Safety and Intimacy: You’ll Never Have an Intimate Sex Life without Feeling Safe First

by | Nov 7, 2022 | Sexual Intimacy | 27 comments

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Without safety and security, a sex life can never blossom.

In fact, a marriage can never blossom! Safety and security are necessary for intimacy.

This month we’re talking about our 4-step plan for recovery from sexual problems in your marriage. These steps are difficult. They can take a very long time. But you will never be whole without going through them, in that order.

First came redefining sex and seeing it as an integrated part of your relationship, not as something that you “give” and someone else “takes.” It isn’t something external to you; it is an expression of how you feel about each other.

If sex is going to be mutual, intimate, and pleasurable for both, then it means that both people have to matter. It can’t be a male entitlement and a female obligation, because as soon as sex is an obligation, it erases the needs and feelings of the one who is obligated.

If sex is to be an expression of who you both are and who you are together, then you have to be able to come to the bedroom with everything you are. You have be able to be vulnerable. But you cannot do that if you fundamentally don’t matter. If someone else has the right to your body no matter how you feel, you can’t be vulnerable because you’re not emotionally safe. 

And that leads us to the next point in our 4-step plan: Safety.

Safety is the bedrock of intimacy.

Without safety there is no vulnerability, and without vulnerability there is no true sharing of who you are. If sex does happen, it is merely physical, and for so many women sex that is devoid of intimacy is so much worse than no sex at all.

(Incidentally, this is one of the reasons that I get upset at pastors and counselors who say the answer is to have more sex, or that if a marriage is having sex 2-3 times a week, it’s automatically healthy. For many women, NOT having sex is more emotionally safe than having sex, and having sex when you are not safe actually results in more distance and more negative feelings, as we describe in chapters 9 & 10 of The Great Sex Rescue). 

"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

This week, then, I want to look at how safety can be taken away from women in marriage. 

Next week we’ll look at how to build safety into your relationship, but I’d like to look at different ways in which women have had safety stripped from us.

To start today, I’d like to share an article that my daughter Rebecca (and co-host of the Bare Marriage podcast and co-author of The Great Sex Rescue) wrote for our weekly email two weeks ago. Almost 50,000 people get our weekly email, and about half read it (which is an extraordinary number, which shows how much Rebecca writes resonates with people!). If you’re not signed up, head on over because you don’t want to miss these!

Here’s Rebecca:

Why do so many Christian authors imply that the reason men love women is simply because of how they are in bed?

My mom (Sheila) did a “fixed it for you” this week about a quote from Married Sex by Gary Thomas and Deb Fileta that was truly cringe-worthy. You can see her fixed version here, but here’s the original quote:

“Growing in your understanding of how his penis responds to your touch is a key to his heart and will often create a husband who is so happy he married you it will be difficult for him not to brag to his friends about why.”

Gary Thomas Bragging about Wife Sex

You can go read her commentary and her correction here, but I wanted to talk about that a bit deeper in the email this week.

My question is this:

At what point do we women get to simply bask in our husbands’ love without having to earn it with our bodies?

Think about the messages we hear directed to wives (I’m paraphrasing these from evangelical books since I can’t remember the exact quotes right now):

  • He needs you to fill up his mind with mental images of your body so that he isn’t bombarded with the ones from his mental rolladex that he’s collected over his life
  • If you want your husband to show you love, give him sex first
  • If you don’t want your husband to have an affair, stop dressing like a bag lady
  • The way you have power and influence over your husband is through your body and your sexuality–just flash your breasts and see the power balance shift in your favour!

And all of these things say one thing to us, as women:

Your worth is in your body. Your sexuality is your power. Your inherent value, what you have to offer your partner, is how good you are in bed.

And of course, no one MEANS to tell women this. But we’re already bombarded by it everywhere, aren’t we? The body standards, the pressure to perform sexually in order to keep a man, even how women are portrayed in movies and pornography as sexually serving men and it being “hot”–our culture sees women’s value in terms of what we can offer sexually, it’s just that now we call it empowerment.

And we are doing the same thing in the church.

Theologies that do not allow women to have a full say simply because of their humanness, their value, their intelligence, their gifts, their calling–they encourage women to “win him without words,” and too often that translates to “be nice in bed.”

Why is it that we are normalizing Christian women acting as personal porn stars instead of partners?

Why are we accepting of theologies that encourage women to sexually manipulate their husbands, rather than just talking about what they want like grown ups?

