Is withholding sex in marriage okay? If you’re not a sexual person, or if you don’t think your spouse deserves sex, is it okay to cut them off from sex?
A lot of people who are on this blog are desperate because their spouses have sex with them less than once a month, and many qualify as sexless marriages, where they haven’t had sex in over a year (or longer). In many cases, these are men writing in. I’ve written before about what to do if you have a sexless marriage because your husband doesn’t want sex, and I’d encourage women to read that if you’re the one in a sexless marriage.
But I want to talk today to the women who are withholding sex in their marriage.
Now, I firmly believe that there are good reasons why a woman may say no to sex. I understand that sometimes pain plays a role, or you’re very tired, or grieving, or processing trauma. Sometimes your marriage is in shambles, and that needs to be dealt with first. I am not one who believes that “do not deprive” means that you can never say no.
What I’m talking about is not these temporary times where sex may be on hold, but instead a chronic period of withholding sex. So I want to talk broadly to two different groups: those who just don’t like sex; and those who are having trouble in their marriage. This post is not for those for whom sex is painful or there are major physical limitations happening, or where there is traumatic sexual abuse that is in the process of being healed. Let’s put those aside for now, and just turn to women who could have sex without pain, but are choosing not to.
For the women who withhold sex because they just don’t like it, don’t think it’s important, and are happier without it.
I remember speaking at a marriage conference once when a man came up to Keith and me during a break and asked what he should do. His wife had announced after the birth of their third child that she was now done with sex, because she didn’t like it. That had been fifteen years prior to this marriage conference. No sex at all in those 15 years. They had raised the kids together, but his wife barely touched him at all, let alone anything else.
I have spoken to countless men whose wives did something similar around menopause. They didn’t have the same feelings they did before, and they felt comfortable saying that the sexual side of their life was now over, it was in the past, kaput, and they were fine with that.
But this isn’t okay.
First, sex is meant for marriage. We are becoming “one flesh”.
When we give up on sexual intimacy, we do cut off the one thing that defines a marriage relationship beyond everything else. Obviously if illness plays a part, then sex is not necessary. But sex really isn’t optional when it’s possible. And we do have sexual drives, where people naturally desire sex. To tell your husband that he can never, ever get his drive met, and that he should shut it down because you don’t like sex, is very hurtful and is putting a huge burden on him that he was not meant to carry.
As 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 says:
The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Read the Do Not Deprive Series:
When you cut off sexual intimacy, you often cut off any kind of real intimacy in your life
Sex requires a certain level of vulnerability, and many women don’t like that. We’d rather stay in control. Letting sex go by the wayside allows women to live life on their own terms, but marriage was never meant to be that way. It’s supposed to be about mutuality, and about a deep knowing. And sex is part of that.
When we forget sex, and choose only to do what’s on our own agenda, then life becomes very different and very self-focused–even if the things on your agenda are caring for other people. It’s life on your own terms. God made us for rich intimacy and community.
I wrote a post a while ago about not settling for a dead sex life, and I guess what I’d ask is: Don’t you want more?
I talk to so many women who have just given up. Their libidos are low and they figure, “it’s not a big deal; sex is boring anyway.” So they live very ordered lives, with to do lists and responsibilities and tasks at hand. And they miss out on the passion!
They may think they’ve given themselves totally over to God–homeschooling their kids, keeping a nice house, serving at church–but if they’re running away from passion then it doesn’t have power.
Yes, people have issues with sex; I did, too! I’m not trying to belittle those issues. But I do believe that if we settle for that–if we say, “My sex life is just dead”–then we’re also, in a way, cutting ourselves off from a great big abundant life with God. You can’t cut yourself off from your sexuality; you were created to feel passion and to feel intimacy and to be able to totally let go. If you choose to run away from that, I believe that you will completely stifle your spiritual life, too.
