Can Sex Feel Great But Leave You Empty?

by | Feb 18, 2022 | Connecting, Making Sex Feel Good, Sex, Sexual Intimacy, Spiritual Intimacy | 29 comments

Sex Feels Great but Leaves You Empty
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What if sex physically works well–but afterwards you just feel distant from one another?

This month on the blog I’m going a “number of the day” series, and I meant to put this post up on Wednesday but the blog was all glitchy that day when we were switching to other servers so I decided to put it up today.

As most of you know, for The Great Sex Rescue, we surveyed 20,000 women, finding all kinds of neat tidbits of information about women’s marital and sexual satisfaction. 

Well, we’ve since followed that up with our survey of 3,000 men, and it’s all releasing in our new book The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex and our totally revamped Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex! And you can pre-order them now. 

One of the big points we’re making in The Good Guy’s Guide and Good Girl’s Guide is that sex is more than physical.

Indeed, the books are divided up into three sections: Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual intimacy. How does each play a role in the bedroom? 

I thought that to illustrate how important the threefold nature of sex is, I’d share with you two numbers today–the percentage of women who orgasm frequently but don’t feel close during sex, and the percentage of men who do. 

How Many Women Orgasm But Don’t Feel Close During Sex:


How Many Men Orgasm But Don’t Feel Close During Sex:


Yes, it is true that women especially tend to reach orgasm much more easily when they feel close to their husbands. 

Emotional intimacy tends to fuel physical response. For women especially it’s difficult to relax during sex if you feel distant from your husband, and if you can’t relax, it’s difficult to get aroused.

But that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. Some women are just very physically responsive, and most men are physically responsive. So the physical and the emotional don’t always work in tandem.

What happens when people orgasm but don’t feel emotionally close?

It’s actually worse for the marriage than the other way around. Like other studies, we found that marital satisfaction had a big impact on sexual satisfaction, but when we teased this out in focus groups and looked at other peer reviewed research, it’s clear that the association wasn’t as true the other way around.  (It’s very difficult to tease out which direction causation goes, so we looked at a number of different tools to figure it out!).

So we’re looking at roughly 20% of couples where at least one person is physically enjoying sex, but it isn’t bringing them closer together.

And if sex is meant to be mutual, intimate, and pleasurable for both, and it’s missing the intimacy–then something is going to feel off with everything.

Here’s how I described it: 

Sex is ultimately a longing, a passion, a deep desire for connec- tion. God created in each of us a longing for intimate connection with him, and he made us long for each other in the same way, to mirror how he feels about us.

Let me put it this way: billions of people have had sex. I am not sure how many have actually made love. To have sex is simply to do the physical act. To make love is to connect on many other levels as well, which is exactly what God made sex for. He made it to help us truly “know” each other, in every sense of the word. He wants us to know each other physically, to memorize each other’s curves and freckles and scents and likes and dislikes. He wants us to know what our spouse yearns for and what makes our spouse uncomfortable. But he also wants us to know our spouse’s heart, mind, and soul. He wants us to be joined. That can happen only in an intimate, committed relationship, which is why people can have sex with many but can make love to only one.

Unfortunately, too many people don’t even realize they’re miss- ing out on the best. When my oldest daughter was four, we attended a playgroup every day. One day the woman in charge asked the children, “What’s your favorite food?” All the preschoolers offered variants of macaroni and cheese, ice cream, or hot dogs until one little girl, Victoria, shouted out, “Lobster!” Her father owned a gour- met restaurant, and she frequently dined on leftover lobster. She didn’t know what macaroni and cheese tasted like. The other kids, though, were equally ignorant of lobster. They thought mac and cheese was scrumptious because it was the best of their experience. I suspect that many women settle for mac and cheese and miss out on delicacies because they don’t know how great sex can be.

Listen to what one respondent to our sex and marriage survey reported: “I wish I had known that it really takes trust, commit- ment, and more trust to have a fulfilling sexual relationship. I never reached real fulfillment until I had all the above plus intimacy.”

Sheila Wray Gregoire

The New and Revised Good Girl's Guide to Great Sex

So what do you do if sex feels empty?

Talk about it! Get to the bottom of it. 

