By Kristina Franklin (primary author), with Mike Prasse and Steven Clemons, Jr.
Call me old-fashioned, but I think sex is an important part of marriage for a woman. These days, though, lots of married women see sex as a discounted duty.
As a marriage counselor of nearly a decade, I see relationships in various stages, and the surprising reality is that not all married women want sex. And it’s not just me who’s seeing it. Several of my counseling colleagues have been exploring the same concern, and I’ll share with you our observations in a moment. First though, let me address why not having sex within a marriage IS a concern…
Marriage is more than a contract it’s a covenant. That means it’s not just a legally binding act, it is a whole person act: emotional, mental, spiritual, physical and sexual. Therefore, all those components go into the relationship. Sex is an essential component. A marriage without sex is incomplete and robs both partners of all God has to offer.
Sex between husbands and wives is special. It’s reserved; a table for two. It’s that one need that only one other person gets to meet. And it was bought by a ring and a vow. This means that when a spouse refuses sex they are giving an ultimate “no” as there shouldn’t be other options available. Each intimate sexual experience where both people give themselves to their spouse renews and refreshes that connection. The focus here is addressing when wives turn away from sex within a marriage even though often the scenario is reversed where a husband stops having sex with his wife. This is a painful source of rejection in a society that judges women’s worth based on their appearance and shame for men who aren’t as sexually driven as some other men.
Reasons for Disengaging in Sexual Intimacy
There are numerous reasons why wives disengage with sex. Here are some:
Sex Seems Optional
Women tend to be overwhelmingly busy in our society. Many of us work, manage finances, raise children, lead or attend groups, exercise, shop, clean, care for extended family, go to school, taxi kids to practices and travel for work. We run on Starbucks fumes and are so exhausted by day’s end that there’s little left of us– emotionally, mentally, physically or sexually. And husbands, big boys that they are, are often left to themselves. There are just so many demands that sex, since it seems optional, often slips down the ladder of priorities. Many wives don’t see sex as essential to the marriage.
All Sexed Out
Many young wives complain that they’re “sexed out” – they had so much sex in their teens and twenties that they just don’t want or need it now. And in the context of sex as just a physical act, that could make sense. But in marriage, sex was never designed to be “just physical.” This is likely a byproduct of society’s view of sex being impersonal. If you’re not in a committed relationship, and if you use protection, you can sleep with whomever, whenever. For this to be true, people learn to separate the emotional and spiritual side of their sexuality, leaving just the physical. This creates a dilemma for the marriages that often takes place years later. Healthy sex in a marriage demands physical, sexual AND emotional vulnerability. Once a person turns off the emotions of sex, it’s hard to turn it back on.
Not enough ROI
Lots of wives, especially ones with young children tell me that sex is just another chore to check off. They know their husband’s need sex – but, they don’t feel like they need it themselves; at least not nearly as much. Perhaps that’s because good sex takes time, energy and effort. It means we shut off our heads, set aside the laundry list of what needs to be done, and let ourselves relax in the sensuality of being “all in” at that moment. And while the reality of “all in” is usually less than an hour, for some, the return on investment (ROI) just isn’t worth it; whereas chocolate; a glass of wine or watching a good show provides instant gratification.
Misconception: Sex is for men
Somewhere along the way, many wives stop thinking that sex is for them. Granted, physiologically women need sexual release less frequently than men, but that doesn’t mean it’s not present and necessary. In addition, common misunderstandings of the differences in the sexual response cycles of women and men have contributed to this error. Often for women, achieving orgasm is not as simple as it is for men. Without an understanding of this difference in God’s design, women can feel unfulfilled in this area of their lives and men can feel frustrated in their perceived lack of ability to meet their wife’s needs, adding increased feelings of detachment and the belief that sex is for men. This error has only been furthered by the proliferation of pornography in our society that reinforces sex as something women do for men.
Lots of women crave tenderness, help and time with their guy – and don’t get it. So when Mr. Wonderful shows up for the first time at day’s end wanting sex, the missus remembers all that he has NOT done for her lately.
We’ve done it all
Once married, many couples lose the “learning mentality” of sex. They do what needs to be done for the release and then roll over. Growing relationships continue to explore and study each other. Married sex must go deeper than orgasm to the emotional connection of the self. That means looking for good in the other person, overlooking flaws, and finding ways to compliment each other’s body, mind, character and self.
Sex for some spouses is a commodity. It’s given in trade for attention or good behavior. It becomes reward or punishment. This mentality poisons a marriage. Withholding oneself or sex from a spouse creates resentment, distance and contempt. In a Christian marriage the Bible says that the body of a husband or wife is not their own, that we have become “one flesh”. That means when we are married we are so connected to our spouse that we cannot withhold ourselves – it would be like not eating! So, not being “in the mood” or “he doesn’t deserve sex” are not relevant. Moreover, Scripture is clear in 1 Corinthians 7:5 that sex was not meant to be used in the way. Paul writes, “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
Duty Sex is no fun!
