For a whole month, I’ve been tackling sexless marriages as the primary Q&A topic, not to mention a couple of other posts:
Q&A with J: “My Sexless Marriage Is Making Me Lose My Faith in God”
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
Q&A with J: What Can I Do About My Sexless Marriage? Part 3
Today, as promised, I’m providing some concrete steps of what to do to address the issue of sexlessness in your marriage. But I encourage to look back at the above posts to make sure you’re laying a foundation of trust and avoiding negative communication styles that could undermine your efforts.
And let’s return to this gem: Love must underlie all your efforts. Without genuine love for your spouse, it’s all for nothing.
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-13).
If you do all the right things but your spouse feels manipulated, that won’t help your marriage.
Sure, your spouse might comply out of guilt or the seeming futility of arguing, but that short-term win will damage your relationship over the long-term. Not to mention that God isn’t impressed with a spouse getting more frequent sex merely to satisfy his or her selfishness; that’s just not the picture of sex in marriage our Creator paints. Rather, it’s one of shared, mutually satisfying intimacy.
Some of you are likely saying, “I don’t care how begrudging the sex is right now; I just need some sex.” Oh, how I ache for you! But I stand by the belief that it’s worth pursuing higher, long-term goals so that you and your spouse can have the physical blessings God wants you both to have.
So what can you do? Let’s talk about steps for addressing a sexless marriage.
Set reasonable goals.
According to the popular SMART acronym, goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Your goal, I presume, is specifically to have more sex which is measurable by a certain number of encounters per week or month. But the third and fourth criteria, which overlap, are tricky. Because what’s currently achievable and relevant probably isn’t what you ultimately want. It may be far less than you want.
However, if your wife’s issue is that she endured sexual assault in her past, she isn’t going to suddenly switch her emotions and start jumping your bones the moment you walk through the door. That’s not achievable. Nor is it reasonable to expect a mom of four little ones to clear her calendar for a long night of lovemaking twice a week when she’s exhausted and can barely stand the thought of being touched by any more hands. (Trust me, that’s a thing.) And the husband who stopped having sex because his libido tanked with his high-stress job and decreased testosterone with age won’t simply rediscover his mojo buried somewhere under the bedroom pillow.
So write out your ultimate objective, but then break it down into smaller steps. If you find out that you two can leapfrog a couple of steps, great. But by setting goals that are baby steps forward, achieving each one will show you’re making progress and encourage you both to continue. Here’s an example I put together:
(covered later in post)
|Have mutually pleasurable sex twice a week, in which orgasm occurs at least half the time
||Reboot our sex life with a sexual encounter in the next three months
||Start a conversation
||Write down what issues my spouse brings up and consider how I can address (not argue) them
||Show physical affection without any expectation of or overture for sex
||Follow up with a second conversation one week later
||Demonstrate through actions that I care about other forms of intimacy as well
||Plan a date with an activity my spouse enjoys
||Line up babysitting, finances, and any other details required to make the date happen
||Set aside fifteen minutes to talk with and listen to my spouse each day
||Spend time in the Bible and in prayer aligning my desires with God’s plan for sex
||Identify relevant scriptures and read through one per day
||Ask my spouse if they’re willing to pray with me and follow through if yes
You could break this into even smaller steps, but maybe this gives you an idea of how to approach such a task.
Start a conversation.
Notice I said start, not have. Few of us are convinced from a single discussion to change our minds, hearts, attitudes about any subject. So why do we keep thinking we can launch into one conversation with our spouse and achieve a major breakthrough? I’m betting 99.9% of you will need to have multiple talks about the lack of sexual intimacy in your marriage.
I’ve learned a lot about effective conversations from my parenting successes and failures. Those areas in which I’ve influenced my teens the most are ones where I opened up communication lines and slowly, albeit intentionally, got my message across. I didn’t push my opinion, but I did let them know where I stood. Then I asked what they thought, and I listened. When their perspectives seemed skewed, I calmly gave my two cents without expecting them to immediately see things my way. But when I’ve tried to control their conclusion in a single conversation? Yeah, that’s where I’ve fallen on my face. Most people don’t want to be told what to do, much less what to think.
Likewise, take an easy, multiple-conversation approach to your spouse with this sensitive subject. Start the conversation by letting them know that you want to be able to discuss issues freely and supportively in marriage, whether it’s finances or annoying habits or your sex lives. Don’t push much beyond that in your first go-round. Just get across that you intend to do whatever you can to provide a safe atmosphere for the two of you to work together to increase all forms of intimacy in your marriage.
