Morning friends,

I am returning home today from a much-needed vacation with little Internet and lots of downtimes. We took a leisurely river cruise down the Danube River starting in Budapest and ending in Nuremberg, Germany. I love history, especially WW2 history. There is so much to learn from the mistakes of the past if we will but listen and learn. 

I’m reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who was eventually martyred under Adolf Hitler’s regime. He wrote, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”  

Why then, is the church still so often silent, when the evil is being perpetrated at home? 

One of the questions I receive most often from women is around mandatory sex in marriage when the relationship of trust and safety has been repeatedly broken with no genuine repentance or rebuilding of that trust. 

This week’s question: I’ve been married for 25 years to an emotionally and verbally abusive man. I feel angry and bitter toward him for the way he treats me, yet he still expects me to be loving and affectionate with him, especially in bed. I can’t do it. What does God expect me to do? Can I withhold sex as a consequence of his abusive behavior?

Answer: This is an extremely important question that many women face. An emotionally destructive marriage is where the personhood, dignity, and personal choice of the spouse is regularly diminished, degraded, disregarded, or crushed.  

No one likes feeling like an object, especially if you are in a committed relationship with the person who treats you as such. Husbands sometimes complain to me that they feel that their wives treat them like a paycheck. Wives complain that they don’t feel like a loved person but merely a sexual object or a slave. Marriage is the most sacred and intimate relationship we have apart from our relationship with God. When one person, or both people, continually disrespect, mistreat, or lie to the other, trust is broken.

A person can have sex without trust or safety (such as rape, or prostitution) but you cannot have intimacy or close relationship. Click To Tweet

From what you say, it sounds as if your husband believes he’s entitled to the benefits of married life, (sexual intimacy, affection, and love, not to mention normal care), without having to do his part. He doesn’t seem to understand that having a good and loving relationship requires two people who interact with one another with kindness and respect. His emotionally abusive behavior is driving you further away from him. Does he just want sex from you? Or true intimacy?

The Bible calls us to love, not hate. That command includes our enemies. But what does Biblical love look like towards your husband in this instance? Biblical love isn’t necessarily feelings of affection or warmth, but actions that are directed toward another person’s long-term best interests. 

Therefore, ask yourself the question, Is it in my husband’s long term best interests to be sexually available to him so that his sexual needs are met? If you answer “yes”, understand that meeting his sexual needs is not a solution to your relationship problem, it is just a solution to his sexual frustration and probably leaves you feeling used and objectified. How’s that working for you? God is not primarily concerned with your husband’s sexual needs, but the quality of the relationship since marriage is a picture of Christ’s relationship with his church.  

Another way to look at this situation is that is it in your husband’s best interests to let him experience the felt consequences of broken trust and a damaged relationship? Can you tell him that when he treats you disrespectfully, you’re left feeling angry and hurt and that makes it impossible for you to feel warmth and affection towards him?  

In addition, when he’s not sorry he treats you that way, makes no amends to rebuild trust, it makes it impossible for you to feel affectionate toward him. That’s the tough reality, the consequences of his unrepentant behavior. Here’s a sample of something you might say. 

I know you get very frustrated when I’m not responsive to your sexual needs. You want me to be sexual with you and enjoy our physical relationship. But the way you treat me much of the time makes me feel angry and hurt. When you call me names or degrade me in front of the children, the last thing I feel like doing is being warm and affectionate towards you. I’m not willing to be sexually intimate with someone who just wants to use my body but has no regard for my personhood. If you want genuine intimacy and warm affection, our relationship needs to be different.

However, your question was do I recommend withholding sex as a consequence for destructive behavior?

That’s a tricky answer because I wouldn’t usually recommend withholding a paycheck or to not talking (the silent treatment) in order to get someone to change.

Now don’t misunderstand. Paychecks, conversation, and sex may get withheld for legitimate reasons. But when someone cuts off those channels because they are angry at their spouse, it is seen as controlling and manipulative. How would you feel if your husband said, “I’m not giving you any money for expenses unless you’re willing to have sex.” The relationship only deteriorates further.  

