FEATURE: Decent Proposal
By Robert H. Lauer and Jeannette C. Lauer
Vic spent a recent Saturday afternoon with his wife, Marge, walking in a park near their home. With Vic's hectic pastoral schedule, Marge's teaching load, and their family responsibilities, such moments are a rare delight. Alone together, free from outside intrusions, they found time to talk and laugh.
"We need to spend more time like this," Marge said, near the end of their walk. "It gives us a chance to really talk and unwind."
"I agree," Vic replied. "There are some things we really need to talk about."
"How about talking about ways we could have sex more than once a week?"
Marge's face darkened. The intimate moment evaporated. "With all the demands on our lives," she said, "I think we're fortunate to have sex once a week."
Vic mumbled that she was probably right and quickly turned to another topic. The fun of the afternoon was over but not the problem. Their sex life remained frustrating to him, and, just as troubling, he now felt the topic was unapproachable.
Is Vic unusual? Not at all. A recent survey of hundreds of pastors (LEADERSHIP, Fall, 1992) found that nearly half wanted more frequent sexual relations with their spouses. We know pastors, both male and female, who also want more variety in their sex lives--finding new positions or trying different kinds of foreplay. But how do they talk about such things? What can they do to improve sex lives that seem less than fulfilling?
SKIRTING THE ISSUE
Despite the openness of our society, many couples find it difficult to talk frankly about their sexual wishes. Pastors are likely to find it even more difficult than others. Vic admits it was hard for him to bring up the topic and doubts he'll ever do it again. Marge's irritated reaction confirmed his suspicion that discussing sex was off limits.
That's one reason pastors find it difficult--they don't want to hurt or anger their spouses. They don't want to risk conflict. That, after all, could make their sex lives even worse.
In addition, bringing up the topic of sex can be personally threatening. Such discussions make us vulnerable: what if our spouse no longer finds us attractive or desirable? To raise the issue only risks confirming our fears. Vic's determination never again to bring up the topic reflects his feelings of vulnerability and fear of rejection.
Another reason pastors find it difficult to talk about sex stems from their tendency towards what we call "role bondage"--feeling the need to maintain the appearance of a flawless Christian life. Role bondage imposes expectations on spiritual leaders:
"I can't be like others, troubled by sexual concerns." Or, "Complaining about sex seems selfish, and it's not worth the potential tension." Such expectations tend to suppress intimate discussions because, by never raising the issues, we can pretend no problems exist. We may even fool ourselves into believing the flawless appearance.
A fourth reason is the spiritual/sensual dichotomy, which still influences many of us. Though we may believe in theory that sex is God's gift to enrich us, in practice we may struggle with feelings that spiritual maturity means reducing earthy appetites--such as sex. In other words, we suppose the greater our desire for sex, the less we are Spirit-filled and Spirit-controlled.
RAISING THE ISSUE
Vic thought his timing was good. Marge's comment about feeling close seemed like a perfect lead-in. It wasn't.
So what is the best way to raise the issue? We've found it helpful to focus on two words: non-threatening and rewarding.
We can avoid the typical threat of sexual discussions by being sensitive to the needs of our spouse. In Vic's case, he raised the issue at a time when Marge was enjoying a rare afternoon of relaxation. At such a moment, she had neither the energy nor the desire to work on problems of any nature--sexual or otherwise.
What Vic failed to see was that Marge was enjoying the freedom of the moment. No meetings were pending, no telephones were ringing, and no one was demanding anything of her--that is, until Vic raised the issue of more sex in their marriage. From her perspective, more frequent sex sounded like more work, another problem to face. Suddenly Vic's concerns threatened to intrude upon her carefree afternoon. To her, their walk was a good time to catch up on the events of the week. It was not a good time to talk about troubled areas in their relationship.
A non-threatening approach also means that we don't use sex to blame each other for unrelated problems. For instance, couples may argue something like this:
She: "Why are you so short-tempered with me?"
He: "Well, you frustrate me sometimes."
She: "But why are you so angry? So I didn't get your shirts ironed on time. What of it? You had other shirts to wear. Why do you get so upset about that?"
He: "Maybe if we had sex more often, I wouldn't get so frustrated."
The conversation goes downhill from there. It's a certainty this discussion will do nothing to improve the couple's sex life.
Inappropriate behavior or lustful thoughts are examples of other problems that can be blamed on a spouse:
He: "That new woman in the congregation is certainly beautiful."
She: "Obviously she is to you. You get real cute around her."
He: "I can't help it if she's so attractive."
She: "It seems to me you could spend your time more productively than thinking about her body."
He: "Well, if we had sex more often … "
This conversation also is going nowhere. Blaming a spouse for lustful thoughts in the hope that he or she will be motivated to better fulfill one's sexual needs will likely only worsen one's sex life.
The best way to approach the subject of sex is to reward your spouse for sexual activity. For example, if you desire sex more often, begin by cultivating a conducive environment. Plan a romantic evening--or morning--for just the two of you.
