My specialization in trauma and attachment has lent itself to years of counseling with couples and individuals in unhappy marriages. Specifically, focusing on issues of trust, intimacy, communication, and sex. I’ll never forget the day I was at a conference workshop sitting in a room with 25 therapist discussing marital work. The predominant theme I observed was that these therapists tend to only inquire with couples on the nature of their sex life at intake. Then minimally as they neared discharge revisited the topic. I was horrified. What?! How could this be? Were they magicians? As if somehow the marital work in between had magically resolved the issues of intimacy and sexual dissatisfaction. How could they let these couples walk out their doors, patting them on the back and wishing them well, all the while knowing they hadn’t hit these issues head on. I was baffled and disappointed. Why was this happening? Was it their own therapeutic resistance to press into a challenging issue? Lack of experience and education on the subject? I suppose that’s for another blog entry. Regardless, that’s when I made a vow to never let the cultural discomfort of this topic guide my therapeutic work.
I could venture into the topic of sex through any number of avenues. Oh so many! However, one that seems super un-discussed in ministry and psychotherapy is that of women’s sexuality and desire. Additionally, when woman find themselves in sexless marriages and not by their choice. In his book “Everybody Lies” internet research analyst Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (2017) reported that the top google search regarding marriage is “sexless marriage”. He discovered that this top search is as likely to come from women as men. This is three and half times more common than “Unhappy marriage” and eight times more common than “Loveless marriage”. Media and ministry (hear me out here) tend to imply that men are the one’s typically suffering from unmet sexual needs.
Over my years of counseling and ministry, I have had the honor of speaking with a number of pastoral counselors who when I inquire about their approach to this subject respond with how they remind wives that it is biblical to meet their husbands needs with an emphasis on how men need sex to function. Of course, I push back here. First with a little humor, reminding them of no known cases where a man died from lack of sex. Second, reminding them that when Paul addresses this directly in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 the apostle boldly asserts to husbands and wives that their body is not there own and to not deprive the wife of her sexual desire as well. Clearly, we can exegete from this that sexual desire is not masculine or feminine alone. Rather, it is a human function reciprocal in nature. A further look at this scripture also suggests that sexual desire serves to ensure the spiritual functionality for both male and female. This is evident when Paul emphasizes a husband and wife’s vulnerability to be spiritually attacked by the enemy when not sexually intimate for prolonged periods of time. Furthermore, time and time again in Christian podcasts, sermons, and small groups discussions, cliché jokes are made by ministry leaders about how they are trying to help the men out (aka get laid) by approaching the subject of sex from the platform. I often find myself stunned that in 2018 this is where we are at. Knowing darn well the reality that a multitude of listeners in that moment are woman longing to be longed for by their husbands. A simple google search on the topic of sexless marriage by these women could be potentially hazardous. And the reason is because our churches certainly aren’t talking about the issues from a gender inclusive perspective. Therefore, leaving them to those who are discussing them. Pop culture media. Who, oftentimes, filter the discussion towards divorce, infidelity, or long-term suffering as viable solutions.
If I had a quarter for every time a woman in my office or on a coffee date shared, “I feel like the man in my marriage. We wouldn’t have sex at all if I didn’t initiate.” These words ring in my ears and in my heart. Profound confusion and rejection are deeply woven into these statements. Of course, they are usually initially mentioned masked with overtones of humor. And why is that? Why as woman are we raised to believe that we are not sexual beings with libido, arousal, and desire? How did it happen that we entered marriages assuming he would want us, pursue us, and that perhaps his male parts would fall off if we didn’t meet his sexual impulses with pleasure and readiness? All to be harshly met with the reality that 4 out of 10 men in marriage have low testosterone, and 1 out of every 10 men have sexual trauma history, and 70% of men look at pornography resulting in preoccupation and masturbation. Why didn’t any one warn us? In contrast, one could wonder then what false expectations have been placed on men’s sexuality? How horribly disparaging and isolating it must be for them when the weight of not meeting culture’s interpretation of male sexuality explodes in their face in the form of their beloved wives’ loneliness and confusion?
Here’s the thing…. we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Male and female. Right? We say this…. but let’s consider this in the context of sexuality. I may scare some of you off here as I allude to God as a sexual entity. However, if you can stay with me I think we can come out together on the other side. We often hear woman’s sexuality as something requiring daunting preemptive work by her partner. Example, “Sex starts in the kitchen for her” a statement routinely used in counseling to help men understand that she isn’t a microwave but rather an oven with a necessary preheat component. However, what is left out of these examples is that many times her desire to be desired is frequently on, accessible, and ready to rumble. A woman’s interest in sex stems from her desire to be chosen. To be sought after, longed for, and lustfully wanted by her beloved alone. Am I starting to ring any bells here? We are indeed made in the image of God! God deeply desires his creation to desire him. He chases us down and indulges us in games of pursuit. He is jealous for us, wanting us to want him alone. To choose him. Her desire for sex is completely healthy because it is one of the primary ways she experiences the fulfillment of the elation of her desire to be desired. When she finds herself desiring sex more than her spouse only culture and misguided spiritual formation has led her to believe that she is the “male in the relationship”. On the contrary, she is simply in tune with a Divine element of herself met with an unmet need for satisfying sexual reciprocity and spiritual security. She wants to get laid too and it’s completely normal and spiritual.