  • Is it because one or both of you have a pornified view of sex, and sex is about using each other, rather than “knowing” each other?
  • Is it because one of you is selfish in bed and doesn’t think of the other?
  • Is it because you aren’t communicating in other aspects of your relationship, and this is the only time you connect, so there is so much unspoken that to do something so intimate leaves you feeling the big dichotomy between the reality of your emotional connection?

Get rid of any porn use, and say, “no more!” Put up clear boundaries, and get help where you need it.

Get counseling if you need to work through more relationship issues.

And then work at re-establishing intimacy before and during sex. Share your hearts with each other. Everyday, make it a habit to share with each other the time you felt most in the groove today, and the time you felt the most defeated. Get an insight into each other’s emotional state.

And then, when you are having sex, look into each other’s eyes. Say each other’s names. Make it more personal.

Obviously, that’s simplified, and this isn’t a fast process. We do have lots in The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex and The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex to help guide you through this. 

The All New Guides to Great Sex!

Launch March 15!

Imagine building a great sex life–from the ground up!

What would it look like to build a picture of sex that was MUTUAL, INTIMATE, and PLEASURABLE FOR BOTH–with no harmful messages?

Welcome to the The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex and the ALL NEW Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex.

Pre-Order Now! (Helps us out a ton)

And if you email your receipt, we’ll send you a special pre-order BONUS

But the big thing I want you all to remember is that “intimacy” and “sex” are not necessarily synonyms. 

Just because you are having intercourse does not mean that you’re feeling close or that it’s intimate. And in a way, there is nothing more lonely that having physically great sex with someone that you feel very distant from. The stark dichotomy is just too much.

So if you’re feeling empty, take that as a sign that there is work to do. Don’t just keep having sex because sex is supposed to fix things. It won’t, because the problem isn’t with sex. Sex is not the cure-all for relationship issues. Instead, look outside the bedroom and deal with whatever is hindering you.

Because it isn’t okay for your sex life to leave you empty! And in The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex and The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex, I hope we can point you to ways to talk about this, and to places where you can get help if more is needed. 

Sex Feels Great But Leaves You Empty

What do you think? Have you ever experienced that non-concordance when sex makes you distant? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. JJ

    This has happened in my marriage when my wife feels sorry for me because it’s been a long time since we’ve had sex. I call it ‘pity sex’. It feels good physically, but the emotional feeling afterward is the worst. I’m at the point now where I’d rather have no sex than have pity sex. I’m very affectionate, but I’m still learning how to feel emotionally connected to her without much of a sexual relationship. Any tips?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think figuring out why her libido is so low is the key. What we found is that when women feel emotionally close during sex; have high marital satisfaction; frequently reach orgasm; don’t experience sexual pain; and when there’s no porn use in the marriage, libido tends to rebound. Now that doesn’t mean that anything is necessarily your fault–what we found in The Great Sex Rescue is that many times the reason that she doesn’t feel close is because she’s internalized negative messages about sex. But I’d start from the beginning and talk to her about it. Make sure that she’s enjoying sex. Make sure that your marriage is in a good place. Try to have fun together and build emotional connection so it’s easier to talk about this stuff. But don’t just say you’ll give up on sex, because then the gulf will grow. Figure out why the gulf is there in the first place.

      • JJ

        We could talk about it together, but honestly, I don’t want to put any pressure on her. At all. We have five kids and she is a pedal-to-the-metal, go-all-day-without-stopping, task-driven, maniac. And I mean that in the best possible way! She’s amazing, and 10x more productive than I am, but she has very little self-care instinct. She was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, and made it through that. (I barely did; but now I do daily breathing, meditation, stretching––which has really helped me stay sane.) She was just re-diagnosed with the same cancer a month ago, and is going through chemotherapy again. Anyway, I can’t change her, so I’m just trying to support her the best I can––and right now that means no pressure on the sex front. I’m just trying to figure out how to find joy in the journey, and keep our relationship strong.

        • E

          Sounds like you guys have a lot on your plate! Perhaps instead of talking about sex, it would be better to start with a discussion about taking things off her plate (whether those things become your responsibility, the kids responsibilities, someone else’s or just removed completely). It sounds like your wife is likely doing too much, even without the cancer! But I definitely wouldn’t frame it as ‘you should do less so we can have more sex’, as that would almost certainly feel like even more pressure and something else to do for her!

