Today, it’s my great pleasure to share with you my conversation with Debra Fileta. It’s no secret both Debra Fileta and Gary Thomas are powerhouses. The fact that they came together to write this book is beyond exciting. We had this conversation about taking ownership in your relationships, marriage, sex, mental health and being an active participant in your life. Thank you, Ms. Fileta (and Icon Media Group, for making this interview possible). Married Sex is a balanced and holistic resource for setting yourself up to experience the best pleasure and sex of your life with your spouse. I hope you enjoy our conversation, and that it will encourage you to keep learning, enjoying and healing.
Modern Witnesses (“MW”): Your newest book, Married Sex, was co-written with Gary Thomas. How did you both come together for this project?
Debra Fileta (“DF”): It’s interesting because Gary and I have been colleagues for quite some time in the space of the relationship world. We both talk about relationships and marriage. I’ve respected him for quite some time, but rewind, before we were colleagues– I was a graduate school student finishing up my Master’s in counseling, getting my licensure hours, and I loved his books. I always had his books on my list of books that I would point people to and that was long before I was an author. Who would of thought fast-forward a decade that I would be his co-author? I probably would have never imagined that at the time, but he has always been someone that I really looked up to.
Through the journey of writing relationship books, our paths crossed. We met at different events that we were both panelists on. I read his work; he read my work. I really liked what he had to say from a pastoral perspective, and he liked what I had to say from a counseling perspective. He got the idea to write a book about intimacy, and he didn’t really want to write it by himself. He didn’t want to just have a male perspective because so many books on intimacy are male-dominant or male-centric. So, he thought, I would love to have a female co-author, and I would love someone with a different perspective than me. We came together for this counselor-pastor, male-female view of sex and marriage, and I think it turned out awesome.
“He didn’t want to just have a male perspective because so many books on intimacy are male-dominant or male-centric.”
MW: It really is a complete resource. You can tell so much went into it. How is it different from other books written on sexual intimacy?
DF: We are having to sort of unpack some of the unhealthy things that might have come up from books from the past. So one unhealthy characteristic of previous books is that a lot of them are male-centric, and they are from the male’s perspective or they use terminology that male’s will connect to more than females. This book is unique in that it’s a balanced perspective. It speaks to men but also to women. It speaks for men but also for women. Another thing is that it’s a clinically balanced book. So many books come at it from just a spiritual angle, that sex is this biblical spiritual thing, but then they don’t address some of the clinical components, like some of the problem spots. What do you do when there are psychological problems? What do you do when there is past trauma? What do you do when there are physiological issues, like all these diagnosis that people in the church have never even heard of like ‘Vaginismus’? It’s balanced in that it comes from the theological but a clinical perspective, which I think previous books come at it from one side or the other, and so that was another unique aspect about this book. Thirdly, we are kind of deconstructing some of the faulty messages that people have talked about sex in the past, making the woman feel obligated or talking about how it’s just your duty to please your husband, or that sex is just for the man, or that sex gets worse over time because that is just how life is. So, we are coming at it to take down some of the cultural norms that have been placed up that are not good or healthy or even biblical, so it’s exciting. I think even people who are typically critical of books like this will enjoy and hopefully really benefit from this one.
“So, we are coming at it to take down some of the cultural norms that have been placed up that are not good or healthy or even biblical, so it’s exciting.”
MW: There is a lot that you tackle. How did you guys even determine where to start. There is so much covered and in so many different aspects. Again, it’s a very well-rounded resource– so is that a week of brainstorming or going through past files to see things and patterns that come up?
DF: Gary and I both bring a wealth of experience to the table. He has had years and years of experience working with people in the church, and I have had years and years of counseling clients, and so we kind of have a file cabinet in each of our brains of the areas that need to be addressed. We brought those together, as we kind of brainstormed what we really wanted the chapters to look like. After we had a good list of the things we definitely wanted to cover, the things we might cover if we have time, then we decided who would be the best to tackle each chapter. We didn’t want to write the chapters together. I thought it would be important for each of us to have our own independent voices come through and our independent perspectives, because that is the beauty of this book. It’s two independent perspectives. We then went through each chapter and said, Ok, which chapter is a better fit for you to tackle and which chapter is a better fit for me to tackle? and that’s how we started formulating how we would write the book.
MW: Was there anything that didn’t make it into the book that you wish had made it into the book?
