Praying When You Don’t Know What to Pray

As I contemplated what to say about prayer this Saturday, as part of my ongoing series about praying for your marriage bed, I felt empty. What else could I possibly cover? But then a passage from Romans came to mind—in that pushy way that scriptures sometimes do, as if the Holy Spirit is whispering, “Listen up, this one’s for you.”

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[i] have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:26-28)

Question mark with blog post title

And that, I suppose, is our prayer when we don’t know what we ought to pray for. It’s that moment of saying that we feel weak when it comes to our sexual intimacy, that our own strength isn’t enough to deal with the problems in our bedroom or to simply foster what we know our marriage should have.

It’s wishing that the Spirit would search our heart and see the good motives yet the heartache or exhaustion we feel surrounding this issue. Or simply seeing the few hangups that remain, even when we have good sexual intimacy in marriage overall.

It’s needing to know that God has it covered — that He’s working for our good. It’s trusting that God can and will care for those who love Him.

Yes, I know this passage is about salvation and living out our faith, about persisting through earthly struggles that threaten our relationship with God and our belief in Christ. I agree with those who say we need to consider the clear intent of any scripture in the Bible and not mistakenly apply something where it was never meant to be applied.

However, I also believe in underlying principles in the Bible — that the character of God, the virtues extolled in Scripture, the calling we have remains constant in every area of lives. Whether you’re in a Bible class, a boardroom, or the bedroom, your faith should be there with you.

So even this passage speaks to who we are in the marriage bed — about our need admit our weakness, to trust God’s goodness, and to just go before Him, wordless and knowing that He understands where we are and will be there with us.

Maybe that’s what you need to do today. Maybe your prayer is simply admitting that you don’t know what to pray for, but you want God involved in your life and in your marriage.

Intimacy Revealed ad, click to buy book

Q&A with J: What Can I Do About My Sexless Marriage? Part 4

For a whole month, I’ve been tackling sexless marriages as the primary Q&A topic, not to mention a couple of other posts:

Q&A with J: “My Sexless Marriage Is Making Me Lose My Faith in God”
Is the Church Failing Sexless Marriages?
Q&A with J: What Can I Do About My Sexless Marriage? Part 1
Q&A with J: How Do I Write a Post that Helps Sexless Marriages?
A Prayer for Those in Sexless Marriages
Q&A with J: What Can I Do About My Sexless Marriage? Part 2
Q&A with J: What Can I Do About My Sexless Marriage? Part 3

Today, as promised, I’m providing some concrete steps of what to do to address the issue of sexlessness in your marriage. But I encourage to look back at the above posts to make sure you’re laying a foundation of trust and avoiding negative communication styles that could undermine your efforts.

Blog post title + couple in bed, turned away from each other

And let’s return to this gem: Love must underlie all your efforts. Without genuine love for your spouse, it’s all for nothing.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-13).

If you do all the right things but your spouse feels manipulated, that won’t help your marriage.

If you do all the right things but your spouse feels manipulated, that won't help your marriage. Click To Tweet

Sure, your spouse might comply out of guilt or the seeming futility of arguing, but that short-term win will damage your relationship over the long-term. Not to mention that God isn’t impressed with a spouse getting more frequent sex merely to satisfy his or her selfishness; that’s just not the picture of sex in marriage our Creator paints. Rather, it’s one of shared, mutually satisfying intimacy.

Some of you are likely saying, “I don’t care how begrudging the sex is right now; I just need some sex.” Oh, how I ache for you! But I stand by the belief that it’s worth pursuing higher, long-term goals so that you and your spouse can have the physical blessings God wants you both to have.

So what can you do? Let’s talk about steps for addressing a sexless marriage.

Set reasonable goals.

According to the popular SMART acronym, goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Your goal, I presume, is specifically to have more sex which is measurable by a certain number of encounters per week or month. But the third and fourth criteria, which overlap, are tricky. Because what’s currently achievable and relevant probably isn’t what you ultimately want. It may be far less than you want.