          • JJ

            The “simplifying, and doing less” conversation has been ongoing for 10+ years. She is a driven and strong-willed woman! I’ve tried to put my foot down a couple of times, and let’s just say that it didn’t go over well. As long as she gets things her way, she is perfectly happy. 😆

    • Jim

      I hear you JJ. This sounds like how I feel sometimes.

      My wife calls it, ‘Being in neutral. She can take it or leave it.’

      In my case, it seems to be the difference between spontaneous and responsive. It does feel like she is not interested until I initiate but it gets better once we get going. I have told her that it feels like ‘pity’ sex, as you have described.

      That might be the disconnect. I would agree with Sheila that talking about it would be a good place to start.

      • JJ

        I’ve pretty much given up on initiating. It just doesn’t feel right given the other circumstances. See my response to Sheila above for more info. I’m really trying to change my mindset to “I don’t need sex, I’ll be fine”. 🙂

        • Jim

          I am so sorry that your wife is battling cancer again. The effects of chemo can make everyday tasks difficult, let alone being intimate.

          I still think that it would help to talk about it to set expectations. It is better to talk than to assume.

    • Anna

      I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can say, that as a wife who has believed and lived the obligation sex message, what it did to me was not good. I’ve had lots of sex that I really didn’t want to have, and it killed emotional closeness. And if I knew that my husband was struggling to feel emotionally close to me without sex, that would put terror into my soul. We’re not young any more, and every passing year brings with it the possibility that something medical could, indeed, either greatly curtail or end sex. It happens. And if it did, and I thought my husband would lose his emotional connectedness without sex….well, that’s a dead marriage. And a betrayal.

  2. Not this time

    I’ve had both and a few in between. Normally if I’m not feeling emotionally close, it’s because we’re doing it, but we haven’t actually talked much at all lately. Just doing life together and had a small window of opportunity. Then after, as we try to settle down to sleep, we end up talking about things for an hr or so. And that makes me feel closer than the sex just before.

    The situation of the extremely intense and passionate lovemaking, is surrounded by lots of conversation and a heart to heart connection. That makes us forget the anything but how much we’re thankful for being with each other. It doesn’t happen too often, as we both have daily stress.

    The in between is the maintenance sex, it’s not obligated or duty. But it keeps us sexually satisfied and able to focus on other daily things. I think it’s more for me than both. Because his libido is that of a roaming wildabeast, that Sheila once referenced! While I require a regular diet or none at all, ever. Because if we go longer than a certain period, it’s like my brain forgets everything. And I’m back in my childhood trauma and back to being afraid of him as a male.

    But affecting this is his need for therapy, as soon as we can stop the constant career crisis. He has a childhood ace score of 6-7.

  3. Emmy

    Feeling distant does not even need to be a relationship issue. It is very hard to feel connected with someone who has a completely different world view and endorses ideas you really don’t. Even if your spouse is nice to you and treats you good enough, differences in your values still matter, I guess. It does not even need to be a sin issue. You just vote on different political parties and read different theological books, and you’d rather attend different churches if you could, and you have almost the opposite opinion on almost anything. One is a Young Earth Creationist, the other is Old Earth Creationist. One does not believe in climate change, the other does. One is a Lutheran and believes in infant baptism and the other is a baptist and is against infant baptism. And so on, and so on. There is very little you can do about it, and instead of finding each other you are growing further apart. No arousal, no pleasure, no orgasms can fix that gap. Still, I can’t give up what matters to me, and I don’t believe it would do any good either.

    • M

      I understand where you’re coming from, Emmy. My husband and I love each other and we’re good partners when it comes to day-to-day life and parenting. But we have very different personalities. I’m passionate, romantic, empathetic, and highly intuitive. I love language, books, writing, and discussing theology, philosophy, and other big ideas. My husband is an engineer, steady going, logical, a bit low on the emotional intelligence scale, not very interested in spiritual/philosophical matters, and completely left-brained. He’s a good, kind man, but I don’t think he’s capable of giving me the kind of emotional passion I long for. We’ve had lots of sex that is physically satisfying for both of us, but has left me feeling emotionally empty. I can depend on my husband and trust him in the day-to-day, but he doesn’t comprehend the deepest parts of my soul, even when I try to share them with him. I don’t know how we can connect on the intimate, emotional level that Sheila talks about.

