I started counting down to my wedding far too early: 429 more days, 428 more days . . . you get the picture.
But it wasn’t the wedding I was anticipating. It was the wedding night.
Unfortunately my experience didn't live up to my expectations. Sex was painful, awkward, and embarrassing. For several years it was the main source of conflict in our marriage, leading us both to believe of one another, "You don't really love me!"
I'm glad our marriage didn't stay in that rut, and now I'm often the one to suggest that we "get it on." But most couples, at some point or another, feel like they're sexually incompatible.
The truth is that the whole concept of sexual incompatibility is flawed because it implies that our sexuality is something unchangeable. It implies that a woman, by herself, is a static sexual being, and a man, by himself, is a static sexual being, and that the two may not match.
That’s simply not true.
God designed sex to be relational and dynamic. If you and your husband are struggling, it’s not because you’re incompatible—you just have things you need to work out. And our God is in the changing and reconciling business!
God Uses Our Struggles
At the beginning of our marriage, my husband and I had several sexual issues. We had an information deficit: neither of us knew how to make sex feel good for me. I had physical issues since I suffered from vaginismus, a condition that makes the vaginal muscles tense up so that sex becomes painful. In our frustration, neither of us was acting in a Christlike manner. Our main aim was to get our own needs met. And I had some trust issues due to brokenness and hurt in my life that were making everything worse.
We started by tackling the sin issues—by deciding to start loving each other first. I tried to have sex more often; Keith started giving more massages and more romantic gestures. As he did that, my trust in him grew and the brokenness diminished. And as we became more comfortable with each other, my body literally relaxed and we figured out how to make it work.
Do you have issues you need to work through like Keith and I did? Here are four main categories that encompass most sexual problems, and here are some strategies for overcoming them.
1. Information Issues
Most couples don't experience honeymoon fireworks. In a survey of 2,000 women that I conducted for my book The Good Girl's Guide to Great Sex, I found that couples who had been married 16 to 24 years had the best sex because they'd had years to get comfortable with one another. When it comes to orgasm, 20 percent of the women in my survey still struggle to reach climax. Sex rarely works like clockwork right off the bat for anyone. It's easy to mistakenly think that you’re “frigid” because you can't reach orgasm, or maybe that you “just don't like sex.” But it's far more likely that you just haven't figured it out yet.
What to do: Be deliberate about listening to your body and telling your husband what you like. Many women hold back because they're ashamed that they take so long to become aroused, so they don't ask for what they really need (foreplay). Or they don't like the way their husband touches them but are embarrassed to say anything. Buy some Christian books to help you make sex pleasurable in a healthy way, and talk through those embarrassing things.
And keep learning! One woman wrote to me, saying that intercourse had lost sensation for her after delivering several children When she learned how to do Kegel exercises and to use new positions that worked better for her and her husband, sex became fun again.
2. Health Issues
Though sex isn't entirely physical, if the physical part doesn't work, sex won't work. Whether it's erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, low libido, arousal difficulties, or pain during intercourse, sex often is the physical embodiment of Murphy's Law: whatever can go wrong will eventually go wrong.
What to do: Talk to a physician. Male sexual dysfunction can sometimes be a warning sign of something far more serious, like heart disease. Other sexual problems have medical cures too. Testosterone supplements can help men with low libido. Menopause support can help women keep their sexual function and enjoyment up.
One woman wrote to me saying that they had been struggling with her husband’s low sex drive for all ten years of their marriage. When he went for a physical, his testosterone levels barely registered. After just a few treatments, she said he's a different person.
3. Sin Issues
Likely the most difficult sexual hurdle to overcome, though, is selfishness. Our culture has made sex purely physical, and pornography, erotica, and sex-toy shops embody that culture. We don't make love; we use each other.
If boys (or girls) start watching porn as teenagers, their sexual arousal becomes paired with an image rather than with a person. Over time, this rewires their brains so that they require pornography or fantasy to perform. That's why Italian researchers have found that porn is now the leading cause of erectile dysfunction.
Porn use may be the sin we most frequently associate with sex, but we may also be guilty of others. For example, if one spouse withholds sex from the other, that person is denying something his or her spouse desperately needs. On the flipside, when someone pressures his or her spouse for sex when their situation makes the demands unreasonable (such as when physical conditions make sex painful) or when the demands themselves are unreasonable (like doing something degrading), then sex is not about intimacy; it's about putting one's own desires first.
What to do: Pray and ask God to reveal your own part in this conflict. When sin is in play, it's rarely one-sided. A man may be drawn to porn while his wife may be refusing sex. Or she may be reading erotica while he withholds sex.
What is your part in the conflict? Confess your own sin. Then confront your spouse about his role. If your spouse doesn't see it as a problem, you may need to bring in a third party, as Matthew 18:15–17 instructs. With sexual addictions, especially, healing rarely comes without accountability. True repentance is always accompanied by humility and confession. If a spouse says, "I'll never do it again," but refuses to get help, that repentance may not be genuine.
4. Brokenness Issues
Because our sexuality is so closely linked to our identity and feelings of self-worth, wounds we’ve experienced can have an exaggerated impact on our sexuality. Those who have been abused often struggle with the idea of sex being an intimate, positive experience. If you grew up in a family where sex was never talked about and often portrayed as shameful, then embracing your sexuality can be far more complicated.
What to do: Open up with your spouse about why you are struggling. Work on the spiritual side of your marriage, praying for each other's wholeness. When you grow together spiritually, you're often drawn together sexually too, which takes away some of the shame. Marriage itself can be a healing balm for many of our early hurts.
For deep issues of brokenness, please seek a counselor. There is nothing wrong with having issues; there is only something wrong with refusing to work on your issues and saying, "This is the way I am." God's will for us is wholeness: forget what lies behind and focusing, instead, on what lies ahead (Philippians 3:13). If you don't address your own past issues, you will cross a line from just brokenness into selfishness and sin.
Chasing After God . . . Together
All of us have issues, but these issues can also be a catalyst for Jesus to do amazing things in your life—to take you outside of your comfort zone and to help you become more vulnerable, more loving, and more generous. Our sexual issues can actually be used by God to help us grow more Christlike.
Sexual hurdles don't mean that your sex life and your marriage are destined for failure. See them instead as opportunities to chase after God's promises together; he created it to be a wonderful, intimate experience for both of you. You just need some work to get there!
Sheila Wray Gregoire is the author of eight books, including The Good Girl's Guide to Great Sex and 31 Days to Great Sex. She blogs at ToLoveHonorAndVacuum.com.