Q&A with J: “What Can I Do About My Sexless Marriage?” Part 2

Welcome to my Thursday Q&A…on Saturday. Because Wednesday through Friday were Crazy Town in the Parker office, so I’m two days behind. Anyway, last week, I talked about addressing sexless marriage, or ones in which your libidos are highly mismatched. In that post, I suggested “if you want to make progress in a sexless marriage, you should make every effort to create a safe environment in which your refusing spouse can share and feel validated, loved, and supported.”

But let me go back and clarify something for those of you in the midst of a sexual drought in your marriage due to a refusing spouse: You’re in a terrible spot, and I ache for you. Likely you’ve tried everything you can think of to deal with the sexlessness in your marriage.

blog post title + man sitting on bed with head in hands

Some of the things refused spouses have tried:

  • Opening up conversations about sexual intimacy, only to be shut down by their mate
  • Trying to explain their level of desire, only to be accused of being obsessed with sex
  • Expressing their emotional pain, only to have their feelings dismissed by their mate
  • Working harder to meet their spouse’s emotional needs, only to have their own remain unappreciated or unacknowledged
  • Praying for God to take away their libido, only to struggle more with frustration and loneliness
  • Telling a marriage counselor about the sexlessness, only to have the issue tabled or being advised to deal with “more important things” first

It’s all very unfair. And I have no desire to add to the burden you already feel. Literally 100% of my ministry’s mission is to get marriages to embrace God’s design for sex in marriage — which includes frequent, meaningful encounters that satisfy both spouses.

However, here’s the difficulty I face in trying to help marriages like yours:

  1. Your spouse isn’t reading my blog. Refused spouses rarely read up on biblical sexual intimacy until after they’re convicted that something needs to change.
  2. Your spouse probably doesn’t understand the significance of sex. Yes, you’ve told them and they should get it, but what I’ve heard from spouse after spouse who eventually came around is they really, honestly didn’t understand what sex meant for their marriage.
  3. Your spouse is likely reacting from a place of fear or insecurity. It may have nothing to do with you, and it may not even make sense based on their previous willingness to engage, but after talking to formerly refusing spouses, I also believe this to be true. Many spouses put up barriers to engaging in sex or talking about their lack of libido out of self-protection.
  4. Your spouse isn’t likely to change unless and until you do. Whatever else Dr. Phil did or didn’t do, he gave us this gem of a phrase: “How’s that working for you?” Meaning that if what you’ve been doing hasn’t resulted in sufficient progress, it’s time to try something else.

So are you willing to try a different path and see if you can break through? I make no guarantees, but after looking at this issue from every which way I can think of, hearing others’ stories, praying for wisdom, studying the Bible, and culling through relevant research … I believe the place from which change can begin is a renewed bond of trust.

I believe the place from which change can begin is a renewed bond of trust. #marriage Click To Tweet

If your spouse trusts you, he/she is far more likely to listen to your concerns, express their own fears and insecurities, and be willing to work on sexual intimacy — because they trust that you have their best interests at heart.

Yet when the Bible talks about trust, it primarily focuses on our need to trust God. There are few Bible verses about trusting others, but several actually warn against trusting others:

  • It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humans” (Psalm 118:8).
  • Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save” (Psalm 146:3).
  • Stop trusting in mere humans, who have but a breath in their nostrils. Why hold them in esteem?” (Isaiah 2:22).

Based on those verses, I have a lot of nerve suggesting spouses should trust each other. But while we’re often commanded to trust in God, the Bible doesn’t command us to trust but instead to be trustworthy. That is, it’s not “hey, go trust so-and-so” but rather “hey, be someone others can trust”:

  • The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy” (Proverbs 12:22).
  • Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2).
  • Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10).
  • “In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything” (1 Timothy 3:11).

You see, we’re not commanded to trust people willy-nilly. Rather, God thinks it’s reasonable for us to discern whether someone is worthy of our trust.

And I’m going say this one without reservation: If your spouse is refusing sex and unwilling to even discuss the situation, he/she doesn’t trust you.

If your spouse is refusing sex and unwilling to even discuss the situation, he/she doesn't trust you. Click To Tweet

I’m not saying you deserve that! I’m not saying it comes from what you’ve done! It likely doesn’t. But right now, their fear and insecurity are bigger than their trust and willingness to be vulnerable. You’re going to have to build even more trust … by demonstrating (repeatedly) that you’re trustworthy.

How do you convince your refusing spouse that you’re trustworthy?

