Luisa’s husband pursued her sexually with great passion during the first year of their stepfamily marriage. But that began to change. Ramon began getting up at night and sleeping on the couch. He explained that his back was giving him problems and sleeping on the couch was actually more comfortable. Luisa, however, feared that it meant his sexual interest in her was diminishing.
“It’s like he’s leaving me on purpose,” she shared. “He’s been initiating sex less often and I think it’s because he is not happy with our sex life.”
It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that Luisa’s first and second husbands both left her for other women; she had a divorce ghost telling her that Ramon would as well. Even though Ramon’s behavior had a straightforward explanation, Luisa’s fears caused her to judge his motives in a negative way; she believed his sleeping on the couch was a sign his desire for her was slipping. Her response in part was to complain about his lack of interest in her both in and out of the bedroom. She accused him of not caring and found herself suspicious of his commitment.
This frustrated Ramon tremendously, especially since he still loved her very much. He began to think that her insecurities would make it impossible for him to love her enough. “No matter what I do, it’s not enough for her. I fail every time. And I’m getting tired of being falsely accused.”
The safety and sexual enthusiasm that once characterized Ramon and Luisa’s marriage was draining fast.[i]
Obviously sexual stress negatively impacts a marriage. But other, more general, stressors in family life (e.g., parenting and money concerns) cause marital stress—and impact the sexual relationship—as well. Blended family living is no different in that sense, but the nature of the stressors is different. Uncertainty in bonding new step-relationships, navigating the stepparent role, helping children grieve the past and accept the present, and working across households with a former spouse to parent children are just a few examples. Couples need to attend to these and other unique stressors to prevent disconnecting from one another and slipping into a sexual pitfall.
Your perceived value to your partner and how you think about yourself as a sexual person either helps you relax into sexual vulnerability or makes you cautious and scrutinizing; it either opens you up or closes you off.
Given painful rejections in previous relationships, Luisa’s negative judgment of Ramon was understandable, but it was still hurting their marriage. She learned to stop focusing on his appetite for sex as the only indication of his commitment and began to notice that his behavior outside the bedroom evidenced a continued desire to share life with her. He wasn’t pulling away as she feared, and her criticism was unwarranted.
Another insecurity pitfall relates to how you think about yourself. “I don’t like my body. My ex didn’t like my body either; there’s no way my husband/wife can find my body arousing” or “Am I doing this right?” presses the brakes to sexual desire and arousal. On the other hand, thoughts like, “I am a sexual person and have God’s blessing on this marital sexual experience so I can have confidence in my sensuality and share it freely” or “Let me ask if this pleases him/her so I can bring them more pleasure” presses the accelerator. Feeling comfortable in your God-given sexual skin honors God as the creator of sex, makes the sexual connection more likely, and awakens pleasure. Insecurity, however, diminishes it.
Memories of a previous sexual relationship can add insecurity to a blended family marriage. One client said to me, “My first wife complained constantly that I wasn’t a good lover—that I didn’t know how to please a woman. I don’t want to fail again, so I’m not going to initiate sex very often.” His fear of being inadequate dramatically impacted his new marriage.
The residue of leftover pain from a previous relationship must be identified and intentionally worked through or it can show up in multiple ways in a new marriage, especially in the bedroom. I helped this man identify and grieve his past pain and then choose to trust that open communication with his wife could bring about a very different result in their sex life. Fear preaches that we should withhold, stay on guard, and self-protect. Love invites us to risk and see ourselves as worthy so we can give the best of our worth to the other.
Wounds on your heart breed insecurity. Karen’s first husband brought pornographic expectations into their bedroom and then belittled her when she couldn’t replicate what he had seen porn stars do. Outside the bedroom he controlled her time, energy, and emotions with a heavy hand of intimidation. Marriage, for Karen, was never a safe place to be herself. “I don’t know why I’m guarded with Tom, my second husband,” she said. “He is a generous, loving Christian man, but I can’t seem to relax.”
“Of course not,” I told her. “Your body, brain, and soul must unlearn many things before you can entrust yourself to the process of lovemaking. It’s like the man in Mark 9 who told Jesus ‘I believe; help my unbelief.’ There are two sides of you battling over what to believe—and that’s to be expected for a while. But with each choice you make to ‘believe,’ that is, to move toward your husband emotionally and physically, you give your ‘usness’ a chance to experience emotional safety and love, and it becomes easier to trust his faithfulness.”
