What do you do when your husband thinks you have a bad sex life?
Recently we were talking about 10 marriage and sex red flags–signs that there may be something wrong with your marriage.
Here’s a really messy question from a woman whose husband has decided to withhold sex since their sex life was so bad. I thought we could work through this one together and look at how there may be some red flags here
(And, yes, I am going to start my sexual confidence series! The post is almost done–I just got back from vacation yesterday and didn’t have time to finish it, and I already had this one ready! So look for it on Tuesday, AFTER Canadian Thanksgiving on Monday):
I’m in my early 30s with two children. My marriage has not been great but not bad either, until last year when things took a bad turn and it doesn’t seem to be getting better. My husband woke me up and asked that we talk, he told me that he is not happy, that our sex life sucks and he has not really enjoyed sex with me since marriage, never feels the emotional or spiritual connection when making love and that he can not pretend any longer and even though we still remained intimate, we haven’t had sex in 3 months now. I usually get rejected when I initiate it and now I’m too afraid to try. We were celibate throughout our courtship and I did struggle the first year of marriage to be comfortable with sex, he would complain that I was tense and not enjoying him. I did seek advice and was told to masturbate and I did and thought it improved things but to my surprise, it wasn’t good enough. I have been raped when I was young by my two cousins and it does bother me now and then. I was born again at 12 and had been celibate till marriage and now I’m so frustrated to say the least. My husband has had multiple sexual relationships before he met me and I do feel compared to the women in his past. My marriage is in shambles and each day I pray for restoration. I do sometimes turn to masturbation and feel guilty thereafter and so now try just to cross my legs and be strong.
Wow, that’s really, really sad. Let’s take a look at some big picture issues here.
It’s quite common to make sex about his needs
We grow up in a culture that is always talking about how much men need sex and how high a sex drive men have (which is quite a hard message to hear for those women who end up marrying men with no sex drives!). We believe that a man can’t be happy until he has regular and frequent sex.
And so this couple gets married, and she has problems. She writes, “he would complain that I was tense and not enjoying him. I did seek advice…” So sex isn’t working that great for her. But how do they react to that? He complains and she seeks outside advice.
She’s denying her legitimate need to feel comfortable with sex and get used to sex because of his supposed greater need to get sexual fulfillment and release.
Their needs are at odds with each other–because they’re seeing sex as an individual thing, where “I need to get my needs met” and “it needs to match my expectations”. Even she is–the difference is that she’s seeing it as about his needs rather than her own. Sex is supposed to be easy and frequent, and when it’s not, it’s now her problem to deal with, rather than their problem to deal with.
If people saw sex as being primarily about intimacy, then this wouldn’t happen
If we could stop talking about sex as primarily being about getting needs met, and start talking about sex as primarily being a vehicle through which you feel like one, then perhaps these problems could stop. You see, if sex were primarily about intimacy and that feeling like you’re totally and utterly connected to one another, then if someone is having a hard time with sex, it becomes your problem together, not just one person’s problem that they need to go get fixed and then come back when they have it all together.
I understand that young men often have very high sex drives. I understand that there are a lot of expectations around sex when you first get married. But if people were taught that sex was about both of us together, not just me getting release, then perhaps we could learn to treat each other well rather than seeing sex as one big area of entitlement.
So let’s go back for first principles. What should a healthy sex life look like?
What Healthy Sex Looks Like
A healthy sexual relationship is where both people believe that sex is supposed to be intimate, mutual, and pleasurable for both; it is not primarily for one person’s needs. Both people are working towards that and are committed to attaining that–even if it means addressing some roadblocks along the way. Both people value the intimacy and closeness that sex ideally brings to a marriage, and works towards that.
Sex is not something that is used to manipulate or punish someone, and if sex is taken off the table, it’s either because the spouse isn’t safe or because you need time to work on other parts of the relationship.
With that as our framework, let’s analyze what’s actually happening in this scenario where her husband doesn’t think their sex life is good:
- Their marital satisfaction and emotional connection has not been strong
- Her husband feels as if there is no emotional or spiritual connection during sex
- He rejects her when she tries to initiate and they are living in a sexless marriage
- She found sex awkward and painful during the first year of marriage, and in that time, he complained that she was not enjoying it.
