability as they gradually find their way back to each other are presented with sensitivity. There are humorous moments for sure, but the subject matter is taken seriously, which I appreciated. This movie prompts reflection on the meaning of sex in marriage.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the twofold purpose of sex is the good of the spouses and the transmission of life, further elaborating that “These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated without altering the couple’s spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family.” (no. 2363) Pope Paul VI introduced this dual framework in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae which affirmed that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (no. 11). The inclusion of any purpose beyond procreation was actually new at that time. “This particular doctrine… is based on the inseparable connection … between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act” (no. 12). The inseparability of these two aspects has been reinforced over the ensuing decades by John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.
Questions about this teaching on sex have long simmered for me over the years of being married. I’m not convinced that literal procreation of children is equally important as the bonding of the couple for life. I think procreation originates from the unitive aspects, just as a strong marriage forms the basis for a healthy family. The couple relationship is the foundation of the family, and a loving sexual relationship nurtures the couple. A few years ago, wanting to express myself coherently on this topic to our teenage children, I wrote up my thoughts , trying to articulate why I feel that sex belongs in marriage:
Sex does help our marriage, because over time it has created a close and intimate bond between us that could not have been formed any other way and is distinct from other friendships. These are not just romantic ideas; in fact, the hormone oxytocin, which is released during sexual climax, helps create the bond within our bodies. But it’s all-encompassing. The physical aspect of our relationship is deeply entwined with the practical, everyday reality of parenting, working, running a household, and every other form of relating whether it’s having coffee together or working out at the gym. They cannot be separated. The act of making love and the resulting connection sustain a marriage through times of stress and worry or whenever disconnection threatens.
Hope Springs brings out the particular salience of my question about the importance of begetting children at mid-life and beyond. What is the purpose of sex when procreation is no longer possible? As Kay and Arnold’s relationship illustrates in the movie, the bonding of the couple continues to be fundamental. Are there then two purposes of sex for pre- and post-menopause? That seems an overly literal and rather disjointed view of both human beings and marriage. I prefer to approach procreation more metaphorically, and then it becomes applicable to all stages of the relationship. Here’s what I wrote in the earlier personal essay sorting out my thoughts for presentation to our children:
We feel that openness to life means more than biological children. The time is coming when our three will be gone from home, yet as a couple we continue to be called, in ways we perhaps have yet to imagine, which could have no relation to our calling as parents but would be just as life-affirming. And even within the parenting years, other needs do call us to respond whether in the community, extended family, church or at work.