Question

My wife and I have been married for 25 years and recently, she refuses to do foreplay at all when we are sexually intimate. What should I do? 

Answer

It can be alarming to have your partner suddenly change their preferences, especially after 25 years of marriage. Our needs and preferences change as we develop and find ways to better understand ourselves. It’s also helpful to recognize that mid-life is a time when we began to re-evaluate many aspects of our lives. Sexual intimacy is often one of those areas that re-evaluated, especially for women. This is an excellent opportunity for you to deepen your understanding of your wife and build a more connected relationship in and out of the bedroom.

Perhaps a metaphor about sexual intimacy can help you understand how to better navigate this change in your marriage. When I first met my wife Jody 24 years ago, she was an accomplished ballroom dancer. I, on the other hand, had no formal training and had memorized a ballroom dance routine with a previous dance partner and could only perform this routine if she was my partner. When Jody and I began dancing together it didn’t work for either one of us. She was waiting for me to lead her and I was waiting for her to follow the routine. We were stuck on the dance floor and didn’t know how to proceed. Either one of us could have blamed the other for making things difficult in our dance.

Instead, we decided that we would figure out how each of us wanted to show up in this dance. We took classes and communicated about what worked and didn’t work for us. We both enjoyed dancing but came at it from completely different places.

Most of us approach sexual intimacy in this same way as we approached our dancing. We just assume that because we’re two good people who love each other that things will just work. Many of us begin our sexual relationships with our partners without much open discussion about what we like or don’t like. In fact, most of us don’t even know what we prefer. We just start sharing ourselves sexually with another person and begin to create an unspoken dance that may or may not be very fulfilling. Additionally, we bring with us all kinds of extra influences that impact the sexual connection. Here are just a few of the many things that can impact the sexual dance in marriage:

  • Internalized messages about gender, power, vulnerability, etc.
  • Sexual or other traumas (healed or unhealed)
  • External messages from family, church, culture, media, and friends about how sexual intimacy should be.
  • Body image dissatisfaction
  • Previous sexual partners
  • Health challenges
  • Menopause or Perimenopause
  • Anatomical considerations
  • Current or past relationship betrayals

One thing that this couple should definitely consider is that his wife may be experiencing menopause or perimenopause and should get an appointment with her OB/GYN STAT. These conditions can wreak havoc on one’s hormones and sexual desires and mental and physical health.

When something changes suddenly in the sexual relationship, it’s important to slow down and become curious about your partner’s experience. When your wife says she’s not into foreplay anymore, don’t keep insisting that you keep the dance the same. Even though you may have done things a certain way for 25 years doesn’t mean that it’s working for her. The most important thing you can do is simply invite her to share what works and doesn’t work for her. You have to be willing to surrender the old sexual dance and open up to a new way of doing things that works for both of you.

Healthy sexual intimacy is a dance that requires constant adjustments. We are dynamic creatures that are constantly changing. We have new experiences, we discover new realizations, our bodies change, and the demands on our energy rise and fall as we get older. As you kindly listen to her talk about what has changed for her, you’ll likely learn some important things about her and about your relationship.

You may discover significant changes that need to happen in your marriage or you could discover a small adjustment that needs to be made in how you approach sexual intimacy. This usually isn’t an “all or nothing” proposition, even though it’s normal to fear something that dramatic. Take it slow, listen with love, and set aside your own preferences for a moment so you can really understand what has changed for her.

While I know nothing about you, your wife, or your marriage, I can share some of the things I’ve observed in my 20-plus years of working with couples who are navigating their own sexual dances. Here are some of the most common reasons I see women choose out of foreplay in marriage:

  • She might not feel emotionally connected to you.
  • She could feel used or objectified as a sexual object.
  • She might believe it’s her duty and just wants to get it over with.
  • She might be really tired and doesn’t feel like she has time for foreplay.
  • She might be overwhelmed with other commitments and demands and can’t let herself relax.
  • She might not be prioritizing your sexual connection.
  • She might be a trauma survivor and can’t allow herself to spend that much time being vulnerable.
  • She might feel you have a lot of sexual expectations that she feels she can’t meet.
  • She might feel alone in the marriage.
  • She could be going through menopause or perimenopause and needs to schedule a visit with her OB/GYN. 
  • She might feel betrayed and not want to get too close to you.
  • She could feel like you’re not providing much non-sexual touch outside the bedroom.
  • She could be struggling with what Laura Brotherson calls the “Good-Girl Syndrome” and feel unresolved shame about her own sexuality.
  • She could have body image issues that cause her discomfort and just want to get it over with.

Perhaps some of these possibilities can help prepare you to stay open-minded to your wife’s experience. You’ve done things a certain way for 25 years and it’s time to upgrade the way you connect with each other. If you insist on going back to the way things have always been, you’ll miss a beautiful opportunity to grow together as a couple. Healthy marriages are expansive, not static. There isn’t a right or wrong way to be sexually intimate in marriage. You both have to feel comfortable, respected, safe, and relaxed.

The Lord’s explains in Doctrine and Covenants 121:41-42 that persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned, kindness, and pure knowledge is the foundation that allows us to “greatly enlarge the soul.” I also believe that these same attributes will greatly enlarge your capacity to feel close to each other and enjoy the beautiful gift of sexual intimacy in a way that works for both of you.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]

If you’ve broken trust with your spouse and want a structured approach to repairing the damage you’ve created, I’ve created the Trust Building Bootcamp, a 12-week online program designed to help you restore trust and become a trustworthy person. Visit www.trustbuildingacademy.com to learn more and enroll in the course.

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples, pornography/sexual addiction, betrayal trauma, and infidelity. He is the founder of LifeStar of St. George, Utah (www.lifestarstgeorge.com) and Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com). Geoff is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, the host of the Illuminate podcast, and creates online relationship courses available at www.trustbuildingacademy.com. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

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