We expect some things in life to be hard—learning to drive, learning to play a musical instrument, making difficult financial and medical decisions, parenting, caring for a loved one who is sick, and so on. But sex shouldn’t be hard. Right?
Sex was a lot easier when we were young and didn’t have years of baggage and bad habits behind us. As I began to recognize that my sexual gatekeeping and refusing had hurt my husband and was wrong, I knew it would involve training myself out of bad habits and into good ones. I just had no idea how hard it would be or how long it would take.
My first step toward healthy marital intimacy was to fully participate when we had sex. No more duty sex–lying with my eyes closed, mechanically doing all the moves that I knew would finish things quickly as possible. It was easy to tell myself, “Well, if you’re going to take the time to have sex, you might as well get something out of it, too.” I enjoyed this first step out of the pit and felt very accomplished, like things were going great.
And then I got to step 2: say “yes,” not “no.” You know what? It isn’t as easy as it sounds. My reactions had become subconscious. “Hey, hon, you wanna get lucky?” My responses included glaring, rolling my eyes, yelling, or at the very least, feeling my shoulders tense up. I wasn’t even aware of this pattern until I tried to change it. I had to remind myself, “Chris, breathe. Breathe before you speak. Close your eyes so he doesn’t see that you just rolled them.” When I was learning to not say “no,” I made a point of breathing intentionally for a moment before responding. Or, I would say, as calmly as I could, “Will you please ask me again in five minutes?” I tried to break myself of the knee-jerk reaction that had become automatic, and I did this by adding in something (breathing deeply) that would delay this response for a moment. There were times when “no” came out anyway, and by the time I’d realized it, we were in a fight because he’d reacted to that and our ingrained patterns of interacting had reemerged.
Healing is a process. Even if a woman wants to, very much, it isn’t likely that she will be able to flip a switch and suddenly be the wife her husband has longed for her to be. She needs to rebuild the ways she responds—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Unlearning long-time habits and rebuilding new healthy ones takes time. Each step was small, and it wasn’t always easy. I was making myself vulnerable in many ways. Each time I said “yes”/touched/responded/initiated/etc. took a great deal of courage and effort on my part. While it shouldn’t have, it did.
I am concerned sometimes when I see a man who is hurting so much and hoping so much for an overnight miracle that he is unable to see the step-by-step progress that God is working in his wife. After years of worsening intimacy, he wants to hold and be held by his wife. He wants what he’s yearned for. When any progress is made, he may be anxious to speed it up, to get to where he’s wanted to be for so long. But friends, this is a time for grace. Once a wife has begun to make the journey, hold her hand, walk beside her, help her keep from stumbling—but please, don’t try to drag her behind you while you rush or she may just give up.
Husbands complain about “duty sex,” wanting to be desired. So let’s say a woman decides to try to make some changes at begins by not saying “no.” For her, even if her response to his initiating is duty sex, in her mind, she is actually being available and not saying “no.” Although he may feel rejected because she isn’t expressing desire for him, it may feel like a huge step to her.
A woman trying to reform herself should extend grace as well. Just as I had to relearn how to respond and react, so did my husband. It wasn’t an easy process, and he wasn’t always gracious about it.
When I was finally starting to venture into my early stages of re-engaging with my husband sexually, there was a time when I was doing something he had been begging me to do for several years (just touching him, which I’d avoided). I was lying there thinking about what a big step that was for me, to be touching him and actually enjoying it. I said a prayer of thanks for letting me have that experience again, and then my husband said something along the lines of “feels nice enough, but what would be really nice is if you would give me a BJ.” So there I was, having made what felt like a huge step, and instead of having it acknowledged and appreciated, I was reminded of yet another way I was failing him. I wondered why I’d even bothered to make the step I had, if all he was going to do was remind me of how I was till failing.
I understand now that my husband was hurting, that he wasn’t able to let himself fully relax and enjoy the experience because he was still unable to trust that even touching would happen again. Even 2 ½ years into our healing journey, my husband still has times when he assumes that I won’t want to have sex, such as when I say that I’m tired or that I have a long day coming up. I’ve had to gently take my face in his hands and ask, “When is the last time I said `no’ to sex? When is the last time I didn’t want it?” And neither one of us can remember.
A full healing of a sexual relationship can take time. It took me two years to change from a wife who refused to the wife I am now. And that was without any outsider telling me it was what I should do, and I didn’t feel we were at risk for a divorce. It was me deciding, on my own, to change, and we continue to relearn how to be truly and fully one flesh.
The shared journey to sexual healing builds intimacy, even when the journey is very slow.