Category Archives: Sex & Marriage Problems

How Menopause Impacts Your Sex Life

For years, I’ve planned to tackle the issue of menopause.

But I’ve chickened out. Who was I talk about menopause when I hadn’t been through it? When there were so many resources out there on the topic? When others had dealt with the issue better than I expected I could?

Mind you, not experiencing something personally hasn’t stopped me from thoroughly researching and writing about all kinds of issues. But for some reason, menopause loomed large in my mind. I’d heard the horror stories of loss of desire and sexual activity.

Menopause, the Marshmallow Monster

To me, menopause became the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man—innocent in theory, but it might end up rampaging through my town and tearing up my satisfying sex life.

Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters (1984)

Well, I’ve reached the other side now! And my sex life is still here.

So it’s time, or rather past time, to talk about what menopause does to a woman’s sexuality.

Is it Menopause or Perimenopause?

Menopause refers to the cessation of ovulation and thus the end of menstruation. What we refer to as menopause, however, is often perimenopause—the 4–10 year period during which a woman’s body transitions.

The average age of menopause itself, among women in the United States, is 51 years. That means that perimenopause starts for many women in their 40s, though it can begin sooner or later.

Perimenopause symptoms include:

  • Hot flashes
  • Tender breasts
  • Irregular periods
  • Mood swings
  • Fatigue
  • Vaginal dryness / sexual discomfort
  • Urine leakage (like when you cough or sneeze) or urge to pee more often
  • Sleep disruption
  • Lowered sex drive

Let me demystify a few of those. I won’t cover all of them, because some like “fatigue” speak for themselves. But others are unusual in how we experience them and how they impact our sexuality.

Hot Flashes

Given the word “flash,” I anticipated a rush of heat barreling toward me. But that’s not how it felt.

What we’re experiencing is a heat flush. It’s just like when you exert yourself so much you get overheated, and a wave of warmth slowly rises until you suddenly realize that you’re really hot.

Only with menopause, you didn’t exert yourself. Rather, hormonal changes affect our body’s temperature control; that is, perimenopausal women accidentally overheat sometimes because the system is re-calibrating. These waves of heat tend to pass within a few minutes, and the flushes usually subside or go away altogether once you reach menopause.

How do hot flashes affect your sex life? Well, it may impact your desire for skin-to-skin contact. If you’re in the middle of a heat flush, you’re unlikely to be all: “Cuddle up close, my beloved, so I can sweat all over you!”

And then there’s the possibility that you’re right in the middle of sexual activity with your husband, and the heat comes over you like an ocean tide. Suddenly, you do as I’ve done—push away with an “Oh my gosh, I’m so hot. Hang on. I need a break.”

But that tide ebbs, the wave subsides, the heat passes. The lovemaking continues.

So yeah, hot flashes can be a challenge. But I’ve yet to talk to any wife who says hot flashes killed her sex life.

Vaginal Atrophy (Dryness / Discomfort)

The #1 issue with perimenopause/menopause and sexual intimacy is the changes in your vagina. Sorry to break it to you, but your hooha is aging—like the rest of you—and it may need extra care to remain spry and sex-capable.

As you move toward or reach the end of ovulation, your estrogen levels go way down. That means your vagina doesn’t secrete moisture as well, but you also experience vulvovaginal atrophy.

Before menopause, when the vagina is well supplied with estrogen, its lining is thicker and has more folds, allowing it to stretch with intercourse and childbirth. After menopause, when levels of estrogen are low, the vaginal lining is thinner and has fewer folds, which makes it less flexible.

Changes in the Vagina and Vulva, Sexual Side Effects of Menopause | The North American Menopause Society, NAMS

So you’re drier and less flexible. Given that sex requires lubrication and stretching, it’s not surprising that many women then experience discomfort during intercourse.

How prevalent are these symptoms? In a 2015 self-report study of over 1,500 women aged 55 and above, 45% of sexually active women aged 55 and above reported pain or discomfort during sex “usually” or “always.” Ouch.

