What happens when a bestselling Christian marriage book, like Love and Respect, treats sex as if it’s just for the husband?

Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the emails and comments on this blog from desperate people. I’ve been trying to address these things on a case by case basis, writing posts about very specific marriage issues.

But when the same things keep popping up, time and time again, I start to ask myself: “How can I address the root cause?”

A few months ago, I started wondering if maybe the reason that so many of the same issues kept recurring was because the Christian teaching in a particular area was faulty. So I thought I would review some popular Christian books on marriage for couples to see what they say about sex. And I thought I’d start with a review of the book Love and Respect, by Emerson Eggerichs, since it’s consistently one of the best-selling Christian marriage books. I’d never actually read it all the way through before, but I thought it was time to take a look.

There’s a lot that I could say about how Love & Respect approaches marriage.

His premise is that women desire love, but men desperately need respect. And both must be unconditional.

I know that many people have read this book and found it very helpful in their marriage. I do believe that if you are in a good marriage, with two well-meaning people, the main message you’ll take away is “don’t be selfish”, which is beneficial. I think that’s why so many people like the book, and have gleaned a lot from it. But if one partner is not well-meaning, the advice can make the marriage worse. Beyond that, the underlying premise of a book can change our expectations and our conversations about marriage, even if it doesn’t hurt our marriage in particular.

And that latter part is what I want to review: How has Love & Respect shaped our conversations about sex?

I’d be happy to review Love and Respect more broadly if people want me to (just leave that request in the comments), but I really want to focus on the teaching about sexuality that is found in the book, since that is the cornerstone of what I write about. So let’s dive in:

Love and Respect by Emerson Eggerichs: A review on how it treats sex in marriage

 

In Love and Respect, sex is only given its own chapter in the section covering husbands’ needs

Eggerichs divides his book up into two main sections:

  • What love looks like for women, and what women need;
  • and what respect looks like for men, and what men need.

In the section of the book that talks about women’s needs, sex is never mentioned as a need (helping her feel good during sex is never mentioned as a need, either). Sex tends to be mentioned as an afterthought in chapters about other things that women need, such as this quote from the Openness Chapter:

“When she believes there is a problem, when she feels hurt, lonely, or neglected, she definitely has no interest in responding to you sexually.” (p. 137)

And then there’s this:

You must not be open [emotionally] to “get sex”. A wife sees through that and is turned off sexually. But when you authentically meet her emotional needs, she’ll be empathetic to your sexual needs.” (p. 144)

Sex is portrayed as something that men will get from empathetic wives if they meet her other needs, and not as something that women may want or enjoy, in their own right.

Here’s what Eggerichs’ Love and Respect Includes in the Sexuality Chapter

When Emerson Eggerichs does explicitly address sex, it’s in the wife’s section of the book on how she can meet her husband’s needs. I don’t want to be accused of taking him out of context, so I’ve written a synopsis of this chapter. However, it’s quite long, so I’ll put it in a box that you can open if you’re interested. For brevity’s sake, though, I’ll summarize:

A Synopsis of the Sexuality Chapter from Love and Respect

Page 250: He can’t respond to emotional needs until he has physical release

The chapter opens with an anecdote about a couple where she wouldn’t respond sexually until he met her emotional needs, but he was withdrawing. So God asked the wife,

“Who is supposed to be the mature one here? He is a new believer and you’ve been in Christ for many years.”….She decided to minister to her husband sexually, not because she particularly wanted to, but because she wanted to do it as unto Jesus Christ. She just didn’t have that need for sex….

As the wife met his need for sex, he became very affectionate.

“Sex for him and affection for you is a two-way street. Just as he should minister to your spirit to have access to your body, so, too, you should minister to his body if you want to gain access to his spirit.”

Page 250: Sex is symbolic of his deeper need–respect

“A husband has a need for physical release through sexual intimacy.” (250)

Page 251: The Two Keys of Understanding Your Husband’s Sexuality

  1. His sexuality is different from yours, because he is visually stimulated.
  2. “He needs sexual release just as you need emotional release.”