Here is an example of a way to express your inability to talk with someone right now in a non-manipulative or controlling way. “I can’t talk right now because I’m too angry to do it constructively” or “I can’t talk with you because you won’t hear me or listen to me.”

Now you are not using the silent treatment or not talking as a weapon but stating a problem that needs to be addressed in the relationship. 

In the same way, what if you said, “I can’t have sexual closeness with you right now because I’m too angry to do it lovingly.” Now you are simply telling the truth. Or saying to your husband, “Having sex with you is too painful for me when you don’t love me, you just want sex.” Here you taking responsibility for your own well-being when it is in peril (Proverbs 4:23), versus punishing him. 

Speaking up helps the destructive person know what needs to change in order to repair the relationship. (See Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15). However, please understand, when you speak up and speak up and speak up and your spouse continually ignores, minimizes, rationalizes and has no intention to change, you stop speaking up. The relationship changes. You have done what you can. It always takes two to make a good marriage. Here me: You can be a good wife and still have a bad marriage.

But now you know you cannot trust him to care nor are you safe sharing your needs or feelings. This is the point at where your safety and sanity must be prioritized over the sanctity of your marriage or begging him to care.  

Jesus tells us when we have done our own work and have removed the log in our own eye, we do have the right to speak up and attempt to remove the speck in another person’s eye. However, Jesus also cautions us that some people will not listen and warns us, “Don’t throw your pearls to pigs! They will trample the pearls (your heart, your personhood) and turn and attack you (Matthew 7:6).

Friends, where have you landed on this question of sex when you are living in a destructive marriage?

26 Comments

  1. Kay on November 20, 2019 at 12:54 pm

    My problem is that my husband would argue that he is working hard and “has changed a lot,” but I do not see real (heart level, foundational, awareness) changes. He says he is “taking full responsibility” but that doesn’t mean much to me. I don’t see humility, self awareness, self correction, empathy. He is sometimes nicer to me and the kids than he used to be (which is better than not being nicer), but I still don’t believe he even sees and understands the true issue, much less has made so much progress toward correcting it. He says he’s not rationalizing, but then keeps explaining “the way he sees it,” seeming to expect me to understand it really *isn’t* so bad if I can just see it from his side. He says he doesn’t want to minimize anything, but then he boils things down to very simplistic and general marriage-type issues, things all marriages have because all marriages include 2 sinners. And certainly the counselors and pastor we’ve gone to for help in the past don’t see it. They end up helping him minimize everything. My pastor’s main advice was to “pray for feelings of warmth” toward my husband.

    • One Step At A Time on November 21, 2019 at 11:33 pm

      Kay,
      I could have written everything you wrote! Your situation is so similar! My husband has been saying that he is “changing” and he is somewhat nicer (but it is more flattery not genuine heart change). He has not taken responsibility for his actions or acknowledged that things he has been doing are wrong. He will say he is “sorry for everything” but that doesn’t mean anything to me because he has been saying that for years and yet continuing his repetitive behavior. He will also minimize and criticize what I say and both he and his counselor are approaching this all as just general marriage issues when it goes much deeper.
      When it comes to sex, I had to set boundaries (which he did not like and did not respect) because he wanted it on demand–including waking me up whenever he wanted it. I explained to him many times that sex should be a mutual gift and that I cannot give it when it is demanded of me in an emotionally destructive marriage.

      Are you familiar with narcissism? My husband has the characteristics of a covert narcissist but of course any psychological tests he takes turn out normal. It’s almost impossible to get through to him about anything or help him to see another viewpoint other than his own. He also lacks empathy and ability to put himself in another’s shoes.

      • Free on November 22, 2019 at 9:11 pm

        Waking someone up for sex is considered abuse. How long do you plan to put up with your abusive spouse? Have you set a timeline? Do you have an action plan in place for when he does not meet the criteria of a loving fully repentive and contrite husband?

        • One step at a time on November 22, 2019 at 9:49 pm

          I agree Free, there is more to it than simply waking me up repeatedly wanting me to give sex. As to a timeline, he has been served separation papers. Still waiting for him to move out (which he refuses to do, but will be forced to by the courts eventually.)

