For nearly twenty years, I withheld sex from my husband—not all the time, but enough of the time that he developed an expectation of “no” rather than “yes” when he approached me for sexual activity. When I did agree, I imposed so many conditions (lighting, timing, activities and positions allowed, and so on)—and even then, it was more duty sex than anything mutually pleasurable.
Withholding sex is known as refusing; putting conditions on sex is known as gate-keeping. I’ve written about gate-keeping and refusing before. I see them as more of a difference in degree than in kind. They were both about me controlling our marriage bed. They both stemmed from the same walls around my heart.
There are women who refuse all the time, going for years—even decades—without having sex with their husbands. There are other women who will have sex whenever their husbands ask, but they restrict the positions, lighting, activities, etc. as they keep the gate to the marriage bed.
For the next few days, I am going to be holding up a looking glass for you to gaze into and study yourself. The image we see in a mirror is a reflection of who we are; it is a (reversed) version of what others see. Many women say that they don’t look at themselves naked in a mirror, ever—yet that is what I’m going to be asking you to do. Stand in front of the mirror. Look into it and see yourself. See your naked heart. See your marriage.
If your husband has expressed discontent with your sex life, these next few posts are for you. Set aside all the things you think your husband needs to work on. Your husband may be like mine—imperfect, letting his own hurt and frustration affect how he relates to you, contributing in some ways to the issues that led to your refusal. In other words, he’s human. But set it aside. Let’s look at you.
This may not be pleasant. Honestly, it isn’t for me, either. Although the woman truly reflected in my own looking glass is one who no longer refuses, I still see the reflection of the woman I once was, standing right behind her. I know that I am not her anymore—but the feelings and experiences are etched into my heart. Sometimes these feelings still rise to the surface.
My marriage now is one of vital sexual intimacy and great joy. Nonetheless, holding up the looking glass for you to gaze into is a heavy reminder of a part of my past that was painful to live and is still painful to remember.
I Was a Refuser
I detest the word “refuser.” It makes me feel, well, labeled—and for something I did wrong, as though that’s the only relevant thing about me. I don’t like labels. What I did was wrong (sinful, I believe, which we’ll get to in another post), but referring to me as a refuser completely ignores the context of my sexual refusal. It makes it sound like the refusal was intentional and malicious.
I’ve experienced a lot of shame and regret for having denied my husband so much for so many years. Why is it necessary to go around wearing a scarlet R?
Some people might say, “Don’t like the word “refuser”? Then don’t be one.”
If only it were that simple. Then again, at some level, perhaps it really is that simple.
I am going to use the words “refuse,” “refusing,” and “refuser” to refer to gate-keeping as well. I had to pick something, and this seems easiest. More importantly, I want to use a word that is jarring and off-putting. I want you to think about what you see in the looking glass specifically relating to the sexual relationship in your marriage.
Are You a Refuser, Too?
I suspect that for most of us who have refused, we pretty much know that we are doing so. Maybe we really don’t say “no” that often—not because we say “yes,” but because we pre-empt the request in the first place. I was pretty good at this. I would point out that I wasn’t feeling well, or that I was tired, or that I had to get up early the next morning, or that my husband had been exposed to germs –hours before bedtime, multiple times, just to avoid having sex with my husband. He learned very well how to know in advance that the answer would be “no.” Because he didn’t want to experience that rejection yet again, he learned not to ask. I could tell myself that because he didn’t ask, I didn’t refuse—but my heart knew better.
If anyone had asked me back then whether I was refusing my husband sex, I would have begun my response with, “Well, yeah, I guess, but he . . . “ and then filled it in with whatever my husband was doing or not doing that I thought was part of why I didn’t want to have sex with him.
Think about your sex life with your husband and how things go most of the time. Ask yourself these questions if you aren’t sure:
- Does your husband try to earn your physical affection (through parenting, household chores, flowers, etc.)? . Yes No
- How do you typically respond when your husband requests something that is not your “usual” in bed? (I’m thinking here about changes in time of day, location, activity, and position.)
- “Awesome! Let’s give it a try!”
- “Well, okay, but don’t expect me to do that for more than a couple minutes.”
- “You want to do what? Seriously?”
- “Why can’t you just be happy that you’re having sex?”
- “You are such a pervert.”
- If you and your husband have a “usual,” how often are you the one to suggest something different?
- More often than my husband.
- About the same amount as my husband.
- Less than my husband.
- Why would I do that?
- I don’t understand the question.
- When is an acceptable time for sexual activity with your husband?
- Any time at all, as long as no one else is in the room and the kids are safe.
- Same as A, but if anyone else is in the house or awake, it has to be quickie.
- Only at night, only in the morning, or only on weekends.
- Same as C, no one else can be in the house, and the kids have to be asleep.
- I can’t think of one, but I try every so often.
- When you have sex, do you feel like you’re giving in? Yes No
- Have you ever rolled your eyes when your husband has expressed an interest in sex? Yes No
- Do you ever think that your husband wants sex too often? Yes No
- Do you ever think that your husband wants too much variety in your sex life? Yes No
- Do you think there’s no point in wearing lingerie because it stays on you less than five minutes? Yes No
- Do you initiate sex sometimes?
- No. Why would I do that?
- I don’t understand the question.
If you answered yes to any of the yes/no questions, or if you answered anything other than A to the multiple choice questions, then I ask you to take a serious look at yourself. You might be a refuser. If you find yourself wanting to explain or defend your responses, you might be a refuser.
When a husband or wife thinks the husband needs to “earn” sex, when she sets conditions or pre-conditions on their sexual activity, or when she has an attitude that diminishes her husband’s need for sex, she is a refuser.
Whether she actively says “no,” deflects the question when asked, or pre-empts the question from being asked altogether, if her husband has an expectation of “no” most of the time, she is a refuser—just like I was.
So Now What?
My guess is that if you refuse your husband, you didn’t need to take a quiz to know that you do.
What are you going to do about it?
You may be sitting there ready to throw your laptop or tablet through the window because you’ve just been called something you don’t like any more than I do. Or maybe your mind is full of “yeah, but he . . . “ You’re probably wondering why it’s something you need to do anything about at all. After all, you aren’t the one who has a problem with your sex life. If your husband would just control himself, everything would be perfectly fine. Or if he would help you around the house more, you wouldn’t be so tired out and you might be more interested. Or if he would just be happy with the way things are.
Whether you think your refusal is justified or not, the fact remains: Refusal hurts your husband. It hurts your marriage. And ultimately, it hurts you, too.
Over the next few days, I will continue with several other posts about being a refuser. Here’s what’s coming:
- Part 2: Is refusal sin? (Fair warning: I believe the answer is “yes.”)
- Part 3: The real problem with the word “refuse.” (Bottom line: it perpetuates the idea the sex is for men.)
If you are a refuser, please accept my deep gratitude for getting all the way through this post.
Like you, perhaps, I went along for quite a few years oblivious to the damage I was doing to my marriage by refusing. I couldn’t see past the fog of my own hurt to the reflection in the mirror. The moment I truly saw my naked reflection in the looking glass, I knew what I had done.
When you gaze into the looking glass, who do you see?
Image adapted from Witthaya Phonsawat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net