How do you convince your refusing spouse that you're trustworthy? Click To Tweet

I recently listened to an audiobook titled The Code of Trust, in which a former FBI agent lays out five principles he used to get informants to trust him and share relevant information without payment and sometimes at personal risk. As I listened, I realized that so much of what he recommended coincides with how Jesus showed us to treat others. Here are his five principles, along with a biblical viewpoint of each.

1. Suspend Your Ego. Let go of your own agenda, your own desires, and remind yourself that it’s not about you. If anything, it’s about them. When people believe someone else is pursuing their good, they don’t have to protect and defend themselves so much. They can let down their guard and just communicate. This is tough, because we’re automatically egocentric. We experience everything through our own perception, but if we can let of our egos and really prioritize the other person, it can open up the path for trust.

The Bible says we should “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:5-8). Jesus said it this way to His apostles, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Later, the apostle Paul adds, “No one should seek their own good, but the good of others” (1 Corinthians 10:24).

2. Be Nonjudgmental. No one feels safe to express fears or insecurities when they expect criticism or contempt. Even if what your spouse feels seems utterly ridiculous to you, take it at face value and accept that it’s true for them. It’s not where you want to end up, but it makes sense from their context. Treat them with the same non-judgment you’d like to have for your feelings about sex.

Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2). That doesn’t mean that we don’t use discernment about what’s right and wrong, or we don’t set boundaries, because other scriptures cover that. But it does mean that we don’t approach others with a judgmental attitude.

3. Honor Reason. What the author means here is to stick to reason rather than reaction as you interact. We tend to let our emotions get caught up in an issue as personal as sexual intimacy, and from a place of hurt, it’s easy to lash out — even with something as subtle as body language. (The issue my family has identified for me is vocal tone.) But try not to let emotion rule, and instead focus on listening to your spouse and responding calmly to what they say.

James puts it this way: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:19-20). And from Proverbs 25:28: “Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control” (NRSV).

4. Validate Others. You don’t have to agree with your spouse’s point to validate the person who makes it. Just try to see things from their perspective and figure out why they might have arrived at the conclusion they reached. From the point of putting yourself in their shoes, you can probably validate their thoughts and feelings. Once you recognize where they’re coming from, you can better figure out where to go from here.

There are so many examples of how Christ met people they were. You can read story after story in the Gospels where Jesus tailored his message to the audience he faced, and by validating the person in front of him, He broke through their barriers. See His interaction with the Samaritan Woman and Zacchaeus for examples. The apostle Paul approached people this way as well: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:20-22).

5. Be Generous. Give more than you get. I’m not talking about all the stuff you’ve done to help or show love to your spouse (though that’s all well and good), but consider how your spouse could walk away from the conversation feeling they got something out of it, that you gave them something worthwhile. Depending on your circumstances, that could be anything from more time to talk while you listen to a specific promise to follow up with something they desire.

Proverbs 11:25 says: “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” Jesus sets a more challenging standard in Luke 6:30-35: “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” Of course your spouse isn’t your enemy, but when you’re at odds about your sex life, they can feel like an opponent. And surely your spouse deserves as well or better than an enemy anyway.

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Now I don’t expect y’all to head off and start having incredibly effective conversations with your refusing spouse in which everything turns around in a moment. I wish that would happen, but since I choose to live in the Real World (when I’m not living in Crazy Town as referenced above), I don’t want to give false hope.

Rather this is what I’m suggesting: Spend the next week thinking about these principles. Do you agree or disagree with any of these being good for your marriage? Where have you fostered trust and where have you lost trust in your interactions around sexual intimacy? What would it take for your spouse to view you as entirely trustworthy?

If you want to know more about this Code of Trust, you can check out the book or listen to a podcast interview with the author aired on The Art of Manliness. And if you want to know more about trust generally, for heaven’s sake, pick up your Bible! Do your own study and see how Jesus fostered trust with people who came to believe in Him.

15 thoughts on “Q&A with J: “What Can I Do About My Sexless Marriage?” Part 2

  1. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    I’m sure that this series will help a lot of couples; it’s a difficult place for many people to be in.

    For what it’s worth, I think there are times that a mariage is exless for some very good reasons. I worked as a paramilitary contractor in some fairly nasty places, and came into the marriage with severe and undiagnosed PTSD.

