“[S]ince sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” (1 Corinthians 7: 2-5)
Michelle Weiner Davis writes in her book The Sex-Starved Marriage: A Couple’s Guide to Boosting your Marriage Libido, “The person with the lower sex drive controls the sexual relationship.”*
The reason she says this is because of her observation that the person with the lower sex drive always decides when and where sex will happen since the person with the higher sex drive will accept any circumstances out of desperation. The person with the lower sex drive, she adds, demonstrates little understanding of the value the person with the higher sex drive places on sex as a key component of the marital relationship. What is going on in the mind of the person with the higher sex drive, she explains, is a sense of constant rejection that undermines his or her self-worth and brings out resentment on his or her part that affects the happiness of the marriage.
Is this a problem for us in our marriages?
In January of 2011, a commercial aired in the first half of the SuperBowl advertising a dating site for persons already in committed relationships. The site’s motto is “Life is short. Have an affair.” The idea advanced by the site owners was that an extramarital affair could save a sex-starved, lackluster marriage since a person receiving sexual attention on the side would be less likely to fixate on his or her not receiving the kind of attention wanted from his or her spouse. At the time the ad aired, the site had over a million members already. Today, four years later, the site claims 34,150,000 members, almost a tenth of the population of the United States.
The website, of course, isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom of a larger problem, and that’s a crisis of faith among our marriages. When over 34 million men and women are demonstrating interest in sex outside their marriages, we have a problem within the understanding people have of the sacrament “by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring” (Canon 1055 § 1). A sacrament based on mutual assent and accepted by God (Gen. 2:24, Matt. 19: 8-9) is inviolable, so any departure from it, even with lust only in the heart (Matt 5:28), can profoundly and negatively impact our relationships not only with our spouses but also with God.
The 34 million people who signed up for an extramarital sexual tryst, whether it is intended as a virtual or physical affair, have a lot of reasons in their heads for doing so, but it is likely that a single reason is common among them – to seek to address sexual dissatisfaction within their current relationships. Weiner Davis’s idea that “the person with the lower sex drive controls the sexual relationship” is challenged, then, by the reality that some spouses are willing to step outside that relationship. That is, the spouse with the higher sexual desire, at least within that relational setting, may not feel bound to that relational setting if feelings of constant rejection eventually cause him or her to give up on it.
With this in mind, I have six thoughts, and I know my readers will think of more.
1) The problem in the sexual relationship is a problem for both spouses, not just one or the other
Mismatched sexual desire is a problem for both spouses in a marriage – it’s not just the problem of one spouse or the other. The spouse with lower sexual desire resents his or her spouse’s fixation on sex as the only thing that matters in the relationship. The spouse with higher sexual desire resents his or her spouse’s coldness to the importance of a sexual relationship given that it’s the one thing that spouses can legitimately do only with one another. A person can legitimately enjoy a meal with someone else, but a person cannot legitimately enjoy sex with someone else – virtually or physically.
2) The spouse with the lower sexual desire doesn’t identify him- or herself in that way
The spouse with lower sexual desire does not go through his or her day thinking, “Oh, I am the lower sexual desire spouse, and this is a problem in our marriage.” The prevailing thought is more like, “My spouse is really all over me all the time, and no matter how much I have sex, I can’t seem to satisfy the person.” This translates, when spousal proximity occurs, to “I need to get through the current activity with my spouse nearby without being forced to give in to sexual pressure.” The spouse with lower sexual desire is often quite comfortable with his or her level of sexual interest and considers it to be a “problem” only when confronted with the sexual demands, which are a turnoff when they occur, of the spouse with higher sexual desire.
3) The spouse with higher sexual desire is likely to try to approach the relationship – and hence the spouse – as a problem to be solved
The spouse with higher sexual desire sees the relationship as problematic, and he or she then turns to what we humans do best – problem-solving. One’s spouse is a person, though, not a problem, and one has a relationship with a person, not with a problem. When we try to ‘problem-solve’ a relationship, we tend to problematize the person with whom we’re involved in that relationship, and that means we unconsciously enter into a relationship with a problem and may lose sight of the reality of our spouse’s personhood. This has consequences – both spiritual and material – since the relational aspect of the marriage is put on the side-burner for, ironically, the purpose of salvaging the relationship.
4) The spouse with higher sexual desire may come up with some really bad solutions because he or she is trying to do it alone
Given that the spouse with higher sexual desire is investing, at a certain point, much of his or her relational energy into figuring out why the spouse with lower sexual desire isn’t interested in him or her, he or she is likely to come up with some really bad solutions – sex toys, pornographic films, alcohol, chemical pleasure enhancers, expensive vacations, etc. – to “get” the other person to become more sexually responsive. This is the Pepi Le Pew approach, though, since unilateral problem-solving invariably ends badly. The spouse with lower sexual desire may even find that he or she is spending an emotionally and physically draining hour arguing over why he or she is not sexual instead of simply having sex. Even if sex happens as a result of all that, it’s not going to be satisfying for either spouse.
5) The spouse who has higher sexual desire actually does have more power in the relationship than the spouse who has lower sexual desire
The spouse with higher sexual desire actually has more power than the spouse with lower sexual desire because he or she can decide at any given moment whether to attempt to direct the relationship toward sexual activity or to direct it toward non-sexual activity. The spouse with lower sexual desire may be able to control when and where sex happens, as Weiner Davis explains, but he or she cannot control the sexual advances of his or her higher sexual desire spouse. The spouse with lower sexual desire, consequently, is constantly on alert for unwanted sexual advances by his or her spouse, but the spouse with higher sexual desire does not have to make those advances. He or she can choose to focus, instead, on the fullness of the marriage. Sex is important in a marriage, but a marriage is more than sex; a marriage is a relationship established on the foundation of love, which is an intellectual assent, not a feckless emotion.
6) The spouse with the higher sexual desire can be proactive in other ways
The spouse with higher sexual desire could instead do something proactive toward strengthening the fullness of the relationship, like participate in the activity that the person with lower sexual desire is engaged in at any given time. If the spouse with lower sexual desire is cooking the evening meal, for instance, the spouse with higher sexual desire can help set the table, pre-clean the kitchen, gather the children, etc. He or she should do this not because he or she is hoping for sex later that night but because this is also his or her role within the relationship. The point is to engage in all the non-sexual aspects of the relationship without expectation of something in return. The spouse with lower sexual desire is going to be set at ease over time, and a spouse at ease is a happier and more giving lover.
*See Michelle Weiner Davis’s TED talk at https://youtu.be/Ep2MAx95m20.