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.
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.)
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 trusted, but 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!