Dr. Sytsma and Shaunti Feldhahn were interviewed by Dr. Corey Allen of the Passionately Married podcast. Hear what surprised them most in their research for the book. They also discussed answers to:
- What do married couples need to know about how things actually play out in marriage?
- And what should married couples do about our differences and similarities?
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Corey Allan: Coming up next on the Passionately Married podcast.
Michael Sytsma: And we also showed the high value of curiosity because often when we step into marriage, we expect our spouse to be like us, and we don’t understand why you don’t want the way I do, or you don’t want what I do, or you should be more like me, is this unstated belief in the back of our mind.
Shaunti Feldhahn: I think it’s even subconscious.
Michael Sytsma: Many times I think it is. And so we step into it with, “You need to hear me and you need to respond to what I want,” as opposed to stepping back and going, “Wait, what?”
Corey Allan: Well, welcome to the show. I’m Dr. Corey Allan. Pam Allan: Thank you.
Corey Allan: And alongside my wife. Well, every time somebody could just be stumbling upon the show and they’re listening and they’re like, You know what? They never said welcome.” And so everything-
Pam Allan: Well, welcome.
Corey Allan: … everything just feels out of place and disjointed because we all have orders that we like to follow, structured paths, processes. And what’s so interesting about that thought is there are really not consistent orders and paths and structures you can follow in marriage. It’s two different people and you set it the way you want your life and then sure enough, something happens and it doesn’t flow the way you want it to-
Pam Allan: It rocks the world.
Corey Allan: … in your life, and in your marriage, and in your relationships. Pam Allan: We have routines. They may be bad routines, but we have routines.
Corey Allan: True that. Every everybody seeks to get a comfort zone, and sometimes what you need to do is figure out, “How do I challenge that comfort zone a little bit to get a little bit more of life and vibrancy and passion out of life?” And that’s what we try to talk about here.
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Well coming up today on the regular version and the full extended version because everybody gets the full show today because we are joined-
Pam Allan: That’s exciting.
Corey Allan: … by Shaunti Feldhahn and Dr. Michael Sytsma. They have a new book out called “The Secrets of Sex and Marriage.” And these two bring some serious research game and history to the field.
Pam Allan: I mean, that’s their background, right?
Corey Allan: Totally. I mean, Shaunti is a Harvard trained researcher, and then Dr. Sytsma has been in the field for decades working in specifically in the arena of sex and intimacy with married couples. And so they teamed up to update some research to conduct their own, which was so good. And then what’d they find? And that’s what we’re going to discuss today.
Pam Allan: So I loved this part of it really spoke to me because they’re looking at responsive desire, right?
Corey Allan: Correct.
Pam Allan: So that’s me. I’m the responsive person. I want sex. I enjoy it. I’m just not usually the initiator. It’s not forefront of my mind. And so there’s some points in there that they talk about that the person who’s responsive has to catch up to the initiator and some points in there. And if one of those is off, then it’s going to affect me catching up to you. And they just had some great info in here that they found.
Corey Allan: And if I’m being an in instigator of this whole thing or the initiator, the spontaneous, I mean, there’s a lot of different terminology that we’ve used across the years of the show. And so this is just, the framework is the same, but they’ve come back. They’ve come at it with a more data-driven reaction to it. Because what’s fun to me and stood out is the idea that we so often as spouses assume differently of what our
spouse’s desire level is of what they want.
Pam Allan: Exactly. Exactly. They’ve got a good point in there of one spouse, here’s what my real desire is, but here’s how my spouse perceives it and vice versa. And they’re totally off when their real desires really are pretty much the same.
Corey Allan: Or a whole lot closer than we often think they are, yes.
Pam Allan: But our perceptions of one another are totally off base like night and day,
which then affects everything else.
Corey Allan: Because the route to get there is different for each side, and that’s what we talk about all the way through the show.
Pam Allan: One of the phrases I love, “Perception is reality,” and it’s my reality. It may not be what’s really real, but it’s reality for me, and that affects everything else.
Corey Allan: All that’s coming up on today’s show.
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Corey Allan: It is a real privilege and honor to welcome to the show Shaunti Feldhahn and Michael Sytsma. That you guys have a new book out, “The Secrets of Sex and Marriage,” which is right up the alley of what the audience of the Passionately Married podcast is interested in. And I know with the background you guys bring. This isn’t something that was just thrown together. This is something that was a labor-intensive project. And so I’m thinking to start the conversation, I would love to just set the stage on how did this come to be as far as the two of you guys teaming up to make this happen? And then give a brief, what was the whole process of putting this together? And then I want to get into what are the surprises, and the finds, and the meat that we can use.
