Psychologist, author, and TCW blogger Dr. Juli Slattery is dedicated to helping women pursue passion in their marriages. But, for many wives, deep frustrations are holding them back from experiencing the sexual intimacy they long for. We spoke with Juli about the common causes of sexual frustration, her counsel for women facing sexual challenges, and the spiritual hope women can find in these difficult situations.
Many Christian couples deal with sexual frustration but feel very alone—as if everyone else is having a great time in the bedroom while they’re missing out. But is that true? How common is sexual frustration for married couples?
That feeling of others having great sex while you’re not is perpetuated by the movies and also by the fact that when a couple stays silent about it, it’s easy to think they’re the only ones having that problem. In reality, I’d say that only about 10 to 15 percent of couples do not have some significant frustration when it comes to sexuality. So it’s far more common to run into some sort of brick wall that really is difficult.
What do you see as the most common sources of frustration, pain, or disappointment for Christian women?
The first is not being able to enjoy sex. Perhaps she can’t enjoy sex because of physical pain or because it’s always just about what her husband needs and she can’t seem to get anything from it. The second most common frustration is due to a difference in desire levels, whether it’s the woman who wants sex more often and the husband doesn’t, or whether it’s the other way around.
For some Christian women, there’s an emotional desire to experience sex as something beautiful, passionate, and God-honoring, but there’s a disconnect with their actual physical experience. A woman may be frustrated because, in reality, she’s engaging in sexual intimacy more out of duty than real sexual desire. What encouragement would you offer for someone in that situation?
First, we need to recognize that female sexuality is way more complicated than male sexuality. Many couples don’t go into marriage fully grasping that. They just assume that somehow this is all going to work out and he’ll get his needs met and she’ll get her needs met. What often ends up happening is that, because the man’s needs are more obvious, he’s typically more vocal about them, and he knows how to get his needs met. For many couples, the first several years of marriage become about the man’s sexuality, and what they do in the bedroom becomes about how the man gets satisfied. This often happens without couples even realizing it—and nobody stops to ask, What happened to the wife’s needs?
It’s not that hard for a woman to love a guy sexually in the moment, but it can be very difficult for a man to learn how to unlock his wife’s sexuality—especially when she might not even know how herself.
I do think that that’s a common struggle for Christian women—especially those who saved themselves sexually until marriage. They might not know where to begin in terms of their own sexual needs and desires.
Yes. For example, a husband may ask, “What do you want? What feels good?” And she’ll say, “I don’t know.” Then she might start to cry or get frustrated and give up. The average couple just proceeds like that over the course of their marriage; their sex life becomes all about what he wants and he needs, but it may be because she doesn’t know what she wants and what she needs.
The first step is recognizing that this sort of pattern is not what God intended. In order for sex to be fulfilling for the wife and the husband, it is going to take serious intentionality and focus on learning who she is sexually.
Some women have been in a marriage like that for 10 or 15 years and they start to believe, There must be something wrong with my body; I guess I just can never enjoy sex. That’s just not true! There’s most likely nothing wrong with your body—and if there is, it’s most likely something that’s very easily fixed. It often has a whole lot more to do with your mind, your emotions, and your spiritual beliefs about sexuality.
One reason a wife may feel there is something wrong with her body is if she is unable to reach climax. That can be a very deep, emotional wound for a woman.
I’m not a medical doctor, but from everything I’ve read from a medical perspective, a struggle to achieve climax is almost never a physical problem. While there can be hormone imbalances and things like that which impact sexual desire and response, it’s almost never due to an anatomical difficulty. The vast majority of the time, this sort of struggle has to do with a woman’s mind and what’s underlying her thinking about sexuality.
Sometimes orgasm starts to feel like the goal that she can never achieve, so even sex play has an implicit pressure for both the husband and wife—like, Is it going to happen now? It’s kind of like when you know you have to get to sleep and you’re so frustrated that you can’t sleep that as you work yourself up, you become less likely to fall asleep, and you get more and more upset. And the same thing is true for a woman in this situation. A continual cycle of disappointment and frustration makes it even less likely that she’s going to overcome that difficulty.