There are a myriad of reasons as to why this happens in marriage. Below, I very briefly bullet a few that are specific to men, but could also relate to women. Please know that each of these elements deserve their own blog post and this is truly only an overview:
Health; Nutrition, Hormones, Sleep & Medication
A male’s hormones levels, premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction are severely impacted by his diet and exercise habits. As men age their physical need for sleep increases and this can greatly interfere with their desire for sex, especially if you have small children at home predominantly making night time the only accessible time for sex. Lastly, anti-hypertensives and antidepressants are proven to lower sex drive.
Stress; Identity, Finances, & General Dilemmas
Stress comes in many forms to include financial burdens, family member disputes or illness, work burn-out or dissatisfaction to just name a few. Research suggests a correlation between when males feel uncertain about their roles in the world and decreased sex drive. Not to mention, that a performance obsessed culture can be overwhelming for men increasing their avoidance of sex all together.
Only 1 in 18 men report sexual abuse. This is staggering! There may be an unspoken and untreated history of sexual assault or molestation that impedes your husband’s sexual development, security, and drive.
Men hurt, too. If there is chronic unresolved conflict in your relationship then this may affect your husband’s ability to feel intimate and sexually vulnerable . Despite what pop culture paints, men are not sexual machines. They too have feelings and a need for resolution.
Pornography; Intimacy & Masturbation
We live in a society that attempts to normalize viewing pornography for men while demonizing it for women… “All men do it”. However, the toxic impact of porn on intimacy in marriage is astounding. She is often lonely while his needs are met in isolation. Leaving her to feel only appreciated for her ability to make his lunch or birth and raise his children. Some men feel severely vulnerable being dependent on another for the fulfillment of a need – our culture praises men who don’t need help – thus making it safer and easier for them to let their guard down alone with the use of pornography and masturbation. Additionally, disrupted and poor attachment in parenting can lead boys and girls to learn that needing another is just too dangerous and unreliable. Our culture’s failure to teach men intimacy has deprived them and their marriages’ of deeply rewarding relationships and sex.
Whatever the reason… in counseling we work through the overwhelming rejection a wife feels after initiations are repeatedly turned down, the concern that there is something wrong or unholy about her for wanting sex, the plagued insecurity that he isn’t attracted to her or that there is someone else, or the misconception that he is somehow failing her by “not being man enough.” And in marriage counseling we not only work through the above consequences but aim to untangle the reasons why. We strive to address the cause head on, occasionally requiring the husband to do individual work in conjunction with marriage counseling. We begin to unravel the lies of the enemy that have taken root causing creeping separateness in their general intimacy. Once this is established, the focus is to put practical measures, skills, communication and routines in place to change and to support healthy sexual exploration, satisfaction, and reciprocity. To the woman whose husband won’t get help or go to counseling. I get it. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Don’t do this alone. The more you face it, unrelenting with grace, truth and love, the more you shine the light on it without shame attached – This evokes hope. Tell your spouse that it is an issue and that you refuse to let the enemy win this part of your marriage. Pray for your husband. And pray for yourself… because I know it hurts like hell and requires supernatural strength.
It takes epic bravery and profound vulnerability. However, this brings me back to my earlier point. We are made in the image of God. This is in us, each of us. The power for a wife to forgive, heal, and press back into her husband. The power for him to make the necessary changes, increase communication, and desire her alone. This power is in us, not because we have the ability to conjure it up. No, simply because it is woven into us as characterized in our Maker in whom we are lovingly modeled after. If you read this and this is your story, know you are not alone. That so many women find themselves in this position too. Speak up – speak up even if this isn’t your circumstance. But speak up for your sisters! Challenge the cliché jokes. Ask your spiritual leaders to go deeper. Call out pop culture’s factious norms. Out of love demand more out of your marriages. Have the hard conversation over and over again. You and your spouse are worthy of intimacy on all levels and you were Divinely created for it!
Stephens-Davidowitz, S. (2017). Everybody lies; What the internet can tell us about who we really are. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing
Recommended Reading and Resources
Passionate Marriage (2009) by David Schnarch
Guidelines for Female Pleasure, Eroticism and Orgasm (2013), Psychology Today
Resource on Sex Addiction and Faith: Faithful & True