What do you do when you can’t have sex? Sometimes, couples go through seasons where sexual intercourse is difficult or even impossible. There are as many unique scenarios as there are couples: new parents who must put sex on the back burner in the weeks immediately following childbirth; a wife who lives with a chronic illness that leaves her bedridden; a husband recovering from prostate cancer which has left him with sexual limitations; the list could go on. As a Christian couple desiring to honor God in your marriage bed, does God’s word have anything to say to you about this sensitive issue?
In 1st Corinthians 7, Paul addresses couples where one or both spouses deprive one another of sexual intimacy. “The husband must fulfill his obligation to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband,” Paul instructs the church (1 Cor. 7:5). In other words, sex is not intended as an optional add-on to marriage. Reading this, this may feel like salt in the wound; not only does your health prevent you from giving yourself sexually to your spouse, but now you feel guilt, for disobeying God. But is God’s word chastising you here? The answer is a clear and emphatic “No!” Paul was not speaking to those who desired to have sex but could not, insisting that they do even when it was nearly impossible. Instead, Paul was addressing the problem of sexual refusal. The difference is important: God’s concern in 1 Corinthians lies with those who can but do not have sex with their spouse, not those who cannot even though they would. I have written a separate article addressing the problem of sexual refusal. So, if your desire and willingness to have sex are there but your ability is not, you should not carry a burden of guilt.
Nevertheless, the assurance that you need not carry guilt with you may not help your sex life. What next? It might be helpful to revisit the biblical foundation for sex. When God institutes sex in Genesis 1, we read that “the man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” Notice that the text doesn’t specifically tell us that the man and woman had sexual intercourse. We correctly draw that conclusion, but the description given to us is broader than just an act of physical intimacy. Instead, what is described for us is the character of intimacy that Adam and Eve enjoyed. Their relationship--free of sin as it was at that point--was so close and personal that physical nakedness reflected nakedness of soul, mind, and heart. In other words, Adam and Eve enjoyed a relationship that was so secure that physical nakedness was a natural and enjoyable continuation of the intimacy they enjoyed in every other aspect of their relationship. Today, physical nakedness can allow us to enjoy the sacred vulnerability in marriage--even if sexual intercourse is not possible. Couples who are unable to have sex can still enjoy the depths of closeness that is experienced in a healthy relationship. Focus on building emotional, mental, and spiritual connection. Not only that but find ways to enjoy physical nakedness even if sex is not possible. Becoming vulnerable through physical nakedness--even in a care-taking role--can be an expression of care and love for one another.
The Song of Songs is perhaps the most well-known biblical book on the topic of sex. In it, we read a series of erotic love poetry, describing the sexual intimacy between a couple. What is so striking about this book is the range of sexual experiences that this couple enjoys. Everything from kissing, to caressing, to sexual intercourse, and (according to a number of credible scholars), even oral sex. This couple is not plain vanilla when it comes to sex! There may be some sexual acts that are off the table due to physical constraints. But as a couple you may do well to have an open and honest conversation about some of the sexual activity that is possible. Would it be possible for one or both of you to masturbate with one another? Can you enjoy kissing, and holding one another? Is physical massage possible? Communicate with your spouse about some of the options that will allow you to express your sexual desires for one another.
Any couple who has experienced a season where sexual intimacy is hindered will tell you how discouraging it can be. There is nothing more frustrating than having a desire to experience deep and meaningful intimacy with your spouse, only to be limited by what your body can do. However, with honest communication, you and your spouse can discover ways to continue to enjoy God’s design for being “naked and without shame” in your marriage.