However, if your wife’s issue is that she endured sexual assault in her past, she isn’t going to suddenly switch her emotions and start jumping your bones the moment you walk through the door. That’s not achievable. Nor is it reasonable to expect a mom of four little ones to clear her calendar for a long night of lovemaking twice a week when she’s exhausted and can barely stand the thought of being touched by any more hands. (Trust me, that’s a thing.) And the husband who stopped having sex because his libido tanked with his high-stress job and decreased testosterone with age won’t simply rediscover his mojo buried somewhere under the bedroom pillow.

So write out your ultimate objective, but then break it down into smaller steps. If you find out that you two can leapfrog a couple of steps, great. But by setting goals that are baby steps forward, achieving each one will show you’re making progress and encourage you both to continue. Here’s an example I put together:

ULTIMATE OBJECTIVE SHORT-TERM GOALS SMALLER STEPS

(covered later in post)

Have mutually pleasurable sex twice a week, in which orgasm occurs at least half the time Reboot our sex life with a sexual encounter in the next three months Start a conversation
Write down what issues my spouse brings up and consider how I can address (not argue) them
Show physical affection without any expectation of or overture for sex
Follow up with a second conversation one week later
Demonstrate through actions that I care about other forms of intimacy as well Plan a date with an activity my spouse enjoys
Line up babysitting, finances, and any other details required to make the date happen
Set aside fifteen minutes to talk with and listen to my spouse each day
Spend time in the Bible and in prayer aligning my desires with God’s plan for sex Identify relevant scriptures and read through one per day
Ask my spouse if they’re willing to pray with me and follow through if yes

You could break this into even smaller steps, but maybe this gives you an idea of how to approach such a task.

Start a conversation.

Notice I said start, not have. Few of us are convinced from a single discussion to change our minds, hearts, attitudes about any subject. So why do we keep thinking we can launch into one conversation with our spouse and achieve a major breakthrough? I’m betting 99.9% of you will need to have multiple talks about the lack of sexual intimacy in your marriage.

I’ve learned a lot about effective conversations from my parenting successes and failures. Those areas in which I’ve influenced my teens the most are ones where I opened up communication lines and slowly, albeit intentionally, got my message across. I didn’t push my opinion, but I did let them know where I stood. Then I asked what they thought, and I listened. When their perspectives seemed skewed, I calmly gave my two cents without expecting them to immediately see things my way. But when I’ve tried to control their conclusion in a single conversation? Yeah, that’s where I’ve fallen on my face. Most people don’t want to be told what to do, much less what to think.

Likewise, take an easy, multiple-conversation approach to your spouse with this sensitive subject. Start the conversation by letting them know that you want to be able to discuss issues freely and supportively in marriage, whether it’s finances or annoying habits or your sex lives. Don’t push much beyond that in your first go-round. Just get across that you intend to do whatever you can to provide a safe atmosphere for the two of you to work together to increase all forms of intimacy in your marriage.

Later you can follow-up with a “Have you thought about what I said?” and/or “Is there anything you wish I understood about your sexuality?” And yeah, listen and don’t expect a ten-second miracle. Miracles do happen, but oftentimes we forget how many steps the Israelites took to reach the Red Sea that God parted for them.

Invest in your friendship.

We’re far more likely to do things for people we like — including listen to their concerns, help them solve issues, and spend time together. But let’s face it: In some marriages, the spouses love each other, but they don’t much like each other. Is it any surprise then when sex doesn’t happen?

If you’ve neglected your emotional and recreational intimacy, it’s time to revive that part of your marriage. Do it because it’s a good and right thing to pursue, but you may well reap the benefit of better communication and progress with your sexual intimacy.

Think about what activities your spouse enjoys and make them happen. Show interest in their hobbies. Listen to their stories. Chuckle at that joke you’ve already heard eighty-seven times. Ask how you can help with their day. Engage in random acts of kindness, just because.

Again, don’t do it out of manipulation. Your spouse likely knows you well enough to sniff out ulterior motives like a hunting dog on a fox. This is when you’ll need to keep your own lines of communication open with the Heavenly Father, to stay on track with keeping a pure heart.