Does that mean you should halt sex? No, because (1) there are varied ways of addressing estrogen deficiency and vaginal atrophy, and (2) not having sex can worsen the condition:

When a woman doesn’t have intercourse or other vaginal sexual activity on a regular basis following menopause, her vagina may also become shorter and narrower. Then, when she does try to have intercourse, she is likely to experience pain, even if she uses a lubricant…. Continuing to have regular vaginal sexual activity through menopause helps keep the vaginal tissues thick and moist and maintains the vagina’s length and width. This helps keep sexual activity pleasurable.

Changes in the Vagina and Vulva, Sexual Side Effects of Menopause | The North American Menopause Society, NAMS

What can you do? Among your options are:

  • Generous lubricant use during sexual activity
  • Locally applied estrogen cream
  • Vaginal suppositories of estrogen
  • Vaginal moisturizer, like Replens or KY Liquibeads
  • Pelvic therapy
  • Vaginal dilators
  • Local numbing agent
  • DHEA supplements (but see caveat below)

I included that last one because it’s often suggested as a fix, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t note my own reluctance. Mayo Clinic and other well-established medical communities do not currently recommended supplemental DHEA, and you can read about their concerns here.

Regardless, study your options and discuss them with a knowledgeable health care provider who can tailor advice to your situation. Please don’t suffer with vaginal dryness or sexual discomfort when there’s so many ways to get around that hurdle.

If you experience ongoing or intense pain, see a specialist. Chris Taylor of The Forgiven Wife has an excellent post on pursuing that course.

Lowered Sex Drive

So you’re supposed to be having sex, with a few adjustments, to keep your vajayjay in good health—but what if you don’t feel like it? What if your desire or sexual responsiveness has taken a nosedive with the arrival of perimenopause or menopause?

According to one study of 2,020 Australian women, ages 40–65 (cross-sectional, nationally representative, community-based sample), low desire was an issue for 69.3% of middle-aged women. That’s really high, y’all. Though the study doesn’t say how many experienced low desire before, the researchers did correlate vaginal dryness and pain during intercourse as factors affecting desire.

Well, of course. If something really hurts, why would you want to do it again and again? But remember that sex is not supposed to hurt! God created it to feel good.

In addition, other symptoms mentioned above—fatigue, mood swings, sleep disruption—can play into lowered sexual interest. If you don’t feel good overall, it can be difficult to pull together the oomph needed to engage in physical intimacy.

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That said, some wives report higher sexual interest during perimenopause or after menopause. That could be due to a few different factors:

  • Lack of concern about getting pregnant (aka “Freedom!”)
  • No more contraception planning
  • Kids older or grown, so sex can happen without disruption
  • Testosterone spike (when estrogen drops, testosterone gets freed up a bit)
  • Husband’s older-age ability to last (for some, when he goes longer, her interest’s stronger)
  • Accumulated knowledge of her body and what arouses and satisfies her (“Face it, girls, I’m older and I have more orgasms.”)

Menopause can thus lower or increase sexual interest. If the former is happening, tackle the underlying causes. That may require talking to a doctor, adjusting your schedule, changing your diet, etc. But face that issue head-on.

And if you’re one of those with a sudden surge of desire, you may simply hang on and ride the roller coaster with your hubby, assuming he’s willing and able. But a warning: Your surge may come with more sexual temptation than before. Sadly, some middle-aged woman with new-and-improved sex drives have fallen into affairs.

Talk to your husband about what you’re dealing with, actively embrace healthy sexual thoughts and actions (revisit Philippians 4:8 for inspiration), and stay focused on the right outlet for your increased interest. “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3).

Menopause, the Marshmallow from Mars

So what’s menopause really done to my sex life?

Thankfully, it hasn’t been the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man terrorizing my neighborhood. It’s been more like the marshmallow analogy from the TV show Veronica Mars (of which I’m a huge fan, by the way).

