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.
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.
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)
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).
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).
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
22 thoughts on “Q&A with J: What Can I Do About My Sexless Marriage? Part 3”
Stonewalling yes this is my husband all over, and when I bring it up he admits he just wants it to disappear ,but I don’t understand how it can disappear if there is no discussion and no resolution so I am stymied and perplexed and sad
I didn’t ask my husband about this one ahead of time, but I’m sure he won’t mind me sharing that he was the stonewaller. So there’s me with my contempt and him throwing up walls for years in our marriage — it wasn’t pretty!
However, what I did learn was that while he shouldn’t just shut me out, he should be allowed to call for a time-out. Sometimes stonewallers are those who get flooded quickly by emotion or conflict, or they struggle to pull their thoughts together in the moment. I learned to back off when things started to go awry in a discussion, let him have time to decompress and process, and set a time to come back together and more calmly discuss the problem. Even then, conversations couldn’t go on too long or they would become overwhelming. I had to shift my expectations to have conversationS about the issue, not just one in which we resolved things. Hope that helps somehow!
I hope that you’ll continue this series. Sexless marriages are, I suspect, far more common than most would admit.
My epiphany came when I realized that my wife loved me…but she simply did not want me. My background as a paramilitary sniper and interrogator made it impossible for her to feel good about physical intimacy. She valued the work I had done, but I was tainted.
When I realized that there was nothing I could do to change that, I concentrated on other aspects of the marriage, and a kind of medieval courtliness that made her feel special, and loved.
She has likened me to a tame wolf; wonderful to have around when things go bump in the night, but not a creature with whom you would really want to share a cuddle, and I can live with that, because I love my wife, so very much.
Did she know about the background when she married you?
Not really. She once said that she thought I had been a mafia enforcer, but lacking any details (at the time) was content to let that rest. Apparently that was a preferable backstory, which is, I suppose, quite understandable.
I don’t really understand that, but okay.
Sorry for being unclear. She knew I had been involved in something violent in the past, but because of my reticence – it wasn’t something I was allowed to talk about, even if I wanted to – she drew her own conclusions. She was OK with them, as long as that part of my life was in the past.
The assumption that I had ‘family’ connexions was something I neither discouraged nor fostered. It seemed to give her a framework that was culturally familiar, and one she could ‘see through’ to forgive.
The truth’s more complex, and plays into the realm of mercenary soldiering and the media-hyped private armies like Blackwater, and those were kind of beyond the pale, when combined with what she learned through coming along to my PTSD counseling.
I should say that much of the background had to be kept very confidential, and still does. She became aware of the outline when I had to seek treatment for PTSD, but she still does not know most of the specifics, and never will.
The #staymarried podcast did a series based on the Gottman book. I highly recommend checking it out.
This is a fantastic post on the topic, J!
Okay, I’d never heard of this podcast. But they appear to be Christian-based and have been around for a while. Interesting.
Thanks J for this series and as far as I’m concerned you could write about this forever. I’m hoping your next post will give some actions steps on how we can work on these 4 areas you mention. I’m a “where the rubber meets the road” kinda guy and need to hear baby steps on how to begin working at each of these. As the refused, the resentment issue is huge for me and I am a big abuser of criticism. During a counseling session I expressed carrying around resentment in my heart toward my wife and she was very upset that I would be resentful of her refusing me, knowing her abuse history. It would be a lot easier if she would just acknowledge that resentment is a normal thing to feel and if she could understand that those feelings of resentment I have are real.
Are you really feeling resentment towards her? Or is it more the situation and the people in her past that did these things to her? And is it really resentment, or just deep frustration?
It might be easier on both of you if you could see it in these terms. Working to kill resentment and trying to see your wife as more of a wounded creature (like a deer or a kicked puppy) or a scared little girl and you like the hero coming to rescue you might help. Of course the wounded deer/ puppy is likely to kick or bite you if you try and get to the wound. Wounded kids acting out once they start thinking they might be safe… It’s hardly their fault.
As to criticism, bite your tongue. It’s hard but you can do it. There is always the exercise of writing 3 things that you are grateful for about your wife each day. It can be very difficult if you’re really frustrated, but it will force you to look for good things to praise instead of bad things to criticisize. Criticism is easy. Especially if you’ve been badly hurt. But it helps no-one.
I like Gottman’s stuff. I can still remember first reading his book and grappling with these four horsemen.
To pull another page out of Gottman’s work, that has rattled around in my head as it might apply to sexless marriages. Your series (and most discussion I see on the topic) assumes that sexless marriages are a “solvable” problem. What if some sexless marriages are “perpetual” problems. Do any of your thoughts or suggestions over this series change if the goal changes from “resolve the problem” to “learn to live with a sexless marriage without becoming gridlocked over it”?
My own thoughts are far from developed on this — I guess I throw it out there in the spirit of brainstorming ideas.
I have tackled this a bit in the past. Honestly, I find that question to be really hard, because as much as I give advice here, I hate the idea of telling someone essentially, “Suck it up, cupcake.” However, sometimes I think we put up with stuff we don’t have to deal with by calling it our “cross to bear” or “sacrificing like Jesus,” when it’s really just not doing everything you could do. What I suggest in the next post (part 4) is really hard to do. But it could work.
