Is It Okay to Withhold Sex in Marriage? Let’s Rethink Sexless Marriages

by | Nov 15, 2019 | Libido, Uncategorized | 54 comments

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.

1 Corinthians 7:3-5

I’ve written before about this passage, including how often it’s women being deprived of sexual pleasure.

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?

Are You Settling for a Dead Sex Life?

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

.If you’re struggling with this, I urge you to read The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex to get the full perspective on what God made sex for, or check out my Boost Your Libido course to awaken your libido, maybe for the first time.

God made sex to be AWESOME!

It’s supposed to be great physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Feel like something’s missing?

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.

So I’d love to hear what you think about withholding sex. Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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54 Comments

  1. T

    I’ve said before on here our sex life could be better. We do ok and it’s not a sexless marriage but could be more frequent. Bone numbingly tired… that’s what I am now. Many times I want sex but fall asleep before or start to doze off in the preliminary. Bone numbingly tired. Between work, two kids, pregnancy and a chronic illness I am just so incredibly tired. Frustrating a bit too because my libido tends to be higher during pregnancy. Ah well. Life is full of seasons yes… ?

    Reply
  2. Nathan

    Being tired, sick, fighting, etc. is part of any marriage. I’m fortunate in that I’m very satisfied with my love life, and conversations with Mrs. Nathan indicate that she is, too. Nothing’s perfect, of course, but I’m very happy in my situation.

    One thing needs to be noted, though. Sheila has remarked on this many times before, but it bears repeating. When we (and the bible) talk about sex, we mean more than just the mechanical act. We mean the entirety of the lovemaking experience. Physical, romantic, emotional, spiritual and vulnerability. So when one spouse (usually but not always the wife) declines because the other spouse (usually but not always the husband) only wants the physical activity, then HE’S the one doing the depriving.

    Reply
    • Samantha

      Okay so. I am 29.. I have been. In a slump with my fiance for 7 years. He has. 15 yr old. I have 10 yr old and now we have a 2 yr old together. The 1st yr we had sex it was new it wasn’t everyday but he was happy. I am noy a sexual person i am more emotional. I was raped for 4 years growing up so its not a need i must have. He had thyroid and testosterone issues and was a addict for 6 yrs. He just got a lot of his issues sorted and now all he wants is sex. It feels like job for me. Our toddler already barely sleeps and i get ul 7 times a night to calm her down. He gets made bc i cant be all his and be in the same bed. I am tired of arguing. I feel like his needs are being met to the best of my ability we have sex every mon, wedns, fri and every other weekend i dont go to sleep til 1030 11 at night and then i wake up with our toddler. I feel like i am meeting his needs but what about mine. He is unhappy i want nights off to just sleep

      Reply
  3. Jane Eyre

    Let me start by saying that unilaterally ending sex is not the right solution. These decisions are made as a couple; that’s the point of marriage.

    But:

    Men, if sex is important to you, then you should act like it’s important to you. That doesn’t mean hectoring your wife for nookie; it means figuring out why it’s more important to you than to her (ex., is it boring for her and therefore, not emotionally intimate either?), then ensuring that sex can be important to her, too. If you love how her body brings you pleasure, then bring her the same pleasure. If you feel like part of sex is her vulnerability, then be vulnerable to her. Hug her, kiss her, and rub her back – show in various ways that physical touch has a deeply emotional component.

    It comes across as a whole lotta cognitive dissonance when the message is that sex is about his libido, needs, and physical gratification, and then after a decade or two, when she’s sick of it and turns off the spigot, it’s suddenly this amazing bonding experience.

    Reply
    • CharitySolvesMostProblems

      Wow, that’s a good way of putting it!

      Reply
  4. The Whipping Girl

    Due to my own frustrations currently, I was afraid I was going to read that even though we just had intimate lovemaking the night before, that doesn’t mean I get to say that I’d like to connect a different way tonight. (We typically have sex 3ish times a week.) Which received a counter offer of, “You go to sleep and I can masturbate while looking at you. We both win.” I have tried to explain how awful that makes me feel–that I’m just a live porn pic. He says he gets emotional connection from it, but I think it’s a trained connection from his 2-decades-long porn addiction that he has been successfully (I think) fighting for 6 months. I refuse to reduce myself to being pornography, but he feels differently about it and tells me that I can’t control his feelings any more than he can control mine. I’cm not trying to control his feelings. I’m trying to think correctly. Am I being selfish?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      DEFINITELY it’s related to his porn addiction. When a guy gives up porn, he must also give up masturbation, or else he’s not really retraining his body’s sexual release associations. It’s okay to say this isn’t right.

