I’ve often heard it spoken around this time of year. “I’m giving up caffeine.” “I’m giving up chocolate.” “I’m giving up Facebook.” And then, “I told my husband I’m giving up sex.”

I didn’t grow up observing Lent at all, but the idea always appealed to me. In college, I used Lent as a time to develop new habits and to be more mindful. One year I gave up soft drinks. Another year I fasted every Friday, consuming only water for a 24-hour period.

And during my refusing years, I wanted to give up sex.

If you are a Christian who gives up something during Lent, and if you already prefer not to have sex with your husband, the thought of 40 days completely off the hook is tempting.

Why I Wanted to Give Up Sex for Lent

Although the idea of guilt-free abstinence appealed to me, it was bigger than that to me. The observation of Lent is supposed to prepare a person for Easter through prayer, penance, self-sacrifice, and good works.

Reconciliation with God. Observing Lent is supposed to reconcile us with God. And there was a deep part of me that yearned for this. I knew something was wrong in our marriage. I didn’t know for sure what it was, but as I grew further from my husband, I also knew that I wasn’t hearing God as much as I once had. I hoped that if we stripped away the desires of the flesh—and the reminder of my hurting heart—I might be able to get back to that part of me that heard God. I would read 1 Corinthians 7 and see this passage: Do not deprive each other except perhaps 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. Maybe deprivation would connect me with God again.

Reconciliation with my husband. I thought that abstaining from sex for 40 days might reconcile my relationship with my husband. Many times, I wanted us to intentionally go without sex for a period of time because I wanted to reboot our relationship. I thought it might give us a chance to work on other areas of our relationship without complicating it with sex. I knew that our relationship had developed patterns and habits that were dragging us down. I thought that a reboot would get my husband out of the habit of asking in his usual ways and me out of the habit of the knee-jerk rejections that were my response to his usual ways.

Rekindling of Desire. I didn’t like the fact that I didn’t want to have sex with my husband. I hoped that six weeks of no sex would be enough to make me want to have sex with my husband again. If he knew we weren’t going to be having sex, then he wouldn’t bother asking—and once the begging/rejecting/anger/hurt/etc. cycle was interrupted, maybe my desire would be rekindled and rebooted.

Why It Was a Bad Idea

Reconciliation requires effort. I would look at that passage in 1 Corinthians and see that deprivation was okay if there was a purpose, but I conveniently ignored the fact that it needed to be done by mutual consent. Even more, I ignored the fact that I needed to devote myself to prayer. I was willing to deprive my husband, but my purpose wasn’t to have more time for prayer. I was hoping for God to just instantaneously fix everything. God has always been there, waiting for me to come back to Him—but I was the one who needed to take the steps to get there. Avoiding a central component of my marriage was not going to do it.  Furthermore, depriving my husband was a sin. My heart knew that I was depriving my husband of sex—and while I thought I had good reason, this deprivation was a sign that my heart was not aligned with God. Further sin was hardly likely to bring me closer to God.

Reconciliation requires attention to the whole relationship. While you can focus on certain pieces of your relationship in order to work on them or understand them, you cannot just pretend the other pieces don’t exist. That is what I wanted to do with my husband—work on the emotional connection and communication as though they were completely unrelated to our sexual relationship. Even if we had done this, the instant we would have added sex back into the equation, everything would have been tangled up again—because that’s the way life is. A marriage is two people whose lives are tangled up in each other in many ways at once.

It turned out that I was right about the need to alter habitual responses—but that happened only with opportunities to be intentional in doing this. I never could have learned to change my responses to my husband’s sexual interest away from the context of that interest.

Desire requires desire. Like many women, the more I have sex the more I want it—and the less I have sex, the less I want it. Now that I am used to enjoying a certain frequency of sexual activity with my husband, I find that if we go for a certain length of time, it feels awkward for a few minutes as I try to remember how to relax in the way that I need to for sexual activity. The way to rekindle my desire was not to experience less of it, but to experience more.

How Can Lent Improve Your Marriage?

According to the source of all facts (aka, Wikipedia), “the traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer through prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial.”

I encourage you to use this time of Lent to work on sexual intimacy in your marriage. Even if sexual intimacy is already strong in your marriage, the efforts below may make it even better.