Teen detective Veronica Mars puts out a tough, don’t-mess-with-me vibe, just like menopause. But as her best friend Wallace puts it: “Underneath that angry young woman shell, there’s a slightly less angry young woman who’s just dying to bake me something. You’re a marshmallow, Veronica Mars. A twinkie!”

Menopause has its challenges, its moments, its angry old-woman shell, but it’s soft underneath. It just means I’ve reached that age when sexual intimacy no longer has the potential for procreation, and yet God continues to bless our marital union with pleasure and intimacy.

With a few adjustments here and there, you too can embrace all the blessings God still wants to give your marriage bed.

Resolution Week: "And Now for Something Completely Different…"

To me, New Year = Fresh Start. Yes, I know it’s just a date on the calendar, but it feels like a new beginning is on the horizon.

You don’t need the New Year, though. Whenever you want, you can press the reset button and do things differently from how you did them before. That’s what I want to talk about today, on the last day of Resolution Week—just doing something different with the sexual intimacy in your marriage.

Why do something different?

Readers come to my blog for two main reasons: (1) to figure out how to address a problem with the sex in their marriage, or (2) to get ideas on how to maintain and nurture the sex in their marriage.

(There’s a third group, a very small one, who read to find out what “the other side” is saying and pipe up from time to time to debate. But let’s not worry about them.)

For those in either of the two main groups, you’ve been doing X, but doing Y could make things better. If you have sexual struggles, you can receive:

  • encouragement to pursue better sexual intimacy
  • insight about how your spouse might be thinking or feeling about the situation
  • summaries of medical, scientific, and common-sense approaches to resolving physiological obstacles
  • biblical perspectives on God’s design for sex in marriage
  • suggestions for meeting your spouse’s emotional and sexual needs, or getting your own met
  • how-to tips for making sex better for you and for your beloved

If you have healthy physical intimacy in your marriage, you can receive:

  • how-to tips for specific sexual activities
  • inspiration to have more frequent and/or more intimate sex
  • regular reminders to keep doing what makes your spouse feel loved
  • biblical insight about how your marital intimacy reflects God’s goodness
  • updates on sex research that can improve your pleasure or connection
  • ways to expand your sexual repertoire

But let’s face it: Hot, Holy & Humorous is about persuading you to do something even a little different from what you did before. If every reader remains in absolute stasis, what’s the point of me writing another word?

Yet, I do write. I do hear from readers. I do know this site, along with other marriage ministries, has a positive impact.

Is different automatically better?

In case you didn’t get the reference in this post’s title, “And now for something completely different” was a catchphrase from the British show Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It was inserted in between comedy sketches, some of which were really great and some of which were what were they thinking?

Likewise, just doing something different in or regarding your marriage bed could be a what were you thinking? moment. But it could also be really great.

How do you know your idea is different-great?

1. It aligns with God’s design for sex in marriage.

Whatever you do in the marriage bed should be God-approved, mutually acceptable, and spouse-honoring. It should align with God’s will.

2. It benefits both of you.

It should be something that not only serves your ends, but also meets your spouse’s longings. Marriage isn’t about you or me, but rather us. You don’t want one spouse thinking the new thing is great while the other responds, “What on earth were you thinking?”

3. It is pursued in love.

You can have wonderful intentions, but if your tactics stink, you won’t get far. Your spouse will likely, and understandably, become defensive. So the different thing you go after should be pursued in a loving way, without pressure or manipulation.

To Leap or to Toddle?

If I had a dollar for every time I or one of my podcast partners said the phrase “baby steps,” we’d be retreating on a Caribbean beach somewhere right now. Working, of course—wink, wink—but with our toes in the sand and the water lapping at our ankles.

