This is probably the comment I hear most frequently from women in my office. After a fight, a period of disconnection or sitting on a long-standing pile of resentment, wives have difficulty bringing themselves to be sexually intimate. Most often they feel it would be a betrayal of themselves or a lie to engage. They may also fear that to give in to sex would reward his behavior or emotional disengagement.
Our sexual selves are the most vulnerable and tender part of our being. As Gary Thomas said, “sex represents the highest and lowest points of our life: at its best, those times when we felt most alive and closer to another than at any other time, and at its worst, when we felt the greatest shame, guilt, and for some, abuse.” Because it involves our most intimate self, giving ourselves to another physically and fully requires safety. In order to be naked, physically and emotionally, we need to know that our partner is safe. If our mate has been callous or cruel or unsafe in any way, it makes perfect sense that we would not want to be physically connected until there is repair for those violations of trust. If you have been exposed to pornography or messaging that objectifies your partner, you will need to address your distortions regarding a sexual relationship before your mate will feel safe and treasured. To create safety, it is important that sex always occur with our full and free consent.
Sometimes, however, our feeling of being emotionally distant is about our disappointed expectations. We want our mate to come through for us in certain ways and when they don’t, we feel hurt, unloved, uncared for, alone. When we feel this way, we often pull away emotionally and withhold ourselves sexually. Subconsciously, we may hope that this withdrawal will spark a desire in our husband to meet our needs, to move toward us with renewed interest and responsiveness. But often, what happens instead, is that our husband feels like he has failed you in some way and distances himself more. The very thing we want- a closer, more emotionally intimate and satisfying relationship with our mate- becomes more elusive. The estrangement grows.
The reason withdrawing and withholding due to disappointment doesn’t work is twofold. First, most men, down deep, long to be enough for their wives. Even if their behavior seems to indicate they don’t care or don’t prioritize their wife’s needs, in their heart of hearts, they do hope to satisfy their wife. That’s why they are often so adverse to criticism. It feels like a failure. When they feel like a failure, they withdraw further. Secondly, men feel closer and are able to be more vulnerable after sex. They open up. The very thing you long for – the heart of your man- you may be sabotaging if you hold out on sex until you feel entirely emotionally connected. When you are open to sexual encounter you are actually inviting his engagement.
Now, I am not saying here that you need to always be sexually available. If you have had a history of sexual abuse, the desires of your mate may trigger feelings of helplessness and defense. If this is your story, it would be very important to get the help of a qualified therapist to help you heal and experience the restoration of your sexual self. If you are in an unsafe relationship, it is imperative that you do what is necessary to create safety. You may need the outside help of a therapist, pastor, or temporary housing. If your physical safety is not at risk, you may need to learn to have the conversations that will move toward creating more emotional safety within the relationship. You may need to let your spouse know what is making you feel unsafe. You might say something like, “I’d really like to feel closer to you, but when you (do or say ________ ), I feel unsafe.” If he/she responds with something dismissive or invalidating, simply restate what you have said (It is valid!) and leave it there. You can also invite your mate to tell you if there is anything that is making them withdraw emotionally from you. You might say, “Is there anything I say or do that causes you to withhold your thoughts or feeling from me?” This takes courage and a willingness to hear your mate’s experience of you. Try to take it in and consider it.
The truth is, in most marriages, we have days, weeks, seasons when we feel close emotionally and seasons when we feel distant. If we go for long seasons without sexually connecting, it feeds the emotional estrangement.
A fascinating fact about our physical make up explains why the myth, “I can’t have sex unless I am feeling emotionally close” can undermine a couple’s happiness. Both husband and wife have a hormone called oxytocin, known as the loyal bonding chemical. On a typical day, a woman has ten times more than her husband. It’s the chemical that surges in our body when we have a baby and attaches us emotionally to our child. There is only one time that a man’s level of oxytocin matches that of his wife. Yes, you guessed it- after intercourse. It appears God has given your husband a hormonal motivation to stay emotionally connected to you! When my husband says, I love you after sex I wonder, Why then? Why not earlier in the kitchen when I had food spills on me? It’s because he really feels it then! It is genuine!
When men feel secure and effective, they typically want to step up and meet the needs of their woman. Their worth is associated with their ability to please you in and outside the bed. When they feel good about themselves, they are able to give themselves more emotionally.
The reality is, whoever likes sex the least has the most power in bed. When you withhold, you have a gift no one else can give. Anything you deny from your mate becomes an absolute denial if they are to remain faithful. When you withhold, your mate feels rejected, powerless, ineffective, depressed (although you may just see irritation or anger.) We can use our power in ways that damage our marriage, or we can use our power to serve each other.