Prayer. Pray about your sex life (and praying for your husband’s desire to go away is not what I mean here). Pray for your heart to be aligned with God’s design for marriage. Pray for your desire to be for your husband and his touch. Pray for the ability to be loving in your sexual encounters. Pray for courage in being vulnerable. Pray about your own heart in your marriage. In other words, pray for you to change, not for your husband to change. Pray for the joy you find in your marriage. Express your gratitude for the growth you’ve already seen.

Penance and repentance. Turn away from your sin. Use this time to demonstrate to yourself and your husband that you are making a genuine effort to do better. The six weeks of Lent is a good length of time to develop new habits, get comfortable in them, and even grow confident. Use this time to replace your bad habits with habits that strengthen your marriage.

Almsgiving. Learn to be generous as a wife, giving to your husband out of obedience to God and a joyful heart. If you’ve agreed to have sex with your husband once a week, generosity might mean initiating yourself one or two additional times during the week. Develop a habit of meeting your husband’s needs and desires as a reflection of your own heart rather than what you think he has “earned.”

Atonement. This word means at-one-ment, the state of being at one. As you spent time in prayer and work on your marriage, be mindful and intentional about how your efforts to your marriage enhance your unity with your husband and with God.

Self-denial. If you are like I was, not wanting to be sexual with my husband, then self-denial means intentionally stepping away from that desire. It means being open to sexual encounters even if it isn’t what you want. If you struggle with your own emotional hurt or difficulty in trusting your husband, work hard to step past these things during Lent. If you can’t do these things alone, seek counseling. Ask people to pray for you in these specific areas.

What Are You Giving Up?

Lent gives you a good period of time to genuinely work on yourself and your marriage. You can unlearn automatic habits, intentionally learn new habits, and experience a new version of your marriage.

Don’t give up sex for Lent.

Instead, give up a damaged version of intimacy, replacing it with one that will bring joy and reconciliation.

Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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17 Thoughts on “What Are You Giving Up for Lent?

  1. I’ve never observed Lent, but these are great suggestions. I especially appreciate your suggestions for how to pray. Thank you.

  2. The paragraph “Desire requires desire” struck a cord with me. C said to me just last year “I have no desire since menopause” but I now contend that it was the 7 years prior to that, when I gave up trying to even ask for sex, and allowed her to slowly starve her desire till menopause could finish it off. She was truly distressed that I started asking again, I guess because she hoped that part of our life was past.

    • E, please try not to guess why your wife was distressed. She may not even know herself. Whether she hoped that part of your life was past or not, she probably thought it was done. You’ve changed the path she thought your lives were on. It is distressing to have to make a big shift when you think you know where you’re going. No matter the reason, her distress is real. How can you help her deal with her distress in a way that is healing?

  3. Mike on March 3, 2014 at 3:02 pm said:

    What about from the other perspective, let’s say you are the husband of a wife who is wonderful, but she’s not nearly as interested in sex as you the husband. And, as the husband, this has been a big frustration, since touch is your primary love language. Would it be good for the husband to give up trying for sex from his wife for lent? When you were a ‘refusing wife’ would you have received this as a positive or a negative?

    • Mike, if my husband had come to me and said he was giving up sex for Lent, I would have seen at as a positive. However, that doesn’t mean it would have been the right thing to do. If he had done this but also led me to do a study about marriage with him, have both of us commit to prayer about marriage and intimacy, or somehow shown me what he was doing to work on himself, that might have made a difference.

      Simply giving up trying for sex without also trying to build in some intentional growth would have been pointless–because at the end, we would be back where we were.

      I do not recommend giving up sex because of the importance in maintaining a level of desire. Going six weeks with nothing would make it harder, not easier, for a resistant wife to resume sexual activity.

      My recommendation would be for a husband to tell his wife that he would like them to use Lent to be intentional and prayerful about God’s design for marriage–and ask her for suggestions about how to proceed.

      I do know some couples who find an intentional break to be helpful, but for most couples, I don’t think this is the case. I do know, this, though: if you say you are not going to initiate sex, then it is very, very important that you follow through. It is a demonstration that you value your promise more than you value sex. It is an important step in rebuilding any broken trust.

      I’d say it’s worth asking a wife how she would like to address the situation.