Michael Sytsma: Go ahead, Shaunti.
Shaunti Feldhahn: Oh gosh. I was just going to say there’s a lot there. Michael Sytsma: I’ll let you start from your side. I’ll talk just briefly on mine.
Shaunti Feldhahn: So this actually started because my husband, Jeff and I, we’ve done all these different research projects over the years, written different books. Basically, the premise, what we feel called to because we’re not psychologists or clinicians like you guys, but we do have analytical backgrounds. And so over the years we’ve done these different studies to dig out what really matters and what are the little things that make a big difference in people’s lives and relationships essentially. If you’re just going to change this or this, what are those things that are going to make the biggest impact? And over the years, obviously anyone who deals with anything related to marriage, they see two big issues rising those surface, sex and money. And Jeff and I had done a research project in a book called “Thriving in Love and Money.” And then we’re praying about what’s the next project. Well, this issue of intimacy is a big deal and oh dear, are we really going to tackle this topic? And we felt like we were being led to do it, but only if only if our longtime advisor, Dr. Michael Sytsma, could do it with us.
Corey Allan: Perfect.
Shaunti Feldhahn: Because we knew we could do damage on this topic if we were not completely accurate. And because Dr. Mike is such a well-known and well-respected nationally as a sex therapist and a leader, thought leader in this area, has trained most of the Christian sex therapists out there, for example, we were really delighted when we managed to convince him. I’m not sure how we managed to convince you.
Michael Sytsma: Honestly, it was your reputation, watching you for 20 years do your work. I come at it from a different side. My PhD from a tier-one research institution where we were just grilled in how to do excellent research over 20 years ago. And doing it in sexual desire discrepancy in married couples specializing in marital sex therapy and just fell in love with doing the research and what you can learn from it. So have always done that on the side for the last 20 years. And the opportunity to join with Shaunti and her demand for excellence in what she does, and to do a research study that truly hasn’t been done this way before, to be able to do such a large diotic sample that’s really appealing. So that made it a lot easier.
Corey Allan: And that’s worth noting as we get started. Just so the audience is aware that the diotic survey you guys did was the match pair survey.
Michael Sytsma: Correct.
Corey Allan: So it’s not just, you didn’t throw out there, we’re just looking for respondents. I mean, I remember when I was doing my research for the dissertation over 20 years ago too. I just need somebody that has a pulse, and can answer some questions, and that’s all I need. I don’t care who you are, just get in here. I need the data. You guys went real strategic because it’s both sides of the dyad.
Michael Sytsma: We actually have four different surveys that we did. Two of them are nationally representative surveys. One of them is married individuals. So we didn’t this wasn’t dyadic, but the other one that I love was 501 married couples, that diotic matched pair. And we are not aware of any research that is this large, that is nationally representative that looks at marital sexuality specifically. And then of course, when you’re working with dyadic data, as you know, that takes all different kinds of methodology because you can’t assume independence. There’s so much that goes into it, which is just part of the fun puzzle for me.
Shaunti Feldhahn: And expensive. An expensive puzzle.
Corey Allan: Indeed. Okay. And so we set the stage for what’s the backbone of all of this that you guys did just to find the data, to get the input and the information from the people. Let’s go, I mean, a lot of this will be in the book, and I imagine some of it may not be, but what was some of the things that were surprising or important about what you discovered?
Shaunti Feldhahn: Well, okay, let me jump in there. I’m the average wife and mom. I’m a researcher, but I am not a clinician, and I’m not a therapist, and so everything surprised me.
Corey Allan: Okay, perfect.
Shaunti Feldhahn: Nothing surprised this guy. Corey Allan: Okay.
Shaunti Feldhahn: Nothing.
Michael Sytsma: Except the kids.
Shaunti Feldhahn: Yes. There were a couple things that came out in the data, which he can explain in a minute, but there were a couple things that precise nuances that he was like, “Whoa, that debunks some of the fields’ assumptions.” But in general, what we were going for was the stuff that surprised me. The average couple, what are the things that are just obstacles that people don’t realize they’re maybe even putting in their own way, or that they’re believing mythology that’s causing an issue that they don’t even know is there, that kind of stuff.
