Which Comes First: Great Sex or Emotional Connection?

by | Aug 31, 2022 | Connecting, Sexual Intimacy | 45 comments

Great Sex needs Emotional Connection

If we want great sex…we may need to look OUTSIDE the bedroom for answers!

Here’s a stat that I shared on social media last night about the correlation between arousal and emotional connection:

It’s just one stat in a bigger chart in The Great Sex Rescue–which has tons of these.

But what I found so interesting with this was the interplay between her body responding in the bedroom and her feeling like she matters outside the bedroom.

I think we forget how much our bodies register safety.

Our bodies are actually designed to be our early warning signs that something is wrong with our environment. We often find it harder to get aroused when we don’t feel safe or feel emotional connection, and we’re designed that way–because such a relationship, frankly, is not a great one for having kids.

So our libido plummets so we’re less likely to want sex and less likely to get pregnant.

If we’re highly stressed, our libidos can fall because our bodies know this isn’t a good time to try to raise a baby.

And if we’re not emotionally connected, arousal can be that much more difficult.

Now, with all surveys there’s an issue of teasing out correlation and causation.

Just because two things move in tandem does not mean that one causes the other. And if there is causation, it could go the other way–it could be that women who frequently get aroused are more likely to feel heard in arguments!

But we did tease some of this out in our focus groups, and also looking at different beliefs over time. And it does seem like the causation goes one way–a great emotional connection can really improve a sex life, but a sex life can’t create an emotional connection that isn’t there. Yes, it can make you feel closer, but there’s a limit to that.

The lesson? If you want a good sex life, you need to create emotional connection too. 

That’s the power of sex as a deep knowing.

I talk about this a lot, but Genesis 4:1 tells us that sex is supposed to be more than just physical. “Adam knew Eve his wife…” says that the intimacy is more than just our bodies. It’s a deep knowing. The Hebrew root for that word is the same as David uses in the Psalms when he says “search me and know me, O God…”

But if sex is going to be a deep knowing, then you have to come to the bedroom with everything you are. You have to be vulnerable. And then the other person has to accept you.

That’s why obligation sex doesn’t work, by the way. Obligation sex is the opposite of knowing, because obligation sex says to her (since it’s a message primarily given to women): “he has the right to use your body.” Her needs are erased. Her preferences are erased. Only his desires matter.

If her needs and preferences don’t matter, then she doesn’t matter. It’s no longer a knowing, because a large part of who she is is being rejected.

So let’s get back to that image and feeling heard during conflict.

If she feels like, “when we’re in an argument, he still treats me like I matter,” then she knows that who she is matters to him. She’s important. She’s safe.

And that’s one of the things (it’s not the only thing) that makes it easier for her body to be aroused. The kind of relationships where her perspective matters in conflict are the kinds of relationships where her body is more likely to respond.

Now, there’s another element to this: This could also be because the kind of man who listens to his wife during a conflict and tries to come to a resolution together rather than pushing his own way thinks that she does, indeed, matter. And thus he’s far more likely to treat her like she matters in bed, too, and far less likely to be selfish, only using her. He’s more likely to do more foreplay and to prioritize her pleasure (and we found those things were true as well).

So it all goes together.

"A groundbreaking look into what true, sacred biblical sexuality is intended to be. A must-read." - Rachael Denhollander

What if you're NOT the problem with your sex life?

What if the messages that you've been taught have messed things up--and what if there's a way to escape these toxic teachings?

It's time for a Great Sex Rescue.

Great Sex Rescue

The way we treat each other in the bedroom can’t be separated from the way we treat each other outside the bedroom.

You can’t create a great sex life in a vacuum.

Now, this doesn’t mean that if she’s having trouble with sex that the problem is always that they’re not emotionally connecting! We are multi-faceted, and there may be many other reasons she has trouble responding physically (and The Orgasm Course can help unravel some of those). It could be that she has sexual trauma in her past; it could be that she’s internalized negative messages about sex; it could be that they just don’t understand her sexual response cycle and how her body works.

But what we do believe is that the more you increase emotional safety and connection in the marriage, the better sex will be. 

Obviously this isn’t rocket science, but sometimes I think we need reminders about this.

I see so much sex advice that never takes into consideration how she’s treated outside the bedroom, and that’s a big problem.

And I get questions like this one:



We’ve been married just over a decade and have several children.  We’ve struggled with sex for sometime now. Both grew up in Christian homes. His parents divorced. Mine still together and very
much in a loving, fulfilling relationship.

My husband started bringing up his lack of satisfaction in our sex life about five years ago (when I was in a graduate program). It was a stressful time and I was away from home a lot. Sex was just the same thing over and over. I rarely orgasm (usually only when I’m ovulating or just near the end of my cycle, before my period), which has been a problem for him (which I get). It became an area of high conflict for about two and a half years as we just didn’t have the tools to work through it.

We are both devoted Christians. During the hardest years I still committed to a recurrence of 2 times a week for having sex. It was at a time I had very little desire and because it was during a time that my husband was mentally and emotionally hurtful (not abusive). I provided much obligatory sex ( a lot). I tried to promise I’d change and be more adventurous but I could never bring myself to try other things (oral, different positions, etc.). Early in our marriage I did try these things but felt uncomfortable and it pushed me further away from orgasm. I still have a really hard time with those things.