    I did go to therapy, and my wife went with me. It was important for her to know where some of my attitudes and behaviours came from, but she heard things that were, in retrospect, impossible for a suburbanite to process. The old me, with his eccentricities but still ‘accessible’, died to her, replaced by something quite scary – an amiable chained wolf.

    Physical intimacy died, but love did not; when I understood where she was coming from, I could let it go and accept the hard but necessary truth that I was both outlier and, in the sense of intimacy (including sharing a bed), outcast.

    It was good training for where I am now, in my final illness; I don’t resent what has happened, but am able to look for the good. There is hope amidst the hopeless pain, and love still blooms in the hateful degradations of a failing body.

    Reply
  2. John

    I too think that trust is the issue.
    If your spouse can,t trust God with everyday life , chances are slim
    For letting go and giving up control in intimate moments.

    Reply
  3. Sean

    J, your suggestions are excellent, and I am sure they will help many people. I do think they are geared to the spouse who has sex less than 10 times a year, or has been forced into celibacy for no more than a year.

    I do want to point out that no one can do those suggestions indefinitely. Totally focusing on trying to make sure that your spouse is in a safe place, and neglecting self-care will seriously damage a person’s self esteem. Everyone needs someone to care for them at some point. I honestly thought that I could meet suspend my own needs, be nonjudmental, validate her, be reasonable, and be generous for the rest of my life, with no reciprocation, but I could not.

    I even had a Christian counselor keep me accountable for doing this. My mission during that time was to do everything I possibly could to make sure that my refuser felt save, fulfilled, and validated. I did this for six months. She had never felt more positive about me during the entire marriage. After that, my counselor told me to tell her how I had been able to do this, and invite her to come with me to counseling so we could discuss how to make the marriage better for both of us. She not only refused, but demanded that I stop seeing the counselor, so I did. I continued to try for several more years, but my refuser showed no willingness to meet any of my needs, sexual or otherwise.

    We also saw 5 other counselors, and nothing ever changed. Frankly, the rejection, cruelty, and abuse almost killed me. So I would like to say that a spouse in this situation cannot do this forever with no reciprocation. I don’t think anyone should try to take on all the responsibility for a marriage for more than 2-3 years. Beyond that, a person is just beating his/her head against a brick wall. I lost YEARS of my life and was beaten down so much that I was almost unrecognizable. One of my daughters has even said that I was manipulated and torn apart by my refuser.

    I finally got out, and I am so glad. I stayed because I didn’t want to be a part time dad. I am waiting for the divorce to be final, and she is trying to take advantage of me as much as she can, but that too will eventually be over.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      I hear what you’re saying, but I do want to be clear that I never said this: “Totally focusing on trying to make sure that your spouse is in a safe place, and neglecting self-care will seriously damage a person’s self esteem.” I’m not telling anyone to neglect self-care nor to ignore abuse.

      In fact, let me say something that will likely get me into big trouble (I have a knack for that at times): I think we push “unconditional love” too much. The way we talk so much about “unconditional love” in the Church sometimes makes it seem like you’re not allowed to have boundaries and set standards, and that you have to feel and express love to someone no matter what they do. And I just don’t buy that. Even God sometimes walks away from someone who repeatedly refuses to cooperate. (In a sense, that is love, because love is pursuing what’s best for the person and letting them get away with an egregious pattern of sin isn’t good for anyone.) That’s why I tend to talk about our need as Christians to show “extravagant love” — which, let’s face it, is still a higher standard that most of us really go for.

      The truth is that many of us think we’re approaching someone with extravagant love, but there’s still a layer of selfishness in what we do, because we have a sinful nature and an instinct for self-protection. And that we have to look at honestly and with humility. But yeah, I’ll admit there are situations where a spouse pretty much sinks a marriage and there’s not much their mate can do.

      I hope you can invest in your relationships with your children and find healing for yourself.

      Reply
      1. Eric V

        Thanks so much for making the point that we shouldn’t neglect our own health. Thanks also for mentioning boundaries and standards. I’ve had a tough time learning these. I find too often neglecting these simply enables bad behaviour and choices.
        I don’t think that’s the type of sacrifice we’re called to make.

