Better Married Sex: Shaunti Feldhahn & Dr. Michael Sytsma
What’s normal in bed? Researcher Shaunti Feldhahn and sex therapist Dr. Michael Systma offer tips for better, fulfilling, and connected married sex.
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Wha is normal in bed? Researcher Shaunti Feldhahn and sex therapist Dr. Michael Systma offer tips for better, fulfilling, and connected married sex.
Shelby: Hey, Shelby Abbott here. Just want to give a heads up before you listen to this next program. Today's conversation on FamilyLife Today covers some sensitive but important subjects that might not be suitable for younger ears, so please use discretion when listening to this next broadcast.
Alright, now let's jump into it.
Dave: I'll be really honest because I've said this to Ann in this area. There's a fear that creeps in. If it's been a while, I've told her, I'm afraid to touch you—
Dave: —because I feel like you're going to feel like, “Oh, you're touching me now and it's not about love or affection.” You feel like “I'm using her,” and so I don't want to do that. So next thing you know, you're in a bad cycle.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: You'll remember 30 years ago we were starting our church; we decided we really want to reach the guy that doesn't go to church. So that's sort of our, you know, our hope that we'd reach those kind of people. So, the first series, do you remember what it was called?
Dave: It's called “The Art of Awesome Living.”
Ann: Oh no, I don't remember that.
Dave: It's the lamest title ever for a series, but in 1990 we thought that was cool. But we decided let's just hit all kinds of different topics, trying to see who might come. And then week four, I put together a message called “Sex: What a Great Idea.”
Ann: That's what I do remember.
Dave: You remember that?
Dave: I give this message. I get done. I see this guy walking toward me, and I'll never forget. He goes, “Hey, I don't know what they call you around here, but that was one blank of a sermon.” He just barks it out. [Laughter] And I'm thinking, “Wow, this is great. This is the guy we're trying to reach.” I go, “Hey, tell me your story; you been here before?” “No, I haven't been to church in 30 years.” And I go, “How did you end up here today?” He goes “I’ll tell you how I ended up here. My wife came here last week. I was in bed, and she came home, and she goes, ‘Honey, you're going to like this church.’” And so, he shows up. Mike was his name; six weeks later he gave his life to Christ.
Michael: Very cool.
Dave: And ended up serving in our church for decades.
Ann: And just so our listeners know, it was a biblical viewpoint of God.
Dave: And that's my whole point. What we decided to do early in our church is say “This is something the church needs to be talking about. And we need to go to the Word of God and the Creator of sex and say, ‘What's His design?’” and that's all I did in that message. And so that's what we're going to do. Today we've got Shaunti Feldhahn in the studio. She's a researcher and an author and a great friend of ours. This is quite a combo in the studio today because not only do we have Shaunti; we have a certified sex therapist, Michael Sytsma, in the studio. I don't think we've ever had a certified.
Ann: I don't think so.
Dave: Michael, you're smiling. Do you like that title?
Michael: You know it's one I've gotten to be comfortable with and part of what I love about it is if we're going to speak to the subject, let's make sure that we've really studied, that we've tested, that we've shown ourselves to be approved. And to have a large organization say “Yes, you've got all the education, the training, the experience,” that is comforting to me.
Dave: Yes. How did you two connect on this book? [Laughter] Because this book—by the way, I'll give our listeners the title. It's called Secrets of Sex and Marriage: 8 Surprises That Make All the Difference. I'm just going to tell you, we endorsed it because it's one of the best I've ever seen on this topic.
Michael: Thank you.
Dave: Part of it is this combination, this beautiful combination of its biblical, but it is research based and it has the expertise of therapy. So yes, how did you two end up combining for this?
Shaunti: Dr. Sytsma—Michael—he has been one of our, sort of friends, and advisors for me and Jeff as we've done the research on men and women and marriage and all these other things over the years. Whenever we would come across this topic and have to study it, half the time I'm calling Mike going, “Help” [Laughter] because I don't understand what I'm seeing in the data. He's been an advisor for all this time. And when we felt like we were being led into tackling this topic—which by the way, Jeff and I were like, “No.”