      Reply
  5. Nathan

    Very good comments, Jane! A great example of this is the TV show “Everybody Loves Raymond”. A running gag in the show is that the main characters almost never have sex, and Ray is always complaining about it. Yet, he never helps Debra around the house, he ignores the kids completely, he doesn’t defend Debra when his mother criticizes her, and he ignores Debra as well, until it’s night, and they go upstairs so that he can whine about never having sex.

    It’s hard to assign underlying feeling to these people, because they don’t really exist, but I’d say that Ray believes that the physical act of sex is the ONE AND ONLY thing that defines a marriage.

    If the characters were real, and we were friends, and he complained about his sex life to me, basically saying “Debra doesn’t fill my needs”, I’d immediately ask him “Are YOU filling HER needs?” He’d likely say yes, but then I’d press him further, asking him if he’s ever asked Debra, or is he just assuming?

    In a marriage, all parts, not just sex, we need to be good to each other and serve each others needs equally.

    Reply
    • Shannon

      Great writeup and comments as usual. Every couple should be required to read Sheila’s stuff in year 10 to renew their marriage license! 🙂

      We have got to remember that when we prioritize our marriage, we have got to do things that may not feel good or right at the time. Fake it till you make it, right? Withholding sex from your husband is extremely dangerous. 50 years ago men didn’t have the massive proliferation of sexual temptations they have right now. Its naïve and foolish to believe that your husband will not ultimately succumb to online temptation if you starve him of all sexual pleasure. Use sexual intimacy to be vulnerable, then snatch him back into intimate conversation centered around where Christ wants our marriages.

      I have withheld and it was a terrible mistake. I have learned from mine.

      Reply
      • Anon

        Be very careful Shannon. Not everyone who uses porn has a wife who is withholding sex. Quite the opposite in fact. Many blogs have worked hard to dispel the theory that it’s the wife’s fault if her husband uses porn.

        Comments like yours are damaging.

        Reply
        • Rebecca Lindenbach

          Yep. Especially since for most men who use porn who are married, the porn use pre-dates the marriage. A woman can’t cause something that started BEFORE she even entered the picture.

          Reply
      • Aaron

        Thanks Shannon. It takes guts to say that and admit it. I believe you are 100 percent correct. Withholding sex or “imposing celebecy “ is one way to drive your husband right into one of the millions of easily available options to satisfy sexual desires. I’ve been on the bad end of this and although I agree it’s not the wife’s fault it is contributory negligence. And why do it? Why risk it? Women who withhold need to be called out by their christian accountability partners and friends. It’s extremely damaging to their husbands ego and drives them apart.

        Reply
        • Sequoia

          Aaron,
          Please consider the impact of your words. As Shiela discussed in this post, a wife is not withholding sex for no reason. Usually it’s either 1) sex doesn’t feel good and is therefore one-sided, or 2) the marriage isn’t safe for her to be vulnerable. For the husband in this situation to jump ship into another area of sexual gratification simply confirms it. If 1), then he’s unable or unwilling to communicate with his wife and find out how to gently learn how to give her pleasure (that is, make sex two-sided and whole). If 2), then he is continuing to act in a way that is unsafe, further jeapordizing the vulnerable connection of marriage. Marriage needs trust and openness. Sex doesn’t create those things, but it is a very obvious expression of them (or the lack thereof). If any spouse doesn’t feel that trust then the solution is to rebuild it, even taking temporary “unreasonable” steps to rebuild it, rather than destroy that trust further.

          I was astounded at my husbands kindness and gentleness when we were dating, and he has continued that into marriage and into sex. Sex is an expression of the already-present trust I have in him.

          Reply
  6. Lea

    I dont necessarily disagree with this article in the main, although I think if someone doesn’t want sex it’s mostly important to examine *why* and deal with that.

    However, i HATE the term ‘withholding’ sex. It implies a lot of things I don’t like.

    Reply
    • CSL

      I agree that “withholding sex” is not a good descriptor. I prefer “imposing celibacy.”

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Oh, I like that!

