Dr. Wall continues his series on roommates vs. husbands and wives (for others in this series click here) by explaining how our changing sexual desire patterns over our lifetimes can be a source of hurt and divorce or vitality and enhancement. Fluctuating sexual desire gives us a chance to demonstrate either a giving spirit or a selfish spirit.
Love is patient…and does not seek it’s own.
1 Corinthians 13
We all know there is a great tension in sexuality in marriage. In marriage, there is usually one spouse who wants sexual involvement together more and one who wants it less. This is NORMAL. It is the misunderstanding of this tension that often leads to marital breakdown, fights, withdrawal, resentment, anger, loneliness, affairs and divorce. We need to figure this out or we will crash and burn.
The difference in sexual desire is usually seen as due to gender: Men want it more; women don’t. This is a common societal myth and creates all kinds of havoc. Sexual desire is fluid and changes over our lifetimes. People, who stay married to the same person from their youth, will notice that both of them will experience a change in sexual desire as they go through life. Oftentimes the husband is the one who wants to be sexual with his wife and does the lion’s share of initiating when the couple is in their twenties and early thirties. Notice I said “oftentimes.” There are many younger couples where the wife wants sex more than her husband. I haven’t done an official statistical analysis of this phenomenon, but I’m guessing of the hundreds of younger couples I’ve discussed this with, that in 20%-30% of them, she wants it more than him. She’s the primary one to initiate.
In couples where this is the case, they often seem totally unprepared to deal with this, because the common assumption is that this young husband is going to ravish his wife and won’t be able to keep his hands off of her after they get married and, when this isn’t forthcoming, we end up with a ton of misunderstandings and unnecessary hurts.
The unfortunate assumptions this creates are that: 1) He must secretly desire men. Oh dear, what’s going on? 2) He’s having an affair or is involved with porn, 3) He doesn’t love me, nor is he attracted to me. When he denies all three of these, she will think she is going crazy. What other options are there? Here’s one: It’s NORMAL for one spouse to desire sex less and one spouse to desire it more and it’s NORMAL that either gender could have either arousal pattern over the course of their 50-60 years together.
Did you catch that? IT’S NORMAL FOR PATTERNS OF SEXUALITY TO CHANGE FROM ONE TO ANOTHER OVER THEIR 50-60 YEARS AND BEYOND TOGETHER!! Patience people!
Consider how this naturally ebbs and flows: Husbands are usually the primary initiators of sexuality when couples are in their twenties and early thirties. This role of initiating is more equal between the ages of mid-thirties and mid-forties to early fifties and from the mid-fifties to death, she’ll do the lion’s share of initiating. This is an oversimplification, because each couple and person is different. Nevertheless, most couples will experience fluctuating sexual desire patterns over their lifetime together.
Another example of this ebbing and flowing of sexual desire is that over the course of their many decades together, one or the other spouse may go through a period of depression or complete stress or a physical ailment that makes initiating sexuality nearly impossible to conceive. In couples that do well, the other spouse will seamlessly pick up the responsibility to make sure the couple continues sexually together. In couples that are living as roommates, both parties stop initiating and sexual engagement stops, as does about every other positive thing in their marriage: Love, tenderness, patience, mutual regard, forgiveness, grace, openness, communication, friendship and fun. You can tell yourselves you don’t need sex, but when you live that way as a married couple, you enter into a marital wasteland through an open barn door with room to spare on either side.
One of the main issues facing aging couples is male impotence. There are many reasons for this: Health, weight, medications, stress, energy levels and relational health are some. It doesn’t matter what the reason, if it occurs, most men will take a hit to their ego and it will be difficult to want to be sexual at all and face this embarrassment. Often wives take it personally: You must NOT be attracted to me. This is most often NOT the case. And a wise wife will seize the day. This is her time to kick into action. McCarthy and McCarthy* have a helpful take on this. They suggest that in marriages where impotence is an issue and the wives take an active interest in the couples’ sexual health and they are engaged and interested in their erotic life together (that is, they initiate sex and make it known to their husbands that they ENJOY their sexual life together), that this engagement by wives is a great help to their ego-damaged husbands. If she lies there, expecting him to get his own motor running and when he can’t she rolls over and sighs, their sexual relationship is toast.
If, in the majority of marriages, the husband is the primary initiator of sexual involvement during their early years together and he is kind and understanding and sacrificial about it, it will be a lot easier for her to do the same when the roles are reversed 30 to 40 years later! If, when he’s in his twenties and thirties, he makes snide remarks to her about her (apparent) lower desire, and scoffs at her or chides her or guilt trips her or goads her about it, it will be very difficult for her to have a giving spirit about sexuality when his sexual desire is winding down. Sexuality will have lost its allure for her and she may not even care. Now we’re looking either at divorce or a very, very sad couple. Even if he can literally NEVER have another erection for whatever reason, a healthy couple will still be involved with each other intimately. They will find ways to enjoy each other’s bodies. There are certainly enough other body parts to go around that are interesting to explore! Without a genuine give and take over their marriage, the temptation will be for both to withdraw and this area of their lives together completely disappears. Not the way to go.
