Sex Struggles in Marriage: Are You Part of the Problem?

Twice in the last two weeks, I’ve screwed up with readers and had to apologize for making assumptions I should not have made. If I explained each situation, you’d understand why I assumed what I did, but that doesn’t excuse my blunder. The fault rests squarely on my shoulders.

Even as I write that, it’s hard to admit, hard to feel the disappointment in myself, hard to fess up to my part.

Why do we struggle to say we’re sorry? For whatever part we had in a conflict? Why do we struggle with it so much in marriage? With it in our sex struggles in marriage?

Self-Preservation

All organisms possess self-preservation, “a natural or instinctive tendency to act so as to preserve one’s own existence” (Merriam-Webster). For humans, that existence includes our sense of self. When we feel attacked, we react in defense.

Interestingly, the two primary motivators of self-preservation behaviors are pain and fear. “Pain motivates the individual to withdraw from damaging situations, to protect a damaged body part while it heals, and to avoid similar experiences in the future,” while ” fear causes the organism to seek safety and may cause a release of adrenaline” (Wikipedia, self-preservation).

I’ve seen this time and time again regarding sexual problems. The pain and fear of what’s happening, or not happening, attacks a spouse’s sense of their self. Rather than ask where or how they might have contributed to problems in the marriage bed, they react defensively. It’s an understandable instinct of self-preservation — to protect themselves from experiencing further damage or to seek safety from the pain and fear they feel.

Defense Mechanisms

We all employ defense mechanisms to preserve ourselves. But we have individual tendencies to use certain ones more often than others.

Before you read on, think about the biggest problem you have regarding sex in your marriage. It may be a huge disconnect that has caused intense conflict or a smaller one that you both want to address. But as I outline six common defense mechanisms, consider that issue and ask which defense mechanisms you relate best to.

Do NOT try to identify your spouse is on this list. At least not yet. Work on yourself first!

1. Denial

“What problem? There’s no problem. I don’t know why my spouse thinks there’s a problem.”

Few people living in denial about sex problems are currently reading this blog post, because the Kings and Queens of De-Nile are unlikely to visit a Christian sex site. However, you may be denying other issues in the marriage that contribute to sexual problems, like relational conflict or porn use.

2. Compartmentalization

“Everything else is great in our marriage. It’s only the sex part that’s an issue.”

This could be true, if you’re dealing with a temporary downturn in intimacy or a physical impediment you need to address. But compartmentalization also happens when someone says the marriage shouldn’t be affected by a lack of sex or that spirituality and sexuality have nothing to do with each other. Truth is, sex struggles may tap into pain or fear, so it’s easier to simply set sex aside and close it off.

3. Projection

“I’m not the one with a problem. My spouse is the one with a problem.”

Again, this could be true if you have a deeply selfish or abusive spouse, but most of us don’t. (If you do, see Are You in an Abusive or Destructive Marriage?) Instead, projection is when we contribute to the problems or feel things we don’t want to feel, and instead of addressing those, we project them onto our spouse. One example is the unfaithful spouse who accuses their mate of cheating, but it could also be something like a refusing spouse who projects onto their spouse the accusation of controlling the marriage bed.

4. Rationalization

“It’s entirely reasonable for me to feel and react the way I do. Because…”

You can recognize rationalization when the sexual problem comes up in conversation, and you immediate have an answer that could be introduced with “Yeah, but…” Then you go on to explain the circumstances that warrant your feelings, actions, and reactions. For example, of course you don’t have more sex because it’s messy and takes too much time. (Concerns which can be addressed, by the way.) Another form this takes is whataboutism, where you rationalize your behavior by pointing out a separate failure of your spouse.

Confession: In a conflict, rationalization and I are practically besties. Sigh. #WorkInProgress

5. Overcompensation

“So our sex life isn’t great, but I do all these other awesome things.”

Compensation is a positive defense mechanism if used as a way to make up for weaknesses with strengths. For instance, I have a sign in my kitchen that reads, “I kiss better than I cook,” to remind my family that my cooking weakness is compensated by my affection for them. But it becomes a problem when we overcompensate, meaning we play the game of “don’t look here, look over here.” We point to what we want our spouse to see, without regard to the problem that matters more to them. This happens with sexual intimacy when a spouse says that they don’t want to have sex but they are a wonderful parent, house manager, breadwinner, etc. Or let’s say he’s demanding in the sack, but he gives his wife a lot of orgasms — whether or not that’s what she cares most about.

(By the way, I still cook and try to make it good. Sometimes, it’s quite good!)

6. Repression

“I don’t know why I’m this way. I just am.”

