3. Sexual Desire: What to Do When You’re Not on the Same Page
Does one of you want more sex than the other? Sex therapist Dr. Michael Sytsma offers ideas and insight to work through differences in sexual desire.
About the Guest
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- For more from Shaunti Feldhahn, visit Shaunti.com.
- Grab Shaunti and Dr. Sytsma’s book in our shop: Secrets of Sex and Marriage: 8 Surprises That Make All the Difference.
Does one of you want more sex than the other? Sex therapist Dr. Michael Sytsma offers ideas and insight to work through differences in sexual desire.
MWB S03 E03 Final
[00:00:00] Brian Goins: From the Podcast Network at FamilyLife, this is Brian Goins, host of Married with Benefits, where we're committed to helping you love the one you're with and discover the real benefits of saying “I do.”
Welcome back to Married with Benefits where we're helping you discover the benefits of saying “I do.” And in Season Three, Shaunti and I get to tackle the questions that every couple is asking about sexual intimacy. And I like this one a lot. Uh, it reminded me, when I saw this question, it reminded me of an old commercial that I saw from a financial institution that would go into this park and they would start asking people randomly like, “What's your number?”
And what they meant was, “What's your number to retire?” You know, and…
[00:00:39] Shaunti Feldhahn: “How much money do you want in the bank account?”
[00:00:40] Brian Goins: Yeah. “How much money do you think you need?” And their whole point was, whatever your number is, is not gonna be enough. Um, and it seems like, that's a great question you could ask couples about sex, like, “What's the number that you think is enough to be satisfied sexually?”
And we're gonna discover that everybody has a different number that they wanna throw out.
[00:00:56] Shaunti Feldhahn: Everybody has a completely different idea of how often they want to have sex. Yes.
[00:01:01] Brian Goins: Yeah. But you're, we're gonna discover it's not as far apart as people think it is.
[00:01:05] Shaunti Feldhahn: As people think it is. Yep. This is one of the areas that I'm really excited to bring in my co-author on the book, Secrets of Sex and Marriage, Dr. Michael Sytsma, because his dissertation, when he got his PhD, was actually dealing with some discrepancies in sort of frequency how often people want it. And so I'd love to toss this to you because we saw some numbers that we asked on the survey.
I'd love you to overview for the audience, Dr. Mike, what it was that we found and what you see in your office amongst people.
[00:01:41] Dr. Michael Sytsma: Right. So conflict over frequency is one of the biggest issues that come into sex therapy, into marriage and family therapy, one of the biggest sexual issues. A lot of couples talk about this. In my dissertation, I just asked how much pain is there, and we found that 51% of the couples, either the husband or the wife, had actually considered talking to a professional because the conflict over levels of desire was so great in the relationship.
So we know that it's, it's really common for couples to fight about it because they, they do have, as a general rule, um, differing levels. Because our data was what we call data matched pair, we know which husband, which wife are married to who, and the, the data.
So we can ask, “How often do you want?” and compare it to the actual wife. And then we ask the wife, “How often does your husband want?” And we ask the husband, “How often does your wife want?” And, and we can see how far off they are in their assumptions. And all of that gives us some rich data. And we've found that only 21% of the couples agreed on the frequency.
So we've got 79% of the couples that they disagree on the frequency, and many of them think it's really a big difference. But what plays out in my office is, they're sitting in my office because one of them doesn't want sex enough. You know, the common thing is “I'm, I'm here because my husband says I need to get fixed.”
I think, I think “I'm not a vet, so… so what, what do you guys think is wrong?”
“Well, he thinks that I don't want sex enough.”
“Okay. Well, how often,” and I'll look at the husband, “how often would you like to have sex?” And the most common answer I get from husbands is “Two to three times a week.”
And I'll look at her and I'll say, “If it were totally up to you, what would you like? How often would you like to have sex?” And she says, “I don't know, one to two times a week.” And I'm like, “Guys, there's not much difference between two and two.” And that is the most common answers that I get in the office.
Even from couples that are there because of a desire discrepancy. And what we learn is, they're actually not as far apart as what they think they are, but that “think they are” is where the pain and the problem is coming in, and that was the, the outcome of the dissertation that I did, is learning that the, what we call an attribution error, what we believe is going on versus what really is going on is where the distress comes in. So it's what the high desire person thinks about the low desire.
[00:04:25] Brian Goins: Right. It seems like the narrative for most high desire people is, “well, my, my spouse just never wants to have sex.”
[00:04:29] Dr. Michael Sytsma: And that's what they tell me. You know, this wife who says “One to two times a week,” I look at her husband and say, “How often would your wife like to have sex?”
And he goes, “Never.” And I'm like, “There's a big difference between never and two times a week.” And he truly believes she never wants to engage with him and she is saying, “No, I actually would.” That discrepancy is where the pain is coming in for the couple.
[00:04:56] Shaunti Feldhahn: And I think this is where, let's draw a distinction between what we covered in the last episode and what we're gonna talk about in this episode.
Because, as we talked about last time, when people think “My spouse just isn't interested,” their brains automatically go to sex drive, to libido levels, to whatever. And in the last episode we talked about that that's not always the case, right?
That there are different types of desire that sometimes can be a huge piece of the story. However, in this episode we are talking about the fact that there just are some differences in how much someone wants intimacy, and how much someone wants to be with their spouse in this way.
