Sexuality Over the Marital Life Span
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.
- 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."
- Age and hormones can also effect
sexuality. Those of us with teenage sons can attest to occasional
where their interest in sexuality is intense and consuming.
Many of us recall with nostalgia and longing that flesh tingling,
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").
- Stage of life issues also impact
sexuality. Busy careers, children's soccer games, teen bedtimes,
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,
In the process they may alter the way they prioritize their
sexual needs as well as the needs of their partners. Marriages
be re?invigorated--or devastated
- 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
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?
- Personal preferences which formerly
endeared us to our spouse, or which we easily and willingly tempered
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
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.
- The past can also affect sexual
relationships in the present. Sexual, physical and/or emotional
if it is unresolved, often works powerfully to inhibit
sexual pleasure. What our parents did or didn't teach us under
toward sex. I have been surprised by how often people
married for many years still have great guilt over activities
college years. For example date rape--not usually labeled
as such--old affairs, and abortions can all haunt a marriage
- Conditions such as Depression, High
Blood Pressure, Menopause, or Peyronie's Disease (curvature of
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.
- 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
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
Within the Christian community we begin by
consciously planning to resolve sexual issues in our marriages--even
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
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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