Gate-keeping or Refusing?


When it comes to being sexually ungenerous, some people make a distinction between gate-keeping and refusing. I often seem to use the terms interchangeably, and I’ve been asked why I do so.

Although I think there are differences between gate-keeping and refusing, I describe my past wifely behavior as gatekeeping/refusing. I’ve done both. There were times of outright refusal (“you’ve got to be kidding me”) and times of gatekeeping (“not until the kids are gone/my stomach settles down/aren’t you done yet/no way am I doing that/keep your mouth up here, buddy/not with the light on/I agreed to Fridays and it’s only Wednesday”).

There would be long stretches of time when gate-keeping was more predominant, and a few shorter stretches that were mostly (but not completely) refusing. Mostly, my husband didn’t know what he was going to get. And just to really confuse things and keep the control in my hands, every now and then I’d choose to let go and enjoy the experience in unpredictable ways that made him yearn for more.

In my experience, the differences between gate-keeping and refusing are in degree more than in kind. Both kinds of behaviors involve one spouse controlling the marriage bed. Both stem from selfishness, with an inability to see from the other spouse’s point of view and/or unwillingness to step outside one’s own comfort zone and point of view. (That said, I do know that there are many different reasons and experiences that lead to this selfishness. Edited to add: To say that it is selfish is not necessarily negative. Sometimes selfishness is a matter of self-protection from discomfort or pain.) I know that in many marriages, the predominant response to sexual initiation is either gate-keeping or refusing. If I had to choose which one would define my lack of sexual generosity, I honestly don’t know which one would be more accurate.

For me, they were fruits of the same rotting tree of intimacy in my heart. This rottenness manifested itself sexually, sometimes by outright “no” and sometimes by being restrictive about what sexual acts would be allowed or when. My thoughts and feelings during both were exactly the same. When my husband tried to initiate a sexual encounter, I didn’t always know what the outcome would be any more than he did. I did, however, know what would be going through my mind and heart, and that was always the same regardless of the outcome.

Not only was my heart the same with both gate-keeping and refusing, the effect on my husband was pretty much the same. Both made him feel undesired, unloved and unlovable, and sexually restricted. One allowed him physical release, but it was usually at an emotional expense to him.

For us, gate-keeping and refusing were on the same continuum. They were both about me controlling our marriage bed.

I’d love to hear from you. Is there gate-keeping and/or refusing in your marriage? Does it matter to you whether there’s a true difference between the two?

Image adapted from

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

35 Comments on “Gate-keeping or Refusing?”

  1. Before I found your blog I thought I was really the only one who had these issues. The more I read about how you have evolved the more I feel there might be hope yet. When you described your thoughts of wishing your spouse would just leave, have a heart attack,etc you could have been writing down my exact thoughts. Thank you for sharing this. I see the changes I need to make. I hope I will be as successful at it as you seem to be.

    1. Thank you so much for commenting, Debbie. I suspect there are many more of us than we think. I’d like to encourage you to read through the Getting Started category (you can find the drop-down near the top in the right-hand column of the web interface). The earlier posts are where I share some of those earliest steps–one change at a time. The biggest step for me was making the decision to try to change anything at all–and it sounds like you’ve already taken this step!

  2. I think a lot of us in the sort of “Christian Marriage” community, we use these terms as short hand. In a single word, we can often assume much of a set pattern is happening. We can guess at the fights they’re already having, the things the husband may have tried and it helps us to get to the actual issue quicker than multiple paragraphs describing individual behaviors.

    I’ve seen many in the community who have gotten very proficient at nailing down what the issue is with only a few messages back and forth, because the patterns are often so predicable and we’ve seen them occur so often in so many marriages. There are always specific variations, but the underlying theme generally falls under two sort of patterns:

    Marriages in a “refusing” pattern are often in the “sexless” category (10 or less times per year). This is generally coupled with the idea (for one spouse) that marriage doesn’t need sex. This is pretty dire and usually needs something fairly radical to change. It takes a strength of will to stay in a marriage like this long enough to see it turn around. We’ve seen marriages that have taken 30 years to break this pattern (though not all take this long).