So for me and for having watched now the impact on this as we have been sharing this with now with leaders for the last couple years as the research and the analysis has been ongoing, and then now that the book is actually out and watching the reaction of the general market, I personally think one of the most important surprises is helping the average couple understand the concept that there’s not just one type of desire. I mean, and your audience may already be familiar with it, but do you mind if I just unpack that for a second?
Corey Allan: No, go because I think this is anything… Even if some of the content we discussed today is a repeat for people, I think there’s still element of repetition, just we hear it again and it’s like, “Wait, that little nuance. I didn’t…” And it’s like looking back at research. You see something initially, and then you go back to it. Or it’s even looking at scripture and you’re like, “When did that get in there?” Because the nuance is different because of where you are. So please lead on.
Shaunti Feldhahn: Well, and we also have some numbers and these are new. Corey Allan: Okay.
Shaunti Feldhahn: These are from these nationally representative samples, and that’s helpful to actually know what are the numbers, but just for maybe people who aren’t as familiar with it or a repeat for those who are, one of the things that often gets in the way for couples is this subconscious idea that what you see on the screen and a movie or a TV show is the way that sex and desire works. Which is you have the man and the woman look at each other and there’s a spark, there’s a desire, this surge of feeling of wanting somebody sexually. And then pretty soon on the screen, pretty soon the two start kissing and the clothes are off and they’re in bed. And it’s just that you feel desire, you do something about it.
And when we started working on this, I had been aware because Dr. Mike had been an advisor on this topic for years. I was aware that that wasn’t the whole story, but what was a huge surprise to me was to find out that if you call that initiating desire, and there’s a second type of desire called receptive desire, the person with receptive desire, which not only doesn’t match the Hollywood portrayal, that the person with receptive desire, their physiology basically works in the reverse order, and they don’t necessarily feel that surge of desire, and that person decides to get engaged sexually. It’s a choice, looking forward to it, feeling like, “Okay, it’ll come along there at some point,” but then that person, the physiology starts getting aroused.
I mean, assuming that this is a positive experience and this is a good-willed marriage and all that stuff, but assuming that, then that arousal starts coming and then that sense of desire comes in that maybe their partner felt from the very beginning. And when I first learned that early on, this was relatively early on in our research and in our meetings with Dr. Mike, I actually started sharing some of that with just girlfriends because of course, all my girlfriends are like, what are you learning?
Corey Allan: Give me the scoop, Shaunti. Give the scoop.
Shaunti Feldhahn: And I started sharing this with some girlfriends and I watched their eyes. Oh my gosh, that makes so much sense, and this feeling. I felt like something was wrong with me. And no, it’s just your physiology and it makes such a difference-
Corey Allan: Yes, it does.
Shaunti Feldhahn: … once we understand that and work with it rather than feeling
like somebody’s broken.
Corey Allan: I love the concept of it’s a decision and then hopefully, the biology catches up to the decision.
Michael Sytsma: Well, it catches up if the body begins to be aroused, and they become aware of the arousal. They become aware of the subjective arousal, which sometimes those show up in different orders. The receptive person might experience this as I enjoy our time together, and I enjoy feeling the focus of my spouse’s attention. Or it may be wow, this is feeling good. But then they have to also view both of those positively. And some people start to get aroused, and they view it negatively, and the desire never shows up. They experience pressure or they experience a performance kind of an issue or a host of things can disrupt them, being able to relax into it. But if all of those pieces are in place, I choose, I begin to respond both subjectively and body, and then I view it positively, that’s when the desire circuit tends to click on. And being aware that five minutes into this, I probably will be looking and saying, “Don’t stop. This is good.” Or I might be thinking, “Why don’t we do this more often? Because I’m enjoying it in the moment.”
Shaunti Feldhahn: Well, and Corey, one of the things, I’m going to share a couple of numbers because this is actually one of the things that to me, as we’ve now shared… I
know Dr. Mike does marriage events. Jeff and I do marriage events. And as we share these numbers from the stage, you see the freedom that arrives when people are like, “Oh my goodness. I’m not an outlier.” For example, just as a baseline, I believe, if I’m remembering correctly, Mike, 55% of the population is receptive, and that right there helps put that a framework around it. Now, it tends to be more women than men, but not all. I think it’s 73% of women are receptive, but 38% of men are receptive. And it tends to be more often towards the older guy who maybe might have been initiating in his 30s, 40s, 50s, and then finds himself like, “Oh, I’m more this direction now.