How can a woman take steps to heal if she feels stuck in a painful cycle of disappointment?
I think the solution to this kind of struggle is a combination of two things. First, it means letting [climax] go as the ultimate goal. And I’d love for a woman in that situation to sit down and list all of the things that are wonderful about sex between her and her husband. For example, she might write, It’s just between him and me and we have secrets that are fun to keep. Sometimes we laugh together. It feels good to be able to meet his needs. It feels good when he touches me here. To realize that sex really is about more than climaxing—that there are so many good things happening—is a first step. Making climax the only goal is really robbing you of all the other gifts involved.
The second thing is not to give up hope. Don’t settle for a mindset like, Well, I guess it’s just never really going to happen for me. Instead, begin to work on it and pray that God will bring the fullness of what he wants for you and your husband sexually.
Practically speaking, how can couples work on this issue together?
I’d recommend Cliff and Joyce Penner’s book Restoring the Pleasure, which explains how couples can engage in an exercise called “sensate focus” that can help a woman become more aware of her body and pleasure. It’s also important to keep in mind that many women can’t have an orgasm without direct stimulation to the clitoris. This means that many wives need manual stimulation—not just the friction of intercourse. So don’t be shy about making this a normal part of your sexual interaction with your husband.
Sexual frustration can lead a wife to start to feel resentful toward her husband. How can she handle those feelings?
At the core of this is the common frustration that your husband isn’t like you. Whether it’s because he wants sex more often or less often or differently than you want it, that can really set both of you up for a lot of underlying anger and resentment.
For me, as a wife, it was really huge to let go of some of that anger I felt and to realize that it could be that God intentionally made me and my husband very different for his purposes. In fact, frustration is actually part of the whole gift of sex.
Think of it this way: if you and your husband were exactly the same and had the same desire, then having sex would cost you nothing. You could be selfish and be a great lover at the same time. But the way God designed it, it’s impossible to be selfish and be a great lover at the same time. It requires of you to do what Philippians 2 tells us to do: to consider the other person’s needs as more important than your own and to have a spirit of humility.
That’s what God wants in us more than anything else: he wants us to have the right heart toward our spouse. If sexual frustration is one of the things he uses, then ultimately that’s a good thing if we handle it right.
We don’t normally think of sexual frustration as a spiritual growth catalyst! What can it look like for frustration in this area to actually help a woman become more spiritually mature?
Let me just share how God is teaching me this. About seven or eight years ago, I was in that place of a woman who really was resentful about sex. Yet at the same time that I felt that way, I also had a very close walk with the Lord.
I distinctly remember one time when I was praying: Lord, I’m yours. How do you want me to serve you? I’m willing to go to the mission field for you—I’m willing to do whatever you call me to. And God clearly started to challenge me in my heart: You’re willing to do all these things, but are you willing to go up and initiate sex with your husband? Put down your Bible and go up and show your husband love.
That really hit me. I think a lot of women are in that place where they would do anything for the Lord, but this is such a tangible thing to give—and it can be such a difficult thing to give. It’s a true test of not just your devotion to your husband but also your devotion to God.
God challenged me to look at my own selfishness in a very tangible way. We hear over and over and over again from the world, “It’s your body, it’s your right.” Yes, we definitely need to hear that in certain circumstances—but Scripture also tells us that it’s not only your body. Your husband also has authority over your body. Scripture challenges both husbands and wives with a very different message: it’s not okay to be selfish with your body.
What’s the most important thing you’d like to say to Christian couples who are currently facing sexual challenges?
Look at the sexual frustration you’re experiencing not as a stop sign, but actually as something that can take you to a deeper level of intimacy with your husband. In working with couples who have been through every frustration you can imagine—from pornography addiction to adultery to physical pain during sex to many other difficulties—those who have persevered and sought the Lord through the process have, without exception, said, "I would never give up what we’ve learned. That was the hardest thing we’ve had to go through, but we are so much closer than we ever could have been if we had not gone through that trial."
Are you sexually frustrated in your marriage? Seek the Lord, work through the obstacle you’re facing, and do so with the hope that the intimacy that you build is going to be so much better than what you initially thought sex could be.