Married couples who avoid sex often troubled

I have a friend that I've been trying to support. He's married to a Christian who grew up in a Catholic home. He has a real hard time with porn for a pretty good reason. He (has sex with his wife) twice a year if he's lucky. I don't mean he's exaggerating. I believe others have tried to talk to her in the past, but because of her upbringing she believes that using any kind of contraception is sinful. Honestly I don't know how to help him. I don't know how he can live married to a woman, sleep in the same bed with her and not be able to mess around. Any suggestions? I haven't really thought too much about it, but I think I'll definitely start praying for them more. ... May God heal our world sooner rather than later. -- J.M., Las Vegas

First, let me say I wield a fictive attitude toward folks who withhold sex in marriage behind protestations of religious values. I'm saying that often the protestations are as much ego-convenience as they are authentic values. If you prefer not to face unhealthy, fearful ideas about your sexuality, it's handy to blame God. That said ...

The phenomenon of sexless marriage or near-sexless marriage in America would blow your mind. The numbers are burgeoning.

It is rare to meet the married couple who have negotiated aloud and mutually agreed upon a sexless marriage. The norm is to meet couples who, by passive attrition, simply stop having sex. And never talk about it. Oh, yes, these people occasionally complain about it, even use this fact as artillery to hold their partner in contempt, but that is not the same as actually doing something about it.

The shocking part, for me, is not first the sexlessness. What astonishes is the frequency with which husbands and wives normalize this "starvation diet," sexually speaking. If/when these couples come to therapy, it is common to hear spouses report that it has been months or years since they have had sex. When I ask how it came to be that the marriage is sexless, spouses often shrug their shoulders and say, "I don't know." And then I ask, "How is it that it's OK with you not to know?"

The cessation of sex in marriage should alert us, yes? Something has gone wrong, and perhaps terribly wrong. The withholding of sex in marriage is every bit as odd and provocative as, say, if your mate suddenly withdrew from the family dining table and began eating breakfast, lunch and dinner alone behind a closed door. Would you accept this without comment? Of course not! You'd go to your mate and say, with no little incredulity, "Uh, what the hell are you doing?

The decision to withhold sex in marriage, coupled with the decision to accept and normalize your partner's withholding of sex, fundamentally changes the very tenet of marriage. It alters the marital bond, no more and no less than extramarital affairs alter the bond of marriage. And the alterations are rarely benign, let alone positive.

See, just because we stop having sex does not make us any less sexual beings. That energy must go somewhere. Yes, it's possible to sublimate sexual energy positively, by choice or by calling, into creativity and vital life's work. But, many times more often, frustrated sexual energy shifts into problems or outright pathology. Depression, irritability, malaise, eating disorders, cynicism, affairs, compulsions/addictions -- in the case of your friend, J.M., pornography.

I am not saying that a sexless marriage can never be a good marriage. Nor am I suggesting that a sexless marriage cannot achieve a deep, meaningful, albeit different practice of intimacy. There can and does exist circumstance -- e.g., physical calamity, ill health, etc. -- wherein couples are forced to renegotiate sexual courtship. There exists couples who share a mutual indifference to sex, and who proceed to forge other kinds of authentic intimacy and faithfulness.

But, in the preponderant number of cases, sexless marriages do not make for happy, thriving human beings.

My intervention for your friend, J.M., would not be first regarding pornography. My intervention would be making overt the fact that he has decided to tolerate his wife's decision to fundamentally alter the "marriage contract" by withholding sex. And, because he tolerates it, he, too, has agreed to the alterations.

The best way to help him is to encourage him to take radical responsibility for this fact. Only then can he act from a place of strength, as opposed to reacting as someone victimized.

Originally published in View News, March 30, 2010.