I’m home from some happy family time in Northern California. Yesterday, while driving down Interstate 5 through the Central Valley, the temperature gauge in my Solara registered 113 degrees. ‘Twas a toasty day, and I did my best to expand my carbon footprint by keeping the inside of my car at a comfy 65.
A reader named “Bob” writes:
Iâ€™m wondering though what you think about the concept of sexual frequency â€œnormalcyâ€ in marriage or committed relationships. In other words, if one partner has a higher sex drive than the other, what are the responsibilities (if any) of one to the other?
I know how the Church generally feels about this issue. The feelings range from glorified body ownership (a wife should submit to her husbandâ€™s sexual â€œneedsâ€ no matter what) to lessons of â€œthorns in the fleshâ€ (repressing sexual â€œneedsâ€ are a good sign of spiritual discipline).
But how does a feminist feel about this? What do you do (if anything should be done) about unequal libido within a committed relationship? As the partner with a higher drive in my marriage, I constantly question my desires. Am I too dependent on my wife for sexual fulfillment? Maybe I should show more restraint as an independent person and a Christ follower. Perhaps this is my thorn in my flesh, a test from God. But then the Christian ideal of marriage seems to say much of â€œtwo becoming one,â€ some kind of mysterious interdependence, or even a combined identity. To have two different ideals of sexual unity, or any other ideal for that matter, seems counterproductive to the married unit.
Obviously, my first recommendation to Bob and his wife is that they seek counseling. That doesn’t mean I’m pathologizing his wife’s low sex drive or Bob’s more boisterous one. I am a great believer, however, in the marvelous progress that can be made with a good marital therapist. There are increasing numbers of Christians who work as marital therapists, and they integrate spiritual and psychological insights very effectively. Most married couples could benefit from a periodic therapeutic “tune-up”, even if no burning problem seems to be presenting itself.
Too often, we do tend to over-analyze incongruent libidos. It’s a staple of pop psychology that the partner with the lower drive is “repressed” or perhaps dealing with abuse issues from his or her childhood. Similarly, we often assume that the partner with the stronger drive is emotionally needy, or someone who seeks to soothe their anxiety and stress through sexual activity rather than a more appropriate outlet. Too often, partners can get into a tail-spin; the more the one with the higher drive presses, the more the one with the lower drive resists. The one with the higher drive feels neglected, unattractive, anxiety-ridden, frustrated; the one with the lower drive feels pressured, nagged, frustrated. Most people who’ve been in long-term relationships can recognize themselves in one (or both) of those roles!
It is by no means always the case in heterosexual marriages that it is always the man with the lower sex drive. But that’s Bob’s situation, and that matches up with our stereotype, so I’ll say a little about it here. I’m not going to rehash the great and mysterious words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7. I will note that the New International Version says:
The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.
In the context of a chapter on marital sex, that does make clear that a married couple do have sexual obligations to each other. But it would be a huge mistake to assume that Paul means that the lower-drive partner must always acquiesce to the one who’s hornier. I like how the Message version handles this same passage:
The marriage bed must be a place of mutualityâ€”the husband seeking to satisfy his wife, the wife seeking to satisfy her husband. Marriage is not a place to “stand up for your rights.” Marriage is a decision to serve the other, whether in bed or out.
That’s really good, especially the bit about marriage not being a place to “stand up for your rights.” The mystery lies in how we each serve the other without ever insisting on those rights. For the higher-sexed person to demand that his or her partner provide sex on some sort of a schedule is clearly not what Paul is suggesting. At the same time, each partner is called to be deeply concerned with the well-being of the other — and of the partnership itself. That concern will manifest itself in the higher-sexed partner practicing self-control, not only in terms of physical restriction but also by refraining from nagging and pestering. The higher-sexed partner can’t come from a place of entitlement.
Similarly, the spouse with the lower drive has the obligation to be alert to the various ways in which he or she can provide emotional reassurance; the spouse with the lower drive is also, I think, obligated to honestly explore whether some dynamic within the relationship is causing a lack of interest. There’s a huge difference, after all, between genuinely not being “in the mood” and withholding sex as a passive-aggressive technique to gain the upper hand in the relationship. I’ve known plenty of men and women who’ve pulled the latter trick. They know the ugly old rule most of us first learn in adolescence: “He who wants it less, wins.”
The bottom line is that the “Yes” or the “I will” of the wedding vow is not a permanent disavowal of the right to say “No” in the future. Whether we are married to our sexual partners or not, none of us has the right to demand that another human being please us. In practical terms, it’s safe to say that the greatest enemies of true eros are entitlement and expectation. Nothing is a greater turn-off than a petulant insistence that someone “owes” us an orgasm (or even a kiss).
Sex drives have a way of fluctuating over time, of course. Most of us will go through periods in our lives (or in our months) in which we are hornier than at other times. That’s true for one of us in our solitude; it’s all the more true for a couple over time. Some couples stay at the same level of frequency in terms of sex for years and years; others start off fast and furious and taper off; still others go through various fluctuations depending on any number of circumstances (ranging from children to job stress to, heck, you get the idea.) Having spent lots of time with religious and secular couples, I note that these anxieties about unequal sex drives show up equally in partnerships where the two “waited” and where they didn’t. Refraining from pre-marital sex is no guarantor of post-marital sexual bliss; by the same token, lots and lots of “experience” prior to marriage doesn’t make anyone an expert on how to have great sex for years and years after the wedding day.
So, to Bob: there’s nothing wrong with having the higher sex drive. There’s nothing wrong with wanting your wife more often than she wants you. I understand that it feels disempowering and scary to be the one who “wants it more.” But you’re not wrong for wanting what you want, and your wife is not wrong for not wanting what you want. The test of your marriage is not the equality of your passion, it’s the prayerful, courageous honesty with which you both work through this disparity together. It’s a hard thing to talk about, even with (and, I think, especially with) a spouse; our fears and resentments and anxieties can come up so quickly. But there’s no way to work through this without that kind of radical honesty, which is why having a patient therapist to facilitate is often a really good idea.
Look, I’m not quite two years into my fourth marriage, so I’m hardly a relationship guru. But I’ve been around the block a time or nineteen, and I’ve done a lot of listening and living in my time. And I know some great marriages where there isn’t a lot of sex; I’ve seen some marriages fall apart even while the spouses within them were getting it on nearly daily. This I can say based on my own experience and on that of countless friends of mine: the absence of regular sex is not an automatic indicator of trouble, and a regular and mutually enthusiastic erotic life is no prophylaxis against marital misery. What makes a healthy marriage is the way in which the two partners deal with their incongruent desires. If they each practice radical mutual submission, remembering that marriage is not a place to assert one’s rights, they’re probably well on their way.