But the thing that Dr. Mike calculated from that diotic data, which by the way, Corey, made my brain hurt. Every time we started into the analysis of this, I’m like, “What?” It’s just so complicated. But he actually pins down what is it that in terms of couples, marriages, what percentage of marriages have an initiating husband and an initiating desire wife that matches the Hollywood idea, where both people feel desire, and do something about it. And it’s only 10% of the married couples. So 90% have a completely different pattern, and that is very freeing.
Corey Allan: So when you think of that as far as the whole process that, Shaunti, you’re the one that all of it is like, “Man, okay. This is all great data. This is all surprising to me, and it’s freeing in a lot of ways.” Because that’s the whole thing I love about research is we get so inundated with things. And I know you guys even point this out that, and I want to go deeper into this, that the idea of most of what gets in our way of these desire level differences between husband and wife isn’t necessarily the actual difference because it’s closer than you think. What gets in the way is my perception of them rather than them.
Michael Sytsma: That actually is the source of the greatest amount of pain. People think the difference between them is the source of the pain and of the distress. And what I showed in my dissertation back 20 years ago is it wasn’t the calculated difference between the high and the low desire spouse. It wasn’t the difference between what he said he wanted and what she said she wanted. That difference is actually as you just said, and we point out in the book, much smaller than most people believe. Most couples are within one or two steps of each other, but they believe they’re further apart than that. And the more distressed a couple is, the further apart they believe.
And so you’ve seen this. It’s a couple that sets it across from you, and you look at him and you say, “How often do you think your wife wants to have sex?” And he says, “Never.” And you ask her and she says, “One to two times a week.” There’s a big difference between two times a week and never. And the further apart that is the greater the distress. And I look at her and say, “How often does he want to have sex?” And she says, “At least daily.” And I ask him, and he is like, “Two to three times.” There’s a big difference between those two. And when you take a daily and never, that’s a massive difference. And further apart, I was able to show the greater the pain
in the relationship. And if we can just get couples to understand, “Wait, you want what?” And I look at them and say, “What if you didn’t marry a liar? What if they tell you the truth?” And then they shift to the same side of the table and they start problem solving, “How do we get to where we both want?”
And right now we’ve got a couple that moves from being against each other to working towards a similar goal. And it’s so fascinating to watch the pain disappear and the couple to get on board with it. I like to point out that couples that come to me for sexual desire issues when they leave, they’re experiencing about one, maybe two times more sexual encounters per month, which is about what the best meds that we have for this
do. And yet the distress has totally gone. They like each other again, and they enjoy the time that they have together because they’ve gotten on the same page. And it shifted. Like Shaunti was saying when we do the marriage workshops, I like to listen to what people are saying as they walk out. And the greatest thing I hear is one spouse looking to the other and going, “I’m not broken. I’m normal. It’s okay for me to be me.” And the shift that happens in the couple is profound in that moment.
Corey Allan: Because that’s the idea of what you guys are just confirming in this is that there’s a process of the differences between us aren’t something to be as something’s going catastrophy wrong. It’s not at all that.
Shaunti Feldhahn: It’s easy to think that. Corey Allan: It’s just differences between us. Michael Sytsma: Generally.
Shaunti Feldhahn: It’s easy to think that, “Oh my gosh. It’s all the big stuff,” which is one of the reasons why it shuts you down. It’s easy to shut down when you think, “Oh my gosh. There’s just no way to address this.” Which, speaking from the average non-therapist marriage, this is a topic that we don’t have a grid for because we don’t even talk to… This is the only topic really in all of marriage that most couples don’t even talk about with even their closest friends because it’s private. It’s sacred.
I mean, some people do. But Jeff always, Jeff, my husband, always does. He does men’s groups and men’s bible studies, that kind of thing. And he’s like, “The deepest that you go is maybe a guy saying, ‘Yeah, there’s just not a whole lot of action going on at our house.’ And all the other guys are like, ‘mm,’ and that’s it.” That’s as deep as you get into this. And so because that we are lacking that perspective, it’s really easy to also lack hope. And that’s one of the things that I was so thrilled about in doing this research and talking to Dr. Mike for these three years that we’ve been working on this research project and just seeing point, after point, after point, come out in the data of this is not rocket science. Some of this stuff, not everything obviously, but some of it can be pretty simple, and if you can deal with some of the simple things, then there may be some bigger issues. There may be medical issues that you have a specialized need or whatever. It doesn’t solve those, but it sure makes them easier to solve.