  4. Powerful! I love the prayer part the most!

  5. Kate on March 4, 2014 at 6:32 am said:

    Years ago my husband and I were not having sex as often as he liked. I found out in a very public way when I was listening to a radio show by a female Dr. who would give advice on the subject. He knew I always listened to her bc she had some great advice for callers. I was shocked to hear his voice one day! Surprisingly I was able to get right thru to be the follow up call right after. Her advice for him was life changing for me! She suggested to him that for the next 30 days that he was to treat me as if we were “courting” that he should flirt with me without sexual innuendos (nothing cheesy, eye rolling worthy) that he should hold my hand, open my doors, anything he could do for me without having intercourse for 30 days! This was a great exercise bc I felt completely relaxed bc the expectation was taken out of the equation. It was fun and funny bc he was following Dr’s orders! We didn’t make it to the full 30 days and that was my decision! I initiated the sex bc he was so cute with everything he was doing to please me. I saw him work for something that was so important to him as a man. He just needed a reminder of what is important to a woman.

    • I’m so glad this worked for you. Showing you his love in ways that mattered to you was a good thing for your husband to do.

    • Kate, I’ve been thinking about your comment today. I responded when I wasn’t entirely awake yet 🙂 and am now able to think a bit more clearly.

      Frankly, I am surprised that this approach worked (although I’m so glad it did for you). If turning things around were as easy as being romantic for a month, I wouldn’t see any of the heartbreaking emails I receive from husbands who have suffered for years. A man doesn’t need to remember what is important to a woman; rather, he needs to learn about his wife.

      It sounds like your marriage was not experiencing a long-lasting pattern of refusal or gate-keeping. In marriages where this is the case, there’s a lot more to improving physical intimacy than being romantic. Refusal and gate-keeping develop in a context, and part of addressing the refusal and gate-keeping involves addressing the context in which it grew. This may include premarital sexual baggage, bad teaching about sex, or problems in the relationship.

      What have you been able to figure out about why your husband wasn’t getting the sexual frequency he wanted? And what was your response to hearing his voice–and what was said to you while you were on the phone with the doctor?

      As I said, I am glad this worked in your marriage. Sadly, though, I doubt that it would be enough in most marriages.

  6. My husband and I are giving up abstinence for Lent, not that we were really abstinent, but sex hasn’t been high enough on the list lately.
    So, we are going to make time to make love every day of Lent. Some days are sure to be a challenge but I know it will make a wonderful difference in our marriage – bonus, no stress wondering if it is going to happen today or not.

  7. Mack on May 1, 2014 at 12:03 pm said:

    I too would advise against giving up sex for lent. Not so much for biblical reasons, but as others have mentioned, the less a person has sex (after a point) the longer they can go without even thinking about it. As one in what became a totally sexless marriage, I can attest to the fact that as the days become weeks become months become years become decades without sex, any effort to even discuss reconnecting with your spouse becomes “awkward” (actually seems just plain WRONG!) to put it mildly. Of course in our situation, my wife’s post-menopausal atrophy is so severe it’s causing issues for her even without sex. We’re in year 21 of this “bit of a dry spell” in the physical intimacy part of our marriage. Don’t let this become you lest the same chasm of detachment form between you and your spouse.

  8. Mack on May 1, 2014 at 12:48 pm said:

    Yes, but she claims there’s little that can be done. HRT is reportedly “out of the question” due to associated medical risks and family history in her situation. From what I gather her atrophy is quite advanced with even cracking and bleeding from just moving around during her day. I have no way of knowing for sure, we’ve been living as roommates since the conception of our daughter so many years ago. At first I just assumed that her declining my advances in the months after delivery was just hormonal and would pass. Instead, the lifestyle apparently became a habit. A year or so afterwards, I just stopped asking after having tried to have an open (no pressure) conversation about rekindling physical intimacy. Her abrupt reply was “SEX! You men are all alike, that’s all you ever think about!” I am re-living the chill in my body as I echo those words in typing this. I never asked her again. Realizing how destructive my then-growing resentment towards her would was becoming, I directed it inward, learning instead to resent (and there-by prevent) my own sexuality to mitigate any temptation to approach the subject with her ever again. 21 years of sleeping in the same bad and we don’t even touch each other. So those who think it’s funny to use lent as an excuse to give up physical intimacy, are playing with fire, possibly opening the door to a lifetime without not only physical intimacy, but the gradual decline of all emotional connection. Marriage can be a very lonely place.

    • I am so very sorry you are in such a lonely place. There are some non-hormonal treatments that can help with some of the symptoms of atrophy. There are also hormonal treatments that are considered safe because they are vaginal only rather than systemic. It sounds like your wife is physically miserable. Sadly, it sounds like there is some heart atrophy as well that needs to be addressed.

      You are both in my prayers.

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