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The unhealthy games we play – Part 1 – sex

I’m convinced that the difference between a mediocre marriage and a shocking marriage are the games that we play with each other.  I’m not talking about recreational activities, but rather control-based games of power and manipulation.

In the workshops we’ve led, we’ve had numerous men complain to us about the lack of sex in their marriage.  Conversely, women routinely complain about the lack of attention they get from their husbands.  If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a thousand times, “Why can’t my husband just hold me?  Why does it always have to lead to sex?”  In our opinion, the real issue is far more about control than about sex.  Let me give you an example from our own marriage.

Our pastor led a series on sexuality in marriage, showing biblical examples of both healthy sexual attitudes (think Song of Solomon) and the consequences of unhealthy behaviors (e.g. David and Bathsheba).  In the last week of the series, he pointed out that in our modern times, we’ve developed a warped view of sex.  Biblically speaking, the only time either partner in a marriage should withhold sex from the other is when both partners have agreed to abstain, and then only for a brief period of prayer and fasting.  He went on to say that “Not tonight, I have a headache”, or “The kids have been rotten today, I just can’t”,  or “I’m just way too tired” are not “scripturally valid” reasons for a wife to say no.  He went on to say that if husband is following the biblical model of marriage, he would be in tune with his wife enough to understand and respect those times when he can see that sex is not really an option.  It seems that in our culture (even among strong Christians), that a woman may allow her husband to be the spiritual head of the household, but when it comes to having sex, she retains absolute control.

I was amazed at the discussion that ensued between Tara and I following this sermon.  I felt uncomfortable enough with it, that I wasn’t going to bring it up.  But Tara told me that she felt convicted by this.  Enough so that she agreed for the next month she would not say no.  I was stunned by this and asked what was expected of me.  Her response was something to the effect of “There’s no conditions on this.  I would only request that you be attentive to me and my needs”.

Relax.  My intent is not to go into titillating detail of how the month unfolded.  But I would like to share some learning in terms of unhealthy games we were playing.

  • I traditionally requested sex more often than what I really wanted it.  At some level I figured that if I was told “no” two out of three times that I requested it, I would ask three times more than I needed it.  This would improve my odds of getting a “yes” when I really was in the mood.  From Tara’s perspective, I asked all the time, so saying no to any given request was not a big deal.
  • Decoupling sex and my behavior changed my attitude toward Tara.      I found myself being more physical and more attentive to her needs.  I wasn’t worried about getting “worked up” now and being frustrated later.  As a result, I wouldn’t hesitate to cuddle on the couch, or to just hold her hand.  My motivation was no longer trying to “get her in the mood”, but rather just to express affection.  From her perspective the amount of non-sexual touch that she craves increased dramatically. In addition, knowing that sex was available at any time made me more sensitive to her current situation.  If I could tell she was stressed out or very tired, I saw no reason to ask; it could wait.  This was a huge deal to her that seemed very natural to me.
  • Our petty arguments all but came to an end.  Looking back at our experimental month, we both noticed that there was less tension in the relationship.  I had never really thought about it before, but the reality was that it hurt when I requested sex and was told no.  Add a couple of those negative responses up and resentment started to build.  This resentment would express itself at the oddest times.  I might come home from the office in a great mood, but walking into the house and seeing Tara and my mood could darken.  Before long, I would hear myself complaining about the state of the house, or the kid’s behavior or some other seemingly random occurrence.  The reality was, I was lashing back at Tara for her rejection of me.  From her perspective, I came into the house and started complaining about things.  My frustration at not having sex, absolutely set a tone that was not conducive to getting any soon.  It could become a vicious cycle until we would have it, then things would settle down for awhile.  With that rejection and frustration removed from the relationship, my need for venting was all but eliminated.
  • The actual frequency of sex remained unchanged                                            Tara was convinced that this month would be a throwback to early marriage and she would get physically exhausted.  In actuality, the frequency did not change much, just the tension surrounding it went away.
  • The microwave / crock pot analogy is misleading                                            We’ve all heard the analogy that men are like microwave ovens, ready for sex at a moments notice, and that women are like crock pots that heat up slowly.  I, like many guys, took that to mean that if I wanted to have sex in a given evening, I needed to work for it all day long.  Doing the right things, saying the right things, etc.  It was wildly frustrating to invest all that energy for the sole purpose of having sex, only to be denied when evening came.  Relationships are not as formulaic as guys would sometimes like them to be (e.g. if I do this, then this and say these things then sex is guaranteed).  In addition, a crock pot does not have a buzzer go off (unlike a microwave) once it is ready.  It gets hot and stays hot until the energy source is removed.  Not worrying about being rewarded for a given set of actions is very freeing.  If I know sex is there when I want it, I am able to keep the energy going toward the crock pot a much higher percentage of the time.  When I request it, it’s ready, not because of what I’ve done the last four hours, but rather because of how I’ve treated my wife over the course of days or even weeks
  • It’s no longer an experiment, its now a way of life.                                      The benefits of this have been surprising.  Neither of us want to go back to our old ways.  If this can invigorate a marriage of almost 30 years, it’s surely of value to others.  We intend to incorporate this learning into our future marriage enrichment workshops and to encourage other couples to give it a try.

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