I want to address a personal and potentially delicate subject today.
Treading cautiously with measured words. From a heart of love and concern. With a hope that others will be encouraged to pursue the most happiness in the Lord and in their marriages.
I want to talk about intimacy in marriage. Sex.
The importance of this topic would be difficult to overstate. And perhaps, because of the nature of its privacy, problems can go too long without ever being addressed. Marriages suffer as a result.
So please give me a minute and an open ear. You may be hurting. You may be offended. You may nod your head in agreement. But in whatever state you read this in, please make it a matter of prayer and consideration before you draw your conclusions. I know I am.
A God-given gift. A God-ordained priority.
Our current culture’s portrayal of intimacy notwithstanding, sex is a vital component of a healthy marriage**. From the beginning, the sexual union of husband and wife was the very description of marriage– “the two shall become one flesh”.
Buying a home together, sharing meals, discussing current events, bringing up children– these things are on the periphery of marriage. Not that they do not matter or are not significant. But they do not signify a marriage. Any two people can do these things. But intimacy is sacred to husband and wife.
This is not insignificant.
If one of the central aspects of the marital union is unhealthy, then the marriage itself is in danger of becoming unhealthy as well.
What, When, and How Much?
These are the questions that likely come to mind when a healthy sex life in marriage is addressed. The first does not need an explanation from me. I will try and carefully address the second two questions.
I am not in most marriages, I am in mine. So I cannot, of course, speak from experience outside of my own. But, there are generalities that are commonly accepted and I will work from those.
A husband and wife were created for each other. Different in design, equal in value. Ordinary observation and the Bible make this much clear. Both spouses’ sexual desire for one another will fluctuate according to a number of varying circumstances. Some significant, others not so much.
The moments when both husband and wife are “in the mood” are often only half or less of the time.
This potentially leaves one spouse pursuing and one spouse denying a majority of the time. And more often than not, it is the wife who is consistently spurning her husband’s advances.
Is this right?
It is not a problem of desire. It is a problem of the heart.
A marriage needs intimacy. A husband needs the physical connection, yes, but it’s more than that. Coming together in intimacy is a safeguard for your marriage.
“The bed is the heart of the home, the arena of love, the seedbed of life, and the one constant point of meeting. It is the place where, night by night, forgiveness and fair speech return that the sun may not go down on our wrath; where the perfunctory kiss and the entirely ceremonial pat on the backside become unction and grace. It is the oldest, friendliest thing in anybody’s marriage, the first used and the last left, and no one can praise it enough.”
-Robert Farrar Capon, The Mystery of Womanhood
Generally, there are two scenarios when it comes to intimacy in a marriage. There are the times following gourmet dinners with no children, flowers, and moonlit strolls in the park. Romance has kindled affection and enjoying marriage together is easy.
Then there are the times when you just put the kids down, the dishes are waiting for you in the sink, and zoning out on the couch is beckoning you. These times far outnumber the former. They are not magical or mysterious. They are often mundane and monotonous. Not exactly heart stirring.
Say your husband comes to you and tells you that he desires (or needs) to be with you. What is your response? Do you scoff and refuse him on the grounds of too little romance? Or maybe you just don’t see it as an important need and you put it off until a better moment strikes? Perhaps you get angry thinking that he is laying a burden on you when you had other plans in mind?
You want romance. Timing is important. Our lives are busy.
I get it. These things matter.
But what if we changed our way of thinking? What if instead of thinking about how we have to change gears emotionally or change our plans for the evening, we viewed his advances as a way to actively love and seek our husband’s good? And by extension, our good?
“When we choose to obey God and give our bodies to our husbands– even if we don’t feel like it– God will reward us with pleasure. As Elizabeth Elliot encourages us: “The essence of sexual enjoyment for a woman is self-giving…You will find that it is impossible to draw the line between giving pleasure and receiving pleasure. If you put the giving first, the receiving is inevitable.'”
-Carolyn Mahaney, Sex and the Supremacy of Christ
Acceptance or denial of intimacy isn’t essentially a matter of desire or not. It is a matter of our hearts. Selfish attitudes. Misplaced affections. Wrong priorities. These sins can take root in our hearts and have very real effects on our marriages. And one of the primary places to observe their effects is in relation to intimacy.
Being open. Being available. Saying yes. Pursuing him. Real examples of selflessly giving of ourselves to our husbands, and in doing so, pursuing greater unity and happiness in our marriages.
What I’m not saying.
I’m not saying that it is never okay for a wife to say no to sex.
Both the husband and wife can and should be free to decline intimacy when there is a true reason. What I am addressing today is a pattern of consistently withholding intimacy from a spouse. Only you can look at your heart and judge if you are loving your spouse in this area or if this is an area to address with prayer and repentance.
If The Problem is More Than An Occasional No
I know that there are marriages with real hurts and real issues. For these, time, openness, and wise biblical counsel are needed. The transforming power of God’s grace means that there is always hope, so if this is you, take heart. God can help and God can heal.
Often, though, the struggles are less deep. Unhealthy patterns may have developed. The stress of life is taking its toll. And intimacy is one of the last things on your mind.
I recently listened to John Piper talk about the role of wives and the biblical command for wives to respect their husbands. Piper brought up a common complaint– “What about when my husband isn’t acting in a manner worthy of my respect?” The husband isn’t doing what he needs to, so the wife withholds her respect. This in turn leads the husband to frustration and further bad attitudes. The problem is a vicious cycle.
So it is with sex. When a pattern of withholding intimacy has developed, the closeness you feel towards one another may be weakened. Sex is meant to bring you back together, to illustrate your oneness, and strengthen your bond. But you don’t feel close so you refrain from the one thing that is meant to restore your relationship and give you what you really need.
I Can’t Tell You How Much
Like I said before, how much is (to a degree) a matter of individual hearts and a subject for couples to discuss together. Laying down laws results in either self-righteous pats on the back or crushed spirits when keeping the law is unattainable.
Make love and grace the laws your marriage is built upon. LOVE each other selflessly. Give GRACE when your spouse needs it. Don’t forget to give GRACE to yourself too.
With that said, I would encourage you to prioritize your schedules and daily routines so that intimacy is a priority in your home. A goal of being intimate at least once a week is more than attainable for most couples.
Give it a try. See what it does for your marriage and for your own heart. Ask the Lord for help if you struggle in this area. He created marriage and intimacy. He cares about it. He cares about you.
**There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. There are seasons and situations in which intimacy is not possible. This is not meant to imply that these marriages are bad. Rather, I am referring to a general rule that sex is an important part of marriage when there are no significant barriers to prevent intimacy.
“For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.”
Genesis 2:24, Ephesians 5:31-33
“The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
1 Corinthians 7:3-5