Do you live in a sexless marriage? They’re increasing all the time. And in my book, The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, 14% of survey respondents reported living in marriages where they rarely or never had sex (at least less than once a month). Their spouses withhold sex.
Sometimes refusing to have sex is due to health problems, but more often than not it’s a deep-seated issue within a spouse where they don’t see the importance of sex, and something has triggered them to decide to stop. I’ve been writing a series of posts this week on what to do when a spouse doesn’t want sex, and we’re going to end the series today looking at the most extreme (but not all that rare) case when a husband or wife refuses to have sex altogether.
I received an email recently from a woman who announced to her husband over a decade ago, after a hysterectomy, that their sex life was now over because her sex drive was gone. Today she is in turmoil because her husband had finally decided to leave.
I’ve received several emails from women whose husbands have not made love to them in years. Again, it was triggered by a health complaint or a sexual complaint (erectile dysfunction), but the husbands used those things to decide to “switch off”.
Now what do the spouses do? I’d suggest talking to your spouse about intimacy, the way I suggested yesterday. But for many spouses this goes much further than that. The spouse has basically checked out of the relationship and you now live in a sexless marriage. It’s not just that your spouse rarely has sex; it’s that your spouse refuses to have sex.
And you’re in a very difficult position because how do you talk about this? It’s not like your spouse has had an affair (in most cases). They’ve just decided that they want the benefits of being married (living with someone, parenting together, sharing expenses, having the status) but they don’t want one of the major responsibilities.
Let’s Get Real: Withholding Sex is Wrong
Paul Byerley, of The Generous Husband, wrote an important post back in December about how the church doesn’t think of withholding sex as a sin–even though it is. He writes:
Sometimes it’s total refusal, sometimes it’s sex once a month, or almost once a week… Sometimes the lack of sex is because of ongoing emotional, mental or physical issues, but the person with the problem won’t get any help. This is still refusal, as it is refusing to do what would make it possible to have sex.
He goes on to show how churches treat the sins of adultery and pornography very seriously, and have great sympathy for the offended spouse, but that the church does virtually nothing for the spouse who is left in the lurch because their husband or wife has decided to check out of the relationship. He tells churches:
So here is the bottom line for Christian leaders: Sexual refusal is a common and growing issue. Ignoring it does not mean it does not exist in your church, and being embarrassed about it does not get you off the hook with God. If you don’t think it qualifies as sin, I encourage you to do a detailed study of 1 Cor 7:3-7. Can you honestly say Paul did not see sexual refusal as sin?
I completely agree. It is relatively easy for a spouse to go to a pastor and say, “I need help because my husband (or wife) is having an affair.” But what would most pastors say if a spouse went to them and said, “my husband (or wife) has refused to have sex with me for months on end.” They likely would do virtually nothing, or else would encourage you to examine yourself and see how you can love your spouse more, as if they are placing the blame at your feet.
It is time that all of us–Christians, church leaders, spouses–recognized sexual refusal as a sin. The Bible clearly speaks against withholding sex. Paul said that spouses have the responsibility to meet their spouse’s needs–within reason. I certainly do not believe that if your husband wants sex twice a day you therefore have to make love twice a day. Marriage is compromise! Nor do I believe that if your spouse is demanding weird or kinky sex that you have to do that (and I have had emails saying, “my husband won’t have regular intercourse because he only wants X or Y instead.”) But there is a certain level of reasonableness that should be met in a marriage. Refusing sex, or only making love extremely rarely, is a serious problem.
Now, if you have a medical reason for this, or if you’re still recovering from psychological trauma or abuse, that’s a different category. If you are working towards recovery, and you are hoping to resume a healthy sex life, then you are working towards a healthy marriage and that’s good. But if you are refusing to work on your issues, even if those issues are one of sexual function, like erectile dysfunction, then you are not living up to God’s design for marriage.
What Should You Do if Your Spouse Withholds Sex?
What, then, is the recourse for the spouse who is consistently refused? I think Matthew 18:15-16 applies here. There, Jesus says:
15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’
The next verse talks about putting the person out of the church if they don’t listen to the church, so obviously this isn’t entirely applicable to marriage. But I think the principle is still valid: God said that if someone is sinning, you talk to them about it. If they don’t listen, you find a few spiritually mature people to talk with together. You don’t tell the whole church. But you talk to some spiritually mature people and ask them to sit down with you both as a couple.