Page 252-255: Husbands…can come under satanic attack when deprived of sexual release.” (252)

The section opens with a story about a daughter explaining to her mother that she and her husband are having a fight, and the mother telling the daughter that she should have more sex with him, saying, “Why would you deprive him of something that takes such a short amount of time and makes him sooooo happy!?” (252)

His anatomy and design is much different from yours. “He needs sexual release as you need emotional release.” (253)

What if he doesn’t get it? “The cold, hard truth is that men are often lured into affairs because they are sexually deprived at home.” (253)

The chapter then goes into several stories about affairs that were started because a man lacked sex. “A man who strays is usually given total blame for his affair, but in many cases he is the victim of temptation that his wife helped bring upon him.” (253) A story about how a wife realized that she was to blame for her husband’s affair follows. She had been so busy with kids that she had left her husband vulnerable to attack from the enemy. She recounts:

“His need for this was so strong that at one point during our separation, he was willing to give up everything—marriage, family, business, reputation, even his relationship with the Lord–just to continue feeling the respect and admiration he was feeling from this other woman…God is helping me see my part in the breakdown of our marriage.” (254)

A final story of an affair, this time one that didn’t end on a happy note, because the wife did not realize that she was responsible for him being tempted. The husband writes (and Eggerichs quotes him approvingly):

“I don’t blame her for [my] immorality, but she doesn’t own up to anything. I’m not blaming her, but she is not blameless.” (255)

Pages 256-258: Men Are Tempted By Other Women, and Need their Wives to Understand

Men need to be able to talk to their wives about their temptations with other women’s bodies. Women need to accept that husbands will be tempted by other women, and not be hurt if a husband shares this. If a woman can share her deepest issues, then men need to be able to share their deepest issues. If a husband should empathize with a woman struggling with body image issues, then a wife should also empathize with a husband being tempted by other women.  (256)

Because she gets upset if she hears that he is tempted by other women, and tells him that he needs to stop looking at other women, he will clam up and will not be able to be open with her anymore. (256)

God understands that men are visually stimulated; women need to understand that husbands are, too, and that they will notice other women and struggle with that temptation. (257)

“Simply put, a man is responsive to what he sees. He needs his wife’s understanding of his struggles.” (257)

“A wife longs to receive her husband’s closeness, openness, and understanding. You can achieve this in two ways: (1) do your best to give him the sexual release he needs, even if on some occasions you aren’t “in the mood,” or (2) let him know you are trying to comprehend that he is tempted sexually in ways you don’t understand.” (257)

“If your husband is typical, he has a need you don’t have. When you shame him, punish him, or deprive him, he feels dishonored for who he is. If your husband feels you do not respect his struggle, his desire for you, and his maleness, he’ll pull back from you.” (258)

The book talks about sex on pages 250-258.

Page 250: He can’t respond to emotional needs until he has physical release

It opens with an anecdote about a couple where she wouldn’t respond sexually until he met her emotional needs, but he was withdrawing. So God asked the wife,

“Who is supposed to be the mature one here? He is a new believer and you’ve been in Christ for many years.”….She decided to minister to her husband sexually, not because she particularly wanted to, but because she wanted to do it as unto Jesus Christ. She just didn’t have that need for sex….

Page 250: Sex is symbolic of his deeper need–respect

“A husband has a need for physical release through sexual intimacy.” (250)

Page 251: The Two Keys of Understanding Your Husband’s Sexuality

  1. His sexuality is different from yours, because he is visually stimulated.
  2. “He needs sexual release just as you need emotional release.”

Page 252-255: “Husbands…can come under satanic attack when deprived of sexual release.” (252)

This section includes several stories about how women’s lack of sex led men into affairs: “The cold, hard truth is that men are often lured into affairs because they are sexually deprived at home.”

Pages 256-258: Men Are Tempted By Other Women, and Need their Wives to Understand

Men need to be able to talk to their wives about their temptations with other women’s bodies. Women need to accept that husbands will be tempted by other women, and not be hurt if a husband shares this. If a woman can share her deepest issues, then men need to be able to share their deepest issues. If a husband should empathize with a woman struggling with body image issues, then a wife should also empathize with a husband being tempted by other women. (256)

“If your husband is typical, he has a need you don’t have. When you shame him, punish him, or deprive him, he feels dishonored for who he is. If your husband feels you do not respect his struggle, his desire for you, and his maleness, he’ll pull back from you.” (258)

That’s a very quick synopsis, but you can see by the page numbers how much space is devoted to each topic.

To read the total synopsis, click the box above.

