Sarah M. Farrell
Sexual issues in marriages are extremely common. Most couples will have differences of opinions regarding sex and will have disagreements around physical intimacy within marriage.
Since many couples consider sex a good indicator (or sometimes the only indicator) of a healthy relationship, it isn’t surprising that people become very concerned when their sex life isn’t going how they hope, how they imagined, or how they expected. After all, strong couples have great sex, right? Well, not so fast. Even the happiest of married couples can experience complications in their sex lives.Sex, while we consider it an indicator of a happy marriage, lies at the intersection of psychology, biology, and sociology. There are far more factors involved in your sex life than whether or not you are a happy couple.
I consider marriage like a functioning human (we have become one in God’s eyes, right? … it works, in my head at least). There are so many different facets of a functioning human. There are many ways to be healthy and many ways to be unhealthy. There are also many ways to check how healthy a specific marriage is.
Many people consider sex the most important indicator of health and functioning in their own or in other peoples’ marriage. However, sex is just like taking a human’s temperature. There are so many other facets of marriage to consider. Medical professionals wouldn’t just take someone’s temperature and declare them healthy and fit to run a marathon. They check other things like blood pressure, heart rate, blood oxygenation levels, respiration rates, bone health, etc.
It would be remiss for anyone to consider only one aspect or indicator of health to determine overall fitness and ability to survive. Instead, we consider many facets of a living being to determine wellbeing. Just as you wouldn’t rely on a thermometer alone to ensure someone is strong, sex is not the only way to check the status of a marriage and its ability to survive long-term.
It is important to understand that a sex life with complications does not a bad marriage make. However, it can be immensely frustrating and can damage a relationship over time, if not considered and strategically managed, just like running a consistent fever is likely to cause some health concerns.
While it is important, it is also important to take the pressure off of sex specifically. Sex is a pathway to intimacy, but it is not the only way to experience physical intimacy, emotional intimacy, or enjoyment as a couple. It is not the only way to tell your marriage is healthy, but it can be a sign that there should be a focus on understanding and healing that facet of your marriage.
We frequently have this idea that sex should be natural, it should be magical, it should just happen. And sometimes that can happen for a period of time. However, sex can be very complicated and intricate. Sex involves the whole person holistically, including his or her history, his or her trauma, his or her expectations, his or her cultural understandings, his or her connection with their spouse, and his or her biology.
This creates a lot of areas in which complications can occur, either singularly or in multiple domains. Humans are faceted. And sex not only involves one complex, elaborate human; it has the audacity to involve two!
People frequently have the idea that it is only their marriage that experiences sexual difficulties. This just is not true. Even very happy, secure couples can experience complications in their sex lives. These can include biological factors, such as erectile dysfunction, vaginismus, anorgasmia, dyspareunia, and many other possibilities caused by hormonal issues.
Because sex is so integrated in biology and, ultimately, physiology, it is crucial to meet with your medical doctor regarding any sexual concerns to determine if there could be an underlying physiological cause. Complications can also arise in other social domains, or in psychological domains, or cultural. Or at the intersection of all of these domains at once.
It is true that, sometimes, sex will feel magical and natural. But sexual difficulties for men and women and for couples are not uncommon. It doesn’t mean your marriage is doomed to failure. However, it does mean that your marriage may need some attention.
When to Consider Marriage Counseling for Sexual Issues
Once you have seen your doctor to rule out physiological concerns or have decided you would like counseling alongside medical treatment, you may begin to think about what counseling may be like.
The thought of going to therapy isn’t always comfortable for people, yet it can be a great step in moving forward towards a more fulfilling intimate relationship with your partner.
While results can never be guaranteed, couples counseling can become a consideration when you realize that individual work hasn’t helped, when you’d like to consider the issue with your partner included, when you know the sexual concerns are not only or are not physical in nature, and when you realize you need some help moving into the next stage of progress towards meeting your goals relating to physical intimacy.
