sexuality

Disappointed With Your Sex Life in Marriage? Tips to Improve Sexual Intimacy

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Sexual intimacy is one of the most thorny issues for married couples.  Messages we get from media and our world tell us that sex is supposed to be easy, natural, and feel good.  Unfortunately, that’s often not the reality in marriage.  Histories of past abuse, faulty beliefs about sex, conflict in your marriage, or past sexual experiences can influence sexual intimacy.

Add sex and love addiction into the mix and you’ve got deeper layers of trauma, distorted sexuality, and faulty communication styles that get in the way.  Sex and love addiction is an intimacy disorder, meaning that all areas of intimacy, including sexual, are influenced by the addiction.

What does it mean to have a healthy view of your sexuality?  Marnie Ferree, in her book for female sex and love addicts No Stones*, speaks of the cornerstones of healthy sexuality as sexual choice, sexual information and attitudes, and sexual presence.  I also believe understanding expectations around sex, particularly those influenced by spiritual backgrounds, are important.  Addressing emotional intimacy in the relationship is an crucial component of feeling comfortable in the sexual realm. 

Sexual Choice, Not Coercion

Sexual choice involves the freedom to choose to be sexual out of a desire for the other person, rather than feeling forced or coerced into engaging in sexual activity. Sex with mixed motives (to feel good about yourself, to keep your spouse from bugging you about it, as a bribe) can distort your view of sex.

If you are feeling coerced into sexual behaviors with which you do not feel comfortable, or you are forced into sexual acts without your consent, this is sexual abuse.  If this is happening, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE to get connected to help in your area.

Ask yourself:

  • Do I feel like I have to be sexual in order to be loved?

  • Do I feel like I need to give my spouse sex in order to keep them with me?

  • Do I not have a choice in the matter?

Messages, Information, and Expectations about Sex

Couples need correct sexual information and attitudes, as these are often flawed or distorted by past abuse and abandonment patterns, the influence of media, comparison with peers, and messages from family or the church.  What you expect from your sexual relationship may be drastically different from the reality you experience.

Part of the issue comes from a lack of knowledge about sex.  With school programs focused on abstinence-only education, and many parents feeling uncomfortable having the “sex talk” with their children, it is easy to see how we are left with misinformation about sex.  For most of today’s teenagers and young adults, sex education comes from peers, media, or pornography, which all offer skewed pictures of healthy intimacy.

Unfortunately, distortions around the purpose of sexual intimacy can also come from churches.  Sex may be seen as simply a way to procreate, or it can be associated with shame due to an overemphasis on abstinence.  In reality, the Bible indicates that sex within marriage is intended for pleasure and delight. It gives couples the opportunity to honor and love someone other than the self in addition to creating new life. Song of Solomon is an entire book of the Bible focused on marital sexuality and its role in reflecting the relationship between Christ and the church.

Ask yourself:

  • Where or from whom did I learn about sex?

  • What were some of my earliest sexual experiences?

  • What expectations about sex did I have walking into marriage?

  • How have they changed?

  • What messages did I get from the church/my religious upbringing around sex?

  • Do I feel awkward or like I don’t know what I’m doing when I’m being sexual with my spouse?

Presence

Sexual presence, or ability to stay engaged in the present moment of sex with the partner, is necessary.  It can be easy to become distracted or to have your mind on other things when you’re engaging in sexual intimacy with your spouse, particularly for women.  Addicts may dissociate or fantasize during the sexual act as a residual coping mechanism.  Body image issues can be a distraction to being present, as well as unresolved conflict or tension.

Ask yourself:

  • Do I have a hard time staying in the present moment in life in general?  While being sexually intimate?

  • Do I tend to fantasize or distract myself during sexual intimacy?

  • Am I too focused on the way my body looks to relax and enjoy sex? 

Communication

Another key element of healthy sexuality within marriage involves direct communication with your spouse about sex before, during, and after sexual activity. Without these clear lines of communication, there can be misunderstandings about what each of you prefers. Affirmation about what you like helps with closeness and understanding of sexual needs within marriage. Addicts who are dealing with sexual shame can be aided by honest communication about feelings and acceptance with their spouse.

Ask yourself:

  • Do I talk regularly with my spouse about sexual intimacy?

  • How would talking about sex make me feel?  Nervous?  Afraid?

  • Do one or both of us tend to be critical about sex? 

Emotional Connection

I believe healthy sexuality involves not just sex itself, but also emotional connection in the relationship.  The intimacy present in marriage outside the bedroom of knowing one another and expressing and receiving affection, appreciation, and respect feed feelings of intimacy.

Honesty and vulnerability are often difficult concepts to grasp, especially when you have been in situations where you were taken advantage of or unsafe.  It involves great risk to open yourself up to emotional vulnerability with another person, and yet it elevates intimacy on all levels when you engage.

Ask yourself:

  • Do I struggle with any of the other areas of sexual intimacy because I don’t feel emotionally close to my spouse?

