Is this Book Only for Healthy Marriages?

Is Secrets of Sex & Marriage for unhealthy marriages too? Or just for relatively healthy ones?

A note from Dr. Michael Sytsma and Shaunti Feldhahn

In recent years, it has become common to debate whether general-market marriage books are appropriate for those dealing with specialized marriage concerns (addictions, trauma, neurodiverse relationships, and so on). As a result, some general-market books have been careful to state that the intended audience is this type of marriage, not that type of marriage.

So is Secrets of Sex & Marriage for average marriages, or for those dealing with specialized issues?

Our answer: Yes.

We believe it sets up a false distinction and removes life-giving help from those needing it most, to say that a marriage book cannot be helpful in all marriages just because it cannot address all issues.

Here are a few truths that will help readers of all marriage types:


1. All marriages are “unhealthy” at some level.

There is no such thing as a perfectly healthy marriage. As imperfect people, we all have some degree of dysfunction, which means our relationships will have some degree of dysfunction.

It would be easy to define an “unhealthy” marriage as one that is impacted by narcissism, hypercriticism, abuse, trauma, and similar factors; but that is only one type of unhealthy. A couple dealing with erectile dysfunction or the impact of cancer treatments (or a hundred other issues) is unhealthy too. The key is: This book won’t solve the issues created by ED, narcissism, or anything else. But those things are just part of your marriage and sex life. And this book can provide helpful knowledge in many other areas (including guidance on evaluating when to get further help). Perhaps just as important, for those who are struggling the most, it provides a vision of what an individual or a couple can strive toward.

Our resources, including the book and the website, are intended for everyone.


2. When we categorize ourselves or our relationship by our problems, we allow what is unhealthy to define us.

Our challenges are only part of who we are. If we or others are being impacted by something negative – for example, trauma — it is easy to view our lives through that lens. But that means we are being defined by that challenge, rather than by the whole of who we are. That is demeaning and wrong. It is also, ironically, unhealthy!

It is so important to not define ourselves by our greatest issues, and say that because we have these issues healthy guidance is not going to work well. Yes, everything could potentially be shaped by those issues, but those issues are not our identity. For example, you may have been tragically impacted by trauma but you are not your trauma. Similarly, to reduce a marriage to an either/or situation, is to allow what is unhealthy to define each spouse and the marriage.

Seeing ourselves and our marriage as growing, while having unhealthy parts, allows us to grow the healthy parts while tending to the unhealthy and how they impact the whole. For many of us, this book can provide direction and fuel for parts of ourself and the marriage that are, or can be, healthy.


3. Just because we cannot fully address specialized issues, doesn’t mean marriages with those issues cannot receive help. They can.

Imagine that you have a significant physical issue – for example, you badly broke your leg in a car accident. The average gym simply doesn’t have specialized equipment to help you rehab your leg. And there are some machines at your gym that you can no longer use –or which would even be harmful. Does your injury mean the gym can’t be helpful to you? Of course not! You can work out other parts of your body, you can lift weights, you can do leg workouts with the other leg – but you won’t get the specialized help you need for your particular injury, and you won’t be able to do some things that others do in the gym. You may need to avoid some exercises. But there are plenty of actions that will help you. Some actions that are, in fact, actively important for you.

We view this book and other general-market marriage and sex books in a similar way. A marriage impacted by specialized issues – sexual addiction, bipolar disorder, menopause, childhood sexual abuse, or many others – will not find specialized solutions to those things in the book. But there is plenty of knowledge in the book that will help. Including some that we believe is vitally important for a marriage.

It is tempting to be reductive and say certain resources are always inappropriate or toxic for a certain type of individual or situation. But in most cases, it is more important for readers (and, if appropriate, those mentoring or counseling them) to be self-aware and wise about whether they are able to navigate a given resource in an emotionally healthy way. (For example, a therapist might suggest a recent rape victim avoid even the best books on sex during a specific time frame of the healing process, because of how the subject matter might be received.)


4. The topic of sex can be triggering… but we can and should learn to navigate emotionally-challenging content

Some authors and teachers today have grown accustomed to providing “trigger warnings,” to alert a reader or a listener to approaching content they might find offensive, hurtful or triggering of trauma. We have elected not to do that, for three intertwined reasons.