        Reply
  4. Anonymously

    I’m not a refuser, but I could be in a second. I’m an expert at obligation sex.
    I’m searching blogs, not due to a change of heart, but looking for validation of my feelings.
    I need to know that my feelings from my life experiences are valid. I need to know they have served their purpose in protecting me from hurt and harm. Sadly, all I ever encounter is criticism, condemnation, or silence. Expressing negative experiences with sex seems to be a taboo subject.
    I’m a broken person sexually. As far as the whole world goes, I’m an evil sinner for not seeing or experiencing sex the way God designed it. I’m a withholder, a gatekeeper, and selfish.
    What a way to cheer on a motivation to change!
    It’s expected that all the pain, harm, terror, and fear that sex and male sexuality has caused me in my past should magically disappear by changing my attitude. Interesting.
    In earnest, I thought a loving marriage would be able to melt all my fears and hurt away. Unfortunately, my husband’s sexuality has similar qualities to other men’s hurtful sexualities. Everything always seems to be about sexual needs. Male sexual needs aren’t always beautiful.
    Defense mechanism number one: disassociate male sexuality from the man. That way I can love my husband but not need to love his sexuality. I’ve worked on trying to like sex and trying to find physical pleasure but I’ve only managed to give and not receive. No libido no desire just performing. I’d rather read a good book.
    All the things a refused spouse usually tries focus on are either sex and/or all the emotions tied to sex. Mentally I understand how that’s supposed to work but emotionally I’ve never felt it.
    It’s like trying to make a color blind person see a rainbow.
    J’s suggestions are right on. I would love to be able to talk with my husband about my feelings, why I feel the way I do, how I got to this place. It would help me immensely. The only way I’ll be able to move forward is to unload my heavy burden. But, would my husband be able to handle my load? My stuff is pretty negative and it is focused completely on the avenue to his heart, his masculinity, and his means of showing and receiving love. Sex.
    In all respects, the only person, besides myself, that could help me get past my past, is my husband. I would love for him to be able to detach his ego from his sexuality in order for him to objectively hear me out. I would love for him to say, “tell me what you think about sex, spill the beans, I can take it.” Maybe then he would understand me. Maybe then he’d realize why sex is hard and unpalatable . It’d be nice for him to be able to help me experience that it could be so much more than that.
    I stay quiet. I suffer in silence. I cause pain for fear of inflicting worse pain. Why can’t he just see that it’s only sex? What a cruel person am I.
    One “would be” refusers story.

    Reply
    1. E

      I really think you need to talk to your husband about your issues. Maybe do it with a counsellor present if you are worried about his reaction. It is so hard to be brave, but even more than ‘showing’ your husband why you feel the way you do, you need to talk about this for your own healing. Pushing down negative sexual feelings is never the right thing to do.

      I’m praying that you gather up the courage to talk to your husband about this, and praying that he accepts your feelings with grace and love. Your husband is your husband to help carry your burdens. And don’t forget to go to Jesus. Cast your cares onto the Lord and He will sustain you.

      Reply
    2. B

      Dear Anonymously, I’m not sure how much help this will be, but as a woman with the opposite problem, maybe something I say will help.

      Before I begin, I am not a man, and I don’t have that masculine sexuality I think you are referring to, but I do have a very high sex drive – much higher than my husband’s.

      Also, it sounds like you had some frightening experiences regarding sexuality in your youth, and that is hard. I know it’s hard to share things like that, but it might help you to share what you’ve been through with your husband. If that’s too hard, perhaps a trusted counselor can help you work through that. You used the word “terror”. That makes me think whatever you’ve been through was pretty bad. You should probably find a counselor to help you work through the past, so you can move forward in your marriage.

      Again, I’m a woman, and I don’t know your husband. What I do know is, when my husband didn’t want sex and was rejecting me, all I wanted was for him To tell me WHY. The not knowing was driving me insane. I spent years wondering what was so wrong with me. Why he didn’t want me. He could haves saved us both years of heartache if he had just opened up a lot sooner. We are still facing repercussions from his reluctance to admit what was wrong. I had zero self esteem left, and though I’m learning to rebuild it, I still have a very hard time believing him any time he says he loves me. I have a terrible time believing, even now, when we are intimate that he actually desires me and isn’t giving me “pity” sex.

      I detest what you call obligation sex. Most spouses want to be desired, share mutual desire, and they don’t want to be seen as some obligation. In your pain, you are doing your best to fulfill your husbands needs, but making him feel like a chore is not helpful. I detest that feeling. I’d rather my husband never come near me than give my pity sex – but again, I’m not a man.

      But I think your husband DOES love you, and he doesn’t just want his physical need fulfilled, he wants to love and be loved by you. Yes, some people, myself included, see sex as the deepest way to give and receive love. (I’m talking true, spousal love). He can’t see that it’s “only sex” because to him it is SO much more than that. It is knowing and being known, loving and being loved. He may feel like you’re not loving him and not allowing him to love you.