When are women going to be able to be told, “Your husband loves you. And you deserve to be loved for YOU. No ifs, ands, or buts about it”?

When do women just get to be safe?

Because you know what happens when women are told that learning how to give a great hand job will create a husband who’s happy he married you? It tells us the same thing the world has told us since we were small enough to look at the magazine covers in grocery stores and feel self-conscious about our girlish frames. It tells us we aren’t good enough unless we’re sexy. We’re not good enough unless we’re hot, horny, with a good-girls-gone-bad attitude.

We’re told that we exist to be used.

And the best we can hope for is that we’re only used by the man we love.

There is another way.

There is a way that teaches that you deserve to be loved for you, not for what you have to offer. There is a way that sees sex not as a performance to secure a man’s affections, but as a spontaneous, natural proclamation of mutual love.

There is a way where women are valued as people, not as playthings.

There is a way where husbands don’t need to be convinced to love their wives by getting a mind-blowing hand-job, but who truly love their wives for the person Christ created them to be.

But it all starts with getting rid of sexual entitlement, and choosing instead to honor and respect women’s voices, not just enjoy their bodies.

It starts with creating homes where female voices are just as important as male voices, rather than encouraging manipulation and sexual mind-games.

It starts with looking at your spouse and seeing the image of God in them. Not the image of your personal sexual fantasies, your ideal wife, or anything else–just looking at your spouse, seeing their humanness, and saying, “It is good.”

There is so much goodness to be had. So much love, so much life.

Let’s stop allowing worldy teaching masquerading as biblical truth to steal it from us.

Rebecca Lindenbach

The Bare Marriage Email List

When do women get to be able to rest in their husbands’ love without having to earn that love with their bodies? 

That’s really the question, isn’t it?

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Whether it’s Gary Thomas telling you that learning how to give a good hand job will make your husband happy he married you, or telling us to text nude pictures so that he’ll be neurologically drawn to your naked body instead of other women’s naked bodies; whether it’s Every Heart Restored acknowledging that a woman feels like a “human toilet for semen” because he is using her to get over porn, but saying that she just needs to understand how men are; whether it’s His Needs, Her Needs telling us that being married to a woman who has gained weight is a prison sentence–well, it all is a LOT.

It’s heavy.

Some women will feel distinctly unsafe from their husbands, and we’ll talk about that later this week.

But many women feel unsafe because we’ve internalized these messages.

We can’t feel safe until we know that what these authors have said is not true for my particular husband.

And only the husband can reassure his wife of this.

Yes, women have some work to do in analyzing what we’ve believed, and in deciding that we will not assume that our husband feels the same way as we’ve been taught. That part is on us.

But the problem is that if husbands have also internalized these messages, women will not be able to just let the messages go, because for their marriages, these messages are true.

If you can, get this out in the open.

Some of you may not be there yet. Your relationship may be too fragile, or you may still be working on redefining sex.

But as we’re re-establishing safety, women need to feel that they do not have to earn a man’s acceptance and love with their bodies. This is even more true in marriages where porn has played a role.



How can men establish sexual safety in marriage?

  1. Do lots of non-sexual touch, without expecting it to go anywhere.
  2. Share your heart with your wife, and pursue intimacy outside of the bedroom.
  3. Tell her explicitly WHY you reject certain teachings.
  4. Keep talking to her even if it’s been a while since you’ve had sex.
  5. If you’re having trouble with these things, work with counselors to find out if you have channelled your needs for intimacy into sex. Learn how to see intimacy as also being separate from sex.
  6. Do not ask for “sexual favors” when she is not in the mood for sex, or when intercourse may be off the table because of her period, postpartum, etc. Commit to mutual sex or none at all. (When she feels secure, then you may each enjoy “giving gifts” to each other again. But do not ask for one, expect one, or resent not getting one when she is not feeling safe.)

And then the last big one: wait.

If your relationship has not been safe, you cannot “prove” your safety to her in five days of being different. This is a complete mindset shift that is for life. 

The length of time that it takes to establish safety will be highly correlated to how unsafe she has felt. If she’s felt unsafe mostly because of messages she’s internalized, rather than because of what you have done, this may not take very long at all.

If she has felt unsafe because you have made her feel unsafe, then it’s going to take a lot longer. 

That’s not easy, and I understand that. But this is the only way through. You cannot experience real intimacy and passion without safety, and if safety has been broken, it needs to be rebuilt. 