      • Kay on November 27, 2019 at 11:46 am

        Yes, our situations sound very similar – which I hate to hear for your sake! Yes, a friend pointed out his narcissistic traits to me a few years ago. I’ve read a lot about it. He is probably on the low end of the narcissism spectrum – but still exhausting to deal with – and then it’s subtle enough to outsiders for them to write it off as general issues/just be gracious with him. It’s hard to explain how very difficult EVERY interaction is with someone who can’t show empathy or see that others can have different views, opinions, needs, wants. But since he can’t see it, how do we ever fix it? I’ve had the blanket “sorry for everything” apologies like you have. and the admitting he “was a jerk” about something – but it’s just words. I don’t think he sees anything, has just learned he should say something general to make it sound like he’s “taking responsibility.” He’s never able to put details to what he did that needs to be different to make things better and change the destructive pattern. Or if I get him to talk at all beyond the general “apology” he goes right back to justifying, rationalizing, minimizing, blame-shifting, etc.

    • Autumn on November 22, 2019 at 9:14 pm

      Judge his actions,not his words. If he doesn’t act like he changed, then he didn’t. Now, what do YOU want to do about that? Give him more time? How long? If you needed to change something and really cared, how fast would you change? Fast right? So the question is does he want to change? I think not.

      • Free on November 22, 2019 at 10:29 pm

        Will pray separation goes well One Step. Wishing you a wonderful 2020 free from abuse.

      • Kay on November 27, 2019 at 11:22 am

        I think about it that way, too. If someone (especially someone I say I love) told me I was hurting them – I would do everything I could as quickly and thoroughly as possible to correct the situation and be accountable to be sure I was showing them they could trust me and we could restore our relationship. I think with my husband, he’s so sure he loves me and our kids that he can’t understand how he could be hurting us – he’s blind to it. Giving anything (admitting there was anything to give, that he wasn’t doing everything well already) – like the times he is a bit nicer – is already so much to him to give, that he’s sure his actions are changed and he’s made so much progress. He just cannot see others. To him, if he feels like he cares about them, he does and that’s it. So now he turns it around – it’s not me being patient for him to learn and understand and talk through things (to see if he really gets it or not) – no, now (to him and anyone he talks to) it’s him being patient with me to see and acknowledge all his changes. It is crazy-making and exhausting! As for how long to stay and try to communicate with him – at least until my kids are out of the house. No way will I share custody with him where they would be with him where I can’t step in if necessary.

  2. Connie on November 21, 2019 at 12:42 pm

    I find that whenever possible we need to throw the ball of responsibility back in their court. When I cried out to God about this very issue, I believe He led me to the book of 1 Peter. I said to my h, “You can have all the sex you want. According to the Bible, there are 2 kinds of relationships, master-slave, and Christ-church. You need to decide which one you want. If the first, then you tell me when you want sex and I will comply. If the second, you will need to win back my heart first because you have broken it.” In my case, he was too proud to do either. That would be admitting that he wanted my slavery, or that he had to humble himself. He did a lot of hinting and pouting and saying to counselors things like, “She hasn’t let me touch her for ___ years” but he wouldn’t humble himself and only he was to blame. I told him that wasn’t true and reminded him of what I’d said, but he said that was just stupid. However, the counselors we went to after that backed me up. Said they hadn’t thought of it that way but it made sense. But, you need the Holy Spirit’s guidance and strength for this or you cave, especially if he tells everyone that line.

    For some reason, many h’s won’t initiate or prepare you, and expect us to do that. With my now h, he refuses to talk, just hints in the moment. I need to prepare because of bladder issues, never mind heart issues, but no. Yet if I’m at all enjoying, he backs off and withholds, but if I withhold at all, he pouts. But won’t talk about it. Sexual sin (p*rn, etc.) really kills the conscience, and so does pride. He did admit recently that if he got a Christian girl, he would have a live-in p*rn partner. Sigh. So disrespectful.