Later you can follow-up with a “Have you thought about what I said?” and/or “Is there anything you wish I understood about your sexuality?” And yeah, listen and don’t expect a ten-second miracle. Miracles do happen, but oftentimes we forget how many steps the Israelites took to reach the Red Sea that God parted for them.
Invest in your friendship.
We’re far more likely to do things for people we like — including listen to their concerns, help them solve issues, and spend time together. But let’s face it: In some marriages, the spouses love each other, but they don’t much like each other. Is it any surprise then when sex doesn’t happen?
If you’ve neglected your emotional and recreational intimacy, it’s time to revive that part of your marriage. Do it because it’s a good and right thing to pursue, but you may well reap the benefit of better communication and progress with your sexual intimacy.
Think about what activities your spouse enjoys and make them happen. Show interest in their hobbies. Listen to their stories. Chuckle at that joke you’ve already heard eighty-seven times. Ask how you can help with their day. Engage in random acts of kindness, just because.
Again, don’t do it out of manipulation. Your spouse likely knows you well enough to sniff out ulterior motives like a hunting dog on a fox. This is when you’ll need to keep your own lines of communication open with the Heavenly Father, to stay on track with keeping a pure heart.
Woo your spouse like you did before.
Remember when you snagged that honey-bun of yours? All you did to capture their attention and adoration? Of course you can’t just pretend to be back on those falling-in-love days. In fact, half of your friends couldn’t stand how mushy you were back then, and it’s good that you’ve settled down into a more mature relationship with bills to pay, a home to maintain, and family to care for.
However, some of the ways in which we wooed each other could have hung around and benefited our marriage. I can’t say exactly what those things are because they vary from relationship to relationship. In my own marriage, we let dating fall by the wayside for too long after the kids came, and until a few years ago, we didn’t foster kissing nearly enough. Re-introducing such romantic connections helped us feel more connected and opened up more opportunities for sexual intimacy as well.
Ask yourself this question: What do I do regularly that makes my spouse feel special?
Not what do I do for my spouse, but what do I do that makes my particular spouse feel special. Some of you could write a page-long list of all the things you do for your spouse, but they don’t really speak love to your spouse. Figure out what actions make your spouse feel special and loved and then do them, regularly.
Set proper boundaries.
So far, you might be feeling like everything’s geared toward your spouse getting what they want and none toward you getting what you want. Well, here’s a rubber-meets-road statement: Your needs and desires matter just as much as theirs. Not more, mind you, but not less.
Some of you pursuing the steps I’ve laid out so far will get push-back that is simply unacceptable. It’s not okay for your spouse to call you a pervert because you want to have regular sex in your marriage. It’s not okay for your spouse to keep blaming you for past hurts you’ve apologized for and done everything to rectify. It’s not okay for your spouse to compare you to someone else who mistreated them. It’s not okay for your spouse to accuse you of egregious sins you haven’t committed. It’s not okay for your spouse to call you bad names.
Setting boundaries is the process by which you encourage the extinction of bad behavior. People tend to continue with bad behavior when it allows them to get what they want. Take away the payoff, and they’re less likely to repeat the behavior. However, where people get caught up in applying boundaries well is one of two areas:
- You stop before the process has sufficient time to work. It takes time for the other person to recognize that things won’t return to their former state. Most people are likely to push even harder before finally accepting that a new normal has been set and adjusting themselves accordingly.
- You start behaving badly yourself. Instead of setting a boundary, you launch a counterattack. Your message gets lost with the other person feeling like they have to defend or argue back. When using boundaries, you constantly need to check your emotions and remain calm.
What does a boundary look like? If your spouse calls you a pervert, it’s not: “I don’t have to put with that! I’m a completely normal husband who just wants to have sex with his wife.” Instead, it’s something like: “It hurts that you would call me a pervert when I just want to be intimate with my wife. I want to hear why you feel that way, but I reject that label.” And if your spouse continues on that trajectory, you end the conversation, calmly but firmly. “I really want to know why you feel like this so we can address it, but I just can’t stand here and let you call me names. We’ll have to talk later.” And then, you walk away.
But ack!I that means no progress happened, right? No, it doesn’t. It means you’ll need to take more time to establish communication guidelines to foster better conversations in the future. Remember — long-term view.
Offer to pursue outside help.
