There are many reasons why sex might be a problem in your marriage. One or both of you might have depression. You could be on meds that reduce your libido. Perhaps the past is something that still feels present: abuse or assault or relationships which left you scarred. You might have body hang-ups; an eating disorder, a hatred of seeing your own flesh. Or maybe you’re just from very different backgrounds; with different expectations of intimacy.
It’s a massive issue for many couples, but when it’s your problem, it can feel like you’re the only one. After all, it’s not the sort of thing you can drop into conversation. And when it’s been an issue for a while, it can feel impossible to address. So what’s the way forward?
Below is an article one reader sent me last week. To be clear: this is not my view – but it’s one that is sometimes taken on this issue:
…She refuses to freely enjoy sex with me. As the keeper of the “sex gate” only she decides when and how we have sex, totally disregarding my sexual needs. I have no say. What can I do?” (And I see this in reverse as well… with wives who have refusing husbands.)
One of the biggest hurdles for a refused spouse to overcome, is in admitting that the refusing spouse is NOT the loving spouse they once were. We are NOT a wonderful parent while sexually refusing our children’s other parent. We are NOT a good Christian just because we are active and ministering in church, while we treat our spouse like crap in the bedroom. Refusal affects all areas of our life. We figure that since nobody knows our “refusal secret”, then our pastor and all our church friends think that we are a good Christian. Hey, we’ve learned how to fake it well. Everyone but our spouse, only sees our “pretend” personality.
God knows better. He knows us by how we are in the secret place. It’s in the secret place that He judges our heart. We might be able to fool man for a season, but we never fool God.
To refused spouses: TELL THE SECRET!
Quit protecting your refusing spouse’s reputation. As long as you agree to hide their refusal, you are contributing to their sin, so their sin is also YOUR sin. Tell your pastor, counselor, or whoever else will cause self-reflection when a refused spouse can’t make a dent, even if it means embarrassment. We have no reason to be embarrassed if we’re not doing anything wrong. If the refuser dies of embarrassment when the refused spouse tells their pastor or another person, it sends the refuser a clear message:
*Refusal is serious.
*Refusal goes against the wedding vows.
*Refusal hurts the kids, and others they try to help (ie, Christian ministries.. like the blind leading the blind).
*Refusal can lead to infidelity or divorce.’
The person who sent it asked how Glen and I would respond. Here’s what we said:
There’s clearly a lot of hurt behind this article and on one level, that’s very understandable. There are difficult issues here and the writer is suffering, but they are addressing these issues with self-righteous critique and no gospel whatsoever. “Laying down the law” cannot be the final answer to a lack of intimacy – how could it be? If (as in that article) the final word is an angry list of demands, there’s little hope for restored closeness any time soon.
Having said that… there is an issue with lack of intimacy in marriage. A big one. 1 Corinthians 7 is there for a reason. We shouldn’t deprive one another. It should be said that the bedroom is not the measure of a person, of their Christian walk or of the relationship as a whole – that article ought not to imply that! Our sex life is not the measure of our walk with Christ! But… the bedroom can be an incubator of problems. And at times the bedroom can be the incarnation of problems that run throughout the relationship. For that reason lack of intimacy is a problem. And ignoring it is not really an option.
The opposite of legalism is not sweeping things under the carpet or pretending sin is not happening. The answer is the gospel, which is actually more confronting. It goes deeper than legalism but then offers us hope apart from our own messed-up-ness.
So let’s go deeper than the legalistic teaching: when a spouse denies their partner, they are denying themselves too. The denying spouse doesn’t think they are (or they wouldn’t deny) – but they are. In marriage they belong to their spouse and if their spouse is unsatisfied they have a problem. It’s no good for the refuser to miss out on the fullness of the one flesh relationship.
Once we see this then hopefully we can have a different motivation for change than the one in that article. It’s not about “getting what I’m owed in the bedroom.” It’s actually about serving your spouse by wooing them out of sexlessness for their sakes. If you can begin to be motivated by their best then you might be able to raise the issue in a way that won’t make them retreat further but moves towards greater openness.
The truth is, in every marriage, both spouses are sinners in the bedroom. Perhaps through selfish denial. Perhaps through selfishly wanting to use the other person. But we’re all sinners. The gospel is that we are “one flesh” anyway! We’ve been given to each other in spite of our sin and God has joined us together. Our oneness does not depend on ‘having regular date nights’ or good communication skills or great sex. It depends on God and He has joined us together. Now we get the chance to live out that oneness. It’s ours for free but it will take ‘dying to ourselves’ on both sides in order to enjoy this. The spouse who wants sex is going to have be more patient and committed than they want in wooing their partner – it will feel like a death. The spouse who doesn’t want sex is going to have to be more open and vulnerable than they want – it will feel like a death. But out of those little deaths come life. Cross and resurrection is the only way forward.
There is a problem with sexlessness and inaction is not an answer. But neither is the answer to get angry and demand your rights. If you are being refused there is a hurt that needs to be felt. Allow it to make you sad rather than mad, taking the hurt to God in brokenness. You have a desire to know and be known and that’s a good thing. It’s sad that you’re not enjoying this as a couple. You can shed tears before the Lord because His heart is broken too.
Then ask Jesus to break your heart for your spouse – to pity them more than to fear or be mad at them. Then ask for the courage to woo them out of their withdrawal. This will be hard because the reasons for refusal may turn out to be abuse or other emotional issues which will put you both completely out of your depth. It should go without saying that such issues require incredible sensitivity, grace and time. This is not about claiming your conjugal rights. If you’re seeking to woo your spouse into intimacy you will have to die to your sexual demands and learn to serve your spouse in love.
But serving them will also mean drawing them into an intimacy they fear right now. Not so that “you get your needs fulfilled” but so that they live out their God-given calling. This process will be messy and painful – and it will almost certainly need one or two trusted, praying friends to be involved on some level. It will feel like a death – but death is the way to life.