Engagement is a special time, and during this period couples may feel that they are “almost married,” but in reality being married is like being pregnant—you either are or you are not. No matter how committed a couple may feel, until they actually pledge themselves to one another on their wedding day, they cannot pledge themselves to one another with their bodies in bed.
Some might feel that this idea is old-fashioned. It is definitely old, but it still works. Waiting to receive each other from the Lord allows the couple to establish authentic intimacy. By waiting on God and focusing on what he is calling them to, the couple receive the freedom to see that intimacy is not simply about how close your body is to someone else’s. A healthy relationship does not require sex in order to be intimate. Love is patient, and a man and woman who are confident in their love know that they will have the rest of their lives to enjoy sex. But now is their only time to prepare for marriage—to lay the foundation for the rest of their lives together.
Waiting to share the gift of sex should be seen not as a passive delay of passion but as an active training in faithfulness. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Those who are engaged to marry are called to live chastity in continence [abstinence]. They should see in this time of testing a discovery of mutual respect, an apprenticeship in fidelity, and the hope of receiving one another from God. They should reserve for marriage the expressions of affection that belong to married love. They will help each other grow in chastity.” Don’t you want to know before the wedding if your spouse will be able to resist temptations after the wedding?
Since engagement is a time to prepare to become a sacrament, the months preceding a marriage are a time of serious discernment. By having sex during this time, couples hinder their ability to look at the relationship clearly. They feel so close as a result of sex that they are often unable to look at the past, present, or future critically. The sexual intimacy may even blind them from seeing that their relationship lacks real intimacy, and it may prevent them from bringing to the surface worries or hesitations they may have. In fact, sex may cover up defects of love.
When a woman says yes to her boyfriend’s proposal, this is not the end of their discernment process for marriage. Until they pronounce their vows, no permanent commitment has been made. Imagine if you were engaged, but you knew in your heart that you needed to call off the wedding. Consider how much more difficult it would be to break an engagement if you were already sleeping with your fiancé.
Some people ask, “Well, how do you know if you want to marry a person if you don’t sleep with her?” I would reply, “How do you know you should marry her once you have slept together?” If anything you are less clear-minded, because sex is not designed to be a test to find a good spouse.
Just because a person is capable of physical intimacy does not mean that he or she is capable of the other kinds of intimacy that hold a marriage together. Because sex has the power to bond, the experience may seem wonderful in the initial stages of a relationship, and both partners will feel quite “compatible.” But think about a couple you know who have been married for fifty years. They sit on their front porch swing, smiling with all their wrinkles at each other. They are still together because they have been refined by the fires of love, not burnt by the counterfeits of lust.
So why not wait for the honeymoon? I know of couples who were sexually active long before their wedding, and when they arrived at their honeymoon suite, they immediately fell asleep. They had been there and done that, so why not rest up for something new and exciting—like jet skiing? They only robbed themselves. On the other hand, one woman who saved that gift for the honeymoon said that it was “unspeakably worth the wait.”
How often do you hear of promiscuous couples experiencing such joy? If a man and woman refuse to wait, what are their motives? Does impatience, lust, or pride motivate the couple to disobey God? These vices only harm a marriage. It is through humility, obedience, chastity, patience, and a willingness to sacrifice that a couple build a lifelong love. So why not practice these virtues now?
In the meantime, know that each time you resist sin you bless one another. In addition, God has issued a special challenge to men. When a man perseveres in the virtue of chastity, he helps fulfill that challenge: to love his bride as Christ loves the Church, to give himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, that he might present his bride to God “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25–27). A man should consider his acceptance of this challenge to be the measure of his love for his bride. Imagine Christ hanging on the cross, saying to you, “This is how I got my bride to heaven. How else do you think you will get yours there?” When an engaged man embraces such a challenge and grows in purity with his fiancée, you will notice on his wedding day that his bride’s soul matches her dress. She glows. . . And so will he when he sees her walking down the aisle to him.
If we do not understand these principles, perhaps we do not understand marriage. Is it merely a public declaration of the love that a bride and groom feel? Is the wedding a decorative formality, or is God present there, establishing a supernatural bond—a covenant with the couple that can only be severed by death?
At every sacramental marriage a spiritual reality will take place on that altar when a man and woman become a husband and wife. The couple enter into a union that is a sacrament. That night, the marital embrace will become the visible expression of this union blessed by God. Until the marriage vows have been said, a woman is not a wife and should not be treated as one.
When a husband gives his body to his bride and a bride gives herself to him, their bodies speak the truth: “I am entirely yours.” On the other hand, sex anywhere but in marriage is dishonest. No matter what, it cannot say, “I am entirely yours.” Therefore, having sex during the engagement is not a matter of “peeking under the wrapping paper.” It is a matter of completely missing the point of sex and marriage.
If you are engaged, ponder for a moment the gift of your partner. Look how generous God has been with you. When you come to the altar, do you not want to give God a gift in return? Do not come empty-handed. Make the sacrifice to keep your engagement pure, so that you come to the altar with this gift for him.
. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2350.
. Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Revell, 1984), 179.