When people write in with sex problems, one of the hardest things is that the problem is often not just one thing.
It would be wonderful if, when people have problems with sex, it were one simple thing, like: “Our relationship is great and everything is wonderful but he’s having occasional erectile dysfunction,” Or “our relationship is great and everything is wonderful but I can’t figure out how to orgasm.”
But it’s rarely that simple. Instead, when people have problems, there’s often quite a lot to untangle.
This month, we’re talking about sex questions you can’t ask your pastor, in celebration of the re-launch of my book 31 Days to Great Sex (which is an awesome and fun challenge for couples!).
Today I wanted to talk about one of the aspects of the emails that I get that I find the most heartbreaking: It’s almost never just one thing.
For instance, I’ll get a question like this:
I’ve been married for eight years now. The first few years were really hard. I found out when I was pregnant with my first that my husband was having an affair with someone from work. He’s stopped that now, and he’s totally recommitted to me, but I find it hard to trust him.
We now have two kids, and we’re really busy and almost always tired. But my husband thinks the affair was a long time ago, and I should be past it. And I really want to be. But the problem is that I don’t feel anything when we have sex. Like nothing. It’s not pleasurable at all. My husband is mad and thinks that I’m holding the affair over his head, and that’s why I don’t like sex. But I’ve never felt anything. I sometimes fear that’s why he had the affair in the first place.
He was laid off during COVID and we’re now living with his parents, but my husband is mad all the time and often just stays out on the back porch drinking beer with his dad while I look after the kids. What do I do? How do I get sex to feel good?
What a scenario! So she has several issues:
- Sex has never felt good
- They have an affair in the past that seems unresolved
- He is expressing anger towards her
- He is disconnected from her and the kids
- He is drinking too much
- They are living with the in-laws
Or here’s another typical one:
We’ve been married for just under a year and we haven’t managed to achieve full penetration yet because I’ve been suffering from vaginismus. We try to do other things, but I haven’t reached orgasm yet. I know my husband is really, really disappointed, and has gotten angry at times. I also found out soon after our honeymoon that he’s had a porn addiction since he was in his early teens. He said that he’s had it under control for a few years, but I caught him a month in to our marriage watching porn. He promised he wouldn’t do it again, and I know that he did talk to one of the counselors at church, but I don’t know if he’s still talking to him. I’m afraid to ask. I’m afraid that he’s turning to porn again recently because we had a big blow up last month when he said that I wasn’t getting better. He hasn’t been coming to bed with me anymore, and he’s staying up late, and I’m afraid he’s using porn because he’s not asking me to help him climax anymore. What should I do?
So what are this couple’s problems?
- They have untreated vaginismus
- He has a porn addiction
- He’s likely using porn again
- They aren’t communicating
- He is angry
Yikes. I look at these types of questions and I just think: Oh, my word. If it was one of those things, we could deal with it. But when it’s all those problems all at once, how do you untangle them?
And isn’t that what usually happens? Problems grow on problems and it becomes a tangled mess.
5 principles for untangling complicated sex and marriage problems
1. Address physical and emotional safety issues first
Sex can’t fix a broken relationship. Sex is a vital part of a healthy marriage–but healthy is the key word there. Sex is supposed to be a deeply intimate experience that reflects the relationship you already have, and then fuels that same intimacy.
But sex, outside of intimacy, can’t fix anything. It can make it seem temporarily like the problems are under the radar, or it can make it seem as if you’re on a better trajectory, but if the underlying issues aren’t dealt with, they’ll just snowball.
Not just that, but women’s sexual response is often greatly hindered if the relationship isn’t safe or healthy. So trying to fix a sex problem in the presence of major relationship issues isn’t going to work in most cases anyway.
When you’re looking at a whole big mess, then, ask yourself: Do I feel physically safe? If not, please call an abuse hotline, the authorities, or get some help.
But sometimes the issue is emotional safety. If your spouse is getting angry at you for things you can’t control, that isn’t emotionally safe, and that needs to be dealt with. Seek out a licensed counselor if you can. But it’s also okay to say, “your anger at me over something that I can’t do anything about is making the problem worse. I need to know that I am safe with you, and that means that I am free of your anger.”
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2. Address sin issues next
Okay, now let’s move down to the next most urgent thing to address: Is there a sin issue that is impeding the marriage? Porn use would obviously qualify, as would excessive drinking (I have a hard time with this one, because I have known some spouses to say that their spouse has a drinking problem when they drink one beer after work; and others who try to ignore the alcoholism in front of them. If your spouse is drinking multiple drinks at a time, and if your spouse is using alcohol to deal with emotions or relationship issues, that is a problem. An occasional drink, however, is usually not).
If there is a porn issue, or an affair, or a different addiction, you need to face it head on. No more secrecy. No more worrying about it, but being afraid to ask. That secrecy is like a huge axe hovering over your marriage, waiting to fall. You can’t live like that. Seek out a counselor to talk this through with, or seek out a mentor couple or a friend that your spouse respects that you can ask to help you address this.