    Whereas many marriages in a “gatekeeper” sort of pattern, sometimes it’s just one of the spouses has low libido, and thus is trying to limit sex, or they have a bad teaching from their past that is hindering them just letting go during sex, so they limit the activities/time/places (doggy style is demeaning, oral sex is sinful because you can’t get pregnant, things like that). Sometimes these are just changed by reading the right blog post, or the right book. Sometimes just the right bible verse. The hardest part is generally the gate-keeping spouse is not interested in changing.

    But yeah, there are cases as well, where the terms seem to be pretty interchangeable (like yours). Or a refuser will turn into a gatekeeper on their way to being free. Or, you get a mix of gatekeeping/refusing depending on their menstrual cycle. This can drive a man crazy if he doesn’t understand what’s going on.

    Anyways, I could talk about this stuff forever, so I think I’ll stop now before this comment becomes longer than the original post…if it hasn’t already…

    1. You make a good point about the usefulness of being able to use the terms as a short hand for all that is going on. For us, our fights and my husband’s efforts were the same no matter what our predominant sexual season was. Although we were never in a sexless marriage according to the numerical definition, there was one year when we were close.

      As I hear from women as I write this blog, I’m starting to think there are more situations like mine where it’s a mix than we might have thought.

      1. Yeah, it’s a pretty rampant problem. The stats I’ve seen are that in Christian marriages about 10% are in a sexless marriage (we’ll call that full on refusal), but we have no idea how many are involved in gatekeeping/refusing/both/whatever you want to call it. I think it’s pretty rare to find a couple where there isn’t any gatekeeping/refusing going on these days. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s about 10% no sex, 10% needs and a bit of wants being fulfilled, and the rest (80%) someone isn’t happy, or both aren’t happy.

        Throw in the fact that 50% of men in the church are using/addicted to porn (same stat just using pastors BTW), and we have quite a mess on our hands that most people don’t want to talk about.

        I’m glad to have your voice in the mix. Keep posting!

  3. Sometimes I hate sex. Sometimes, I wish it was *just* a physical act, and there were no feelings involved. And, I wish I could always feel happy to meet my husband’s sexual needs. It’s hard to be intimate with someone who has wounded your heart – it requires great intentional effort to just do it anyway. It leaves me feeling empty (and relieved that he’ll now be satisfied for a little while.) Most of our marriage has consisted of me “giving in” to having sex in order to live somewhat peacefully… because if he isn’t having his sexual needs met, it’s all I hear about. It can bring SO much tension into our home. We are at a place where I do attempt to meet his needs but not because I *want* to be with him, but rather as a measure of ‘keeping the peace’. In some ways I think my attempts to NOT “gate-keep” or “refuse” have harmed our marriage. There is no “consequence” for him when he behaves in ways that are selfish and uncaring.

    1. I’m sorry. This sounds like a difficult place to be. Although peace-keeping sex provides a physical release, it probably isn’t very good for your husband in other ways, any more than it is for you.

      You deserve sexual joy just as much as any other woman does. What would it take for you to experience that? What could be your first step in moving that direction? A difficult conversation with your husband? Counseling? A different counselor?

  4. For the man (or women!) on the receiving end I think refusal may be easier to deal with. Gatekeeping often blames others, including the “victim”. When it becomes a clear pattern the receiver knows it’s selfishness, but you can’t say or prove that. Refusal is more clearly not about the once being refused – there is no fleeting hope that you can do the right thing, find the right set of circumstances.

  5. FW,
    I really appreciate your insightful blogs concerning this subject. Having been married for 30+ years, with my wife basically gatekeeping for that time, I have, unfortunately, begun realize that it isn’t going to change. I have tried to express the hurt a few times in the past, but it never ends well. Our frequency is down to once every 2-5 weeks (usually in the 4-5 week range unless there is a beach vacation or special occasion in there somewhere). When we do, it seems to always be good for her. She always O’s. I always give her plenty of massage, plenty of foreplay, attention to what feels good to her.

    To get to the point, I pretty much gave up ever initiating about 7 months ago. No flirting, no suggestive talk, no physical contact that could ever be viewed as sexual. Too painful to consistently be rejected. I let her initiate any physical contact, including hugs and kisses. Our frequency didn’t change. I think she is satisfied with that. But, it seems that even she gets to the point that she needs the physical release, too, but only when she decides (when, where, how, and what). It usually starts when it has been quite a while since any sexual contact, then she will ask me to lay behind her. Sometimes she will take my hand and put it where she wants it as a way to start things. I have always told her that I would never refuse her (and still haven’t), so I continue with this. She never flirts. She never tells me what she wants to build up any anticipation. She never starts with touching me where I would like to be touched. Always starts with her.

