”Have More Sex” and Other Unhelpful Shit People Say to Struggling Couples

When I tell people that my husband and I separated for six months and then reconciled our marriage, they often have a lot of questions for me. How did you do it? What was the trick? Did you go to couples therapy? And, of course, my favorite: Did having more sex help?

The internet is replete with advice about how to heal a marriage. And since anyone can grow a social media platform claiming to be an “expert” on literally anything, it can be hard to know which advice to listen to. I am not a therapist or a marriage expert. I’m just a woman who, together with my husband, healed a marriage and built something even better than what we started with. Today, I want to share some of the things I’ve seen online and in #marriagegoals circles that I find unhelpful at best and toxic at worst. This isn’t meant to invalidate any strategies that may have worked for you or for others. All I want is to offer a different opinion—a critical perspective—on some of these “tips” so that you can make an informed decision about what might work best for you and your marriage.

So, here are the “marriage tips” I take issue with, in no particular order except for the first one.

#1. Have more sex.

Of all the “tips” I see online for saving a marriage, this is the one that pisses me off the most. It’s also the first signal that I am reading content from a man’s perspective rather than a woman’s. There are countless reasons why sex deteriorates in a marriage, and literally none of them can be fixed by having more sex. This advice completely disregards the issues that underpin the lack of sexual intimacy in a marriage. And, if we want to get really real here, this advice typically puts the burden on the woman’s shoulders. It tells her to forget all the messy, painful shit that squelched her libido and just do it for her husband’s sake instead.” (I acknowledge that this dynamic can go the opposite direction, too, and may be different in same-sex marriages). In any context, this is not how you heal a marriage. In fact, it’s how you build resentment and trauma.

#2. Go to couples therapy.

I will always be an advocate for therapy. Always. However, I don’t think couples therapy is the automatic right choice for couples who are struggling. My husband and I chose to go to individual therapy first, before trying couples therapy. We both believed that couples therapy would be unfruitful unless we both went to therapy alonefirst. In individual therapy, we were able to be open, honest, and completely vulnerable. We didn’t have to tiptoe around each other’s feelings or worry about being interrupted or invalidated. We got to create a safe place to begin healing our own wounds first. Once we did some personal healing and growth, we were better prepared to come to the table together to work toward healing our marriage in a way that was positive, collaborative, and safe. So, this isn’t to imply that marriage counseling isn’t a good idea. It certainly is. I just don’t think it should be the automatic first idea.

#3. Fight through it for the kids.

The idea that couples should stay in a triggering and volatile relationship for their children is frankly absurd. Why do we say this to people? I think we all agree that, in general, children are better off when their families are together. That’s a given. But I have two major points of contention with the idea that couples should grit their teeth through a shitty marriage for the sake of their kids. First, sometimes separation or divorce is the healthiest thing for kids. I think it’s dangerous to tell couples that one abusive, toxic, or dysfunctional home is better for their kids than two healthy and happy ones. Second, “stay together for the kids” is not how you inspire a better marriage. It’s a BandAid. Actually, it’s worse than a BandAid. It’s a rickety bridge over dangerous rapids that you reluctantly step onto, knowing fully well that it’s not going to hold your weight.

#4. Seek council from your church leadership.

I’m going to focus specifically on Christianity for a moment. I am a Christian, so I say this with a teaspoon of love and a metric ton of anger. The modern American Christian church has been enabling abuse and neglect in marriages for a very long time. The leadership in most Christian churches is not trained in mental health and therapeutic techniques. They do not know how to address the deep and emotionally salient issues that run through broken marriages. They certainly do not know how to handle physical, mental, and emotional abuse. Although Christian council can be comforting, it is not always useful or helpful. To give just one example, my former church (which I promptly left), kicked a woman out of the church for refusing to reconcile with her husband. He had been cheating on her for years, and when she finally got enough evidence to confront him about it, he threw her through a window. Since the husband told the pastor he was sorry for his “mistakes” and wanted to work on the marriage, the wife was then expected to forgive him and come to marriage counseling at the church to help them work though it. When she refused, she was excommunicated from the church. Sadly, stories like these are not uncommon. This is not how you handle abuse and trauma. Couples need and deserve care from licensed, educated, trauma-informed experts to help them navigate the dark recesses of broken marriages. I think that, for Christian couples, reading our Bibles and going to God in prayer (and also a therapist) are wonderful ways to access comfort, wisdom, and guidance in our marriages. I just don’t happen to think that the church, as it is today, can be trusted with that responsibility.

#5. Go back to doing the things you did when you were dating.

This one, I have mixed feelings about. Yes, it can be exciting to take a walk down memory lane and do the things you loved to do together before the monotony of life took over. But I think it’s also important to acknowledge that both people have probably changed a lot since then. They have new needs, interests, and hobbies. I think a more useful approach for marriages that are struggling is to talk to each other about the things you love now and start doing those things together.

#6. Try an open marriage.

This is one of the less common ones, but I still see it more often than I’m comfortable with. Let me be clear—there is absolutely nothing wrong with opening up a marriage when both partners feel that’s what they want. I’d just argue that being in active trauma and pain in your marriage is not the right time to do that. People who successfully navigate open marriages (or polyamory, ethical non-monogamy, etc.) tend to be incredibly good communicators who are dedicated to healthy and open dialog, are willing to have honest conversations, and who have a strong foundation in their relationship already. And those people often still struggle with jealousy, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings. Trying to navigate these complicated dynamics while your marriage is in trouble is probably going to add to the pain, not take it away.

#7. Have more date nights.

Going on frequent date nights is (in my opinion) an important part of keeping a marriage healthy and intimate. However, once a marriage has soured, the cheeky advice to go out for dinner and drinks just hits different. For some couples, the simple act of being around each other has become a chore. Every conversation turns into a fight, so they choose to live their lives adjacent to each other with little to no overlap. Forcing intimacy through date nights can sometimes lead to more trouble as expensive nights out devolve into snide remarks and angry glares. At that point, I think a couple’s money is better spent on therapy than date nights.


Ultimately, I think it’s up to the couple to figure out what strategies might work best for them. After all, we are all unique individuals who need different things to thrive in our marriages. I just think it’s important to push back on some of the unhelpful advice that just anybody can so confidently put out there on the web. If you’re in that dark place, feeling like there is no hope for your marriage, I want you to know you’re not alone. For many couples, there is hope. My journey of healing a marriage has connected me with couples from all around the world who have successfully healed their relationships. It’s hard work, that’s for sure. But if you are diligent, and careful to stay away from strategies that make marriage harder instead of easier, there may be hope of healing and restoration.


Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

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