Woo your spouse like you did before.

Remember when you snagged that honey-bun of yours? All you did to capture their attention and adoration? Of course you can’t just pretend to be back on those falling-in-love days. In fact, half of your friends couldn’t stand how mushy you were back then, and it’s good that you’ve settled down into a more mature relationship with bills to pay, a home to maintain, and family to care for.

However, some of the ways in which we wooed each other could have hung around and benefited our marriage. I can’t say exactly what those things are because they vary from relationship to relationship. In my own marriage, we let dating fall by the wayside for too long after the kids came, and until a few years ago, we didn’t foster kissing nearly enough. Re-introducing such romantic connections helped us feel more connected and opened up more opportunities for sexual intimacy as well.

Ask yourself this question: What do I do regularly that makes my spouse feel special?

Not what do I do for my spouse, but what do I do that makes my particular spouse feel special. Some of you could write a page-long list of all the things you do for your spouse, but they don’t really speak love to your spouse. Figure out what actions make your spouse feel special and loved and then do them, regularly.

Set proper boundaries.

So far, you might be feeling like everything’s geared toward your spouse getting what they want and none toward you getting what you want. Well, here’s a rubber-meets-road statement: Your needs and desires matter just as much as theirs. Not more, mind you, but not less.

Some of you pursuing the steps I’ve laid out so far will get push-back that is simply unacceptable. It’s not okay for your spouse to call you a pervert because you want to have regular sex in your marriage. It’s not okay for your spouse to keep blaming you for past hurts you’ve apologized for and done everything to rectify. It’s not okay for your spouse to compare you to someone else who mistreated them. It’s not okay for your spouse to accuse you of egregious sins you haven’t committed. It’s not okay for your spouse to call you bad names.

Setting boundaries is the process by which you encourage the extinction of bad behavior. People tend to continue with bad behavior when it allows them to get what they want. Take away the payoff, and they’re less likely to repeat the behavior. However, where people get caught up in applying boundaries well is one of two areas:

  1. You stop before the process has sufficient time to work. It takes time for the other person to recognize that things won’t return to their former state. Most people are likely to push even harder before finally accepting that a new normal has been set and adjusting themselves accordingly.
  2. You start behaving badly yourself. Instead of setting a boundary, you launch a counterattack. Your message gets lost with the other person feeling like they have to defend or argue back. When using boundaries, you constantly need to check your emotions and remain calm.

What does a boundary look like? If your spouse calls you a pervert, it’s not: “I don’t have to put with that! I’m a completely normal husband who just wants to have sex with his wife.” Instead, it’s something like: “It hurts that you would call me a pervert when I just want to be intimate with my wife. I want to hear why you feel that way, but I reject that label.” And if your spouse continues on that trajectory, you end the conversation, calmly but firmly. “I really want to know why you feel like this so we can address it, but I just can’t stand here and let you call me names. We’ll have to talk later.” And then, you walk away.

But ack!I that means no progress happened, right? No, it doesn’t. It means you’ll need to take more time to establish communication guidelines to foster better conversations in the future. Remember — long-term view.

Offer to pursue outside help.

Let’s say your spouse is refusing because:

  1. They have an issue they own (e.g., prior molestation, health problems, a porn addiction) that makes it difficult to have sex; or
  2. Not feeling any real libido themselves, they see no point in pursuing sex in your marriage.

These scenarios cover the vast majority of sexless marriages. And both of them could benefit from outside help.

In the first case, you offer to move heaven and earth to help your spouse heal, emotionally and/or physically. You encourage your spouse not to give up on getting answers. You research the issue with them, making sure your sources are solid and biblical. You suggest a new doctor, a new treatment, a new support group, a new marriage counselor. You watch the kids while she goes to the support group. You have a garage sale to pay for his subscription to porn-blocking software. You make it clear that whatever outside help you (both) need, you’re all in. And you will not give up until you both experience the blessing of physical intimacy God intends for your marriage.