The “let’s just do it (and get it over with)”mentality lacks connection and playfulness; both of which are essential ingredients in a happy and healthy sex life. If we waited for just the right time, place and body for sex -- we would miss some really great opportunities to connect and invest in our relationship. We do what is important; we invest in those we love – not because we feel like serving, listening or loving – but because it is right, and necessary. We put the marriage first, over us individually. This is a long-term investment rather than an ATM. The long term benefits are often similar to choosing to go to the gym even when you don’t feel like it, as soon as you are there you are glad you decided to make it happen.
Our culture is self-centered. If we don’t want to, we won’t. If we don’t feel like it, then we don’t. In a successful marriage, there’s no room for selfishness. Spouses who experience their partner being selfish tend to become self-protective. And when one person demands and does not give, it can become manipulative and even abusive. Self-protective partners withdraw and withhold. Usually it starts with emotional detachment, then physical and sexual. Selfishness demeans, separates and ultimately divides a relationship. Relationships break when one or both of the spouses are selfish.
Competing with the Screen
Pornography can devastatingly affect the sex life of couples. Porn divides sexuality. It can emotionally distance a man from true intimacy and the desire to pursue his wife. Some men dealing with addiction to pornography develop sexual anorexia due to the shame involved; others find themselves unable to be aroused by or responsive to a real live woman. And for wives, the sense of betrayal and not being enough for their husbands because of pornography can be heartbreaking. As a result, many women show contempt for their husbands – translating into disregard and withdrawal, or they become sexually paralyzed by comparison– both reactions that alienate the couple.
Some say absence makes the heart grow fonder, but with sex in marriage, the longer you wait, the more awkward sex can seem. Perhaps that’s why in the Jewish culture, sex once a week is considered the minimum. If it has become a long time since your last sexual encounter the first time back will likely be awkward, just plan on it, laugh it off together, and rebuild some regularity. When weeks pass with no intimacy, relational connection is often quashed or looked elsewhere for satisfaction.
So women don’t always feel pretty, and that can get in the way of sex. A woman’s body (as well as her mind and emotions) goes through a lot of changes in a lifetime. Pregnancy, loss, stress, thyroid and hormones can all alter skin and weight. Women who see themselves as only how they look often have difficulty offering their bodies sexually to their husband. Also, there is a common myth in our culture that sex after a certain age is seen as not as fulfilling, particularly as women deal with changes to their bodies and sexual response cycle following menopause. Christian sex therapist Douglas Rosenau in his book A Celebration of Sex after 50, offers helpful advice on how sex can be fulfilling at any age.
For some women intercourse is not just uncomfortable, it’s painful. There are numerous physical ailments (many of them treatable) that make women disinterested in sex. Talking honestly with an OBGYN or Sex Therapist is often really helpful in this situation.
Sex seems Dirty
This can be a block physically, emotionally and mentally for women. Some women grow up in homes where sex is portrayed as sinful or bad. Often the message given to teenager is “sex is bad, but save it for someone you love.” After the honeymoon it’s hard to transition that view to sex being good, healthy and necessary. Too, many women were inappropriately touched when they were children or adolescents or even raped, which can make it difficult to see sex as safe and good. Sexual shame can be a huge block to a healthy, relaxed and meaningful adult sex life with a husband.
The church has often struggled with a biblical understanding of God’s design and purpose for sex, going back to as early as 170 A.D. Early church leaders held beliefs such as: Marriage was only for procreation and some stay virgins in marriage (Justin Martyr), Adam had sex after the fall (Origen), Marriage couldn’t be good because if made prayer difficult (Jerome), and Sex is problematic because it interferes with reason and the call to live a contemplative life (Thomas Aquinas). These beliefs, among many others, became the norm in the church for over 1400 years. It was not until the 1500’s that a man named Martin Luther, who started the great Reformation in calling the church to return to the study and understanding of Scripture over the created traditions of man in the church that this changed. He broke from the belief that the body is sinful and believed Satan spoiled God’s created gift of sex. He further taught that the sex drive is “as natural as hunger or thirst” (Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, 269), and was believed to be the first within the modern organized church to allow sex for pleasure alongside procreation within marriage.
A couple’s sex life often reflects the state of their relationship. When couples stop having sex it is usually the symptom of being disconnected on a deeper level. Typically women first check out emotionally, and then sexually and finally they create parallel lives where they begin living around their spouse. Divorce generally follows. So when wives stop being interested in sex, many times they’ve already disengaged from the relationship.
So what does a healthy sex life in a marriage look like?
Healthy marriages are no less busy than dysfunctional ones, but the priorities are different. Marriage comes first (after God). That means, for a wife, caring for her husband’s needs and wants is her first priority, not 10th priority. This isn’t a doormat mentality; because her husband sacrifices his own wants and needs to put her first. This is anti-selfish, and, as a result, neither spouse has to provide wholly for their own needs or self-protection, because both are protected by and cared for by the other. This enables both husband and wife to have the energy they need to tackle all the other life demands, such as children and careers.
Why Sex in Marriage is Worth It.
Sex is designed for marriage, and marriage is designed to include sex. It is something God created to put life and pleasure into a marriage. In a safe, growing relationship it’s not a duty to perform, but a purposeful, intentional desire to grow closer to each other.
For true sexual intimacy it demands that both people vulnerably offer themselves: