Is masturbation in marriage wrong?
For some reason I’ve received a rash of emails this week from women who are at their wits’ end. They’d like to have sex more regularly. They’d like to feel intimate in their marriages. But their husbands seem to prefer masturbation to sex. And several women have told me, “my husband says that masturbation’s not a sin if we’re married and he’s just thinking about me. He tells me I can’t complain.”
I beg to differ.
Then there are others who write saying: “my wife always refuses sex, and I don’t know what to do. Is masturbation in marriage harmful if you’re just really desperate?”
Two different, though perhaps related, problems. Let’s try to tackle them and figure this out!
First, sex is supposed to be mutual.
God made sex to reflect the longing that He feels to be united to us. So He put inside of us a longing to be united to our husbands, and He put inside our husbands a longing to be united to us. We want to feel that kind of intimacy, that kind of true “knowing”. We want to be joined.
Now sexual pleasure is all wrapped up in that, but our actual need is for intimacy. Intimacy is expressed through sex, and it affects all aspects of our being: physical, emotional, and spiritual. Each enhance the other. So sex that encompasses all three is the best. Sex that is only physical is shallow. And, perhaps ironically but not surprisingly, sex that feels the most intimate also brings the most physical pleasure. They’re all intertwined.
And you can see why if you look at how God designed men and women differently. Men make love to feel loved; women need to feel loved to make love. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the result is that for a woman to get her deepest need–for connection and relationship–met, she has to reach out and meet his needs for sex. And similarly, for him to get his need for sex met, he has to reach out and meet her need for connection. So for a marriage to work, we have to see outside of ourselves and be selfless. We have to think of the other person first. We have to become, in essence, holier.
When sex works as it’s supposed to, we both start to look more and more like Christ.
None of this is to say that women don’t enjoy the physical side of sex, or that men don’t enjoy connection. It’s only that our approach and our emphasis are different. In essence, men have just as much of a need for connection as women, and women have just as much capacity for sexual pleasure as men. But we approach things differently and we want things differently.
What happens if a person decides that they want to short circuit all of this and focus on their own sexual needs–through masturbation in marriage? That puts a chain reaction in place that looks like this:
1. He/she decides to masturbate.
2. He/she starts to see sex solely in physical terms, and not in terms of intimacy and connection. Thus, sex loses its deeper meaning, and, ironically, the ability to experience the height of sexual pleasure is also compromised, because for both men and women, physical pleasure is greater when spiritual/emotional intimacy is also part of sex.
3. He/she starts to focus on his/her own needs instead of the spouse’s needs. The spouse becomes incidental.
4. The urge for sexual release is taken care of, which means that he/she no longer has to reach out and meet the spouse’s needs. The impetus to become selfless is gone.
5. The couple starts to live parallel lives, but separate lives.
It’s a very dangerous road to go down.
But what if the chain of events doesn’t look quite like that? What if you’re the one whose spouse is refusing sex, and it looks more like this:
1. Your wife refuses sex.
2. You start to feel desperate.
3. She gets upset with you bugging her for sex all the time.
4. You masturbate for release, so that you can at least stay civil towards her and try to be loving.
5. You feel dirty and disconnected.
6. The couple starts to live parallel but separate lives.
In this case, masturbation may look like a gift: I’m doing it so that I won’t have to bug her so much. But here’s the problem with that: what you’re really doing is allowing a sinful, bad situation to continue. It’s not right for a spouse to refuse sex consistently, when there aren’t other big problems with the marriage. It really isn’t. (There are valid reasons why someone may say no to sex, but absent these, withholding sex really hurts a marriage). I’ve written a whole bunch about that, but these may help:
What does “do not deprive”, from 1 Corinthians 7, mean? (a three-part series; here’s the last one, but there are links to other two)
Here’s the issue: God gave us our sex drives so that we would be drawn to each other. That uncomfortable feeling of not having intimacy is so bad that it forces us to work on our issues and to improve the relationship.
When you masturbate, you short circuit that process that God put in place for us to move towards closeness.
But what if there’s really nothing you can do? What if you’ve tried everything and your wife still refuses sex? Get her to read this post I wrote for men to show their wives about what sex means to them. But if things are bad enough, you may have to go to a counselor or pastor or third party, or insist that she talk to someone with you. Refusing sex in marriage is not okay, and doing so is wounding her, too. She’s closing herself off from intimacy. If you masturbate, rather than dealing with the actual issue, then in a way you’re perpetuating it, too (I’m not blaming you; I’m just saying that dealing with the problem, as hard and uncomfortable as that may be, is worth it).
Then there’s another issue: the more that you masturbate, the more that you become separate with your wife, and you will continue to drift apart. That’s not healthy. So even though it’s perfectly understandable, I’d really say that dealing with the reason that she’s refusing sex, and trying to rebuild your sex life (with my 31 Days to Great Sex book, for instance), is a better route to go.
Is masturbation in marriage always wrong, then?
Not necessarily, as I’ve written about before. If both know what each other is doing, if you do it together, if secrecy isn’t part of it, it can be a part of play (as long as it does not replace sex). But if a spouse is masturbating in order to lead a secret life; if a spouse is masturbating to get sexual release instead of doing the necessary work of growing the relationship; if a spouse is masturbating because sex has become all about my needs instead of meeting my spouse’s needs, then masturbation will always weaken the marriage, not grow it.
What should be our response?
Whether your spouse is the one who is masturbating to avoid sex, or you masturbate because your spouse refuses sex, you must talk to your spouse about it. Ask if you have done anything to contribute to the problem. But then make a line in the sand and say, “it stops here”. We are going to work on this together. I will be sexually available, but you must also be sexually available to me. I want to work on how to make each other feel great. I want to work on our connection. I want to work on making sex into something explosive, not just a transaction or a release. I want us both to experience all levels of intimacy in marriage.
And if your spouse refuses to listen, then I’d talk to a mentor couple about it. If he’s the one masturbating, in essence he’s cheating on you, because he’s meeting his sexual needs with someone else (himself). He’s becoming sexually single, rather than married. And that’s just not right. And if your wife is the one masturbating, or refusing sex, you may very well need a third party to help you address this, too.
What do you think? Have you ever struggled with this? Leave a comment (anonymously if you need to) and let me know! (note: if you’re going to leave an anonymous comment, don’t use an email address that’s linked up to an avatar, or your picture will show anyway!)