Several years ago my husband went through a rather radical spiritual transformation where the Lord truly changed him. The emotional and mental hurt went away over time and he repaired with me. We enjoyed
about a year of reprieve and I even noticed I started wanting sex again. Unfortunately I stayed near to basic sex and couldn’t bring myself to perform oral sex or offer different positions. I struggle with feeling disconnected with these acts in sex; they are a complete turn off for me and something I would only endure – which my husband could pick up on. So a year into our year of reprieve he started expressing his disappointment again.

Because it’s been such a conflictual topic that is connected to former emotional and mental anxiety, I still struggle with being confronted. I’m working through that. We are able to talk about it. He’s still harsh in some ways and not very careful in his frustration. He’s not necessarily hurtful though either. It’s just hard to face. He’s very frustrated, understandably.

My husband wants to offer foreplay but I just don’t want it. I just want to get it over with and cross my fingers I’ll orgasm. I don’t like being fondled on my clitorous for very long and it’s usually not helpful to create orgasm or arousal. I have very little desire to orgasm. It just doesn’t matter to me. That sounds awful. And it’s so frustrating for my husband. I want to change but I feel very stuck.

My husband is a good partner, very helpful, treats me as an equal and I know he loves me. He’s improved his emotional communication with me over the years and takes good care of me and our boys. Though he is low on his need to express his feelings I think he tries. He’s pretty reserved in our day to day but attempts to show me he loves me by serving me. I’ve struggled with his reserved nature toward me during the day but his rather open sexual expression toward me in our bedroom. It has felt disconnected for me. He wants to please me and for me to surrender in sex but I just feel so locked up. I don’t want to. How do I start wanting to surrender?

I just want him to be happy with what we have. I know that is selfish and that I need to change. I recognize it should be better. I should enjoy it more, but how do I get to wanting it again so that I’m curious about what works for me?

I’m not going to answer this question entirely (though I’d love for you all to chime in the comments!) but I want to note a few things:

In general, the beginning of our sex life sets a tone that can be hard to overcome.

That’s a hard thing to hear, and it doesn’t mean you CAN’T get over it, but there has to be some ownership and acknowledgment that actions have consequences, and her libido has largely been stolen from her. We’ve got some new research studies we’ve read to share with you in October that go over this in detail about why it’s so hard to overcome the early patterns of our sex lives, but for women especially, this seems to be the case.

She says she feels “locked up.”

That’s a great way of describing it. She likely does feel an inability to let go and an inability to truly enjoy herself, because she fundamentally has not been safe in her sex life (or her wider marriage it sounds like). It’s great that he’s made some changes, but it still feels like he’s expressing a lot of disappointment instead of acceptance. 

When you’ve created emotional distance, you don’t get to punish the person for not responding to you.

Even if you’ve made an effort to fix that emotional distance, it has still affected your spouse, and that has affected their sexuality.

What she now needs is not tips on how to get more adventurous in bed. She needs to feel safe and loved even if she never gets more adventurous in bed.

Look, if this couple had started off marriage with real emotional connection and with no obligation sex, she likely would have enjoyed sex more and she’d likely be more adventurous. So he contributed to a pattern that killed her sexual response. It is not right to now complain about the results of the pattern that you created.

The key to moving ahead is to help her feel safe.

Right now they’re both still treating her like there is somehing wrong with her. She doesn’t really like sex. She can’t tell  him what she wants. She won’t be adventurous. 

If you feel like you are always the problem, how in the world are you supposed to respond? 

But if you realize, “wait a minute! My sexuality is acting this way for a reason. So now–let’s unpack that reason, let’s care about that reason, and let’s deal with that underlying thing.”

And that underlying thing is that she still isn’t safe and accepted, at least it seems to me from the letter. 

We won’t respond in the bedroom if we feel like we don’t really matter outside of it. 

And when the message we’re receiving is, “you’re not good enough and I’m still disappointed in you,” how will we ever respond?

Now, am I saying he can’t want to improve his sex life? Of course not. Yes, they can have discussions about that. But I think it’s more important for him to own the problems that he contributed to, and try to address those. That will actually help her feel safe–and that’s actually the route to better sex!


Great Sex Needs Emotional Connection

What do you think? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

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. Anonymous for this one

    Responding to the reader question: The first thing that comes to mind is it’s been a pattern of hurt and busy-ness for a decade. It’s not going to get fixed in a year!!

    Secondly, the measure of it being “fixed” isn’t that she starts doing things she dislikes. I’ve been married for 20 years and my husband is very vanilla. He doesn’t like much foreplay, very rarely does oral, and very rarely changes positions. For years I was told by the toxic evangelical marriage advice gurus that something was wrong. Men don’t act like that. You know what? Some people do! Then, there’s this idea that sex should last 45 minutes or more otherwise you’re doing it wrong. We’re typically done in 10 minutes. Both of us. Anything more than 20-30 minutes and we both get bored and our bodies just don’t respond. It’s been insinuated that something is wrong with us that needs fixing. How about NO!

    Third, marital intimacy is a journey with no destination. Enjoy the journey.