Let’s start with a quick introduction into couples work that relates to sex and intimacy, both physical and emotional. Many people recoil at the thought of therapy relating to sex—it sounds scary, right? It can be a difficult process, but there are a lot of things therapy for sexual issues is not.
It is not physically intrusive. It is not a Cosmo magazine. It is not an introduction to the Kama Sutra. Therapy for couples’ sexual issues is trained, professional help. It is objective insight into your relationship, what makes it tick, what might be malfunctioning, and what some of the underlying causes or contributors might be.
You are the expert on your relationship, but a professional can come alongside and build upon the strengths, love languages, history, and resilience you each have to help your marriage function in a way that you each find more fulfilling.
What Will Happen In Couples Counseling?
Therapy is not a one size fits all sort of venture. And not every therapist is the same. Therapists come from many different backgrounds and schools of thought. Different types of training underlie different types of therapy. Finding a therapist you feel comfortable with is paramount.
The way therapists do therapy is not a prescribed, set-in-stone script for relief of what ails your marriage. Instead, the process is like a living, breathing thing. It may head different ways, depending on what you, your partner, and your therapist believe is best.
It is impossible to know exactly what therapy will entail. But here are a few things you might encounter in therapy when you go to process and work through sexual difficulties.
You will likely learn more about your love languages.
Frequently in marriage counseling the topic of how we give love and how we receive love is an important component. There are many instances in which we are on completely different pages in our marriage.
I frequently hear things like, “I always make sure his coffee is made every morning, and he doesn’t appreciate it.” “It’s not that I don’t appreciate it, but I really wish she’d cuddle with me more.” This is an example of a couple not speaking the same love language (acts of service vs. physical touch), which were originally explored by Gary Chapman. Issues around these love languages and their expressions may be further explored in therapy.
You may discover more about your negative cycles.
People frequently have patterns they fall into in marriage. There are frequently negative cycles that can be very hard to break, especially if you don’t know what they are.
People commonly make statements like, “We just have the same argument over and over again” or “all of our fights end in the same way with no resolution.” You may be falling into negative patterns. An objective observer may be able to note these quickly and aid you in problem-solving your way out of the cycle.
You may learn mindfulness skills.
Mindfulness skills can include deep breathing and meditation, among other things. Mindfulness can lower anxiety and allow you to become better engaged with your own body, with your own mind, and with how you are feeling.
Another way to describe it is to engage in radical acceptance. How this looks may vary by therapist, but it may be something that is included in the process.
You will likely explore what sex means to both of you – What is the definition of sex?
People frequently have different ideas about sex. The act of intercourse itself is most commonly the definition given, but people’s ideas about the parameters of sex can vary widely. This can make an impact on how you experience physical intimacy as a couple and your fulfillment within your sex life.
You may broaden your definition of sex and physical intimacy.
Sometimes, it becomes necessary to broaden a couple’s ideas about what sex is exactly and how it is experienced. This can be especially true when sexual dysfunction is present. Your individual therapist will determine if this is something that would be helpful to be addressed.
You may learn what holds you back from emotional intimacy.
Sometimes an inability to be vulnerable or a marriage that does not create a safe space for emotional vulnerability and can impact emotional intimacy. Further, past traumas may further impact one’s ability to be emotionally aware and available with his or her partner.
Learning the factors at play can be very beneficial in moving forward towards healing. Your therapist may help you both learn how to create a safe space for each other to be emotionally vulnerable within your marriage.
You may learn how emotional intimacy impacts your physical intimacy.
Alongside learning about emotional intimacy and the difficulties you may have with vulnerability, you will likely learn about how this impacts physical intimacy and your sexual relationship. It is not uncommon for people to struggle with physical intimacy and libido changes when they are not emotionally connecting.
You may explore why your relationship has changed over time.
Couples frequently cite changes in their sex lives over time. These frequently include changes in libido, changes in frequency of sexual encounters, etc.