But let's also not forget that sometimes that husband, for example, using the stereotypical example of the husband wanting more, which we did find statistically was often the case, he is thinking, “Interest means she wants to rip my clothes off like I see in Hollywood.” And the fact that that's not the case in his mind translates to “not interested.”
And so that was the last episode. If you haven't listened to that, if you're skipping around, go back and listen to episode two because that will actually put a lot of context.
[00:06:11] Brian Goins: And we talked about how you have either initiating or receptive, or resistant. But even within those, what you're, we're also gonna say is that you could be initiating desire, but may, may not want sex as much as your spouse. And you might be receptive desire, but you may want sex more than your spouse.
[00:06:26] Shaunti Feldhahn: It is very common. for someone to, for example, you might have the wife that has the higher desire than her husband, but she's receptive desire, like we talked about last time. She's gonna wait.
And that's something that, again, once you talk about it, and we'll unpack this, but once you talk about it, you learn a lot of these things. The key that I loved, when we started seeing the data, Mike pulled up, he pulled up a graph that to me told a really important story. And it said “Essentially, how often are you having sex?”
Okay. And it, it showed, you know, two lines with the average…
[00:07:07] Dr. Michael Sytsma: And couples largely agreed.
[00:07:10] Shaunti Feldhahn: And they largely agreed. Okay. Like how often, how often is this couple having sex?
[00:07:16] Dr. Michael Sytsma: Which doesn't happen much in, in our field, that husbands and wives agree. But, but when we ask them “How often are you actually having sex,” they really largely agreed.
[00:07:24] Shaunti Feldhahn: They really agreed. And then, he pulled up and superimposed on that graph, he superimposed the data for “How often would you like to have sex?” And I looked at that and I went, “Wait a minute. This is saying that they both want more sex than they're having.” He's like, “Yes.” This is this huge revelation that in general, not for every couple, but in general, both people want more.
So for example, the wife who says “I want it one to two times a week,” the husband who says it “Two to three times a week,” but the actual is they're probably only having it, you know, a few times a month. And so once they get that, then instead of probably the higher desired person looking at the lower desired person and saying, “Why aren't you having sex?”
The husband goes, or the higher desired person goes, “Wait, why aren't we having sex?”
[00:08:27] Brian Goins: A much better question.
[00:08:29] Dr. Michael Sytsma: But those are one of those moments that I, I know is going to happen in therapy, and I just wait for them because he is thinking she never wants it, and when she looks at me and says, “I don't know, one to two times a week is what I would like,” you see this look on his face and he turns to her and he goes, “Wait, what?”
And she says, “Yeah, one to two times a week. I, I would feel good about that. I, I think that would be good.” Now notice I haven't asked her how horny she is. I've asked what would she like. You know, what, what would her desire be?
[00:09:04] Shaunti Feldhahn: What would her ideal be?
[00:09:05] Dr. Michael Sytsma: Yeah. What would she feel good about and, and what would she want if it were totally up to her? And he goes, “Wait, what? So why aren't we doing it that often?” And I always pause him at that point, “There, right there. What just happened is what is required in your marriage.”
Because he went from a critical stance of “There's something wrong with you that you never want sex.” That was what he was feeling inside, to all of a sudden, he shifted to a curious stance of, “Wait, what?”
And then he asked the priceless question, “What's getting in the way of both of us getting what we want?” And now he just stepped onto the same side of the table as her, and they're looking at “What out there is stopping both of us?”
Well, maybe he'd like it still one or two times more per week. But we're still moving in the same direction, on the same side of the table. And they can start having discussions of, “I am just too tired. You are just too wrapped up in work.” Or, or guys go, “I'm sorry. Work is so intense. When I get home, I have zero energy left.”
And we start to see, now we can plot a pathway forward that's really workable.
[00:10:17] Brian Goins: It reminds me of the Weekend to Remember, we often say, you know, we, we train each other to say, “My spouse is not my enemy.” That's, uh, going back to Ephesians 6 where it talks about “We wrestle not against flesh and blood,” and too often in marriage, it seems like the enemy's goal is to move us from creating a shared sense of purpose and vision in any area of our life, finances, it could be communication, it could be romance, it could be intimacy, to saying “My spouse is the problem with the marriage.”
[00:10:43] Dr. Michael Sytsma: Right, to put us against each other.
[00:10:43] Brian Goins: To put us against each other. And I'm sure that's where most of the people that come into your office, they're like, “If my spouse could just be fixed, our sex life would be better.” And what you're saying is that it's exactly…
[00:10:53] Dr. Michael Sytsma: It's almost never that. You know, this is a relational dynamic. It's something that's going on in the in-between. And both are contributing to it.
[00:11:03] Shaunti Feldhahn: I'd love to be able to give people some numbers.
[00:11:06] Brian Goins: Yeah, well, you're good at that.
[00:11:06] Shaunti Feldhahn: This is one of those, it's a blessing and a curse. Okay. But truly one of the things that might help is actually unpacking a little bit. We said earlier that 79% of people are not on the same page in terms of how often they want it.
Now, they may be closer than they think, but one of the things I'd love to talk about is the fact that the stereotype of “It's always the husband who wants more” is not necessarily true. We have actually 24% of couples, the wife is the higher desire, where she actually wants more. And like we said, 21% are equal and that leaves 54% of the couples, the husband os actually in the higher desire category.
Which is the reason for the stereotype, and there's a reason for that obviously.