    As a recovering gatekeeper/refuser, can you tell me what is going on in her mind? If it is always good for her (or at least it seems to be), why such low frequency? She knows how important it is to me, but she won’t even consider it until she wants it, but even then it starts out with moving my hand to places for her pleasure. Sure, I love to touch/stroke my wife, but I guess I would like to feel like my needs are important, too. Why does it always start with what she wants? Can you provide any insight? BTW, I provide a very good living, provide for her needs (as best as I understand), do basically anything she asks, help with cooking, cleaning, etc. I try not to refuse her in anything.


    1. Dear Seeking Peace,

      I wish I could know what is happening in your wife’s mind, but all I can do is talk about what was going through my mind during similar behaviors.

      Not all wives who gate-keep or refuse start doing so for the same reasons. Even after those reasons no longer exist, the patterns of sexual disengagement, denial, and control have taken root and become How Things Are. We forget that there are other options for how to respond to sexual initiation, and the next things we know it is decades later and neither spouse has any clue how to engage sexually with the other.

      You ask, “If it is always good for her (or at least it seems to be), why such low frequency?” For many women sex is simply not on the radar. I know this is hard for many men to understand, but women often don’t actually desire sex until they’re already aroused. They don’t want sex until they’re in the middle of having it. Now, a wife can certainly look for opportunities to initiate or to respond positively to your sexual requests. She can make a decision to think about sex, even if it isn’t a desire that arises within her naturally. The fact that you make sure sex is a good experience for her is good. If she decides to make some changes, she will be starting from a different point than women for whom sex has been uncomfortable or without pleasure.

      I’m intrigued by how she initiates—asking you to lie behind her. How do you think she would describe the quality of the emotional aspects of your relationship? Has your wife had bad sexual teaching or guilt about her sexual desire? I ask because there were times when I would initiate—but only in the dark and not facing my husband. By facing away from him in a posture of disengagement, I wasn’t taking full ownership of my sexual desire. I could still have the illusion that I didn’t really want it. After years of denying my husband sex, I have to say it was very hard to look in his eyes and know how much he was hurting. Even when I initiated or responded positively to him, his eyes were full of sadness that as good as our experience was at the time, he would grieve for an undetermined amount of time after that. I simply couldn’t look him in the eyes because of my own guilt and confusion.

      My way of initiating was usually to put my husband’s hands on me somewhere. After so many years of resistance, I could barely remember how to touch him pleasurably. It makes no sense, I know, but simply touching my husband’s genitals took great courage and intention on my part after the years of bad patterns—and this was how I felt after I’d made a decision to make sexual changes.

      While I can appreciate the pain of rejection, I think it is often a mistake when a husband stops initiating. It sends two messages to his wife: 1) you win, and 2) I no longer desire you. With these messages communicated, what incentive does your wife have to change?

      What you’ve tried so far hasn’t worked, has it? Not only are you sexually unhappy, my guess is that your marriage overall doesn’t feel particularly strong right now. I’m thinking now of Sean Connery in The Untouchables: What are you prepared to do?

      You say you’ve shared your feelings with your wife. Okay, now what? Have you asked her to go to marriage counseling with you? If she says no, are you prepared to tell her you are going to counseling alone so you can develop strategies to deal with your sexual and emotional unhappiness in your marriage? Have you spoken with your pastor? Have you asked your wife if she would be willing to do some reading about marriage? I think the best place to start is The Generous Wife. It is about marriage more than about sex. It is one of the things I read in the beginning to help me reshape my attitude about what it meant to be a good wife.

      If what you’ve tried so far hasn’t worked, then it’s time to try something else. Look for ways to encourage her growth, but meanwhile, do what you can to be sure you are where you need to be in your relationship with God. Work on yourself to be sure you are the best husband you can be, regardless of her actions.

      Blessings on you, brother.