The good news, though, is that if both of you commit yourself to the process, over and over again we’ve heard of couples coming out on the other side!

Why We Need Safety to Have Intimacy

How can a couple re-establish safety if it’s been missing? Have any outside influences made you feel unsafe in your marriage? 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. Nathan

    > > Your worth is in your body. Your sexuality is your power. Your inherent value, what you
    > > have to offer your partner, is how good you are in bed.

    While this is bad enough in its own way, it’s often made worse because many people add in the belief that this is the ONLY thing of worth and value that women have.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire


  2. Jo R

    The TL;DR, especially for your numbered points one through six, is:

    Men, treat your wife the way you did while dating..

  3. Nathan

    > > Men, treat your wife the way you did while dating…

    My guess is that a lot of people believe that dating is the event, the wedding is the finish line, and marriage is the prize. Instead, I would suggest that dating is the workout, the wedding is that STARTING LINE, and the “prize” is a lifetime of a good and loving marriage.

    I would also suggest that this applies to men AND women, although most of the responsibility of creating a safe space lies with the man, since men on average are physically bigger and stronger. Not always, of course, and men can feel unsafe too, but it’s generally balanced with men creating a safe environment.

      • Lynne

        I would advise the author of that article, and people reading it, to look up John Gottmen’s books and also Sue Johnson’s. Which both can answer the question that the author could not with evidence based research and practices that help struggling couples out of the hole they dug. This article is, I suppose, understanding why women might feel unsafe, but not specifically why or what to do about it. Yes she might need to leave and that is up to her! However, it doesn’t explain what behaviors we can choose to do to create more safety in our relationships — Gottmen talks about the 4 things that lead to divorce for instance.. and Sue Johnson talks about how we can better speak to each other in ways that focus on our own emotions rather than blaming the other.

        • Jo R

          Just as Sheila can’t cover every single possible point in one post, neither can Matt.

          What Matt is doing is a guy talking to other guys about how men inadvertently hurt their wives. Even though women can use the ***exact*** same vocabulary, men “get it” when Matt writes it. And women reading his posts realize that no, they’re NOT crazy; yes, other women are facing the exact same experiences; and no, women aren’t just overreacting when the men in their lives WILL NOT take the often-small steps that will stop the hurt the men are inducing.

          He mentions Gottman repeatedly in other posts, as do many of the commenters.

  4. Laura

    “Every Heart Restored acknowledging that a woman feels like a “human toilet for semen” because he is using her to get over porn, but saying that she just needs to understand how men are”

    So horrible coming from a “Christian” book! That’s exactly how I felt in my first marriage and often felt like I was a sex machine for him. No wonder I hardly ever felt safe with him and after experiencing constant sexual assault by him, I could not stay in that marriage any longer.

    To this day, I still don’t feel safe around many men, especially older men who take an interest in me. That’s strange because my ex was only a year and a half older than me. I feel safer around men my age and younger. I don’t know why, that’s just me and I don’t need to overanalyze it.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yeah, we had that quote in Great Sex Rescue originally but it was one the first editor asked us to remove because it was just too horrible! but it wasn’t even our words–we were quoting another published book!

    • Mara R

      From the above post: “But the problem is that if husbands have also internalized these messages, women will not be able to just let the messages go, because for their marriages, these messages are true.”

      For those of us who have lived this, the damage is staggering.

      Separated for four years, divorced for nearly two (after over thirty years of marriage). The thought of ever getting into another relationship with a man still scares me. I’m getting better. But I know I’m in no position to be in a relationship with even a safe and healthy man.

      A huge part of me feels that it would just be easier to never get into a relationship again. That part of me wonders why I would bother reading this month’s series since it most likely will not apply to me any time soon or even ever.

      But then I realize two things. One, I need to continue down the, ‘all/most men are not evil’ path so that I quit relating to men as though they are some variation of my ex and heal that part of my broken thinking. And two, just because it would be easier to never try intimacy again, easier is not always better. Nor is it always safer.

      Laura and I and the women like us need to keep reading and seeing what healthy is so we can keep healing. So I will keep reading and learning and changing.

      If I never marry again, I will be fine.

      But if a good, safe man ever shows up and shows interest in me, it might be nice to be healed up enough journey down the road of what it was supposed to be like before the LaHayes, FoF, the Eldredges, the Pearls, the Eggeriches (etc. ad nauseum) threw their dysfunctional opinions and attitudes all over it.

