“Sex can be quite fun. So why do married couples have so little of it?”
That was a question asked recently in a New York Times Op-Ed by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a former quantitative analyst at Google.
Based on the results of his recent study of online search trends, Stephens-Davidowitz disclosed, “On Google, the top complaint about a marriage is not having sex.” And the top search is as likely to come from a wife as from a husband.
“Searches for ‘sexless marriage’ are three and a half times more common than ‘unhappy marriage’ and eight times more common than ‘loveless marriage,’” he added. “There are sixteen times more complaints about a spouse not wanting sex than about a married partner not being willing to talk.”
This Google search trend is indicative of what marriage counselors say is a common problem faced by many couples: mismatched libidos. A wife may have a stronger sex drive than the husband — or the other way around. And it may switch from one spouse to the other over time. Dozens of factors add to the mismatch, including daily demands, work pressures, body image perceptions, health, age, and changing seasons of life.
In this age of Viagra for men and now Lybrido for women, it’s not surprising we frequently get questions from Ask Pastor John podcast listeners in marriages who find themselves coping with different sexual interests.
One listener, Steve, emailed us to ask,
Pastor John, in episode #475 you talked about sexual attraction, and argued that it is not essential for marriage. I am married to a gracious woman who will gladly oblige me if I ask her, but I find that though I do need sex, I do not desire it when I know she obliges without any sexual desire for me. If I sense she is getting no enjoyment out of the act, it makes it feel utterly disgusting to me. What advice do you have for me?
More important than personal advice, does Scripture have an answer for Steve and the many spouses who face this predicament?
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of Pastor John’s response.
My heart aches for Steve when I hear his question. I know exactly what he means. And I think it’s normal and healthy — maybe with the exception of him saying, “I feel disgusted.” I want to come back to that and caution him.
But I do agree. God made sexual relations to be profoundly mutual in marriage; each gives, each receives, each feels the act as the consummation of a wider and deeper, spiritual, and personal union, for which sex is only one of the capstones — but an important one. Each spouse is saying, “To you, and you only, do I give in this way. From you, and from you only, do I receive in this way.”
There are so many levels at which the mutuality of sexual relations is significant. So, yes, many can understand Steve’s dismay and sadness at the lack of mutuality.
This experience, in one form or another, is quite common. And we need to broaden it out and think about it for a moment.
Couples seldom have the same level of interest and passion about sexual relations. And that relates to frequency, location, timing, methods, privacy, kinds of touch. No couple has the same comfort level with all these variables. So it sounds like Steve is dealing with a particularly difficult example of what is common to almost every couple: how to live sexually when desires in all (or some) of these areas are significantly different.
So here is the key passage of Scripture where Paul addresses this directly: 1 Corinthians 7:3–5.
The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights [that’s sex], and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 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.
The most obvious point in this passage is that Paul commends relatively frequent sexual relations: “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time . . . but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you.”
What is less obvious: Whose desires should govern how this act of sex happens?
Paul says, “Wife, accede to your husband’s desires.” And he says, “Husband, accede to your wife’s desires.” “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”
So she gets to call the shots — and he gets to call the shots.
Now what do you do if the shots are not the same?
I don’t think Paul slipped up here and contradicted himself. Paul is not that kind of person, and he is guided by the Holy Spirit. I think he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew that he was dealing with one of the deepest, most complex, emotional moments in human life. Any simple formula will not fit reality for who gets to do what and when and where and how.
The reality is that in a Christian marriage, where the couple is growing in grace, they will figure this out along the lines of Romans 12:10: “Outdo one another in showing honor” — or outdo one another in showing grace or mercy or love or kindness or gentleness. This is the most wonderful kind of competition.
She will want to honor him by giving him what he desires. And he will want to honor her by giving her what she desires, which may be less of his desire. And they will pray, and they will talk, and they will struggle, and they will grow along the way.
I want to give a word to Steve’s wife first, and then to him.
To his wife: Be sure to never stop growing in emotional maturity that can join people in their joy, by doing things you don’t care about doing. And you can hear me generalizing here: this isn’t just sex, this is a general growth issue in Christian life for all of us. This applies especially to your husband and he should do the same for you. He may want you to go fishing or golfing. And you may want him to go to your kind of movie or a particular concert.
We all know people who say “yes” to those invitations, and then in a dozen ways, through their body language, and other ways, show all during the event: “I don’t want to be here. I wish I weren’t fishing with you. I wish I weren’t at this stupid movie that you wanted me to go to.” That is a mark of profound immaturity and shallow love.
The need is to grow up and learn to be bathed in grace at this moment. And this especially applies in the marriage bed. Don’t say “yes” to your husband’s desire tonight by complying, and then in a half a dozen ways communicating: “I wish I weren’t here.”
You don’t have to have the same kind of pleasure to make him feel loved. If you are not enjoying the actual physical realities of touch and sexual union, take joy in him. Take joy in the fact that you can give him pleasure. Take joy in the fact that he only wants it from you. Take joy in the privilege that he trusts you with his naked, emotional, physical, ridiculous abandon that he would be embarrassed in any other context to display. And he trusts you with this. Take joy in the grace of God that you can give yourself to him in these situations.
A mature, growing, gracious wife, who does not find physical pleasure in sexual relations, can find lots of pleasures in the event because of the way God set it up to be. There are ways that a mature wife can delight in that sexual moment.
To Steve: Don’t assume the worst about her. Assume that even without sexual desires she has other good desires to please you, and that is a kind of love that you can receive and enjoy.
Yes, you wish she were more passionate, more there, more engaged. Yes, you do. That is normal. That is good. What husband (or wife) wouldn’t want that? But don’t let your disappointment turn into growing anger or disgust (you used that word). Don’t let your disappointment and the shortfall turn in to a disgust that draws you farther apart.
Do your best to turn the sexual encounter into something she will enjoy at some level. That may mean it is what you say to her that makes all the difference. She looks forward to those moments, just because of your words, if not the event itself.
Listen to the 11-minute Ask Pastor John episode here: