Marriage Cancer: An Unbalanced Sex Life (part 2 in a series)

When two people meet and feel an attraction for one another, they can scarcely imagine the future in which they are married with children and barely have sex any more. At first, all is sunshine and happiness. It’s always that way. You can’t wait to be with your boyfriend or girlfriend. You think about that person all the time and the very thought makes you smile. You’ve never been so happy. So, naturally, you decide to get married. And then, woot-woot! Let the good times roll.

“First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.” That old rhyme is simply true. And babies are an amazing blessing to a marriage, however, this is frequently when the sex life starts to break down. Kids come into the picture, bodies (and hormones) change. Mommas are in danger of becoming more interested in their infants than their husbands. In addition, life starts to become more and more hectic. Kids come with needs. And with age and experience, responsibilities at work, in our social circles and at church also begin to increase. This can be the very space where the cancer begins. Ignore it and it will grow. Practice some preventative medicine and you can save you marriage from the brink of disaster.

Stereotypes, whether we like to admit it or not, usually contain at least a modicum of truth, even if exaggerated. When you think of the typical sexually unbalanced couple, you picture a sex-starved husband and an uninterested wife. And this kind of couple does make up the greater number of unbalanced couples. But not all. There are many women out there, suffering in silence and feeling very alone precisely because of this stereotype. They likely feel the rejection with a higher degree of intensity because it seems like everyone’s husband is a horn-dog that can’t get enough, everyone’s, that is, except their husband. This woman might actually be very attractive. And let’s be real, she sees very average looking women have to hold their husbands off with a stick, so she is left to wonder-what’s wrong with me? Just like a woman can have hormone imbalances or other sexual dysfunction that may come from a difficult sexual history, so too can men. Though it can be very hard to wrap your head around, one partner’s lack of sexual interest has much more to do with their own physiology or inner turmoil than with the other partner. Knowing that doesn’t necessarily solve your problem of achieving a more active sex life, but maybe it can take away just a bit of the sting of rejection.

Before discussing this topic further, let me make it clear. If there is a history of sexual abuse in one partner’s history OR a true medical issue, these are serious matters over which there should be no guilt and should be treated by professionals. If you CAN get healthy, you SHOULD get healthy. Sexuality is an integral part of marriage. In the rare circumstance that it is medically impossible, I encourage this couple to find creative ways to include physical intimacy in the marriage.
So, let us suppose you are one of the myriad of couples who have different sexual frequency needs. Let’s say, one partner would like to have sex every day. The other could easily go for once a month. Whether the difference were three times a week compared to three times per year or twice a day and once a year, the principle here is basically the same.

Here’s the principle: neither of you has the right over your own body any more. I know that goes against what the world would tell you—that you belong to you and you do whatever makes you happy. Let me make it very clear what I am saying. You have no right to withhold sex from your partner. You don’t have the right to say “no.” (Please understand I don’t mean someone should be forced or that concessions are not to be made in cases of illness or whatever, I’m talking in a general, regular sense). Conversely, if you are the one with the greater appetite, you don’t have the right to seek sexual release outside your partner and you don’t have the right to demand a frequency that suits only you.

The Bible tells us in 1 Corinthians 7:2-5, “But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
A church I went to for years did a series on marriage. The Pastor’s wife shared the following thought and it has stuck with me ever since. She said, “You are your husband’s only legitimate sexual outlet.” We could substitute “partner” or “spouse” for husband here. We need to understand this. Really understand it. Too often, those with the lower sexual appetite too readily dismiss the needs of the other partner. Because it is not a big deal to the one, there is an assumption that it ought not be a big deal to the other. That is not true. If it’s important to your spouse, like it or not, it just became important to you. That’s marriage. You said the vow, you signed the paper.

There is a huge danger here. I cannot caution you enough. You can create a situation in which your partner constantly feels at your mercy. Is that a way you would want to live? Suppose one partner has the power over the food. You do not get food except at your partner’s leisure. And you cannot get it unless you ask nicely, in a way that doesn’t get on your partner’s nerves and when you do ask, even when you wait until you’re so hungry that you can’t stand it, what you hear is “you’re too fat.” How would it feel to be absolutely famished and have zero idea when you may get to eat again? It could be days. When you withhold sex from your partner and nine times out of ten reject sexual advances you are essentially starving your partner slowly to death. Not only that, because sexuality is so tied to our view of ourselves, you are making your partner afraid. Asking for sex becomes a scary prospect because more than likely, your partner is about to experience rejection. It should not be so in a marriage.

Let’s say you find yourself at the center of a vortex of infrequent sex and an unhappy marriage. Looking back, you find it hard to pinpoint exactly which came first-the unhappiness with one another, the frequent arguing, the silent treatments or the lack of sex. Likely, the two grew in proportion to one another. When speaking in generalities-we could look at sex’s place in marriage like this:
• Women need to be at peace with their partners first, then sex follows, i.e. everything needs to be okay between us before we can have sex.
• Men need to have sex to feel they are at peace with their partner, i.e. I know everything is okay between us because we had sex.
So what do we do to fix this imbalance? How do we stop the vortex from spinning out of control and landing you in divorce court? There are a few very practical things both partners can do.

1. Understand that sex doesn’t start in the bedroom. It starts with a spirit of service. Suppose dad comes home and his wife has three little ones clinging to her and she hasn’t been able to finish dinner or the dishes. Maybe she has been touched by three pairs of tiny hands all day long and her touch meter is maxed. Without an agenda, help with the kids. Help with the dishes. Give that mom a break so she can breathe and have a little space. It will help her feel better. Whatever the practical need here, fill it. Daddies who play with and take good care of their children and do a few dishes are sexy. Trust me on this. Also, hug your wife sometimes just to hug her, not to cop a feel. Then she feels she is getting affection for who she is as a human being and not just for what she can do for you in the bedroom. It will make a difference.

2. Make appointments to have sex. It really is okay to make a plan. See, we have this Hollywood version of what sex should look like and it’s a lie! A lie from the pit of hell, I tell you. It says that the only legitimate sex is born out of being first extremely turned on. There has to be a big romantic scene that gets you in the mood. And if that does not happen, then no sex. But here’s the truth, sometimes you have sex because it’s Wednesday. Wednesday is sex day. It’s an appointment. This may seem cold or to lack spontaneity, but that’s only because you are still clinging to your childish fantasies. If you come to your sexual appointment with your spouse rolling your eyes and bothered by it then it will be a cold and less-than-useless experience, it will be a harmful one. But if you come to it with love for your spouse, ready to put aside the troubles of the day then guess what, you don’t have to be in the mood before you start! You can get in the mood. Light some candles, put on something sexy. Put on some nice music. Maybe you need to take a shower because you feel grimy from the busy day or maybe put on a little make-up to feel prettier. Whatever. You can actually decide to participate and end up having a good time. Here’s the deal. Remember the starvation scenario? These appointments help each partner to feel like he or she is not starving to death. Each knows that their appetite will be satiated making it easier to bear with sexual temptation.

3. Compromise on the frequency of sex. It is extremely likely that one partner will want sex more frequently than the other. That fact is extremely common. I don’t have stats but I bet it would be somewhere above 90% of the time. Philippians 2:4 says, “do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” This means that each partner must take into consideration the needs of the other person. This means we need to be grown-ups and be able to talk with one another about sex. It is very important that both be able to speak their needs without the other responding in shock or disdain! The man says “twice a day.” He’s not a weirdo or a pervert and should not be treated as such. He’s simply got a very active libido and lots of testosterone and sexual hormones surging-hey and maybe he thinks his wife is super-hot. The wife says “once a month.” She’s not an ice queen. Maybe little kids touch her all day. At any rate, clearly twice a day would wear the one out and once a month would leave the other in the lurch, struggling to stay pure. What can you both live with? My suggestion here would be at least a couple of times a week, but each couple must come up with a compromise that suits their life situation. Let me encourage-and I do mean strongly encourage the partner with the lower libido, initiate sex sometimes without being prompted. Decide to surprise your partner with a sexual encounter. Just having you initiate sex even once a month (more often if you want!!) will go a long way in your partner’s self-esteem. It gives the person a feeling “I was too sexy to resist” and thus will boost the person’s sense of well-being immensely.

4. For the partner who has the greater sexual appetite, don’t be offended that you have to do more of the asking. It’s really not you. It really is mostly just a hormone level thing. Your partner loves you and thinks highly enough of you that even if his or her hormones don’t dictate the need for sex, love for you does.

5. Get a sexual attitude adjustment. Honestly, sexual boundary setting could get its own article. However, understand that the Bible actually has some things to say about this matter. Read the Song of Solomon. It has some pretty sexy things to say about the marriage bed. We all grow up with baggage and idea about what is dirty and what is not. If you feel dirty about most sexual activity, you may need to renew your mind. Likely, we all need at least some renewing of our minds about sex anyway, even if we’re fairly healthy. Let go of your pre-conceived notions and come at the subject with an open heart, willing to fulfill your spouse’s reasonable desires and be willing to have your perception of “reasonable” adjusted. Having said that, there are some non-negotiables. Your sex life includes two people and one Holy Spirit. That’s it. No more. No less. Everyone needs to feel respected. Beyond that, explore what the Bible has to say and read what well-respected marriage and intimacy experts have to say. Joe Beam, president of Marriage Helper has written and spoken much about what is okay and what is not sexually speaking. You can read more at marriagehelper.com.

6. Treat your spouse like you’re still dating. That means you should take some care with your personal appearance. You don’t need to feel any pressure to look twenty when you’re forty. But do take the time to bother about your appearance. If you’re going out with your spouse, look nice. It communicates something. It says, “you’re worth the bother.” Do fun stuff together. Do stuff the other one likes. My husband and I go to baseball games and the theater. I watch one football game a week during football season. I could live without it. But it doesn’t kill me to watch and show interest. We went to see a performance of Shakespeare recently. It was long. He paid attention anyway. And discussed the pros and cons of the performance afterwards. And dream together. It’s good to talk about your dreams and aspirations together and to have goals as a couple.

Good marriages start with service and sacrifice one for another. They culminate in fulfilling sexual union. The two are so intertwined so as to be impossible to separate. Trying to do so will literally break down the structure of the other. Don’t wait until your partner gets better at serving before you increase your frequency of sex and don’t wait until your partner starts having more sex with you to increase your service to him or her. If you want a better marriage, you will do both. Now. The joy and satisfaction in each will grow simultaneously. Romans 12:10 says “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” (ESV) Put this into practice both inside and outside the bedroom and your marriage in guaranteed to grow.

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Marriage Cancer: Children

couple fighting

When asking the question—what kills marriages—there are some obvious answers. Clearly physical abuse is a marriage killer as is adultery. Secret addictions are marriage killers too. When a wife has an out of control spending addiction, for instance, and is hiding $50,000 of credit card debt, well that’s a betrayal isn’t it? Addiction to porn or physical sexual relationships outside of the marriage, drug and alcohol addiction, physical abuse, these things will all kill a marriage for sure. So yes, these things are great big, terrible marriage killers.
While a lot of marriages fail because of great big, heinous problems, I would say most fail because of more subtle marriage killers. Things we tend not to think of as that much of a big deal and therefore do not guard diligently against. But they are no less dangerous to a marriage. They are a cancer that eats the marriage from the inside, unseen and unknown until the marriage is already on the precipice of death. A frequent and very difficult to diagnose form of marriage cancer comes from the children that are a result of the marriage. Everyone is excited about a new baby, but if mom and dad don’t agree on how to raise the kids, it will become a real source of contention.
There is no doubt that children need discipline. I mean, have you met any of them? Not only is it evident by their behavior and sheer lack of knowledge of what is dangerous both physically and emotionally, the Bible tells us that parents who do not discipline their children might as well hate them. Proverbs 19:18 tells us, “Discipline your children, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to their death.” (NIV).
The honest truth here, sadly, is that sometimes parents cannot even come to an agreement over the fact that a child needs discipline much less what kind is appropriate to administer. Every person must understand that they bring to the marriage a set of preconceived notions. Now these notions may be really good, healthy ones. They may also be very dysfunctional ones. Everyone simply comes into the marriage with an idea of how marriage works, how child-rearing works and it does not always align with what the partner thinks. Some families are loud talkers, some are yellers, some stew quietly in anger. Some families spank, some are very controlling, some are very permissive.
Whatever the case may be, each person will come with these deeply held beliefs. You often are not even aware you have these beliefs. They are not necessarily things you think about. Suppose a woman’s dad always kept her mom’s gas tank filled. Subsequently when she got her license, he did the same with her car. It’s not something she really ever thought about, until she runs out of gas on the side of the road. Now this is an issue because her husband isn’t caring for her as she expected. Well, his mom worked odd hours and was very independent anyway. His family just worked that way. Neither is a superior way of being. Just different. These two did not even know about the expectation until it went unmet. This is also true regarding the question of how to raise children.
Let’s take Mr. and Mrs. John and Jane Smith. (I would love to know if that is your actual name-that would be really great, but if it is I am not talking about you!) John and Jane have been married four years and they have a two year old, Junior. The proud mom and dad take Junior out to dinner with them—a family outing! Junior has learned that he can get a rise out of momma by throwing the salt and pepper shakers on the ground. Momma picks them back and gently says “no-no” but Junior likes this game. He does it again. Momma puts the shakers out of reach. Junior is smarter than that. There are plenty of things close enough to throw on the floor. He does so with all the force his little arms can muster, and does so while looking momma right in the face, In other words, Junior is being defiant on purpose. Dad believes Junior is old enough, and has seen evidence that, Junior can understand perfectly what is meant by “no.” When momma is gone, Junior obeys dad just fine. Dad has enough of the defiance and scoops Junior out of the high chair to take to the bathroom. Jane is upset that John would swat Junior’s butt. She exclaims that Junior is “just a baby” and insists that John put him down. John complies, Junior continues to throw everything within reach and Jane is mortified at his behavior and they leave the restaurant as quick as possible. Jane decides its best to not take Junior out in public for a long while.
The biggest issue here is not whether you believe in spanking or not. By far the biggest issue is Jane undermining John. Whatever your philosophy on child-rearing and discipline, a married couple must absolutely come to an agreement on these matters. While it is not always the mother undermining the father, it frequently is. I have seen too many mothers, believing (sometimes even subconsciously) that their husbands are incompetent or not as capable as they are. In doing so, they interfere with dad’s parenting and discipline, creating a frustrated and emasculated husband who then grows too discouraged to try any more. Dad leaves the child-rearing up to mom. This, in turn creates a mom who, in turn, feels overburdened by the task of child-rearing and then there is a rift between dad and kids, mom and dad and mom and kids.
Further, mom and dad need to discuss what sorts of activities they each think are appropriately safe or have an acceptable amount of risk associated with them. Take football for example. Perhaps the mom grew up with a football coach for a dad. Her brothers all played. She realizes there is risk but thinks the benefit of team sports and her son’s love of the game outweighs the risks. Dad is an academic. He sees no value in football and furthermore, the risks far outweigh the benefits in his mind. This can be a great source of contention within the family. What age is appropriate for children to date? Is the common way of dating even a thing you want for your children? When can kids play outside alone? There are many questions in this arena that can become a source of an argument and hurt feelings. Yet they are infrequently ever thought of, much less discussed before a couple gets married or has children. Suppose your son playing football is incredibly important to you. You really believe that if he wants to he should be allowed to pursue this interest? If you marry someone on the other side of the issue you find yourself having to give up your belief or flat out go against your spouse’s wishes.
Guard yourself against this by doing two things: first, before you get married, find a pastoral team that will conduct in-depth pre-marriage counseling. There are great exercises out there that ask these very sorts of questions to get a couple discussing and coming to a compromise both can feel good about before children ever come into the picture. Second, research some books on child discipline. Get a feel for the view of the author—does he promote spanking? Timeouts? Neither? Perhaps choose one or two and read that book together. Discuss what feels right to each of you and then decide on the discipline standards in your home. Be open to your spouse’s or finance’s thoughts on the matter. Don’t necessarily insist on your own way. Come to a balance you can both live with that combines consequences and mercy, for doesn’t even our God himself display both discipline and mercy? Isn’t his discipline often the same thing as his mercy? Discipline, though it can hurt, is often a much softer consequence than allowing certain behaviors to go on.
These steps are vital. The final step once you have agreed to the methods, boundaries and standards of child-rearing is to avoid undermining one another at all costs! Children are happier, mom and dad are too, when there is unity between the parents. While paying consequences is never fun for anybody, children thrive in a home where mom and dad are at peace with one another and where they stand unified. The child knows what to expect.
The very best guard against this form of marriage cancer is preventative medicine. Get counseling and come into agreement before you ever get married. If you’re already married, but don’t yet have kids, dig up all the information you can child rearing and them come into agreement before they are ever born. If you are already married, have kids and find yourself in contention, don’t just throw your hands up and disengage. This will cause your marriage to disintegrate. Get help. Find a method for problem solving and utilize it. This will bring peace into a disorderly home. Remember though, that if the kids have been getting by with stuff because mom and dad have been at odds, you’re going to get some push back from them. Stay solid, stay united. Your home and your marriage will settle into a peaceful rhythm if you lock arms and stick up for each other.