        Reply
      • Bobby

        In my case “Withholding Sex” is EXACTLY what my wife of 24yrs is doing (married 24 sexless for 9) She says vaginal sex is Painful yet refuses to go to the doctor for fear of the pain of being examined. Ok fine,, i accept that but vaginal sex is not the only way to sexually stimulate your husband (oral, hand stimulation, & anal sex) there are OPTIONS . So if one denies options i call it “Withholding Sex”

        Reply
    • AGN

      Withholding can be a strong term in this instance. I think some might agree more with the term “gatekeeping”. If a spouse is the sole gatekeeper of sex/physical intimacy, it can be damaging as well. I find myself in this very situation. We don’t have a sexless marriage per se based on the total number of times we’ve been intimate in the past year. But I can’t remember the last time she initiated beyond “well it’s been a while so we can have sex if you want to but make it quick” kind of comments; and only at night, in bed, lights off, bare minimum amount of clothing removal to get the act done and over with then immediately back to playing on her phone or watching Netflix for 2 more hours. Very little hugging, kissing, physical touch at all in between times. As a husband, this is soul crushing and has been our sex life for the vast majority of our 13 year marriage. On the outside to friends, family, and social media, we have a perfect life and marriage but I’m slowly dying inside.

      Reply
  7. Nathan

    > > However, i HATE the term ‘withholding’ sex. It implies a lot of things I don’t like.

    The term doesn’t always apply to all marriages without a current sex life. Obviously anything to do with medical or psychological issues is outside of that definition. Also cases where the wife just can’t bring herself to make love to her husband after she finds him cheating on her or watching porn.

    The term applies only to situations where one person just doesn’t want to anymore (although there may be more issues underneath that need to be addressed) or a situation where one spouse is “punishing” the other for something else.

    Reply
    • M

      When I was a very young wife, a doctor told me to withhold sex from my husband if he didn’t comply with my /his idea of practicing healthy habits. I was upset by his advice and told my mom. She wisely said to never withhold sex from your husband or you may find he just doesn’t care anymore and that’s one of the worst things to happen to a marriage.

      Reply
      • Sequoia

        M,
        That doctors recommendation sounds like using sex as a power tool or bargaining chip (“you choose healthy habits, then I’ll give you sex”). Which I agree is bad, since sex is meant to be a gift that we experience towards the other spouse, not a reward/punishment. But what Sheila was addressing in the post was not using sex as a bargaining tool but instead, looking at one-sided sex or unsafe/emotionally damaging situations. Also remember that the opposite message (“never say no to your husband”) registers in the body as trauma—your agency is taken away. We want to really avoid that effect as well.
        In order to enjoy sex, to “gift” it, to want it, you must be able to freely say yes. If there is obligation (or threat) to have sex, then the option of “no” is taken away. Thus the option of a free “yes” is taken away.
        A long-standing “no” is an issue that should be looked into, addressed, worked through together. That’s what this post was about.
        But a forced “yes” is also a huge problem. While I don’t agree with your old doctor, they were at least giving you the option to say no. Many Christian wives aren’t told they have that option.

        Reply
      • Sequoia

        *Also, if sex is the only reason your husband “cares” for you and the marriage, that is not okay!!
        If you’re worried that if you stop having sex, the husband won’t care anymore, that’s a giant red flag. Sex don’t create caring—I’m going to post this in probably every comment I make 🤦‍♀️—SEX IS AN EXPRESSION OF THE CARING THAT WAS ALREADY THERE. (Sorry, rant over). In times where there is no sex, you are leaning into the actual sources of caring. Genuine friendship, serving each other, inside jokes, intentional conversation, looking for ways to help or ways to show affection—those create connection.

        I hope you have a great marriage, M. But I really hope that it’s great because of this connection, not because of a threat of uncaring if you don’t have sex. Same for everyone reading this blog—I want people to have awesome marriages, including awesome sex, in part due to that sex being an expression of the affection and trust the couple already shares.

        Reply
    • Lea

      “The term applies only to situations where one person just doesn’t want to anymore”

      “or a situation where one spouse is “punishing” the other for something else.”

      Withholding implies the second one strongly and that is a separate problem really not about sex. The first one, you need to like at why she doesn’t want it and solve that. So again, unless you mean to say that everyone who doesn’t want sex is being mercenary, I dont like it.