[00:11:56] Brian Goins: But that's not that much. It's not like overwhelming.
[00:11:59] Shaunti Feldhahn: It's not 80%.
[00:12:00] Brian Goins: And that's why over and over I'll get people come up to me at a, at a conference and I know you guys do as well, like, “Stop saying it's the guy that always wants to have sex. I wish my husband would want me.”
[00:12:08] Shaunti Feldhahn: Sometimes an, an emotional reaction amongst a lot of men who are the, maybe the not as higher desire spouse in the marriage, “What's wrong with me?” And we'll talk about that in another episode, but there's a lot of conversation that needs to be had to be able to tease out “Where are we in this?”
And “Oh, maybe we are closer together. Maybe both of us want more than we're actually having.”
[00:12:34] Brian Goins: It’s so interesting to me, Dr. Mike, how you must be baffled when couples walk into your room and you ask that simple question, and it's like, why, why couldn't they have done that on their own? You know? Because I mean, because really what you're asking is a very simple question:
“How much do you hope to have sex each week?” You know, and then how, how much are we having?
[00:12:53] Shaunti Feldhahn: How much are we having? You can create your own little line graph.
[00:12:55] Brian Goins: Right, You can create your own little line graph and then, okay, then what's getting in the way of that number, that we're probably closer than we think.
Why is it so difficult? Why do you have to be the one to talk to them and get them to that point of “Aha!”
[00:13:05] Dr. Michael Sytsma: Because, um, it's the rare couple that has actually had open conversations about sex…
[00:13:12] Brian Goins: Which should be encouraging to all of us listening, that you're not alone, that you feel uncomfortable.
[00:13:16] Dr. Michael Sytsma: If you haven't talked about this, that makes you very normal.
Because it is so central to our heart and we can get so easily wounded and feel like something's wrong and just back away from it. So most couples don't talk through. You know, part of the beauty of sex therapy is, I ask a husband a question and he answers me, and this is the first time the wife has ever heard what he thinks.
And then I turned, and I, I asked the wife the same question, and this is the first time the husband's ever heard her talk about something as basic as “What would you really like at this point in your life?”
So it doesn't baffle me. I, I'm used to it, but I do think we can do better in helping and encouraging couples and, and I just invite couples to risk it, go there. You're probably going to, it's probably gonna get a little bit icky. Um, because we don't know how to go there. But you love each other, you're pursuing the same vision. You'll figure it out. Just stay at the table and keep talking.
[00:14:15] Brian Goins: It's like riding a bike, the first couple times you do it, you need training wheels…
[00:14:18] Dr. Michael Sytsma: It's probably not gonna go well, some scrapes and bumps.
[00:14:20] Brian Goins: And so maybe this podcast is your training wheels for sex conversations, because we do have way too many expectations about sex than conversations. And so our hope and our goal with this whole series is, we're gonna help you have conversations, real conversations that matter.
[00:14:32] Shaunti Feldhahn: And I believe, this is off the top of my head, but I believe it was 73% of couples just don't talk about sex very well. And it's just, it's awkward. It's difficult. So again, you're not alone. But that 27%, who do, we wanna get that number up because this is not rocket science.
It is more, it is so much more easy and simple and fun and intimate to be able to talk about this once you realize, “Oh, we're not talking about techniques and body parts, which is what gets uncomfortable. We're talking about this stuff, this emotional stuff, this physiological stuff that's running under the surface, and it's basically me learning myself and me learning you.” And that is fun.
[00:15:15] Brian Goins: Yeah, it's really being a student of my spouse and how do I consider one another more important than myself.
[00:15:21] Shaunti Feldhahn: And frankly learning about myself. Like half the stuff that…
[00:15:25] Brian Goins: I never would've used the words initiating desire uh, about myself until I read that chapter.
And so that just gave me a category now that I can have a conversation, and now we're talking about frequency and it's like, “Okay, what, what's our number?” And I like how you said it's “What, what do we desire out of this?” Not anymore so much, “What do I hope to get outta sex?”
I mean, what if so much of our sexual conversation was not about “How do I rate the, the health of my sexuality in, in marriage, as of what I want, but what we want? What we desire?”
[00:15:54] Shaunti Feldhahn: Well, and it's also, again, back to the to-do, it is “Okay if we both find that we want more than we're getting, what's getting in the way,” and you can literally like go. . “Oh, well, you know, I have this desire to make sure the kitchen is clean before I come upstairs, and it takes me half an hour and he's asleep.”
Or whatever the issue is, “Oh, well maybe the solution is we both do the chores together.” You know, sometimes, I mean, that sounds so simplistic, but we've heard so many stories of sometimes this solution really is that simple.
[00:16:30] Dr. Michael Sytsma: You know, there's so many examples of, of this, but another one I'm thinking right now happened this week where he says, you know, “My body clock runs mornings. You know, I wake up early in the morning and I have so much energy.”
And he said, “And hers runs later in the day. So I'm up and I'm doing my devotions, and then I work out and then I have my breakfast and I start to work. And he said, and then I work hard all day long,” and he's got, he's got an intense job.
And he said, “I come home in the evening and we have dinner and we get the kids down.” And he said, “And now she's frisky, she's ready. And I have zero energy left, and it's like, I'm sorry, I just, nothing's gonna work. I just can't go there.” it's like, it's eight 30, man.
[00:17:17] Brian Goins: It’s like, “It’s 8:30, man. It’s time to watch Netflix.”