To me, this should be the norm when major sins in a marriage are taking place, like verbal abuse, alcoholism, pornography use, adultery, or refusing sex. These are all serious sins that need to be dealt with or the family will fall apart. Unfortunately, often Christians are very leery of dealing with them, because we don’t like to get involved in other people’s problems. But where, then, does the spouse who is hurting go? What recourse do they have? They don’t want a divorce, but they do want some help. If the church doesn’t provide it, what will happen to these families?
I was reading the book Rocking The Roles recently, and the authors, Robert Lewis and William Hendricks, were calling for a much more ambitious program of churches coming alongside couples to help in interventions. I think withholding sex is a perfect example where such an intervention may be necessary. They were using the example of a man who was overspending and putting the family deeper and deeper into debt while refusing to get a job. And the elders came around him, asked him to sign a contract stating the steps that he would take over the next month to get things under control, and telling him that if he failed in this task, the elders would help the wife separate (not divorce, but separate until he got his finances under control).
Churches have a role to play here. And that’s where a mentor couple can be helpful. Maybe you don’t talk to the pastor per se, but you do talk to a spiritually mature couple in the church who is willing to sit down with the two of you, listen to both sides of the story, and then help the offended spouse (if they decide that this is a sin of withholding situation) argue their case. Setting up some sort of accountability system would be important here.
For instance, if it were a husband who was refusing sex because he had no sex drive and was diabetic, I would say something like:
Over the next month, you need to agree to talk to a doctor about this, start taking care of your health so that obesity and diabetes is less of an issue, and find ways to show your wife love, even if sex isn’t possible yet. You need to be moving towards greater intimacy.
If it was a wife who was refusing sex because she had no sex drive and was too tired, then you may say something like:
Over the next month, you agree to talk to a counsellor about why you don’t like sex, to talk with your husband about your schedule and see how you can get more rest, and to find ways to spend more time together as a couple and work on intimacy as you try to rebuild.
Sometimes getting it out in the open, even if just with two other people (and it really should be with a minimum number of people) can inspire a spouse to act. Often people are hesitant because they don’t see the importance, or they’re embarrassed to talk to a doctor. Having people prod them can spur them on to action.
Other times, however, you need a bigger stick. Is it right to separate (not divorce) if a spouse absolutely refuses sex? I’m not sure. In the vast majority of cases, separation causes incredible hardship on any children involved, and I am very reticent to recommend it just for that reason. God can also be incredibly real to you when you need Him most, and so staying married does not mean that you necessarily will not have joy in your life. God can be that joy.
However, sexual refusal is usually not the only problem. I’ve spoken to many women lately where the sexual refusal of their husbands is combined with a lack of motivation to work as well as a lack of motivation to work on his health. It’s tied up in a number of psychological issues. In this case, I believe a temporary separation where you say to him, “I love you. I want to be your wife. But you must start working and pulling your weight, because I can’t look after the children and work full-time and still look after you. This needs to be a partnership,” may be a way of shaking some reality into him. I know couples, for instance, where she can’t even leave the children with him, but has to hire a baby-sitter, because he won’t look after the toddlers. So having him move out would actually be cheaper for her. The separation is not with the goal of divorce; it’s with the goal of shocking him into actually working on his problems, instead of enabling him to act in an unChristlike way.
I don’t recommend this lightly, and I’m not even sure if I’m right. This is just such a difficult issue. So I would say that if you are in this situation, you need to get counsel from a mentor couple who knows you both in real life. I can’t answer all these problems for you because I don’t know your unique situation. But God does, and so pray that He will reveal a couple that you can talk to who can come alongside you and plot a course where both you and your spouse can find true intimacy again.
I can’t give you all the answers, only a broad outline of the approach that I would take. But if I can, let me at least validate your feelings. If your spouse is withholding sex, this is wrong. It is so heartbreaking for you. It blocks intimacy. It is not God’s design for marriage. And I am sorry you are going through this. I pray that you will find people to talk to who will understand, and who will be able to pray about it and steer you in the right direction.
Don’t forget that my book, The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, has lots of help for couples with problems in the bedroom. If you have trouble seeing sex as something positive, or finding real intimacy, this book is for you!