Yes, perhaps it was the stress of an underlying issue in your marriage or sex life that triggered a relapse or that left your spouse weakened to temptation. But sin is still their fault. Even if there are bigger issues in the relationship that also have to be dealt with, you cannot deal with those relationship or sex issues if there’s a huge sin problem there.
It’s like I wrote about last year when I was talking about the stance that Focus on the Family was taking towards affairs: No, the solution to an affair is not to understand the role you played in it. The solution is to first deal with the affair and put it behind you, and then, and only then, do you address what else was going on in the relationship. You deal with the vow-breakers before you deal with the other stuff.
Again, if someone is breaking vows, and porn use and affairs are breaking vows, or endangering the relationship as other addictions do, those are the top priorities. Fixing a sex life cannot fix those things, and you also need to feel safe before you can really fix a sex life. You can’t fix what’s wrong with sex with a metaphorical gun to your head, which is what you’re doing if you’re addressing sex before the affair or the porn. It’s like saying, “Unless we get the sex right, he’ll continue to cheat on me.” That’s just too much pressure, and will make the problems worse.
Even if there are deep issues in the marriage which you may have contributed to, you don’t deal with them by breaking vows. You deal with them by seeking counseling, by addressing them head on, by getting healthier. There is not an excuse for an affair.
3. Address communication issues and work on relationship
Okay, now that you feel safe and you’ve addressed sin issues, let’s work on the relationship (again, not sex!).
Often when there’s a problem in the bedroom you start to feel distant from one another because you’re both so insecure. You feel disappointed and ashamed in yourself if you’re not responding sexually the way you want to, and you become defensive and worried that he doesn’t really love you or that he’s angry. He feels rejected, and it’s all a big mess.
So let’s go back to what you once did well! Before you married, you were friends, right? You know how to be friends. Go back and be friends once again. Get some hobbies to do as a couple. Try my conversation starters. Try carving out time everyday to share your “high” and “low” of the day. Go back to doing things together and talking together. Even try my free 5-week emotional reconnection course!
Incidentally, I have a lot of these things available as freebies when you sign up for my email list. So sign up, and you’ll get access to all kinds of downloads that can help your marriage!
When you start talking again, you bring the tension level down in your marriage. When the tension level is lower, then it’s much easier to deal with some of these emotional landmines that come with sex problems.
4. Address any day-to-day issues that would make solving the problems easier
Okay, one last thing before we address the sex issues: Is there anything with the way that you are living your day-to-day life that is adding stress and pressure that you could potentially change?
I know switching jobs in the middle of COVID isn’t possible for so many, but perhaps you can find different living arrangements; you could move to a cheaper community; you could move closer to people who could help you with childcare or where you have a more natural community. You could plan for a way to move out of a less-than-ideal housing situation.
You could ask other people for help with childcare if you’re overwhelmed. You could ask some friends for help to deep clean your house or organize your house and then get you on a plan to keep it organized so that your home wasn’t so stressful. You could ask for help for getting kids to sleep through the night or getting a good bedtime routine so that you have your life back in the evenings.
Whatever it may be–reducing the overall stress in your life and creating more margins again lowers the tension level, and allows you breathing room to deal with sex.
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5. THEN address the sex issues.
And now we come to sex! Once you feel safe in the relationship, like your spouse isn’t about to leave and you’re not being emotionally abused or manipulated; once you’ve dealt with addictions or sin issues; once you can laugh again together and you’ve got a bit of an easier life, NOW it’s easier to work on sex.
Does that mean I don’t think sex is important? Nope. I think it’s really, really important. But you can’t create a magical sex life in the middle of a stressful relationship where the marriage is not safe. Those conditions will work against sex being safe, anyway.
And I’m not saying that your relationship has to be perfect to work on sex. Once you’re starting to move in the right direction, and things are improving, of course you can try to address the sex issues. But what I often see is that often the wife gets so scared she’s going to lose her marriage that she tries desperately to figure out how to fix the sex when it just doesn’t work that way. The other stuff needs to be addressed first.
I wrote 31 Days to Great Sex to help take you through this kind of exercise.
Early in the challenge I help you address porn or other sin issues that may be present, and raise the conversation and point you to help. Then we work at building the friendship before we specifically move on to sex. And there are also lots of exercises to make your life less busy and less stressful so that you can keep the momentum going.
If you feel like you have a whole tangled mess of problems, I recommend working through 31 Days to Great Sex together, so that you can address all of these different issues.
Sex is deeply personal. It’s where we’re most vulnerable. So it’s hardly surprising that when problems come, they’re often very tangled up.
But you can untangle them, and I hope that 31 Days to Great Sex can help you get there!
What do you think? Have I got the order wrong? What would you change? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of Bare Marriage
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