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Marriage • 7 minutes to read
What is a sexually anorexic marriage?
The word anorexia means “without appetite,” so in this sense, a sexually anorexic marriage is a marriage that is starved sexually.
Perhaps you’ve never heard this exact term, but it resonates with you on some level.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Sexually starved? This describes my relationship.”
We are sexual beings at our core, so this is a significant area of our lives, whether we are expressing ourselves through sexual behaviors or not. Sexual relationships and experiences can bring some of the greatest emotional and physical pleasure in life and can also bring some of the greatest pain.
Because of our own journey and our work in ministry, my husband, Rodney, and I come in contact with so many people who have chosen to avoid this part of their marriage for one reason or another. They often think, “It’s not working well, so we’re going to pretend it doesn’t exist.”
In marriage, if we are not used to taking the temperature of the relationship and making ongoing adjustments, it is fairly easy to go years, if not decades, without healthy intimacy—sexual or otherwise.
Rodney and I have heard many reasons why couples lack healthy intimacy in their marriage. This often involves a person who has:
- Never been able to have intercourse because of mind and/or body issue, but doesn’t have any indication how this fear originated.
- Experienced trauma and betrayal in the past, both as a child and in the marriage, and is grateful for their spouse, but doesn’t want to feel physically close or have sexual intimacy.
- Navigated betrayal with their spouse, and even worked through healing, but finds it easy to put this part of their life on the back burner.
- Physical discomfort during intercourse, or has walked through health issues such as breast cancer or other life-altering situations.
- Not experienced betrayal, but their marriage is difficult and tense, so one or both partners has focused on other things.
- Continued to go without any type of intimacy in their marriage, including sexual intimacy, but a lack of boundaries and religious beliefs keeps them from thinking they can do anything about it, so they ignore it until it gets worse.
There are many more examples with many painful realities.
WHY SUCH A DIFFICULT ISSUE?
Sometimes we assume that everyone else has it figured out. When we are newly married, we often think that all young couples are having a lot of sex. This fits with our culture’s portrayal of young, beautiful, fit people having constant sex, but this isn’t realistic.
Our culture “forgets” to promote sex as the place where vulnerability, deep connection, and commitment intersect—as God designed it to be.
As we get older, we may think people our age are not having much sex. There are certainly potential obstacles with age, such as sex drive, physical difficulties, and unresolved issues in the relationship. Through the years, patterns and ruts that develop in a marriage, usually around communication and conflict resolution, can greatly affect desire and fulfillment in our sexual relationship.
Often, we assume these things about other’s sex lives because no one talks about it. If we’re struggling with sex in our marriage, we usually don’t feel comfortable discussing it with others. Other than joking with friends, most of us would not seriously admit, “Our sex life just isn’t that great.”
Where do we go to have an honest conversation? If we aren’t in a healthy, safe community, we usually “don’t go there.” It can feel like there’s something wrong with us. Especially if it seems like someone else has it all figured out.
Here’s the truth: nobody has it all figured out. Let’s go ahead and get that out there right now.
There are no perfect marriages and no perfect sex lives, but there are healthy marriages and healthy sex lives.
When we carry more fear, anxiety, and shame in certain areas of marriage, we have to intentionally work on communicating our needs. Sexuality can be a taboo subject regardless of which end of the spectrum we’re at: we may or may not be having sex, but we’re not talking about it. Or, we may be having a lot of sex but are using it in an unhealthy, manipulative way.
Our sexuality is designed by the Creator and is a powerful part of us, which can be powerfully positive or powerfully negative.
So, the reasons behind a sexually-starved marriage could range from normal to destructive, or even fatal.
If our relationship lacks nonsexual affection—kissing, holding hands, and physical closeness—the issue is probably much deeper than just the act of sex.
Whether it’s the result of busyness, raising children, finding fulfillment or focus on work, hormone levels, trauma, addiction and more, there are many reasons why a marriage would develop sexual anorexia. It’s important to know what’s behind the behavior.
Our behaviors are often a reflection of something internal—something motivated by our thoughts and feelings. In other words, there is a reason why we do what we do, we just need to be willing to figure it out.
HOW CAN WE CHANGE?
When we recognize change is needed, the best place to start is with ourselves. Sometimes, as hard as this is for us, we cannot control anyone but ourselves, and this includes our spouse.
We cannot fix our spouse.
We can influence them, model our own soul (recovery) work, and we can set appropriate boundaries when needed.
We can take the temperature of our marriage by assessing what’s going on in the relationship.
- How is our marriage relationship overall?
- How is our nonsexual intimacy?
- Do we have good communication and conflict resolution?
- Are we both honest and open about our feelings?
- Are we both free to express opinions and attempt to meet each other’s needs?
Communication is a great starting point between two people. I’ve heard it said, “Like blood brings life to all parts of the body, so communication brings life to relationships.” It is difficult to have healthy sexual intimacy without good communication.
In a healthy intimate relationship, we are able to communicate our sexual needs. Whether we are in a season of regular sexual activity or in a season of less sexual activity—simply due to life circumstances—a couple who is communicating about their needs along the way will be able to navigate whatever season they’re in.
There is a beautiful give and take in marriage when we are operating from a place of health. A healthy mindset says, “I’m married to this person, and I want to meet their needs. My partner’s needs matter. My needs matter.”
We need to understand that a foundational goal in marriage is intimacy in all areas and sexual intimacy is a byproduct of this goal. If we ignore this aspect of intimacy, we are missing it—we are miss out on a holistic marriage, that is connected in body, mind, and spirit. We need to focus on being intimate before we focus on being sexual.
Start the conversation. Ask your spouse what they need sexually and state your needs and desires. As a general rule, if one spouse is more conservative with sexual exploration, start with what is comfortable for them. Mutual consent and respect is important.
For a sexually anorexic marriage, there are tools and resources to help you, as a couple, slowly engage in building this part of your relationship.
Some basic steps to take:
- Talk to your spouse about your desire for help in this area.
- Talk to your spouse about the obstacles to intimacy you both see.
- For any physiological problems, consult with a doctor.
- Seek out a trauma therapist and grief group for unresolved trauma and grief.
- Find a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) for a spouse with sexual addiction, acting out, or betrayal trauma.
- See a sex therapist for working toward a more mutually fulfilling sex life.
These may be difficult steps to take, but is it worth it? Absolutely!
You, your spouse, and your marriage are worth it.
It takes great courage to stop living with what isn’t working.
Don’t give up on intimacy in your marriage. It’s never about having a perfect marriage, it’s about having a healthy, intimate marriage. Wherever you’re at, develop a pattern of consistently growing—individually and as a couple.
If you take some small steps now, you may be in a different place a year from now. Don’t give up hope.