The benefits--and limits--of duty sex

A wife who’s resisted sex for a long time can face a tough journey when she begins to work on sexual intimacy.

The goal should be a thriving sexual relationship with her husband. Sometimes, though, it’s easier for a sexually reluctant wife to think of sex as little more than duty sex in which she allows her husband to have an orgasm with her body. Men report that this leaves them feeling emotionally empty and deprived—and honestly, it doesn’t do so much for us emotionally, either. (I’ve written about the downsides of duty sex here, here, here, and here.)

Getting comfortable with duty sex should not be the end goal for a wife who decides to work on sex.

However, duty sex isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it is a helpful early step in a wife’s journey toward joyful sexual intimacy. Read More →

When it comes to sexual intimacy, do you want to be healed?

During the years of our sexual disconnection, Big Guy often would point out that our sex life was, well, broken. Even then, through the fog of all my own baggage and hurt, I could see that for myself.

I shed many tears of frustration over the fact that sex wasn’t working. My emotions always seemed to get in the way, and the sexual tension was constant and difficult.

One time my husband asked me point blank, “Don’t you want our sex life to get better? Don’t you want it to work well?” Read More →

What can happen when you help heal your husband’s heart?

In Lessons from a Wife’s Heart, I said I wanted to share three lessons for wives that arose from a series of posts addressed to men at The Curmudgeonly Librarian:

  • Conquer your complacency.
  • Deal with your feelings.
  • Care for your husband’s heart.

These were hard lessons for me to learn in my own journey to restored sexual intimacy—maybe because they are the three most important things I did.

Every one of these things was necessary in healing my own heart as well as my marriage. I’ve written about the first two lessons here and here.

I’ve put off writing about the last one, but a message sent to me today reminded me how critical this is.

Read More →

How can you maintain sexual intimacy when you're dealing with pain?

Sexual intimacy doesn’t just serve to provide us with orgasms in our marriage. It also helps us to feel united as a couple. It builds our overall intimacy. It helps to bond us. This can especially be the case for many men as they experience the rush of the bonding hormone oxytocin that occurs at orgasm.

When our marriages are deprived of sexual intimacy, our marriages can hurt–even when that deprivation comes out of necessity due to a medical condition. Read More →

Physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of sex

For so long, I considered my husband’s desire for sex only in terms of the physical release and pleasure.

I really didn’t understand why my husband needed me for that. If he was in such need of physical release, why couldn’t he just go take care of himself through masturbation and leave me alone? Read More →


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

What makes life good in your marriage?

With several documents open, I was sitting here trying to decide which of my very drafty drafts to flesh out into a blog post. I’d come home early, the kids would be out of the house for hours, and I had my Häagen-Dazs coffee ice cream in front of me. Read More →

We expect some things in life to be hard—learning to drive, learning to play a musical instrument, making difficult financial and medical decisions, parenting, caring for a loved one who is sick, and so on. But sex shouldn’t be hard. Right?

Sex was a lot easier when we were young and didn’t have years of baggage and bad habits behind us. As I began to recognize that my sexual gatekeeping and refusing had hurt my husband and was wrong, I knew it would involve training myself out of bad habits and into good ones. I just had no idea how hard it would be or how long it would take.

My first step toward healthy marital intimacy was to fully participate when we had sex. No more duty sex–lying with my eyes closed, mechanically doing all the moves that I knew would finish things quickly as possible. It was easy to tell myself, “Well, if you’re going to take the time to have sex, you might as well get something out of it, too.” I enjoyed this first step out of the pit and felt very accomplished, like things were going great.

And then I got to step 2: say “yes,” not “no.” You know what? It isn’t as easy as it sounds. My reactions had become subconscious. “Hey, hon, you wanna get lucky?” My responses included glaring, rolling my eyes, yelling, or at the very least, feeling my shoulders tense up. I wasn’t even aware of this pattern until I tried to change it. I had to remind myself, “Chris, breathe. Breathe before you speak. Close your eyes so he doesn’t see that you just rolled them.” When I was learning to not say “no,” I made a point of breathing intentionally for a moment before responding. Or, I would say, as calmly as I could, “Will you please ask me again in five minutes?” I tried to break myself of the knee-jerk reaction that had become automatic, and I did this by adding in something (breathing deeply) that would delay this response for a moment. There were times when “no” came out anyway, and by the time I’d realized it, we were in a fight because he’d reacted to that and our ingrained patterns of interacting had reemerged.

Healing is a process. Even if a woman wants to, very much, it isn’t likely that she will be able to flip a switch and suddenly be the wife her husband has longed for her to be. She needs to rebuild the ways she responds—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Unlearning long-time habits and rebuilding new healthy ones takes time. Each step was small, and it wasn’t always easy. I was making myself vulnerable in many ways. Each time I said “yes”/touched/responded/initiated/etc. took a great deal of courage and effort on my part. While it shouldn’t have, it did.

I am concerned sometimes when I see a man who is hurting so much and hoping so much for an overnight miracle that he is unable to see the step-by-step progress that God is working in his wife. After years of worsening intimacy, he wants to hold and be held by his wife. He wants what he’s yearned for. When any progress is made, he may be anxious to speed it up, to get to where he’s wanted to be for so long. But friends, this is a time for grace. Once a wife has begun to make the journey, hold her hand, walk beside her, help her keep from stumbling—but please, don’t try to drag her behind you while you rush or she may just give up.

Husbands complain about “duty sex,” wanting to be desired. So let’s say a woman decides to try to make some changes at begins by not saying “no.” For her, even if her response to his initiating is duty sex, in her mind, she is actually being available and not saying “no.” Although he may feel rejected because she isn’t expressing desire for him, it may feel like a huge step to her.

A woman trying to reform herself should extend grace as well. Just as I had to relearn how to respond and react, so did my husband. It wasn’t an easy process, and he wasn’t always gracious about it.

When I was finally starting to venture into my early stages of re-engaging with my husband sexually, there was a time when I was doing something he had been begging me to do for several years (just touching him, which I’d avoided). I was lying there thinking about what a big step that was for me, to be touching him and actually enjoying it. I said a prayer of thanks for letting me have that experience again, and then my husband said something along the lines of “feels nice enough, but what would be really nice is if you would give me a BJ.” So there I was, having made what felt like a huge step, and instead of having it acknowledged and appreciated, I was reminded of yet another way I was failing him. I wondered why I’d even bothered to make the step I had, if all he was going to do was remind me of how I was till failing.

I understand now that my husband was hurting, that he wasn’t able to let himself fully relax and enjoy the experience because he was still unable to trust that even touching would happen again. Even 2 ½  years into our healing journey, my husband still has times when he assumes that I won’t want to have sex, such as when I say that I’m tired or that I have a long day coming up. I’ve had to gently take my face in his hands and ask, “When is the last time I said `no’ to sex? When is the last time I didn’t want it?” And neither one of us can remember.

A full healing of a sexual relationship can take time. It took me two years to change from a wife who refused to the wife I am now. And that was without any outsider telling me it was what I should do, and I didn’t feel we were at risk for a divorce. It was me deciding, on my own, to change, and we continue to relearn how to be truly and fully one flesh.

The shared journey to sexual healing builds intimacy, even when the journey is very slow.