I’ve talked a lot about masturbation in marriage on this blog before.

I’ve tended to come down pretty hard on masturbation (I really hope there’s not some ugly double entendre there that I’m not seeing) in the past when it’s done for selfish reasons.

In this post, for instance, I went over two scenarios for masturbation:

  • Masturbation and porn use which steals sexual energy from your spouse
  • Turning to masturbation instead of dealing with key issues in your marriage.

I think (hope?) we’d all agree that number one is wrong. You should not be masturbating, especially not to porn, instead of having sex with your spouse, and yet I have letters everyday from women especially whose husbands choose porn and masturbation over them. Not okay.

But what about the second one? Here’s what I said in a previous post on masturbation in marriage:

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…

I have known so many couples where sex starts to become nonexistent because they prefer masturbation to intercourse. When you masturbate, it feels more intense immediately, because you give yourself feedback on what feels good. And you can bring yourself to orgasm without all that hassle of having to make someone else feel good, too! Plus, some spouses are not that skilled at making you feel good, so masturbation can seem preferable.

Even if it doesn’t start off that way, it can become that.

Second, it does change the dynamic of sex. There’s something about unfulfilled sexual desire that makes you long for each other even more. When you want someone but you can’t have them, but you can text them and tell them what you’re feeling, or you can plan out elaborately what you’re going to do to them that night–well, that can heighten passion. If you deal with all of that tension yourself, you really do miss out on something together.

And finally, self-control is not a bad thing. To have to channel sexual energy into something else for a time when you can’t get fulfillment teaches you a lot about yourself, about God, and about growing your character. Is it really so bad to have to wait?

What I also said in that post, though, is that touching yourself during sex or as part of foreplay is not masturbation. There is nothing evil, per se, about putting your hands on your genitals. And the problem with masturbation comes in two ways:

  1. When it’s done secretly and shamefully, creating distance between you, in lieu of working on an issue
  2. When it steals sexual energy from your spouse

But are there cases when masturbation in marriage could actually be a kind and helpful thing to do?

That’s the question that I was confronted with late last month when Keith and I were speaking at the FamilyLife Canada conference in Whistler, British Columbia. Here’s the scenario: A woman has tremendous pain during sex (vaginismus), which she is getting treatment for. She is discouraged and depressed and feeling like a failure. The husband feels a build-up of sexual frustration, but the last thing he wants is to burden his wife with this. He wants to love her and let her feel unconditionally cared for as she goes on her treatment. Is masturbation in this case wrong? 

He’s doing it not to steal the sexual side of their relationship, but rather to protect her and help her feel loved and accepted while she’s going through a time when she can’t have sex (and apparently the couple was connecting in other ways sexually, but this, too, was sometimes difficult for her because she still felt like a failure. So she was getting orgasms at times, but found the pressure to perform sexually to be daunting).

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I’ve had other questions from people in similar situations:

  • Couples where there is a prolonged post-partum healing time because of a difficult birth, while there is also exhaustion from the newborn days
  • Couples where there is a chronic pain condition or injury
  • Couples separated from each other for prolonged periods of time (weeks or months at a time) due to work, military deployments, or immigration problems.

Is there a role that masturbation can play in these situations?

Don’t use masturbation as a short-cut to avoid doing real work in the relationship.

​At the same time,

Anything we do in marriage should enhance intimacy, not detract from it.

The goal of marriage is oneness–“the two shall become one flesh”. That doesn’t just mean sexual oneness, but spiritual oneness–feeling as if you truly are one. If masturbation is being used to allow you to be more giving in the relationship, that’s one thing. But if, in the example of the woman with vaginismus, for instance, he’s using masturbation to relieve sexual frustration but he’s also not initiating any intimacy with her (including just being naked together and taking baths together, or touching her, or even bringing her pleasure), then that’s a problem.

Similarly, if someone has a chronic illness and just doesn’t feel sexual for a time, they still need to feel close to you. If masturbation is used as a way to relieve frustration so that you then can ignore your spouse, then that’s selfishness, not selflessness.

Be careful about justifying the use of masturbation.

Please don’t take what I’m saying to mean, “If I’m sexually frustrated, it’s a gift to my spouse for me to masturbate!” That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying “if you’re sexually frustrated because it’s impossible for you to make love for an extended period of time, it could be a gift to my spouse for me to masturbate.” 

I’m not talking about some Tuesday where she turns you down. I mean when there’s an extended period of time.

This is why I hesitate to write posts like this, and often come down really hard on practices like using some sex toys, or watching nudity on TV. If you give exceptions, it can easily open a Pandora’s box. So be honest before your spouse, before God, and before yourself. No excuses. What is really your motivation? I guess in this post I’m moderating a bit what I’ve said previously, but I really don’t want anyone to take this to mean that it’s all a-okay.

Don’t use masturbation as a short-cut to avoid doing real work in the relationship.

If your spouse is consistently rejecting sex and has a really low libido, the answer is usually not masturbation as much as it is working on the relationship, figuring out why she says no to sex, or why she doesn’t want to have sex, trying to rebuild your friendship, or even going for counseling. If you’ve been living in a sexless marriage, I feel for you, and I can see where masturbation may seem necessary. But I would say that if you’re going to do that, you should at least also be trying to get to the root of the sexless marriage, and insisting on some marriage counseling.

And I’d strongly urge you to work on your emotional connection, so that you can talk about this stuff more. I’ve got a great FREE 5-week email course you can sign up for to help you build oneness.


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My last word: If you’re masturbating because you’re simply away from each other–let the other in on it!

What if she’s away for work for three weeks, or he’s temporarily stationed away from home?  And you’re both getting sexually frustrated? My quick answer would be to at least let each other in on it. That’s a lot more fun. I’m going to try really hard not to be too graphic here, but chances are you each have phones and can talk to one another. (Please beware of Skype/FaceTime on public wifis from hotels! Just be smart. It’s really easy to hack those signals. Get a VPN to make emails and other apps secure when you’re traveling).

Okay, now I’d love to know what you think.

I understand that many commenters will say that masturbation is wrong regardless, but can we agree that before we make pronouncements like that, we do two things:

  1. Make a strong biblical argument, don’t just say something as if it’s true without showing why it’s true
  2. Take into account the husband in the first scenario who honestly is trying to love his wife.

Thanks! Now have at it! (that’s not a bad double entendre, too, is it?)

Is Masturbation in Marriage Allowed? How to make sure it doesn't steal from your marriage.

UPDATE: My real motivation for the post was this: I’ve written before some posts that come down pretty hard on masturbation, and then I’ve heard back from people who have read it who now feel so guilty and so sinful, when their motivation does seem loving. They want to be patient and affectionate and available to their spouse, but frustration builds and they’re getting irritable. And I’m just not willing to label all of these things sinful. I don’t think that’s helpful and I think it adds a layer of shame that doesn’t need to be there. There’s just so many issues and permutations that marriages go through, and I don’t want to add to legalism. So this is my attempt to try to find some nuance!

And what I should have said more explicitly is that, if a person has a history of porn use, then masturbation is not a good idea. It’s too caught up in porn and lust, and could suck someone in to that again. 

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