      It also seems to be used to excuse a lot of bad behavior on the part of the other spouse.. The term itself seems coercive.

      Reply
      • AGN

        After reading many blogs about this topic, and responses from frustrated spouses, I would say that many (not all but many)who are coming here and stating their concerns over their sex life have tried to “solve it” and feel as though the other spouse just doesn’t want to and doesn’t understand the pain this is causing them. As stated multiple times throughout this blog, outside of bad behavior such as sexual, emotional, physical abuse, porn, or infidelity, the wanting spouse shouldn’t have to “solve it” or earn it in any way. The spouse earned it when they both said “I do” at their wedding. I believe that is the concern over many on here. I would argue that your comment is actually more coercive because it implies that there is bad behavior that doesn’t earn sex, and good behavior that does earn it (again excluding the bad behavior listed). This absolutely goes against what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 v 5.

        Reply
  8. Maria

    I really appreciate how you started by talking about how this post was not aimed at women who had good reasons for saying no to sex.

    The second half seemed a little bit convoluted to me, though. It starts with abusive husbands then it jumps to appearances vs the heart then it’s dealing with issues.

    I do agree that whatever the issue is standing between you and a healthy sex life, it needs to be acknowledged (and addressed if you can do something about it). If you can’t solve it, only your husband can and he refuses to, then separate instead of living a sham marriage. That’s how I understood what you wrote.

    Reply
    • Anonymous this time

      “I really appreciate how you started by talking about how this post was not aimed at women who had good reasons for saying no to sex.“
      Yes, that statement contradicted the entire point of the post. Because the point of the post was about not withholding but in real terms, every women who withholds sex in marriage is thoroughly convinced that her reasons for doing so are really good reasons. In short, it lets the target audience off the hook. And the target audience is looking really hard for any reason to be let off the hook.

      Reply
      • Rebecca Lindenbach

        That’s not true–there’s a big difference between the woman who withholds sex due to her husband’s unrepentant porn use and the woman who withholds sex because she simply doesn’t feel like it and knows that he can’t do anything about it because he’s a good guy and won’t cheat on her no matter what. And Sheila laid that out in the post by her examples.

        Reply
        • Anonymous this time

          Rebecca, yes, fair enough. I should have worded my original comment better to include cases of porn/abuse/etc. But to my original point: the woman who is NOT in one of the above listed situations and doesn’t have sex because she just doesn’t feel like it, honestly believes that “just not feeling like it” is a very good reason. “Good” is subjective I guess is what I am trying to say. Every woman reading the original post will read into the words “good reason” and will assume that applies to them. Now, Rebecca, you, me, Sheila, we might think her reasons for withholding sex are not good ones at all. But to the woman who holds them, I assure you she is convinced that her reasons are sound and is thus off the hook.

          Reply
      • Laura

        “Because the point of the post was about not withholding but in real terms, every women who withholds sex in marriage is thoroughly convinced that her reasons for doing so are really good reasons.”

        Sadly, no. I raise my hands as one of the women who was in an abusive marriage, but (and) did not feel like I could say “no” to sex. I remember a particularly horrific week 18 months ago, when I discovered that my husband was, once again, living a lie. I was trying to figure out if my life was in danger and I was terrified. And I still felt like I had to have sex with him, “because I’m his wife.” I remember thinking, “It feels like I had sex with a stranger.”

        All that to say: Someone who’s in an abusive marriage is probably not going to hear the “this doesn’t apply to you” message. Because she probably doesn’t realize she’s in an abusive marriage, just that things are difficult or confusing or her husband is always critical.

        For those to whom this message is written: Maybe they won’t get it because they think they have good reasons. But this post will hurt those who are unwittingly in abusive relationships that they are desperately trying to make work.

        Reply
  9. Maria

    I think there was a post on this blog about how a very common interpretation of “sex”’ was “man inserts penis then moves until he climaxes and then they are done.”

    To make an analogy, imagine that a couple grew up in a town where everyone believed that the definition of “communicate”’meant “man tells woman what is on his mind until he finishes talking and then walks away.”

    Maybe he thinks that’s bogus and wants to work with her to come up with a way of communicating that is considerate to both of them.

    Or maybe he grew up in a town where “communicate” was understood to mean “two people share their hearts by taking turns listening and talking.” But she grew up in that other town. So he means one thing when he asks for communication but she hears something else.