      1. Wow. That’s a lot of information! Thanks for responding. I’ll just address a few things here.

        I have shared my feelings with my wife. Since talking doesn’t usually work very well (the discussion always gets detoured), I wrote her a letter. About a 4-page letter. About a whole lot more than just sex. This put her over the edge. I think she likes to live in a world where everything is perfect, and doesn’t like for anything to upset that view. I went to a counselor, at the advice of my pastor/friend, and showed her the letter. She said it was one of the best letters she has ever read (I didn’t even know that I could write!). It had the right focus and approach with lots of “I” statements, not “you” statements. However, my wife saw it differently. To her, it was all about sex. She wouldn’t acknowledge any of the positive statements or even recognize what my feelings truly were. I almost told her that “if the only reason I hang around is for the sex, it really doesn’t take much to keep me around!”. Fortunately, I restrained myself.

        Since then, I have tried to get her to read a couple of books – The 5 Love Languages and His Needs/Her Needs. She won’t touch them. I approached the His Needs/Her Needs from the standpoint of wanting to understand what she thought about the list of Her needs to start a discussion, but she wouldn’t read it.

        I know she will refuse to go to counseling – she thinks counseling is just a “crutch” and that we ought to just be able to talk. But our talks don’ ever accomplish much. I guess she can control that, since she has pretty much controlled me in the past. Also, she has stated in the past that counselors have a name for every “syndrome” and that everyone has something wrong with them. She didn’t want to know what a trained counselor would find wrong with her.

        I have mentioned “The Generous Wife” and “The Generous Husband”, which I read daily. But, to my knowledge, she has never been there. Wish she would. They are really good.

        Don’t get me wrong – I love my wife deeply. But she won’t even acknowledge my feelings on much of anything without turning it into a discussion about her. Is this typical for gatekeepers?

        1. Seeking Peace:
          I wish I knew what to say to help. I truly feel for you. I know that this is a hard predicament. Please know that you are not to blame, please know that this does not mean that you are a bad person. When we encounter problems in life like you are dealing with, it hurts us at our core and we start to question if something is wrong with us. You need to know that there is nothing wrong with you.

        2. So true! The sin of sexual gate-keeping and refusing is on the shoulders of the one doing the gate-keeping and refusing, not on the shoulders of the spouse who is being denied.

        3. But she won’t even acknowledge my feelings on much of anything without turning it into a discussion about her. Is this typical for gatekeepers?

          I don’t know that it’s typical, but based on what I’ve seen, it is within the range of normal. Some gatekeeping and refusing grows out of selfishness, so it isn’t surprising to see that selfishness show up in conversation as well. You can’t do anything to change your wife; you can only change yourself. She’s right that you should be able to just talk–but it also means that you both should be listening to each other.

          Do you think your wife is happy, in general and in your marriage?

        4. Good question. The short answer is ‘no’ in general and ‘probably not’ with the marriage.. I don’t know if it’s me, our situation, or something else. For most of our marriage she has seemed stressed out. I think she has control issues, in everything. In addition, she never tolerates anything that comes across (to her) as any form of criticism. She doesn’t laugh. She doesn’t play. I used to, but not so much any more. Sometimes I wonder if I “sowed the seeds of my own destruction”. All of our marriage, I have catered to her and tried to provide her with everything she wanted. IF she wanted time, I was there. To listen, never really allowed to express how I felt, – at least not without consequences. If there was a difference in opinion on something, I almost always gave/give in. I don’t think she has ever really given in to me in something that she felt differently about. I guess you can say that I am a passive husband – most things just aren’t worth the conflict. And I just learn to live with things that I probably ought to fight over. Like I said, she doesn’t tolerate any conflict or criticism, implied or otherwise. Overall, I don’t think she is happy in the current situation, but is afraid to delve into it because it might reflect poorly on her. Did I say she is also a perfectionist? Not so much overall, but at least the projected image of her should look “perfect”.

        5. If she is unhappy, that is on her, not on you. I’m just curious as to how she would respond to a question about what a happy life/marriage would look like to her. It’s so easy to get caught in a cycle of unhappiness that it’s hard to see even the possibility of joy.

        6. I’ve been a fairly regular reader of this blog, as my wife and I seek to repair our marriage of nearly 15 years. It has been helpful in finding encouragement and hope. I haven’t felt the need to comment on anything, but after reading your story, I felt that I had read something that may have come from my own mouth not even a year ago.