[00:17:17] Dr. Michael Sytsma: Yeah. It's time to just climb in bed and be ready for 4 tomorrow morning.
And she's like, “Oh. But I, I've been looking forward to being together,” and helping them to figure out this isn't a, a desire issue. We're just mismatched on when our bodies have the energy and helping them think through “you know, through how do we do this?”
[00:17:39] Shaunti Feldhahn: Okay, now I really know the end of the story.
[00:17:38] Brian Goins: I know, so is it lunch, is it morning delight? Is it afternoon delight? What’s going on?
[00:17:42] Dr. Michael Sytsma: Well, you know, the beauty of being a sex therapist is, I don't have the answers.
[00:17:46] Brian Goins: Okay… Wait. That's why we brought you on this whole season.
[00:17:50] Dr. Michael Sytsma: No, for, for large picture issues, but for this couple, they have to figure it out. Because there's way too much for me to try to, to know all the complications.
But to keep it on the table. And my job as the sex therapist is to keep them at the table discussing it.
[00:18:08] Shaunti Feldhahn: So give us an example. So like, let's just pretend that this wasn't just this week that you heard this story, and that we had, we had followed this couple for a month and they came back.
What would be an example of how they might…
[00:18:20] Dr. Michael Sytsma: Of how they might solve it? They may, um, find some time on the weekend that their, their schedules, their body clocks actually overlap a little bit better. He may choose that on Wednesdays, he's going to plan a lighter day or he might take a nap in midday, and then it may be that she says, you know, on, on Fridays, I'm just going to get up early.
I'm gonna set my alarm early and I'm gonna join him for, you know, the workout. Or maybe that's too much. I'm going to, to join him for breakfast and then we're going to jump in the shower together. So what we're inviting them to do is be intentional and allowing that Venn diagram to overlap.
Not just saying, “Hey, our bodies work different. There's no way for us to get together.” Or not to say, “You need to accommodate me.” That doesn't work.
[00:19:15] Shaunti Feldhahn: You know, what I'm hearing from Dr. Mike is something else that a lot of people don't think about, which is scheduling as a solution.
[00:19:23] Brian Goins: Yes. Um, which you never would've thought, especially I, I can hear younger people around like, “Scheduling sex?
Why? Like, that sounds so unromantic.”
[00:19:32] Dr. Michael Sytsma: And that is a myth that we place on it that robs a lot of the beauty of scheduled sex. We have research in the field that shows that couples who schedule sex find that to be beneficial, helpful, and increases the sexual satisfaction and the frequency. And when couples say, “But it's not spontaneous. Sex should be spontaneous.”
Well, you're back to that “sex needs to be initiating,” and it doesn't work that way for everybody. So we're already starting off limping in this process, but just because we've scheduled that sex is going to be on Wednesday doesn't mean that we can't get really creative and spontaneous within the timeframe, that we can't be intentional in, in that spontaneity and in the playfulness of it.
And when the options are not have sex or have scheduled sex, you know, scheduled sex is better than not…
[00:20:26] Brian Goins: I'm gonna take the latter, I'm gonna go with the latter. I've gotten to a place, I've gotten to the place now where it's like, and really knowing that I'm married, Jen's receptive. I'm, I'm more initiating.
It's, it's helpful when we actually schedule cause it builds that anticipation. You know, she can do exactly what we were talking about in the last episode. “How do I love my spouse according to their type, not how do I expect them to love me?” And it's amazing that when, like Paul says it in Romans, when we “outdo one another in showing honor,” that that brings life. And that's really what we're, what we're about.
And, and I recognize that to get to your number as a couple, and that's a whole goal of this episode, how can we, how can we come to an agreed upon amount, like a shared number? There's other things that could get in the way of that. I mean, what were some of those things, Dr. Mike?
[00:21:07] Dr. Michael Sytsma: Well, do you know one of the largest ones is just the impact of the medications that we take, almost every medication has a sexual side effect, um, because of how complex it is, and rarely is that side effect a positive one. Um, the stage of life that we're in, you know, I've worked with a couple that came in and, and they had four preschoolers.
And they're trying to figure out how do they increase the sexual frequency and I'm like, “Guys, you know, this stage of life is just not good for that. Um, with how the energy goes…
[00:21:36] Shaunti Feldhahn: It doesn't mean you can't like do certain things, but it's like, can we change our expectations just slightly?
[00:21:41] Brian Goins: Right. Or send 'em to all to boarding school. That’s a possibility.
[00:21:42] Dr. Michael Sytsma: There you go. You know, sometimes the relationship just isn't safe. Because of what's going on in the moment or because there's been porn, there's been contempt. The hyper criticism, infidelity, a lot of things can create an unsafe relationship and that's going to, to impact for it.
Past trauma, you know, even, you know, sometimes couples will come in and they'll say, “Well, it can't be the past trauma because I dealt with that when I was 16.” I'm sorry. That's not how trauma recovery works. You know, it shows up regularly and we have to keep reviewing it and keep healing it with differing stages of life.
And so sometimes trauma comes into play, sometimes stuff that's totally out of our control, like, you know, dad being sick, and I'm having to put a ton of energy into caring for him, and that energy has to come from someplace. So a lot of things can get in the way of the frequency.
[00:22:35] Shaunti Feldhahn: And we'll be covering a lot of those in episode six. So that you can dive into those a bit more, things like even maybe a lack of pleasure.
