What is the Window of Tolerance? And What Does It Mean about Sex?

by | Apr 10, 2024 | Connecting | 45 comments

Window of Tolerance

 The window of tolerance concept helps highlight emotional health. 

On a recent podcast episode, I was honoured to have licensed counsellor, Jay Stringer, on as a guest. 

One of the things he talked about was that evangelical views on gender roles and marriage are infamous for leaving people underdeveloped in their personal growth. Men are given a very narrow idea of what it means to be a man. (We’ve explored many of these issues on the blog and on our podcast.) Themes persist like a man is: someone who needs sex at all times; someone who is intolerant of listening to his wife talk; someone who must be seen as a leader in his home or his church.

Women, on the other hand, are pushed into these boxes where we’re the gatekeepers of sex, and the keeper of the house who also is the one left raising the kids. 

Neither partner is encouraged to grow into the people they might be outside of these strange and narrow gender roles. Nor are they being taught how to function and regulate their own emotions. The tools aren’t available, even if they wanted to grow! 

The sad result is that the evangelical world has, essentially, created a world where, instead of promoting emotional health, essentially shrinks our windows of tolerance.

What Is The Window of Tolerance?

Before we get to that, let’s actually define what the window of tolerance is. My friend Misty Terrell wrote a great post about this on Facebook: 

“The Window of Tolerance is a term coined by Daniel J. Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, to describe the optimal emotional “zone” we can exist in, to best function and thrive in everyday life.

The Window of Tolerance—the optimal zone—is characterized by a sense of groundedness, flexibility, openness, curiosity, presence, an ability to be emotionally regulated, and a capacity to tolerate life’s stressors.” -Anne Wright, LMFT, What Is The Window Of Tolerance and Why Is It So Important?

Misty Terrell

Jay framed it like this in our interview:

 “Imagine two parallel lines.  And right in the middle between those lines is what he [Daniel J. Siegel] calls the window of tolerance or the green zone.  And then above the top line would be hyper arousal, and that’s also known as the red zone.  And then beneath the bottom line is hypo arousal, and that’s known as the blue zone.  So when you are in the green zone, that is when the self state is flexible.  It’s adaptive.  It’s creative.  It’s playful.  

But then in the red zone, your heart rate goes up.  A lot of stress, fight or flight, a lot of arguments between couples takes place in the red zone.  Or the blue zone is when the self state becomes kind of imploded.  You feel a level of depression.  Numbness begins to build in.  And so one of the things that I find often with the work of men is that men have such a small window of tolerance.”

Jay Stringer

Window of Tolerance

What Does This Have To Do With Marriage? Or Sex?

For evangelical men, then, when things are going well and sex is happening at the level that they want it to and things are otherwise great for him:  They are well within their window of tolerance. 

But then when there is conflict within his marriage or perhaps he’s not getting sex as frequently as he would like, he might find himself quickly skyrocketing outside of that window of tolerance into the red zone where he will find himself in fight or flight. 

This is often when we might see anger issues or entitlement issues. 

In a world where men are taught that they are controlled by their sexual urges, they often only have one tool for emotional regulation at their disposal: the orgasm. So if they’re not able to have sex immediately then they might turn to porn to find that release and calm their nervous system.

After the release is found, many men often feel deeply ashamed for their behaviour and this is when they plummet back down through the window of tolerance all the way to the blue zone, where they will feel depressed. And the cure to that depression? You guessed it. Sex. 

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The Impact of a small window of tolerance on Marriage

So you have this evangelical man, with an especially low window of tolerance, and he finds himself getting into that red zone if he doesn’t orgasm when he thinks he needs to.  But at the same time, he has been taught that God gave him his wife for sexual release. This is what Emerson Eggerichs actually says.  Mark Driscoll called women penis homes.  

When she isn’t giving him sexual release, he begins to think that she is depriving him of something he needs. So now, the stakes begin to rise because, in his mind, he’s not just struggling with an emotional dysregulation issue. He believes that he has become a victim when she refuses to help him get sexual release. He has been primed to see her as hurting him.  

