A blockbuster quote from a blockbuster book (Unwanted) by Jay Stringer unmasks what I have seen but been unable to describe in marriage about the intimacy men need:
“Few of my male clients recognize any needs they have except for sex. This puts a tremendous strain on their partners to be sexual in order to experience intimacy. The pressure men put on their partners inevitably erodes desire. How can a partner desire the very thing she is pressured to offer? Attunement and containment allow sex to become something other than the release of tension or the solo symbol of commitment. Eroticism between a couple is strengthened through being woven together with holistic passion, pleasure, and care.”
If a man isn’t aware of his relational and spiritual needs, the dopamine hit he gets from sex becomes his only cure whenever he’s down about anything, which makes his wife his only “rescue” for everything. Sex then becomes inherently selfish and a crushing burden on the wife.
To be a healthy husband with a healthy sexual relationship with his wife, you have to look at your life far beyond your sexual desire. You have other needs— intimacy with God, fun and laughter, meaningful work, respect, recreation, adventure, beauty, and rest. Get in touch with those other needs. Recognize it’s not selfish to pursue and fulfill those needs.
If you neglect yourself entirely to serve your wife and family, you can “give” your way into becoming selfish. So that you don’t miss that last sentence, let me restate it another way: if you try to keep giving without regard to your own basic needs, you can turn yourself into a selfish person because, for starters, you’re not God and can’t give infinitely, and secondly, eventually you’ll become desperate and demanding of at least one need (often sex, but also perhaps food or gambling or an out-of-control hobby). If that need isn’t met, your spouse will live with either a bully or a sulking adult who more accurately resembles a toddler.
All of us are “needy men” because God made us that way. We’re not miniature gods. We need food or we’ll starve. We need water. No one shames a person for these needs. Nor should we be shamed for wanting meaning, recreation, relationship, respect, occasional fun, intimacy, and sexual pleasure.
One of the greatest weaknesses of my life so far (there have been too many to count, so this is saying something) has been the neglect of self-nurture. I’ve felt guilty my entire life asking for anything. But that stupid philosophy taken to an extreme doesn’t make me less needy—everyone is needy—it just makes my demands passive (which makes them sound and feel even more pathetic). It asks others to step up as I think I’m stepping up. And when they don’t? Bitterness, resentment, and withdrawal (sorry, Lisa).
Men, recognize your needs. Name your needs. Don’t apologize for having needs. Of course, all this has to be done while recognizing that our wives have similar needs and we need to make sure theirs are met as well. Our intimacy needs aren’t more important than our wives’ needs, but they also aren’t non-existent, selfish or shameful.
Seek a “full” life. For me, a good day means my mind has to be stimulated, usually with thought-provoking reading about God early in the morning (the Bible, a Christian classic, and a chapter from a contemporary book) and an interesting history, biography or novel in the evening. I like to connect “significantly” with at least one friend every day. Exercise is pretty essential to my sense of well-being. Meaningful work matters to me, as well as the occasional risk-taking vocationally (being an introvert, that happens every time I speak publicly). I don’t care that much about food, but I do need a down day now and then and could do a much better job of planning (or taking) vacations.
Most men need adventure. I like the fear at the beginning of a marathon. Some men prefer their “fear” at the tee box, needing to score a strike for their bowling team, or playing a round of darts with their buddies after work. A man without some challenge is a man who is setting himself up for an addiction (so wives, encourage your men to seek their own adventure).
Here’s the point: a “full” man who manages his own intimacy needs is able to give to his wife and family more than a man who ignores his needs and becomes passively demanding.
All this is true for women as well, of course, but I’ve never heard a counselor tell me that “Few of my female clients recognize any needs they have except for sex,” so forgive me for playing to stereotypes for one blog post here. Women can be just as prone, however, to giving and giving and giving, neglecting their own needs in a martyr-like spirit that ultimately doesn’t serve the family long-term.
The Bible talks plenty about enjoying life. The Feast of Tabernacles in 1 Kings 8 was a fourteen day celebration in which Israel was basically commanded to party.
The psalmist praises God’s nurturing gifts:
He makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to cultivate—
bringing forth food from the earth:
wine that gladdens human hearts,
oil to make their faces shine,
and bread that sustains their hearts (104:14-15).
The writer of Ecclesiastes affirms a life of enjoyment: “Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God” (5:19).
If it’s good, it’s from God: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17).
If you’re dealing with unwanted sexual behavior, Jay Stringer’s book Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals our Way to Healing could be a game changer. If you need help learning how to pursue a bit more self-nurture, I’d point you toward my own book Pure Pleasure: Why Do Christians Feel So Bad About Feeling Good?
For the purpose of this post, let me ask you, what are your needs? Give yourself permission to think about them. Talk about them with friends and your spouse. Name them. Be more intentional about mapping out a strategy to meet them. Sex is a very legitimate need, but it’s not your only need, and in a full life, it may not even feel like your most important need.
For instance, when a man needs respect but isn’t getting any, whether his wife says “no” or “yes” to any sexual encounter may not have as much to do with the sexual act as it does about whether she is going to “respect” him by her answer. There are other ways to get respect than through a spouse’s sexual willingness. Don’t just “take it” when your wife talks down to you; explain to her in a quiet but clear way how it feels to be so disrespected in front of others or even in private. Become a respectable person at work and with your friends and kids. If I’m respected by everyone around me and disrespected by one, I’m going to question the judgment of that one instead of myself, even if that “one” is my spouse.
Here’s what I’ve tried to say in the past that Jay Stringer’s quote uncovers: when a marriage is doing well, sex isn’t that big of a deal in marriage. It’s pleasurable, it renews affection, both spouses look forward to it and enjoy it, but it’s not a central focus. It feeds the marriage, certainly, but it’s not what the marriage is primarily based on. When the sexual relationship is broken, however, the marriage seems to become primarily about sex, at least in the mind of the disaffected spouse.
In a healthy marriage, sex is seasoning, not the main course. Life would be much blander and much less enjoyable without it, but it’s not the primary nutrient feeding the relationship.
So, guys, become more aware of your overall intimacy needs as you keep on respecting your wife’s needs. Figure out a way to get those needs met. You’re responsible for your own needs. You may need to learn how to say no to other demands in order to meet your own needs, maybe for the first time in your entire life. That’s okay. In fact, that’s healthy.
Your goal is to create a “full” life out of which you can give to your wife, sexually and otherwise. The more your wife feels pleasured and fulfilled in your sexual relationship, the more likely she is to want to experience it, so your own sexual need gets met even more—not because it’s demanded, but because it’s desired, which, to a healthy man, is even more fulfilling than a coerced “mercy” encounter.
The intimacy men need isn’t the problem. Demanding that those needs be met by one person in one way—that’s the problem.