  • Do I have a hard time being honest or vulnerable, and turn to sex to create intimacy instead?

  • Do I use sex to run away from painful or uncomfortable emotions?

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 Are you and your spouse struggling with sexual intimacy?  Is your story of addiction or abuse getting in the way of healthy sexuality?  Do you have a hard time feeling safe being vulnerable and honest with your spouse?  At Restored Hope, I’m here to support you on your path of restoring your sexual relationship within your marriage.  I offer couples counseling at my Novi and Ann Arbor locations.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

*These are Amazon affiliate links.  Click here to read more about Restored Hope’s Amazon local associates policy.

What Does It Mean to Be a Man or a Woman?: How Messages About Gender Have Shaped Your View of Sexuality

In your experience, what does it mean to be a man or a woman?  How do you define masculinity and femininity?  In a time when we’re having more conversations about gender and identity, these questions are more in focus than they have been in our cultural past.  We look at the classic 1950s American housewife and scoff at this repressive stereotype of femininity.  We cry out against the misogyny we see in our culture.  But where do we come to understand our own perceptions of gender and sexuality?

Many of our ideas about masculinity and femininity are formed as a result of our upbringing and how gender roles were on display in our families or childhood.  Often, our families leave gaps in understanding of sexuality that we then fill through observing outside influences.    Two of the biggest influencers of our view of sexuality are the media and churches/religious institutions. 

Influences from the Media

In my undergraduate studies, I took a developmental psychology course where we completed a project focused on messages adolescents receive about sexuality from the media.  We reviewed three popular TV shows and coded stereotypes about men, women, and sexuality.  What I learned from this project was how sexuality and gender roles are closely tied to sexual intimacy, rather than masculinity and femininity.  These shows gave plenty of messages about men and women: dominance of men over vulnerable women, men as obsessed with sex, women judged for sexual behavior, women as objects whose only aim is to please men sexually, and expectations of women’s body shapes and sizes.  What the shows left out, unfortunately, were answers to major questions that adolescents are faced with, including what it means to be a man or a women. 

Pornography also has a strong effect on masculinity and femininity.  Expectations for sexual relationships are influenced by the images and behaviors of the actors.  Aggressive imagery in pornographic images affects men’s perceptions of women and can lead to increased aggression in both men and women and/or mistaken beliefs about women and sexual assault.  Women who view pornography may become desensitized to the violent imagery and view themselves as objects in the way they are portrayed in sexual scenes.

Influences from Churches and Religious Institutions

What about church or spiritual influences on your views of maleness and femaleness?  In general, church culture can give confusing messages about what it means to be a man or a woman

For men, church cultures can emphasize masculinity as involving leadership, whether in a pastoral role at a church or as a husband and father in a family.  This pressure to lead can cause men to feel overwhelmed by carrying the weight of stress and decision-making in the family or church, while women are expected to submit to their husbands’ or pastors' leading.

For women, a common message involves dressing modestly in order to not “tempt” the men, married or otherwise, in their lives.  This implies that women are responsible for men’s purity.  It is assumed that men are visual creatures who react to the sight of a woman’s body, while women are more relational and therefore aren’t affected by seeing men’s bodies.  (Funny how the popularity of films like Magic Mike may tell us something otherwise.)  In extreme, this belief can contribute to a culture that blames women for such things as sexual harassment or assault.

Distortion of ideas about men and women can lead to dissatisfaction in marriages and inaccurate expectations about sexual intimacy.  It can affect how women or men view themselves and can lead to lower self-esteem or self-worth.

Take some time to think through the messages that you received about masculinity and femininity and how that has influenced your perceptions about yourself and those around you.  Ask yourself some of these questions:

  • What are some of the early messages you received about what it means to be male?  To be female? 
  • What messages does the media give you about what it means to be a man or a woman?
  • What messages do the church and religious institutions give you about what it means to be a man or a woman?
  • If you are a man, what about you feels masculine?  What aspects of your personality fit into your concept of masculinity?  On the flip side, where do you struggle to feel like a man? 
  • If you are a woman, what about you feels feminine?  What aspects of your personality fit into your concept of femininity?  Where do you feel less feminine?

Men and women are different.  Both bring unique strengths and weaknesses to the table.  And there are a multitude of ways to be masculine or feminine.  You bring a uniqueness to your personal identity that isn’t bound by stereotypes or cultural ideas that have been suggested to you about what it means to be male or female. This is a big topic, but my hope is that taking these questions and starting to think about them for yourself or talk about them with others will lead you into a greater understanding of your own ideas surrounding masculinity and femininity.

As you begin to explore an understanding of your own views of men and women, you might recognize some patterns in your experience that have affected your relationships or even your own self-esteem.  We’d love to be available to help you talk through what you discover and make steps toward change and a healthy view of yourself.  Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor and Novi based therapy office offering counseling services to individuals seeking to live a more wholehearted life.  Give us a call today at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to talk with us today.