Corey Allan: Because I almost hear a lot of what you guys are describing and have found is, again, this is along the same lines as what we try to do here as a show, is how do we get out of our own way and challenge our perceptions that aren’t necessarily based on the reality of what’s right in front of me? Because that’s the insidious of our brain and long-term relationship that something happened years back. I can still think back 25 years ago with Pam of something happened and it is ingrained now. I can never bring that subject up. I have to be careful about this. I have to all of that-
Pam Allan: Interesting.
Corey Allan: … rather than, no, that’s not who she is at all. That was who she was. That is not who she is. And that’s what we do particularly in our sex lives because well, I didn’t really like that. Well then that means I can’t ever do it again. Rather than, well who says? Because it’s just it was bad timing back then. Or I always make a joke, sometimes Pam’s rejection of my sexual overtures is really good judgment because we’re at Target. And so it’s a good thing to have judgment there versus, “Man, she is such a prude.” No, that’s not who she is. And that’s what I see as I read through this and think about what you guys have discovered is a lot of this is like Michael, you just made the comment of it’s getting more… We’re more closely aligned than we ever thought we were for a majority. And again, that’s not everybody because we’re talking continuums here, but it really comes down to how do I challenge my view of what’s going on and have the courage to get out of my own way and see, get confirmation of it, test it out.
Michael Sytsma: And we also showed the high value of curiosity because often when we step into marriage, we expect our spouse to be like us, and we don’t understand why you don’t want the way I do, or you don’t want what I do, or you should be more like me, is this unstated belief in the back of our mind that continues to come out.
Shaunti Feldhahn: I think it’s even subconscious.
Michael Sytsma: Many times I think it is. And so we step into it with, “You need to hear me, and you need to respond to what I want,” as opposed to stepping back and going, “Wait, what? Unpack that for me.” And so the couples that we start to talk about initiating a receptive desire and let’s reverse the script. The husband says, “Wait, that receptive. That sounds like me.” And instead of the wife looking at him and saying, “You need to be different,” in all of the 12 dozen ways that she subtly says you need to be different, for her to look at him and say, “Wait, what? So how does that work for you? And what is the internal experience of it?” And to start to allow him to unpack and figure it out and her become a student of how he works rather than telling him how he should work.
And then it goes the other way as well. Now, we’ve got a rich marriage and relationship where I am learning who you are and we’re becoming together. And I think that allows for the growth and the change that you’re identifying where I no longer see you as who you were because I’m curious about you, and I’m tracking your growth, and I’m watching how that does shift. And most couples in this arena don’t do that very well.
Shaunti Feldhahn: And I think one of the reasons most couples don’t is that because this can be an awkward topic to talk about. Now, obviously not for you Corey, you have a podcast on this topic, and perhaps not for your listeners because they’re the listeners of this podcast. But for many people this is an awkward thing to talk about. And I think, what was the number, Mike? It was 73% of couples?
Michael Sytsma: 73, mm-hmm.
Shaunti Feldhahn: Couldn’t talk about this well. And so that it is a shift of recognition
when you go, “Okay, A communication matters.” Which actually I would love Dr. Mike to unpack that for you because he’s got some numbers on that that just blew my mind. But also the ability to talk about it without it feeling all awkward and whatever, it’s actually a lot simpler than people think, and to some degree, it’s even taking a book like this one and reading it out loud to each other, and stopping and going, “Wait, is that you?” That’s that curious approach. “What does that feel like? I didn’t realize I was, wait, you felt I was pressuring you. What was it exactly that I was saying?”
And that opens things up. We actually have some friends who are leaders in the marriage space who they’ve read every book and they’ve done all the work, but they actually told us recently that… And Dr. Mike, I don’t think I even told you this, but they said that they had started partly as a way of encouraging us, they said, “You know what? We should make this our book that we read together.” Because they tend to read a little bit of a book together in the evenings and talk about it. And they were thinking, “We’ll dip into it, and we’ll read maybe five or six pages a night and talk about whatever seems like it’s the thing talk about.”
Corey Allan: Worth talking about.
Shaunti Feldhahn: And they said, “Actually, really quickly we gave up that idea because we were getting through two or three sentences and going, ‘Wait, what?’ And ‘Wait, that’s how you think?'” And I thought that’s a perfect example. These are marriage leaders. These are people who’ve been doing this marriage ministry for years, and yet all of us have things that we can talk about.