- She sought advice, and started to enjoy things, but he didn’t think that was enough.
- She has sexual trauma in her past
- He had multiple sexual partners and she feels compared to them (though, to be fair, we don’t know if he actually does compare them)
- She feels sexual frustration
When you look at that story, do you see a situation where the HUSBAND has put in any work to fix the sex life? Obviously he may have and she may not have mentioned it, but assuming that she is telling the story fairly, he complained when she was in pain and having an awkward transition to sex, rather than slowing down and trying to figure out how her body worked. In fact, he made her figure out her pleasure on her own through masturbation.
He has shown no sympathy for the sexual trauma in her past.
He has cut her off from sex now.
When I read this, I see plenty of sex red flags that we talked about in our red flags post.
He doesn’t want sex at all, which likely means that he is getting sexual release somewhere else (like pornography or an affair). It doesn’t seem like he has zero libido, because he did want more sex earlier in their marriage.
He complains that they had no emotional or spiritual connection, but at the same time he has shown no consideration for her well-being, including her healing from sexual trauma or the pain that she felt during sex. He simply blamed this on her. Someone who wants to feel connected during sex should be trying to show love to their partner, not blaming them. They should be building bridges and intimacy, not demolishing them.
I would be suspicious of porn use; and I would also see a licensed counselor to talk through these issues, because this is serious.
I also think it’s vitally important to see a trauma-informed therapist to deal with the sexual abuse in her past.
Perhaps it all is in her past, and perhaps she is healed, but when you’ve gone through a significant trauma like that, you often need some help healing. It’s not just anger or bitterness or a spiritual problem; your brain can actually be stuck in trauma mode, and there are therapies that can help you.
Finally, if porn use is not a problem in this marriage, I’d suggest working through the 31 Days to Great Sex challenge with her husband.
I designed 31 Days for couples who want to have great sex, but who have given up or gotten discouraged. The first few challenges are basic but fun; they help you look at your goals for sex, the lies you’ve been believing about sex, and do some super fun preliminary exercises that can show that you both honestly can give each other pleasure!
Then in the next week we focus on building emotional intimacy and having fun together–how to flirt again, be affectionate, laugh together. After that, we move on to physical fireworks–how to actually have an orgasm; how to make sex feel great for both of you; how to figure out which body parts you each really like! Then we move on to spiritual intimacy and how to feel like one. We address some of the big elephants in the room and the sexual baggage you both have. We talk about how to figure out boundaries and how to make sure that porn or other things don’t wreck our marriage. And we make a plan to carry these lessons forward so we don’t lose them.
The biggest thing that people have told me after working through 31 days is that they finally were able to talk about a lot of these things and they had such breakthroughs. This is quite typical of the emails I get:
My husband and I read 31 days to great sex and started talking about sex. (we honestly read the whole book in just a few nights) We started talking and a wall was lifted in our marriage. I could literally cry typing this out.….So much has changed in 2 short months. We have sex A LOT which has healed our marriage. (we have been catching up for lost time!)
Feeling sexually disconnected?
Early in the book, too, I ask some pointed questions about porn use and abuse and insist the couple figure these things out before working through the book (and help people recognize red flags). If you are wondering if something rises to the level of red flag, this can also help.
Finally, if he isn’t interested in going through the challenge with you, then that’s another red flag.
It means he doesn’t actually want to fix the sex life; he just wants to punish her and use it to control her. That’s not safe, and in that case, I’d suggest going to a counselor alone (since couples’ counseling isn’t a good idea in abusive situations) and talk about what to do.
Sex should be something that unites us and that makes us feel intimate, not something that we use to punish each other with.
Yes, we’re going to have issues with sex, and sometimes one or both of us will have to take hard lines to make sure those issues are dealt with (like porn use or lack of foreplay or sexual pain or sex never feeling very good). But if you don’t both share the goal of building a sex life that is intimate, mutual, and pleasurable for both, then something is desperately wrong. And that’s when you may need some help!
Now I’d really love to talk about this question in the comments: Do you see red flags here? How can we overcome feelings of disappointment or entitlement? How can we change that conversation?
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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