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When Couples Disagree About Sex

Truth in Love 46

How can couples handle conflict over sex in their marriage?

Apr 5, 2017

Heath Lambert: My guest this week is Dr. Scott Mehl, the Pastor of Cornerstone LA. He’s also a counselor certified with ACBC. We are talking about an issue that every married couple has to address sooner or later, and that is the issue of conflict in marriage over the issue of sex. Scott, I think a lot of people are familiar with the sort of stereotype that guys are more interested in sex and women are often a little less interested in sex, but give us some more information about the struggles that couples can face when they’re disagreeing about sex in their marriage. 

Scott Mehl: Well, obviously, disagreements about sex and marriage are pretty typical. But it doesn’t look as stereotypical, I think, as we tend to think. I’ve met a lot of couples that have a husband who just desires sex more, maybe more often, than his wife does. I’ve also met a number of couples that the wife desires sex more than her husband does. The one thing I’ve never met is a couple who wants it exactly the same.

The reality is that there are always differences, there’s differences in desires for frequency, there’s differences in expectations, there’s oftentimes just a lot of differences even in just an understanding, like an understanding what is enjoyable for one another. There’s a lot of differences in understanding about just simple anatomy that oftentimes get in the way and cause this tension between couples where they’re just not on the same page. They’re not communicating the way that they want to, they’re not experiencing physical intimacy together the way they want to, or maybe more specifically though the way they imagine they should.

Heath Lambert: You have an interesting take on kind of diagnosing this problem, I think it’s a biblical take. You argue that when couples are disagreeing about sex in spite of whatever stereotypes are in play or what facts are in play that are at odds with those stereotypes, you want to say that when couples disagree about sex, that conflict is fundamentally about Jesus. Because sex is ultimately about Jesus, that is something that can sound strange to people, so tell us what you mean by that. 

Scott Mehl: Yeah, absolutely. In a class, just the other day, I was relaying a similar topic to a number of students and a few of them got pretty overwhelmed even just by the idea that sex is about Jesus. It sounds ludicrous. It sounds just sounds wrong. It sounds debased. And I think that that’s a product of the fact that we think of sex as something that God doesn’t have anything to do with. You know that somehow we get married and God is a part of every part of our life, every part of our marriage, but when we closed the bedroom door, He stays outside.

I think part of that is just because, in the church, we talk a lot about the negative side of sex. We talk a lot about the things that you shouldn’t do sexually, a lot about the things that you’re doing or struggling with, or things you are tempted to do sexually. But we don’t talk a lot about what sex is —this is a big misunderstanding for lots of different couples. I think when couples get married there, they wonder what sex is for. They wonder is this just God’s wedding present to us. You know, it’s kind of like Christmas like you wait, and wait, and wait, and you’re not allowed to open it, and then on the day of, you can unwrap it, and now you have this new toy to play with. And God’s like okay, here you go. I think oftentimes we don’t treat sex as much more than that, it’s just kind of the perk you get with marriage. 

Heath Lambert: So, you’re saying it’s, there’s something more central than that. 

Scott Mehl: Yeah, but there’s something more central that is. So, it begs the question, why did God create sex? Was it just a perk, or is it about something deeper, something bigger? And I think what we see biblically is that, ultimately sex was created to glorify God because it really is about Jesus. And it makes me think about why that shouldn’t be the case; Colossians 1 tells us that by him all things were created in heaven on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities, all things were created through Him and for Him, which includes sex. Sex was created through Christ and was created for Him. And we see in Scripture that God’s glory is demonstrated through the fundamental purposes of sex. Which are: it’s a means of covenantal union, it bonds us together, it’s a means of mutual pleasure and enjoyment, and that’s what God created it for. And sex is an expression of the marital relationship, and what I mean by that is in the same way that music is a unique expression. You listen to music, and maybe there’s a song that expresses the way you feel more than words ever could. You could try to explain to somebody how you feel, but it’s just captured in that song. Maybe it’s captured in a different form of art. It expresses something uniquely powerful, and sex is also a uniquely powerful expression of the marital relationship.