[00:22:45] Dr. Michael Sytsma: And even a lack of pleasure, or one of the, the big ones that often people aren't aware of is that of pain.
[00:22:50] Shaunti Feldhahn: Yeah. I mean, think about, for example, we found that 31% of women, was it 31-32% of women have sexual pain, at least like I think every third time that they have sex.
Now, let's just put on our thinking cap for a minute and talk to all the people out there where the wife or the husband is going, “But why doesn't she want sex?” Uh, duh, right? Because it hurts. That is a huge issue that we'll talk about a little bit more in episode six, but also that we have more resources on the website where Dr. Mike is creating a whole resource that will help people get the help that they need so that they don't have to deal with the pain, because that can be fixed, that can be solved.
And yet it is so common and we don't necessarily know it. Uh, just as a quick example, one of the couples that we were interviewing, and they had a great marriage, they actually had very good communication about a whole host of issues.
But it was fascinating. We were talking about the fact that we had just learned this number. This big number. And I was saying, you know, I was so surprised the husband turns to the wife and he says to her, “What about you? Do you ever have pain?” And she looked at him, she said, “Yeah, every time.” And this husband went, “What?”
And they had been married 22 years… They had been married quite some time. Great communication in lots of other areas of their life. And yet, he had no idea because she thought it was just normal. Like this is just what happens. And yet it was keeping her from being as excited or engaged about it.
Cuz there was a bit of a “Okay. Deep breaths.” Like, and you don't want that in your intimate relationship. And so it's, thankfully it's solvable. We'll get into that in a later episode.
[00:24:51] Brian Goins: Yeah, absolutely. So I know we're gonna cover a lot more of these in episode six. Yeah. But just in general, it seems like a lot of things could happen in your journey of marriage where you're just not connected sexually, or things aren't working right.
And so hearing that whole list of things that we just talked about, how much of that's gonna affect couples?
[00:25:09] Dr. Michael Sytsma: Oh, over the course of marriage, 100% of couples are eventually going to reach something that disrupts their ability to connect sexually. And 80% of them, some of the research says, get to clinical significance.
So this is, this is a huge deal for pretty much all… Yeah, it really is.
[00:25:27] Brian Goins: All of us are gonna be sitting across from Dr. Mike at some point. That's really what I’m hearing.
[00:25:31] Shaunti Feldhahn: Well, and here's the good news about that, cuz everybody in the listening audience just went, “Wait, what?” Right? Yeah, no, truly the, the good news about this is that we really have to sort of think outside the box a little bit because there's a lot that you can do that doesn't involve, maybe your body parts aren't working right.
I mean, there are so many things…
[00:25:51] Dr. Michael Sytsma: Which will happen.
[00:25:52] Shaunti Feldhahn: Which will happen. Like, one of the things Dr. Mike told me and Jeff, who would be sitting across, over the last three years of doing this research together, and he told Jeff, he was like, “You know, 100% of men, if you live long enough, 100% of men will have ED.”
And, and Jeff went, “What?” He's like, “Okay.” You know, that's an interesting thing. You know, what if that happens? If there are some of these things like, okay, so intercourse doesn't work, you can do a lot of other stuff sexually and still have that intimate connection without intercourse. Like there are so many ways that you can still be intimately connected.
[00:26:31] Dr. Michael Sytsma: Depending on what the goal is, what the vision for, for sex is. Is it about deep connecting with each other? Is it about the sensuality? Well, you know, it doesn't have to be specific parts, doing specific things, uh, we're more complex than that and we can get really creative in drawing together physically.
[00:26:53] Shaunti Feldhahn: And we'll talk about that a little bit in a couple minutes. Um, when we give a, to-do about creating a vision together as a couple, but I'm particularly interested in something that I hear a lot in the interviews and in some of these anonymous, like when we, we would do anonymous Zoom calls where they would call in with their camera blacked out and a fake name.
So we had no idea who we were talking to and they could be very honest. And one of the things that is relatively common out there in the wild is kind of looking at 1 Corinthians 7, and that passage, for those of us who are trying to follow the Bible, there is a passage that some people use as a, a bit of a cudgel, like, like, “It is your duty to give me sex,” because it talks about not depriving one another.
And that can get in the way in these areas as well. And I'd love to get, Dr. Mike, I'd love to get your, your read on that. You probably hear that too.
[00:27:55] Dr. Michael Sytsma: You know, a couple will come in and sit down and, and I start with, is there anything about me that you would like to know?
We're gonna spend a lot of time talking about you.
[00:28:03] Shaunti Feldhahn: That's a great question.
[00:28:04] Dr. Michael Sytsma: Thanks, and I'll have a husband look at me and say, “So I understand that you're a pastor,” and I'm already thinking, “Oh, shoot,” and I'm, uh, “Yes I am and we'll talk a bit about that for a minute.” He says, “So, so you believe that scripture really needs to be the authority or guide in our life,” and now I, I know where this is going.
And I'm like, “Yes. I, I really think that God speaks to us through that.” And he says, “So you're gonna tell my wife that she needs to be a biblical wife in the course of therapy?” And what he's coming down to is he's going to bring this passage up, because he is using it as a crowbar. He's using it as a weapon to demand self.