Let’s say your spouse is refusing because:
- They have an issue they own (e.g., prior molestation, health problems, a porn addiction) that makes it difficult to have sex; or
- Not feeling any real libido themselves, they see no point in pursuing sex in your marriage.
These scenarios cover the vast majority of sexless marriages. And both of them could benefit from outside help.
In the first case, you offer to move heaven and earth to help your spouse heal, emotionally and/or physically. You encourage your spouse not to give up on getting answers. You research the issue with them, making sure your sources are solid and biblical. You suggest a new doctor, a new treatment, a new support group, a new marriage counselor. You watch the kids while she goes to the support group. You have a garage sale to pay for his subscription to porn-blocking software. You make it clear that whatever outside help you (both) need, you’re all in. And you will not give up until you both experience the blessing of physical intimacy God intends for your marriage.
The second case is obviously harder. Because most such spouses just don’t understand how hurtful and isolating their refusal is. They don’t feel this need to have sex, and they can’t fathom why it’s such a big deal to you. It would be like someone trying to sell this South Texan a pair of snow tires. Why would I need that? Why would anybody need that?
You should still offer to get help — to speak with a counselor, a pastor, a mentor couple in your church. Tell your spouse you know this is an area of contention, but you’re willing to sit down with an external mediator and hear what they have to say. But here’s where you have to do your homework: Find out who will be sex and marriage positive. Don’t pick the first Christian counselor in the phone book, but ask around and see who’s got a good reputation for giving both spouses a fair shot in the counseling room. You don’t need someone just taking your side or just taking your spouse’s side, but rather someone who will listen to both of you and address the underlying issues so that you can find unity. Say to your pastor, “What do you think is going on with the sex lives of married people in our congregation?” and see how he responds. You can learn a lot that way.
Don’t try to stack the odds in your favor by speaking specifically about your situation and making sure that person’s on your side. Your spouse will likely learn about that and feel manipulated. (Because they were manipulated.)
Also, if your spouse thinks you need a help in some area, be willing to go get it for yourself. Indeed, some of you would benefit from saying to your spouse, “I want us to get marriage counseling, but if you don’t want to go, I’m going on my own. I need someone to talk to.” That alone will motivate some spouses to show up, if only to spout their side of the story. But if they don’t, you’ll still have someone to speak with who can help you get perspective and take active steps to help your marriage.
Call it quits?
That’s a question mark there, because it’s not what I advise, but something I get asked about often: Is it okay to leave my spouse if he/she refuses to have sex with me?
After a lot of thought on this one, I believe divorce likely is permitted when sexual refusal is deep-seated, persistent, and aggressive. But in such cases, they’re are usually many other problems in the marriage that make calling it quits an option.
But just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do something. There could be good reasons to stay.
I’ve heard from several spouses who’ve said that as soon as the children are grown, they’re done with their spouse. Do you really think divorce won’t affect your adult children? My parents divorced when I was in my mid-twenties, and it still hurt. Moreover, the consequences of having two separate families where there had once been one continues. Look, my parents had good reasons to call it quits, but I just want you to understand that divorce isn’t an easy walk-away for anyone. Sometimes divorce is the best choice, the only choice, but sometimes we think it is when it isn’t. As difficult as it would be for you, it might be worth staying for the sake of your family and community as a whole.
Here’s another reason to stay: I’ve got several testimonies in my inbox from couples who rediscovered their sex life in later years and are so glad they didn’t throw in the towel. Sometimes a refusing spouse finally realizes the damage they’ve done and decides to turn things around. Or a libido awakens when the demands of parenting or a high-stress job fall away. You just don’t know how this is going to go, and shouldn’t you give everything of yourself to your marriage before walking away?
Stop being a jerk.
I added this last one, because I do hear from spouses (male and female) who are so harsh in the way they talk about their spouses that my initial reaction is, “Good gravy, who wants to sleep with that?” Frankly put, some of you aren’t getting laid because you’re acting like a jerk. So stop it.
Stop insulting your spouse publicly and privately. Stop looking only for people to agree that you’re getting a bum deal and be willing to seek real answers. Stop grousing about the unfairness of life, and deal with the hand you’ve been given. (Someone else who’s getting more sex has a different crappiness in their life. Trust me.) Stop being an unhappy person your spouse doesn’t want to be around. For more on this point, you might want to read Kevin A. Thompson’s excellent post, I Wouldn’t Sleep with You Either.
And this is now the longest post I’ve ever written. If you stayed with me this long, I pray you found something helpful. Believe me, I’m pulling for you.