Ann: But you did feel led to it.
Shaunti: We did. The last research topic that we did was for our book Thriving in Love and Money because money is one of the big issues in marriage. Well, guess what one of the other big issues in marriage is. We recognized we really needed to do both, but we also recognized that on this topic we could do damage if it wasn't really accurate. And so, we recognized that Mike was absolutely 100 percent the person to sort of co-labor on this, especially because he's also a researcher. It could not have been more perfect; God set that up.
Michael: To have her say, “Let's do something together,” I went into it kicking and screaming with my heels dragging.
Ann: Did you?
Michael: Yes, very much.
Shaunti: Oh, he totally did. Because for him, I mean—and I'm putting words in your mouth, but we actually—he says this in the book—for him he's like “Well, but there's all these exceptions. If 90 percent of people say one way, that means 10 percent don't.” It's like, “Yeah, it can't be a 3000-page book.” [Laughter] “We will say that it's 90 and 10, but we can't like go into all of those other like specialty topics.”
Michael: Right. There is a message that God has to tell here, and how do we make sure that message gets out? Shaunti’s really been awesome in helping to craft that message and put it together.
Shaunti: Well, the thing that we felt—like this was an opportunity to do—is all the research that Jeff and I have done over the years on marriage and parenting and workplace and all the different areas of our lives and our relationships, we have found that so many of the points of pain and so many of the heartaches that we have don't come from like the big, huge specialized things. They come from the little day-to-day misunderstandings and the little day-to-day ways that you're trying really hard, but maybe trying hard in the wrong areas or that you're hurting each other without intending to.
And so, to be able to say, “Can we focus on a lot of that stuff, like, what are the things that impact most marriages in their intimate life, where most couples could, if they just knew this or that, it would make a big difference?” I got really excited about studying: what were those things?
Ann: Were you surprised? I mean, the subtitle is 8 surprises [Laughter] and so as the data’s coming in, were you surprised, Michael? Was it anything to you that was surprising?
Michael: Shaunti is shaking her head no. [Laughter] There really wasn't an awful lot that was surprising to me. Sometimes the extreme of the numbers was a bit of a surprise, but the direction that they went was not a surprise.
Dave: But it was to you, Shaunti?
Shaunti: For me, yes; 100 percent of it was a surprise. [Laughter]
Dave: Now, why is that?
Shaunti: Yes. Well, one of the topics that is to me something that explains something I had been seeing in the research for years and years and years, that I didn't know what was underneath it, is that a lot of people think if they're not connecting in an intimate way, it means that they, that just the drive is different, right?
Ann: That's what we've always thought.
Shaunti: That's what we've always thought.
Dave: We've actually taught that.
Dave: I just hate to say this out loud.
Shaunti: Well, and there may be, right, and that is a real issue and we'll get/we can get into that. But I was so stunned once we actually dove into some of these—what are the reasons?—how often it's not that and how often it's like, for example, that there are two different types of desire, and it just functions differently for different people. Especially, honestly, there's a big statistical correlation with men and women that there's just some things that work physiologically differently. It just helps explain so much. Anyway, we can get into that topic but—
Ann: I think we need to—now our listeners are like “Tell us.” [Laughter]
Dave: I’ll frame it this way. You have eight surprising secrets; we're probably not going to get them all. We'll get some of them in this broadcast and in the next one. But I just frame it this way as a pastor—and we've been in ministry over 40 years in marriage areas and traveled the country and spoken on this—the questions on this topic have heightened in the last 10, 15 years, just for us out traveling around.
