It’s the elephant in the bedroom: The very thing that can bring us some of our greatest marital joy can also lead to some of our deepest disappointments.
Of course we’re talking about sex. Though a new study confirms that Christian couples have better sex lives than other couples, that doesn’t mean that our sex lives are perfect. For many of us, they’re far from it.
Just ask Debra Taylor and Dr. Michael Sytsma — co-founders of Sexual Wholeness Inc. Taylor is a Christian marriage and family counselor, and Sytsma is an ordained minister, certified sex therapist and founder of Building Intimate Marriages.
Combined, they have nearly three-quarters of a century of counseling experience, and they’ve seen countless Christian couples who struggle with an unsatisfying sex life. So who better to ask for insight on how to foster healthy, God-honoring intimacy in the bedroom. Here are five things that Taylor and Sytsma want every Christian couple to know:
No. 1: Good sex is about adjusting expectations and working toward mutually satisfying resolutions
The No. 1 struggle with sex? Mismatched libidos — or what sex counselors call “desire discrepancy.” Whether you’re the husband or the wife who desires sex more, your marriage is likely going to face this issue. And no manner of begging, cajoling, whining, withdrawing, threatening, criticizing or stonewalling will achieve what you ultimately desire.
“So stop fighting about it,” says Taylor, who admits that the majority of her clients who struggle with this issue spend a lot of their energy yelling at their spouse over it. “But do keep working on it.”
The best way to deal with desire discrepancy, according to Sytsma and Taylor, is to develop a shared vision of what you want as a couple and to offer each other grace, understanding and patience.
Sometimes that means it’s best to back off some and try to understand the season your spouse may be going through. For instance, if your spouse is overwhelmed with caring for young children or in the throes of a demanding and stressful job, he or she simply might not have the energy for sex. Sometimes the best way to strengthen such a marriage is to meet your spouse’s needs outside the bedroom and help make things less stressful.
And if you are the spouse with the lower desire, focusing on the good of the relationship sometimes means choosing to connect sexually.
“Spouses who make a concerted effort to focus on having sex for the sake of the relationship actually end up with higher desire and higher satisfaction,” Sytsma says.
There may come a time when the roles reverse — perhaps a health issue enters the picture or a medication leads to lower libido — and the one who once said “not tonight” is now the one expressing more desire. This is the time to examine the issue and seek solutions together.
Sytsma recalls one older couple who saw him because the wife wanted to have sex and her husband no longer had any desire: “I may be 86, but I’m not dead down there yet, so you have to get him working.”
As Sytsma counseled the couple, he learned that the man’s medications were killing his sex drive. They were able to meet with the husband’s physician to adjust his medication.
No. 2: The best sexual technique comes through honest communication
Both Taylor and Sytsma have met countless times with couples who admit they’ve never once talked to each other about sex. They continue to tolerate what doesn’t work, Sytsma says, for fear of hurting the other person’s feelings, for fear of conflict or even out of shyness. And letting fear limit your communication is a sure way to undermine a flourishing and fulfilling sex life.
Taylor and Sytsma insist that talking about sex is necessary.
“Everything works better when couples just talk,” Sytsma says. “Communication is the most important key to improving your sex life.”
That includes open, curious, honest discussions about what turns you on and what turns you off, about what works and what doesn’t.
One wife avoided sex because she was always too hot, but she never shared that concern with her husband until Taylor suggested more specific communication. Once the husband learned the reason behind his wife’s continual rejections, he installed an air conditioner in their bedroom.
“Such an easy solution,” Taylor says, “but only when you communicate about it.”
You don’t have to engage in long, drawn-out conversations, but find a time when you and your spouse can both discuss about what you really want out of your sex life. Continue those conversations throughout your marriage; the more you talk, the easier it will become.
No. 3: The best sex acts aren’t sexual at all
Yes, you read that one correctly.
“Your body is only part of sex,” Sytsma says. “The best sex acts build on a rich foundation of sensual, non-demand touch, focused attention and genuine affirmation.”
Offering affirmation and encouragement, listening when your spouse talks, helping out around the house, holding hands, looking into each other’s eyes when talking and simply sharing life together all increase closeness and intimacy and can make sex not only more enjoyable but also more meaningful.
That means being present for your spouse. It’s difficult to connect meaningfully when you are focused on other things — such as the children or technology.
“Put down your phones — even agree on times to turn them off — and work on connecting with your spouse,” Taylor says.
Just as important as affirming your spouse is affirming yourself. Self-image can make or break feelings of desire, and how you feel about yourself, Sytsma says, is as important as how you feel about your spouse. So be kind to yourself. Don’t allow your shape or size, your hair or lack of it, your wrinkles or your belly bulge to keep you from being fully present in the moment.
No. 4: Quickies are great but shouldn’t be the only option
A common complaint sex counselors hear is how busy couples are. And what’s typically the first activity to go? Sex.
Sytsma says that good sex takes time — something that most over-scheduled couples don’t have much of. Everything else on the calendar ends up taking priority, and what may seem like a reasonable sacrifice in the moment can eventually take a toll on the marriage.
Instead, sit down with your calendar and block off time for the two of you to be intimate.
“Schedule it if you have to,” Taylor says. Hire a babysitter, go away for a day or a weekend, come home early from work — do whatever it takes. “You need to relax, enjoy and focus just on the two of you.”
To have good sex, you have to be intentional and available. While an occasional quickie certainly isn’t a bad thing, make sure you also make time to relish and savor the gift of your mate.
No. 5: Aging will affect your performance — and that’s normal
Sytsma often sees couples who, as they age, complain about their lack of stamina or desire. Too often these couples misunderstand what happens to their bodies as they grow older.
“People expect that those parts will continue to function the way they did when they were younger, and life simply doesn’t work that way,” he says.
Men tend to take these changes more seriously because what used to be dependable no longer is. Some simply shut down and no longer pursue their spouses. They sink into shame when they can’t perform the way they used to, so they give up even trying.
“We want sex to be easy and ideal, and when it isn’t, we get frustrated,” Sytsma says.
Sex is going to look different as we age, and it’s OK to grieve what once was, Taylor says. But she also insists on not giving up.
Though you may no longer have the same physical ability you had in your 20s, you can still enjoy a rich, satisfying intimacy with your spouse as you combine open communication with the experience of truly knowing each other well. And that leads to the most important thing these counselors want you to do: Show grace and kindness to your spouse.
Even if your sex life isn’t what you want it to be, there’s always hope. You may never have the perfect sex life — to be fair, nobody does — but you can have a sex life that brings you closeness, joy and fun.