DF: No, nothing that I wish had made it in. If we had more time, I probably would have spent a lot more time talking about sex addictions– pornography and the impact it has on marriages because it seems that this is something our culture is really drowning in right now. We definitely camped out on that topic throughout different chapters, multiple times, but there are entire books written on that subject—it’s an important one. That’s the only subject I would say that if I could add an extra chapter, I would dedicate it to just that. But we tried to integrate that into multiple different chapters.
MW: Why and how should the church be approaching the topic of sexual intimacy?
DF: I think how we have traditionally approached the subject is, we say: No, no, no. Don’t have sex before marriage. We kind of treat it like a Say No to Drugs campaign. And then all of a sudden, you are married, and you’re invited to say ‘yes’. You have no clue what it even looks like. No one has talked to you about it. No one has explained it to you. No one has educated you. No one has given you a proper perspective. No one has talked to you about the psychological impacts of seeing sex as this shameful thing for all of your single years. I unfortunately get to see the other side of it working with clients. People who are just really struggling. I’ve worked with clients who have been married for over four years and haven’t had sexual intercourse because of psychological wounds and the damage that has been done from the shame or abuse or whatever—and so, traditionally, we talk so much more about not having sex before marriage, purity, but then, after you get married, there is very little advice.
You might hear a sermon preached about why you should save sex for marriage, but you don’t hear a sermon preached about what you can do after you are married. Why this is good, in marriage. I think the education is a little lopsided. If anything, we are teaching singles not to do it before marriage, but we aren’t even giving them the benefits of what is to come when they do it God’s way. It’s almost like, Why wait then? Why am I depriving myself of this amazing thing? And there’s no next step to show them why this is worth the wait. What is going to happen? What do you have coming when you do this properly? That’s part of the problem. Our education is lopsided, and we don’t talk about the ‘yes’ enough. I am hoping what this book is, is zooming in on the ‘yes’ of why sex in the context of marriage is so good and how we can make the most of it and how we can tackle some of the things that have been holding us back.
“If anything, we are teaching singles not to do it before marriage, but we aren’t even giving them the benefits of what is to come when they do it God’s way.”
MW: If you could rebrand married sex in a classified ad in a sentence or two, what would it say?
DF: Married sex, where sex should be enjoyed to the max because there is this overwhelming abundance of joy and pleasure. But the world shows us that that enjoyment to the max is in illicit sex outside of marriage. Hookups; the hookup culture. That’s what is looked upon to be the hottest sex. Sex in marriage is like womp womp, oxymoron, kind of boring, but really the hottest sex, the best sex should be in the context of a god-honoring Christian marriage. We should be enjoying it more than anybody. I think the fact that we are not is truly an obstacle from the enemy.
“The hottest sex, the best sex should be in the context of a god-honoring Christian marriage. We should be enjoying it more than anybody. I think the fact that we are not is truly an obstacle from the enemy.”
MW: As a couples therapist, you’ve worked with countless couples who found themselves dissatisfied in their marriage, but also in their sex life. You stress the importance of emotional connection for good sex. “When we feel emotionally safe, we feel sexually safe.” You also mention how vulnerable men can be around this topic, sometimes feeling rejected by their spouse. If someone in our community feels a disconnect from her partner, how do you recommend women start to broach this important discussion and dialogue?
DF: Part of the problem, especially with women, is that we are taught that the man needs to take the lead and initiate. That is kind of the former teaching of marriage. But unfortunately, I think that teaching is inhibiting so many women from taking responsibility for their relationship in the places where they feel there are deficits. So instead of waiting on our husbands to connect with us emotionally, our job is to recognize it and be the ones to make the change. In marriage, you are one. When you begin to change, the marriage begins to change. Taking ownership, and saying, We are not as emotionally connected as we need to be, and I’m the one who has recognized it first, so I need to take ownership of getting us to a better place, as far as it’s up to me. What does it look like to have that conversation with your spouse and say, Listen, I desire to be closer to you. I desire to have a stronger emotional connection with you; I desire to make our marriage healthier, and I want to work on some of the problem spots. Sometimes, we go into it with a negative perspective, like, You are not doing this, you are not doing that, you need to work on this better, but that causes a farther emotional rift. So, even as we approach it, we need to take responsibility but then we also need to be approaching it in a way that is inviting emotional intimacy rather than pushing our partner away because we just bring a list of criticism to the table.