Even if he is pressuring or coercing her, he is not the one sinning because God gave her to him for that purpose.  And so she becomes the one who is actively hurting him, and he becomes the victim. 

That’s when DARVO begins to show up in the relationship, and women will often find themselves leaving their window of tolerance for the red zone. Rightfully angry, they will begin to push back on their husband’s behaviour, but because he’s never been given the tools to self-soothe in healthy ways, he will continue to see himself as a victim for not gaining access to what the church has told him is his right: sex. 

So What Is The Solution to a narrow window of tolerance?

The church needs to figure out a way to take a good look at itself and the way we’ve been teaching boys and men to show up in their relationships. We have to teach boys that there are healthy ways to regulate their emotions that do not involve using porn or using women’s bodies to bring themselves to orgasm. 

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As Jay pointed out on the podcast, The University of Michigan has done studies where they have done spit tests for people before going outside and then again after being outside for 20 minutes. The reduction of cortisol is most significant after 20 minutes.  So even just the knowledge that you can literally go outside for 20 minutes and reset that window of tolerance, is a super helpful tool that can bless yourself and your spouse. 

There are also breathing exercises that are known to help calm the body in moments of stress.

We Can Do Better

There are a lot of harmful ideas that are built into evangelical marriage teachings that say: I can’t be okay, I can’t be who I am, if you are not there with me and for me at all times. 

However, I think this can be a beautiful invitation to people; In those moments of anxiety where we’ve moved outside of our windows of tolerance, if we can get a bit curious about how we might be able to meet our emotional regulation needs without having to consume someone else’s body, isn’t that a good thing?

There are ways to be there for one another in a marriage that does not lead to entitlement issues or to objectifying one another. And it starts with getting curious about what it means to, become more fully developed as individuals so that we can, as Jay put it,  “become a you and a me so that the we can come together.”

What do you think of the concept of “window of tolerance”? How do you think Christian teaching affects it? Let’s talk in the comments!

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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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. John

    Oh yippee do, we men are the problem again. Not that I disagree.

    • Anne

      “The church needs to figure out a way to take a good look at itself and the way we’ve been teaching boys and men to show up in their relationships. We have to teach boys that there are healthy ways to regulate their emotions that do not involve using porn or using women’s bodies to bring themselves to orgasm.”

      The problem isn’t men. It’s the way men and women have been taught. Instead of finger pointing and blaming, we can use increased knowledge and proven tools to teach a healthier dynamic.

    • Jen

      I think part of Sheila’s point is that men aren’t being taught how to regulate, and that’s not fair to men. If church and culture are teaching men to stuff emotion, work hard, and orgasm often, where is the self soothing skill in that? Men are boxed in and suffer because of it. All the gendered nonsense that some people spout is hurting both men and women. Why don’t we journey together to figure out how to best live in our bodies and have connection with each other?

      • Ladybug

        I think this applies to more than just sex. There are many forms of prescribed ego-stroking that women are taught to give, and men to expect. Any time any one of those things is not as expected, the dynamic you described plays out.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Men just have a smaller window of tolerance because of how they’ve been taught. We can fix this.

    • Jo R

      Men have dominated Bible translation. Men dominate seminary staffs. Men dominate pulpits. Men dominate elder boards. Until recently, men have dominated bookstore shelf space.

      Men have gone against the explicit words of Jesus and have appointed themselves to lord it over others in church and in homes.

      So if there are any problems in those spheres, who should be held responsible?

      • John


        • Jo R

          So are you saying your original complaint is null and void?

          • John

            It wasn’t a complaint (hence my “not that I disagree”), just an observation. It seems so many of the world and relational problems are caused by us men and it’s a bit depressing really. Guess I need to go outside for a 20min walk in the park.

      • JSG

        Actually tho much of what you say is true, the comment about Bible Translation isn’t. Single female missionaries have historically done more than men in the BT movement. Noone talks about it much, but it’s true.

