What do you do when your spouse won’t have sex with you? Husbands and wives are puzzled, hurt, and frustrated because their spouse either refuses sex or will have sex only on rare occasions. If you have worked hard to be understanding, kind, clean, attractive, affectionate, patient, an initiator, etc., and your spouse still won’t have sex with you, this blog is for you.
Scripture is clear that it is wrong to consistently deprive your spouse of sex:
“The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs. The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife. Do not deprive each other of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer. Afterward, you should come together again so that Satan won’t be able to tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 (NLT)
The Message paraphrases (and illuminates) 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 as:
“Sexual drives are strong, but marriage is strong enough to contain them and provide for a balanced and fulfilling sexual life in a world of sexual disorder. The marriage bed must be a place of mutuality—the husband seeking to satisfy his wife, the wife seeking to satisfy her husband. Marriage is not a place to “stand up for your rights.” Marriage is a decision to serve the other, whether in bed or out. Abstaining from sex is permissible for a period of time if you both agree to it, and if it’s for the purposes of prayer and fasting—but only for such times. Then come back together again. Satan has an ingenious way of tempting us when we least expect it. I’m not, understand, commanding these periods of abstinence—only providing my best counsel if you should choose them.”
I do not interpret this Scripture to mean that you should never turn your spouse down when s/he asks you for sex because sometimes we have legitimate reasons for not wanting physical intimacy at a particular time. I do interpret this Scripture to mean that you should not turn your spouse down frequently and certainly not for months or years (I’m not talking about situations where a spouse is verbally/physically abusive or demands sexual activity that feels wrong or is physically painful).
Despite this clear biblical teaching, many Christian wives and husbands avoid or refuse sex. Why? Because of selfishness.
It’s human nature to avoid pain. If we think something will be unpleasant, we tend to avoid it, even if avoiding that thing will cause someone else pain or unpleasantness. For example, kids typically don’t want to do chores. They seem like unpleasant tasks, so kids avoid chores even if that means that their parents will be upset or left to pick up the slack. It takes years to train children to see past their selfish impulses to the bigger picture of “we all live in this house so we must all cooperate to keep it running well.”
Likewise, sex can feel like an unpleasant chore, something to be avoided because it can bring up unresolved emotional or relationship issues, requires vulnerability, takes time and effort, involves nudity, has a performance component, etc. So, spouses avoid sex even if that means their spouse will be upset or left to struggle with unmet physical intimacy needs. In effect, they are saying, “I would rather you be in pain than me. I would rather you suffer than me having to do the challenging work of overcoming:
- My negative body image.
- My sexual difficulties, such as premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, or orgasmic inhibition.
- My sexual history, including childhood abuse.
- My lack of interest and energy for sex.
- My fears of being seen as sexually inadequate.
- My habit of devaluing sex.
- My anger toward you and problems in our marriage.
- My confused sexual identity or same-sex attraction.
- My hang-ups about seeing a therapist or paying for treatment.”
This is a hard truth. It hurts to realize that your spouse isn’t willing to face necessary emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, or financial pain so the two of you can create a vibrant sex life.
If this is your situation, my heart hurts for you. I’m so sorry you are faced with this.
Here’s another hard truth: Failure to confront is permission to continue. If you won’t lovingly but firmly confront your spouse about your unmet sexual needs, then you are giving your spouse permission to continue to avoid sex.
If you have lovingly confronted your spouse several times, and s/he refuses to discuss the matter or even consider treatment, then your spouse is letting you know “This is what marriage to me looks like. I may meet all your other needs, but I’m not meeting your physical intimacy needs.”
You then have hard decisions to make. Your spouse wants all the advantages of marriage without the sexual responsibilities. Can you agree to that for the rest of your life? Please don’t misunderstand me—I am NOT saying that you should immediately file for divorce. I am saying that if you don’t change something, your sex life is unlikely to improve.
You might make the following changes:
- For wives who won’t have sex, ask if the two of you could watch my DVD Fan the Flame: A Wife’s Guide to Igniting Sexual Intimacy in Marriage. It’s very funny but it also is filled with highly practical, up-to-date information on how to create sexual desire and pleasure in the female body, make friends with hormones, eliminate sexual pain, and cultivate a positive, biblical attitude toward married sex. Be sure to look on the DVD label for a link to download a free copy of the 18-page companion outline which includes a page and a half of orgasm tips.
- Buy a Christian sex therapy book, such as Restoring the Pleasure, and ask your spouse if you can read it aloud to each other in bed. Work through the sexual retraining exercises together.
- Buy your spouse one of the the following Christian sex books and ask him or her if you can read it together, or if s/he will at least read it individually:
- If you prefer listening to books, listen together to one of these Christian sex books by Dr. Kevin Leman:
- Go to see your pastor or a Christian therapist by yourself (assuming your spouse won’t come too) to discuss your marriage and to obtain extra support and guidance. It may be that you are unknowingly doing (or not doing) something that is contributing to your spouse’s refusal to have sex. If you go to see a therapist, be prepared to get feedback on your own attitudes and actions, not just vent about your frustrations with your spouse. Yes, therapy is a safe space to vent, but a good therapist will help you discover any blind spots you may have about yourself.
- Pray fervently.
If your spouse continues to avoid sex for many, many months, and it’s becoming painfully clear that s/he will not discuss it or do anything to work on the situation, you may need to consider a “healing separation.” Here’s a healing separation agreement form. People don’t change when they see the light, they change when they feel the heat. Your spouse may need to feel the painful heat of temporarily losing the advantages of marriage in order for him/her to finally be willing to work on your sex life.
I don’t make this recommendation lightly. It’s truly a last resort. However, your spouse may be refusing to work on sex because your spouse suspects that you would never separate over lack of sex. Separation is your last card to play, and your spouse knows that you won’t play it because of your children/finances/reputation/genuine love/commitment to your vows; thus, your spouse knows he or she can get away with avoiding sex. You might complain, pout, withdraw, or get angry, but that’s a small price for your spouse to pay compared to temporarily losing the advantages of marriage.
I highly recommend you see an individual counselor first if you are considering asking for a marital separation because you will need extra support and guidance as you navigate this challenging option.
This is, by far, the most popular blog post I’ve written, which is truly heartbreaking. Reading through the comments reveals the agony experienced in sexless marriages. I pray often for hurting husbands and wives who read this post, and will pray for you if you leave prayer requests in the comments. If you are the spouse who desperately wishes you could find a way to be interested in sex, please implement the bullet points above, and also enlist trusted prayer warriors to pray for you. If you tried individual counseling in the past for sexual concerns and it didn’t help, find a new counselor, particularly one trained in trauma recovery and, if available in your area, sex therapy. You are worth the time, energy, and financial investment.
I unfortunately cannot respond individually to comments.
Please also know that it is a valid option to choose to stay in a sexless marriage, but if you do so, you will need to work, with the Holy Spirit’s help, on guarding your heart against bitter resentment (“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” Proverbs 4:23). Dr. Juli Slattery’s blog posts at Authentic Intimacy and podcast “Java with Juli” are excellent resources for gaining a big picture of God’s design for sexuality.
This has been a difficult blog to write. It’s hard to look at the uglier, scared side of the human heart.
What do you think?