This is the fourth subject in my look at ways we are expressing poor mental health in everyday life. This one deals with sex, but won’t be graphic.
In his book “The Road Less Traveled” (Which is one of my all-time favorite books!) M. Scott Peck says this:
- Mental health is a commitment to reality at all times.
Nowhere in our everyday mental health life is this truer than in our handling of sexual issues within committed relationships – in my opinion.
How real are we in the sexual part of our committed relationships?
Let me state, as a pastor, that there is only one form of committed relationship that allows a human to engage in sexual activity, that is a monogamous marriage between a man and a woman. I will also acknowledge that there are other forms of committed relationships that have sexual engagement as a normal part of life – these would be non-marital heterosexual and homosexual unions of some kind, all of which are immoral from God’s perspective. Here we ought to remember this admonition from Him:
1 Cor 6:18 – Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body
While this essay is not really about sexual immorality, it might be interesting to note that prior to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, sex outside of a marriage was thought to be a major mental illness, usually pictured as a lack of moral character. In fact homosexuality was actually a disorder, according to psychiatrists. It was removed from their handbook the DSM II in 1973, with a complete expunging from the DSM III (R) in 1987. What changed? The culture changed; God and His word didn’t, and neither did psychiatric or medical science, but the US moved its moral standards according to popular opinion. That itself could be viewed as a move toward poorer mental health.
But here I’m not going to launch into a discussion of sexual morality; I have only mentioned it as a reminder that our views on sexual matters have a deep connection with cultural norms. No, I’m going to stick to discussing indications of poor mental health in the sexual part of a traditional heterosexual marriage.
How do we demonstrate suspect mental health in the sexual activity with marriages?
- Rules – Explicit, Hidden and Sometimes Unknown
All of us operate in our marriages, sexually speaking, with a set of dos and don’ts about the subject of sex. Here are some examples of explicit, and therefore known, sex rules:
- Do take a shower before we have sex.
- No sex on Wednesdays.
- Oral sex is forbidden.
- We can only have sex in one position.
- I must have my feet rubbed before sex.
- You have to beg for sex.
- I will only have sex if I am in charge of it.
These are certainly the kinds of rules and boundaries that are normal. However, if we really look at them deeply, they are all indicators of an inability to connect with a partner in some way or another; and this is what makes them signs of mental illness. Some of you reading this list may have these kinds of rules in your married sex life, and therefore you might be offended by the idea that they indicate mental illness. What you are struggling with is the problem of making a preference into a rule – which is itself a mental illness.
Let’s look at that! Take the oral sex issue. Some of us may think it is disgusting and dirty, and we would prefer to not engage in it, so we make it into a rule. But what if our partner, in another example of mental illness, secretly wants to try it, or has tried it before and enjoyed it, but doesn’t share that with us. The rule creation has got in the way of the two partners sexual closeness, and stunted communication about sex at some level.
I could make a similar argument about every rule a married couple has in their sex life, except those that are moral issues such as “Sex can only involve the married partners.” (That is a rule that indicates good mental health, and is consistent with God’s plan for sexual activity in human society.)
The point here is that unagreed upon explicit rules lower the sexual activity levels, decrease sexual enjoyment and push partners away from each other inside a marriage. They hurt the marriage, and that is not quality mental health.
Sometimes in a marriage we have hidden rules. A hidden rule is one we keep from our spouse, but apply anyway. An example of this might be when a wife keeps the light on during sexual activity. The husband might think it is unnecessary or strange, but otherwise not be concerned. However, what could be happening is that the thought of sex in the dark causes terror to rise up in the wife as she was sexually abused in her childhood, and it was always in the dark, but she has never told her husband. This is completely understandable, and reasonable, but not wise of the wife. The whole subject of her sexual abuse brings up old feelings of shame and the wife is not able to share this part of her life with her husband. So this hidden rule affects the sexual aspect of the marriage, and it is likely to not get better until the rule, and the past, is exposed.
Unknown rules are major problems. Let’s take the same couple from the hidden rule scenario above. What if the wife had a hidden and unknown rule? For example, when the husband touches her in a certain spot on her body, she might freeze, or if he wears a particular after-shave she is reminded of her abuser and heads away from her husband, sexually speaking, without realizing it. She still loves him, but she cannot bring herself to connect in a sexual way. What is he to do? He might react aggressively and without understanding because his sexual desires are not being met; if this happens frequently he might be tempted to sexually stray. All of these things are understandable, but because the wife and husband don’t talk about their sex life it cause problems. This is poor mental health at work.
I don’t think I need to say anything more or provide other examples, because most of us can “get this” issue.
In our culture we adore sexual things, we tell sexual jokes, we consume pornography at high rates, we sell many products using sex, we glorify all kinds of sexual activity and we watch it almost every day on our home entertainment devices. But, we don’t talk openly with great vulnerability about our sexual desires and preferences with our partners. Instead we choose to not live the best sexual life we could, and some of us suffer with too much, too little or low quality and unexciting sexual activity in our marriages. That is poor mental health at work!
I titled this essay “I Do Not Like That” because it is a phrase that maybe should be spoken in a healthy discussion, within a marriage, about the couple’s sexual life. Other phrases that might be heard in discussions or even during sex could be, “Could you do that some more”, “I really liked what you just did”, and “I would like sex more often.” Do any of us do that, or are we going to stay stuck in our old poor mental health ways?
One last thing – if this subject hits home with you, go get help! See a counselor that can help you communicate with your spouse about sexual matters inside your marriage. Agree as a couple to maximize what you have sexually, and not go on as you are. This is not about “spicing up your sex life” it is about demonstrating good mental health, and enjoying one another more.