I know you know that as well, but this is so important that we're talking about. I just feel as a pastor trying to help people, people want to know what God's word says, what's the creator's perspective and how do I navigate this? You know this, you wrote the book on it. But I love, Shaunti, I love what you and Jeff have done. Every book has the “Here it is in a chart; here's where you're going to go.” You know I'm a guy that's like, “I'm going to go there first” and it gives you an outline. But you start the book with this question. I love it. It was “What are couples up to in the bedroom?” And a guy like me is like, “Yeah, I want to know. Am I normal? Am I abnormal?” What did you find out?
Michael: So, you know, for over 20 years doing this and speaking in various churches and organizations and I ask, just give me any question you—and we have lots of ways that they can anonymously submit them—and probably the primary question I get is something along the line of: “Am I normal? What is normal? What do couples do? Are we within the typical kind of range?” And then the next one is “Can we?” You know “Is this okay?” or “How do we do this kind of stuff?”
And the “What is normal?” is one of those questions that a sex therapist we really struggle with. We don't like to answer that. Because what is normal is really varied, based from couple to couple. If you want to just ask maybe a typical what is normal question: “What is the average that couples have sexual encounters? How often does that go?” And we'd sit back and say, “Well, that depends on how long have you been married, how old are you, how many kids do you have, is one of you starting a business, are one of you starting a new job?
Ann: Has one of you had a baby?
Michael: Have you just moved recently? –all of those things.
Dave: One of you; that would be you. [Laughter]
Michael: All of those shape it dramatically. To say, “What is normal?” Well, it depends on the context and so that does get difficult. But if we step back, one of the things we found is that right about—what percentage was sexless? 20?
Shaunti: It was 23 percent in one survey and 21 in another; really high.
Dave: Is what?
Michael: —is sexless. What we in the sex therapy field would often identify as those that are—
Dave: A quarter? Almost a quarter of marriages?
Michael: Yes, are engaging less than once a month.
Shaunti: And that's what one of the things I was interested to find out is that in Mike’s field, they consider a marriage to be sexless if they're having these encounters less than once a month. That was 21 to 23 percent depending on our survey, which is a pretty high number, more than one in five.
Ann: Were you surprised by that, Shaunti? Oh, I was very surprised by that. Now, we should also say that ended up being highly correlated with age as well and we went up to age 75.
Michael: But if we remove those couples, we're running about 1.3 times per week.
Shaunti: Four times in three weeks is what that means.
Michael: And yet that varies by a lot of different factors, contextual factors.
Dave: If you're a couple like us listening to this and you hear a stat like 1.3 times a week, what do you want to do with that information as a couple? Do you want to go, “Oh, we're under, we're over. We need to do”—I mean what do you do with that?
Shaunti: Mike would probably have a different answer as a therapist. I'll tell you automatically what to me is the biggest issue is that it gives you a little bit of a framework, remembering that the average is not necessarily the right one for you. The analogy that Mike used in the book is 70 percent of the people in your neighborhood may have a pet, for example. You may be the 30 percent that doesn't, because you're traveling all the time or there's a reason you don't have a pet and so it's not like there's a right or a wrong. It's just these are all just different, you know, sort of perceptions and what works for you.
However, I think it is helpful for people to be aware that, for example, suppose that you have one spouse that is a higher desire than another, and the other one is much lower and they're like, “Well, I think it's fine once every three weeks. You just have a crazy high drive.” And to look at the numbers and go, “Um no, that's not weird.” There's a wide range of normal. It's hard to say what's normal quote unquote, but it gives people a little bit more perspective on it.
And by the way, one of the things I should mention that sexless number that's so high, the actual number of where they say they never have sex is only nine percent of the population, which is still quite high—one in ten.
Ann: You guys seem to have some concerns over the couple that is not engaging, like that's concerning to you.
Shaunti: It is.
Ann: I've had a lot of people come up to me, women come up to me and say that's the case for them. As a therapist, Mike, you would be concerned about that.
Michael: Well, that's a symptom of something that's going on and to step back and figure out “What does this mean?” If I tie that to “What do we do with the 1.3?” Well, you look and see “Where are we at in comparison to it?” Well, we're higher? Well, what does that mean? We have a better marriage than the typical marriage, so we're connecting more intimately than the typical marriage; that's a good thing. We're below that; do we need to work on intimacy? If it's absent, the couple needs to figure out what that's about.