      • Laura

        Mara R.

        I don’t know when or if I’ll ever remarry, but I do want to learn about how to have healthy relationships. Throughout my single years after the divorce, I could never find healthy views of relationships in Christian books. Christian books on dating did not seem healthy at all. It was often about how as a woman, we got to learn to let the man be in charge because he’s the head. How is that healthy? I was also told by well-meaning Christians that secular books about dating and marriage were evil. I should never have listened to them because regardless of someone’s religious beliefs if they have something useful to share, listen to or read what they wrote. Every person has value and something of importance to share.

  5. Sequoia

    This series is awesome! Usually I’ll screenshot a line or two of an article and talk about it with my husband later in the day. But with this series I’ve already taken three or four per article. This really hits home for a couple I’m close to—I wish I could have given them this perspective sooner. Great job Shiela and team!

  6. Sequoia

    Related but not directly:
    I would highly recommend the book “Pure Desire” by Ted Roberts as a FAR SUPERIOR account of what it takes to get out of a sex addiction (incl. porn). Notably, it talks though how sexual addiction is not primarily about sex but about how one has learned to deal with stress, trauma, and deep hurt—and how vulnerability with others is a necessary part of healing. There’s more, but notably missing is ANYTHING to do with the other spouse’s sexiness.
    Shiela, I would really encourage you to read it and maybe plug his book in your blog posts?

    • exwifeofasexaddict

      The Pure Desire franchise is better than most, but it has plenty of flaws too. (Been through the Betrayal and Beyond curriculum. I still recommend it, but with caveats.)

      • Lisa Johns

        Thank you for saying that! I have loved much of what the Pure Desire people share, and cringed at other parts. May I ask you to share what your caveats are? I’m not really clear in my own mind yet, and would love to hear your perspective.

  7. Anonymous305

    It’s complicated when he genuinely doesn’t want duty sex, but genuinely feels rejected and unloved without sex. I’ve been refusing to have guilt-induced sex, but I feel bad because I care enough about his feelings not to be happy that he feels unwanted. I almost had sex out of pity, but he didn’t want that, while also being unhappy that I didn’t want him. He’s done the work of not asking for months, so I need to figure out how to want him, I think? Not what this blog said, but that’s my reality.

    I shouldn’t tell him “stop feeling that way” unless I’m willing to hear the same in return, right?

    • Lisa

      Caveat: I’m newlywed and don’t have that much experience, so take my words with a grain of salt.

      However, we did go through an episode early in our marriage where my husband confessed to have done something which was a breach of trust and hurtful to me. We were both devastated, we talked, he asked for forgiveness and we worked it out in a good way, but I still needed to take a break from sexual intimacy and work through my hurt until I could feel close to my husband again.

      What was helpful to me was setting a boundary that I would not have any physical intimacy that I did not wholeheartedly want. I would honor my healing process and put that first (which my husband completely respected. He stepped back and let me take the lead during this time.).

      But on the flip side, I also decided that I would initiate plenty of the physical intimacy that I DID wholeheartedly want, both for my sake and for my husband’s. For me that was hugs and non-sexual cuddles at first, and after a bit of time there was a natural progression back to our normal level of intimacy. Maybe that’s a way that you and your husband could meet each other? If there is some physical intimacy that you actually do want and enjoy (like hugs or massages or hand holding) and he sees that you take initiative there, maybe he’ll feel less hurt and you both get to enjoy each other physically?

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        That sounds so wise and healing, Lisa!

      • rebuildmode

        It sounds like you are providing a healthy model! Setting good boundaries so you aren’t hurt and have the time and space to heal and feel close again, while still engaging in and asking for the things you are comfortable with — which shows him he is not being rejected. Kudos to you, and keep up that solid communication!

  8. Angharad

    I think it’s worth emphasising the importance of building trust and intimacy first to newly-weds too, especially those who have saved sex for marriage. You can trust your husband 100%, while at the same time realising how physically vulnerable you are. I’ve found the longer we have been married, the more comfortable I feel and the more willing to be adventurous in the physical side of things. Because while you can ‘know’ that your husband won’t hurt you on your wedding night, that knowledge roots into your life in a much deeper sense after a couple of years of marriage, because you have multiple proofs to back it up.

  9. Sadie

    I would appreciate advice on maintaining safety & security when dealing with inability to orgasm.

