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?