No author can say everything they want to about sex in just one chapter. When they only have a little bit of space, then, what they do choose to say is indicative of what they consider to be the most important lessons. If people hear nothing else–then let them hear this. If I were to summarize Love & Respect on the topic of sex quickly, then, here’s the information Eggerichs appears to feel is most important:

A husband has a need for physical release. A woman does not have a need for sex; her need is only for emotional connection, which she won’t get unless she gives him sex. Men experience respect through their wives giving them physical release. If wives don’t meet their needs, husbands will be tempted to have an affair, and affairs tend to be caused by women not having sex. Men are visual and will be tempted by other women; when we don’t allow a husband to confess that he finds other women attractive, he will clam up and will cut himself off from us emotionally.

My response to the Love & Respect sexuality chapter:

I  have much I’ll say below about what Eggerichs omits from the book–and about how he portrays women’s sex drives. And I do agree that when we make love, we tend to become more affectionate towards one another (that’s the hormonal effect of oxytocin). But I want to comment here on the overarching theme that men will stray and be tempted if they don’t get physical release.

When Christian teachers repeatedly and consistently say that all men lust and that temptation is normal, this paves the way for dysfunctional marriages and normalizes sexual sin.

When a young woman who is seeped in this teaching is dating a guy who is checking out other women in public, watching porn, and trying to pressure her into having sex, she won’t necessarily see these things as red flags. Since this teaching is so rampant, she assumes that all Christian men treat women as commodities. And she doesn’t think that she deserves more, because she doesn’t realize that more even exists.

I have written at length about how the idea that “every man lusts” hurts marriages, traps men in a sin cycle, and is faulty theology. I won’t repeat it all, but you can see some of these posts:

Here’s what Eggerichs’ Love and Respect Does Not Include in its Sexuality Chapter

Love and Respect never once includes anything about sex being pleasurable for a woman.

Eggerichs frames sex as about the husband’s “physical release”–his orgasm–but he never mentions that women can (and should!) have orgasms, too. When one of the number one Christian marriage books completely ignores the fact that women are supposed to experience sexual pleasure, I find that concerning.

I had a man leave a comment recently about how his wife was in rebellion because she would never give him sex–and it’s not like it took very long! It was just five minutes of her day, and she was rejecting Christ by rejecting him.

This reasoning is consistent with what Eggerichs teaches (he even uses an anecdote about sex not taking very long, so what’s the big deal? Just do it! p. 252). But sex should take longer than five minutes! If sex has never taken longer than five minutes, then it’s quite clear that the husband is only concerned about his own physical release (exactly what Eggerichs says the purpose of sex is) and he’s never realized that he’s supposed to make sure she enjoys herself, too.

I spoke to a woman at a FamilyLife marriage conference once who wanted to understand why she never desired sex. She’d been married for 23 years, and this was the biggest thing they disagreed about. But she just couldn’t get excited about sex. The more I asked questions, the more I understood the issue: Her husband never lasted longer than three minutes, either. But they had no idea this was not ideal. They had heard teaching for years about how women needed to give sex, but never any teaching on a woman’s sexual response.

Her sexual pleasure matters, too! So I told her about 31 Days to Great Sex, and asked her to work through it slowly with her husband so that they could discover what made her feel good as well.

Love & Respect explicitly says that women do not have needs for sex. It also never mentions that women’s sexual pleasure should be part of a healthy sexual relationship. It erases women’s sexual being, turning them simply into vehicles for a man’s physical release. If women’s sexuality is erased, is it any wonder that women’s libido is as well?

Love and Respect never includes anything about sex being about a deep spiritual and emotional intimacy and a deep knowing of each other.

The starting point for many Christian teachers is that sex is about the husband. You see it here in Love & Respect blatantly, where we’re told that sex is about his physical release. It is something a husband alone needs, and something that a wife must provide. Mark Driscoll, in the same vein, called women “penis homes”. I commented on this type of thinking in these posts:

God does not present sex like this at all. God sees sex not as transactional where the husband gets what he needs, but as a mutual experience of a deep “knowing”, a Hebrew word that encompasses a deep emotional and spiritual intimacy as well. And here’s how I described intimacy in my book The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex:
GoodGirlsGuide 120 - A Review of Love and Respect: How the Book Gets Sex Horribly Wrong

From The Good Girl's Guide to Great Sex:

Sex is ultimately a longing, a passion, a deep desire for connection. God created in each of us this longing for intimate connection with him, and he put that same longing in us for each other to mirror how he feels about us. (p. 33)

When we’re vulnerable with our mates, we feel a deep sense of connection…And that connection is very powerful. It’s that urgency to devour your husband, to consume him, to be consumed by him, just so that you can feel even more connected. (p. 163)

That’s what sex is supposed to be–not just sex, but truly making love.