That said, I’ve tried to imagine myself in this situation. Presuming that tomorrow my husband was persistently unwilling to have sex with me, what would I do? (Although my husband wouldn’t do this, so I don’t want to impugn him that way, I always think it’s worthwhile to try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.) And I keep coming back to my own decision to basically do what you say: I’d stay and learn to live with it. Because there’s too much good in having a shared household, being there for our children (even when grown) as a unit, enjoying one another’s companionship, etc. But I simply don’t feel comfortable making that decision for others.
One other thought. All too often, when there’s a persistent pattern of refusal, there are other major issues in the marriage. That attitude is an outgrowth of general mistreatment or abuse, and then we’re in different territory with my answer. But sometimes it really is a spouse saying, “I just don’t wanna,” and otherwise they’re fine in the marriage. And the question then is: What do you do with that?
I know I’m slow responding — been away for a bit. The thing I find intriguing about applying Dr. Gottman’s “perpetual problem” concept to this is that it is more than just “Suck it up, cupcake.” He talks about gridlock (when a perpetual problem has become so “calcified” that we can not longer talk about it rationally) and how to avoid it (gridlock frequently being characterized by the 4 horsemen you mentioned in the OP). He talks about how these kinds of problems are often rooted in differing hopes and dreams and personalities (perhaps these are some of the “other major issues” that you refer to in your second reply).
Perhaps as an example that I have never seen really explored — Mixed orientation marriages. Most discussion of MOMs focuses on their high failure rates, but there are a few that succeed. Interestingly, in essentially all anecdotes of successful MOMs that I have seen, the couple figures out how to work through this “perpetual problem” of sexual orientation and figures out how to have a mutually beneficial sexual relationship — even though in most cases the underlying difficulties around sexual orientation do not go away. I have often thought it could be real interesting to delve deeper into this to understand how this works when it is extremely unlikely that you will ever attract your spouse’s eye in that way, or be attracted to your spouse in that way.
But here’s where as Christians we go beyond Gottman: We believe that God’s power can change people’s hearts and souls. “I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 1:19-20).
I don’t know what Dr. Gottman believes privately. As a practicing Jew (Wikipedia says that “he observes kosher and the Sabbath”), he may very well have a similar belief in an interventionist God, but his research cannot show what he may believe about God. Regnerus might be a better source for such data, but it could be interesting to see if there is data correlating “religiosity” with “relationship skills” or some such to see if there is statistical evidence for this interventionist God that we believe in.
Personally, I am inclined to believe, like you, in a God who can (and sometimes does) intervene in His creation. One of the themes I see in the stories behind the sexless marriage caused a loss of faith post is that so many seemed to start out believing in an interventionist God, then, when they fail to see His intervention in their own life, they lose faith in God completely rather than challenging the belief of if/when/how/why God might intervene or not intervene and how that might change their understanding of who God is. I believe that I have seen God intervene in my own life, but I have also seen situations where He did not intervene. It seems that a significant part of my walk with God is trying to accept that He chooses not to intervene and maybe understand why He chooses not to intervene in His creation.
That said, I still think the idea of a “perpetual problem” can be a useful concept while waiting to see if and when God chooses to intervene. If He never chooses to intervene, I need skills and strategies for dealing with an unsatisfying sexual relationship. If He chooses to intervene in the future, I need to be in a place to grow into the change. Either way, seeing this as something I cannot “fix” but must learn to live with in a good way seems to help me.
I agree with much of what you said. But I also the issue sometimes is that we’re asking God to intervene in someone else’s life (like a spouse) in a way that someone else doesn’t want God intervening.
I don’t know what to do anymore. My wife has not been intimate with me in over a year. She has not initiated anything in several years. When we were intimate, it felt like she was just lying there fulfilling an obligation and was not truly involved at all. She barely acknowledged my presence at that time.
We have been married for 30 years and have 2 almost grown kids. I have recently written her a letter expressing my deep feelings of disconnection, loss, hurt, confusion, rejection and need to have her participate in our intimate life together as husband and wife. I wrote the letter in an attempt at another way to reach her. I will never be unfaithful to her and never have been.
I cannot figure out what the issue is nor will she tell me much. We rarely take vacations, it has been 5 years, due to a lack of finances but this year being our 30th I have asked her to take one with me, just the two of us, leaving our children at home whom are more than capable of taking care of themselves. I am trying to reach her in this way but I have received little response to this, no “sounds wonderful”, no “can’t wait”, no “let’s plan something together…”
I have told her sex to me is one of the most important ways I can connect with her. Sharing myself with her and become one with her. We occasionally go out on dates, not as much as I would like, but finances dictate paying for other expenses and college. We do eat out about once a week with our one teenage child who is still at home.
I am at my emotional wits end and need some suggestions when a conversation has not done much so far. Is there anything you can suggest I try?
At this point, I’d be saying, “I am so brokenhearted and don’t want to continue like this. Please let’s sit down with a counselor.” And then I’d make the appointment, and if she doesn’t come with, I’d go alone and get face-to-face help on what you can do in your specific situation.
One tip: Be willing to shop counselors, just like you’d do for auto or home repair people. Your marriage deserves someone who can really help fix it, and not all counselors will either be great or the right mix for you and your spouse. Find someone who is. Wishing you all the best. Saying a prayer. Blessings!
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