          My wife was almost exactly like you have described – very controlling sexually and in most other areas (it was her way or the highway), a perfectionist, unable to deal with any amount of criticism, and very unhappy overall in her life and in our marriage. She would dismiss my feelings and desires for a healthy sexual relationship, and I was made out to be a sexual deviant who only wanted sex. Everything wrong in our marriage was my fault. I, too, even wrote a lengthy letter, to no avail.

          To make a long story short, the root of our problems were my wife’s struggles with anxiety, nearly life-long depression, and continual low self-esteem. I knew they were there, but she wouldn’t hear any of it, wouldn’t admit that she needed help. After finally agreeing to see a marriage therapist, her eyes were opened to the realities of her problems. She eventually decided that she wanted to fix those things, and our marriage and happiness has gotten much better because of it (yes even sexually).

          I see so many of the symptoms of those same problems in your story, that I felt I had to comment. These aren’t things that will go away on their own, they need professional help, with extra helpings of prayer. If your wife struggles with these same problems, I pray that she will accept the help that she needs, for herself, for you, and for your marriage.

        7. I’ve seen countless stories from wives who found that addressing depression was the beginning of positive change in the marriage. I am one of them. Getting my brain chemistry back in balance allowed me to cope and respond to life in normal ways, and I no longer felt like everything in life was out of control.

          Thanks you for sharing your experience. I’m so glad your marriage has become better for both of you.

        8. Thanks for the kind words. I have some hope. As for your list you gave: controlling sexually – check. Perfectionist – check. Can’t deal with criticism – check. Unhappy – check (except around other people). Low self-esteem – check. Depression – occasionally. If I could only get her to consider going to counseling, even if I could convince her it was for me (and I probably could use some – have been 3 times unbeknownst to my wife). You could be onto something! Pray for me.

        9. Seeking Peace,

          You cannot change your wife’s behavior; the motivation to change has to come from within her. But there is hope; you can change your behavior and provide your wife with inspiration to change. You need to shake things up.

          Someone very smart recently told me that you need to be the change you want to see. Instead of telling my wife what changes I wanted in our marriage, I ask her what changes she wanted in our marriage. Now fortunately for me, she knew what she wanted; she wanted more faith in our marriage. Naturally, I am working on ways to bring more faith into our marriage. Hopefully, your wife will be able to tell you what change she would like to see in your marriage. Do your best to bring about the changes she wants to see. You will reap the benefits.

          Another thing I learned from reading this wonderfully insightful blog was about an internet site, e5, for group of men who fast for the women in their life. I recent joined and participated in my first fast. My wife was very appreciative. There are many benefits to fasting, you are making a sacrifice for your bride, it has health benefits, and it’s a great metaphor.

          I realize everyone’s situation is different, but this is working for me. Hopefully you can find what works for you.

  6. Chris – Another great post. You excel at them. (Also great response to Seeking Peace.) I often wonder if the refuser is conscious of what they are doing beyond just saying, “No!” Are they really trying to exercise power and control or do they just let everything else get in the way? I know it is probably different for every refuser.

    1. Thank you. I really didn’t think I was being controlling, even when my husband would point it out. To him, it was control. To me, it was more about maintaining my own boundaries and rights to my own body. All those years, I denied us the opportunity of being one flesh–but I truly didn’t think what I was doing was controlling or wrong.

    2. rockhisworld,
      I haven’t really thought of that. It may be a combination. I never get a straight “NO”. That would be refusing. It’s usually more of a “I’m really tired”, “I feel touchy tonight”, “I need my space”, “need to unwind”, “I’ve got a lot to do tomorrow”, not feeling well, need some rest, the proverbial headache, those types of things. I think she is exercising control and justifying it in her mind at the same time. She would never just come out and say “NO” because that would reflect poorly on her. Is she conscious of what she is doing? Not to the degree that she is doing it. But if I ever bring anything up about it, the discussion degrades very quickly. Is this a defensive reaction? For example, we were getting amorous one night and I just casually mentioned that it had been 5 weeks. She responded with “you’re keeping count?!” and things kind of went downhill from there. Must… be… careful… how… I… phrase… things… It’s a minefield out there.