And first off, that is not the context of scripture. That's not how Christ handles us. Christ says that we are to to love our wives as he loved his bride, which means he gave himself up for her. You know, he looks and he says, “I'd rather not drink this cup.” But in John 17, he says, “I drink this cup. I go through this because I want oneness.”
He was extremely clear in his prayer, “I want oneness, so I'm willing to sacrifice self for oneness.” And that's what he calls us to. And the husband is definitely not reflecting the heart of scripture, but then he pulls out this one passage and I like to open it up and have them read through it. Because they take the approach of this passage is about demanding my rights. And that's what Paul is putting it in here for.
Actually, back up, how does he start this passage? And he starts the passage by saying, but since sexual immorality is occurring, in other words, he's speaking to the church at Corinth, which you know, the Corinthian people were a more hedonist, um, sex was just a part of their culture.
And accepting Christ didn't remove all of those aspects of it. And so Paul is saying, you are sexually undisciplined in your church and who you are. That is a problem and you've written to me about it and how to do with it. So because sexual immorality is occurring, that's the foundation that he starts this in.
So the issue isn't, “I’m addressing something to tell you what you need to do.” He's saying “You're out of control in this area and it's doing damage. And the way we manage this is by putting boundaries around your marriage. Each man should have sexual relations with his own wife and each woman with their own husband.”
And they fulfilled each other's marital duty, which pulls from ancient Old Testament language, to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. But you know, this is about serving one another. This is about stepping in for each other, and the wife does not have authority over her own body, yields to her husband, in the same way the husband does not have authority over his own body, but yields to his wife.
One of my favorite stories is a wife saying “Wait, that means his body belongs to me too, so if I wanna put his body on a shelf and ignore it for three months, it's my body, I can do that with it. Right? Why, why does his authority over my body have more weight than mine over his?” And Scripture does not say that.
And this passage is really clear that it's a, it goes both ways. “Don't deprive each other, except perhaps by mutual consent for a time so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.” So if this is about worship, “But otherwise stay engaged in it, then come together again so Satan will not tempt you.” Why? He won't tempt you because you're withholding from each other?
No, that's not what he's saying. He's saying the problem here is not the withholding, he says, “Will not tempt you because your lack of self-control.” So Paul's entire thing is “You need to be more Christ-like in how you handle your sexuality, be more disciplined. And this husband is coming in showing really poor sexual discipline.
He is demanding that his wife meet what he wants. That's not the heart of Scripture, and he is telling her, “You have to give license for my lack of sexual discipline. I need it. I, I want it. You have to perform. I'm not disciplined enough to care for you in this arena. So you have to bow.” That's not how Scripture works.
That's not how Christ works.
[00:32:28] Brian Goins: Yeah. Great passage to overlay. This would be 1 Corinthians 13. Just flip up a few pages and look up where love is demanding. I don't think that's in that list. Love wants its own, that’s not in that list.
[00:32:39] Dr. Michael Sytsma: If anybody who had the right to demand from people, it was Christ.
And one of my favorite passages is, the woman caught an adultery is thrown at his feet. Okay. He is the one who wrote the law that says she is to be stoned. You know, the irony of this picture that the people didn't even understand and they look at him and say, “What should be done with her?” Well, he already wrote it.
He, he already stated, and then he looks at ‘em and says, “Who of you has the right to decide?” Well, we know the story. Nobody else had the right to decide. And what did Christ do? He looked at her and he expressed profound compassion toward her, and these couples that come in, and wives will do the same thing in my office, and use this passage to demand of each other.
That's not Christ-like. Christ was always invitational. He was always gracious. He always cared for.
[00:33:34] Brian Goins: I, I think another, I hear this a lot. I know you guys have probably heard it. “Well, it's also this, this need. I have this need, okay? I'm not gonna use scripture, but I have this need every 36 to 72 hours to have sex.”
Have you guys come across that one?
[00:33:48] Shaunti Feldhahn: Oh, constantly. Yes.
[00:33:48] Dr. Michael Sytsma: So that's one of the myths that we see in both culture and in the the cultural church that sex is a need every 36 to 72 hours. And the reality of it is, we have spent a lot of money in the field trying to prove that it's a need. Uh, we've looked at so many different, um, variables, you know, that the role of prostate cancer or… and it is not a need.
If I don't eat, I die. If I don't breathe, I die. If I don't have nurturance, I fail to thrive. There are some core needs that truly are, and sex, other than for the propagation of the species, sex is not a need. And when we elevate it to the point of a need, we are doing some profound destruction on it. Um, we are saying that you can't be what Paul is calling you to be.
You can't be sexually disciplined because it's a need. You have to have it. And if you don't have it, you deserve it. And so it's okay that you go someplace else to get it because it's a need. It's okay that you be un-Christ-like and demand it of your spouse.
[00:34:56] Brian Goins: Yeah. It's okay that you look at porn because you need it, you know?
[00:34:58] Dr. Michael Sytsma: Right. And we're giving people permission to not be sexually disciplined when we say it's a need, and then we look at their spouse and say, “Sorry, you are the meeter of need. You have to step up and do what they want because that's your duty. That's your obligation. That's your role as meeter of their need. And if you don't, you're sinning.”
And, and nobody gets the opportunity to, to reach out to each other out of desire. It's not about wanting to connect with you any longer. It's need, either your need that I have to respond to or my need that you have to respond to. Another thing to, to keep in mind in this is if we are saying that sex is a need, what does that mean for all of the singles that I work with?