    Reply
    • Andrea

      Maria, that is the BEST ANALOGY I have ever heard! Based on the many comments I have read here in the last year or so, that seems to be exactly what having unreciprocal sex feels like — he talks and talks (or thrusts and thrusts) until he has expelled all his words (or semen) and then walks away (or rolls over).

      Reply
  10. Anonymous

    I had a hard time understanding what was being said in the second half also.
    It seemed like both an understanding of not having sex with an adulterer or porn addict who is not getting help but also a reprimand not to “withhold” sex from them either. Which is it?

    I am living in the same house with my husband but different rooms and we are separated. It is not safe for me to be in relationship with him right now. I also don’t believe it is in the best interests of my children for us to be in separate homes even though that would help me tremendously. It is very complicated and I can’t explain why and you wouldn’t be able to tell from looking from the outside. I am doing my work to grow healthier and waiting for him to do his. Only time will tell if reconciliation will be possible.

    Reply
    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      The point is that to stay in a happy-on-the-outside marriage simply to maintain the false image that the marriage is OK is dishonest–it’s not healthy for you to stay in a bad or abusive marriage and then just never have sex without actually putting anything in place to fix the situation. The answer in these cases is not to simply withold sex–it’s to either get out, draw boundaries, or to deal with the underlying cause. Witholding sex for a period (e.g., if someone cheated on you, then part of rebuilding trust may require that you don’t have sex until he’s earned back that trust) is very different and may be a necessary boundary, but just putting an indefinite moratorium on sex without being willing to separate means that there isn’t any work towards healing for either of you. Does that make sense? It’s one thing to say, “I am not comfortable having sex with you until you’ve proven that you are actually willing to deal with this porn addiction you have” and another to simply ignore the porn addiction and let him do his thing but then also never have sex and stay married so that the image of being a happy family is maintained. The second doesn’t help anyone–the wife is still being disrespected by her husband, the husband goes deeper into his porn addiction.

      Doing what you did, separating but living in the same house because it’s in the children’s best interest, is what Sheila is saying is often necessary here: you have to draw clear lines when there is unacceptable behaviour. You can’t just pretend everything is OK because it’s not. Because you did separate and you are in different rooms and there is a clear boundary set, that’s not what she’s warning against.

      I’m so sorry you’re in this situation. That’s truly terrible, and I’ve said a prayer for you and your children.

      Reply
      • Anonymous

        Thank you for the clarification. Separating in the world of Christiandom is a difficult thing. I’m glad to know that this post isn’t reprimanding that. Unfortunately there is a lot of reprimanding out there for wives in my situation.

        Reply
        • Anon

          I am in exactly the same situation as you Anonymous and I don’t think you should be judged on it because I myself would not ever judge anyone after what I’ve been through. It’s all very well for people such as Rebecca to point out this isn’t an ideal situation and cast judgement on why it’s wrong etc. But the fact is, until someone has walked this path they will never understand it so will resort to judging the situation instead.

          I too cannot leave for the sake of my children. I have no means of working full time…. only part time…. and I have no family support. I’d love nothing more than to get away from this so called man who threw our marriage into the garbage and was never interested in having it. It meant absolutely nothing to him. But not everything in life has a happy ending and not everything can be fixed.

          Reply
  11. Laura

    Sheila, one of the reasons I love your blog is because of your heart for abused women. With that in mind, as an abuse survivor, I would say this: Please be very careful in making recommendations to women in abusive marriages to separate. Often the only one with an accurate understanding of how safe or risky it would be to separate is the woman herself. So telling her that she’s sinning/living a lie by not separating will add to her burden of guilt without actually giving her tools to strengthen her.

    I would urge you to reconsider the second half of the post and get input from abuse experts before deciding how to address that.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Laura, I do hear what you’re saying, and I really tried to say that if it would endanger you to leave or to take drastic action, then don’t. And I do realize that there are some women (far too many) in abusive situations, and I try so hard to write a lot of posts to them.

      But I also know that there are a lot of women withholding sex and being content to live like that for decades, when it is seriously hurting themselves, their husbands, and their families. And those people need a post every now and then, too.

      The problem is that there are so many different scenarios in marriage, and I try very hard to speak to different ones. Not every post is for everybody.

      I will say that in most marriages, like yours (as you said in another comment), where there’s abuse going on and you are in danger, usually there’s not withholding sex going on. Usually there’s sex being given (or marital rape happening) because you’re trying to appease someone.