Sometimes there's a really good reason. It may be that there's a physical issue that's going on. There may be a disease process that's happening that has short circuited their ability to connect. Even in those, we would encourage them often to get creative. There may be other things that the couple can do to continually engage in physical intimacy that is enjoyable for them even if their stereotypical behaviors no longer are an option due to disease.
Others are the relationships unsafe, that something's been brought into that covenantal marriage, that it's not safe to be that intimate with each other and they're in the process or need to be in the process of healing that safety.
There may be a host of reasons why this couple is not engaging, and that's what we want to step back and figure out.
Shaunti: Sometimes one of the things that I've seen as I've talked to women at women's events, that kind of thing, though, is that sometimes it just becomes a habit. Sometimes you just get out of the habit of connecting.
One of the things that we spent quite a bit of time looking at—and there's different studies on this that can help go further that are more complicated than my little brain can process—but there is actually a chemical reason why sometimes when you get out of the habit that you want intimacy less. Like you're literally your body, those chemicals in your body, just aren't stimulated as much. And so, if you want it less and the chemicals aren't there, then you want it even less and so you have it less and then the chemicals go down and then. It's like a negative cycle.
And one of the things that in general—now this is, there's all sorts of exceptions to this—but in general to sort of make that decision and say, you know, as long as the relationship is safe, as long as there's not some of these factors that Mike was talking about
Michael: And there’s an enjoyment to it.
Shaunti: And then there's an enjoyment in it to be able to say, “You know what? Yeah, I've been running around after kids or I've been busy and I'm just not thinking about it, but I'm going to decide.” Then knowing that that's going to stimulate those chemicals in your body and you're actually going to be more interested next time, which means that then you might do that more and then stimulate those chemicals more and so it becomes a more of a positive cycle.
Dave: —positive cycle.
Shaunti: Because when I talk to a lot of—again on the women's side of the world—I talked to a lot of women where it's just they've gotten out of the habit and they're just not, quote unquote, interested. And part of it is because they're out of habit.
Dave: I know from a husband's perspective—I'll say it this way. I know a husband and a friend of mine who would say—no, this is me. [Laughter] I'll be really honest because I've said this to Ann in this area. There's a fear that creeps in, for me anyway, if it's been a while. I've told her, I'm afraid to touch you—
Dave: —because I feel like you're going to feel like, “Oh, you're touching me now and it's not about love or affection.” There’s the negative cycle so then you pull back like I don’t want her to feel that way so I’m just even though and the next thing you know, another few days gone by and you're like, “Now I feel even more fear.”
Shaunti: Yes, exactly.
Dave: I don't know how many men feel that way, but I think, I know Ann has said this and I know other wives have said to their husbands, “There's not any affection in our marriage.” And so, you feel like “I'm using her.” I don't want to do that, so the next thing you know, you're in a bad cycle.
Michael: You guys have just identified what makes a difference. You said, “I came to her, and I said, ‘I'm afraid; this is what's going on.’” You guys are communicating about it. You're talking about it. Our research showed the same thing.
Shaunti: It did.
Michael: Couples that are communicating effectively are healthier, better, more satisfied, more frequent; all of the factors that we're looking at were tied to how well the couple talked.
Dave: I love how you said this in your book. You know, wrong assumption—we have a difficult time talking about sex, but that's okay. Actions speak louder than words. [Laughter] Truth—actions may speak louder than words, but without the words, you may not be getting much action. [Laughter] So well said.
Ann: Okay, well give us homework for today. We've been talking about this; what can we do to begin the process of communication?
Michael: Well, I think you identified something that's important to keep in mind, as is foundational. We often have been taught not to talk about it; that it is a sacred subject. It is a sacred subject and we're uncomfortable talking about it. Most couples don't have a good language for it. It's so easy to misunderstand what each other is saying. The first exercise I encourage couples to do is pick up a good book; something written by somebody who has some good training. [Laughter]
Dave: Do you know anybody?
