How are you supposed to live in a sexless marriage?

Reader Question: I'm living in a sexless marriage! What do I do if my husband refuses to have sex--and will not talk about it?

Every Monday I like to post a Reader Question and take a stab at answering it. Today’s is from a woman whose husband has given up on sex altogether.

Reader Question

My husband has gone to the doctor and tells me it’s because of his age that he is having “erectile dysfunction” (he is only 41)…when I bring things up he gets very mad and says that I am obsessed with sex. It makes me feel so undesired. Our last conversation he said that he was sick of hearing me. Granted, I do bring it up every few months because I think maybe we can try. If he tried it would mean the world to me. I feel like since he doesn’t try, not even with kissing, that maybe I should just give up. I am so frustrated, I have been so patient and understanding not to overstep boundaries, but really!? I didn’t get married to live with a roommate, he is my husband and I love him but I feel alone. I wish he was willing to talk about things, to maybe seek counselling, but that is not the case. He is so focused on work and money and not us.

I know a marriage isn’t all about making love, but the connection is missing. I care about us, I want us to be happy in every aspect. He is a great provider, he is caring, supportive, generous, it’s just this department…and I don’t think it’s a small issue.

What a heartbreaking problem! So let’s try to tackle this today.
What to do if you're living in a sexless marriage

It’s true that you can’t make someone change.

But it’s also true that you should not sit back and do nothing when they are going down a road that is bad for them and bad for your marriage.

I hear so often from women, “I try to bring it up, but he just shuts me down.”

I’m not really sure how that works. For him to shut you down, you have to agree to shut up about it.

Perhaps he’s abusive and he yells and he threatens you, and then you have bigger issues. Please, seek out a counselor, or call the police if it’s necessary. It’s not okay to live with someone who threatens, belittles, or hurts you.

But most women are in a situation where we bring up something like a sexless marriage–or something else serious, like a financial crisis–and he doesn’t want to talk about it, so he does one of three things:

  • He shuts down and refuses to talk at all
  • He yells and makes such a fuss that you stop talking
  • He deflects and blames you for the problem (like our letter writer–it’s her problem for being obsessed with sex)

None of these is a healthy way of managing conflict. And for you to go along with it is to build up walls in your marriage. A sexless marriage is a huge issue that needs to be dealt with, and instead of dealing with it, you’re allowing him to shove it under the rug. And that’s only going to build distance between the two of you–and build distance between him and God.

I’m sorry if it sounds like I’m laying the blame at your feet, when it’s him that’s refusing to talk about something important. But I also don’t want people to feel helpless when their spouses are doing something really wrong, and that’s what I want to address today. I’m not saying that you’re bad or that you’re to blame; only that you really shouldn’t allow your spouse to shut you down.

And as I said in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, we’re called to be peaceMAKERS not peaceKEEPERS. Sweeping things under the rug isn’t making peace; it’s actually preventing it because it’s allowing sin to continue.

Are you PeaceKEEPING or PeaceMAKING?

There’s a huge difference between the two. And if you don’t get it right–you’ll never be able to feel truly intimate in your marriage.

There’s a better way!

Listen to me clearly on this: when a person refuses sex, they are at heart refusing intimacy, as we talked about last week. And when they run away from intimacy with their spouse, I can pretty much guarantee that they are also running away from true, authentic intimacy with God–even if they’re serving on the elders’ board or preaching from the pulpit.

So what do you do?

You love your husband.

And loving him means looking out for his long-term best interests, which means promoting real character growth.

And he is hurting himself. You are the one feeling the hurt acutely right now, but you are not actually the one who is the most hurt. What you have is a normal, healthy reaction to a bad situation. What he has is an abnormal, unhealthy reaction. When we react normally and in a healthy manner and also go before God, even if we have great disappointments in our lives, we will end up stronger and more like Christ. But when we run from true intimacy and authenticity, we will be far from okay.

1. Get a Support Group and Pray Hard. This is a battle.

And the battle is for both of your hearts. God wants you to react not in bitterness but in concern for your husband and your marriage. God doesn’t want you to lash out, but He does want you to be brave. And God wants your husband to open up to real intimacy.

To close yourself off from intimacy is dangerous. So here are some general points on how to handle this.

