What if a guy knows he’s gone down a bad path with his sex life–but he doesn’t know how to get back?
Like many of you probably did, I spent much of the weekend watching the invasion of Ukraine by Russia unfold on social media. There were some heartwarming and inspirational moments with the bravery of ordinary Ukrainians. There were some funny moments with people the world over letting Russia know how they feel.
And then there were the very sad moments–seeing the utter destruction for no good reason; the residential buildings hit; the fires and environmental disasters; and of course the loss of life.
I think the image that sticks with me the most, though, is some of the faces of the bewildered Russian soldiers who were captured, many of them no older than 20.
These poor kids–for that is what they are–had no idea why they were there. They didn’t want to fight Ukrainians. They were told they’d be welcomed. And they didn’t know what to do.
The video of one in particular being allowed to call his mom was just very touching.
Sometimes we get caught up in destruction that is not of our own making.
Those soldiers didn’t declare war on Ukraine. They were trapped in a situation that others had set in place.
Something very similar is going on with a lot of couples and their sex lives.
Things are not going well. Things may even be destructive. But at the same time, everyone’s kind of bewildered. We don’t know how we got here. And we have no idea how to get out. We started this conversation on last week’s podcast about the negative messages that men may have believed, and i want to continue it today.
The two big ways that sex lives can go downhill without you meaning to hurt anyone
Let me say: sometimes sex can deteriorate because one person is deliberately entitled and selfish. Or maybe he (and I’ll talk about mostly men here since I want to talk about how men can fix this) has a pornified style of relating and has treated her like an object. These scenarios are very real and very painful, but that’s not what I want to deal with today.
I want to talk about the other common scenario that leads to that look that the 19-year-old Russian boy had of bewilderment and defeat: sometimes you can just be following orders, doing what you’re told to do, and it ends very, very badly. And that can happen in two ways:
- He believes the messages about sex that the evangelical church has taught about his need for sex and his entitlement to sex
- She believes the messages about sex that the evangelical church has taught about her obligation to give him sex–and he inadvertently reinforces them
In The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex we explain how both of these scenarios can happen, and we spend chapters 5 and 6 and chapters 12-14 helping men navigate them. There’s much to say–but I’ll focus on just a few thoughts today.
The key thing I want you to notice about what sends them down the wrong path is that one of them (or even both of them) might actually believe what they’ve been taught. And you know what? It’s not wrong to believe what you’ve been taught. It’s natural. It’s good even. You read books to help you be a good wife or a good husband. You want to learn what a God-honouring marriage looks like.
But unfortunately, as we showed in The Great Sex Rescue, most of our evangelical resources about sex and marriage are filled with harmful messages about sex. And if those messages are internalized–ideas like she is obligated to give him sex when he wants it, or she has to have sex to stop him from watching porn–that will have negative effects on their sex life.
What happens when he believes these messages?
Sex may start out great! They both may be enjoying themselves, and sex may seem fun.
But as time goes on, and sex becomes less frequent because of regular life, he starts to feel angry. She’s not giving him what he needs and what he’s entitled to, and so now he can’t function (the books say a variety of things, like he can’t feel loved; he can’t be motivated at work; he can’t resist porn; he can’t resist lusting). She seems to deliberately be trying to make life difficult for him by withholding what is so easy for her to give.
She senses all of what he’s feeling, and starts to build up great resentment towards him and towards sex. She feels like he is just using her and doesn’t really care about her, and feels distinctly unloved.
Another common scenario is that sex never really started out that great–for her that is. They never figured out her orgasm piece, or sex may even have hurt. But he didn’t realize that this was his responsibility to figure out, or that this was even that important. He’d been told that what she needed was emotional connection, and she didn’t really care about sex. So he continues to want sex frequently, even though it does nothing for her, solidifying in her mind that she is not a sexual being and that sex is an imposition.
What happens when she believes these messages?
Sex becomes a very stressful thing from the start. She counts the days and makes sure they never go more than 72 hours without sex. If he asks her if she wants to tonight, she always says yes, because she doesn’t want to let him down (after all, Gary Thomas in Married Sex says that “no” can cause him to feel rejected at the very core of his identity). He often thinks it’s amazing that they’re getting sex so often (or else he just tries to keep up with her even though he doesn’t even want sex every 72 hours!).
They may or may not ever figure out her orgasm piece, but even if they do, it starts happening less frequently because she starts to worry about whether or not he’s going to want it tonight. She may even find herself going to be early, before she wants to, to try to head off any advances. She starts pushing him away earlier in the day, hoping he won’t proposition her tonight. Sex feels like a big obligation that is all about him, and she starts to resent him for it.