But Eggerichs does not even talk about “making love” (that phrase is never used in this chapter). Yes, he does say “sexual intimacy” a few times, but that’s only ever paired with the idea that the man needs physical release or he’ll be tempted. You can’t call it intimacy if it only involves one person’s pleasure and is motivated by the other person’s fear of rejection.

When Christian teachers frame sex as being about a husband’s physical release so that he’s not tempted to watch porn or to stray, we treat wives like the methadone treatment for their husband’s sex addictions. 

I sometimes wonder if those who teach such things have any idea what this teaching does to a woman’s heart–a woman who wants so desperately to be truly intimate with her husband, to be truly respected, and to be truly cherished. If sex is reduced to his physical release, then he is using her body while ignoring her soul. That’s erasing her very personhood.

Love and Respect never addresses the 25% of marriages where the wife has the higher sex drive.

So many women on my blog are desperate because their husbands never want sex. In my surveys for The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, I found that 24% of women had higher sex drives than their husbands. If they read this book (and others) and listen to Christian teachers who talk only about a man’s need for sex, and a woman’s obligation to give it–well, how are they going to feel?

Love and Respect never talks about how pornography is ravaging men’s sex drives (and women’s!) and how this must be dealt with before just “having sex”

Sex cannot be intimate if a man is using a woman after being aroused by images of other women. That is the antithesis of intimacy.

Yet if sex is only about men’s “physical release”, then none of this matters. That’s a recipe for an extremely unhealthy, and even sexually abusive, marriage.

I have written at length about how porn use rewires the brain so that what becomes arousing is an image or a video, rather than a relationship. Delve too much into porn, and it becomes more and more difficult to be aroused by your wife. Men who use porn often also “use” their wives in bed. They tend to be selfish and can be rough; they demand things that the wife doesn’t want to do that she considers gross; they don’t think of sex as being about love, but as being about him taking what he wants. This is extremely unhealthy–for the marriage; for the wife’s heart; but also for the husband’s soul.

If a woman were married to a guy addicted to porn, and she read Love & Respect, what would she hear?

His porn use is her fault, because the reason that guys stray is because their wives aren’t giving them sex (specifically physical release). This is demonstrably false. Most husbands who use porn got hooked before they married. In addition, most men with porn habits lose interest in their wives. In most marriages to porn users, the problem is not that he wants sex and she isn’t giving it, so he turns to porn. The problem is that he is never interested in her, because he watches porn and masturbates all the time.

Yet reading this book, she would be given no advice on how she should address his porn issue except “have more sex so he won’t stray“, which is actually exactly the OPPOSITE of what should be done to help him defeat this–and ridiculous anyway, because male porn users don’t tend to be interested in sex with their wives.

Love and Respect never talks about how a woman might have a good reason for not wanting sex right now.

Leaving out any legitimate reasons why a woman may want to say no actually fits with the Love & Respect approach, because if sex is only about his physical release, and not about them feeling intimate, then her feelings are completely irrelevant. So whether she is feeling pukey from pregnancy; grieving from a recent loss; pain from physical ailments (or sexual pain); or even just plain exhausted–none of that matters, because of his overarching need for respect, which he experiences as her giving him physical release. And because they’re needs, they supersede what she wants.

Indeed, Eggerichs frames sexual release as a desperate need that she will never understand. And if it’s a need like that, then she could not possibly have a good reason to say no. Eggerichs repeats this “need” sentiment several times in Love & Respect:

[H]e has a need you don’t have. (258)

He needs sex; she doesn’t. If that’s true, then it’s setting up the expectation that whenever they have sex, he will want to, but she won’t. She’s really doing it just for him. That’s explicitly what Eggerichs says, too:

She decided to minister to her husband sexually, not because she particularly wanted to, but because she wanted to do it as unto Jesus Christ. (250)

Women then grow up believing that the norm in marriage is having sex when you don’t want to. No wonder so many women struggle with the idea of consent! This mindset is the reason I had to write this post on how there can actually be rape in marriage.

