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