    Fourth, any husband who hyper-fixates on specific things and demands they are the path to fulfillment and satisfaction is likely dealing with a pornified mindset. He needs to self-examine and see why he’s pressuring her in that way.

    Fifth, it takes TIME to build clitoral stamina. Some women enjoy the touch right away, others don’t. It has to be learned. I remember when I first started to experience arousal and such, it felt like I had to urinate. It took a while to get over the hump of the uncomfortable to the amazing. It’s going to take time for his touch to feel good and he’ll throw a wrench in the whole thing if he refuses to cooperate and complains.

    Sixth, it doesn’t sound like she’s given the chance to really become aroused. It seems like as soon as he wants it and as soon as she sees it is on the schedule, it’s wham-bam. I’ve always said, but have rarely found a man who agrees to do this, that he needs to “date” her again and build up that arousal over time. One thing hubby and I do is flirt and talk about the next time throughout the week. We don’t live a life where sex is boxed up tight. Our marital intimacy flows throughout the hours, the days in little ways.

    I love what you say about how the person who does the hurting doesn’t get to dictate the healing. His end goal should be his wife’s well-being, not his fixation on oral sex. It’s ok to desire more to the sexual experience, but never at the expense of your spouse, nor do alternative activities indicate an arrival to some higher level of marital intimacy. God did design sex to be pleasurable, but He did not design it to be pleasurable at the expense of your spouse.

    • Jane Eyre

      “The person who did the hurting doesn’t get to dictate the healing” is one of the most insightful things I’ve ever heard.

      The husband “changed” and because he’s now “better,” he wants to receive oral sex on his schedule. Yeah there are problems with that. If the problem in their sex life was that she wasn’t getting enough out of it, the solution isn’t for her to give more. It’s for them to work on him giving her pleasure. In other words, it sounds like he hasn’t changed all that much.

      As for the main thrust of the post: if your husband doesn’t listen to you, sex will be a miserable pile of garbage. I’m done using my words, begging, pleading, and fighting to be heard in the bedroom. Done. My husband doesn’t want to listen because he knows better. Fights out of the bedroom are endless and nasty, because he knows better and doesn’t want to listen and when he finally does figure out how utterly screwed up his thought process is, pretends like he understood what I was saying all along.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Really great thoughts! Absolutely.

      • Amy Barnett

        Hello Sheila
        My husband and I have been married for almost 29 years. Sex was good for many years but my husband distanced himself from me and our kids emotionally and so I actually began to detest him. I am 55 years old, am on hormone BLOCKERS b/c I have had hormone positive breast cancer. My lady parts are very dry. I use lubricants every day just to be comfortable even without sex. Even if I WANTED to have sex it would be very hard because it hurts.

        He has been trying to reconnect with me emotionally but there has been so much hurt and distance over the years that I just don’t care. I bought the orgasm course, but I know how to have an orgasm, though I couldn’t now even if I stimulated myself.

        Would the libido course be helpful?

        I honestly just don’t care about sex, but would like the last 20 years or so of my life and our marriage to be good.
        20 years of emotional hurt just can’t be undone in two years.

        Im.also going to see the sexual health nurse in our cancer center, but me not caring about sex was an issue way before cancer.

        Any advice? Any suggestions on how to find a counselor b/c I don’t think things will improve without counseling (for me, mentally).

  2. Laura

    ” If you want a good sex life, you need to create emotional connection too.”

    This right here is why one-night stands and casual sex are NOT the way to a healthy sex life. To me, there has to be a commitment (marriage).

    Reading this woman’s story is heartbreaking. Sounds to me like the husband is blaming her, but in the beginning of their marriage she did not feel safe. As for him wanting “adventurous” stuff, I wonder if he looked at porn in the past. I’m not exactly sure what he meant by “adventurous” stuff. Any time I hear that, it puts me in a panic because the “adventurous” stuff that my ex wanted was just gross and nothing I’m going to go into details about. The last two men in my life (one was an ex-fiance and the other was a situationship) talked about wanting “adventurous” stuff which I was not keen on. At least they were respectful when I said no. Maybe, I’m boring when it comes to sex and it’s been a very long time since I’ve had it so I wouldn’t know what to say about this woman’s situation. I just think they both need to see a licensed counselor individually and together.

    It is very true that how you are treated outside the bedroom affects your libido. My ex-husband treated me like dirt most of our marriage so why would I want to give my body to someone who doesn’t seem to care about me? He only cared about sex and I felt used our entire marriage.

  3. Daniel Ferguso

    In response to above married couple . This is a fine example of a spectrum of disappointment that psycho schemattically alters your very way of life.
    The father refers to one form of Love called Ahuva truly knowing.

    Humans are astute at telling you what they want however we don’t always know what we want!

    The truth is marriage is difficult ! not without its Merritt and trials
    the idea is to ebb and flow to a new being with eachotherpart of a whole.
    I often see this kinda psychological abuse in marriage that assumes the sexual obligatory message even for years. its very sad I was aperpetrator in this just as many believers in .y generation the truth I didn’t understand echad I didn’t understand the purpose . In another life it seems but understanding or knowing someone in that intimate detail there’s nothing closer to understanding God.
    which is why he gave us Marriage Echad is the word.

