Latter-day Saint Life

Ask a Latter-day Saint therapist: I’m in a sex-starved marriage. What should I do?

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Q: You’ve written in the past that affairs are the fault of the persons who have them and that they cannot blame their spouses. I agree to a point, but you deny the very real effect of sexual deprivation in marriage and its effect on creating feelings of loneliness and rejection that can lead to looking for love elsewhere. I’m in a marriage where my wife and I only make love once or twice a year, and then it seems like it’s only to appease me. I hurt emotionally all the time. I know that physical intimacy is a divinely inspired part of marriage and something that I need in order to feel loved. What do I do?

A: Thank you so much for writing in and prompting me to explore more fully another side of this issue. The struggle with temptation, rejection, and loneliness is real in many marriages where a spouse feels sexually deprived. It is a brutal road to walk, to be in a marriage and yet feel that you are unwanted and that the procreative powers meant to be used to express love and bring you closer together are being wasted.

Right out of the gate, I must affirm that I stand by my earlier assertion that affairs are the responsibility of the persons who have them. Adultery is sin (see Exodus 20:14) and it is the will of the Lord “that every man [and woman] may be accountable for his [or her] own sins in the day of judgment” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:78). Likewise, persons cannot blame their spouse for their own abuse of pornography. No matter what else anyone does, we are all responsible for our own behaviors. Period. Relationships rocked by infidelity of any kind need support and help.

That said, lack of connection in marriage (sexual, emotional, mental, and spiritual) is a contributing factor to the loneliness, hurt, and isolation that can make a person more vulnerable to temptation. While healthy, loving sexuality in a marriage relationship is a natural desire for most persons, some people are drawn to it more than others. Variations in the sex drive from “I can take it or leave it” all the way to “I feel like I can’t live without it” are common, and sometimes husbands and wives represent different ends of the spectrum.

What’s more, it’s not uncommon for spouses to differ in what sex means to them. This is to say that some persons express love primarily in a sexual way, so that without physical affection they don’t feel loved. Others need to feel loved in emotional, verbal, nonsexual ways first in order to feel sexually available. In order to meet in the middle, primarily sexually-expressive persons need to become more fluent in the type of nonsexual connection and expressions of affection that will enable their spouses to feel loved, safe, and respected and thereby open up sexually. On the other hand, those persons who primarily give and receive love in nonsexual ways may find that sexual connection can open up their partner’s verbal, emotional, and physically tender sides.

Sometimes sexual trauma, low self-esteem, negative beliefs about sexuality, or poor perceptions of one’s own body image contribute to sexual distance. This is to say that persons may love and be sexually attracted to their spouses yet still struggle with being intimate because of their own psychological hang-ups. In these cases, it is beneficial to seek qualified help and support in order to overcome those obstacles that prevent a person from fully enjoying the divinely created gift of loving, healthy, married sexuality and the joy it can bring. It is also crucial to seek hope and healing through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Seeing ourselves as God sees us can allow us to love ourselves, which in turn frees us to let others love us, including our spouses in the bedroom.

It may also be that sex is physically uncomfortable or unpleasurable for your wife, in which case it may be helpful for both of you to learn new techniques, learn more about her body, and better educate yourselves in what to change so that sex becomes a delight for her. It’s possible that you need to understand better what feels good and what doesn’t for her. I’ve known women who were turned off to sex because their husbands only sought their own gratification and not that of their wife. Be sensitive to her needs and willing to speak freely with her and read up on the subject.

In other cases, the sexual aspect of marriage withers because trust is damaged through deception, infidelity, anger, harsh criticisms, or emotional withdrawals. Oftentimes in these cases, one partner views sex as a “quick fix” or a jump-start to re-establish connection, while the other cannot imagine being sexual with a person with whom they don’t feel safe, respected, and loved. In these cases, it is crucial that humility, confession, accountability, repentance, sincere apologies, and sustained changes of behavior occur in order to restore the connection that was lost. Depending on the situation, partners can resolve this on their own, with the aid of priesthood leadership, or with the help of a qualified marriage counselor. As always, the Savior should be involved and invited by the couple.

Kindness and respect, not force or coercion, are crucial in marriage, especially in the sexual side of things. “The kind of respect,” said President Gordon B. Hinckley, “that regards one’s companion as the most precious friend on earth and not as a possession or chattel to be forced or compelled to suit one’s selfish whims” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1971, 81–82; or Ensign, June 1971, 71).

You’re not saying this, but I’ve met some husbands (and wives) who believe that they have “the right” to sex and their spouse must comply or be disobedient to God. This is not in keeping with the teachings of the prophets. President David O. McKay taught the men 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). Your wife’s sexuality is a gift she chooses to give, and if she’s not choosing to give it, you two together need to figure out why. Tell her you miss her. Tell her you love her. Tell her that you miss connecting with her in a loving, intimate way and ask her what you can do to help that happen again. Then listen.

President Howard W. Hunter taught that “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” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1994, 68; or Ensign, Nov. 1994, 51). This is her toward you, certainly, but also you toward her. As you strive to be considerate and sensitive, tender and respectful, and to follow the counsel in this article, I hope you find the connection you’re looking for. Please don’t hesitate to ask for help.

God bless you.

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