A Second Look at Conjugal Rights
Help for Christian Couples
When God gave marrieds the gift of sex, he was not handing them a toy. He was entrusting them with nitroglycerin that even within marriage must be handled with holy fear.
There are occasions in any woman’s life when marital relations will be painful, frightening, or humiliating. Examples are when a woman has not yet physically healed from illness or childbirth, when she fears intercourse would harm her unborn baby, or when she believes there is a significant risk of a third party invading her privacy. Note that the issue is reality as she perceives it, not as her partner sees it.
For women who have suffered sexual abuse, the time that their husbands must restrain themselves will be prolonged. Anyone foolish enough to marry without seriously seeking God’s guidance will have to live with the consequences. Any man, however, to whom God deliberately entrusts a woman who has suffered sexual abuse, is greatly honored. He is like someone into whose care is entrusted an ever-so-delicate, priceless masterpiece, compared to someone who is given an imitation made of unbreakable plastic. One man is treated like someone highly responsible; the other might as well be childishly incompetent in matters of true love.
To force sex upon a marriage partner who finds the experience distressing is to take what is divinely intended to be lovemaking and pervert it into sexual abuse. It is sexual abuse, both because it is an abuse of sex and because it is the sexual abuse of the partner. The fact that the abuser is married to the victim makes it no more acceptable than murder becomes acceptable if the murderer is married to his victim. Whether one uses physical force or emotional blackmail – anger, sulking, whining, threatened divorce, etc – makes little moral difference. When marital relations becomes the infliction of significant physical or emotional discomfort, a husband who demands his wife submit to it, has no more right to think God is on his side than a man who tells his daughter she must obey her father when he demands she commit incest with him.
If roles were reversed, it would be equally wrong for the wife to attempt spiritual or emotional manipulation to try to force intercourse.
Scripture is clear: marriage is divinely designed to give a man the sacred opportunity to be Christlike; sacrificing his life for the woman Christ sacrificed his life for (Ephesians 5:25). Anyone knowingly using sex to inflict physical or emotional pain on his wife has perverted what was intended as an opportunity to be Christlike into an opportunity to be devil-like.
My heart goes out to any man whose wife is unable to meet his physical desires. For such a person to do the right thing by his wife will often be sheer agony, but that’s what being Christlike is all about. There was nothing painless about Jesus’ sacrificial death. One man – I’ll call him Ian – tried to tell me that the accumulation of his many years of sexual torment was far worse than what Christ suffered for our sins. I disagree, but Ian’s agony was undeniably intense. However, in contrast to Jesus’ innocence, quite a portion of Ian’s torment was of Ian’s own making. Ian could have continually sought to be filled with the Spirit’s supernatural kindness, gentleness, patience, goodness and self-control, thus empowering him to lay down his life for his wife and be used of God to assist her recovery. Instead, he used porn to inflame his desires and he enslaved himself to sex, letting it drive him to put his wife under horrific emotional pressure – including repeatedly threatening her with divorce or complete marital unfaithfulness if she didn’t comply. By so doing he foolishly made her even more traumatized by sex and so less able to satisfy him. Like all sin, seizing short term pleasure led to his long term loss. Had I swapped places with Ian, my attempts to be Christlike would be shabby, and in my agony, I, too, would have sometimes added to her distress. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge a husband’s duty, and humbly keep seeking the Spirit’s empowering to take us beyond our failings.
A woman I’ll call Eve contacted me, desperate to be able to please her husband. She had suffered child sex abuse and had been married for more than ten years. She wrote:
You said sex in marriage is a good thing. How can it be so good if it makes me feel so bad? I have never seen sex as lovemaking. It has always been a burden and continually gets worse.
I stay up as late as I can, then try to sneak into bed, but that doesn’t work and I find myself having to do my duty, so he won’t get angry with me, so he will speak to me the next day.
Each time we “make love” it takes part of me away. I feel totally disgusting, worthless, just plain gross. Each time I fight back the tears until it is finally over – all the time knowing it will happen again and wondering if I can survive another encounter. I don’t want to be this way!! I don’t want to lose my husband. It is a continual nightmare that I cannot wake up from. My heart aches for understanding and release from my torture.
My husband likes for me to drink because it used to make me want him. A few times when I was drunk out of my head, I experienced sexual pleasure. That doesn’t even help anymore. I don’t even like drinking.
My husband feels he has a right to my body to fulfill his desires and that it is me that is not normal. He says, “Just do it and act like you enjoy it,” and if I can’t enjoy it, he gets mad at me.
This man, whom I’ll call Greg, is in league with Eve’s childhood abuser. No doubt the first abuser used all sorts of cruel ways to batter Eve into subjection, making her feel helpless and unable to resist. Exploiting this, Greg took over where her childhood abuser left off. He uses withdrawal of love (refusal to even speak with her) and anger (thus setting off fear, guilt, feelings of inferiority – all the things the former abuser had instilled) to force her into something she is currently unable to do without suffering psychological damage. No wonder that, rather than lessening over time, Eve’s horror of sex was increasing.
Such a man is not only a disgrace to Christ, he is a disgrace to manhood. It is no thanks to him that he has not created an alcoholic. Eve was a prime candidate for alcoholism, since alcohol had the effect of temporarily numbing her enormous pain.
The Wife’s Responsibility
A husband’s duty to sacrifice his life for his wife does not mean the wife should be content to continue to avoid fulfilling her husband’s desires. All marrieds should long for the removal of any obstacles preventing them from giving themselves to their partners. It might take months or years to achieve, but a wife’s goal should be both to thoroughly enjoy marital relations and to satisfy her husband’s every desire. Setting this goal is her responsibility. Achieving it is primarily God’s task, with much responsibility resting upon her husband’s gentleness, self-control and patience. She should be patient with herself and not unwisely hinder her healing – and so ultimately prolong her husband’s distress – by forcing herself to do things for her husband before she is sufficiently healed. The husband’s goal must also be mutual enjoyment, with a particular emphasis upon seeking his wife’s pleasure, ensuring she feels loved, cherished and secure, and seeking the Lord for the grace and wisdom to do all he can to hasten, rather than hinder, her healing. He should focus on delighting in what his wife is presently able to give him, and do his utmost to keep his mind completely off what he is currently missing out on. He should avoid not just physical force but putting any emotional pressure on his wife.
Search for the Eternal
A time when some women find intercourse painful and/or humiliating is during their menstrual period. I think it significant that under Old Testament law, intercourse was strictly forbidden during a woman’s period – a time when women were ceremonially unclean. Such behavior was forbidden and the penalty for deliberately doing it was severe (Leviticus 20:18). If nothing else, this teaches that even within the confines of marriage, our passions must be subjected to God’s rule. Some Christians believe that a total prohibition on this behavior has, like the whole system of ceremonial uncleanness, been superseded by the New Covenant. I have no comment. My sole concern is to go beyond the specific details of an Old Covenant law to a general principle of indisputable relevance to modern Christians. It seems that by placing limits on marital relations, the Lord was laying down a principle which can be summarized thus: there are times in any woman’s life when God would strongly disapprove of her husband having full marital relations with her. The indisputable occasions when this applies are those when it would cause the wife such distress that for her husband to force himself upon her would be a blatant violation of not some passing law but an eternal principle built into the very nature of God himself – the law of love.
Not to be sold. © Copyright, Grantley Morris, 2000. For much more by the same author, see www.netburst.net No part of these writings may be copied without citing this entire paragraph. No part may be sold.
Names have been changed.