Tag Archives: sexual refusal in marriage

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

So no one actually asked that question exactly as the title communicates. But it’s been asked of me, and several marriage bloggers I know, quite a few times. Too. Many. Times.

Blog post title + woman sitting on bed with head in hands

You might be wondering how prevalent sexless marriages are. Someone asked this question in the comment thread of my last post (Is the Church Failing Sexless Marriages?). Here’s my answer:

It’s really hard to get great statistics with sex. For obvious reasons, it’s all self-report, and people don’t always report accurately. Maybe someday, some tech guru will devise a study where you wear an innocuous gadget that will note when you have sex and then report that. (Although, even then wouldn’t people try to game the system like they do with FitBits?) But the primary estimate I’ve seen is 15% of marriages being sexless, meaning fewer than 10 encounters per year.

As for actual data, here are two snippets:

“Searches for ‘sexless marriage’ are three and a half times more common than ‘unhappy marriage’ and eight times more common than ‘loveless marriage.’ There are 16 times more complaints about a spouse not wanting sex than about a married partner not being willing to talk.” – Searching for Sex, New York Times

In a survey of nearly 16,000 Americans between age 18 and 60, by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, 12% reported not having sex in the prior year. How common are sexually “inactive” marriages?, Relationships in America

So yeah, it’s a common issue which needs to be addressed.

And as much as I’d love that title above to say, “5 Foolproof Ways to Bring Your Sexless Marriage to Sizzling!” that’s more cow pattie than I’m willing to step in. Even in my tallest boots.

Thus, I’m going to take some time with this topic, probably a series of three posts about marriages that are sexless or experience highly mismatched drives. If you’re in a drought, you’ll likely want to stay tuned.

But if you’re not in a sexless marriage, you may be tempted to skip the next few Q&A posts. I urge you to keep reading, however. Because you know someone in a sexless marriage. It could be a neighbor, a co-worker, a close friend, a family member, the woman who sits next to you in the pew at church, or the preacher standing at the front. How can our churches minister to them if we as individual Christians don’t understand the problem, show compassion and support, and help them address their struggle?

So let’s begin…

In everything I write, I want to be both biblical and helpful.

When I turn to Scripture, there is a specific answer for confronting someone who sins against you, in Matthew 18:15-17. But is it wise to follow that prescription to the exclusion of others on the topic of marriage? Shouldn’t we have a broader understanding of what God thinks about marriage and problems therein? After all, just one chapter later, Jesus says this:

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).

So what should you do? Should you start with confronting sin, as persistent, unyielding sexual refusal is? Should you focus on praying for your spouse? Should you just suck it up and “love your spouse more,” as is often suggested?

After thinking about this long and hard (and with a thanks to this comment from E), I believe the starting point must be this: TRUST.

Most spouses do not one day decide to turn into Maleficent or Darth Vader and become your worst enemy, at least in the realm of sexual intimacy. They don’t think to themselves, I don’t care how much it hurts him/her.

Instead, what I’ve most often heard from formerly refusing spouses who turned things around is they were protecting themselves from something that felt worse to them than denying their spouse sex. Meaning their refusal came from a place of fear.

That fear could take all kinds of forms:

  • Fear of not being good enough
  • Fear of awkwardness
  • Fear of being in pain or discomfort
  • Fear that their spouse’s love is only about the physical
  • Fear of being taken advantaged of
  • Fear of being made to do something they don’t like
  • Fear of being compared to previous lovers
  • Fear of being compared to porn

I’m not saying every single instance of sexual refusal is about fear, but I’d venture to say it’s a very high majority. For some reason, the refusing spouse feels unsafe in the marriage bed.

For some reason, the refusing spouse feels unsafe in the marriage bed. Click To Tweet

So is it any surprise that when you bring up the topic of sex, they become defensive right away?

But what if you’re confronted by someone you trust entirely? When you are 100% sure that the person has your interests foremost in your mind, that they genuinely want the best for you, that they are a friend who loves at all times? What if you feel entirely safe with someone?

That’s what Dr. Gary Smalley in his book, The DNA of Relationships, identified as a core principle of a healthy marriage — a safe environment. Too often, we are caught up in a “Fear Dance,” in which we protect ourselves by building a wall or even a battering ram against others.

Truth is, you have your own fears too. I get it. But 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.

I’m not saying you support the sin — of course not! But you show understanding and sympathy for the fear underlying their refusal.

(By the way, yes, I also believe you should feel validated, loved, and supported in your marriage. But your spouse isn’t reading this post, so let’s start the change with you.)