By the way, where do thoughts of “unbelief” come from? Do they come from God? Or are they lies told about God, you, or the purpose of sex? Lies don’t bring freedom in the bedroom; they must be confronted with God’s truth.
Sometimes men desire sex as a way of relaxing from stress. Typically, women can’t enjoy sex unless they are already relaxed. The first few years of blended family life for most couples is very stressful. Guess what that adds up to for couples? A stress disconnect.
If a parent and stepparent, for example, don’t yet agree on how to parent together, the stress of their conflict can sabotage marital intimacy very quickly. Couples must intentionally work toward resolving the issues in their blended family—and at the same time, work toward merging their sexual selves. Finding good answers to common stepfamily questions (visit SmartStepfamilies.com for practical resources) and making sex a priority by carving out time and sacred space (e.g., your bedroom) to connect is vitally important.
Making the switch
Marital sexuality is meant by God to be an intimate experience that somehow points to the ultimate “marriage” we will experience in heaven when the Bridegroom comes for his Bride (those who trust in Jesus as their Savior and Lord). Said another way, sex is a little piece of heaven right here on earth. A piece of heaven that intimately touches every part of us.
How does someone, then, who has given themselves in such an intimate manner and tasted heaven with a former spouse make the switch to a new partner? How does someone widowed after a beautiful 30-year marriage with the love of their life switch the most intimate part of their heart to another person? Isn’t some piece of them still left behind in the first relationship?
To avoid this pitfall, pay attention to what you pay attention to. Focus on your current partner and don’t dwell on comparisons.
If you allow your mind to dwell on a previous sexual relationship (married or unmarried) or experience, you’re focusing on the wrong thing. Because we tend to reminisce on positive experiences, you will likely find your current sex life lacking; the comparison then adds disappointment.[ii] Keep your heart and mind focused on the present. Strive to make this sexual relationship all it can be, and don’t compare it to the past.
I should mention that it’s common for people to have passing sexual memories about a previous spouse. Some wonder if there’s something wrong with them or if they’ve sinned against their new spouse. Jesus said that it’s the heart that matters; our intentions are what defile us (Matthew 15:10-20).
A spontaneous memory does not necessarily represent your heart. Now, if you entertain that memory, hold on to it, and massage it, you are moving your heart away from your spouse and in a dangerous direction. Replace those memories with positive thoughts about your current spouse. Focus your mind on the one you have committed yourself to now.
Unlearning and learning
You can avoid another sexual pitfall by unlearning sexual rhythms of the past and learning new rhythms in the present. Sexual partners develop rhythms and routines of sexual behavior (e.g., which sex acts they engage in regularly or occasionally), frequency of sex, and how intimate their communication is about sex. All of this must be released (unlearned), perhaps even grieved, while you begin to develop new patterns in your current marriage. But that doesn’t happen easily.
It takes intentional effort to not expect your partner, for example, to always lock the door or verbally communicate their preferences for intercourse (things your previous partner did), but instead for you to find your voice and give direction to how your spouse pleasures you, even as you learn what pleases them. Old patterns must be set aside, and new ones created.
Focusing too much on the sex
Sex is much more than just sexual pleasure. It is a meaningful soul connection that arises when two people share the deepest parts of themselves.
At the age of 74, Edna had a strong sense of her sexual self. “I can’t jump around the bedroom like I did in my first marriage,” she began, “but Charles and I really do enjoy each other sexually.” Charles and Edna had recently married, just a few years after the death of their spouses. “I used to think sex was all about positions, orgasms, and how sexy I looked. But then I realized that the most important part of sex is myself. I have to bring myself to the experience. And when I do, Charles and I enjoy a tenderness that is incredible.”
Sex for Edna and Charles is not based on sexual functioning; they don’t focus on the sex, but on making love to the person. This mature view of sexuality results in a more profound experience of oneness.[iii] In the bedroom couples should dance with their eyes locked, not looking at their feet to make sure they get the steps right, but rather looking deeply into the heart of the person God has gifted them with.
Copyright © 2022 Ron Deal. All rights reserved.
[i] Ron L. Deal and David H. Olson, The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2015), p. 213-214.
[ii]FamilyLife Blended podcast with Ron Deal, episode #30 Re-Sex: The Challenges of Sex for Blended Family Couples, April 27, 2020.
[iii] Ron L. Deal and David H. Olson, The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2015), p. 210.