  4. John Doe

    I agree that it is important for people, men and women, to feel safe in all of their relationships. Especially in intimate relationships.

    That being said, it seems that the blame is still being put on the man. He expresses that he is disappointed in the sexual aspect of their relationship, maybe not in the best way but communication between partners is imperative.

    From the letter, it appears that the issue came up while she was in graduate school and away from home often. That would make sense since they probably did not have much time together and the stress of graduate school would have weighed heavily on her (of which I have gone thru myself and I can sympathize). Due to this, her husband would have felt like he was being neglected and/or being taken for granted. This would cause emotional distance between them.

    It also is stated that the husband is prioritizing her pleasure “My husband wants to offer foreplay but I just don’t want it. ” So she is resisting his efforts to help her.
    She also appears to understand that he has good reasons to be frustrated. It sounds like she has past issues that she is working thru but it is telling that the conclusion in the response is “It’s great that he’s made some changes, but it still feels like he’s expressing a lot of disappointment instead of acceptance. ” If things are not going well, it is natural to be disappointed. There is no discussion that frequency is the issue and the writer states that ‘…something I would only endure – which my husband could pick up on.’ This shows that he is observant of her emotional state. Sounds like one of the guys that would be deemed ‘a good, safe man’ according to what is discussed here.

    The husband is expressing his disappointment and is doing the work to make things better. He might be being clumsy about it but if he is unhappy, then he should be able to express it. It appears that she is still ‘feeling stuck’ and the response is that ‘he should just accept it’. If you just accept it then there is no motivation to change.

    One of her last lines is telling, “I just want him to be happy with what we have.” That sounds like she does not want to change. She says that she does but does acknowledge that her desire for her husband to “be happy with what we have” is selfish but it shows that she has little to no desire to change outside of her husband disappointment which she justified.

    • John Doe the 2nd

      John -great points but it sounds like you are a regular reader if this blog. If so, you know first and foremost it is always the man’s fault their sex life isn’t great. The fact the wife’s default is for him to be happy with their poor sex life will be glossed over by the regular commentators.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Do you understand, though, that she will likely not sexually respond until she feels safe? Until she feels like he’s not judging her? Because that’s how her sexuality blossoms.

      Also, there are consequences for actions. When you spent a decade being bad to your wife and encouraging obligation sex, you’ve hurt her. You’ve stolen her sexuality. There are consequences to that. Do you understand that?

      Our sexuality is not something we can just decide to fix, in the way that you can decide to say thank you after your husband does the dishes or kiss him when he comes in the door. This is a complex physiological response that is tied up with everything. And it’s been damaged.

      It can now be fixed, sure. But likely not without truly seeing what was taken from her. To be happy with what we have means that she doesn’t want to be treated like an object and asked to perform sexual things she doesn’t want to do. That’s okay. That’s called consent.

      Also, we’ll be sharing some studies in October, during our series on new research, that clearly show that the way a woman is treated sexually when sex starts out in the marriage is heavily, heavily implicated in her libido later. So basically, guys: If you were selfish at the beginning, even if unwittingly because you didn’t understand, you’re in a huge hole that you dug. And now you do have to help her climb out of it. You can’t just say, “that’s all in the past, let’s get better now.” You’re in a hole.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Again, I guess it comes down to this: What’s important to you? That she enjoy sex and want sex, or that she perform sexual acts and have intercourse frequently?

        Because right now you have to choose one.

        If you choose the right one, one day you may actually have both.

        If you choose the wrong one, you’ll likely get neither.

        • Tyler

          This is really well said and on point. I hope one day to be fortunate enough to have a conversation along these lines with some future son in laws.

          Yet a few questions remain for me – a guy who did not do this well…

          1) At the ripe old age of 25 – I was quite selfish, and focused on the wrong aspects of sex and intimacy that you mention above…and…

          2) my wife had/has a trauma history.

          Bad + Bad = worse

          Present day there is no intimacy at all in our marriage and no affection either. What’s my question? I’d love to know what in the world would be the baby steps that I can take to hopefully turn things around? Actual steps, actions, THINGS I can do. My wife has said she will never, ever, no matter what, go back in and try to address the trauma. So what can I do to address my own crap and at least do what I can to help
          Her feel valued, safe, and accepted?

          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            Honestly, this is a really, really good and necessary idea for a series. I’ll try to devote a whole month to it soon, but in October we will go over what some new peer reviewed research says, and hopefully give some first steps there. I think the big thing is: See a counselor for sure, even if she won’t go. See if she will go to counseling simply to address the stuff in your own relationship. Keep working on emotional connection as much as you can. It could be that when she feels safe she may be able to address the trauma.

          • Rachel

            Maybe this is super simplistic…but hugs.
            A 22 second hug can reset stress levels, release oxytocin (helpful for bonding) and other stuff.
            I seriously think that hugs are the best way to feel safe and nurtured.
            I have a couple friend that are struggling with connection. Her mom died, dad has cancer, kids at the busiest, weird farming/work schedules. The husband commented once on the distance between them.
            -Have you hugged her today? I asked
            -(guffaw) Why would I do that? He said
            -Well, okay…but why would she go for naked hugs if you can’t even hug with clothes on?
            So even if things are too crazy for alone time or too emotionally stressful for full vulnerability, I say HUG.