The second case is obviously harder. Because most such spouses just don’t understand how hurtful and isolating their refusal is. They don’t feel this need to have sex, and they can’t fathom why it’s such a big deal to you. It would be like someone trying to sell this South Texan a pair of snow tires. Why would I need that? Why would anybody need that?

You should still offer to get help — to speak with a counselor, a pastor, a mentor couple in your church. Tell your spouse you know this is an area of contention, but you’re willing to sit down with an external mediator and hear what they have to say. But here’s where you have to do your homework: Find out who will be sex and marriage positive. Don’t pick the first Christian counselor in the phone book, but ask around and see who’s got a good reputation for giving both spouses a fair shot in the counseling room. You don’t need someone just taking your side or just taking your spouse’s side, but rather someone who will listen to both of you and address the underlying issues so that you can find unity. Say to your pastor, “What do you think is going on with the sex lives of married people in our congregation?” and see how he responds. You can learn a lot that way.

Don’t try to stack the odds in your favor by speaking specifically about your situation and making sure that person’s on your side. Your spouse will likely learn about that and feel manipulated. (Because they were manipulated.)

Also, if your spouse thinks you need a help in some area, be willing to go get it for yourself. Indeed, some of you would benefit from saying to your spouse, “I want us to get marriage counseling, but if you don’t want to go, I’m going on my own. I need someone to talk to.” That alone will motivate some spouses to show up, if only to spout their side of the story. But if they don’t, you’ll still have someone to speak with who can help you get perspective and take active steps to help your marriage.

Call it quits?

That’s a question mark there, because it’s not what I advise, but something I get asked about often: Is it okay to leave my spouse if he/she refuses to have sex with me?

Is it okay to leave my spouse if he/she refuses to have sex with me? Click To Tweet

After a lot of thought on this one, I believe divorce likely is permitted when sexual refusal is deep-seated, persistent, and aggressive. But in such cases, they’re are usually many other problems in the marriage that make calling it quits an option.

But just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do something. There could be good reasons to stay.

I’ve heard from several spouses who’ve said that as soon as the children are grown, they’re done with their spouse. Do you really think divorce won’t affect your adult children? My parents divorced when I was in my mid-twenties, and it still hurt. Moreover, the consequences of having two separate families where there had once been one continues. Look, my parents had good reasons to call it quits, but I just want you to understand that divorce isn’t an easy walk-away for anyone. Sometimes divorce is the best choice, the only choice, but sometimes we think it is when it isn’t. As difficult as it would be for you, it might be worth staying for the sake of your family and community as a whole.

Here’s another reason to stay: I’ve got several testimonies in my inbox from couples who rediscovered their sex life in later years and are so glad they didn’t throw in the towel. Sometimes a refusing spouse finally realizes the damage they’ve done and decides to turn things around. Or a libido awakens when the demands of parenting or a high-stress job fall away. You just don’t know how this is going to go, and shouldn’t you give everything of yourself to your marriage before walking away?

Stop being a jerk.

I added this last one, because I do hear from spouses (male and female) who are so harsh in the way they talk about their spouses that my initial reaction is, “Good gravy, who wants to sleep with that?” Frankly put, some of you aren’t getting laid because you’re acting like a jerk. So stop it.

Stop insulting your spouse publicly and privately. Stop looking only for people to agree that you’re getting a bum deal and be willing to seek real answers. Stop grousing about the unfairness of life, and deal with the hand you’ve been given. (Someone else who’s getting more sex has a different crappiness in their life. Trust me.) Stop being an unhappy person your spouse doesn’t want to be around. For more on this point, you might want to read Kevin A. Thompson’s excellent post, I Wouldn’t Sleep with You Either.

And this is now the longest post I’ve ever written. If you stayed with me this long, I pray you found something helpful. Believe me, I’m pulling for you.

Intimacy Revealed ad, click to buy book

5 (More) Christmas Gift Ideas for Your Husband

Now some of you are already done with Christmas shopping, you crazy people, but the rest of us are just now making our list or filling in the gaps. In the past, I’ve had lots of suggestions for Christmas gift ideas for hubbies!