Readers, that’s why I wrote The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex. If you’re a regular reader and you’re having issues with sex, there’s so much more in the book than there is on this blog. I’m glad you’re here, I really am. You don’t have to buy the book. But I wrote it to help people like you–I really did. If you haven’t ordered a copy of The Good Girl’s Guide to Sex yet, will you? And with Christmas coming up, it’s an easier and less awkward time to give a book like that to someone you know. Will you give it to a wife you know who is struggling? Or to a woman whose about to start her marriage (or who has just gotten married?) If we can get this stuff RIGHT–if we can start running towards passion instead of away from passion–I really think more than just our marriages will be transformed. Our faith will be transformed. Our churches will be transformed.
Because we’re alive again, and we’ve stopped keeping God out.
And that matters
And now I’d like to turn to another group of women:
For the women who are in toxic marriages and their husband is not safe emotionally
One woman I know decided to move into a separate bedroom because her marriage was emotionally toxic. She wasn’t ready to leave the marriage, for a variety of reasons, but she didn’t feel that they could be sexually intimate when he was being emotionally harmful. I completely understand that.
Other women have cut off sexual contact because husbands were involved in affairs, or were addicted to pornography. They refused to be used for sex when they weren’t the sole object of sexual pleasure and arousal. Again, an understandable and valid response to sin.
However, I think there is still more that needs to be said.
A theme throughout Scripture is that God cares about the heart, not about appearances.
God famously said, when instructing Samuel to anoint David as king, that people look to appearances, but God looks to the heart. God doesn’t judge the way we do. He doesn’t care about what things look like on the outside; He cares about what’s really going on inside. Here are just a few examples:
God said that the widow’s mite was a better offering than the rich man’s offering, because she gave all she had. (Mark 12:41-44)
He told the Pharisees that what went into a person could not defile them, but instead that it’s what flows from our hearts that can defile us. (Matt 15:11)
He said that when we’re giving to charity, we shouldn’t “let the right hand know what the left hand is doing.” We shouldn’t announce it, but should do it secretly. It’s not about being known for being charitable; it’s about giving for the sake of giving. Similarly, when we pray, we shouldn’t do it so that everyone can see how amazing we are at doing our devotions. We should just do it without the need to Instagram it. (Okay, He didn’t say Instagram. But you know what I mean). (Matt 6:1-6)
Paul wrote that God uses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. (1 Cor 1:27)
Maybe it’s time to the hard work of dealing with some stuff.
For some of you, that means figuring out how to make sex feel good, because it never has (and read this 2-part series by an anonymous reader who took 26 years of marriage to figure out how to finally have an orgasm–but then things clicked for her!). Maybe it means starting to see a marriage counselor about the issues in your marriage. Maybe it means being honest with kids about what is going on (especially if they’re older teens or adults) and not protecting your husband anymore.
God said that he prefers that we be hot or cold; He hates lukewarm. And I think that applies to marriage, too. Jesus is the Truth. So tell the truth about your marriage. If you are withholding sex because of a sin issue in your marriage, then admit that there is a sin issue, tell the appropriate people, and deal with it. If you are withholding sex because of your own issues, then remember that God is not pleased with that, either. Even if you are filling your life up with “altruistic” things like serving in church, or helping your kids, or having an important job, God still sees the state of your marriage. And He would rather you be honest about it.
When you cut off sexual intimacy, you often cut off any kind of real intimacy in your life.
If you are going to separate, then separate, even if you have to stay under the same roof. Or make plans to address the block in your marriage. But please, don’t put your marriage in this permanent limbo, where you’re getting lots of benefits from marriage–reputation; status; income; home; purpose; identity–but at the same time you’re shutting your spouse out and you’re cutting yourself off from intimacy. That’s not helping anyone. And it’s trapping your spouse in a horrible situation where they have very little recourse.
I realize this is a hard post for many, because there are so many deep hurts going on in so many families. And in some cases, it isn’t safe to make big changes. But I do believe that living in this kind of limbo is not healthy for anyone.
Like this post so far? You should also check out:
So I’d love to hear what you think about withholding sex. Let’s talk in the comments!
Sign up for our emails and get access to the TLHV free marriage and parenting resource library. We have over 25 downloads and are constantly adding more. Sign up here!