  7. I know by the responses I have received from your sight as well as others, that I am not being understood . I have struggled for 40 plus years to try & understand what I was doing wrong in our marriage. I tried to be there for him sexually, but somehow it’s my “fault” that I was never able to develop a sexual desire for him. He knew how I felt, I had been inappropriate with him at times & I accept full responsibility for those actions. However, even before the rape I was.having to fight him off of me. I know my mousy personality had a lot to do with it, as well as a very strict abusive father who’s approval I desperately sought. My husband then boyfriend , started treating me differently back then, but now he keeps repeating “chicken, egg” stating he didn’t see a change in me until after the wedding. I state with certainty the change in me came before the rape, & try as I might, I just did not have the emotional maturity to accomplish that. I did try several times to break up with him, but I felt guilty, I felt like I was already his wife. I tried dating a few other boys while he was away at college but I felt.horrible about it. I worried about what his mother would think of me. I felt like a slut. Now that I have had an affair, and I am guilty of something I see why he has been so angry with me all these years, but I cannot give him what he needs and wants. So much has passed between us, and a great deal of the onus is at my feet that person I have prayed to be, tried to be for all these years. I hold him no ill will, I stopped that years ago with our Lord ‘s help. But the answer has been a resounding no on my having the proper desire for the man. I thought taking care of him and his needs was enough, I bore him no grudge, but his anger and belittling shut me down. I was just sad all the time, and became ill all the time. I caught every virus that came near me, and then I’d catch it again. Even that seemed to put him out, like I somehow was getting sick on purpose. I just want to be set free, to live in peace and for him to be able to hopefully find what he has been missing out on all these years. For that I am heartfully sorry. It was never my goal to punish him. Right now I am living elsewhere but even though he says he can never trust me, and that he thinks I am mean, he still wants me. I don’t get it. I asked him why would he want to be with such a horrible person? His answers is that he loves me, I think he loves the idea of me, not me. I am not a mean person, I am no saint, obviously, for now I need to be done with men. What is it they say? A woman my age (59) has a better chance of being bitten by a shark than get remarried, and I live in mid America. Sorry about the length of this response, you need not post it if you wish.

    1. Effy, I am posting this in hopes that someone who reads this will be able to find words that will comfort you.

      You said in earlier comments that you’ve been in counseling. As you’ve talked with your counselor(s) about your feelings of anguish, anger, guilt, and despair, what have you decided your options are? If you plan to stay in the marriage, what are you going to do to try to heal enough that you can feel some contentment and pieces of joy? It breaks my heart to see a marriage end, but on a practical level, I’ll ask what you will need to have in place in order to do that? Is there anything your husband can do to try to make amends? Is there any way to try to rebuild your relationship? What would you need to do in order for this to happen? And what would you need him to do in order to feel the trust and respect needed in marriage?

      I’m not asking these questions because I expect you to tell me but because I hope you think about them (you probably already have). I am not a counselor, and I am not a marriage expert. I am simply a woman whose heart hurts for yours.

  8. Thank you for your kind words. I have been working on this praying for an answer. So far I haven’t received anything other than “God hates divorce” as an answer. Relying on my heart isn’t giving me anything but “end it now”. I am not going to make any decisions for the time being, I am in no rush to make another life altering error. I may be just too exhausted to continue with the exceptionally difficult task of trying to fix this. I have made no promises to my husband but I’m hurting him every time he sees me, I want it to stop!

    1. You probably are exhausted. For right now, work on healing within yourself. Pray for your husband’s hurting to ease, but work on your own spiritual development, healing, and forgiveness. Let your husband work on himself for a while. Healing is a marathon, not a sprint, and there doesn’t need to be a rush to make decisions or try to fix anything. What is broken in your marriage will still be there, waiting to be addressed, once you are refreshed in body, mind, and soul. Perhaps you and your husband could agree on a time frame for just working on yourselves before trying to look at the marriage?

  9. I would also like to ask if any married persons out there started their marriage out without any physical attraction to their spouse, and if so how did you work through it? Also if anyone started their relationship off under the same circumstances as I did?

  10. I considered my wife as a gatekeeper for the first 2 years of our marriage till I read Jay Dee’s reply. If a marrige is sexless at less than 10 times per year then mine could be considered that from the first year of the 33 years we’ve been married.

Leave a Reply!