Truth is, when one spouse wants to do something different, the other spouse can get worried. What do you mean “different”? Am I not enough? Are you going to want that weird thing again? I refuse to dress up as a gorilla no matter how turned on it might make you! ~snicker~

Now some of you should leap into something different. You’ve been in a pit for far too long, and you need to jump into a marriage class or counseling. Or perhaps you two are mutually on board with trying something sexual that’s a little “out there”—not outside God’s design, but pretty creative.

For most spouses, however, baby steps are the way to go.

Just do something a little extra or different next time, then expand a little from there, then to the next thing and the next thing… Until your baby steps have gotten you down the path a ways and you’re both happy with where you are.

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Different Strokes for Different Folks

So what are some “different but great” ideas? Let me help!

Below are more than 20 suggestions. Each item is not for every couple. Find something that would benefit your particular marriage or brainstorm your own ideas.

Just choose something, or several somethings, different to do this year and see how it can improve your sexual intimacy. If it doesn’t work, you can always chuck it and try something else.

Note: Remember that when it’s something God specifically calls us to do, it may take a while to see the positive results. “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9 ESV).

Resolution Week: Not "You" or "Me" But "Us"

It’s resolution week on Hot, Holy & Humorous! Meaning I’ve been covering goals we should make in 2020—for ourselves, our marriages, and our sex lives. Today, let’s talk about a common pitfall we want to avoid going forward.

A Personal Story

My husband has been rearranging in the kitchen lately. For years, I’ve been the one mostly deciding where and how things belong in our drawers and cabinets. If someone in the family didn’t follow my plan, no worries—I was the one home far more than they were, so I’d just fix the error while they were gone and move on.

Cue a change in my husband’s employment, and now he’s home a lot and moving things around. Of course I’ve handled this all beautifully…

Okay, FINE. I’ve huffed, eye-rolled, and lodged several complaints about the equilibrium of my kitchen being upended!

Spock has his reasons for wanting the changes, and now he was finally around enough to make those changes happen. Meanwhile, I have my reasons for wanting things to stay the same, and I’d already established a system! At some point, it seemed to come down to a silent battle over how a particular set of glasses would be placed in the cabinet. He’d put a glass away and change their positioning to his way (“the wrong way”), and later I’d see them and change them all back to my way (“the right way”).

Yeah, because that’s not causing any tension in our marriage. #sarcasm

But a day or two ago, I was staring at that cabinet of glasses and thinking: I should just let him have his way. Wouldn’t that be the nice thing to do? Then I had an even better thought: What if there’s some way to address each of our reasonable concerns about these glasses with an entirely different approach?

Turns out, there is. I mentioned my idea to my husband, we talked about that alternative, and it will be implemented.

Choosing Win/Win

Before you go thinking I have no business ever writing about marriage because I nearly declared World War III over the storage of drinking glasses, the actual amount of time and emotion expended on our kitchen issue was probably mere minutes. And hey, we did resolve it!

I’m only telling this story to illustrate a pitfall we often have in marriage. A husband and wife engage in back-and-forth debate, argument, or even stalemate when the resolution doesn’t have to be you or me—it could be us.

Too often in #marriage, a husband and wife engage in back-and-forth debate, argument, or even stalemate when the resolution doesn't have to be YOU or ME—it could be US. @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey labels this principle “Think Win/Win.” He talks about how Lose/Win or Win/Lose outcomes are appropriate at times:

If you value a relationship and the issue isn’t really that important, you may want to go for Lose/Win in some circumstances to genuinely affirm the other person. “What I want isn’t as important to me as my relationship with you. Let’s do it your way this time.” …

There are circumstances in which you would want to Win, and you wouldn’t be highly concerned with the relationship of that win to others. If your child’s life were in danger, for example, you might be peripherally concerned about other people and circumstances. But saving that life would be supremely important.

Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

But in most situations, Lose/Win or Win/Lose creates more conflict or feelings of resentment or trust issues in a relationship. It’s much better to look for a Win/Win.

While Covey’s book is aimed at business leaders, he notes how much more important this principle is in marriage: “‘Who’s winning in our marriage?’ is a ridiculous question. If both people aren’t winning, both are losing.”