Corey Allan: Absolutely. Because there’s so much that’s my perception, or my wish, or my desire, or my way out there politically incorrect fantasy, or thought, or whatever, I know Pam’s reaction. Whether she puts on the poker face or not and is trying to act like she’s open to hearing it, I still know, “Oh, she’s uncomfortable with this. Uh-oh.” And so that’s where I think I love how you guys are framing this idea that marriage… We refer to married sex as a long game because it absolutely is. This is something that, and we use this in all kinds of context. I’ll make an overture or she’ll make a suggestion about something, and it’s not necessarily for right then and there or even tonight. It might be for three days from now when the things finally can work out to where it’ll work. But it’s not a failure because the overture was made, and it didn’t actually culminate.
And so it is the language that you guys are helping give a frame to I think is what’s the most appealing and beneficial because it normalizes stuff, but it also equips like you’re describing, Shaunti. It gives you something to explore that’s endless because we change. As soon as we figure out who my partner is, they change, or I change, or something else happens, and I’m 51 years old. I can’t do that anymore. So it’s just that element of how it evolves. But as you were talking about wanting Michael to unpack the communication aspect of it, I’m curious because this might be a little bit of a tangent that gets to it, but one of the best advice I’ve ever heard when talking to your kids about this subject is telling, and I’ve told both of mine who are teenagers, if you can’t talk about this subject with someone you’re thinking of actually doing it with, you’re not ready. But how does that apply to marriage when they can’t talk about it? No wonder we got issues that can come up and we think are way off the charts.
Michael Sytsma: Well, fear comes in so profoundly. Our sexuality is so central to who we are. And if you reject my sexuality, you’re rejecting me. And if I tell you what I really
would like, if I share with you my inner fantasies then you’re just going to think I’m weird and reject me. So I can’t even lay that on the table. And when we start marriage and there’s some of those early times that we toss something out and our spouse just looks aghast or horrified or or just says no, like you said early on, we tuck that in and we make this an unsafe arena. And over the course of a few years of marriage, we’ve got this massive pile of unsafe arenas that we don’t go back and allow each other to grow from.
And one of my mentors used to say, a couple doesn’t have truly rich passionate sex until they’ve been married at least 30 years. And I think that’s a really different way of looking at sex because if I’ve been married 30 years, I no longer have a 21 year old body. It doesn’t work that way any longer. And he said that’s the point because we learn by that age that sex is just as much about heart as it is about body, maybe even more so. And we learned how to profoundly connect with each other. That means dropping the barriers and the guards and stepping into those unsafe arenas that we have locked away for years and said, I can’t discuss this with you. I can’t be naked and unashamed before you, or you’ll see me as wrong.
Corey Allan: I’m loving that, Michael because as we’re sitting here recording, I’ve got three months, and then I get the touch of what 30 years of married sex is, so sweet. Buckle up baby as you’re hearing this.
Michael Sytsma: I love what Barry McCarthy and Michael Metz said in one of their books that we have this mythology that says that every sexual encounter needs to be an eight or nine or 10 on our 1-10 scale. And that is so unrealistic, that after a few decades couples realize that most sex is a five. And there will be times that you look over at each other and go, “Wow, baby, I don’t know what you did last night, but that was truly amazing.” But there will be just as many times that we go, “Okay, check the box. We did that. We’ll try to do better next time.” In that sense of we still love being with each other in a way that we are not with anybody else in the world.
Corey Allan: And that’s the beauty of the language of this whole thing. Michael Sytsma: It is.
Corey Allan: That it’s all such this ever flowing language. And I love the nuance you guys are adding of staying curious, of staying connected, being a student, because it is an evolving as we go. It’s a challenge of constantly relearning ourselves and each other.
Michael Sytsma: And every bit of it is a communication. The way we touch each other is communicating. The way we initiate, the way we receive the initiation, the way we postpone to another time, whether what that particular apex experience looks like is a communication, and so it makes sense that those that truly communicate well. Now, part of what was fun in the research is asking a couple if you communicate well. You get very different numbers from looking at do couples truly communicate well?
Shaunti Feldhahn: It was funny asking them those questions, and I don’t know if
we’ve lost Mike’s video, but-
Corey Allan: It’ll catch up. It’s not a problem.
Shaunti Feldhahn: It’ll catch up, okay. But asking couples those questions about whether you communicate well, it was really hilarious, actually. And maybe actually instructive for your listeners because I think the number, if I’m remembering correctly, it was something like north of 60% of couples said, “Oh yeah, absolutely. We communicate fine without any issues or difficulty,” when they were asked that straightforwardly. And then when you look at those exact people, and you look at how they answered the other questions on the survey, we had identified about five or six markers of communication and looked at if someone, for example says, if your spouse wishes that you knew something, would you want them to bring it up with you? Okay, that’s just basic another type of communication question.