        • Jo R

          What you say is true for languages spoken by small people groups.

          I was thinking about English translations, some of which—cough, ESV, cough—had zero female translators.

  2. Codec

    Fascinating way to look at it.

    I see you brought up that after using porn people often feelsshamrd which can create a vicious cycle. In my own experience using orgasmto deal with anxiety or feelings of uselessness does exactly as you described.

    I think another piece of the puzzle is that men may feel like they are not wanted or needed and that can really mess with you. People want to belong.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Most definitely! Community is so key in the Bible, and yet we largely neglect it in today’s culture. The only community we seem to push is marriage and church involvement, but we don’t know how to make community in other ways. We need to work on that (especially within the church, which talks about community but often doesn’t have it).

    • NL

      I think it is true that men often feel unwanted or unneeded. But honestly- that is on them. What are they doing to be wanted or needed? I observe that many men begin to feel as if they are on the outside of the relationship between their wife and children. But women are much more likely to actively invest in their children’s lives- and in their own lives. Yes, the man may be the primary financial support, but that does not translate to emotional connection. Many wives (ask me how I know) try to help and encourage their husbands to 1.engage in the children’s lives 2.engage in their wife’s life 3.create their own life outside of the job. But we can’t do it for you! And sporadic doesn’t cut it. I know my own husband often feels left out, but I had to create my own emotional life. Asking me once a month or so “Tell me something,” is not going to create emotional connection. Playing cards with the kids once every few weeks is not going to create an ongoing relationship. They are nice efforts. But inadequate. And if you do not invest in friendships- you won’t have them.
      My own husband was woefully unprepared for relationships, due to illiterate, possibly neurodivergent parents- and very bad church teaching. Not his fault. And he has grown so much, and made real efforts. But the problem is real.

      • Lisa

        NL– that is so true. My husband recently went on a trip and lamented that he didn’t think any of our children would miss him. If that is accurate, why? And what can he do about it? He often spends his evenings playing games on his phone or watching TV. Even though the kids often watch TV with him, it’s not exactly a bonding experience for them. I have tried and tried, suggesting other activities he could offer to do with the children, asking him to be more involved in their daily routines. I’ve stopped bringing it up because, at some point, he has to decide that he wants something different.

  3. Jane

    Makes sense

  4. Rebecca

    I just want to say thank you for having Jay Stringer on your podcast and for your warm recommendation of his book “Unwanted”. I bought a copy on your recommendation. I’m only about a fourth of the way in so far, but it is so beautiful, insightful, and deeply moving. I am a hard sell for Christian books, so I don’t say this lightly. What a beautiful man. I’m grateful for both of you.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      So glad, Rebecca!

  5. Jen

    My husband and I were talking about nervous system regulation and how as an orgasm addict he was trapped in a cycle of not being able to regulate. What you described in the post hits the nail on the head. Tension builds, he knew of no other way to release it, so he cheats/uses porn/masturbates, then feels rightfully guilty, which spins the wheel again.

    He eventually began to replace orgasm with other anti-relational activities (workaholism, perfectionism, controlling behaviors, people pleasing, etc) so that he only came to me when he had exhausted himself, and then he was too exhausted to actually connect. All of this because he had no idea how to regulate and he refused to get help for his childhood trauma, which caused the massive dysregulation. And the church certainly didn’t help by seemingly excusing this harmful behavior.

    So often healthy marriage advice focuses on communication, which is good, but if someone is constantly deregulated – constantly outside of their window of tolerance – communication is useless. Regulation has to happen so that we can even begin to hear each other.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      So good, Jen! Yes, exactly.

    • Lisa Johns

      Amen to that!
      My X would say, over and over, “It’s all about communication! We’re not communicating!”
      I finally answered, “You’re communicating with me all the time. It’s WHAT you’re communicating that is the problem!”
      Anger, spite, general dysregulation are all ways of communicating, and what they say is, “You, as my wife, are not worth the effort it would take for me to be kind to you. Work harder so I can feel better.”
      A refusal to listen to what a wife tries so hard to communicate is also communication. It says, “You, my wife, have nothing to say that is worthy of my consideration.”
      NOBODY could regulate when all that was going on!