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Consider that church discipline passage mentioned above, Matthew 18:15-17. Immediately before that section, Jesus tells the Parable of the Lost Sheep, in which the loving shepherd seeks tirelessly for the one lost sheep and rejoices when he finds it. Jesus starts by valuing others and showing that He can be trusted. Likewise, it’s our compassion and trustworthiness that allows us to confront a fellow believer and have a chance of breaking through to reconciliation.

Look at these verses as well:

Wounds from a friend can be trustedbut an enemy multiplies kisses.” (Proverbs 27:5-6).

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18)

[Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 4:7).

Whatever you do next, the foundation must be trust. Isn’t trust something you had when you married each other? Didn’t you believe that this person loved you and thus wanted good things for you? Didn’t your spouse believe that about you?

But it’s easy to lose trust over time. Or for the falling-in-love feelings to fade and fear in your present or from your past to come creeping back in. And we often don’t even realize what happened. We just feel like we have to fend for ourselves, because no one else is going to do it. Or at least not as well as we can.

Our barriers are intended to preserve our soft places, to cover our crevices of fear.

What I’m asking is easy to understand, but extremely hard to do: Let go of your own fear, your own barriers, and open yourself up to your spouse’s fear. It’s what needs to happen to create or rebuild trust.

For you to make any headway with “I want more sex,” your spouse has to believe that you want more sex not just for you, but for them. They have to see you as a safe person with whom they can share themselves fully, and still be accepted and loved. They have to trust that your perfect love can drive out their fear.

Your spouse has to believe that you want more sex not just for you, but for them. Click To Tweet

Which, no, won’t be perfect, but buoyed by the Holy Spirit, it will be enough.

Next week, I want to talk specifically about how to build that trust — that is, actual steps to demonstrate your trustworthiness and begin to break down the barriers that divide you. Then we’ll get to some specifics on addressing the issue of sexlessness in your marriage.

In the meantime, I want to hear from those of you who went from a sexless or sexually unsatisfying marriage to healthy and holy sexual intimacy. Please send me an email and tell me your story, particularly what actually began the turnaround. Thanks!

Is the Church Failing Sexless Marriages?

After writing what turned out to be a controversial post on faith and sexless marriage, I spent a lot of this weekend thinking about my next Q&A post, which I would like to be about practical steps you can take to address a sexless marriage.

In preparation, I Googled that subject and found various posts on the matter of sexual refusal as a sin (which yes, I believe it is). Many of them were posts written by fellow marriage bloggers I’d already read, but there were some additions.

Here’s what stopped me short, though: In pages and pages of my search, I found almost no posts or articles written by pastors or biblical scholars on sexual refusal in marriage.

How is that possible – I thought – when I know that it’s an ongoing issue for too many in the Church?

Blog post title + two pairs of feet in bed turned away from each other

Most of the posts I did find suggested the prescription of addressing your spouse’s sinfulness according to Matthew 18:15-17. The steps as described are:

  • Speak directly to the person who has sinned against you (your spouse)
  • If they won’t listen, take one or two others along as witnesses (being careful whom you choose)
  • If they still won’t listen, bring the matter to the attention of the church (not really the whole, but church leaders)
  • If they still refuse to listen, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector (remembering that Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors as outsiders but not enemies)

And I agree with all of that. It’s in the Bible! Spoken by Jesus! How could I not?

But here’s where the prescription, sadly, seems to break down in real life: How do I tell those in you in sexless marriages to go to your church for help with this issue, when I know full well that many of you will find precious little support there?

I’ve had spouses write and tell me that the Christian counselor they went to see brushed off the total lack of sex in their marriage, choosing instead to concentrate solely on communication issues or even saying that sex wasn’t that big a deal. I’ve had spouses tell me that they’ve begged their minister to preach or teach about sex in marriage, including the need to address sexual refusal, and they get waved off. I’ve had spouses tell me that they’ve approached church leaders and explained the heartache they’ve experience in their marriage, only to be told to suck it up, pray harder, and love their spouse more.

Poet Robert Frost famously said, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” And that is how I feel about the Church. My community of believers has been an anchor for me in many of life’s storms, and they feel like family in so many ways. I love the Body of Christ.

But I also get frustrated with our shortcomings, especially in the arena of sex in marriage.

I get frustrated with our shortcomings, especially in the arena of sex in marriage. Click To Tweet

These sad, true stories above have been told to me both through my ministry here and personally. Moreover, my Google search on the subject demonstrates how silent the Church as a whole is on this topic. So where are the ministers and church leaders willing to speak boldly for the sake of all kinds of intimacy in marriage, including the physical intimacy God clearly wants spouses to have?