Shaunti: We might be recommending a particular book at this point, yes.
Michael: But there are actually a lot of good books out there, and I encourage couples to sit down and read it out loud to each other.
Michael: Together—and take turns with who the reader is. The goal is not to get to the end of the book. The goal is to pause regularly and go “I think this author is just crazy; nobody is like this.” And don't be surprised when your spouse looks at you and says, “What do you mean nobody's like that; that perfectly described me.” [Laughter]
Couples start hearing themselves use language and it gives them language and it helps make them more comfortable with having these conversations. Now they have a foundation, and they can say, “You know, is there a way we could let each other know when this touch is just cuddling or when this touch, we want it to be more intimate? Can we have a language for that?” It allows couples to really lean in and be more intimate across the board just by communicating with it.
Shelby: You're listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Shaunti Feldhahn and Dr. Michael Sytsma on FamilyLife Today. If the thought of talking out loud about sex with your spouse feels uncomfortable, like maybe you have over the last few minutes, first of all, you're not alone. And secondly, Shaunti’s got some words of encouragement for you. That's in just a minute.
But first we wanted to let you know that Shaunti and Dr. Michael have written a book called Secrets of Sex and Marriage: 8 Surprises That Make All the Difference. We'd love to send you a copy along with FamilyLife’s online course called Nearly Complete Guide to Better Married Sex. Both of those are our gift to you when you partner financially with us today. You'll help more families hear conversations, just like today’s. Conversations that point to the hope found in Christ. You can give at FamilyLifeToday.com or by calling 800-358-6329 that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know as we've been talking about this, it's interesting to start to ask the question, “How much time are you actually spending with your spouse?” and “What could your family look like if you spent intentional time this upcoming year pursuing the people you love the most?” It could be inspiring; could be eye opening. One year, 500 hours, a lifetime of impact. That's the goal of our one-year marriage challenge called 500 Hours Together. You can find a link to that challenge in the show notes on FamilyLifeToday.com.
Alright, here's Shaunti Feldhahn, with some words of encouragement for spouses who aren't exactly thrilled about talking out loud aboutsex.
Shaunti: One of the things that is intimidating for an average couple—you know like me and Jeff—is you have to talk about sex. It's like what? You know. It's like—
Ann: It’s so scary.
Shaunti: —uncomfortable and scary. It's actually much more simple than that. Really what you're talking about is not like people are thinking “Are you talking about techniques and body parts?” Like, “What are you talking about?”
No. There’re all sorts of stuff that's running under the surface in our hearts, all sorts of insecurities and worries and things that matter to us that we wouldn't have been able to really articulate. There's all of this stuff that's running under the surface and once you know that—like for example, that when you talk about reading our book out loud to one another or some of these others—it's that stuff, that's being identified. It's that underneath the surface stuff that you're talking about and that's a lot more freeing. It's the emotional things. It's what are you thinking and feeling about? What is this? You know, when you haven't been together in a certain amount of time, what does that do in your heart? Like, that kind of stuff is much more compelling to talk about.
Ann: And it’s incredibly intimate.
Dave: It is intimate.
Michael: The reverse of that too is how do you feel when it's pressured? When you haven't hit that 1.3 and you're feeling like I have to step up; that is destructive.
Shaunti: That’s another great thing to talk about.
Ann: These are great homework.
Michael: And to be able to say, “This is actually destructive to our relationship because I pull back more and more because the pressures there.” So how can both of them step back and create a space between them that both want to be in and it's enjoyable for both of them. That takes them talking about the individual uniqueness’s of who they are.
Shelby: Now, tomorrow, Dave and Ann sit down again with Shaunti Feldhahn and Dr. Michael Sytsma to talk about combating something that commonly happens in marriage: the feeling of being unattractive, unwanted, and undesired by your spouse. That's tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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