      I think you must talk to him. Give him a chance to understand. That’s all I ever wanted was a reason, a chance to understand. Its still hard, But at least I now know my husband does love me and doesn’t think I’m repulsive. Your husband would probably love to know and understand you better, on all levels. Give him that chance.

      You’re not evil because of this. And we’re all broken in some way, but I bet your husband would love to help you heal. You say the world thinks you are selfish. I think the world thinks I’m a freak. Let’s not worry about the world and just focus on our husbands. Praying for you.

      Reply
    3. Brian

      Please, for you and for your husband and for your marriage, have this talk. You seem much more self aware than I imagine most people in your situation to be. You know what needs to happen. Let me assure you that if here is any chance of healing for you and your sexual relationship with your husband, sooner is better than later.

      He might not understand at first. I know I wouldn’t. Help him love you by leading him towards your pain and your issues with sex. What is the worst that could happen? You are already hurting.

      Reply
    4. Anonymously

      I appreciate the caring concern, suggestions, and prayers.
      Until recently, I’ve been living in a county that had one psychologist. During a session, he was called out to deal with a psychiatric crisis in the emergency room. I guess there are sicker people than myself in this world. I also tried a couple of marriage counselors, but never seemed to connect very well.
      I have just moved to a bigger town with more resources available. Hopefully I can find someone who understands and can help me work through my issues and help me disclose my feelings to my husband.
      As for obligation sex, all it does is help one hang on. It helps one not be an ogre. Helps alleviate the spouses physical needs. Trying to go through the motions for someone else’s sake leaves one feeling empty and used over time. I’m sure the same goes for them too There have been moments I’ve cringed at the thought of being touched sexually. How do you ask your husband, “please don’t touch me?’ Yet, it’s my obligation, so I power through. Maybe just refusing sex would be kinder? Or easier?
      Sorry for the graphics, but trying to constantly provide for a partner’s needs when it is emotionally painful only adds to the anxiety.
      Hoping that he accepts my feelings with grace and love is the scariest. Sex is so important to men. That’s why I don’t say anything. I don’t want him to resent me because I have issues with the one thing he holds so close to his heart, the one thing that defines him. I don’t want him to reject me because I can’t be passionate for him and validate him due to fear. Why does sex need to be so difficult? Why can’t I just drop it and move on? Why does it need to be so important?
      Guess I can’t do this on my own.
      Thank you all, your support is uplifting and encouraging.
      Looks like I’m not doing it on my own! My deepest appreciation!

      Reply
      1. J Post author

        This breaks my heart, because the whole tone of your comment is that sex is for him. This in particular struck me: “Yet, it’s my obligation, so I power through.” Yeah, it’s an obligation, but it’s an obligation like caring for your kids that should have some really great rewards and some truly joyful moments. God intended sex for you too! And the reason to work on sexual intimacy includes meeting your mate’s needs, but also embracing the pleasure and intimacy God desires you to have. I’m praying that you can work on this perspective and find resources that help you discover that experience. Many blessings!

        Reply
  5. Llleopard

    Anonymous, I totally identify with you. I feel totally asexual for similar reasons to you, but there is no way I will ever tell my husband this because as B says I know he aches to be desired, and wanted as well as loved. Like you, every intimate encounter is obligation, but I do my utmost to be ‘present’ and satisfy him as well as I can and am as careful as possible to not ever show my true complete lack of positive feelings. He accepts the little I have shared with him, but going fully truthful? I honestly think that would destroy an otherwise awesomely good marriage. Wanting and striving to give to our partner – that’s not fake and like you, I am over feeling guilty about not being able to overcome everything. No-one knows what courage we have to get up in the morning, let alone how much it costs us to even attempt intimacy and sometimes really cannot face it and have to say ‘don’t touch me yet please’. Keep doing your best, be easier on yourself, and know that you are special and worthy of love and respect !

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      I so appreciate the selflessness of caring for your spouse in this way. However, the question really becomes: why are you feeling asexual? God created us to be sexual beings, so if you feel absolutely none of that, there’s very likely something amiss. I’d be hunting down what that issue is and working to fix it. Because as much you give to a higher-drive spouse, most can detect that you’re not all there and they long to have your complete involvement. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, sex is for you too! Check out this excellent post from Calm.Healthy.Sexy. on that topic.

      Reply
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