Changes in the frequency or duration of sex can cause individuals to question the health of their marriage or the quality of love from their partner. Changes over time can be normal, but this is another facet of your marriage your therapist may want to explore.
You may explore your roles in your sex life and in your marriage.
It is common in marriage that couples have one partner who always initiates and one who never does. It is also common to have one partner who has a higher libido than the other. One may be the pursuer, one may withdraw.People frequently fall into patterns or fill roles they believe they should, both in their sex lives, and in their marriage as a whole. These roles can have pros and cons. Your therapist, as an objective party, can help you determine whether these roles are adaptive or maladaptive, why you assume them, and whether or not they are contributing to further fulfillment or dissatisfaction.
You may explore past trauma.
Trauma can have a huge impact on one’s sexual experiences later in life. Many therapists will want you to explore trauma in individual counseling with a trauma-informed counselor.
However, these traumas may be explored briefly during marriage counseling if they are having an impact on the relationship and one’s ability to have a physically and emotionally connected relationship.
You may address differences in expectations.
It is very common for couples to not agree on what they want from their sex lives. Couples frequently disagree on the frequency they would like, the type of sex they want, and the roles they will play in their sex life.
Creating compromise and accepting each other and building an ability to work together towards a mutually satisfying sex life is a common goal of therapy.
You may set boundaries.
Boundaries in your marriage are extremely important, and they are extremely important in your sex life. Your therapist can help you learn how to set them and stick with them.
You may determine how sexual problems are impacting your marriage as a whole.
It can be difficult to determine how sexual issues are impacting your marriage overall. Sexual concerns can frequently breed insecurities and resentments. Your marriage therapist may process how these issues are impacting your marriage.
You will likely address consent.
How consent plays into marriage and married couples is an important topic. If understanding consent seems to be an issue in your relationship, it is likely your therapist will further discuss consent and what it means.
You will almost definitely learn how to talk about sexual issues.
One of your therapist’s tasks is to aid you both in feeling more comfortable creating language around sex and physical intimacy. Many couples have not built a language around sex.
This is crucial because it allows you a safe space to discuss in a way that is intimate and between the two of you. If you aren’t comfortable discussing sex, it can be very difficult to work together to learn how to move forward in spite of difficulties.
You will begin to create a comfortable space to talk about sex with your spouse.
This may involve problem solving when and where check-ins may take place and how to discuss sex.
You may talk about how God created sex and God’s role for sex in the marriage.
We know that God had a beautiful design for sex in marriage. However, sometimes it is difficult to understand that role. Your Christian therapist may further process these ideas with you.
You may explore topics about sexual satisfaction and what it means for your partner.
It isn’t uncommon to not understand what our partner enjoys during sex. We may not even know what makes them uncomfortable. Sometimes, we don’t even understand what we like ourselves.
Processing these topics as a couple is important in moving your sex life forward towards mutual fulfillment within your sex life.
You may explore how culture has impacted your ideas and expectations around sex.
We don’t live in a vacuum. Culture infiltrates and impacts our ideas around sex from a very young age. Exploring how culture has impacted your ideas surrounding sex may help you and your partner better understand yourselves and each other.
You may alter the goals of sex.
It is common that the goal of sex is to have intercourse and each have an orgasm. However, sometimes this isn’t possible. Sex as an idea can be much broader and more fulfilling for both of you. Your therapist may work with you to alter goals if they are not working for you as a couple in your current circumstances.
Possible Benefits of Sex Therapy
Let me start by saying that no two couples are the same. Results and benefits coming out of sex therapy will look different for each couple. And no therapist can make any guarantees about outcome. However, here are some common results that can come from counseling related to sexual issues.
- You may find your sex life more fulfilling.
As you learn to compromise, work on frequency, and learn what you and your partner enjoy, you will likely find your sex life more mutually fulfilling.
- You will better understand your own and your spouse’s boundaries.
