By Dr. Juli Slattery
“I don’t feel sexual desire toward my boyfriend/fiancé. Should I stay single?”
Let me introduce you to three different women who have asked me this question for very different reasons:
Chelsey has been dating Drew for two years. They have a deep affection for each other and want to share their lives together, but Chelsey avoids physical displays of affection and is dreading the sexual element of marriage. Chelsey experienced sexual abuse throughout her childhood and has a difficult time imagining sex as anything other than shameful and degrading. She loves and trusts Drew, but can’t imagine trusting him with her body.
Stacy and Trae have also been dating for a few years and are currently engaged. Stacy is in her early thirties and senses that Trae is her last chance to get married young enough to start a family. Trae and Stacy have been sexually active on and off throughout their relationship. While Trae views sex as a major focus of their relationship, Stacy doesn’t enjoy sex. She often feels pressured by Trae sexually and wishes they had waited until marriage. She wonders if she will dread sex after they get married.
Nicole is a 29-year-old and completing medical school and residency to become an oncologist. While she has dated a few guys over the years, no one has really captured her heart. She enjoys her studies, her career, working out and spending time with family and a few close friends. Nicole wonders if she will always be single. She used to picture herself married with a family, but she doesn’t have the time and energy to pursue a romantic relationship. In her experience, dating is more of a distraction to what she really enjoys and marriage would compete with her love for medicine. She wants the freedom to work crazy hours and fly across the world with medical missions.
As you can see from these brief snippets, Chelsey, Stacy and Nicole may all be asking the same question. Yet their reasons for not feeling sexual desire are vastly different.
While sexual desire and expression is an important part of marriage, we need to remember that it is not the foundation of marriage. In I Corinthians 7, Paul cites sexual passion as a reason to get married, but it is not the primary motivation behind making a lifetime commitment to another person. In fact, getting married primarily because you are sexually drawn to someone is a dangerous recipe!
If you find yourself in Chelsey, Stacy or Nicole’s situation (or somewhere in between), here are some things to keep in mind:
1) Sexual desire goes beyond wanting to get naked with someone. Sexual desire also includes wanting to be emotionally vulnerable and intimate with a guy you are dating. It is the desire to share all of your life with another person and to become as close as possible physically, emotionally and spiritually as you pursue God together. Some women experience emotional and spiritual desire more than the physical.
2) Sexual desire, pleasure and intimacy are cultivated in marriage – particularly for women. We hear from many wives who struggle to enjoy sex early in their marriage. Sex can be associated with guilt, shame, conflict, traumatic memories and physical pain. None of these symptoms mean that a woman doesn’t love her husband or shouldn’t have gotten married. They indicate wounds and hurdles that a couple needs to work together to overcome. Sexual intimacy in marriage is a sacred journey of addressing and overcoming barriers to passion, vulnerability and mutual pleasure.
3) A lack of passion toward a man could mean that you are “settling.” This is a statement that I might make in response to Stacy’s situation. Her story suggests that she’s not just lacking sexual passion toward Trae, but a deeper sense of trust, respect and friendship.
4) God never works through fear. Whether I am talking to Chelsey, Stacy or Nicole, I would want to know if fear is playing any role in either the decision to get married or to remain single. Are you afraid of being single your whole life, so you settle for a guy you don’t love? Are you afraid of intimacy, so you keep men at a distance? Are you afraid of losing control, so you don’t allow yourself to feel passion?
5) Marriage is first and foremost the choice to live in covenant love with another person.
Being married can bring great joy and great heartache. God doesn’t tell every woman to get married. While marriage is a wonderful, God-ordained relationship, it is not the most important part of the Christian life. Some women, like Nicole, are content to serve God and people outside of marriage. Their lack of romantic passion and desire doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with them. In fact, Paul himself chose to stay single indicating that marriage can be a distraction to serving God.
Answering this question for yourself requires honest reflection. Take the time to ask God for wisdom and seek input from people who know you well and who know your boyfriend/fiancé. More important than your sexual desire is your commitment to seek God’s wisdom and will for your life decisions. I find great comfort in this promise from God:
“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you” (Psalm 32:8).