In healthy marriages, sex can help a couple feel closer. It is a tangible expression of the love, commitment and tenderness that is already there. One woman in our focus groups, who has been married for twenty-eight years, explained it this way:
“Sometimes in our marriage I feel like there’s some distance because he’s stressed out, or I’m feeling unloved because there’s not time for me, and I just take a step back and say, “You know what? Let’s just have sex,” and then BAM! It’s like an intimacy switch is flipped on. And when I make that decision, when I take that step, I reap the benefits of feeling loved because I can just enjoy how he wants to love me. It’s a beautiful give and take.”
But when there isn’t that foundation of feeling valued and known, we cannot expect sex on its own to create it. Indeed, sex divorced from intimacy can widen the chasm between two people. I (Sheila) think that is the root of questions like this that come into my blog:
We have been married just about a decade and have four kids. Yes, he’s a quiet guy, but I feel like we never have a conversation, like I usually feel like I’m talking to a wall. I don’t know how many times I have cried and pleaded to just talk to me and told him I am just so lonely. He just doesn’t care.
He’s nice and attentive when he wants to have sex, and then the next day he’s right back to being uncaring and rude. How can I have sex when there is zero emotional connection? I’m just so tired of doing everything by myself, taking care of everyone and everything. I’ve tried every love language on him. I text him that I’m proud of him and all sorts of affirmations — no text back. I’ve packed his lunches — no thank-you and sometimes he even forgets them in the fridge. I’ve made his favorite meals and picked him little things up at the grocery store. I’ve used physical touch. And, of course, we’ve had sex. I just can’t win.
In The Act of Marriage, the go-to sex book for Generation X couples, which sold over 2.5 million copies, Tim LaHaye tells the story of a couple named Bill and Susie. Bill had always treated Susie like a sex object, ignoring her boundaries when they were dating and doing things even when she asked him not to. Susie felt disrespected and invisible. Yet the answer? Realize that Bill needed sex. “Susie had three problems: she did not like sexual relations, she did not understand Bill’s needs and she was more interested in herself than in her husband. When she confessed her sin of selfishness and learned what loving really meant to him, it changed their bedroom life.”
Susie had three problems, but apparently Bill had none. The book never suggests that Bill treat Susie as a person or apologize for his treatment of her or understand her needs. Susie just needs to give him more nookie.
In an even worse example, LaHaye tells the story of a woman who had pulled away from sex with her stern disciplinarian husband. LaHaye reports that the wife admitted, “His awful beatings of our children made me ill.” Their nineteen-year-old son had cut off contact and went to live in a commune to get away from his father. But the solution LaHaye suggested? That the wife repent and give herself sexually to her physically abusive husband who had stolen her relationship with her children from her.
Again and again, in this book and others, when women have legitimate emotional, and even physical, safety needs in their marriages that aren’t being met, they are told that having sex will fix things.
In healthy marriages, sometimes the solution really is that you both need to have some sex. But sex cannot fix selfishness or laziness. It cannot fix an abusive relationship. It cannot cure an affair or porn use or lust. It is dangerous to tell a reader to have sex with an abusive spouse. If you are in an abusive relationship, where you feel as if you have to walk on eggshells to avoid setting off your spouse, and you feel unsafe, please call an abuse hotline. Having sex cannot fix serious issues in your relationship.
It is not only women who suffer from this message that sex alone can bring you close. What many of these books fail to mention is that husbands need emotional connection too. Physical release without real intimacy feels empty and unsatisfying. One man told us,
“The worst thing is to have sex with my wife when it’s obvious she’s not that interested. As a man, to be sexually satisfied, I want my wife to long for my touch and the pleasure I give her. Having sex just to ejaculate is miserable. I know most women think sex is purely physical for a man, but it’s not. I would argue it’s the most emotional thing a man can experience. Nothing says I love you, need you, accept you and want you like having great sex with my wife where we are both equally pleasured. One-sided sex, where all I do is ejaculate, feels like deep rejection.”
This man does not just need physical release; he has a need for more. Physical release alone is not enough for him to feel physically satisfied. It’s not about orgasm as much as it is about connection. Whether intentionally or not, by describing sexual need in terms of physical release instead of intimacy, many women “let” men have intercourse and feel proud of themselves for doing their wifely duty, while their lonely husbands are left desperate for connection. [Many evangelical books on marriage don’t] even mention that intimacy is a benefit of sex for men: only physical release and feelings of respect. That kind of talk makes men feel empty and women feel used. Many women, when they hear advice like these books are giving, hear loudly and clearly, I don’t matter.
Sex can’t be intimate if you feel like you don’t matter. In fact, that’s not even sex; that’s only intercourse, and that’s a pale imitation of what God intended. Sex, after all, is so highly personal. You’re naked in a way that you wouldn’t be with anyone else; you show a side of yourself to each other that you would never show to anyone else; you experience passion in a way in which you are most yourself, in which you let go of control and surrender to the moment. Because of that surrender and vulnerability, sex becomes the culmination of you as a couple, not just you as bodies. It is physical, yes, but it’s so much more than that.
This intense vulnerability may be what holds the key to why emotional closeness makes such a difference to women’s sexual satisfaction: emotional closeness brings trust. When you feel close to your spouse and can trust them, it’s easier to speak up: “Hey, you know what I’d like to try?” or “I don’t actually like that, can we try something else?” That’s what’s likely behind our finding that women who experience closeness during sex are far more likely to have husbands who excel at foreplay. Emotional connection simply cannot be divorced from sexual connection. They are meant to feed each other.
Rescuing and Reframing:
Instead of saying, “A husband has a need for physical release through sexual intimacy,” say, “God made sex to be intimate, physically and emotionally, for both partners. Both of you have a need for intimacy through sex, even if you feel it differently.”
Instead of saying, “He can’t feel close to you unless you have sex with him,” say, “Sex can help a couple feel closer, but it cannot sustain intimacy on its own.”