Better communication in this area allows for safety and further ability to be vulnerable within your relationship.
- You will likely have learned to problem solve together.
This skill is so paramount within your marriage. It will allow you to overcome so many obstacles, hand in hand, utilizing your collective brainpower. That’s a recipe for success.
- You will learn more about what your partner likes.
This makes everyone in the marriage happier—if you know, then you can do!
- You will better understand how sex speaks to your partner.
People frequently experience different things from sex. Some feel more connected. To some, it speaks love and caring. To others, it speaks desire. When you can learn to speak the language, you can learn what you are saying through physical intimacy and how your partner receives this aspect of your relationship.
- You will better understand the impact of culture and prescribed roles.
It is not always that these roles are wrong or that cultural ideas have to be changed. But a better understanding allows you to know and better understand your perception and the role you try to fill.
- You will likely have gained an understanding of your negative cycles and how to get out.
You will likely have a better understanding of how you cope with conflict and how, as a couple, you tend to fall into negative patterns. You may also have problem-solved a way out!
- It is highly probable that you will learn more about the physiology of sex.
This is likely to increase understanding and pleasure for both you and your partner.
- You will learn more about yourself, your partner, and yourselves as a couple.
The better you understand yourselves, the better you can work towards progress together.
- You will have worked towards learning an entirely new language.
Discussion around sex and intimacy requires emotional vulnerability and the ability to be comfortable around a highly sensitive topic. You will have learned how to talk about sex, what you like, what you want, and what your partner wants.
You will gain the ability to speak the same language as your partner, which opens the doors for better communication. Better communication is most likely to create a more fulfilling sex life.
- You will have learned how sex can be a beautiful part of God’s plan for your marriage.
A better understanding of how God values our marriage and our intimacy within opens up the door for better understanding of marriage as a whole. It aids us in valuing sex as an integral, but nuanced and vital part of our marriages.
- You will likely leave with a better connection.
Dealing with sexual issues can aid you in connecting better overall. Further, you will likely work on communication in therapy. Removing everything between you both and getting everything on the table is a great place to start in a marriage free of layers of resentment and unsaid misunderstandings.
Therapy can be complex. No one can promise outcomes for certain. No one can say every couple will respond the same way to any one type of therapy. Further, different therapists do different types of therapy.
Considering marriage counseling can be difficult in any circumstances. It makes many people nervous for a lot of different reasons. I frequently hear thoughts like:
“We don’t need someone else involved in our business.”
“I know another couple who tried counseling and it just made things worse.”
“I can’t talk about sex with anyone. It’s so awkward.”
“Talking in a room doesn’t fix real life.”
Getting help can feel complicated. Getting help when it comes to something as sensitive as your sex life can feel even more complicated. Sex isn’t the only thing important in your marriage. It’s not the central aspect of your marriage. It is, however, an important indicator of how your marriage is functioning, much like an individual’s heart rate.
Deciding to treat the issue can be helpful throughout all of the different facets of your marriage’s functioning. Therapy can be complicated. Learning more about each other can be complicated. Learning about ourselves can be especially complicated. However, it can be worth the complication.
Your marriage is worth risk. It is worth complexity. It is worth the work. When you note that you have a sexual concern that doesn’t seem to be easing with time or you worry it won’t, it may be time to consider therapy. If you know the issue is one that needs to be dealt with promptly, it may be time to consider therapy.
When you have worked with your personal physician to better understand the physiology of the issue and it isn’t clearing up on its own or the aftermath feels too big, it may be time to consider couples counseling.
Once you have made this call, it is time to have a conversation with your spouse about whether or not they feel comfortable seeing a couples therapist. And, if so, what preferences do they have in regards to the type of therapist, gender of therapist, background, etc.
Once you determine that couples counseling is in order, you will likely begin the process of attempting to find a therapist who fits the ideals you have previously discussed with your spouse. Many of the therapists at Seattle Christian Counseling work with couples.
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