What does that mean for those that are recently divorced, even, you know, they didn't want a divorce, but, but now they're divorced and we've just told them that sex is a need. We are justifying them going and having sex outside of the bounds of marriage because it's a need, and I work with so many that pursue Christ's heart in this arena and choose to discipline their sexuality and to not express it as a need and live a life of fidelity and sexual discipline.
And none of them die. None of them shrivel up. None of them go into deep depression because they're not having sex. It's just not a need for them.
[00:36:27] Brian Goins: So there's no tombstone that's out there that says, well, this is, “Here lies Brian Goins. He died for a lack of sex.”
[00:36:35] Dr. Michael Sytsma: Yep. Nothing dries up and falls off.
Nothing explodes, nothing with, no, it's…
[00:36:41] Shaunti Feldhahn: Listen, the issue here isn't that I disagree with what you're saying, because I do agree that putting it sometimes in this bucket of being in need can be problematic, but this is actually where Dr. Mike and I kind of have a little bit of disagreement on this, is because I talk to so many people in my interviews and I hear this deep longing.
I mean, we did put this in the book because I do think it is important to point out that, yeah, if it's a “Need” with capital N, then it does put the spouse in a difficult position of, “Well then that means you have to be the meeter of my need no matter what's going on with you,” which is very damaging, right?
However, for me, what I hear constantly from many marriages where maybe the sexual intimacy is not at a great level, they're not in a great place on this, I hear this deep, deep well of discouragement from the person who's feeling “deprived,” quote unquote, from the person who's feeling, I am just so undesirable.
There's no physical thing going on, there's no medication issue. It's just “My spouse doesn't want me.” That could be the husband or the wife, depending on, you know, who has the higher desire or whatever. And it causes this shriveling emotionally. So I think of that as being an actual emotional need, even though I do understand that it puts the spouse in the position of being the meeter of the need.
But I just think the average person doesn't make the distinction between the physical side and, yeah, something's not gonna drop off. I think the average person, when they're, when they're saying, “I need sex,” it's that longing. That’s what they’re going for.
[00:38:32] Brian Goins: Maybe a better word would be, “I long for it. I desire it.”
[00:38:34] Dr. Michael Sytsma: And I hear what Shaunti is saying, but the challenge is when we put our needs in one basket, my need for acceptance, my need for adoration, my need to be cherished and cared for, those are Christ reflective.
I think they are designed within us, but when I say the way I get all of those filled is through sex, now I'm limiting it. And now we've got a problem again, because if sex comes off the table, I am in this emotional weakened state and I'm not doing well. And I look at those men and women and I say, “Come on dude, you can do better.”
This is not the only pathway to get those needs met. And to say, “The only pathway to get my need for acceptance, my need to be cherished, my need to be chosen,” those heart needs, as my friend Mark Laser wrote about, to get those needs met, if the only way I wanna do it is through sex, we've got a problem.
[00:39:34] Shaunti Feldhahn: And I agree with that. It's just, I instinctively put this in a slightly different bucket than Mike does. And it's probably because I've talked to so many people for whom it is highly wounding to have their spouse basically ignore them in this area. And you said earlier, Dr. Mike, when you were talking about 1 Corinthians 7, you said that what is being called for is profound compassion for one another.
And I think that's probably the mindset that I instinctively am trying to help the maybe lower desire spouse to understand. Is the need for profound compassion to understand.
Maybe it is a need, maybe it isn't. It feels like it, it's that longing. And if you don't feel that, because maybe you're the receptive desire person and it just doesn't occur to you, right? And you're running around, you have a demanding job or whatever, and it's just you're not thinking about it, you may not necessarily be putting yourself in your spouse's shoes for whom this feels deeply, deeply, heartbreakingly wounding.
The issue for me, I guess, just sort of bottom line about this, that particular, uh, issue, that particular dialogue is, is the fact that just as you can make a case that sex is not a need, even though I slightly disagree with that language a little bit.
[00:40:59] Brian Goins: Which is great to hear by the way, that these two authors on this one book about The Secrets of Sex of Marriage have some disagreements.
[00:41:04] Shaunti Feldhahn: Have some disagreements, yes. But just as you can make that case, which I hear you right, like we can make that case, we talked about it in the book. We also need, I think, to make the case that not having that compassion for your spouse, And not recognizing how something could be incredibly emotionally important to them, that is just as wounding, withholding that is just as wounding, just as abusive, just as damaging, as demanding it.
[00:41:31] Brian Goins: Yeah. So perhaps the, the better question isn't, is sex a need, but does a marriage need sex?
[00:41:37] Dr. Michael Sytsma: Now that's a totally different question. I think it's a fascinating question. I would probably remove the word “need” if sex is defined as intercourse, because clearly it doesn't need intercourse.
Does it need physical connection? That I would say yes, because it's that physical connection, we know what that does biochemically in the body, and it just glues couples together. It ties them together. It helps them to biologically bond together. It is clearly, as we look at the whole of Scripture, part of how God designed it to be and what he invites us into and what he, he calls us to drink deeply and to celebrate.
So it seems like very much it is part of God's design and if we're not pursuing God’s heart, his design for marriage, then we're missing the mark. And we translate “missing the mark,” it's an archery term, we translate it as “sin.” So is it something that we're called to do? Very definitely. A couple comes in, they sit down, they say, “We are great business people. We raise our kids well together. We don't really argue at all, but there's no passion in our marriage.”