    • Willow

      Jen, these are great points. A partner or spouse should not have to carry the burden of being a therapist. If one or both partners have unresolved trauma, addiction issues, etc., they should meet with a licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist to address their issues. A partner/spouse can and should be supportive, attentive, and a good listener; but if they become also the therapist, that can really upset the dynamic between them.

  6. Nessie

    Reminds me of the scene late in the Barbie movie where she says, “You have to figure out who you are without me,” and “Maybe all the things that you thought made you *you* aren’t really you. Maybe it’s Barbie AND it’s Ken.”

    Until we can figure out who we are and what we need to healthily function independently, we can’t really come together and be a fully healty “us” in a marriage. If the “only” thing that can soothe/deescalate/comfort us requires someone else, then we have some work to do. (*Note: I’m not saying that others cannot help us along the way, but if we solely rely on that healthy entity, they can become a crutch when we don’t need one which creates a snowball effect of other problems.)

    • Angharad

      “Until we can figure out who we are and what we need to healthily function independently, we can’t really come together and be a fully healty “us” in a marriage.”

      And this is exacerbated by churches who push early marriage as a way of helping young people mature. Marrying young may help a couple that are ALREADY growing in maturity to mature faster, but it is going to be no help at all if they have not already started to mature independently prior to marriage.

      • Jo R

        It doesn’t help that a woman’s supposed “highest calling” is marriage and motherhood.

        That expectation short-circuits all kinds of things in girls from the moment they’re born.

      • Laura

        The push for early marriages seems harmful. I was 23 when I married my ex and I did not think that was young at that time. Now that I look back, I really did not know who I was then nor what I wanted out of life. I just thought that I had to get married and I better settle for what I could get because I probably would not find anyone else. I did not really grow up with church teachings, but I often heard the message that it was important to save sex for marriage which may be what pushed me to marry my ex (first boyfriend) at 23.

        Now that I’m 47 and getting married soon, I feel I am way more mature than I was the first time around. I know how to function independently and so does he.

        This post explained my ex’s behavior well. He did not know how to function as an individual and sure did not have a window of tolerance. He expected sex all the time and if he was in a bad mood, it was always my fault because he was not getting enough sex. Therefore, he thought I was selfish. If I was not giving him enough sex (his idea of enough was twice a day/daily), then he resorted to porn, masturbation, and strip club visits. Then later graduated to sexually abusing me while I was asleep. I am so thankful that’s long over and I am finally marrying a healthy, godly man who cares about me.

  7. Nathan

    > > we men are the problem again.

    This kind of statement comes up now and again, but I don’t think that’s what this site is saying. I also don’t think that any regular on this site believes the idea that “any time there’s a problem in a marriage, it’s always the husbands fault”.

    It may SEEM that way sometimes, but there are a few reasons for that. First, this site is mainly by women and for women. Keith posts at times, and they reference materials written by men, and of course men can show up and post, but mostly this site is from a woman’s perspective. Therefore, the stories and examples are going to be about the abuse and oppression that women suffer. Also, this site is mainly about CHRISTIAN marriages and how they relate to the church and self-proclaimed Christian “leaders”. There is a significant minority in the church that pushes the male patriarchy model, that ultimately causes pain for women (sadly, it’s not just men pushing this). I know of no similar Christian theory that places women in charge and enables the abuse of men.

    This site doesn’t deny that women cause problems, too. Neither sex is, overall, more or less holy or Godly than the other. It’s just (again) that certain parts of the church and writers push a doctrine that elevates men to the point where women get hurt, and that’s what this site is fighting against.

    As we say, let’s go after the big problems first. And in Christian marriages where there is abuse, women get far more of that abuse than men, due to specific doctrines being pushed by other Christians. The site isn’t anti-male. It opposes abuse and inequality.