And after having sexual relations, do not fall wordlessly asleep or rush off to other activities. Instead, cuddle with your spouse and say something like: "I enjoy having sex with you so much. It makes me feel close to you and reminds me of the love we share."
Sex that fulfills both of you provides a basis for discussing and resolving the issue of frequency. But the issue of frequency should not be raised at the time of intercourse. To do so could destroy the intimacy of the moment.
It's probably better to discuss the matter a short time later while the romantic moment is still fresh. You might initiate the conversation this way: "The time we spent together this morning was wonderful. It has made me feel close to you all day. I wish we could have sex more often."
At this point, pastors need to be careful. According to the LEADERSHIP survey cited earlier, the primary reason for infrequent sex among ministry couples is their harried schedules. You don't want the conversation to degenerate into mutual blaming. Nor do you want to increase the demands on your relationship.
Rather, you want to solve the problem in a way that will enhance your lives rather than complicate them. Your objective is to initiate a joint problem-solving exercise--not "what are you going to do about it?" but "what can we do about it?"
Begin by identifying the root problem. Ask yourselves why sex has become infrequent. The problem may be your busy schedules, a lack of energy or desire, negative attitudes toward sexual activity, or some combination of factors.
Once you agree on the problem, you can brainstorm solutions. Come up with as many possible solutions as you can. Decide which seems best and try it for a while. If it doesn't work, try another.
For example, people with hectic schedules can find creative ways to maintain sexual activity. The "Isaac principle" may be helpful: when the Philistine king Abimelech looked out a window, he saw Isaac fondling his wife (Gen. 26:8). Isaac and Rebekah were engaging in sexual activity outdoors in daylight. The Isaac principle says that sex can occur at any time and in all kinds of places. If nothing else is available, set up an appointment and meet your spouse at home or a hotel.
Variety in your sex life can also be enhanced by rewarding small steps in that direction. Try stroking your spouse in a different way during sexual relations. Later you can remark how much you enjoyed the new sensation and how you would like other such experiences. Discuss together how to add variety. Ask your spouse what he or she would enjoy. If either of you find it difficult to discuss your desires frankly, you might suggest getting a book on sexual technique and each reading it.
KEEPING CHANNELS OPEN
Once the subject of sex has been raised, it's helpful to talk periodically about how each of you is feeling. Agreeing to do this in advance will make it easier to raise the topic in the future.
We also suggest that you engage in your own regular marriage enrichment exercises. These can help you maintain a high level of affection and sharing despite hectic schedules and the distractions of ministry. As a result sex can become more natural and appealing.
The exercises we recommend are simple and can be done weekly, twice a month, or monthly according to your preferences. Begin by drawing up a list of topics--work, family, money, sex, communication, leisure activities, and so on.
Select just one topic for your first exercise. Then each should complete the following statement: "The things I like best about (the topic) is … "
After you have both responded, do the same with the following statements:
"The things I like least about (the topic) is … "
"When I think of (the topic) I feel … "
"What I would like to do about (the topic) is … "
You may return to some topics for future exercises since your feelings will change over time.
Larger topics can be divided into smaller issues. For example, work can be discussed as schedules, tasks, expectations, relationships with others, and so on. Sex can be discussed in terms of sex in society, your own sex life, and so on.
Discussing your personal sex life, for example, might look something like this:
"One of the things I like best about our sex life is that it makes me feel more satisfied and complete. Another thing I like is the way it makes me feel closer to you. And another … " Note that the statements are not completed with a single thought. Give as many responses as possible.
Similarly: "One of the things I like least about our sex life is that we seem to have too little time for it. I don't like the way we sometimes have to rush through it."
Then: "When I think of our sex life, I usually feel good. I feel good about the quality of our sex when we have it. But sometimes I feel frustrated, too … " Completing this statement can get your emotions into the open. It's one thing to say, "We don't have sex often enough." It's another to say, "We don't have sex often enough, and that makes me feel angry and resentful." It's important not only to understand each other's perspectives and needs, but also to understand the feelings you each struggle with.
Finally: "What I would like to do about our sex life is find a way to have sex more frequently. I would like to be able to feel relaxed, as if we have all the time in the world to enjoy each other. I would like … "
Don't stop after completing these four statements. If you fail to be specific about what each of you plans to do, you may find resentment building because needs were expressed but nothing happened.
One final caution: Sometimes there may be subtle, non-sex issues that underlie sexual problems. For example, your spouse may find you less attractive if you have gained excess weight. Or a time of stress may cause inhibited sexual desire. (Having little or no sexual desire describes 20 to 50 percent of people at some point in their lives.)
While two people who strongly desire each other can find ways to enhance their sexual activity, it is more troublesome if one spouse has substantially less desire for sex than the other. In such cases, you may be able to use the problem-solving approach to identify the root causes and find ways of working on those issues. If that doesn't work, we suggest you seek counseling.
The demands of family and ministry will continue to compete for the energies ministers might otherwise give to their sex lives. But we can't afford to allow the relationship with our spouse to be second-rate. One of the best gifts we can give our church and our children is a healthy, happy marriage.
Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./LEADERSHIP Journal