Well, I know what that means. “When did you stop having sex?”
“Well, we haven't told you about that,” but that's what happens, you know? Does the marriage require physical, regular attention to the senses in order for them to stay locked and bonded and to keep a passionate life?
Yes. I would say definitely. And the absence of that is really not good. And we can show that in multiple research studies.
[00:43:17] Shaunti Feldhahn: Well, including our own.
[00:43:18] Dr. Michael Sytsma: Including our own.
[00:43:19] Shaunti Feldhahn: I mean, one of the things that was very, very fascinating was 94% of couples, who are happy with their frequency of how often they connect, are also very happy in their marriage.
And that's only for 35% of couples who are unhappy. Only 35% of couples who are unhappy in their frequency are happy, very happy in their marriage.
[00:43:46] Dr. Michael Sytsma: Right. And we don't know which way the pathway goes, but that connection is very clear.
[00:43:52] Brian Goins: Yeah, I could see somebody right now with a higher desire, uh, initiating desire or higher desire level going, “Oh, see there, we need to have more sex and we'll be happier in our marriage.”
[00:44:00] Shaunti Feldhahn: It's, but it's not about any particular amount. This is literally just, have the two of them come together well? And that brings us to a question of, well, how do you know whether or not you are coming together in the way that both of you want? And this is where we get into, one of the things that I think we should talk about is a, what do we do about it for this episode?
[00:44:22] Brian Goins: Yeah. Dr. Mike, you've talked a lot about this that one of your main goals when couples come in is to really move them towards that shared vision of a sexual relationship. Well I, I hadn't even heard that phrase, like a shared sexual vision until I heard that from you. And we have a, a whole bonus, uh, clip from you on just what does that look like to develop that as a couple?
Because our goal really is to move towards understanding, it's to move towards connectedness.
[00:44:47] Shaunti Feldhahn: It's also, the, the key for me in understanding, cuz everybody listening, is like, “What do you mean by a shared sexual vision?” is, is really, truly thinking maybe for the first time, okay. It's not, sex isn't just something you do in marriage cuz you just do it.
It's, it's a question of what do you want? Like for example, many wives, if they're the lower desired spouse, they've never, literally never thought about that question. Like, it's just, it's what I, it's what you do and, “What do I want, huh?”
[00:45:15] Brian Goins: Boy, to give each other permission to ask that question, and to be honest with each other…
[00:45:19] Shaunti Feldhahn: It’s a big deal.
[00:45:20] Dr. Michael Sytsma: Right. And many times, um, both spouses have not been given the permission to envision to talk about what they would like. And part of the beauty of having that vision is when we, when we both kind of share it, we're not gonna be there yet. You know, as a businessman, when I set a vision for where my company is going, I acknowledge that we're not there yet.
And sometimes we get a little bit off track and we have regular, we have regular business meetings where we assess, “How are we doing, getting towards that vision?” And sometimes when couples have a well-defined one and we're working in therapy and um, she comes in and says, “Well, he acted this way last night, and it just totally set me off.”
I'm like, “Yeah, that doesn't fit the vision, does it? That's not who he said he wants to be. Do you believe in his heart? Do you believe that is his vision?”
“Well, yeah, I really do.” Then he messed up. He was human. Can you allow your husband to be human knowing that that's not who he wants to be? He's not proud of it either.
And he's gonna get back on track. And both of you're pursuing the vision. Because next week, you're gonna be human and you're gonna mess up, and you're gonna step off the path and you're not gonna be pursuing the vision. And then God will point it out, your friend will point it out, or your husband will point it out and you go, “Oh yeah, you're right. That's not who I wanna be,” and you'll get back on track.
We're both responsible for moving ourself toward that vision, and that works so much better than me being your policeman or your parent, and demanding that you be who I want you to be. No, we're fighting for who we have decided we are going to be, and it may take us another 30 years to get it there, but we're on that path and we extend grace to each other for being human when we step off.
[00:47:12] Brian Goins: Yeah. So if we just said that sex is important to a marriage and we need to talk about it, I can just imagine a lot of couples going, “All right, let's talk about sex. Like, what do I talk about? Give me some, gimme some pointers here,” cuz I could, I, I mean, it is nerve-wracking to try to have a conversation about this.
[00:47:28] Shaunti Feldhahn: Absolutely. Well, and, and again, we think it's, we're talking about techniques, and it's like, no, it's what's under the surface. But there are some things that will help actually have this conversation. And know what to talk about.
[00:47:42] Brian Goins: Yes. And so what we've done is we've asked Dr. Mike in, in just kind of a bonus, some bonus content that we have, uh, in this series.
“How can I help my spouse understand what are the breaks, what are the things that turn me off from sex? What's a, a better vision I can have for sex? How do I even communicate with each other? About topics like this, what can help accelerate? Get me in the mood and turn me on?” So you're gonna want to listen to that.
[00:48:04] Shaunti Feldhahn: Everybody is gonna go to this bonus episode now.
[00:48:05] Brian Goins: Yes, you listen to that before you have this conversation and it's gonna help tee you up for success and win.
If you want more information about how you can continue to pursue oneness together, you might wanna check out familylife.com/learn. We've got a great collection of e-courses, not just about intimacy, but we have stuff on how you can love like you mean it, well blended financial freedom. Just a lot of different information and great courses at your fingertips where you can continue to grow together and pursue the relationships that matter most.