    • Lisa Johns

      Thank you, that was beautifully said.

    • John

      “any time there’s a problem in a marriage, it’s always the husbands fault” – maybe not, but it normally is.

      “This site doesn’t deny that women cause problems, too.” – it just isn’t talked about much.

      “The site isn’t anti-male. It opposes abuse and inequality.” – true, but the abuse and inequality is virtually always perpetrated by men on women.

      “this site is mainly by women and for women” – so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised it is a such a depressing/scary read for men.

      • Jo R

        I’m at a loss to understand your comment.

        Are you upset that women are complaining about decidedly unchristlike treatment at the hands of men? Or are you upset that men behave in unchristlike ways in the first place?

        Do you think women should not educate first themselves and then other women about the way the “church” has been abusing women spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically, and sexually for years, decades, and even centuries? That women should not be allowed to realize they’ve been abused? That women who can’t unsee these varied forms of abuse should not help other women recognize these abuses?

        Do you think that in all the vast internet, there should not be just one measly site, one little corner that concentrates on what women have been through, on broadcasting those hurts and abuses, on educating any and all readers on those abuses, on calling out the perpetrators? That this one tiny corner of the internet should equally tell men’s stories even though the statistics are so heavily skewed in one direction?

        What, exactly, are you dissatisfied with? Do you just want women to shut up and smile and keep taking it, just like we’ve done for the aforementioned centuries, because saying these things out loud and repeatedly makes some men uncomfortable? 🤔

        • John

          I’m upset that we men behave in unchristlike ways so consistently.

          You’re right that women need this space. I just need to stop coming here.

          • Lisa

            By all means don’t go to websites if they don’t contribute to you living your best life. But I am confused because there are SOLUTIONS offered here and elsewhere that will enhance your life. And many of them can be found for free with good resources from the library, podcasts, websites, etc. This isn’t the end of the story unless you choose it to be.

          • Jo R

            There’s no need to stop coming here, John.

            If these facts truly do upset you, you could do several things:

            • Ask questions that allow for fuller responses, like details of teachings and what their impact had on an individual or on people generally.

            • Ask what changes would be beneficial in reversing what is taught, how you might support making those changes, how you might support those who are healing the harm from bad teaching.

            • Offer empathy to the victims. See if you’ve been in a similar situation and share what you learned about yourself and how you put a stop to your victimization.

            • Realize the world is very different for women in general than it is for men in general. Women’s descriptions of the impact of a “sermon joke,” for example, are based in part of the general atmosphere women are forced to live in. Imagine if you yourself were still a prepubescent eight-year-old walking past a group of D-1 college football players who started picking on you, saying things, giving you little shoves. You’d be rightfully scared. That’s the world women live in. That reality affects pretty much everything for women, 24/7/365. Even church isn’t always safe, and in fact, sometimes church is the worst place a woman goes.

            Basically, how can you (and all of us!) move from a posture of “Woe is us! There’s no way to fix this” to “What can **I** do to stop this teaching, help those who have been harmed, and train my own self in better ways of thinking and behaving?”

            And if you’re frustrated, just imagine how women feel.

          • Willow

            John, you are needed. You as a man, and you, personally.

            Women need allies in this space; and often, nothing changes in a lopsided power dynamic until and unless the people on the side of power and privilege are willing to change.

            Changing gears for a moment, in my ethnic heritage, I have ancestors who were oppressors, and ancestors who were oppressed and exterminated. That could be demoralizing, but I choose otherwise. While I can “pass” for the former, I use that privilege to advocate unceasingly for the latter.

            John, how can you advocate among other men for healthier balance within men’s lives, a healthier approach to their own emotional and physical self-regulation, healthier interactions with other men, with women, and with children?

            We need your strength and wisdom as an ally in this space.

          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            Well said, Willow!

          • John

            Willow I can be, and am, I think, an ally without needing to keep reading, and getting depressed, about the constant failures of us men – e.g.

            – I have moved to being egalitarian in principle, rather than just in practice.