"'Who's winning in our #marriage?' is a ridiculous question. If both people aren't winning, both are losing." ~ Stephen R. Covey (via @hotholyhumorous) Click To Tweet

Who’s Winning in Your Marriage?

My father used to tell the joke that married couples promise to become one—and then spent the rest of their marriage figuring out which one to become. That joke’s funny because of how ridiculous it sounds. And yet, how often do a spouse’s actions convey that’s what they secretly believe?

In the realm of sexual intimacy, spouses can end up playing tug-of-war over frequency, repertoire, etc. The mindset becomes “if you get what you want, I don’t get what I want. But if I get what I want, you don’t get what you want.” If those are the only two options, one spouse will become the Win/Lose mate and the other will be the Lose/Win mate. But then nobody’s really winning.

If you’re always or often winning your way, or if you’re always or often giving in, you’re likely losing the intimacy of marriage. Much better for both of you to get a win.

“Let No One Separate”

This is even more apparent when we look at it all biblically. As Jesus says:

‘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.”

Mark 10:7-9

Now, of course we are individuals. We don’t get married and fuse into one Frankensteinian creature. Moreover, God still judges us individually. Romans 2:5 says, ‘God “will repay each person according to what they have done'” (citing Psalm 62:12).

Yet throughout our lives, we are united, one flesh, joined together by God. If you try to win your way against your spouse while they lose, you’re taking both of you down. You’re too intertwined for one’s views, emotions, and actions not to affect the other.

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Moving from You or Me to Us

Excluding my kitchen fail story, I mostly view issues in my marriage not in terms of what’s good for me or for him, but rather us. It’s a perspective I’ve had to cultivate. Actually, I’m still cultivating it and will be until I die, or he dies, or we die together (Win/Win).

Sometimes, I give in because Spock’s way matters more to him than my way matters to me or when I simply choose to bless him in a particular moment. Sometimes, he gives in because the roles are reversed. But most of the time, we’re looking for a third alternative that gives us both a Win/Win.

With sex in marriage, Win/Win could mean:

  • Compromising about frequency
  • Taking turns with which sexual activities you each like most
  • Finding a new activity that meets the underlying desire (rather than the activity under contention)
  • Seeking counseling to work out what seems irresolvable

The Win/Win for your marriage depends on your specific scenario. But we should resolve to stop viewing problems as you or me and instead see them as an us thing.

Look, even if the problem really is your spouse, get on board with making it an us issue. It’s hurting both of you, so marshal your forces to work together on resolving it! Ecclesiastes 4:9 says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor.” So already, just by being married, you should have double the power to fix a situation.

Even if the problem really is your spouse, get on board with making it an US issue. It's hurting both of you, so marshal your forces to work together on resolving it! #marriage Click To Tweet

Add God into the mix, and you definitely have a winning team! “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12).

That us mindset might be just what you need to face the future and move forward with your spouse. It won’t resolve everything tomorrow, but you won’t be tugging in different directions. You’ll be on the same path taking the journey together.

How have you struggled with you or me instead of us? When have you been able to come up with a Win/Win for your marriage?

Resolution Week: Are Toxic People Damaging Your Marriage?

As part of Resolution Week here on Hot, Hot & Humorous, let’s talk today about the toxic people damaging your marriage.

Gary Thomas, author of Sacred Marriage and Cherish, recently released a book titled When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People. He sent me an advanced review copy with no strings attached, but it’s always nice when that happens and you end up loving the book!

What is a toxic person?

Anyone who’s reached adulthood has interacted with someone who is not merely difficult or frustrating, but genuinely toxic. In When to Walk Away, Thomas defines three characteristics of a toxic person: a murderous spirit, control mongering, and loving hate. Without going through those specifics, see if you recognize this general description:

There are certain people who drain us, demean us, and distract us from other healthy relationships. Long after they’re gone, we’re still fighting with them in our minds and trying to get them out of our hearts. They keep us awake. They steal our joy. They demolish our peace. They make us (if we’re honest with ourselves) weaker spiritually. They even invade times of worship and pervert them into seasons of fretting.