Here’s an interesting observation: If I am right, that sexual desire ebbs and flows over time, and the average couple that divorces does so at 7.2 years of marriage and the average first marriage starts around age 25-28, that means that most divorces are occurring right around the time that sexuality would start to become more mutual. I fear that many of these marriages break up because of hurt around sexuality and the ensuing fights or withdrawal. Too bad. If they would have been able to figure this out, they could have given their marital satisfaction a boost and had this continual reminder (regular, enjoyable, mutual sexual involvement with each other) that they are an item.
So then they marry someone else and now they are in their mid 30’s and where does sexual desire go from there? I don’t know if anyone knows what the pattern of sexual desire is for people who divorce and remarry (which too many do several times!). There are so many variables in this mix that I would guess research on it would near impossible.
But here’s a common pattern I see: A couple marries after each experiences a divorce with someone else. In the first marriage (for most) sexuality was in the crapper. This new couple is HOT for each other. Whoo-hoo!! Then they get married in their mid-thirties or early forties and BOOM! All of a sudden he enters his reduced sexual desire mode, which, if he was married to his first wife still and they both were USED to sacrificing, she would naturally and seamlessly take over the role of initiating and it’s no big deal. Natural. But in this second marriage, there is no long-term commitment and history of giving and sacrificing and mutual regard and respect and what marriage can survive his sudden disinterest in sex? CRAP!
They probably won’t unless they get some help.
In this series of blogs I’ve suggested that married couples who live together as roommates instead of as husband and wife do so because of selfishness. Instead of treating each other the way they would like to be treated (the Golden Rule, which is fundamental to ALL healthy relationships), they treat the other the way the other treats them! YIKES (Wake me up when the marriage is over!)! They get their cues from the other partner. If you aren’t going to be nice to me, I’m not going to be nice to you. Another word for this is SELFISHNESS, which kills marriages in spades. It’s a sex killer, too.
Selfishness certainly kills sexuality and without sexuality, the fuel that keeps the relationship warm will run out. If you are the spouse that likes sex more and your spouse doesn’t seem too interested or turns you down, if you operate in a “treat you like you treat me” scenario, you will get mad, withdraw, get resentful, go online, find someone else, or become downright mean or hostile. Why? Because you feel neglected and unloved. And you think that’s how your spouse is treating you. So you are just giving your spouse some of his or her own medicine. See how he likes it! Ha! Got her now! I hope you can see how silly and hurtful this is, if you can get outside yourself long enough to see how you are coming across. Why would she want to be sexual with you, when you treat her like that? Why would he want to be sexual with you when you don’t flirt with him or are mean to him or put him down? Or totally turn into a fudgesicle? These behaviors are NOT aphrodisiacs people!!
But if, instead of selfishness, we operate on the principle of selfLESSness and are servants instead, where will sexuality take us then? If we are going to enjoy our sexual relationship our WHOLE marriage during our WHOLE life, we are going to need a servant spirit, a lot of give and not much take, and a generous and giving heart.
Your spouse doesn’t want to be sexual with you tonight? Selfishness says get moody or withdraw or get a little pissy. Selfishness will make your heart smaller and smaller until there’s no room for anyone but yourself. Divorce just seems normal now, doesn’t it? If you are really clever about all of this you can blame your spouse for your divorce, too! Servanthood says, “Need any help?” Or “What are you worried about?” and helps out and stays engaged and doesn’t turn into a 12-year old, because the servant knows that love is patient and their sexual season will come sometime soon and it will be awesome and in the meantime the servant doesn’t want to turn into the wicked witch of the west.
Your spouse wants to be sexual with you tonight and you know you just can’t, because you are exhausted or stressed or worried or don’t feel very well or very close to him or her? Selfishness says ignore him, don’t touch him and give him any ideas, act all put out if he approaches you, wear sweats, tell him you could go the rest of your life without sex and that would be fine with you. Servanthood says, “Hey, yeah, really, I can’t right now” and explains why, but then sometime soon, even initiates the process and is part of the program. And whatayaknow? The servant discovers that once we get jump-started, most of the time I do fine. Really? Imagine that. And in the process the servant’s heart gets bigger.
Servanthood….the great aphrodisiac. Who’d a thought?
* McCarthy, B. W., and McCarthy, Emily J. (2003). Rekindling Desire: A Step by Step Program to Help Low-Sex and No-Sex Marriages, Routledge.
To see all the articles in this series on living as roommates instead of husband and wife click here. The first article in this series briefly addresses sexuality:
Dr. Wall takes a sarcastic look at what it’s like to be married, living as roommates. Since this isn’t satisfying, people divorce in spades. Maybe they should have tried living as husbands and wives instead.
Dr. Wall continues his series on living as roommates vs. living as husband and wife (This is the seventh.) by exposing the hurt, misunderstanding, selfishness and cavalier attitudes roommates have about sexuality.
Dr Wall laments the cheapening of sexuality in our society and proposes a better way.
Recently, a couple Dr. Wall was working with, shared how they were able to turn around a failing marriage into a successful one. With their generous permission, he shares their success secrets so that others might benefit.