Too many women will tell me, Well I tried to tell him, but then when I hear what they actually said, it was discouraging, it was defeating, it was criticizing and it was demeaning, and that’s not gonna help the emotional connection either. So learning to say what we need in a loving way is truly a superpower. If you can master that, you are going to start to see change happen in your marriage. Let the change start with you. Be the one to start making progress, emotionally. Asking those questions, giving affection, whatever it is that your marriage is lacking– start to take those steps in the right direction and ask the Lord to help you in the areas that are outside of your control. You cannot control your spouse, but you can ask the Holy Spirit to be at work in their life as you control what you have the power to change.
“Too many women will tell me, Well I tried to tell him, but then when I hear what they actually said, it was discouraging, it was defeating, it was criticizing and it was demeaning, and that’s not gonna help the emotional connection either.”
MW: There is a great chapter on preparing the mind for embracing your spouse. It’s filled with tips for the spouse but also for us to do the mental work. It’s written by both you and Gary. Why was this such a must-have chapter?
DF: “What Gets You Going” was one of my favorite chapters because we’ve got a chapter called “What Gets Him Going” and “What Gets Her Going,” and then I said to Gary, “I think we need to focus in on taking personal ownership of how we enjoy or don’t enjoy sex. Instead of blaming it on our spouse saying I want them to do this better, why aren’t they doing this? What’s my role?” As a counselor, so much of my work with clients is helping them see their role. If you have no role in the situation, you have no control in the situation. It think it’s easier for people to say, I don’t have a role; my spouse is the one that needs to change, but then you just forfeited your power. Because if you don’t have a role, then there’s nothing you can do. But when you say, I do have a role in this that gives you the power back to make the change that you want to see. So “What Gets You Going” was one of my favorite chapters because it gives you the power in making your sex life good, even great. It gives you the power of getting yourself in the mood, it gives you the power to increasing your sex drive and working in that area of your life, whether or not your spouse is gonna make a change, it doesn’t matter because this is about your role.
One powerful component is the mental work. The mental work of blocking out distractions, the mental work of seeing sex as something that is beneficial for you and not just something for your partner, the mental work of focusing on the positive qualities of your spouse and not just allowing yourself to be filled with frustration and bitterness and criticism because all of that ends up leading to and building a healthy sex life or even just a healthy fun experience.
MW: You all explored Song of Solomon in an incredible and detailed way. Was there something you learned to see in a different light throughout the process?
DF: It was one of Gary’s teachings on the Song of Solomon. The very first chapter is all about the Song of Songs. And Gary talks about how there are so many things in Scripture, [like] prayer is so important in Scripture but there is not one book dedicated to just prayer. The only book that is dedicated to just one specific topic is the Song of Songs. When you look at Scripture, when you call something the “something of something,” you are elevating it to the highest place. That’s why Jesus is called the King of Kings. So the Song of all Songs refers to sex. That’s what the book is all about. It is the highest song. It is the greatest form of pleasure. There is an entire book just dedicated to literally the best song, the Song of Songs. And that is God’s view of sex. For me, when each one of us wrote a chapter, we would send it to the other person to edit, to add their input or to add a couple notes from the other person, and I just remember reading that and I was like, That is powerful. The Song of all Songs. In and of itself, that says so much about God’s view of sex, and I think something that is going to really impact a lot of people. Most people don’t come from such a high valuable view of sex.
MW: What are your hopes for the couples who read this book?
DF: The hope would be learning to live a life of mutual respect, mutual pleasure mutual intimacy mutual connection. Too many times in marriage, sex is kind of lopsided. One person likes it more than the other. One person that feels pressured; one person that feels obligated; one person that feels like they are nagging. I hope that through this book, both men and women can see the role of how important it is and why it matters and what’s lacking in what they are doing, offering and bringing to the table so that sex can become a more mutually enjoyable and reciprocal experience for husbands and wives. Something that really bonds, connects and unites them rather than something that causes division and dissension which is often times how it ends up happening. I am hoping to bring unity in marriages through this.
MW: What are your top 3 essentials?
DF: Not related to sex?
*both of us laugh*
MW: It can be.
DF: I always have a pen because I am always writing things down, [taking] notes, making observations.
MW: Hey, you are a writer!
