SOURCE: Leslie Vernick
Question: I often see you suggesting withholding sex as a consequence for a spouse’s abusive behavior as a way to perhaps invite them to change.
However, I keep seeing this action described as abusive itself in literature I’ve been reading and so I’m confused. Is withholding a legitimate option for a consequence in a marital relationship?
Answer: Actually I don’t suggest withholding sex merely as a consequence for an abusive spouse’s behavior or as a way to invite change any more than I would suggest the silent treatment for a spouse that is verbally abusive as a means to invite him or her to stop.
Talk and touch are both important in marriage and the primary way a couple builds intimacy. However, when the talk or touch is consistently ugly and cruel, sexual touch is usually the last thing a woman desires.
I think the literature that you are referencing is not talking about abusive relationships but rather ordinary marital spats where a woman may use withholding sex in order to have power over her husband so she can get what she wants. That is abusive and a misuse of the sexual relationship that God intended.
However, what I do talk about is that when your husband repeatedly abuses you, doesn’t stop and doesn’t care how it impacts you, having a healthy sexual relationship is impossible.
When a woman allows herself to be treated as a sex object, whether she is married or not, she will feel sicker and sicker. Why? Because God never intended human beings to have sex without the safety and security of a loving, committed relationship – marriage. When there is a legal marriage but a consistent lack of commitment, security, and safety, the sexual relationship also suffers
In addition, this blog has shared horrific stories of sexual abuse where a woman’s voice or choice regarding sexual activity within marriage has been silenced by her own husband. The very person God put in place to love and protect her treats her as an object to use rather than a person to love.
What’s is a Christian wife to do when she faces that reality?
Much of her choice will depend on how being a treated this way affects her. For example, if continuing to have an active sex life with your husband isn’t hurting you and you both can enjoy it despite the overall picture of your marriage, then that is your choice.
However, what I do have a problem with is when church leaders, pastors or counselors tell a woman she MUST provide sex to her spouse regardless of how he treats her. What that message says to her is that God values a man’s sexual needs more than a woman’s need for protection and safety within the marital bond. And that theology is just not true. That too is a misuse of the sexual relationship as God intended.
Therefore, what is a wife’s Biblical responsibility to her spouse in this kind of situation? Is she to prop up the broken marriage, silence her own repulsion and pretend that all is well, deadening her soul and body to what’s happening at home? Or, does that approach enable her husband to continue to be self-deceived believing he can act selfishly and sinfully towards her with no relational fallout?
God’s word clearly tells us that we should not retaliate when we are sinned against, but that does not mean we should be passive. Instead, we are to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). What does that look like in your marriage?
First, we know it is good for you to forgive your husband and deal with your own anger and bitterness towards him for abusing you. However, as I have said numerous times, forgiveness does not guarantee reconciliation of the relationship especially when there has been no repentance.
We also know it is good for you to love your husband, as God calls us to love even our enemies. But what does biblical love look like for an abusive husband? Biblical love isn’t necessarily feelings of affection, warmth, or sexual attraction, but actions that are directed toward our husband’s good or long-term best interests.
So let me ask you a question. Is it in your husband’s good and long-term best interests for you to continue to be available to him so that his sexual needs are met regardless of what it costs you or how he treats you? If your answer is yes, then keep in mind this still does not address your marital problem, it is only a solution to his sexual frustration.
Your Biblical role as a wife is to be your husband’s helpmate. As his partner, you can love him best by helping him become the man God designed him to be. As his wife, you are not a second-class citizen with no power or no say. That kind of wife was biblically called a concubine wife and clearly not God’s intent for marriage.
In marriages where there is repeated abuse, it is always in your husband’s best interest for him to repent of his selfishness, pride, and to submit to God (James 4:7). It would also be in his best interest and in the best interests of your marriage for him to learn to control his tongue (James 1:19; James 3:10-12) and become more thoughtful and considerate of your feelings (Philippians 2:3-4).
When pastors or other people helpers tell a woman that no matter how her husband treats her God says she must have sex with him, what they are saying is that God cares more about the fact that her husband is sexually hungry than the fact that her husband is hurting her and their marriage relationship. And, that’s not biblical.
You don’t invite change by cutting sex off but by having the courage to have an honest talk with your husband. You might want to say something like:
“No, I can’t have sex with you in a godly way because of the way you treat me. I can’t feel affectionate toward you when I feel afraid. When you curse at me, scream at me, and call me horrible names it breaks my heart. I am God’s image bearer, not an object be used for sex and then discarded when you’re finished. With God’s help, I choose to forgive you but I can’t reconcile with you in a loving relationship until you begin to see the damage you’re doing to me and to our marriage and change.”
Your words of truth spoken in love and humility are a potent medicine that could wake your spouse up to the fact that he can’t expect the perks of a good marriage without changing his ways and be putting in work. The Bible is full of examples of God’s law of consequences. What you sow, you reap (Galatians 6:7). If your husband wants a good marriage and not just a concubine, he will need to stop sowing thorns and thistles into your heart.
By following God’s word and working to overcome evil with good, you are empowered to take constructive action that may lead to the restoration of your marriage. That would be good for him, good for you and good for your marriage.
And if he doesn’t want a good marriage but just a body in bed, then you’ll have to decide what that means to you. But for many women, it is way too painful to be reduced to simply an object to meet his sexual needs.