      • CMT

        Yes. She can’t just decide to have desire, they have to work together to create the conditions to allow her desire to grow. The point isn’t really who has a right to their feelings and who doesn’t, they both do. The point is they can’t fix the fact that she doesn’t feel safe, by continuing to do things that make her feel unsafe. It may not be “fair” but that’s how it is.

      • Morticia

        So, my husband and I are missing the emotional connection during sex. I understand that we need to work on building that trust outside the bedroom, but what should I do to get myself to WANT to have an emotional connection? There’s a lot of issues in our marriage from past sinful behavior on both sides. We are staying married for our kids and because we believe it’s the right thing to do. My husband is more interested in the relationship between the two of us. We get along great. We’re not prone to fighting. We have sex a couple times a week and both reach orgasm. But we seem to be having these seemingly “great” sexual encounters without emotional connection. I think we are having sex out of selfishness, but we’ve somehow managed to both have a high enough libido that we both get the physical release We’re looking for, but not the emotional. After sex, during which I usually experience more than one orgasm, I come away feeling icky and saddened. Not fulfilled. What the heck is wrong with me? How do I flip the switch that makes me want the emotional connection?

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Have you thought about taking a break from sex to work on emotional connection? It sounds like sex is allowing you to feel connected without doing the work of connection, and it ends up being a counterfeit and you end up worse than before.

          So all sex is giving you is a physical high, which papers over other problems.

          What if you took sex off the table for a month and started talking? It doesn’t even have to be a big thing–just try talking again, or even work through my conversation starters.

      • Amy

        Yep. This is what I am experiencing. I commented earlier with more details

    • Rotfl

      100% spot on. This has nothing to do with “feeling aafe” and everything to do with him being completely unattractive to her. He isn’t her sexual fantasy or even her sexual preference. Wonen do not “struggle with sex” with men they have a burning desire for. Its painfully obvious she doesn’t desire him sexually and honestly, he’s taking it better than most men from what I can tell lol at least he’s putting in effort, the wrong kind of effort of course but at least he is trying. Attraction is built OUTside the bedroom, not inside of it. The guy probably needs to work on himself. Just fall back, work on his attractiveness and tell her to approacg when she’s ready for sex, now the ball is in her cl6urt and only when she has actual desire for him will she want to initiate. But desire doesn’t sprout from nowhere, attractiveness has to be weaved into the persona over time through habits, choices, charisma, drive, etc. Men by and large absolutely fail yo grasp this and then wonder why they girl is a icebrick next to them in bed. In fact, the overwhelming majority of issues on this blog, in my view, stems from the man being unattractive, not being the woman’s sexual preference or the man being porn addled. If this woman saw her celebrity crush walk into the room, I GUARANTEE you all of a sudden “safety” would fly out the window, her sexual desire would be automatic and involuntary whereas for her husband, it is forced.

      “I just want him to be happy with what we have.”

      Can you even begin to imagine her uttering thise words to Idris Elba or Jason Mamoa? Never in a trillion years.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Actually, what you are saying is simply untrue.

        What multiple studies have shown is that it is emotional connection that fuels desire and sexual response, even in men! The best sex men have is with women they are emotionally connected to, and for women especially it’s very necessary.

        If he spends all his time “getting attractive” for her, that will do nothing if there’s not emotional connection, and actually make things worse because it shows he doesn’t understand the problem.

        • Lisa Johns

          Not to mention that we do not fall over for sex just because some big name celeb walks in the room! Dude! Stop attributing your pornified attitude to everyone around you!

    • Lisa Johns

      I don’t know — she did say he was “still harsh in some ways and not very careful with his frustration.” To me that sounds like he has been rather bad to her in the past, and though he is working on changing, her body has yet to be able to register that and feel safe with him. I’ve been there. When a wife is treated with anger and frustration for any period of time, she just can’t make herself turn the hurt and fear off when the bedroom door closes. I feel for the is woman. Also, he really does need to acknowledge her fear, and be gentle with her heart, rather than angrily trying to make her change to keep up with his change.

  5. Kay

    I’ll be honest, I think any attempt to make sex “better for him” will backfire. Sex didn’t get better for me until **I** wanted better sex, FOR ME, not for him. Frankly, I had to make sex super selfish for a time. (Looking back, it felt more selfish than it actually was, but we were so conditioned to believe that sex was for him that making it for me at all felt selfish.)

    “Get it over with” sacrificial sex isn’t sexy. Stop sacrificing. Her **needs** must matter MORE than his desire for more adventurous sex. If he isn’t willing to follow her lead here, then he is still having self-centered sex. No wonder she still doesn’t want it; he still cares more about his own satisfaction than her healing.

    Say no to unhealthy sex.

