When Your Wedding Night Is Your First Time

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Now that they're married, Laura and Adam Hardin clearly have figured it out: their two toddlers were pattering around upstairs in their modest home in a Washington, D.C., suburb when NPR visited recently. And Laura's belly was bulging with their third baby — a daughter born last week.

But Adam remembers some anxious moments on their honeymoon almost five years ago — the first time either of them had sex.

"Mostly I think I was concerned with, like, not wanting to hurt her," he says.

Laura says after years of knowing each other, and about a year-and-a-half as a couple, they were excited to have sex. But even with the vows exchanged, there was some trial and error.

"I do remember calling a friend and just telling her how it was taking us awhile, and we weren't sure what to do," Laura says.

Waiting until marriage to have sex is relatively rare in the United States. It's tough to measure how many people are currently waiting, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, close to 90% of people who have ever been married say they've had premarital sex.

Laura, 33, is currently staying home with the kids while Adam, 37, works as a middle school music teacher.

The problem on their wedding night definitely wasn't a lack of chemistry. When they both started volunteering for a program run by their evangelical Christian church, working with kids in Adam's neighborhood, a friendship began to grow, and it quickly turned into something more.

"You could just feel the chemistry, the tension. And it was like, 'This thing is gonna pop. I really need to say something now,' " he says.

Lucky for him, Laura was sensing it, too.

"Just even standing next to each other — we would make cookies for the kids, and like, you could just feel it," she says, grinning as she sits beside her husband on the couch in their small living room. "He would reach over to get something, I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, he's so close!' "

Adam says he wanted to take things slowly, thoughtfully. And in large part because of their faith, they both wanted to save sex for marriage.

So, they made some rules: not just no sex, but no kissing. The Hardins say they initially planned to wait to kiss until they became engaged but decided to take that pledge all the way to their wedding day.

"The question was just how we were going to do that," Laura says. "We just had discussions about boundaries — like how far we were willing to go."

It's not for everyone, they say. But talking this out — having conversations about what they wanted for their relationship — helped them stick to the plan.

"If we didn't kiss, then we weren't gonna go any further," Adam says.

Saving all of that for the wedding day made other kinds of touch feel more intimate, more erotic.

"Like holding hands and hugging was a huge thing for us — maybe too huge!" Laura says. "Goodbyes were so long."

She remembers drawn-out, 10-minute hugs. Adam kissing her on the forehead, then the cheek, then the nose. As the wedding day got closer, the goodbyes got longer.

Adam and Laura say they had kissed other people, in past relationships, but neither had sex. So they knew that despite their desire, there would be a learning curve. They spent time in premarital counseling with their pastor and his wife — who were not afraid to talk about sex.

"They just were really real," Laura says. "They were like, 'We're gonna get graphic!' Because they knew we had, like, no experience."

The Sunday before the wedding, Laura's pastor's wife came up to her with a bag — filled with baby oil, lubricant and other "stuff ... I would never think to have," she remembers, laughing.

Laura and Adam acknowledge they were lucky here. Laura says both her family and her Christian friends took what felt like an open, nonjudgmental approach to talking about sex, something she says not everyone finds in the church.

"I am really grateful that I was kind of free to develop my own [beliefs], so therefore it didn't feel like a burden. However, I do agree with some things that I've read ... I do think we need to talk about it more," she says.

In recent years, several people who grew up in the evangelical Christian purity movement have written that they found the message that premarital sex is a sin to be harmful. Adam and Laura say they know that some of those messages, and the way they've been presented, have made people feel shame about sex and their bodies.

"I think the criticism can be helpful," Adam says. "To me, that's not a criticism on waiting to have sex; it's a criticism on waiting to talk about sex, or how you talk about sex. ... That's actually one of the reasons we wanted to do this interview — because we felt that we have benefited from that conversation."

But talking about sex and having sex are not the same thing. Laura and Adam say all the advice they got — from their pastor and their friends — was really helpful, but they still had to figure out how to put it into practice on the honeymoon.

Adam says it took them a few days, a little bit of frustration and a lot of communication to fully consummate their marriage.

"You've never gone through that before, you don't know what to expect it's gonna feel like, or what you're gonna think about yourself," he says. "So that was challenging, but once we got through it, it was really sweet."

Laura says a friend suggested a specific position that might help, and she and Adam decided to give it a try.

"And I remember him actually saying — which, we needed to get to this point — where he was like, 'OK, Laura, this is going to hurt.' Because I think that's what was holding us back. And he told me that and we knew we were gonna go for it," Laura says. "This was all in a space of just like trust, and I just felt very safe. ... It was just part of our journey."

After the honeymoon, Adam says it was an adjustment to come back and see everything just a little bit differently.

"I just remember — this is kind of weird — but I was just standing in line at the post office and I was like, 'Wow, the world is a sexual place!' " he says, laughing. "To, like, know sex on that intimate level, you start to realize that other people know this, too."

For Adam and Laura, part of the beauty of their sexual relationship is that there are no other people — and never have been.

"We've kind of developed something that — other than this national interview — is something that only we know," Adam says with a laugh.

"Adam is the only person who knows that side of me. It's just, like, kind of crazy," Laura chimes in. "And I'm the only person who knows that side of him."

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