  3. debdeborahcollins on November 22, 2019 at 1:12 am

    My husband ofv35 yrs has a classic Narcissistic personality disorder but not of course professionally diagnosed. After he head butted me 2 yrs ago I just couldnt be intimate with him anymore. Even when we wete intimate he would still be hateful with me the next day.
    He is a Jeckyll/Hyde so I never know what I will be dealing with. One Thanksgiving he got up at 4 am and left the house for hours because he had waken me up to be intimate and I was half out of it. So because I refused he sat up and got dressed and left. This was when both of us iwere in our 60s. He has left during a church service and walked homein the heat and rented a hotel room for a few hours one Sunday. Ladt week he told me that he is only a sugar daddy to me. I am 71 yrs old and retired. I worked for 30 yrs! I hardly live the life of luxury but he resents any money spent at Walmart etc. He had told me he only thinks of other women and not me sexually. He absolutely refuses Christian counseling. Never believes he had any issues. I am the blame for all his problems. He is a deacon in our church. How in the world can I want to be intimate with him? I do everything that I wife should I believe but of course it is hardly a loving relationship. He also has had ED for several yesrs. I have been to counseling and I just seem to be waiting for the Lord to take one of us home.

    • Connie on November 22, 2019 at 10:47 am

      Deb, I am so sorry. I was reading about locked hearts and I’ve come to believe that sexual sin and pride kills the conscience. We as wives try so hard to wake it up but only the Holy Spirit can do that, and not against the will, so who do I think I am to do it? This has helped me a lot: https://www.btr.org/how-to-survive-narcissist-when-you-choose-to-stay/

      • debdeborahcollins on November 22, 2019 at 4:20 pm

        Thank you Connie. I will read this tonight. I wrote the above in such haste and didnt even proof it and left out so much of course. My husband says such awful things to me but everything now is blamed on no intimacy even though when we were intimate he still was angry and saying off the wall things!

    • Free on November 22, 2019 at 9:06 pm

      Why do you want to live out your golden years with an abusive man? It is not too late to respect yourself. Have horny, hubby take a hike! Change the locks after he leaves next time. File for abandonment and get free.

    • ruth8318 on November 23, 2019 at 1:32 pm

      Deb for privacy you might wanna make up an Anonymous name just in case your abusive H learns your posting on here and reads your stuff.
      Are you sure you aren’t married to the devil? Wow!! I’m sorry! He is TERRIBLE!! He has NO BUSINESS being a leader in any church unless there Satanists LOL.

  4. Sheep on November 22, 2019 at 10:42 am

    Leslie,
    Thanks for this post. I was just talking to a man that I know the other day and this really goes to some of his marriage issues. Talking with him, and thinking about this issue, it is hard to know where the line is between appropriate boundaries in withholding and becoming abusive. I’m curious what thoughts/advice some of you would have for a couple that are in this situation.

    He had used porn in the past and one of her (appropriate) responses was no more sex. Now, fast forward a couple of years and say that he truly repented, did the work, was accountable, changed his habits and actions, has done everything she asked of him, and has been porn free for a couple of years. However, she wants nothing to do with him (sexually or otherwise), is constantly angry and bitter, uses the past to manipulate and control him, he is in constant fear of her because of her anger (and she has been violent toward him) and really has no intention or desire to allow the relationship to heal. (some of the manipulation and fear were present before the porn issues)

    I understand this from the point of view of someone that has been horribly mistreated and abused, but I always wanted reconciliation. And I never used the past and present wrongs and abuses to batter or manipulate. The goal in all of the boundaries I set was to protect my heart AND to bring about repentance, change and reconciliation. So I have a hard time identifying with using the past to punish. Why would she continue in the “marriage” and use him for what she can get out of him, but have no desire or willingness to ever heal the relationship? Why would anyone want to live like that the rest of their lives.

    And yes, I know that a lot of you have dealt with the issue of porn in your marriages and that he wasn’t truly repentant and didn’t do the work. I also fully realize he could be lying to me about that, but for the sake of the conversation, lets assume that he is telling the truth.