      And I do think that if you’re withholding sex because he’s emotionally distant, it is really better to deal with that issue.

      I understand that some are in really dangerous situations, and I did try to say that this post is not for them. I understand that those in abusive marriages may read it that way anyway, as they may read other posts that way, though I try so hard to be helpful there. But sometimes there are other issues in marriage that do need to be brought up, and that can’t be ignored either. Just as abuse is wrong, so withholding sex for years on end is also wrong. And they both do need to be called out.

      Reply
  12. Doug

    I confess I am a little bit disapointed at the tone of this post, as well as the comments following it. Shelia established up front those instances where this post does not apply, porn addiction, adultry, abuse, etc, yet almost all of the comments seem to revolve around those issues.

    Shelia did a very good job of pointing out how unwarranted refusal hurts the refuser, but there seems to be almost no mention about how it hurts the man or woman who has been refused. There is almost no mention to the damage it does to the marriage. It destroys marriage, the same as porn or adultry. It crushes the soul of whoever is subject to it. I know I will probably get raked over the coals for this, but it is literally pushing the refused into the arms of another. Whether or not they succumb to the temptation is on them, but as a refuser can NOT deny your role. You don’t get to tell someone for years that you don’t want them, but nobody else can have you either.

    That is literally the trap that some men and women find themselves in, and all the counseling, and all the “options” don’t change the helplessness of the situation. The only options you have, might be financial devastation, for either the man or the woman who is a victim. It can mean the loss of your parental rights, and sometimes, literally the loss of the relationship with your children, if you chose to divorce.

    There is a lot said here about abuse, but nobody ever comes out and says that refusal is abusive. How is it different than telling someone with words that they are worthless or un-lovable?

    How about, just once, don’t sugar coat the issue. Call it wrong. Call it emotional abuse. Call it infidelity.

    Reply
    • Kim

      I believe neglect is on par with adultery. It’s the antithesis of everything a believer is called to. It isn’t right or fair or ok. It’s the opposite of love.

      And if we search the scriptures we see from the beginning man wasn’t meant to be alone. He was meant to live in relationship. The gospels expound on this, and Jesus himself does too. The core of his ministry on earth was relationships and love. Neglect is literally the opposite of love. It is a discarding, you’re not worth it. Jesus says otherwise. But people who haven’t been discarded don’t know what it feels like to be neglected and rejected by another human being. It racks you to your core. It makes you question your view of God. It’s potentially life changing / altering. I’m thankful that I still believe in the goodness of God after being neglected for so long. It hurts to the core. I feel your pain, Doug.

      Reply
    • Michael Dion

      Amen Doug! As one comment I read on another page said (for those with strong moral convictions mind you) “divorce is a sin, adultery is a sin, suicide is a sin” (and I venture to add murder and rape to that list). Doesn’t leave many options for the refused.

      Reply
  13. Kim

    “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; ideas entity–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 soooo see your point, I do…. you’re right!!! I have been in limbo and this is good and sobering for me to read.

    But…
    Easier said than done for some of us. I would say the women I know who are “stuck” including myself consider our children’s needs for stability and provision as a primary concern. Also their emotional needs. I find most women in this position rarely think ab themselves and the “perks”they have staying in limbo.

    It’s not a simple thing to separate under the same roof when you live with a chronic manipulator who will pretend none of “that ever happened”, can’t I just come snuggle you, everything is back to normal. They rip apart your boundaries in the most benign ways so YOU look like the cold-hearted mean spouse for rejecting their manipulative advances. After stating that you will no longer do xyz until they do abc. They pretend you never said that. I know – it’s on us to reenforce boundaries, but it’s tough. It’s really not as cut and dry, black and white as it seems, and they like it that way. Abusers and manipulators live in gray – Bc they can be the chameleons that they are.

    Reply
    • Kim

      – [ ] To say we are trapping our spouse in a horrible situation where they have very little recourse is TRULY getting it backwards. WE have little recourse, we are trapped. Giving them selfish or abusive sex only feeds their egos in this scenario. They do have some recourse – counseling, men’s bible studies…. proof that they are serious ab working on the relationship. They are the ones who broke intimacy, but we are to blame for cutting off the physical aspect of that. Anyone reading here, please understand these types of men do not WANT intimacy to begin with. They don’t want it, are allergic to it and will do anything they can to destroy it.