10 Sexy Stocking Stuffers for Your Husband

10 Sexy, Manly Items for Your Hubby’s Christmas Stocking

10 Last-Minute Stocking Stuffers for Your Husband

Wrap It Up for Hubby: 10 Christmas Gifts for Your Marriage Bed

5 Fresh Christmas Gift Ideas for Your Husband

Not to mention my Valentine’s posts with gift ideas (here, here, and here). What else is there to suggest?

Well, here are five more Christmas gift ideas for your beloved, manly, sexy hubby! Remembering that I focus on bedroom kind of stuff. 😉

Click on any image below to find the link for that product. (All Amazon links are affiliate coded.)

1. Wet Wipes for Men.

You know what kills the mood? Body odor. And let’s face it, wives, sometimes your man stinks. (Sorry, guys. Talking truth here.) I’m not saying we wives never stink, but studies show that our female noses are more sensitive than male ones so we’re more likely to pick up on body odor, even when the issue is mild.

If your guy doesn’t time to do the whole shower thing, how about some manly wet wipes? I found a couple of brands.

Whice for Men.

Whice for men

Dude Shower Body Wipes.

DUDE Shower Body Wipes, On-The-Go Singles for Travel, Unscented, Naturally Soothing Aloe and Hypoallergenic (1 Pack, 10 Wipes per Pack)

2. Body groomer.

I’ve talked here about us wives “trimming the hedges,” and our Sex Chat for Christian Wives podcast also covered the subject of hair removal down there with our episode on Tending Your Garden. But what about the guys? How about a little manscaping?

You don’t necessarily want him to use the same shaving equipment on his nether regions that he uses on his face. So I did a bit of research on what experts suggest for manly groin grooming, and here’s one great option for hubbies.

Phillips Norelco Bodygroom.

Philips Norelco Bodygroom Series 7100, BG2040

3. Double hammock.

Hammocks are very popular right now. My teenage sons and their cohorts love to hang out in hammocks at the local park. But you know what’s more fun? You and your honey-bunny snuggling up together.

All that close affection outside of the bedroom certainly helps stoke the fires of romance inside the bedroom. Plus, even if it leads to nothing at all … it’s cuddling with your hubby! Still good stuff. Here’s one example, but you can find a lot of choices at Amazon or your local sporting goods store.

Striped outdoor hammock with couple inside

4. Underwear.

A few years into our marriage, I piped up and gave my two cents about what kind of underwear I’d love to see my husband in. (No, I’m not giving you details.) Suffice it to say that he incorporated my opinion into what he now wears. But I also got the opportunity in that conversation to hear what was most important to him about underwear, and that was comfort.

Since then, I’m always on the lookout for men’s underwear that might be better or more comfortable. One particular brand was mentioned on the Art of Manliness podcast, and when I checked it out, I was impressed with its BallPark Pouch™ design that keeps everything down there tucked in just so, allowing for comfort and “breathability.” Check them out.

Saxx.

24-Seven Men's Boxer Brief – Heather

5. Ultimate Intimacy App.

When the creators of this app contacted me for support, I did what I always do: Took my time looking through the resource to make sure it’s something I can confidently recommend to my readers. Truth is, they did a really good job with this one.

Ultimate Intimacy App screenshot

The Ultimate Intimacy App is free, but go ahead and upgrade for $6.99 to get the restricted content. The core part of this app is a game you can play with sections on Romance, Foreplay, Heavy Foreplay, and Hot & Heavy. Don’t worry — there’s nothing extreme even in the Hot & Heavy section. And as I always say, if you don’t want to do something a game suggests, skip it. This should be a physical intimacy tool to use in ways that serve your marriage.

There’s also a section on Conversation Starters to increase emotional intimacy. And I must admit the creators have excellent taste in books when Hot, Holy & Humorous: Sex in Marriage by God’s Design is listed among their recommended Products. (No, I didn’t ask them to plug my book. They just chose it.) Moreover, they have a section on Positions with tasteful illustrations from Christian Friendly Sex Positions to inspire you.