  6. Viva

    The correlation between not being a heard, honored, equal partner, and sexual unsafety has me correlating those things to marital rape.
    If a woman is not valued as an equal, and the attitude of her husband is that her position as wife is not to be intimately seen and deeply known, but to answer and respond to his every need and desire at cost to herself, then he is not cherishing her. He is using his wife for his own gratification, and by his selfishness is defiling her sexually and thereby destroying her mentally, emotionally, physically, and, I argue, most devastatingly, spiritually. For, we are given a spirit of unity by God when we marry. Instead of attentively nourishing her with what is supposed to be a mutual act and physical expression of holistic love, a man violates his wife when he uses her body to enact his desires with little or no attention to the unique knowing that sexual intercourse is designed to support.
    I believe that we ought to pay attention to how subtly rapacious behavior can be acted out in marriage.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire


  7. Chris

    I think that in this situation, with this letter writer, based on what we know about their present situation, I think there were a couple of factors that contributed to whats going on here. I place the blame on the husband for not having the emotional intelligence needed to see the situation for what it was early in the relationship/marriage. It’s pretty clear to me that this wife entered the relationship sexually repressed. Or to use the Bare Marriage Team lingo, she soaked up A LOT of bad teachings as a child and adolescent. I think that purity culture and obligation sex were taught to her in spades. That wasn’t her fault in any way! “Adventurous sex” is a relative term and oral sex you can chalk up to personal preferences but to refuse to even try other positions? To me thats a lot of heavily internalized bad teaching. Based on the letter we don’t know how old these two were when they married, but if they were younger (I am assuming they were) and her husband grew up in a divorced home himself, then it’s likely he never developed the emotional intelligence to recognize her background and be able to lovingly be patient as she figured things out. He had an image of frequent sex in his mind when they wed and when he realized that was not going to happen he aired his frustrations which just turned her off more. To be fair though, given her background, then pile on graduate school and three little kids, she could likely be married to the greatest man/husband on earth and they would likely still be sexless. That’s just too much for one womans libido to handle.
    On another note: “the more you increase emotional safety and connection in the marriage, the better sex will be”. This is very true and I agree with it completely! It’s just common sense. HOWEVER. “Better” is a relative term. If a man works really hard to connect with his wife, and they start having sex every three years compared to every five, things have technically gotten “better”.

  8. Cynthia

    What sticks out to me is that he’s saying that he wants her to orgasm and let go and he’s at least willing to engage – but he’s not truly listening to her about what she really wants.

    I think that’s the simplest advice here. The orgasm gap comes to mind: I’m sure he’s having regular orgasms even if things are less adventurous than he would like, but she is only rarely having them. He’s complaining about his experience, and she’s started to buy into the idea that it is only his experience that matters, and is only dealing with her own negative experience by seeing it as a problem for him.

    Then there is the criticism. Telling someone that they aren’t good enough in bed when they are already struggling to feel comfortable is just going to make it so much harder to relax, to be vulnerable and to be able to connect with her own feelings during intimacy.

    They need to say that it is okay, truly okay, for her to go as fast or slow as she likes, and for her to listen to what makes her feel good. Foreplay may look more like talking together, a hug, a kiss, a back rub, etc. rather than making a bee line for a body part that is really sensitive. He needs to show that he is okay with listening to her and doing whatever she wants to feel good – not because he thinks that her pleasure will validate him, or arouse him, or make her act more like his idea of a hot girl, but because he genuinely wants her to feel good.

    Once that happens, she may start to feel more relaxed, and might even be more adventurous. Or not. Or she may start to request some stuff, but it might not be the stuff that was on his list.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire


  9. EOF

    I really wish churches would teach this message! Even more, I wish they had been teaching this all along. I’m glad that Sheila acknowledged how hard it can be to change these patterns. The foundation of my 20+ year marriage’s sex life was set by some very bad teachings that I don’t know if I’ll ever fully get over, even after reading Sheila’s books and blog.

    I was explicitly taught that emotional intimacy would come FROM having sex and focusing on giving to him. And my husband doubled down on that message — all he needed to do was to have sex and we would magically be emotionally close. If we had sex, he’d done his job and I had no room to complain. All of this while at the same time being taught never to tell him I don’t like anything because that will harm his ego. I was also taught to LEARN to like what he wants, even if I hate it. The bad teachings are so deeply entrenched I can’t speak up for myself.

    • Lori

      Yes, I heard similar crap-tastic teachings. The purity movement promised if I was a virgin when I married that I would have better sex and less problems than worldly, tainted couples – wow!! I was in for a rude awakening. Of course there was no biblical basis for the claims the purity culture taught but I was young and naive, lacking biblical discernment. I didn’t go to the Bible to see if there were actually promises to back up these outlandish claims.

  10. Anonymous

    I related to some of what this woman wrote and I think some of her main concerns are being overlooked in the comments. First, she wants to know how to address the difference in their goals/desires around sex, it seems. But nothing really stands out to her as feeling good, especially clitoral stimulation (thanks to the commenter who said this takes time – good to know!). Even with safety in place, if they’re both wanting to get “better”, this puts both of them in a really hard place. Neither of them knows the path. Second, I like that some commenters addressed that her early marriage beliefs and experiences have carried over. Okay, but now what? As someone who struggled with un-diagnosed vaginismus for 7 years of our marriage, it’s really hard not to feel forever doomed by these first years. (Side note: I was always 100% safe and very tenderly loved, but it’s safe to say that my husband and I have different experiences since sex didn’t feel good for me AND I had a TON of harmful teaching during adolescence, which I have had to address using Sheila’s materials.) I appreciate so many of the comments, but I’m still left asking “now what?” I am aware of the “improve your libido” course, but the comments above seem to indicate that’s not helpful yet because it would be duty sex. So maybe the root of her question is “how does one address this difference in desire without being really hurtful?” Surely there is more work to do and more healing to be done, but won’t that always be true?