Now before we start labeling people as toxic, recognize that our tendency to diagnose others as the problem before looking at ourselves. The Bible says that we have to look at our own flaws, our own contribution to the problem, and our own sin before we accuse someone else (see Matthew 7:1-5, Romans 2:1-3). Some will read the above paragraph and immediately begin blaming others, when the truth is that they are the toxic one in the relationship.

But others, too many Christians, have spend countless hours trying to figure out what they’re doing wrong or how they could do better or what magic formula might work to get along with someone in their life—when the truth is that they can’t. You can’t appease, reason with, or find peace with a genuinely toxic person. The fault lies with them.

You can't appease, reason with, or find peace with a genuinely toxic person. The fault lies with them. @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

But should you walk away?

I’m personally not in love with the phrase What would Jesus do? because oftentimes Jesus would do something that only Jesus can do. I don’t have the divinity or authority of Jesus, so performing miracles and speaking directly for God are off my to-do list. That said, we are commanded to be Christlike! (See 1 Peter 2:21, 1 Corinthians 11:1, John 13:14-15, Philippians 2:5.) 1 John 2:6 puts it most succinctly: “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” Our attitude, mindset, and heart should be like Jesus.

That’s the example Gary Thomas uses in determining how we deal with toxic people. He goes into great detail well worth reading, but essentially we set boundaries and see if the toxic behavior will stop or be put into check. If it continues, we do as Jesus did: we walk away.

In fact, Thomas has a whole chapter titled “Walkaway Jesus,” covering Christ’s tendency to walk away from people who couldn’t be convinced and were thus wasting His precious time. Time better spent on people He could, and did, save.

If the Lord and Savior of our world thought it was a waste of time to try to placate, argue, or persuade toxic people, what makes us think we are going to make it happen?

Who is toxic to your marriage?

Since I write about sexual intimacy in marriage, let’s tailor the book’s points to toxicity that affects your marriage and your sex life.

Not everything or everyone that gets in the way of healthy marital intimacy is toxic. Some are simply challenges that come with living in a broken world. Some are due to personality conflicts and character flaws we can work on. Some are busyness, fatigue, or physical obstacles present in certain seasons of life.

But some of you write me about your marriage or your sex life, and it becomes clear pretty quickly that you’ve got a toxic person negatively impacting your emotional, spiritual, and/or sexual wholeness.

Parents

In a chapter titled “Toxic Parents,” Thomas covers a situation I’ve seen as well:

I’ve seen several young women from dysfunctional homes fall into a common spiritual trap. In spite of the negative imprinting of their childhood homes, they end up making a very wise choice for marriage….It’s a delight to see God bring two godly people together out of less than ideal backgrounds and watch a healthy family begin to form.

Then the common temptation follows. It’s a clever spiritual distraction. The woman has escaped a dysfunctional family and is now settled in a functional one. It was be too long (mere months) until she thinks she is supposed to return to the dysfunctional family and try to fix it.

Some don’t even get those few months of healthy family-building, but rather the toxicity of their family of origin follows them into the marriage. Parents who should be helping their grown children settle into a new life do nearly all they can to frustrate it.

They demand your time and emotional energy, deride your spouse, speak ill of marriage and/or sex, force you to choose them or your husband and then become furious if you choose correctly (your spouse), and make it seem that you’ll never break free of the dysfunction they carry around like a badge of honor. You’re exhausted trying to balance your longing to keep them happy or help them get healthy and your need to be present in your marriage and/or godly sexual intimacy.

Thankfully, most of us don’t need to entirely walk away, but rather set boundaries. (Thomas also covers this well.) But sometimes, you do have to walk away. Honoring your mother and father does not involve allowing them to destroy your marriage.

