Throughout my years of marriage counseling, I often heard the confession that one spouse was unwilling to engage in sexual relations or, for reasons unknown, was withholding sex. With some couples it had been months and for others years had passed since they were intimate. Unfortunately, distraction or dissatisfaction in the sexual realm within marriage is not uncommon.
Most couples have seasons of infrequency or loss of the joy of sex or boredom, but that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way or that a new precedent is being set. For many married folks it is the most difficult subject to bring to the table. It seems that no matter how you approach the subject, one person can be easily offended or hurt.
When sex is withheld, most couples can connect it to a temporary issue like a recent fight or a strong disagreement on frequency or stress and sometimes illness. But there is a difference between decreased desire and intentionally using sex as a form of punishment or control.
I discovered a long time ago that abuse is always connected to power and control. Anger out of control is a form of control. Financial withholding for basic needs is a form of control and a spouse who feels unsafe, unloved or unappreciated can use sex as a form of control. Sex as a weapon in any form is unacceptable.
Most persons do not misuse their sexual side in a relationship but there are those who do.
When a woman withholds sex from her husband, it is usually a sign of something deeper going on and not about sexuality. Many women have figured out that their need for sexual release is different than their husband’s and they can use this as a form of control. Perhaps it’s not intentional, but it does happen. The problem, however, is that most women will not receive the results they are desiring. The desire to punish him for his rudeness, for forgetting your anniversary or for exhaustion will not provide for you the positive outcome that you tell yourself it will.
When men withhold sex, they are often denying themselves because of a fear of performance. Frequently they are carrying too much stress or are focusing their attentions elsewhere, like on a career. If a man fears rejection from his spouse, he will protect his emotions and his esteem by not asking. Also, men involved in pornography can lose interest in marital sex because their partner is not measuring up to the pictures or videos they’re viewing.
Here’s the thing though: if couples do not seek help outside themselves, how will they know what is normal or what is abnormal? We do not customarily enter into these conversations with others very readily so we are not aware of what are common problem issues in the bedroom. As well, we tend to assume the worst about ourselves or our marriage without clear communication.
Some places to start to initiate change:
- Begin by praying about your sexual lives together.
- Share your heart, listen and work to understand rather than to just air your grievances.
- Listen for deeper issues that begin outside the bedroom, e.g., pain, stress, memories that surface, anxieties, depression, illness. There are reasons for no or little sexual desire.
- Give permission to your spouse to say some difficult things without the fear of retribution or taking offense.
- If there is a record of anger, wrongly spoken words and threats about where your sex lives have gone, then back up, repent and ask one another’s forgiveness.
- Ask God for a means of re-set, i.e., how do we start over following prayer and communication?
- Support one another in any way possible. You’re in this together and you’re best friends.
- Affirm one another and reinitiate affection. Affection, like kissing, enhances sexual desire.
- Find ways to reduce stress and time commitments outside the bedroom.
- Maintain sexual purity and do not turn to pornography or lust.
Continual rejection hurts our spouse and our marriage. Sex is not a power to be wielded in order to achieve a certain outcome; it is a gift from God. Sex is something we give; it is not something we take. To be sexual within marriage means to be vulnerable. Tolerating the ongoing withholding of sex does not benefit anyone. (See I Corinthians 7:3-5.)