    • Cynthia

      I think you really need to step back and truly be able to focus on doing whatever makes you feel good. No obligation or expectations, knowing it is totally okay to stop at any time or request anything you want.

      Once you figure out how it can feel good, you can get to the point where you know what to do and you orgasm reliably. So eventually, it’s not one-sided and everyone gets what they want easily. Before it can automatic, though, you need to figure it out and unlearn some bad habits, and that takes some time and effort.

    • Rather not say

      I am wondering that too, I had Undiagnosed vaginismus despite begging for advice from at least three doctors because it hurt. I was given the advice that we needed to take intercourse off the table until we figured out how to make it feel good to me, but that never happened. My poor husband and his high sex drive, and my looking forward to sex for years for it to feel awful. We now, more than a decade later, understand that our first several years of a sex life was NOT how it should have started. So how do we un-do those associations? It is still so hard for me to feel sexy… I want to feel safe, seen, and wholly loved before I open up. But I cannot seem to disassociate the first several years where it was insisted that sex be more frequent and that would open up the floodgates of closeness. That was a lie. So how do I change what my mind and heart feels when my body says “danger!” My husband has apologized for purporting all the stupid teachings about sex. And he really wants it to be great for us both… but what do we do?!?! How do I not feel obligation, how does he not feel rejected, how do we claw our way back?

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Really good questions! Have you talked to a licensed therapist about it? I think taking sex off the table for a few weeks may be good too just to work on closeness and feeling like he won’t die without sex or treat you badly without sex (that’s what takes away the obligation; to realize he really will be okay!).

        I’ll try to devote a whole month to this soon.

        • A2bbethany

          Just now reading this article and comments! I can vouch for this method. Even after I had unlearned and relearned from Sheila, I had to go through a dry period. I knew in my head and a little bit my heart, but it hadn’t sunk in yet.
          Then God gave me my 2nd pregnancy and Even a tiny bit of sexual arousal made me so nauseated! So we basically went a full 9months with zip on that topic. It was revealing how worried about affairs and porn I got. Both about him and myself! It made it fully, completely sink in.

          We were emotionally close for most of the time. And I learned to appreciate enjoying sex, for what it was. Not a leash to keep us from sin, but a secret garden of fun and intimacy! I don’t think anything but a dry period, would have proven my baseless fears the door.

  11. NM

    My heart breaks for the woman in this letter. I think it might be really important for her to grieve what was lost on their early years and how she was hurt by it. It sounds like she has recognized the harm, but is still judging herself and feeling guilty about how it is affecting her. She may need to get with a therapist or very trusted friend and just let it all out, name the hurt, and cry and rage over it as much as she needs to. And if she feels safe enough to do it with her husband, cry with him over it and just let him hold her for as long as she needs. (He would need to be warned before trying this or he will feel attacked.) if he really is a good guy like she says, he needs to understand how important it is to let her feel all the feelings without guilt over how it’s affecting him. This will be hard if he loves her because he’ll have his own guilt about his part in it, but I think it’s so important. Once they have grieved what they lost (and I think it’s important for the enemy here to be the bad teaching itself, not either of them), they may be able to find a path forward. But I think it’s going to continue to be difficult for her if she thinks something is wrong with her and prioritizes his needs & feelings above her own. They’ve been doing that the entire marriage…if they want to change things, it’s time to prioritize her, no matter how awkward that may feel at first.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, I think there needs to be some grieving too!

  12. Rhonda

    Dude still sounds like a jerk & this poor wife is trying to minimize it. She needs to set boundaries & he needs to respect them & quit shaming her. He’s the 1 that caused this problem, so he needs to get over himself & deal with it.

  13. Jo R

    If emotional connection does not precede sex, then our whole Christian ideas of dating and of saving sex for marriage is completely backwards. We should instead be having lots of sex with lots of different people, then marrying the one we have the most emotional connection with.

    Oh, wait, isn’t that how the world tends to do things?

  14. Jeremy

    Thank you very much for this post! We all seem to think that a man’s emotional connection starts in the bedroom. I’m not sure that I agree with that, or maybe I’m an anomaly on the bell curve.

    So part of what I see in this letter is that the man can be just as much of a victim of the bad teaching of Christian marriage and sex books as women. Maybe he’s still getting pleasure, maybe sex isn’t painful for him, but it’s still not what it’s supposed to be per God’s design. If you’re taught these things your whole life, it’s hard to change your mindset, regardless of your gender. It’s also hard for men to have the vocabulary to know how to describe what it is that they desire. I know it was for me. I had to do a lot of research and a lot of communication with my wife in order to finally feel like we were making headway in discussing what it is that we actually want from our relationship, not just sexual relationship. I’m also someone who actually had the desire to figure these things out, my wife isn’t, and a lot of men aren’t. We need to give grace and recognize that they have a lot of bad habits that have taken a lifetime to cultivate and won’t be solved in a year or by reading one blog post. He needs to take ownership, he needs to value his wife enough to get over himself, and he needs to lead and lovingly care for his wife.