      I get jealous of the “soul mate” couples who are just naturally in tune with each other emotionally and spiritually, who still get the butterflies looking at each other. To reference C.S. Lewis, we have the steady affection, but I still long for erotic love.

    • A.J.

      This is so true! My husband is not abusive and does want sex to be mutual but vastly different world views hurts libido. And talking about things when the other partner is uninterested in being truly open makes it worse. Especially when they’re an addict and are in denial that they are.

  4. Codec

    Honestly things can feel good for a bit and then feel shameful and empty.

    I know folks with eating problems that say that. Porn use has a lot of people say that. A classic trope is that getting revenge feels empty.

  5. Erin

    Oh my goodness this blog post was written for me. Except the suggestions. I’m just apathetic at this point. He is bipolar and on the spectrum. Counseling does not help. And spending time together doesn’t help. The thought of opening my eyes during sex or saying his name makes me want to vomit.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Erin, I’m so sorry. Sex should not feel that way. Is he getting help for his mental health at all?

      • Erin

        Yes he is on medication and seeing a psychiatrist and therapist. He’s probably the most mentally healthy he has ever been. And the most healthy I expect him to be given his diagnoses.

      • Rose

        So I just finished reading through “The Great Sex Rescue” and I’m still feeling a bit unseen because this, above, this is my issue. I come out of sex frequently feeling maybe not “hollow”, but definitely struggling with guilt or detachment.

        It’s not my husband, he’s absolutely wonderful and so very patient with me, but I was raised with some very skewed fundamentalist views and had a very messy, toxic past relationship that even 10 years later I keep finding that I haven’t entirely cleaned out the baggage from.

        I’ve been in counselling for ages but I feel like no one in a professional field ever really listens to me. They always circle back around to the same things, how to have a sex drive/good sex (we are very happily sexually active, and I DO feel close to my husband during sex, I just also struggle to express my direct wants or needs any time I feel like they are out of the ordinary), or things that focus on other marital issues that might be contributing.

        I’ve tried just “letting go” in the sense of trying new things that I want to try – it took a lot of prayer to even do that! My husband is very willing to be adventurous in sex but he’s never once pressured me and so we’ve only really branched out from the same routines once or twice. It is such a huge struggle for me to admit I want anything at all, and I do! I want th crazy fun new ideas sex! But then I freeze so badly that I can’t ever go through with it!

        What do you do when your emptiness has nothing to do with your history and everything to do with guilt, shame, embarrassment, or skewed moral boundaries in your own head?

        Sorry if this is a little off topic. I just… I know this is hard for my husband, too, even if he always reassures me that he’s there for me and will help in any way I need. For his sake I desperately WISH I knew what I needed!

        Tired of feeling like both of us deserve better. God didn’t give me such a kind and caring husband for me to end up so often feeling adrift or ashamed!

  6. Nessie

    I’m in the 9.8%. And yes, it makes me feel more empty and distant from him. His counselor and I agreed that he should date me so we can reconnect/rebuild after his porn confession (and the “church” upbringing we both had about how guys have to have it, etc.) … I’m still waiting 15 months later for him to ask me out, to show an interest in me other than for having sex (only initiated by me now when I feel that desire merely physically). It is hard to emotionally connect to someone that doesn’t have an interest in knowing you no matter how much you communicate you need that component. It almost feels worse, knowing he “knows” but still not heeding. His counselor is frustrated, too, ha. Very loaded situation unfortunately.

    I prayed a lot for patience in my younger days, haha. This isn’t lost on me, how God is likely answering my prayers in an ironic way.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Nessie, I’m sorry. It sounds like your husband just doesn’t know how to relate on an emotional level (which is very common for men who used porn). Have you read Surfing for God by Michael John Cusick? It’s really good and explains this well.

    • Erin

      I think we need a course for men on how to emotionally connect!

    • Karena Hamm

      Nessie, I’m so sorry you are in this situation! My ex-husband and I had a lot of difficulty connecting, and I tried everything to salvage our marriage.

      At one point we were in a marriage seminar at our church (one of those attempts to salvage), and one of the books we were reading had us identify the things that most filled our “love tank” so we could recognize and better meet each other’s needs (with the goal of increasing connection). My husband’s response to this was basically “well, you shouldn’t have needs that are different from mine, and I really don’t feel like meeting them.” That was really the start of the end for me. I was in despair, knowing that I was married to someone who didn’t truly care about me, and basically had no interest in living out what it actually means to be married.