And there you go — five more Christmas gift ideas for your husband and your marriage bed!

Remember as you deliver the gifts that a lot is in the presentation. For instance, add a note to the groomer about what oral delight you’ll be blessing him with once he trims with it. Or take a few screen shots of the Ultimate Intimacy game, print them out, and wrap up that paper along with instructions on how to download the app as a teaser.

Let your husband know that the gift isn’t just the item itself, but the way you’ll use that item together later to nurture your physical and emotional intimacy.

What ideas do you have to share? What are your sexy and satisfying Christmas gift ideas for hubby?

Praying Before, During, and After Sex

Some time back, a reader challenged me to cover praying about sexual intimacy right in the middle of the act itself.

I thought it was a great idea! Unfortunately, I didn’t think I was the right person to write it, because Spock and I don’t do that. In fact, while some people apparently talk quite a bit during their sexual encounters, others of us have difficulty forming coherent sentences while in the throes of passion. I feel pretty sure that any attempt to pray aloud during sex would merely result in something like Romans 8:26 describes: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (ESV).

However, I have at times imagined God’s presence in the room. That more meditation than praying, but it helped me to view the physical experience of making love as having a spiritual component that delights our Heavenly Father. So I appreciate the importance of acknowledging God in our moment of sexual intimacy.

With that in mind, let’s cover some ideas for praying before, during, and after sex.

Blog post title + husband and wife hands clasped on bed

Before.

Praying beforehand is often the easiest sell, because many spouses understand how prayer could help them have the right mindset going into the sexual encounter. If you’re struggling with getting in the mood, you can pray for God to awaken your desire. If you’ve experienced difficulty connecting recently, you can pray for unity in your pleasure and intimacy. If you’ve had a hard time sharing your body, you can pray to see your nakedness in the marriage bed as God and your spouse see it — that is, beautiful. You can also simply thank God for this opportunity to express and nurture intimacy.

It could be worthwhile to pray specific scriptures, adapting them to what you’re about to do. Here are a couple of brief examples:

Husband: Lord, how beautiful is my wife, my darling!
    Oh, how beautiful!
    Thank you for the beauty she displays inside and out.

WifeHow handsome is my husband, my beloved!
    Oh, how charming!
    Lord, may our bed be verdant.

Together: Lord, we ask you to rejoice and delight in us as we engage in sexual intimacy. 

Song of Songs 1:15-16, 1:4

We know that at the beginning of creation You made us male and female. For this reason a man leaves his father and mother and unites with his wife — as we did — and the two become one flesh. Indeed, we are no longer two, but one flesh. Bless our physical union tonight so that we both express and foster that deep intimacy You gave to marriage alone. Your Son said, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” Join us together physically, emotionally, and spiritually in Your sight and take pleasure in our sexual intimacy.

Mark 10:6-9

Intimacy Revealed ad, click to buy book

During.

It might be easier to pray during early foreplay than when things get more hot-and-heavy. One lovely idea I’ve heard is praying over one another’s bodies; that is, as you view and touch one another, stop at various places to thank God for how He crafted that body part. Such an exercise might mimic the passages in Song of Songs chapter 4 or chapter 5 in which the husband and then the wife praise one another’s bodies, but instead directing those thoughts to the Creator Himself.

Another reader wrote me and shared that after he enters his wife, they pause and give glory to God before continuing. Such a prayer would certainly focus your mind on embracing this act in marriage as one of God’s good and perfect gifts (James 1:17). You can pause at penetration or any other time during lovemaking to thank God for His provision of physical intimacy in marriage.

Finally, let me just note that screaming, “Oh my God!” in the middle of an orgasm doesn’t technically count as praying. Though I suppose one could tag on a thank you or some such statement to make it qualify. 😉

After.