And some of those 60% or whatever said, “Oh yeah, we talk about everything just fine,” are like, “No, no, I don’t want my spouse to bring things up with me.” I was like, “Okay.” And so that’s what we actually identified is when you actually look in practice, a lot of us who think maybe we are good communicators, we do have a lot to learn. And oh my gosh, Corey, from a perspective of your podcast and the benefit of talking about this topic, there were so many benefits in terms of like, “Hey, this is data that shows why my podcast exists,” I’m wondering whether Dr. Mike should share some of that data about the benefits of communication?
Michael Sytsma: The one that really jumped out is just in looking at the overall happiness or the happiness with sex when they do, we’ve got 6.4 times it goes up if they’re talking well versus those that are not.
Corey Allan: Okay.
Michael Sytsma: And that’s a massive difference. The other one, a lot of the research right now in a post-COVID kind of world, and we were completing our data collection in that stage. And part of what’s discussed in the sex therapy forums where all of us sex therapists are talking online is the massive number of couples that are sexless. And we found that in our data as well. I don’t remember Shaunti, it was around 23%, 25%? Somewhere in there?
Shaunti Feldhahn: It was 23% were low sex or no sex in the matched pair survey, and it was 21% in the survey of married individuals. So really high.
Michael Sytsma: So over one in five couples.
Shaunti Feldhahn: If I’m remembering correctly, it was 9% of couples were never. They said, “We never have sex.” So it was 14% that were less than once a month, if I’m remembering correctly.
Michael Sytsma: And when you take and look at those couples, I wanted to know what’s different in those couples versus the ones that are having sex. And one of the massive differences is just communication. That couples that had great communication, we’ve got almost 10% of those couples are reporting sex daily or more. Now that’s a big deal.
Shaunti Feldhahn: Compared to 4% of the overall population.
Michael Sytsma: And less than 1% of those that had poor communication. And when we look at those that are not having sex, a very small number, I think it was 7% of those couples that had great communication were not having sex. And I suspect we didn’t ask the questions, but I suspect that those were the couples where there was a physical issue, or there’s some other reason going on that keeps them from engaging versus 46% of couples that have poor communication are sexless. There’s a massive difference in those groups. Now, obviously when you do a single slice of research, you can’t say, “If you communicate more, then you’re going to have better sex,” because it could be that those that are having sex more are communicating more. But if the two of those things are correlated, then it makes sense that if we increase one, we’re probably going to increase the other one.
Corey Allan: It should have impact at least some way and help in at least a small little tick going up that could benefit.
Shaunti Feldhahn: Or not a small.
Corey Allan: True.
Shaunti Feldhahn: I mean, some of those numbers were huge.
Corey Allan: True.
Shaunti Feldhahn: Six times more likely to be happy in your marriage.
Corey Allan: Well, I keep coming back to as we… I want to wind this down just because I think what’s so impactful to me is going through everything you guys have, and then talking to you today. I keep coming back to the framework we have and a belief I’ve got just from the training I’ve got with Dr. Schnarch who’s not a Christian. So anybody that’s new to the show. But a lot of what you guys are talking about overlaps perfectly in the sense that marriage is designed to help us grow up. That’s the whole point of it. That’s what I believe. Gary Thomas uses the word “It makes us holy rather than happy,” and he got that out in print before I could get mine out in print of it growing up. And so we fight about that.
But it’s that element of it’s me getting out of my own way. It’s me being curious to use
you guys’ phrase that is so beneficial of asking the questions, testing out a hypothesis, just seeing, and then just being open to what… Because the idea of communicating, I personally think and professionally think talking about this subject is awkward, but I lean into the awkwardness, and I grow more comfortable in it. And I’m able to handle the tension, or it doesn’t go well, and it’s not a horrible thing. We come back to it and it’s… Because we’ve all have done that. I mean, through the courses of your marriages, you’ve had that where we didn’t handle that well, but now we can do it a little bit better. And then this time is a little bit better. I mean, parenting is a great example of that. I got no clue what I’m doing and as soon as I figure it out, they hit a different stage, and now I got to adjust to that stage.
Shaunti Feldhahn: That’s a great analogy.
Corey Allan: And so it’s the same concept of I need to expand me as I’m expanding my marriage. And that’s where I get the whole benefit because this conversation just confirms, wait, there’s a whole lot of normal happening here. It’s not a shock what’s going on. It’s just now how do we dispel that better, which is what you guys’ work does to let people see it as, “Okay, wait, if I’m not broken, there’s hope there so I can take that and move forward.”