Incidentally, if at least 1/4 of women are victims of sexual assault or abuse, and even more are victims of unwanted sexual attention, how do you think framing sex as something that she will never really want, but she must give to him anyway, makes her feel about marriage?

On this blog, I do indeed talk about how women should have sex more frequently. I do believe that sex should be a frequent and intrinsic part of marriage. But I do it in terms of “what can we do to help you boost your libido and reclaim the sex drive God gave you”, not in terms of “you’re obligated to have sex for your husband’s sake.” That difference matters. One honours women and how God made us; one erases us.

I try so hard on this blog to give both sides of the equation–how men need to woo their wives and make sex feel good, but how women need to be enthusiastic about sex, too.

I do believe that, in general, men make love to feel loved, whereas women need to feel loved in order to make love.

I do believe that the sexes in general terms approach sex differently, because this has been well-documented in scientific studies. I have been encouraging women for years to have more sex with their husbands–and here are just a few posts to show it!

This does not mean, however, that sex is only for the husband, or even primarily for the husband. The very fact that God created women with a clitoris means that in God’s eyes, women’s sexual pleasure matters!

We often criticize the world because our culture has made sex merely physical.

But when the church makes the same mistake–well, it doesn’t just break my heart. It makes me angry.

Angry for all the women who have been brought up never hearing that sex is for you, too.

Angry for all the men who have grown up hearing that lust is inevitable and that they can’t relate to women as full people, but will always see them as body parts.

Angry for all the couples who have been taught that sex is something husbands are entitled to from their wives, without ever hearing about how sex should take more than two minutes; how men should be responsible for a woman’s orgasm; that women’s sexual pleasure matters, too.

What do you think happens to a woman’s libido if all she hears is that men need physical release; if you don’t have sex, he’ll be tempted to watch porn or have an affair; and your way of respecting your husband is to say yes, no matter what you feel?

What do you think happens to men who are told that they have a need for physical release that their wives must provide, and that if they’re not given sex, it’s not men’s fault if they stray?

You end up with men who feel entitled to sex and women who feel used. 

Don’t you think we can do better than this?

I know I’ve been critiquing Love & Respect, but the truth is that this philosophy is pretty consistent with a lot of Christian marriage books, and even Christian marriage retreats (not the ones I speak at with FamilyLife Canada!). This is the message that I’ve seen, over and over again.

When it comes to Christian teaching about marriage, the woman’s perspective has been sorely lacking for far too long. 

I think the fact that so much Christian teaching about sex is so warped is directly related to the fact that there has been a lack of women’s voices.

It’s frustrating to me that men can write marriage books for couples, but women can only write marriage books for women. It’s frustrating that men can speak at marriage conferences, whereas women can only do so if they’re part of a couple. When it comes to marriage, you NEED the woman’s perspective.

So please, let’s give the full picture of sex as part of God’s design:

It’s the perfect picture of mutuality. It’s about a deep knowing of each other. It’s supposed to be pleasurable for both. It helps us understand real passion, by helping us become vulnerable and lose control. It gives us a window into passion with God. It helps us grow close and more affectionate. It’s designed as the height of human pleasure, for both of us. And in sex, we learn how to be giving, but also how to receive.

(Here’s a longer post on how to talk about sex in a healthy way to both genders).

Seriously, if we just talked about sex like that–I bet you would see far fewer husbands being selfish and far fewer wives with no libido! But when women grow up with the message that God built them with no inherent desire for sex, but a deep obligation to meet men’s sexual needs on men’s terms–

Well, is it any wonder so many Christian women don’t want sex?

I await, with great trepidation, your comments. 

* Thanks to daughter Rebecca, by the way, for that methadone line. That was awesome.

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Love and Respect by Emerson Eggerichs: A review on how it treats sex in marriage

SheilaSidebarAboutMe - A Review of Love and Respect: How the Book Gets Sex Horribly Wrong Sheila Wray Gregoire has been married for 27 years and happily married for 22! She loves traveling around North America with her hubby in their RV, giving her signature "Girl Talk" about sex and marriage. And she's written 8 books. About sex and marriage. See a theme here? Plus she knits. Even in line at the grocery store.
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