    • Free on November 22, 2019 at 8:47 pm

      I think she likes the idea of being married more than actually being married. The status of being married appeals to her. She isn’t happy in the relationship but she likes taking all her frustrations out on her “terrible” husband. She will continue to do this because it makes her feel superior to him. She gets to have her cake and eat it too. She gets to look good socially and can meanwhile dump all her life’s troubles on her sitting duck husband.

      I guess I would ask, why does he love or want her? It would seem they are both just keeping up appearances while mocking the true purpose of marriage.

    • JoAnn on November 23, 2019 at 7:32 pm

      Sheep, I am glad that the Lord is using your past experience to bring hope and healing to another man who needs help. I can agree with Free, but I also see that his wife has not forgiven her husband for his past. That is wrong on her part. She is using his past sins to abuse him, even though he has repented and changed his ways. Makes me wonder if she has any kind of relationship with the Lord at all. He really needs to set some boundaries to protect his own heart, and to stand up to her abuses. Encourage him to take a stand, based on your own experience. He needs to ask her if she still wants to be married to him, and add “why” to her answer. They can move on from there. If she doesn’t really want to be married to him, then he can’t change her mind about that. I think you told us that you read “Redemptive Divorce” while you were still married. Perhaps he could make use of that book. It’s a reasonable way to force a decision.

  5. Elizabeth on November 22, 2019 at 1:50 pm

    Then why did Paul tell us in scripture to not withhold sex from our spouse except for times of prayer/fasting? I have a friend who feels guilty everyday because she cannot bring herself to have sex with her husband who says he loves her yet will not be relationally intimate toward her during the day. He seems incapable of relating heart to heart with her. She because of his aloofness, he’s unattractive to her. Seems almost like God (forgive me, Lord) made a mistake in creating man with such a sex drive that it becomes more important to the man than the relationship itself. No one seems to have a practical answer. You can’t call it physical abuse, so she’s stuck.

    • Autumn on November 22, 2019 at 9:00 pm

      If she doesn’t enjoy the sex for whatever reason, she doesn’t have to do it. She is not a slave. If he doesn’t want to put the effort in to pleasing her, then he isn’t a loving husband, no matter what he says. It is a selfish man who disregards his partner’s concerns and demands she be a sex slave and prostitute, all the while using scripture to white wash his sin.

      Substitute the “he” or “she” in this scenario. People who feel safe, happy, loved and respected enjoy sexual relations. If both parties aren’t enjoying it, something is wrong. Address what is wrong, and then sexual feelings will naturally resume.

    • Autumn on November 23, 2019 at 6:29 am

      I believe she is praying this guy changes. Add some fasting to the mix and she is obedient to the scriptures. Do we really think our loving father would want sexuality to be so distorted? It is not a right or an obligation. People in biblical times didn’t live as long as we do today. They were much younger and able to produce children with their sex acts. Holding off a line of heritage is a whole different thing than wanted to be pleasured. Why not look up the more age appropriate passages for behavior suggestions.

    • JoAnn on November 23, 2019 at 7:37 pm

      What it is, is called in the Bible the FLESH. Because the man is supposed to be the spiritual head of the family, it seems to me that the Lord gave him the strong flesh so that by dealing with it and subduing it, he qualifies to be in authority. A man can’t exercise real authority unless he has his flesh under control. That seems pretty clear from Paul’s epistles.

  6. Moonbeam on November 27, 2019 at 5:39 am

    When I think about applying scripture my life I think about the character of God also. If applying scripture to life contradicts the character of God then it is a distortion man invented. The invention of which is usually manipulative. Therefore, the answer to your question is “No” sex is never a requirement. God doesn’t treat people like a commodity, he ministers to the heart of man.

    Therefore, if a man’s heart harbors jealousy and selfish ambition, greed and slander, those characteristics are from the evil one. Don’t entertain sleeping with a Satanically influenced person. You are a conduit of the holy Spirit. You have no business enabling evil in any of its forms, That includes spousal abuse, coercion and rape.