I know they’re out there. But their numbers aren’t large enough yet. We still have work to do in the Church.

Look, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Jesus’ prescription for dealing with sin. Our Lord knows what He’s talking about! It’s a beautiful process done well and has turned back many hearts to God.

And if your spouse’s sin was adultery, I suspect the vast majority of you would receive compassion and support from those in your local church. But what if your spouse’s sin is the unfaithfulness of refusing you for years and years? What if they have cut off the physical intimacy entirely in your marriage and won’t even talk about it? What if your heart is a gaping wound in your chest that just happens to involve your private parts as well? Will you get the support you should get?

I want to say yes. I soooo want to say yes.

Because I love the Body of Christ.

Yet I’m a realist, and I know that too many churches, too many Christians, have failed in this area. We have left a large segment of emotionally pained spouses with nowhere to go.

We can’t accept that status quo. Something has to change.

So today, I’m just throwing this out there and asking my readers to answer any of the following:

  1. Have you personally experienced a church leader or counselor brushing off your concerns about a sexless marriage? If so, would you calmly share what happened? (Note: I don’t think berating individuals will help and just adds our own sin to the mix.)
  2. Has your church taught or preached on sex in marriage? If so, was sexual refusal included in the message?
  3. Have you helped someone in your church address a sexless marriage? What did you do, and was it (in any way) successful?
  4. If you’re a pastor or church leader, why has it been difficult for you or others to address the issue of sex in marriage head-on?
  5. What do you think needs to happen to make the Church more willing, competent, and compassionate in dealing with sex in marriage?

Where this goes, I don’t know. But it’s past time we talked more positively about healthy and holy sex in marriage and more honestly about all the sexual sins that can entrap us and damage the intimacy of our marriages.

And I want to be a part of the conversation that changes our churches for the better.

Are You a High-Maintenance Lover?

In one of my favorite movies ever, When Harry Met Sally, this scene defined well the concept of being low or high maintenance:

Yet here’s the thing: I don’t think we’re all low or all high maintenance. It’s possible to be low maintenance in some areas and high in others.

For instance, in my marriage I am low-maintenance in the romance department. My husband doesn’t have to woo me a whole bunch and I’m proactive in letting him know what kind of romance I need.

Meanwhile, I’m more high-maintenance in the listening department. Because I talk a lot, and he has to be willing to hear me out while I ramble. (Poor guy.) I’m even a ranter at times, requiring him to dig through my blah-blah-blah to get to the point. (Again, poor guy.)

I could name his low-maintenance and high-maintenance areas, but since Spock won’t necessarily admit the latter one and I want my day with him to go well, I’ll refrain from posting that publicly on my blog.

But I’m sure you and your spouse could do the same exercise: naming your high-maintenance and low-maintenance areas for each other. How about if you tried that same thing about how you are in the marital bedroom?

Blog post title + couple in bed arguing

Because I’m just going to say it: Some of you are high-maintenance in the marriage bed. Really. High. Maintenance.

Some of you are high-maintenance in the marriage bed. Click To Tweet

And like Sally up there, you may not realize it. You may think you’re low maintenance but you’re high maintenance. You might even make the case: “Well, I just want it the way I want it.”

Except that, when it comes to sex, your spouse shouldn’t be like your personal waiter having to fill your complicated menu order.

Let’s take an honest look at how we approach sex in our marriage. How many hoops does your mate have to jump through to get your participation in the marriage bed? Here are some common high-maintenance requests:

  • You can’t make love until all of the day’s chores are done, the kids are fully asleep, and you’ve got your to-do list made for tomorrow.
  • The lights must be out, or the room at least in extremely low light, because heaven forbid your husband see you naked.
  • You don’t want to take extra time to get your spouse all the way to climax, because that takes too long.
  • You have a short window in which sex must happen, because the rest of the time you’re exhausted and not “in the mood.”
  • You want your spouse to perform a specific sexual act, and you’re resentful if you don’t get it.
  • You can’t have sex if there’s any chance whatsoever that your child might hear a peep of what you’re doing.

I bet others could add to my list of examples.

But what I’m talking about is getting so persnickety about how sex must unfold that it’s hard to know when would actually be a good time for you to relax and make love.

Now, if it isn’t good for you, I’m not saying to just do it anyway. God’s plan is for you to enjoy the sexual intimacy in your marriage as well. That’s one reason I wrote Hot, Holy, and Humorous: Sex in Marriage by God’s Design, to help you become more confident and excited in the bedroom, and I included a chapter on achieving orgasm — because your pleasure matters.