First, it is not humanly possible for us to give trigger warnings for all the things that would trigger people. The entire subject of sex is triggering at some level.

Second, anything that truly triggers us is pointing to an issue that should be addressed in some way; it shouldn’t always be skipped over or avoided.

And third, and much more important, a trigger warning implies that the author or teacher is responsible for someone else’s triggers. That is not true. Each of us is responsible for learning to navigate emotionally-challenging content well.

It is tempting to look at things outside of us – external resources, external warnings – to solve our internal issues. But there is nothing outside of us that will fix the battle inside of us. A counselor or teacher can’t do that, and neither can a spouse, a friend, or even the best resources and help. Those external sources can give us ammunition for the battle – and each of us can and should seek out what will strengthen instead of sabotage us in the fight! –but that’s a battle we have to win internally.


5. Relationships impacted by actual abuse do need to be particularly cautious.

After saying all of this, it is important to note that those in truly abusive relationships should be particularly cautious about trying to absorb and apply the lessons of non-specialized marriage books. Because an abusive person, who lacks goodwill for their spouse, may not respond well to even the most sincere efforts. Some truly toxic relationships can indeed do damage that can’t be undone, and standard efforts to apply general advice (compromise, learn the other person, and so on) may just prolong the damage.

The difficulty, of course, is that an abused spouse may not recognize that their situation truly is that dysfunctional – or be willing or able to make a drastic change even if they do.

Is there a way to clearly define abuse, to make it easier for the abused party to see? Attempting to do so is highly problematic and dependent upon many individual details. Of course, physical attacks are always out of line. But otherwise, if we set a certain guideline (“if X is happening, you should consider it abuse, if Y is happening, it is not”), some behaviors would slip through the cracks. At its core, abuse is about wielding damaging power over the other person, disrespect, and the lack of grace and kindness. It’s hard to measure these factors. To further complicate things, those who have suffered prior abuse can be very wary and experience something as abuse even if an outside observer wouldn’t see it that way.  But the person is experiencing it that way, so a therapist would not say “this isn’t abuse.”

And as mentioned, some individuals in abusive situations aren’t willing or able to make a drastic change to be in a healthier environment. Many will see the cost of getting out as too high – and therapists and outside observers usually are not able to say the person is truly, objectively wrong once all factors are considered. For example, a woman might think, If I leave him, I can’t provide for my kids. An outside observer isn’t the one who will be paying the price she will pay for the decision she makes. Unless the outside observer is willing to solve the situation for her (e.g. giving her the money to provide for her kids) they can’t accept that cost for her.

So, what should you do if you think you might be in an abusive relationship? Seek an outside perspective from someone you can be honest with. Therapists use the principle of observing the relationship from the outside versus the inside. The person inside the abusive situation may not have the perspective to see their situation clearly, while a pastor, coach or therapist might be more able to say, “This is a very unhealthy situation, it looks abusive to me, and you should consider stepping away.” If the relationship isn’t safe, your first step is to get safe. Then, locate a professional experienced in working with abusive relationships to help you sort through your options.

So to make that decision, the most important starting point is to get the help, involvement and advice of someone who is:

  1. An external party, and more objective. (For example, someone who has been just as hurt as you have been or is already aligned with either of you is probably not able to be objective.)
  2. Not a person who is hyper-sensitive to abuse and will jump to “you have to divorce.” (For example, someone who has been abused in the past or who has never seen abusive marriages heal and become healthy could have knee-jerk reactions that aren’t objective.)
  3. Not a person who insists the only answer is “marriage at all costs.” (That could, for example, encourage you to stay in an abusive situation when for your safety you need to get distance.)


Bottom line, as stated in the Opening Note to the book, not all parts of Secrets of Sex and Marriage may be for you and your marriage. For those parts that don’t apply, step around them. If it seems unwise to discuss or implement what we are suggesting, it may not be. On the other hand, there will be parts in the book that can apply. Grab ahold of those, even if it’s helping you cast a vision for what can be.

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