2. Have a game plan–Know what you want

Before you start the conversation, know what you want to get out of it. Expecting him to see it all your way and agree that you are totally right is not realistic. But expecting him to treat a sexless marriage as a real problem, and commit to working towards healing, is completely reasonable. So you may want him to agree to talk to a doctor; to see a counselor; to agree to have some intimate time once a week where you touch and talk and try, even if it doesn’t completely work.

It’s true that you can’t make someone change, but it’s also true that you should not sit back and do nothing when they are going down a road that is bad for them and bad for your marriage.

3. Ask to start praying together

When sex is an issue in your marriage, intimacy in general is quite often an issue, too, because it’s through sex that married people bare their souls to each other. When that isn’t happening, we tend to put up walls.

But sex isn’t the only way we can break down those walls. When we pray together, we’re also deeply intimate with each other. And we ask God to work in our lives, and it’s His power that we really need. So even before you address the issue of sex, it’s always worth praying together. If he refuses that as well, it’s quite likely that he’s running away from intimacy of all forms.

4. Insist on a conversation

If he starts yelling or refuses to talk or says, “this is over”, you say, “I am not willing to accept that, and I do not believe that. If you will not talk about it now, then I will be bringing it up again tomorrow night and the night after that and the night after that. This is not going anywhere. We need to figure this out. So let’s settle a time when we can discuss this.”

5. Refuse to cover for him anymore

If he has refused a conversation, then it is now time to take some action.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a sister group for the family members of alcoholics called Al Anon, to help them deal with the emotional and practical turmoil of living with an alcoholic. And one of the things that they preach is that one of the first steps to helping your loved one get help is to stop enabling them–to stop covering up for them anymore. We cover up because we think it’s the loving thing to do. We’re scared that if we stop covering up, everything will come crashing down and we’ll lose this relationship we desperately need.

But the loving thing to do is to help your husband see that he needs help, and that means facing the consequences of his actions.

This may look different in different families, depending upon the ages of your children. But if your children are adults now, it’s okay to tell them that you and their father are having difficulties and that you’ll be in separate bedrooms until your husband agrees to get some help. If he serves on an elder’s board, it’s okay to go to the pastor in private and say, “We’re having some marital difficulties and you need to know about it. I’m asking you as my pastor to deal with my husband appropriately and ask him to get some help.” It’s okay to stop going to social functions as a couple until he works on things.

It is not okay to be rude, mean, or unkind. It is not okay to spend a ton of money in revenge, to flirt with anyone else, or in any way to be unloving. But it is okay to let others know that you are having issues and that his refusal to seek help is the cause.

6. Stage an intervention

Once you let others know, it’s also appropriate in many cases to ask others to help you have a serious intervention. Personally, I feel quite strongly that the advice you seek here should be that of a trained counselor, who has gone through this sort of thing before. Get a group around you to pray through what you will say, when you will say it, and how you will say it.

And then, with perhaps 1 or 2 other trusted people, meet with him and tell him that he is hurting himself, hurting you, and hurting his spiritual life, and he needs to get help.

7. Decide what to do

What if he doesn’t seek help and refuses? Now you have some decisions to make about what you will do. A great book for people in this situation is Leslie Vernick’s How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong, and I highly recommend it.

8. Be Prepared

Finally, a warning. If someone is completely running away from sex, there may be a reason that you don’t want to hear. Perhaps he is struggling with homosexuality or porn use, and has completely destroyed his ability to perform or desire anything in a heterosexual marriage (save from a major intervention from God).

I’ve received several letters from women lately whose husbands really do appear to be gay. But they’re not admitting it; instead, they’re lashing out at their wives, and they’re getting mad if anyone suggests that anything is wrong. And they’re throwing themselves into their work.

They’re running from the truth.

It could be that your husband is running from the truth, and as you press him to deal with your sexless marriage, you’ll hear something awful.

God is still there for you. He is big enough to carry you. And it’s better to know the truth than to live in a lie, because at least when the truth is out we can live authentically.

For anyone living in a sexless marriage, I am so sorry. I’m sure the pain is grave indeed. I pray that you will find resolution.

And now let me know in the comments: Have you ever had to stage an intervention? Have you ever had to seek outside help? How did that work for you?

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