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But the status of quo of “meet my demands or no sex” isn’t tenable for very long. It creates resentment for your spouse and keeps you from pursuing this blessing God longs for you to have.

Whatever the obstacle is — whatever unreasonable demand you’re making — take steps to address it. If you struggle with body image so that turning on the lights is a horrifying thought, check out my Feel Beautiful series or our Sex Chat for Christian Wives episode on Body Image. If you’re rarely, if ever, “in the mood,” check out Sheila Gregoire’s low libido course.

The answer isn’t to simply stay in high maintenance mode, but rather to work on sex in your marriage becoming more maintainable.

And if you’re married to a high-maintenance lover, it’s tempting to start catering to every little request just so you can “get some” already. But the better question is “how can I make this experience one s/he’ll want to repeat?”

Whether you’re the more demanding spouse or married to one, put some effort into transforming high-maintenance into high satisfaction. For both of you.

Same image as above, sized for Pinterest

When I Rejected My Husband’s Advances Outright

I realize how bad that title sounds. Because I’m Mrs. Marital Intimacy, right? I’m highly in favor of married couples have frequent and satisfying sexual encounters. I’m personally committed to that very thing in my own marriage.

But my husband recently experienced an outright rejection from his wife. He advanced, I blocked. What happened?

When I Rejected My Husband's Advances OutrightWell, the day after I had this paraphrased conversation with Spock (nickname for hubby):

Me:  Did you make advances on me last night, or did I just dream you touching me?
Him: No, that was me. I woke up in the middle of the night and felt turned on.
Me:  Oh, I’m sorry. I totally pushed you away. I was just dead asleep.
Him: It’s okay. I understand.
Me: You can try again today or tonight! I promise to be more responsive. *wink*

And that’s all the detail you get. Because after that, it’s close-the-bedroom-door, fade-to-black kind of stuff.

(After writing this post, some expressed concern that my husband was forceful or disrespectful in his advances. Particularly the line “felt turned on.” Spock is a man of few words, and at this point in our marriage I know full well that translates to “waking up beside you, my beautiful wife, reminded me how much I love you and I wanted to express that to you through sexual intimacy.” He put it in man-speak, or Vulcan-speak (“turned on”). But his advances were never forceful — rather loving and sensual touches that made his intentions clear but respected my choice. As our story shows.)

What happened was this: 1. He initiated. 2. I refused. 3. We did not make love. Which, on the face of it, looks pretty bad. That’s certainly not how I want our sexual intimacy to be characterized.

I’m telling this story, however, to deal with a few questions. When is a refusal not such a terrible thing? When is it not depriving your husband of his “marital rights”? When is it not a ding to your marriage’s sexual intimacy?

1. When you already have a pattern of accepting one another’s initiation. This was an atypical response from me. It was the outlier in an otherwise well-nurtured sexual relationship.

2. When your refusal is solely about how your body feels. I’m not talking about whether or not you’re “in the mood.” If you’re not now, you can probably get in the mood with flirtation, affection, and foreplay. But if you’re sick, recovering from surgery, dealing with a migraine, or — in my case — so beyond exhausted you don’t even know what’s happening, your hubby will likely understand.

3. When you discuss what happened and everyone’s cool about it. I was fully prepared that he might have felt hurt by my rejection. I took it seriously that I needed to apologize for my (unintentional) refusal of his advances. Even if you have a good reason for saying no, express understanding that he feels disappointed. It matters to validate your husband’s sexual desire and let him know you care.

4. When your husband knows he’ll get another chance, very soon. If you can’t engage when he initiates, don’t leave the poor guy’s libido hanging for days or until some unknown time in the future. I immediately let my husband know that I was ready and willing to make love at our next opportunity.

5. When you initiate the next time, to demonstrate your own desire. Your husband shouldn’t have to initiate over and over and over, hoping one of those times will work out. Indeed, a deep longing of a higher-drive spouses is for their mate to initiate sexual intimacy. Spock didn’t have to wait long until I was the one in bed touching and kissing him. Which makes it clear that I’m totally into experiencing physical intimacy with him. I just happened to have one bad night.

For the constantly refused spouse, every rejection feels like another nail in the coffin of their sex life. But couples who cultivate healthy sexual intimacy in their marriage can handle a missed opportunity or a rejection from time to time. They aren’t depriving each other of sexual intimacy; rather, they have a mutually satisfying sexual relationship with blips now and then.

