Most of my marriage was pretty stormy. My husband and I would snipe at each other. We would lash out. We would yell. We would point fingers at what the other was doing wrong. It wasn’t like that all the time, but a storm could brew with very little warning at all. I just wanted peace, tranquility, serenity. I thought, If only he would change, things would be so much better.
Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 7 instruct husbands and wives in their marriages. Wives are to submit to their husbands. Husbands are to love their wives. Neither is to sexually deprive each other except when they both agree and for the purpose of prayer.
A Wife’s Sexual Refusal
I frequently hear from husbands who suffer from their wives’ sexual refusal or gate-keeping. I typically respond with the following:
- You can change only yourself; you can’t change your wife.
- Work on your own walk with Christ and do what God calls you to do.
- Pray for and support your wife’s relationship with Christ.
- Be married to the wife you have, not to the wife you wish you had.
I suppose that for some men, what they hope to hear is confirmation that what their wives are doing (or, more accurately, not doing) is sin. I wonder if these men sometimes think that if they go to their wives and are able to prove, using the Bible and impeccable logic, that sexual deprivation is sin, their wives will say, “Oh, I had no idea! Silly me. My bad. Honey, let’s go have sex right this second.” And then, voilà, the problem is over. While pointing out the sinfulness of sexual deprivation may be sufficient in some marriages, in most marriages with a gate-keeping or refusing wife, that doesn’t even make a dent.
For me, in those rare moments when I would catch a glimpse of what God wanted from me in my marriage, my response was usually something like, “Well, if I’m sexually refusing him, then he’s emotionally refusing me. He started it.” Basically, I immaturely blamed my husband for everything and wouldn’t look at what I was contributing to the problem. I wasn’t going to budge until he made some changes.
A Husband’s Emotional Refusal
As much as my husband was experiencing sexual deprivation, I was experiencing emotional deprivation. When my husband would point out that it was a sin to deprive him, I would point out that it was just as much a sin for him not to love me and sacrifice for me.
Back and forth we would go. I felt emotionally deprived and therefore couldn’t bring myself to be vulnerable sexually with my husband. My husband was sexually deprived (and, as this is the means of emotional connection for most men, he was emotionally deprived as well), so he couldn’t bring himself to be vulnerable emotionally with me. It was a cycle of refusal and deprivation on both our parts.
Ending sexual refusal sounds so simple in some respects. After all, how long does sex really take? How difficult can it be to give an hour over a one-week period so your husband can be content? I sometimes liked sex once we got into it, so what’s the big deal with avoiding it so much? My husband would ask me this, and it sounded so easy when he would put it that way. But in order for me to have sex (not to mention be fully engaged and enjoy it), I had to have an emotional connection. I couldn’t concoct one all by myself. Because I didn’t feel that emotional bond outside the bedroom, as part of the daily fabric of our married life, I didn’t have that to draw on inside the bedroom.
I suffered, just as my husband did–and I know this is true for many other wives as well. For these women, suffering from their husbands’ emotional refusal or gate-keeping, I offer the same advice as I do to men.
- You can change only yourself; you can’t change your husband. Yes, your husband should be more loving to you in a way that matters to you–but you can’t make him act or feel any differently. You can only change your own behavior and your responses to his words and actions. This is such a hard thing to do. I heard someone joke once that a man marries a woman hoping she’ll never change, and a woman marries a man sure she can change him. While it was intended as a joke, it was one of those hits-too-close-to-home-to-really-be-funny jokes for us. A student once told me that girls like bad boys because, “They’re a project. It’s like scrap-booking!” Sometimes, I thought of my efforts to make my husband act differently as an extension of my nurturing tendency–but when I’m completely honest with myself, I know it was about me trying to have control over the things (and people) who affect me most. Accepting that I cannot change my husband has been a real challenge for me.
- Work on your own walk with Christ and do what God calls you to do. We are called to do what we are called to do, regardless of someone else’s sin. Yes, my husband was depriving me emotionally (not intentionally, as it came from his own hurt). While that made it harder for me to be with him sexually, it did not justify the sexual deprivation that I visited on him. I don’t know how many times I’ve said to one of my kids, “You are responsible for your own behavior, no matter what someone else has done. It doesn’t matter who started it. You can choose to stop it.” I had to learn how to be the best wife I could be in response to God’s call to me, not in response to my husband’s quality as a husband. Once I realized that I needed to stop refusing and gate-keeping, my husband’s habits of interaction with me continued for months. I was giving a lot, but I was not getting back what I needed and wanted. And I had to become okay with this. My responsibility as a wife is not contingent on his behavior as a husband. I still struggle with this sometimes. As I have grown in my own Christian walk, though, it continues to be easier for me to recognize when this is a problem and rely on God to help me do the right thing at those times–and to genuinely repent and ask for forgiveness when I mess up, which I do, a lot.
- Pray for and support your husband’s relationship with Christ. For far too long, I considered my husband my enemy at times. He and I were at odds sexually and emotionally. As our marriage changed, I realized that I was becoming my husband’s advocate and cheerleader in a way I hadn’t been before. In intentionally supporting my husband’s relationship with Christ, I help our marriage be more Christ-centered. I am only human, so when my husband does things that hurt me, I feel upset. I feel ignored and rejected. I cry. I sometimes say things I shouldn’t. I allow myself to have my feelings–but I look for the cross again, and everything snaps back into place. As I encourage my husband’s growth, it becomes less about how it will affect me and more about what his own heart needs.
- Be married to the husband you have, not to the husband you wish you had. It’s easy to daydream about how nice it would be if your husband were just . . . sensitive, strong, handy, kinder, firmer, more mature, a better Christian, or whatever he isn’t that you always thought you would have in a husband. Your husband is about as perfect as you are. He’s going to make mistakes. He may have his own baggage. His Christian teaching (or lack of it) is bound to affect what he believes and how he responds to you. Extend some grace. Show the love of Christ. Accept your husband as the child of God that he is.
God, Grant Me Serenity
A wife whose husband says she is sexually refusing or gate-keeping can be made to feel rotten. My husband would tell me it was about more than sex. He would tell me what the Bible said about marriage. He would even be vulnerable at times. I always felt he deserved the deprivation, because he hadn’t yet proven to me that he was emotionally “there” enough for me, but I felt guilty at times. I didn’t think what I was doing was wrong, but I did recognize that my actions were hurting him. I had my own problems and issues, and every time my husband would talk about his experiences in a sexless marriage, his words would just add to the emotional burden I was already carrying.
My feelings of being emotionally refused made it hard to be the one to go first and make the first changes. It’s so much easier to sit and point fingers at another person’s sin, especially when we are suffering from that sin.
Once I accepted the things that I could not change and found the courage to change myself, my marriage changed from one of frequent storms to one that fills me with joy and serenity most of the time.
What are you struggling to accept in your marriage? And what are you willing to work on within yourself in order to make your marriage a better one? What is your next step in transforming your marriage?