"Not Tonight Dear"
Sexuality Over the Marital Life Span
Irene Oudyk-Suk, MA, MSW, ACSW

Imagine you're with a group of friends. This might be a church fellowship group that has met together long enough to be very comfortable with each other. The laughter is hearty, the talk amicable. In the midst of the chatter you hear someone say: "I guess sex just isn't what it used to be." One person chuckles, someone else offers a concurring comment, and then this conversational thread is once again lost in the general chatter. Moments such as these and my work as a marital therapist prompted me to read more, do research, and eventually present talks on the topic of marital sexuality.

We live in a sexualized culture where, ironically, sex is also something set apart and private. We have permission to talk about different parenting styles. We laugh knowingly about "how-to-squeeze-the-toothpaste" hassles. When it comes to sex, though, we have a different standard. Our culture, especially through the media, works with a mythologized benchmark for sex. We are led to believe that the benchmark for good sex requires that it always comes naturally and is always wonderful and unproblematic. When our own sexual lives are not perfect we are confused, and carry that burden in silence and in shame. We blame ourselves or our partner.

Many--probably most--couples enjoy a "good?enough" sexual relationship most of the time. Sometimes, our sexual relationships even soar--as they should. The Song of Solomon is a celebration of erotic love that has God's very own stamp of approval. And yet, over the course of the marital life span, every couple is bound to experience sexual disappointment too. Sometimes such disappointments are temporary detours, but some can become enduring roadblocks.

These sexual difficulties come in many forms.

  1. Gender issues can impact love-making. In general, men and women are aroused, stay "turned on," and are satisfied differently. These differences are sometimes expressed in stereotypes: "Men ignite like lighter fluid; women warm up slowly and burn long, like charcoal." Or, "For men, love equals sex; for women love equals conversation and attention."
  2. Age and hormones can also effect sexuality. Those of us with teenage sons can attest to occasional periods where their interest in sexuality is intense and consuming. Many of us recall with nostalgia and longing that flesh tingling, mind buzzing sensuality of courtship. As we age changes in hormone levels--for both men and women--effect sexuality (which is not the same as saying that "old people don't do it").
  3. Stage of life issues also impact sexuality. Busy careers, children's soccer games, teen bedtimes, church and community commitments all conspire to decrease sexual activity. Don't believe me? Take a no?kids, no?pager/fax/cell phone vacation with your spouse and see what happens to your sex life. Some people in mid-life find themselves re?evaluating their goals, their lifestyles. In the process they may alter the way they prioritize their sexual needs as well as the needs of their partners. Marriages may potentially be re?invigorated--or devastated
  4. Making love is intimate. That means the balance of power and control within a marriage also effects sexuality, especially if there are some hidden resentments or concerns about how that balance is played out. In a struggling marriage, sexuality can be a tool of manipulation in blatant or subtle ways. If your marriage is out of sync, how could sex be good?
  5. Personal preferences which formerly endeared us to our spouse, or which we easily and willingly tempered for the sake of our spouse, become the very stuff that now alienates us from each other. The desire to stay up late, or get up early, regardless of our partner's natural inclinations, has ruined many a sexual invitation. A continual over-focus on the tasks of the day, or the next day, instead of a care for the heart of our bed-partner, can slowly and quietly erode sexual attraction.
  6. The past can also affect sexual relationships in the present. Sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse, especially if it is unresolved, often works powerfully to inhibit sexual pleasure. What our parents did or didn't teach us under girds our attitudes toward sex. I have been surprised by how often people married for many years still have great guilt over activities engaged in during college years. For example date rape--not usually labeled as such--old affairs, and abortions can all haunt a marriage bed.
  7. Conditions such as Depression, High Blood Pressure, Menopause, or Peyronie's Disease (curvature of the penis that can affects some middle-aged men) and the medications prescribed for them can impact sexual desire, comfort or performance. Don't suffer in silence--talk to your doctor--there is hope.
  8. Sexual voyeurism via anonymous Internet pornography, chat rooms and e-mail can negatively impact sexuality. This is not only a male concern. Therapists comment amongst themselves that the number of women accessing pornography via computers in the privacy of their homes is steadily increasing.

Given all the above--and other possible factors that space prohibits from mentioning here--it is almost a miracle that many people are content with their sexual life, isn't it? So how does one manage when sexuality is troubled?

Within the Christian community we begin by consciously planning to resolve sexual issues in our marriages--even before they arise. In part, we do so by creating a safe space in our marriages for the discussion of hard issues, so that when they arise, we're ready and able to be real with each other. The model for such a space is given us in 1 Corinthians 13: "Love is patient. Love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres." These words describe an attitude that creates marital space that allows for gentle, caring, and selfless exploration of sexual--and every other kind--of roadblock. Couples need to take advantage of such space and if they can't, should seek the help of a caring therapist who can help guide them through the issues they are faced with.

Healthy marriages with "good-enough" sex are marked by the willingness of partners to routinely share not only the marital bed, but also what they are thinking, feeling and desire when it comes to sex and the rest of their lives together. These couples are also able to enjoy time apart from each, satisfaction in separate careers, friendships, and activities. They will seek help from friends, books, doctors, and counselors--if they can't resolve sexual issues on their own. Such relationships can navigate the "Not tonight, dear" roadblocks that inevitably surface over the marital life span. For some the roadblocks will become longer and more challenging then a temporary detour. After the loss of joyous sex is grieved (no easy task), the couple with a healthy marriage will still somehow manage to survive because ultimately they understand marriage is more than sexuality.

Suggested Reading: The following 2 books are books written from a Christian perspective:

  • The Gift of Sex. Clifford and Joyce Penner. Word Publishing, 1981.
  • Sexual Intimacy in Marriage. William Cutrer and Sandra Glahn. Kregel Books, 1999.

The larger bookstores, such as Barnes & Noble or Schuler's, have sections devoted to men's health and women's health. A little perusing and you should be able to locate a book that will give you relevant information on health issues that affect sexuality. There are also an increasing number of books in the sexuality section on sexuality over the life span. Again some careful searching will give you a helpful book for your particular concerns.

Irene Oudyk-Suk's Website: www.couplesinstep.com

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