Repression is difficulty to identify because by definition it’s the unconscious blocking of unwanted thoughts, painful memories, or irrational beliefs. You don’t know you’re doing it, but that buried baggage is still affecting the sexual intimacy in your marriage. It could be as serious as childhood abuse you haven’t addressed or a less severe issue like sexual myths you absorbed. But if you’re having problems with sex and can’t identify the issue, it’s worth asking what you might have repressed for the sake of self-preservation.

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7. Other Defense Mechanisms

These common defense mechanisms address many struggles I’ve heard, but there are other defense mechanisms, including sublimation, regression, intellectualization, undoing, and more.

If you want to explore further, here are three good lists:

PsychCentral – 15 Common Defense Mechanisms
healthline – 10 Defense Mechanisms: What Are They and How They Help Us Cope
verywellmind – 20 Common Defense Mechanisms Used for Anxiety

Beyond Self-Defense

So we often avoid owning our part of a sexual problem in our marriage through defense mechanisms meant to achieve self-preservation. But is that God’s ultimate calling?

  • “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
  • “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5).
  • “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
  • “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others”(Philippians 2:3-4).
  • “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10).
  • “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

Look, God wants to preserve us. But He’s concerned with preserving the best of us and our unity (see John 17:22-23). In marriage, that unity is called “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:6).

As Christians and spouses, we must be willing to confront our pain and fear and seek deeper intimacy with one another. That requires honesty, vulnerability, and owning our part.

As Christians and spouses, we must be willing to confront our pain and fear and seek deeper intimacy with one another. That requires honesty, vulnerability, and owning our part. @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

I’ve messed up in my own marriage more times than I can count. But I can also see times when things were bad and I made them worse by setting up defense mechanisms to preserve myself at the expense of our relationship. In the end, I created more pain for both of us than we would have had just addressing the problem together, head-on.

Perhaps you can relate?

If you see yourself in this description, start with these two words: I’m sorry. You may be responsible for 90% of the issue or only 10% of the issue, but own your part.

Then begin figuring out how to do something different. What first steps can you take to improve the sexual intimacy in your marriage? Not what can my spouse do (remember projection?), but what can I do? Then pray for God’s wisdom and guidance as you do just that.

8 thoughts on “Sex Struggles in Marriage: Are You Part of the Problem?

  1. Wayne Shaw

    Worth mulling over. Sign me up as a charter member of the “Spouses Who have Messed Up” club, and who continue to do so.

    I’ve marked this blog post for notification, so I’ll be back. Also identified two defense mechanisms; there are probably more, but gonna start with the easy stuff.

    Reply
  2. Natalie

    Wow! Convicting post! I’m really good at keeping a mental score board of all the things wrong my husband has done. And while his “wrongs” in the marriage may in fact be a higher percentage than mine, that doesn’t let me off the hook for my own wrongs. I’m not the “better” spouse because of my lesser percentage of wrong; we’re still both wrong and have messed up plenty of times. Excellent point, J!

    Reply
  3. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    I’m a bit late, but I hope the comment’s still germane.

    Yes, I am the problem,
    yes, I got it wrong,
    living out the vision
    of a cliche’d country song.
    I didn’t bring my A-game
    to my marriage or my wife.
    I thought that I could live the same,
    and thus diminished life.
    It is now sadly much too late,
    much time has gone on by.
    God has in store a different fate
    and I am going to die.
    I gave too little, that’s the key;
    what was held back now dies with me.

    Reply
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  5. Wayne

    Tough topic, this. But worth considering. I had said I’ll start with the “easier” ones, but truth be told, no one of them are easy. I identified mine as Compartmentalizing and Repression. They’re both tricky.

    I’ve heard and read that us guys tend to compartmentalize a lot, and I think there’s something to that. At the same time, I know I have to on my job, or I’d never get anything done. I’ve also heard that “multi-tasking” is nothing more than fast paced compartmentalizing, and think there’s something to that also.

    Applied to this discussion, for me it tends to morph into perfectionism, waiting until all the pieces of my life align exactly as I would like, before even considering initiating intimacy – which, of course is a very tall order.

    Repression – yes, I have thought I was past this one. An older relative told me once when I was very young, “Wayne, you have the memory of an elephant!” And, intentionally or not, I’ve spent much of my life proving her right ever since.

    I am a witness that memory is a two-edged sword. It is helpful in citing scripture references for instance, and in remembering pertinent facts in day to day living. And yes, in remembering incidents that would otherwise be repressed. But sometimes I wish I was better at forgetting things I need to forget, too.

    So I’ll own this one too, as something that can interfere with he healthy sex, whether the memory itself is sex related or not. Some of mine are, some are not.

    Well, it’s a start. Is this making sense?

    Reply

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