  7. Gloria J on December 25, 2019 at 5:39 pm

    This post and answer is something I’ve dealt with for years So, about three years ago I decided I could no longer subject myself the abuse on top of abuse. Constant verbal, emotional abuse including veiled threats and sometimes straight out threats to my life and then expected to provide sexual entitlement. No. I could no longer do it. It made things worse for a while but I refused to back down. Now, I am almost 73, regretting not leaving a long time ago. Fear of not being able provide for myself and children, shame before my family for wanting to leave a second marriage, confusing counseling/advice, and on and on is why I did not leave. I think. Now none of it makes ant sense. I have nowhere to go, I cannot live on Social Security alone. I pray for his salvation and pray for grace to enable me to maintain peace as much as it depends on me. I no longer seek marriage counseling as Domestic Abuse is not a marital issue life disagreements about financing, etc. Abuse comes from a bully, a coward, or someone who has no empathy for others. Has nothing to do with marriage. They know they are wrong. That’s why they come out as normal when counseled or tested. They give the right answers or exhibit normalcy because they know right from wrong. They did when they courted us,charming, protective, caring, supportive, all those good things. They know exactly what they are doing. And until God knocks them off their horse on their Damascus Road, and blinds them with His glorious light as they are on the way to do harm, we cannot expect change. They have received their orders from the Adversary. We can always pray for their salvation, but seriously pray for our spiritual health, faith growth, and ask for His direction each day. If it’s physical abuse, RUN! Don’t wait. Run and pray, trusting that whatever direction you are running is the way you are supposed to go.

  8. debdeborahcollins on December 26, 2019 at 10:03 pm

    Gloria, I could have written this! I am 71 and this is my second marriage too. I should have left years ago also probably. My husband is verbally, emotionally and uses scripture against me for not being intimate with him any longer. I do pray for his salvation if he isnt saved. Im really not sure if he is saved. Now I do have health problems and am still on his health insurance. He is still working. He can be so thoughtful and then so absolutely hateful and mean!

    • Gloria J on December 31, 2019 at 12:32 pm

      Yes, our stories are so close. I have health issues and rely on his supplement. The greatest help has been to learn that just because we are married, God has not given approval of my husbands behavior. God sees it as the sin it is. Actually, the greater sin is that my husband is actively and deliberately defying God’s commandment on how a husband is to treat a wife. He stands in great danger, though it would do no good to tell him that. Biblical submission does not allow for abuse, but the opposite. I have learned more about God’s love for me, about learning to depend on and trust what God says about me in His word and knowing that everything else is a devilish lie sent to wound, to cause fear, doubt and unbelief. I stand forgiven and covered in the righteous of Christ Jesus, my past is gone and cannot define me today or ever. It is forgiven and cast into the sea of forgetfulness. I am free in HIM. Yet, I do often think, had I had more faith in knowing that God would provide and care for me and my kids, I could have left years ago. With all that I have learned, I still pray for me to be able abandon all that holds me back, the needs of a home, a car, etc. Lord Jesus help me.

  9. Leslie on January 3, 2021 at 3:11 pm

    This person could be me. My husband and I have been married for 17 years. At first our sexual intimacy was good, but within a few years it went down hill. I was working 2 jobs, getting up at 6:30 in the morning, working until 4 at one job and then working the second one from 6 to 11 or 12 four days per week. Needless to say my energy was small. I was the sole provider for about 15 years and even recently only gives me a bit of money to buy food and pays part of one bill. I am only a cashier and have little savings at the age of 54. My stress level is always so high. He is not supportive, emotionally, physically or financially. He explodes in tempers like a child, name calling and giving me hateful looks. I know that it is not helpful to not want to have sexual intimacy in our marriage and I wish we did, but when my husband blames me for our marriage problems and his behaviour. I just want to stay as far away as I can from him. I am a Christian and do not really believe in divorce. I have gone to therapy twice to see if I could get some help. The first time he would not go and the second time, he had one session, coming out and telling me that he did not need to do any more as everything is my fault. There are times where I just sit and cry over this. I know that it takes two to make a marriage, and I can take part of the blame, but I can’t do this alone. It is affecting my health. My mother with whom we lives and is a Christian says she doesn’t know how I live with it and would have left a long time ago. I need God to give me the strength to help me to make the right decision regarding my marriage. Thank you for your blog and for letting me vent.

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