We can shrug off those times, and get back in the saddle marriage bed. Do what you can to foster healthy, godly sex in your marriage.

Your Sex Life: What If Nothing Ever Changes?

That title is a tough question for many of you. Some marriages are struggling in the area of sexual intimacy, and one or both spouses feel trapped in an impossible situation. Your spouse doesn’t fully understand what you’re going through, and you don’t know how much longer you can hang on.

I get it. I really do.

Because that’s where my marriage was for days, weeks . . . okay, honestly, it was years. I didn’t feel that way every single moment, but there were more moments when I thought we wouldn’t make it than I expected we would. It was so very hard to hang on and believe things could get better.

I’ve said many times on my blog that you cannot change your spouse. You can make requests, explain yourself, encourage change, and make your own choices. But you can’t force someone else to behave the way you want. God gave your husband (or wife) free will, and He won’t take that away because it’s not working out well in a particular moment.

I believe spouses in unhappy situations need to ask themselves that question: What if nothing every changes? What if my spouse keeps doing X? What if we continue to have this struggle? 

Your Sex Life: What If Nothing Ever Changes?

Such questions may feel like a recipe for despair, and maybe even divorce. But NO! That’s not at all what happened when I finally asked myself that question in the worst time of our marriage. I didn’t want to base my answers on the fissures in my heart or the frustration in my head. I wanted biblical, common-sense answers. What I discovered is what I want to share with you today — those of you whose sexual intimacy isn’t everything it should be, and who feel like giving up.

You have many other blessings in your life. When something is going wrong in your life, it’s easy to fixate on that. Likewise in marriage. Believe me, I spent years dwelling on everything that was wrong in my marriage, not bothering to consider what was going right.

That gave me a skewed perspective of the whole and sapped my energy to work on the area that needed improvement. It brought resentment and anger. And it made me blind to my own contributions to our problems.

Instead, consider all the blessings in your life — both in your marriage and elsewhere. Your sex life isn’t what it should be, but you likely have other benefits from being married. I know that doesn’t cover over the problems, but it may give you a healthier perspective and infuse you with a positive desire to work toward increased intimacy.

You can change the way you approach your situation. You are not powerless. You probably feel that way, but you have a say in how you deal with what’s going on. You choose your attitude and your responses.

Sometimes inadvertently enable our spouses to mistreat us regarding sexuality. We cooperate with the cycle of frustration or shutdown. We bring our anger to the forefront and operate from a selfish standpoint.

What if you changed the way you approached the situation? What if you stepped away from the role you’re playing in making things worse and discovered positive ways to approach your spouse and your marriage?

Without knowing your specific situation, I can’t say what that looks like for you. But most of us have some inkling of how we are adding to the problem. If you don’t know or need help figuring out how to change your approach, I recommend seeing a Christian counselor who can help you work through alternatives.

You still have an obligation to your family and to your God to do the right thing. Sorry to break it to you, but you don’t get a waiver from God because your spouse mistreats you. You are still called to act in ways that mirror Christ and exemplify love.

Now if your spouse has been unfaithful or abusive, you might well have reason to leave — permanently. But most troubled marriages fall short of this. Most of us are just unhappy. Yes, the issues may be big or they may be small, but they are likely not insurmountable.

Which means you can still do your part — by being the most loving spouse you can be. I recognize how hard that prescription is, but once again, I have personal experience on this one. Holding myself responsible for living out God’s commands was key to the resurrection of my failing marriage.

But even if my marriage had fallen apart, I could stand before my God and my family and say that I’d done everything I could possibly do.

You don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” Many of you are heartsick right now, your hope deferred because it feels like nothing will ever change.

But there are happy-ending stories for marriages and marriage beds that seemed they would never work out. If you doubt things can change, read the testimonies of wonderful marriage bloggers like Paul and Lori Byerly, Scott and Sherry Jennings, Chris Taylor, and others.

I’ve received great comments on my blog from couples who rediscovered sexual intimacy after years of frustration, and my email inbox has messages from now-happy couples that were very unhappy with their intimacy before. It happens.

You don’t know what’s coming, but if you can remain faithful, something beautiful could come your way. Pursue the best for your marriage, get help if you need it, and continue to hope that your future could be better.

Once again, even if nothing changes, continuing to hope can get you through a lot. It sure beats despair. And it can help us to “be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:14).

Are you ready to give up and feeling like nothing will ever change? Or do you have a hopeful story to share about your journey from unhappy to happy in your marriage bed?