Every time I write about marriage, I hear from readers who lament their sexless marriages. The comments are all from men, and they tell of years, sometimes decades, of living together without love, affection, or sexual intimacy. The writers describe an arid life of “going separate ways” and “living separate lives.” Often a man will speak admiringly of his wife as the mother of their children and a fine person, but sadly relate that there is no longer any personal interaction between them as a couple. These are the ones who haven’t bothered to divorce, yet they lead lives of quiet, grinding frustration, if not desperation, hostility, anger and depression. Such responses have come so often that I’ve taken note and relate them to the social science research that reveals even younger couples are increasingly under so much stress that a noticeable number of them are “too tired” for marital intimacy.
We’ve all seen it happen: a young couple steps onto the fast track and the treadmill of life begins to take its toll. An overly stressful lifestyle becomes habitual, with an inevitably corrosive effect upon health and relationships. Natural exuberance gets ground down, laughter seldom breaks through the grim determination and drive, and the little touches of endearment ebb away.
Are these the inevitable, natural effects of building careers or businesses? Of having children? Of simply getting older? Of two people with different temperaments, expectations, and tastes, trying to navigate their disagreements? Yes, yes, yes, and yes, if a couple doesn’t pay attention to the actions that are needed to counter the negative side effects these factors can generate. The once vibrant joy of life, fueled by sexual passion that a couple shared, need not be blasted to pieces by some dramatic, explosive turn of events like the celebrity blow-ups reported daily in the tabloids. More often than not, their tender feelings for each other are destroyed much more subtly — almost imperceptibly — eroded away day by day in tiny grains until a chasm is opened up between then; call it marriage’s second law of entropy.
In Scripture, God, through the prophets, uses the institution of marriage — which He designed — as a metaphor for the relationship He desires to have with His people. In a happy marriage, where the couple is giving attention to the proper maintenance of their relationship, the physical intimacies they share and the time they spend together strengthens the bond between them, and their love for each other is both rejuvenated and deepened. But this takes a conscious commitment of both time and energy.
Nearly all couples experience times of stress, whether caused by external circumstances or their own mistakes, when closeness and intimacy get neglected. Given the vicissitudes of life, this is pretty much to be expected; it could hardly be otherwise. But problems nearly always arise if the couple fails to draw back when the stress lessens to make refurbishing their relationship a priority. Too often, couples fail to realize that intimacy lubricates the gears of their life and relationship. Problems that once would have been sloughed off as insignificant and not worth interfering with the pleasure they find in each other get taken more seriously, and conflicts multiply and grow. Clearly this gradual escalation of conflict and/or indifference to each other is not what God had in mind, or He would never have used marriage as an example of the kind of relationship that He wanted to share with us.
In other words, though lovemaking may seem like a luxury good that can be deferred without consequences, nothing could be further from the truth. Couples err when they allow the temporary absence of intimacy — during the stressful times that are sure to come — to become the norm of their lives. Those couples that become preoccupied with those things that are considered “necessary” find their existence increasingly dull and their relationship increasingly strained. Ironically, the things that seem so “necessary” at the time often turn out to be of little consequence in the long run.
God would not have made marital intimacy so intensely pleasurable if it were merely an optional ingredient in our marriage relationships. He put the bait there to lure us to court each other to the point of being intimate on a routine basis and thus keep our marriages vibrant and alive, certainly an enterprise that is not a waste of time and energy. Continually reviving our love though courtship and intimacy is how He wants us to behave in our physical lives so as to produce a model for what He wants our spiritual relationship with Him to be.