Michael Sytsma: And when we look at animals, when an animal is in a safe environment, when they’re fed well, when they’ve been able to get good sleep, they play. And the couples that we asked far preferred playfulness in sex over the seriousness in sex, and they come into our offices asking for it, but they don’t have a safe environment. They’re bickering with each other. They’re under pressure from each other. There’s demands to be. And I just point out you can’t be playful in that type of an environment. Versus my language is marriage was God’s first intervention in helping us to be like him. So it’s God’s first active discipleship, and it’s a really rough discipleship journey, but it’s one that’s well worth it. And as I disciple self, as I grow up me, I help to create an environment.
There are things. We found that 30% of the women experience pain 1/3 of the time. And the numbers of pain, especially for women, was just really high. That’s going to shut down the ability to be receptive-
Corey Allan: Absolutely.
Michael Sytsma: … the ability to respond, the ability to be playful. And many times their spouses are not sensitive and aware of that. Many times wives are not even telling their husbands that this hurts every time we engage versus only about 12% of the guys and the impact to them was much lower, but still a significant number of men. But you add any of those kind of variables in, and it shuts down our ability to really respond well. Stepping back, being curious, allowing our spouse to be different in figuring that out opens up to chance for playfulness.
Shaunti Feldhahn: One of the most encouraging findings, Corey, that to me, when Mike showed me the data and he had, again, he was crunching all of the diotic data in the ways that my little brain just couldn’t. And he showed me this one chart that I said,
“Wait, that looks like this is saying that.” And he said, “Yep.” And this is to me the benefit of all the communication and the desire for playfulness, which is that most couples, both partners, both the lower desire and the higher desire spouse, both partners want more sex than is actually happening. And that to me was like buch. You’ve got a certain desire level. Yeah, I’d like this once a week or three times a week or whatever, and it’s only happening three times a month, but both people want more than that. And that opens up all this space for what you guys are talking about of… Not everybody, not every couple. But if we can address some of these things that we just haven’t talked about, or if we can get somebody help for the sexual pain or whatever those things are, everybody wants to connect more. That’s a very encouraging thing to go into this realizing.
Corey Allan: No, that’s incredibly helpful. Because that’s that element of now all of a sudden we can let the problem be the problem. We are not part of the problem where we add to it because it’d make it about us rather than wait. No, that’s just two human beings that aren’t the same trying to figure out this path together, where I can easily place it as, “You are the stumbling block in my world,” rather than, “No, we are just different. What if that’s actually a mechanism for my growth and ours?” And that’s the beauty and love I have of marriage is I think that’s the whole process of it.
So, well, I can’t thank you guys enough for this, for the work you guys do because I’m having done the research in the way back and dabble still not near to the level you guys described. Thank you so much for either your brains that want and like doing that because that is such a valuable resource. So how can people find the book? I’ll put all this in the show notes too, but how can they find more about you guys and the book?
Shaunti Feldhahn: Well, the easiest way, we’ve actually been creating a portal online with a lot of other resources as well. The book, “Secrets of Sex and Marriage,” you can get it pretty much anywhere, but the portal is also secretsofsexandmarriage.com. And because Dr. Mike has that sex therapy background, he and some of his colleagues have been writing some articles and some specific resources if you need extra help in this area or that area, where can you go to find referrals, for example? So all of that is on there and hopefully, will be really helpful to people.
Corey Allan: Good. Well, thank you guys so much for the time, and all the best on the work as it continues, okay?
Michael Sytsma: Thank you. Shaunti Feldhahn: Thanks so much.
Corey Allan: So it was fun to have those two on the show. That’s the first time I’ve ever… I mean, I’ve met Shaunti before. We even met her a couple years back at a marriage-
Pam Allan: A Conference.
Corey Allan: … collective that we went to, and then Michael, first time meeting him officially. And it’s so great to talk to people that have been in the field for a long time and really have helped shape some of the conversations that have gone on throughout the years in Christian marriages, and in homes, and in relationships across the globe.
Pam Allan: Appreciate people putting in all the grit and the hard work.
Corey Allan: Absolutely. And so it’s so great to get a chance to just dive into theirs. And if there’s more that you want to know, check out their book. Also let us know, (214) 702-9565 or feedback at passionatelymarried.net because we want to continue the conversations that help bridge the gap of perception versus reality. And then how do you face what’s really going on a whole lot better?