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Ask a Latter-day Saint Therapist: My Wife Thinks I Objectify Her. Do I?

Editor's Note: The views, information, or opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author. Readers should consider each unique situation. This content is not meant to be a substitute for individual, professional advice.

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Q: Would you share knowledge about objectification? My wife says that sometimes I treat her like an object. Can you help me evaluate if that is true? I try to do everything I can to help at home. I ask her to ask me for help. I like intimacy; sometimes I may be a little annoying, but I have never forced or made her do something she doesn’t feel like doing. She is very sensitive and may have had some situation in the past. I just want to make sure I treat her in a way in which she feels loved. What do I do? 

A: Thank you so much for reaching out to me with this. I’m happy to help; sexual intimacy is, as others before have said, “God’s wedding gift.” It is meant to be beautiful and unifying. As President Spencer W. Kimball taught, “In the context of lawful marriage, the intimacy of sexual relations is right and divinely approved. There is nothing unholy or degrading about sexuality in itself, for by that means men and women join in a process of creation and in an expression of love” (President Kimball Speaks Out, 2).

If your wife feels objectified in your relationship, there are several possible explanations. The first is, as you’ve pointed out, that perhaps a past experience is coloring her views of sexuality. Sexual trauma and/or being subjected to negative viewpoints on sex during her upbringing can contribute to what Laura Brotherson calls “Good Girl Syndrome,” which is defined as “the negative or unproductive thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that inhibit one’s responsiveness and enjoyment of the sexual relationship in marriage. [It] is often manifest in feelings of shame, guilt, embarrassment, or discomfort about sex.”

You say that she “may have had some situation in the past.” Does that mean that you don’t know whether she has or not? You are her husband; if she’s not told you, what prevents her from doing so? Maybe she doesn’t want to relive past trauma. Maybe she doesn’t trust you with it. These would be issues best addressed through qualified counseling, but you can start by asking her what she needs from you in order to trust and feel safe? Maybe she does trust you and feel safe with you already, but it never hurts to humbly, sincerely ask.

It’s also possible the she has a healthy, positive view of sex and that your approach, words, or actions are leading to her feeling objectified. I believe you when you say that you want her to feel loved. But do you also want her to feel respected? Is that a conscious focus for you? What does she need in order to feel respected? Have you asked her? Will you?

Objectification occurs when someone’s overall humanity is ignored or neglected and they are reduced to a body in how they are viewed or treated. In many cases, a spouse may be treated with love in some aspects of the relationship, but the sexual relationship is lacking in tenderness, consideration, and respect. It feels, to one partner at least, more like “having sex” and less like “making love.”

This may be due to specific sexual behaviors and practices, an unbalanced focus on the desires and needs of one partner over the other, or an overly-aggressive tone. The latter is, of course, subjective, as what one person finds exciting and fun, the other may find devoid of respect. One partner may want to feel desired while the other may need to feel cherished. A relationship must be balanced. This isn’t to say that there can’t be passion and joyful abandon; there can and should be, but both have to feel safe, loved, and respected enough to go there.

You mentioned doing everything you can to help at home. While I absolutely applaud both spouses bringing their “A-game” to child-rearing and housework as equal partners, be careful not to fall into the mental trap of believing that she owes you sex because you “helped her” with the housework. You’re not saying this, I’m just putting it out there in case in needs to be said. You do housework because you live there. You take care of children because you’re a parent. While your showing up for your wife and kids may help your wife feel more supported, less exhausted, and more attracted to you, it is in no way a transaction.

I also worry a bit about your saying “I never forced or made her do something she doesn’t feel like doing.” While that’s certainly a good thing in and of itself, I have to ask if you’ve pressured her to do things she doesn’t feel like doing. While certainly not as bad as forcing or making her, pressuring her to do something she’s uncomfortable with will lead to her feeling resentment, disrespected, and objectified.

President David O. McKay taught: “Let us instruct young people who come to us, first, young men throughout the Church, to know that a woman should be queen of her own body. The marriage covenant does not give the man the right to enslave her, or to abuse her, or to use her merely for the gratification of his passion. Your marriage ceremony does not give you that right” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1952, 86).

This of course begs the question: what about your desires, wants, and needs? Don’t they matter? Of course they do, but as in every area of marriage, consideration, respect, and balance are paramount. If your objective is to find a way to convince her to do the things you want to do, then you are objectifying her, period, because she is a means to an end. If your objective is her comfort, joy, safety, and pleasure, then you’re more likely to develop a mutually satisfying relationship, sexual and otherwise, even if not everything on your “checklist” is going to happen.

If your wife has negative beliefs or views about sex because of past experiences or traumas, these must be resolved with the help of the Lord and, likely, a qualified counselor. If she feels objectified because she’s pressured to do things she doesn’t want to do, or because sex feels more like an act and less like a moment of cherishing connection, then some humble heart-to-heart conversations need to happen.

President Howard W. Hunter instructed: “Tenderness and respect—never selfishness—must be the guiding principles in the intimate relationship between husband and wife. Each partner must be considerate and sensitive to the other’s needs and desires. Any domineering, indecent, or uncontrolled behavior in the intimate relationship between husband and wife is condemned by the Lord” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1994, 68; or Ensign, Nov. 1994, 51).

So what makes a behavior “indecent or uncontrolled?” While there may be specific behaviors that are universally “too far,” more often it comes down to the principle of tenderness, respect, consideration, and sensitivity to one another’s needs and desires. If both partners feel respected, loved, and cherished, and if they can still feel the influence of the Holy Ghost in their lives, then the behavior is appropriate for that specific couple.

Talk to your wife. Read this with her. Ask her what she needs to feel safe, loved, and respected. Express your desires and tell her you’re willing to sacrifice any behavior that takes away from her feeling (I repeat) safe, loved, and respected. Get support if you need it. I’m willing and able to help, as are others. Most importantly, turn together to the Lord.

God bless you. I hope this helps.


JONATHAN’S RECOMMENDED READING ON THIS SUBJECT

Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments” by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland.


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Jonathan Decker, LMFT, Contributor

Jonathan Decker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical director of Your Family Expert. He offers online relationship courses to people anywhere, as well as face-to-face and online therapy to persons in several states. Jonathan has presented at Brigham Young University Education Week and at regional conferences in Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. He is married with five children. Contact him here and join his Facebook group for daily gospel-based relationship tips. 

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