    Thanks again for the post though, this was a good reminder for me to not just perform duty emotional connection and really seek to become more emotionally intelligent.

  15. Anon

    My husband and I had to make a major decision last year and he did not consider me at all in the process. He trampled on me, demanded his way, and told me I was selfish for being angry with him. The day “we” made the decision (really it was me caving because I was sick of him yelling at me), he wanted to make love and I turned him down very rudely for the first time in our best decade of marriage. He was gobsmacked that I wouldn’t want to have sex after he’d spent a week berating me. His actions sent me into a deep depression from which I have not recovered, and our sex life has never been the same. He wants me to “just get over it” because “it’s been long enough.” Whatever. He got his way and I hope it was worth it to him. I don’t care about what he wants in the bedroom when he’s the reason I’m on antidepressants and have mounting therapy bills. I want to repair or relationship but he’s not interested in doing the work, just wants me to “move on with my life.” Sorry my dude, until you develop more emotional maturity than our one year old this is how it’s gonna be.

    • Lisa Johns

      Stick to your guns, lady. He’ll either man up or his true colors will make themselves very, very clear! It took over 2-1/2 years for my husband to get the idea that he had to talk to me and not about me in order to bring change, but we’re seeing real forward movement for the first time ever. Stick to your guns!

  16. Angharad

    This makes real sense – it explains why a couple of years into marriage, our sex life is getting better and better. Yes, I loved and trusted my husband when I married him, but some of the things he liked to do made me uncomfortable – so he stopped straight away and never made me feel ‘less than’ for not wanting to try. As we’ve got to know each other more and more, I’ve found that things which were scary or uncomfortable at first are now ok. In fact, more than ok! But I know if he’d made me feel like a failure or said that he was ‘disappointed’, I’d probably not be interested in sex at all now. But he’s always been very vocal about how attractive he finds me, how amazing our physical relationship is, and it has done wonders for increasing my confidence.

    I know this isn’t much help to the poor lady in your RQ, but for anyone just starting out on marriage – don’t be afraid to take time to build your relationship. Don’t pressure your partner to do anything they’re uncomfortable with, and don’t make them feel ‘less than’ for not doing it either. Trust builds even more trust, confidence builds even more confidence. Patience is going to produce better results in the long term than wanting everything now!

  17. Jenni

    What about when your husband DIDNT do anything to cause it? In my case, it’s religious trauma as well as sexual trauma, and physical abuse. ALL prior to my husband. We discovered on our wedding night (while my drive was HIGH, higher than it’s ever been) that I have vaginismus. It was a painful wall and we physically could not have sex. I’ve worked very hard to overcome it and now sex is definitely doable and mostly tolerable. But I still don’t want it. I still shut down. I started shutting down when that first night happened and I’ve not been able to come back, I went back to my old self prior to my husband and it’s put up a wall between us. His work schedule means we barely have time to see each other. He wants me to be more spontaneous because that’s all we CAN do with limited time. But for me, like even kissing him or cuddling him feels weird. Like I don’t feel close to him at all. It’s like trying to make myself sleep with a room mate I see in passing. Which isn’t fair to my husband, he has always been my safe place, he’s supportive loving has always listened to me and taken amazing care of me, but since he started working nights we don’t see each other much and I had to learn to be “single” again and now things are EVEN HARDER. Even after basically healing from the vaginismus physically, now the emotional wall is there big time and I have no explanation because you say, he needs to make you feel safe outside of the bed, and HE DOES. We don’t see each other much but when we do, it’s like I feel awkward and uncomfortable and embarrassed and like I can’t relax and enjoy it even being kissed and hugged. It feels like if your old distant aunt was trying to give you hugs and kisses at a Christmas party and you’re just like ewwwww but endure it out of politeness. And I have no reason for that. He treats me amazing, he provides for us, he puts up with having sex like once a year, he always listens and supports me, he’s never been abusive in any form, he helps around the house, he’s a great husband. And we struggle to feel close again because I just feel so awkward and anxious and feel like I’m going to panic when we are alone and he wants to hold me and kiss me. I just want to get away and be alone. I don’t know what’s wrong with me or how to fix it. I’ve been in therapy for 15+ years and still in this boat.

    • Jay

      thanks for posting. It sounds similar to our marriage (34 years, apparently vaginismus the whole time that we kept disregarding as ‘”it’s been a while”, wife on antidepressants for year, blah blah blah). I always thought I was being a good guy, accepting sex less than once a month for years on the hope it’d “get better” some time, but never knowing–or being brave enough–to confront it. I try hard to be safe/accepting, but I’m sure there are things I do that are the opposite, and don’t know how to fix it.

      “I just want to get away and be alone.” sounds like my wife too. It’s a tough, tough place for her; she has tried counseling a few times for her depression and low self-esteem, without any help there. This has discouraged her from ever trying counseling again. I hope you can find effective therapy that actually helps you, and I hope knowing that others are in the same boat will help you not to have overwhelming self-condemnation. You are truly in a tough place, and that should be recognized.


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