      Ours was not a happy ending in the traditional sense (we divorced 11 years ago), but in retrospect my life (and that of my children) is SO much better without him than with him. It took me a long time to come to this realization however, and to allow God to convince me to get out. I had tremendous guilt around “breaking my wedding vows,” but my counselor helped me see that my husband had broken his vows to me long before that.

      I pray that you and your husband can build a true marriage. But if he is not willing, then I pray God will show you what He has for you next. Listen for His voice, and that is not necessarily the same as the voices you may hear from your church.

      • Nessie

        Karena, thanks for sharing your experience, and thank you for your prayers! I do truly believe my husband is trying, it is just painfully slow… it really is just such a loaded situation. It’s like he can start to get one area in order but then another area sabotages it, then when he tries to work on that area, another thing gets in the way, and so on.

        I communicated poorly… I think he IS interested in trying to know me better but his actions don’t yet back it up. I hope that makes more sense. I apologize for how I wrote it originally. I meant more like I feel he isn’t interested. He is slowly starting to make some progress in emotions. I think men (and women) who had all emotionality shut down or were shamed for it as children have a LOT of hard work when, as adults, they to try to figure that out. Our brains were designed to develop those things as kids when we are more malleable. It’s much easier to learn the right way first time around than to go back and unlearn then relearn in adulthood.

        I continue to work on our marriage while also not holding to the belief that I MUST make it work at any cost. I will not let myself deny making a choice that God may be allowing/leading me towards just because of what others may say. Thank you for offering compassion either way.

  7. K

    Thank you so much for this!! We have enjoyable sex and he’s always been concerned with meeting my needs first but there is such a disconnect! After his long term porn addiction and a few emotional affairs I feel like I could get close to the same connection with a stranger. I’ve always thought maybe I just had unrealistic romantic expectations.

    • Angelina

      I’m sorry, K. I’m in a similar situation too. And very disappointed about it all.

  8. Sunshine

    I think it’s important that we remember as well that there’s a lot of emotional abuse going on in a lot of marriages within the church. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the way that God is using Sheila and “To Love, Honor, and Vacuum” to untangle so many of the lies we’ve been taught… The tide really is starting to turn because of stuff like this! But some marriages like mine may never be “safe” no matter how much non toxic info is given. My husband would find a way to use even these non-toxic messages to manipulate me. There’s no real sharing my heart with him, I’ve finally learned that he will somehow at some time use it all against me. Thankfully a lot of the emotional abuse toward me has stopped, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to fully trust him with my emotions.

    • Hurt & Confused

      I hope someone is still moderating these comments.

      Oftentimes sex has left me feeling used and disconnected despite it feeling incredible in the moment. This has been a source of pain and confusion for both my husband and I.

      There have also been times when I’m noticeably not “into it” and he proceeds to finish anyways. This has made me feel used, unimportant and empty. Add this to lots of unworthiness because my husband didnt want to have sex with me as often as I would like and a porn addiction and weve got some serious issues.

      He has been in recovery for over a year and doing marvellously, but the dawning realization of how deeply pornography had marred our sex life has been almost too much to bear. We have been having an on going discussion and are both in active therapy. He feels awful about the impact disconnected sex has had me, but also confused about why I continued to allow him to have sex. I’ve also been confused about why he continued if he noticed I wasnt in it. Theres been a lot hurt on both ends trying to muddle through this.

      I know unequivocally my husband loves me and would never intentionally hurt me, but how am I supposed to deal with over a decade of hurt and his lack of attunement coupled with my own disappointment in myself for allowing it to continue?

  9. JE

    Sheila, I read the following at the beginning of your post then reread it and can’t see your conclusion in it:

    “How Many Women Orgasm But Don’t Feel Close During Sex:

    How Many Men Orgasm But Don’t Feel Close During Sex:

    Yes, it is true that women especially tend to reach orgasm much more easily when they feel close to their husbands.”

    I don’t know how the question was actually written but the wording of the results seems to be more literally correct that the men are feeling more left out in the feeling close category than the women. I would think to reach the conclusion you have that the question would be worded differently than the results imply.

    Maybe I’m interpreting based upon my own experience of having sex with my wife and despite my orgasming left feeling like we weren’t intimate or close which is my most desired outcome.


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