By the end of the day, Amanda was exhausted. Caring for three kids under the age of seven, washing and drying seemingly endless loads of laundry, cooking dinner, and then rushing off to a meeting at church—by the time her kids were tucked into bed, she barely had enough energy to watch her favorite show on Netflix before falling asleep.
Her husband Aaron had different ideas. As they lay in bed, his affectionate advances suggested that he was in the mood for sex—but sex was the last thing Amanda had on her mind.
Scenarios like this play out in countless marriages, and both husbands and wives find themselves as the one rebuffing the advances of the other. The reasons for not wanting sex are numerous—ranging from chronic illness, to workplace stress, to marital tension, to pornography use.
May Christians refuse to have sex with their spouse, or should they always be willing to meet the sexual needs of their husband or wife?
Christian marriage—in contrast to our culture of autonomy—maintains that when two people marry, they give up some of their rights to themselves in order to serve the good of the other. In other words, marriage becomes a context in which we seek to put the needs of our spouse before our own needs.
Why? Because we are no longer two individuals coexisting, but we are two individuals who form a single unit, and my happiness depends on my seeking the joy of my spouse.
In 1 Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul describes the nature of Christian marriage, and applies this to whether or not we may say "no" to our spouse when he or she desires sex and we do not. He writes,
"The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone, but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone, but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except 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 Cor. 7:3-5, NIV).
It’s necessary to be clear about what Paul is not saying here. He is not, in any way, suggesting that a husband or a wife has the right to force their spouse to have sex. It would be a gross distortion of this text for a wife to tell her husband that he must have sex with her on demand, because “it’s in the Bible.” Sex as God intended it is a gift, willingly, and gladly given to one another.
That said, the Bible also challenges some of our inherent assumptions.
As we’ve already noted, Christian marriage creates an entirely new “being”—we are now a part of a one flesh unit. This one-fleshness changes our orientation. Rather than seeking to have all our own needs met, we now see ourselves in the pattern of Christ, who lived to serve others.
Healthy, Christ-honoring marriages are those in which both spouses are equally committed to putting the needs of their partner before their own. When it comes to sex, that can mean that there will be times when you will have sex even though you may not be in the mood, since you are seeking to meet the needs of your spouse. However, this runs both ways; a husband who is serious about putting the needs of his wife before his own will never demand sex when it is obvious she is not in the mood.
Neither will he pout or sulk when she turns him down. Instead, he will gladly offer her the opportunity to say, “Not tonight honey.”
The language that Paul uses suggests an ongoing habit of sexual refusal (as opposed to a once-in- awhile occurrence). Paul’s concern then is that we avoid a pattern of saying no to sex because such a pattern opens the door for temptation and sin. As I wrote this, I asked my wife “Is it okay to refuse sex?” She wisely answered, “It all depends on the reason why.” She went on to explain that repeated refusal of sex is likely a sign of a deeper problem (though, of course there are exceptions: a chronic illness which precludes sex, for example). If there is a pattern of sexual refusal, you as a couple need to explore why. Perhaps sex-negative attitudes have shaped your thinking? Perhaps you are over-committed and too tired for sex? Perhaps you aren’t investing enough in the whole-person intimacy that good sex requires? Open, constructive communication here is vital, and can go a long way in strengthening the intimacy in your marriage.
Since Paul is likely cautioning us about long-term habits of sexual refusal and not single occasions, there will be times when we are free to decline the sexual advances of our spouse. But how we say no can be the make-or-break factor. Consider the following.
It's how you say it: If you are rude or dismissive to your spouse, when she makes herself vulnerable by asking for sex, you are likely to create hurt and resentment for her. Rather, learning to say no gently and kindly can remove some of the sting.
Not now, but later: If Amanda was indeed too tired to make love to Aaron when he asked, she might ease the moment by suggesting that they get to bed early, and set the alarm for 15 minutes earlier than usual to make time for sex before the next day.
Try an Alternative: If you are not in the mood for sex, could you offer something else? This could include oral sex, or manual sex for one or both of you.
Like Amanda and Aaron, the demands of life can leave one or both spouses exhausted—so much so that sex is low on the list of priorities. In Christian marriage, we may not simply demand sex from our spouse, but neither may we consistently refuse the needs of our spouse. If sexual refusal is a problem in your marriage, pay attention to the underlying problems! Learn and discern when it is wise to say no, and find ways to meet the needs of your spouse.