Honoring your mother and father does not involve allowing them to destroy your #marriage. @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

As Thomas says, “Trying to fix an unfixable relationship is doomed to failure and simply robs [you] of the time [you] need to grow [your] functional family.”

Grown Children

The chapter on “Toxic Children” discusses adult children who suck the life out of a family. As a mother, it hurts to think there could be a time when you have to walk away from your own son or daughter. But with parent-child, it’s really a matter of them walking away from you.

Again, Thomas looks at Jesus and what He taught:

You would take any repentant prodigal son or daughter back the moment they turn their face toward home. But that’s different from chasing after an unrepentant sinner who despises your weakness and preys on you by taking advantage of it. Remember, the prodigal son’s father threw his arms around his son when the son returned, not when he left. Like Jesus, the father of the prodigal son was willing to watch his prodigal son walk away.

Is your adult child destroying your marriage? Making it impossible to find time or energy for sexual intimacy with your spouse? Painful as it is, you have the recognize if their heart has already walked away.

Church

Church can be provide solace, support, and sound teaching that helps us lead the godly life our Lord desires. Yet, some individual churches have treated a marriage or its sexual intimacy in a way that can only be described as toxic. As Thomas points out, “Toxic people exist inside and outside the church and are those trying to take you down.”

If your church is feeding toxicity into your marriage, it’s time to walk away. The Church is larger than your one congregation. Find a different place to worship that believes in marriage, honors both men and women, values all forms of marital intimacy, and helps you pursue Christ together.


Others may be toxic to your marriage, but these three—parents, grown children, church—struck me in particular, because I’ve heard the stories.

What if the toxic person is your spouse?

I’m about as pro-marriage as one can get and experienced my own marriage coming back from the brink of divorce to a beautiful marriage today. But a few of you married someone who is toxic, and unless and until they allow God to work in their life, nothing will change.

Thankfully, When to Walk Away addresses both “Toxic Marriages” and “Leaving the Toxicity Instead of the Marriage.” If the latter can happen, hallelujah! As Thomas notes:

We don’t always have to lave a marriage at the first sign of toxicity. If both partners are repentant and surrendered to God, we can leave the toxicity instead of the marriage.

Spouses can exhibit toxic behaviors at times, but if they’re committed to climbing out of that pit, they can find redemption and restoration. Yet, some of you are in abusive or destructive marriages, and it’s past time to recognize where are and what needs to happen next. Again, from Gary Thomas:

To be explicit and clear, if a husband or wife keeps acting out in sexually inappropriate ways, he or she needs to know they will lose you. If the abuse they heap on you is shrinking your soul, it’s okay to admit you can’t live with them anymore. If they insist that you lie to cover up their toxic acts, you aren’t just allowed but commanded to resist them.

Let me add that if your spouse belittles or degrades you in the bedroom or rapes you (yes, marital rape can happen, to both genders), that is toxic behavior that must be opposed. You cannot allow yourself, God’s child, to be treated that way, nor are you helping to permit your spouse’s sin to continue.

Get an outside perspective—though not that toxic church, please—and support. Find a way to leave. A healthy, godly marriage will never come of a toxic, unrepentant spouse being given more opportunities to harm their mate. As Thomas so well states, “God loves marriage and he loves people, but do we think he loves people or the institutions more?”

Should you read the book?

Didn’t I just tell you all you need to know from When to Walk Away? Not by a long shot. I simply pointed out issues that struck me intensely. Gary Thomas’s book has a lot more information and insight about how toxic people, unchecked, can damage us.

You may read and decide someone in your life isn’t toxic so much as difficult or that you can manage the situation by setting proper boundaries. Or you might realize that, like Jesus sometimes did, you need to walk away.

But wouldn’t you rather face the new year with new resolve to focus on God’s calling for you? Wouldn’t you rather spend your time building the marriage and/or the life God wants you to have?

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.