Lying in one another’s arms, enjoying the afterglow of sexual intimacy, you could pray for the encounter you just had. Thank your Heavenly Father for the pleasure you experienced, the vulnerability you showed one another, the connection you felt, and the overall blessing of one another.

Consider Ephesians 5:31-32 and how this illuminates what you can pray about:  ” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”

The sexual intimacy you have mirrors the relationship of God to His people, which He often compares to a husband and wife. This comparison appears not only in Ephesians, but in other places like Isaiah 54:5, Hosea 2:19, and 2 Corinthians 11:2. Keeping that in mind, it’s good not only to give God gratitude for the lovemaking act but for this glimpse at the intimacy God desires to have with us.

So what do y’all think? Have you ever prayed before, during, or after sex? If so, how have you approached God in prayer and how has that experience impacted you and your marriage bed?

same image as above, sized for Pinterest

Q&A with J: What Can I Do About My Sexless Marriage? Part 3

Are you sick of this topic yet? If you’re the refused spouse in a sexless marriage, you’re not. Because you want answers.

Also, some spouses who are not engaging fully in sex in their marriage have been reading as well. While they understand the need to improve sexual intimacy, there are good reasons why they’ve been refusing — or at least reluctant — and they want answers too.

Last week, I talked about the importance of building trust as a foundation for working together toward mutually satisfying physical intimacy. This week, I want to talk about four things that blocked all progress in my own marriage in the past and that happen in sexless marriages too.

Blog post title + man sleeping on bed with tearful woman sitting on edge

These aren’t my ideas. They belong to John Gottman, Ph.D., author of Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Dr. Gottman and his colleagues have done extensive research into committed relationships and what causes them to thrive or fall apart. He identified what he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Sound familiar? Yeah, because he swiped that title right from the Bible.

But Gottman contends that these four communication styles can accurately predict divorce or, if you stick it out regardless, deep unhappiness. Let’s see how these patterns directly impact what you’ve been dealing with in a sexless marriage.

1. Criticism.

One or both of you is likely critical about what’s happening. From refused spouses, it’s talk about how selfish or mean their mate is. And from withholders, it’s often about how selfish or oversexed their mate is.

Criticism isn’t voicing a complaint or concern about what’s happening; it’s an attack on the other person. It’s not “We haven’t had sex in a while,” it’s “You’re a cold-hearted person.” It’s not “I feel pressured to have sex,” it’s “You’re a pervert.”

Years ago, when I took over management of a Christian preschool, I asked a schoolteacher for advice on how to talk to parents about their misbehaving child. She wisely told me that verbs are always better than adjectives. If you say, “Johnny is mean to other kids,” reasonable parents will take that as criticism (because it is). But if you say, “Johnny took a toy from another child, and when the child asked for it back, he hit her and called her a name,” reasonable parents will realize they’re child is being mean to other kids. The point being: deal with the behavior, not your presumption of what it means about the person.

Stick with talking about the issue itself: the lack of sex in your marriage and the barriers that prevent you from enjoying the intimacy God intended you to have. Don’t descend into criticism of the other person, because no one responds well to being personally attacked.

Don’t criticize one another, brothers and sisters. Anyone who defames or judges a fellow believer defames and judges the law. If you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:11-12, CSB)

2. Contempt.

It’s hard not to build up resentment when you’ve been at odds over sexual intimacy for so long. The refused spouse can be understandably resentful for having to go without, for their constant physical discomfort, for feeling ignored or insulted, for having their sexual longings — and thus a core part of their self — belittled. Meanwhile, the withholder can understandably be resentful of the pressure they feel, the frustration of not having a sex drive, and the sense that their worth to their spouse is wrapped up in sexual performance.

But resentment can kill a marriage, and contempt is essentially resentment on display. It’s outright disrespect expressed with ridicule, name-calling, harsh vocal tone, and body language like shrugging and eye-rolling. It’s the difference between saying, “I know you want more sex, but I’m just not sure how to get my body in the mood” and “You want more sex? Well, I’d like a week-long vacation in the Bahamas, but neither of us is going to die if we don’t get what we want. Is that what you’re saying — that you’re going to die if you don’t have sex right now?”