We experience vulnerability, we experience intimacy, and we experience joy and enjoyment in a unique way in the context of physical intimacy. And so, it’s a unique expression of lots of the dynamics of the marital relationship. But then God didn’t just create the marital relationships and stop there, right? The marital relationship is a unique expression of the relationship between Christ and the church. He’s given us the marital relationship to teach us about what his relationship with Christ is like, or what Christ’s relationship with the church is like. And as such, sex, which is an expression of the marital relationship, teaches us about what the relationship between Christ and the church is like.

Similarly, when you think about the intimacy or the vulnerability of sex, I mean, in Genesis 2, the man and the woman were naked and not ashamed. So why is that strange to us? Well, it’s because of our sexuality. The vulnerability and intimacy that we think of when we think of shameless nudity is powerful, and it teaches us about how we experience it in a unique way sexually. And it teaches us about what vulnerability and intimacy with God is like, how completely vulnerable we are before Him, and how intimate of a relationship He desires with us. And so, sex isn’t about God in its actions, but it’s about it is about Christ in its effects. 

Heath Lambert:  You know, it’s interesting because you’re talking about Genesis 2. In Ephesians 5:31 says, “therefore a man shall leave his father and mother hold fast to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” So, you’ve got he leaves, he holds fast to his wife, and the two become one flesh. And as Christians, we believe that’s a reference to the sexual relationship. And then it says in verse 32, “this mystery is profound and I’m saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” So, each of those elements of marriage of leaving, cleaving, and of the sexual relationship refers to Jesus. And I think that catches us off-guard because we think, as you said, it’s about us. It’s the wedding gift for me, and I like it, so let’s have it, or you like it, so okay, I’ll have it. But this is saying that sex is about Jesus. And so, this is going to revolutionize sex away from having me be the reference point of the thing, to having Jesus be it. And we are going to think as people who are committed to the Scriptures and to caring for people who are in trouble, that’s going to have practical benefits.

So, what would you say when a couple comes to understand and appreciate this. How can they implement that in practical ways to move away from conflict about sex and more into joy over sex in their marriage? 

Scott Mehl: Yeah, obviously, the diagnosis of what’s helpful for a different person is unique to their situation. But here are some of the things that I’ve recognized over the past number of years. Number one that when we realize sex is about Christ, we realize that frequency is important for maybe a different reason than we thought it was important. When I say frequency, I’m not assuming any certain specific frequency. We’re saying regular sex in marriage is important not just because you want it, and it’s not just important because I want it. It’s important because God created this to be a means of union and to teach us about Christ regularly in the midst of our relationship. And so, as we pursue that, then it takes the focus off this being about me trying to get my desires met, my sexual needs met; and makes it about a reflection of the love of Christ in our relationship. 

Heath Lambert: So, how would that relate, let’s take a spouse who desires sex right now; they have a physical desire for it. How should the fact that sex is about Jesus relate to how they communicate that desire to their spouse? Is it wrong to want to have sex right now if that spouse is thinking that?

Scott Mehl: No, it’s not wrong to want sex right now, but it provides them an opportunity to evaluate why. Why is this so important to me? The desire is good, right? But I can be pursuing it selfishly simply out of a, well, I want something, and so I want to figure out the best way to get it. Or I could pursue it as a manifestation of love. How can I take this desire and have it be a means of communicating my love and affection for you, my spouse. Which takes then into consideration where they’re at and how they’re feeling, and how I can use this desire as a manifestation of love for this person and not the way to simply get my selfish needs met.

Heath Lambert: So, what about when the shoe is on the other foot, and you’ve got the spouse that is married to the spouse that wants to have sex right now, but they are sitting there, and they don’t want to have sex. Maybe it’s a man, maybe it’s a woman, but they’re not feeling it, or maybe they just don’t generally like sex, and they’re kind of like, man, why do we have to do this so much? What about that spouse who’s struggling on the other end of the desire? 

Scott Mehl: Yeah, well, recognizing the sex is ultimately about Christ provides a greater motivation to find the enjoyment of it, to work on sex together, and to pursue it together in a way that isn’t about just me doing something because you want it, this isn’t me withholding it because I don’t want it. But this is about us together, discovering what God has designed for our marriage and doing the hard work of both fightings through those thoughts. But also coming back to Christ and saying, God, we need you in the bedroom. We need you here. Lord, help me not just please my husband but help us to learn and experience what you’ve created for us and called us to in marriage.