    We have been married 2 years. I don’t think I’ve reached orgasm yet, though honestly I am so confused how I’m even supposed to know (and the advice of “trust me, you’ll know” is really not helpful when I already feel so confused).
    What has felt best is oral sex, which my husband did somewhat regularly when we were first married before deciding he didn’t want to anymore. There was a while that he wouldn’t try anything at all, then he went back to giving oral sex for a while, then about a year ago there was exactly 1 time that manual felt nearly as good as oral & after that he again decided to stop giving oral. But while he has made fairly consistent attempts with manual, it’s only felt good maybe twice in the past year. Also, he generally will only try manual after I’ve gotten sad, angry, etc. about sex not feeling good (like, I have to manipulate it into happening. He rarely just offers to try anything on his own.)

    I feel so torn because I know the right thing to do is to fully respect his choice not to give oral, and I am really trying to do that. But I also feel betrayed that he isn’t willing to do the only thing that truly feels good & is seemingly okay with me just not enjoying sex.

    When he does try manual, it doesn’t really do anything. Sometimes it starts to feel good & then it just stops. He gets really discouraged when I tell him what does or doesn’t feel as good, and it’s not like I could even bring myself to orgasm the few times I’ve tried so it’s the blind leading the blind. Basically any attempt just makes me upset that manual doesn’t work & it just raises the pressure for the next attempt. I know it’s never going to work when I’m so stressed about it, but I also feel like I can’t relax about it either. I feel worried that he’s just going to stop trying anything again, like he did before. And nothing happens between us sexually unless I make it happen. He doesn’t even initiate intercourse anymore because so often it ends with me being upset after a half-hearted manual attempt. I have all the burden of making our sex life happen but without any of the enjoyment.

    Sometimes it feels like the only way out of this situation is for me to just stop caring about whether or not sex feels good. I feel like there are ways that both of us are making the other feel like unsafe & I just don’t know what to do.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      This is an excellent question, Sadie, and I’ll try to make it the focus of my post on Friday! Thank you!

      One quick thought today, though: if he is unwilling to do the thing that will bring you pleasure, or put the work into figuring it out, then why should you do what brings him pleasure? Sex is supposed to be mutual; if he is deliberately making it not mutual, it no longer sex anymore. It is one-sided intercourse. You do not need to consent to being used.

      Why is the default that he gets pleasure even if you don’t? That’s what we all need to start asking ourselves.

      UPDATE: I actually wrote the post today!

    • Joanna

      Are you aroused when he’s trying to manually stimulate you? As in, do you long for him to touch you there? I’m asking because the description in your comment is of a situation that doesn’t sound conducive to arousal to me.

      Personally, and possibly TMI, I don’t want my husband to touch me directly “down there” until I’m aroused enough to really want him to, if that makes sense. If he’s moving too fast (which was more common a few years ago, he’s got it now), it’s just uncomfortable. It’s also a huge turn off for me, we’ve actually had to stop more than once because I just couldn’t get back into it again after that (this typically correlated with me being tired and harder to get going in the first place).

      I also remember sex ed in school, learning about the physical changes during arousal. Among other things, the uterus lifts up and the vagina elongates. These changes help intercourse feel good for the woman, and take some time to happen. There are also external changes which I presume help external stimulation feel good.

      He needs to be humble enough to take directions, and it sounds like you need to explore together, but that’s pretty much impossible if he’s not enthusiastic about your pleasure.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Yes, exactly, Joanna! We explain the sexual response cycle in The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex (and The Good Guy’s Guide), but if she’s not already excited, that’s going to feel intrusive, not good.

        And, yes, if he’s not enthusiastic, it won’t work!

        • Lisa Johns

          As I recall, you’ve described being touched down there before the woman is ready as being comparable to having a PAP smear. Pretty accurate, a completely non-sexy!

    • Tim

      I don’t have anything practical to add here, but I’m really sorry your husband is treating you like that Sadie!

  10. Weary

    What does one do about a dynamic where the husband doesn’t explicitly pressure, but his repeated expressions of feeling unloved and not feeling close (“roommates” language) due to not enough physical intimacy serve to apply a feeling of pressure for the wife? Not to mention, telling a woman he doesn’t feel loved by her or close to her is not helpful in increasing HER desire to have sex or feel close enough emotionally to do so. But when husband is reminded of this, he claims a need to be free to express his authentic feelings and wants to have these feelings validated?


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