That’s an example from a withholder, but I guarantee the contempt can go the other way. And the point is all that contempt makes the subject matter rife with negativity, such that any time the topic is brought up, you and your spouse both immediately tense up.

I’m going to digress for a moment and say This One. This is the horseman that I had the hardest time with! I still struggle at times with resentment for things I wish I had gone or would go differently. But as tempting as it is to hold on to resentment, especially when you feel its source is reasonable, I cannot think of a single time it did me any good. Letting go of the issue isn’t the answer, but letting go of the resentment will help you better address the issue itself.

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).

Intimacy Revealed ad, click to buy book

3. Defensiveness.

Your spouse asks a question: “Are you touching me because you want sex?” And you respond: “So what, I can’t touch you now? You think I’m so oversexed that I can’t put my hand on my own spouse without immediately wanting to get busy?!” Whoa. Where did that come from?

It comes from feeling like questions and statements from your spouse are personal attacks, whether or not they are. Defensiveness is a way of counterattacking, or rather a peremptory strike. You know a defensive person when they ask things like “What is that supposed to mean?” or “You’re just trying to get me to _________.” Defensive people also transfer blame by pointing the finger at others, circumstances, and past events. For instance, instead of saying, “I’m struggling with getting in the mood tonight,” they might say , “I can’t get in the mood when I have all this stuff to do. Do my priorities mean nothing to you?”

Defensiveness is a form of self-protection as well for those who experience fear and self-doubt, which I’ve come to believe is a primary reason why withholders don’t engage in sex. Because if the problem isn’t you but something outside of you, over which you have little control, you don’t really have to change it. And for some, changing is super-scary. It can involve pulling back layers, exposing hurts and vulnerabilities, and even risking the relationship you have now.

Defensive spouses need a different target — the struggle itself. They need a spouse who can come alongside and reassure them that marriage is a team sport. It’s not you against each other, but you together against the problem.

‘Who told you that you were naked?’ the Lord God asked. ‘Have you eaten from the tree whose fruit I commanded you not to eat?’ The man replied, ‘It was the woman you gave me who gave me the fruit, and I ate it’ ” (Genesis 3:11-12).

4. Stonewalling.

Try to start a conversation about sexual refusal, and some spouses will erect an invisible wall faster than you can say “one flesh.” They’re not critical, contemptuous, or defensive; they’re just not there. They shut down. And that is stonewalling.

In some ways, stonewalling is the most controlling tactic, because you have absolutely nothing to work with. The shut-down spouse doesn’t respond at all, so you can’t address the underlying issues, correct any erroneous assumptions, or share your feelings. It does no good to talk to a wall.

At times, I’ve recommended that a spouse stop talking about sex in their marriage — when it’s become such a contentious subject that pushing the topic makes things worse. I’m not saying you don’t stop working on sexual intimacy, but rather stop trying for that one discussion that will result in a breakthrough. That might be what someone with a stonewalling spouse needs to do — just shut up for a while. If the topic is so painful to your spouse that they automatically shut down, you may have some other work to do to create a more trusting environment for them to be willing to engage.

Of course, stonewalling can’t be allowed to go on for too long. You have to eventually address the snarling, stomping elephant in the room. And this is a circumstance in which intervention may need occur. Interventions, however, can be effective or damaging, all depending on who intervenes and how. So approach this one carefully.

But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry” (Zechariah 7:11-12).

So I’ve laid out these four communication styles that hinder progress in sexless, or sex-challenged, marriages. Now what?

Well, I’m going to tackle this subject one more time next week — and get to concrete tips on how to confront sexless marriages. But I encourage you to make sure you’ve read what I’ve said so far, because these posts lay the foundation for being effective with those specific steps.

Is the Church Failing Sexless Marriages?

Q&A with J: “What Can I Do About My Sexless Marriage?” Part 1

Q&A with J: How Do I Write a Post that Helps Sexless Marriages?

A Prayer for Those in Sexless Marriages

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