DF: In this stage, I never leave home without a diaper bag. I am a new mom. I just had a baby seven months ago. I really believe this baby was as a result of this book because my husband and I were done having kids. Completely done. Our youngest was about to turn five; we had just given away all of our baby things, cribs, strollers, you name it. And within a few months, I got pregnant, and my husband and I are blaming this book because of all the research we had to do and the conversations we had about the book, you know. My husband is like, “I am not sure this baby would have happened if it wasn’t for this book,” so it’s kind of a running joke in our house. So at this stage, I am in that new mom stage. This is my fourth, but I have my diaper bag everywhere I go—so that’s another essential. And usually, maybe this sounds silly, usually you will find me with a small group of children. Even though I am an author, speaker and a counselor, honestly the majority of my life is as a mom of four. I lug my kids around everywhere I go, whether it’s for work or to the park or here or there. I am a homeschooling mom as well, so my kids are like my sidekicks, and I am grateful for it. I really enjoy it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
MW: Congratulations, when I read that note at the end of the book about the baby I was so excited. We are a global community, and we love learning about different traditions. Is there a special tradition you and your family keep?
DF: So many different things. I would say one of our favorites is throughout the week we’ll have special nights for each kids. Especially during the summertime, where one kid gets to stay up later than the others and hang out with mom and dad and the other kids are in bed, so it’s their special time with mom and dad. I feel that ritual has been so good for our family because when you have four kids, you just want to be able to focus in on each one as an individual.
MW: If you had to define Christianity in a sentence, it would be:
DF: An intentional and intimate relationship with Jesus. I say intentional because in my work as a counselor, you realize that it’s so easy to have these lopsided one way relationships where we are not seeing our role in the relationship. We are kind of passive. Obviously, in Christ we don’t have to do a thing, but we get to. There is joy in being able to engage with Him, interact with Him and receive from Him and give to Him our worship, our love, our time, and so it’s not that we have to do it but that we get to do it. I feel that is an important part to having a healthy relationship with Jesus.
“Obviously, in Christ we don’t have to do a thing, but we get to. There is joy in being able to engage with Him, interact with Him and receive from Him and give to Him our worship, our love, our time and so it’s not that we have to do it but that we get to do it.”
MW: If someone sees that they are in a spiritually passive role, is there a place where you encourage people to start? We talked about taking ownership—is there a specific step where you encourage someone, and it’s a starting point to start taking ownership and plug yourself into the story?
DF: I always challenge people to dig a little deeper beyond the rituals that they are doing and a little bit deeper as far as the reasons why they are doing those rituals. What is the why behind what you are doing or not doing. What is the why—is it because maybe you are not doing anything because you feel you won’t be good enough no matter what you do you are just going to fail. Maybe you feel like God has this extremely high standard that you can’t measure up to and you would rather admit you are a failure and not have to do it. Maybe you’ve grown up in a home where you didn’t realize that you had power, and you had responsibility in a relationship and everything was given to you, so you kind of grow up feeling that that is how you interact with God. Maybe you are doing a spiritual checklist, and maybe you are doing it because you feel that if you don’t God is not going to love you, and that’s not healthy either. So I ask people what is the ‘why’ behind what you are doing for Christ because I think when we can answer that, whether we are doing or not doing, it’s going to give us clarity as to what that next step could look like for each of us. Most time there is no cookie-cutter answer, but when we dig a little deeper at the roots of why we do what we do, we’ll often find clarity.
MW: I know that there are people in our community who are studying to be counselors. What advice would you give these young women?
DF: Stay humble. Just because you are learning to help people doesn’t mean you don’t need help yourself. Start that journey for yourself. I don’t think you should ever be a counselor if you have never had counseling. There is so much for the journey of healing that you need to learn to apply to yourself so you can help others apply it to. Allow God to heal you and recognize your own need for healing so you can help others heal in a powerful and effective way.
“I don’t think you should ever be a counselor if you have never had counseling.”
DF: The one thing I am very passionate about right now, even more than sex, is people becoming healthy as individuals and how that impacts their lives their relationships, their worlds. It’s a place I think everyone should start, whether they want to work on their relationship, their sex life or whether they want to work on their own baggage. The message of mental and emotional health is something I am really passionate about that affects everything. That is the theme behind what I do. Healthy people make healthy relationships. And healthy relationships make good sex.
MW: Thank you so much. It has been a real pleasure. Thank you for the work that you do. This book was fantastic.
“Healthy people make healthy relationships. And healthy relationships make good sex.”
Debra Fileta is a licensed professional counselor, national speaker, relationship expert, and author of True Love Dates, Choosing Marriage, Love in Every Season, as well as Are You Really OK? She’s also the host of the hotline style Love + Relationships Podcast. Her popular relationship advice blog, TrueLoveDates.com, reaches millions of people with the message that healthy people make healthy relationships. Connect with her on Facebook or Instagram @DebraFileta.