In both cases, sex has become a huge obligation to her that is all about him–even if he never intended that to happen.
The only way out of this is to stop sex being an obligation for her.
She has to know that she is free to say no with no negative repercussions. That means:
He has to not see a rejection of sex as a rejection of himself.
Gary Thomas portrayed this attitude as normal in his book Married Sex, as he quotes a man saying:
“Being sexually desired means I’m accepted and appreciated and that someone wants me. The way my brain works, if my wife doesn’t want me sexually, then she doesn’t want me period—and that makes me feel alone and rejected. It affects my identity.”
Look, obviously being rejected is not a nice experience. But this should not affect your identity if it happens occasionally. If sex is someone’s identity, that is not because of their brain. That is more often because they have not learned to express and feel real intimacy apart from sex, which is likely the root of the problem in the first place.
If he could learn to experience true intimacy outside the bedroom, then sex could be the culmination of that intimacy, rather than a replacement for intimacy. His entire identity (and his ability to do well at work, and to do well at life) cannot rest on whether or not she has sex with him one night. If it does, then he should likely see a licensed counselor.
This does not mean that sex is not important; but a healthy marriage is a precursor to a healthy sex life, and those who feel great intimacy outside the bedroom are far more likely to be satisfied with their lives inside the bedroom. Sex should not be where all of our emotional needs are met, and even though this is what they both have been taught, this is not actually a sign of psychological health, but is rather a sign that something is wrong.
Again, sex can bring you together, can help you bond, can lower stress levels, can leave you feeling blissful. But if it’s your identity, then there is a misplaced emphasis that will distort the relationship.
They both have to let go of the idea that his need for sex outweighs any of her needs.
In the church, we’ve been told that his need for sex outweighs her need for healing postpartum, or for rest, or for just about anything else. She’s been told that sex should be a sacrifice, like feeding your newborn in the middle of the night (again, from Married Sex).
Kevin Leman in Sheet Music told her that to be obedient, she had to have sex no matter what every 48-72 hours for the rest of her life, even if she felt forced.
If she cannot truly say no, she will never be able to say yes.
Her libido will ultimately plummet, and her sexual response will disappear. And sexual pain may even be her story.
Specific Steps to Let Go of the Obligation Sex Message
Just a few ideas of how to reset the dynamic with sex. See if any resonate, and talk to your spouse about what would make them feel safest (and you don’t need to use all of these!):
- Prove to her that she can say no whenever she wants with no consequences–even if you’re in the middle of intercourse. We talked with so many women who finally became orgasmic after they started saying no when they genuinely didn’t want to.
- Take a sex fast for a few weeks, or even a few months, where you just build your emotional connection.
- Take a sex fast from HIS orgasm, but not necessarily from hers. If sex has been entirely about his orgasm for years, take a few weeks or months when it’s just about hers, so you figure out how her body works.
- Decide that for the next month or two, she will NEVER initiate. That way she doesn’t have to feel like she’s counting the days or wondering if he wants something.
- Talk about what freedom looks like to her–how can he act if she says no to show that he’s okay?
For a much more in-depth look at how to work these out, please see The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex, or my post 5 ways to get rid of the obligation sex message.
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What would it look like to build a picture of sex that was MUTUAL, INTIMATE, and PLEASURABLE FOR BOTH–with no harmful messages?
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The evangelical church has set us up to feel bewildered five years after we were married. We did what we thought we were supposed to do, but it didn’t lead to intimacy. It led to obligation and resentment.
But you can rebuild! Often it just takes some honest conversations, some honest apologies, and that first step towards honouring everyone’s feelings.
We wrote The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex so that guys getting married wouldn’t find themselves in this situation anymore.
We wanted guys to get married without the entitlement mindset, and to know how to act as soon as they were married to counteract any negative messages she’s had, too. We show him, from the beginning, how to make sure he’s not inadvertently reinforcing any bad messages, but is instead being her hero in the bedroom.
And I wrote The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex to help her start well, without all this obligation too!
My prayer is that couples will get these books before they’re married and avoid all these problems (just imagine what that would be like!), or that couples can get them early in their marriages to fix things before they deteriorate. And they’re available for pre-order too!
There’s so much bad teaching in the evangelical church about sex, but we can do better. Will you make these two books your go-to books for wedding showers? That’s my dream, but I need your help to make it a reality! So pre-order them now for a couple you know who is getting married soon. Together, we can undo the damage–and prevent so much more damage from happening.
What do you think? Have you seen this dynamic play out? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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