      – [ ] Your post was spot on for some, I really do get your point, but I would ask you to reconsider – for those of us who consider living in limbo as the safest bet for now, as a viable God-honoring option. Maybe one day we can put your advise to use, but for now this is our time in the wilderness figuring out the best path for our children and ourselves.

      – [ ] I adore you Sheila! I’ve commented many times and always positively! I think that sometimes when you are in a healthy marriage it’s hard to understand the subtleties and nuances of an abusive relationship. It’s kindof like war – only the ones who have been there, truly know. I appreciate your insight and I look forward to your next article!

      Reply
      • Kim

        And I want to add that it’s not always safe to go to your church pastors and elders. I was just told yesterday that a woman in my church asked to have a woman present in her meetings with the pastor and elders and was denied. Its scary to put yourself out there as a woman.

        Reply
  14. Steve

    Interesting read, and I have read your column before. I would like to share/ask your readers how they feel about an all to frequent problem. One spouse or the other (and it can be either) opts, without any communication, to change their view of sex. What is the remaining spouse supposed to do? My SO pretended to be one thing before our marriage and shortly after changed dramatically. To this day there is no communication about it what-so-ever. When asked the answer is “I am not discussing it”. That is the end of it. Now, if you are the other soul in this relationship what are you supposed to do with that? This has gone on for years. The frustration and anger is palpable. Still nothing. I have simply given up on sex in my life. There is just no other alternative except divorce. I truly believe the vows have been broken, but no one court would except it nor would a Church. Everyone would say hang in there. I’m hung. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Steve, I’m sorry. In this case, it is so important to see a licensed counselor, either on your own to navigate how to deal with this, but ideally with her. There may be something more going on below the surface. But running away from sex is not a good idea for so many reasons, and chances are she is running away from intimacy at all levels. It’s okay to say, “we can’t pretend to have a marriage when we don’t have a marriage. We have to deal with this.” I’d really recommend reading Boundaries, too, on how to deal with this.

      Reply
      • Afriend

        I’m a husband in my 50s and love the your heart in what you write. My wife and I don’t have no sex but very minimal sex which I think she’s happy to offer on Sunday nights.
        I think the problem is she has convinced herself that most couples of our age don’t really have sex any more. I find this incredibly sad, not only for what we’re missing out on but also for couples in a similar situation.
        That’s all. Keep up the good work. And I pray your voice will be heard more loudly, Sheila.

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          That would be a good post actually–how much sex do people have as they get older? There’s no reason for sex to drop off the map just because you hit 50!

          Reply
          • Grace

            We are a couple close to age 60 and sex has never been better. The children are on their own and we are less busy and life is good! There is no reason why sex should decline with age unless there are physical limitations.

          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            Thanks, Grace!

    • Maria

      That sounds awful, Steve.

      Reading between the lines of your comment, it sounds like she pretended to be heterosexual only to let you know she was a lesbian after the wedding. If that is what is going on, then that marriage should be considered invalid. If neither your Church nor your civil authorities can see that, it makes perfect sense that you would feel hung.

      Reply
  15. decaf

    I will say first no amount of therapy mental or physical is going to change anything. Married 52 years and 40 years with out sex or intimacy. Husband not into porn, gay, women or masterbation. Just no interest in people! Loved his work, he always worked mid nights, weekends, holidays,all vacation days. Always alone has no friends at all, has high blood pressure,cholesterol, depression, sleep, digestion problems. He lives on pills! He wouldn’t sleep in in the same bed I was in. He moved to the basement. Why this all started I have no idea, maybe it was me, I wasn’t a sexy wife more drab and I had sex limitations. We never saw each other naked, that was my problem! I think he just gave up on me.

    Reply
    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      I’m so sorry! Have you broached the idea of seeing a counsellor, the two of you? Or even him by himself? There may be some deeper issues that explain the intense work life and complete lack of relationships or balance in his life. I hope you’re able to talk about this in a constructive way because no one should have to live in a sexless marriage.

      Reply
  16. Low Chia Wei

    I am on for the worse…to begin with, we don’t sleep together that often anymore…and for most of the time she would make me do everything she wants and still withhold sex away from me…we had like 12 times in the past and now is like 2/3 times a month

    Reply

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