When I was in my twenties and single I bought a double-wide mobile home. I was tired of apartments and could not yet afford a real house so, on my modest income as a real estate appraiser trainee, I fixed it up cute and cozy. It soon became a haven for my younger brothers who were still stuck at our parents’ home and anxious to move out.
Joe would come and go for a few months. He was in between jobs so I let him sleep on the sofa. He paid for groceries, cleaned up his messes, did his own laundry, and paid a little rent. On Saturdays, without being told, he even mowed the grass. Mom and Dad raised us right in that regard.
In the evenings we’d take turns making dinner. Joe was discovering Indian food and today is still an accomplished cook. I was the baker and, in the evenings, we’d watch TV and devour plates full of hot cookies or brownies. On weekends Joe would be out with his friends but sometimes we’d catch a Sunday afternoon matinee together. Sometimes we’d dress up and go to an expensive restaurant and treat ourselves. Except for frequent brotherly farts, and having to laugh at his ridiculous jokes, it was a good time in our lives. We knew, loved, and trusted each other and could have separate jobs, interests, and still enjoy each other immensely. And we only got on each other’s nerves a few times.
Then Fred—the youngest—also found his way to my home. Sometimes he’d bring a friend or two and they’d camp out in the living room. Same thing: he did his own laundry, made homemade fudge (his specialty) and was never a problem. Quite the opposite; they were good times we both remember. His jokes were worse, though. So were the farts.
“Living as brother and sister” is not a punishment. The Church requires for our own good and ultimate happiness that we refrain from sexual activity outside a committed, valid marriage—where sex is the appropriate, loving expression of wedding vows. Today some think that’s an unfair restriction or punishment. Quite the opposite. It calls us to go higher and to love on a level that brings deep trust and authentic intimacy. Who doesn’t want that?
Brothers and Sisters in Love
When I met my husband, Bob, we had to wait for his Catholic Church annulment to go through before we could even date or plan a marriage. We went a year or so spending time as friends, “brother and sister,” mostly phone calls and a few visits with his parish priest. I was in Southern California and he was five hundred miles away in the San Francisco Bay area. Occasionally we took turns driving back and forth to visit and, I admit, both of us were very physically attracted to the other. We’d been high school sweethearts forty years prior and had met again at our reunion. Because we’d been young and innocent together and grew up in the sixties, it was easy for us to feel somewhat like real brother and sister. Still, I remembered his kisses and those first, sweet stirrings of sexual desire from decades ago. We could not wait to make love. But we wanted to take the high road even more.
We could have moved past friendship, started dating, or moved in like so many do and started living as husband and wife but that would have been a lie. We discussed, argued, and finally agreed that we wanted something different than what the culture (and even some in the Church) told us we could do: we wanted to reserve sex for the true expression of a complete and total self-giving. In studying St. John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility we understood that it would be a lie to act out a full self-giving with our bodies before it had been exchanged in every other area of our lives. We also knew that masturbation wasn’t an easy replacement; that, too, was a practice in self-centeredness (not self-giving) that can never foster authentic love. We agreed to take the high road but wondered, Would it be difficult to do?
He and I were in our fifties when we met again. Both of us had enjoyed sex most of our adult lives but also had gone through many long periods, inside and outside our previous marriages, where we did not have sex. In talking about it, we realized that everyone spends most of his or her life mostly not having sex. We go to school and work. We do chores and immerse ourselves in projects. We decorate homes, join clubs, enjoy sports, take hikes, read, watch movies, play guitar, smoke cigars, play chess, and cook dinner. We raise children, take them to the park, go to their plays, and teach them how to ride a bike. We have interesting conversations, go on vacations, and plan family birthday parties. We have fun. We enjoy each other’s company. We listen, learn, and love. We argue, cry, apologize, and forgive. We laugh! We find meaning, have purpose, and discover joy. We live life.
All without sex.
Brothers and Sisters in the Bible
The Book of Tobit tells about a compelling romance where Tobias falls madly in love with Sarah. But Sarah, in despair, had been praying for death because the demon of lust, Asmodeus, (“the worst of demons”) had abducted and killed each of her husbands on their wedding night before the marriage could be consummated. God sends the angel, Raphael, disguised as a human, to help Tobias and to free Sarah from the demon. After following the angel’s instructions, the couple goes into their bridal chamber and closes the door. They must have been very nervous! But Tobias takes charge and addresses his wife with a most endearing term: sister.
“Sister, get up, and let us pray and implore our Lord that he grant us mercy and safety.” So she got up, and they began to pray and implore that they might be kept safe. Tobias began by saying,
“Blessed are you, O God of our ancestors,
and blessed is your name in all generations forever.
Let the heavens and the whole creation bless you forever.
You made Adam, and for him you made his wife Eve
as a helper and support.
From the two of them the human race has sprung.
You said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone;
let us make a helper for him like himself.’
I now am taking this kinswoman of mine,
not because of lust,
but with sincerity.
Grant that she and I may find mercy
and that we may grow old together.”
And they both said, “Amen, Amen.” Then they went to sleep for the night. Tobit 8:4-8
Ahem, they went to sleep after they expressed their wedding vows in body language! Restful slumber, indeed.
Brothers and Sisters In Marriage
True love is never about lust, that greedy, grabby, entitled attitude that one must have it (whatever “it” is) to be happy. It is about doing what is best for the other—no matter the cost or personal sacrifice.
I’ve worked with the divorced and remarried for many years. When couples are lovingly mentored, given the reasons “why”, and discover the truth and freedom of the Church’s teachings on marriage, many freely choose to “live as brother and sister”—and do not regret it. After they know I truly care about them, I’ll tell such a couple, “So, quit whining, really love each other, and do what it takes to get back to Holy Communion!” Well-meaning pastors and others who say it is too difficult and can’t be done are wrong. Why should we deprive anyone of the opportunity to reach great heights just because it is a trek? That’s not mercy—its madness.
If Bob and I had focused on what we were not doing—instead of all the love that was growing in other areas—we would have been like entitled teenagers demanding our natural rights. Oh, yeah. It was difficult at times, but we kept the higher goal in mind.
We learned we could really trust each other. Our mutual respect grew as well. Neither was using sex as a way to manipulate or keep the other one around. Neither was being selfish or demanding. Both of us were ready to have more out of life than what we’d settled for in the past. Real love that never brings any doubt, shame, fear, worry, or harm to the other was growing. Love was outshining lust. We were expressing our love in many other ways and did not need to demand or expect sex. God’s ways—given to us by his Bride the Church—are for our flourishing and those who follow them with open hearts and minds can attest to this truth.
When the annulment came through and we could plan a wedding date, Bob said the sweetest thing. “It’s been so long, I feel like a nervous teenager. I almost don’t know what to do!” He was being honest and vulnerable and it made my heart swell with love for him. I felt the same.
“Oh honey . . . you know what to do,” I said as I smiled and hugged him. We laughed. Our wedding night was so tender and special. The honeymoon was amazing in every way. Sounds sappy, but I have tears in my eyes recalling it. We did it. We went higher. And it was worth every difficult moment.
Post script: It’s been almost seven years now. We’re in our sixties and ninety-nine percent of the time we are not having sex. But with work, friends, hobbies, releasing his three sons into the world, tending to our cactus garden, and mixing up tequila cocktails every once in awhile, we are making love.
Remember what I always say: Put your RELIGION into Your Relationships!