            – I had a conversation IRL last week, with a man (who would describe himself as very rational and logical/academic), about the importance of emotional maturity and finding practical ways we men can share vulnerabilities with each other, instead of loading them all on the long suffering women in our lives.

            – I had a conversation last week, at the funeral of a friend, with another man there, about how we can heal from deep seated trauma, starting with the need to acknowledge it.

            – Last Friday I had a discussion with a man on Threads about how he equated being a man with “leading” his wife, which as far as I could tell, meant treating her as a child. No real progress was made with this man, but hopefully others reading the thread might think a bit more deeply.

            – I’ve recently discussed the red flags that my daughter was collating, to use in consideration of a man to have a relationship with – e.g. being unable to name a thing he liked about her, that wasn’t about her physical appearance.

            – I’ve just finished paying for my son to have therapy, after a 3yr girlfriend ended their relationship. All through I emphasised to him, that it is OK not to be OK. He has now recovered to the point he feels he can start a new relationship. I know he will treat this new woman with respect as he did before.

        • JSG

          For the love of everything, he is just admitting that as a guy it is hard for him to be on the site. Accept that, and listen to people when they express that. If we say we have no desire to listen to him when he is in a women-dominated space that also holds a lot of (usually righteous) anger, then it’s sort of the same thing as saying noone should bother to listen to us when we are in male dominated spaces and struggling. We gotta have compassion that goes all ways.
          And none of us have this all figured out yet.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Here’s the issue: Christian teaching enables men to hurt women. It doesn’t really enable women to hurt men.

        And this site is about correcting toxic teaching that hurts people, and it just so happens that tends to be one way.

        That does not mean that women don’t hurt men. It’s just that they’re not using theology to do it.

      • Ladybug

        John, a lot of the ideas being debunked here are ideas that women have taught women, not knowing or understanding what was really happening. That has been my experience.

    • Nathan W

      I agree, except it’s not a minority

  8. Lisa Johns

    Week after week, the X would take me out to the Mexican restaurant, because DaTe NiGhT. Week after week, we had the same conversation: work, the children (but nothing too difficult), and maybe a little politics. Week after week I shut down by the end of the meal. And we would go home and go to sleep. That was the window of tolerance he had in our relationship.
    That is all.

  9. Graham

    I had never heard of this term before listening to the podcast but I can really relate. It was convicting, but also helpful to have a term for what this is called. In my life, and I’m sure with others, it shows up with so many things––not just sex. I can so easily get angry and frustrated when plans or projects don’t work right. Definitely need to grow in this area. I really wish there were more resources out there to help men (or women for that matter) with this. Because so few men have learned how to be emotionally healthy there are so few teaching others. And, counseling hasn’t proved very effective for me in the past and is quite expensive. I hope to learn these things myself, for my own sake, and so that I can pass it on to others.

    • Spock-ish

      This relates with me too, and I think Andrew J. Bauman has done some good work on this. He’s got a book “How Not to be an *SS” that is a collection of his writings on learning to become a good and safe man, which I think requires in part expanding the Window of Tolerance Sheila speaks of here. Bauman also has been mentioned here (search Bauman) and has another book called Stumbling Toward Wholeness looking at the parable of the Prodigal Son that I’ve picked up but not read that seems promising, as I definitely need to grow in this area too!

  10. Maria

    Elizabeth A. Stanley wrote a book called “Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover From Trauma.” It’s pretty thick, and I admit I didn’t finish reading it, but it might be useful for people who want to learn more about the window of tolerance. One thing I found really interesting is she says our W.o.T. naturally narrows as we age, unless we take steps to stay open.

    • Jo R

      Does our window of tolerance really naturally narrow as we age, or do we just stop putting up with so much bull crap as we get older?

      Maybe we just finally realize giving people the benefit of the doubt and cutting them slack and being understanding is not such a great idea in many cases, so we put boundaries in place, which has the external appearance of our “window of tolerance” having shrunk. 🤔


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