Today’s questioner asks me to cover the topic of long-term sexual refusal in marriage:
I was just wondering if you had ever considered doing a post about the long-term effects of refusal. I have been refused completely for five years. The effects on my faith and my self-esteem have been devastating. I cannot tell you how horrible this makes me feel. Every time I have tried to discuss with this with my wife, she just insults me more. I really don’t know how long I can go on this way.
You can pick out a few words and feel this husband’s pain: refusal, devastating, horrible, insults. It’s certainly not only husbands who’ve experienced long-term refusal; many higher-drive wives report the same frustration and feelings. And their spouses either don’t get it or don’t care.
I believe the vast majority of refusing spouses don’t get it, mainly because their not caring is based on not understanding what sex means to their spouse, to their marriage, and to God Himself, the Creator of sex and marriage. They have bad theology, past hurts, annoyance with their own body’s lack of cooperation, an erroneous view of male or female sexuality, etc. that hampers their willingness to engage or even discuss the issue.
In many ways, I sympathize because they’re in a bad place and they can’t get beyond their own issues to see the greater gift available not only for their spouse but for themselves. In other ways, I’m frustrated enough to think: Oh my goodness, you’re killing your marriage! Find a way to fix it!
To address both sides, I want to outline damage wreaked by months and years of sexual refusal, but also benefits of sexual generosity. It’s not merely about not saying no, but truly saying yes to sexual intimacy in marriage.
Refusal breeds physical discomfort. Sexual intimacy promotes physical health and pleasure. God designed our adult bodies to desire sexual release. Male reproductive systems suggest sex every 2-3 days, while females tend to be more flexible with timing — typically wanting more sexual release at certain times of their cycle and having less interest during others. But an individual with a normal to higher drive can feel physical discomfort if they do not engage in sexual activity for a long period of time.
(By the way, if you’re single and this an issue for you — don’t go out and have sex. It’s discomfort, not agony. You can do something else with your sex drive for the time being, until the God-prescribed time to awaken that love in the proper context of a marriage covenant.)
For marrieds, the right outlet is sexual intercourse! Refusal in marriage breeds even more physical discomfort, because your remedy is right there and yet unavailable. It’s like being locked in a chocolate factory and told you can’t sample a single treat. Ouch!
Engaging in sexual intimacy, however, has positive effects on your body. Beyond relief for one’s sex drive, sexual intimacy can lower blood pressure, lessen pain, curb prostate cancer risk, improve sleep, and boost libido. Just Google “health benefits of sex,” and you’ll be surprised to find all the goodies God packed into this intimate act. He’s oh-so-generous that way!
Speaking of His generosity, how about the pleasure factor? Even if you’re not eager to get going, your body is designed to experience pleasure when you can relax, lean into intimacy, and enjoy the sensations involved in sex with the one you love.
Refusal breeds emotional pain. Sexual intimacy promotes emotional connection. For refused spouses, sex isn’t merely a physical release. (I’ve often said that if that’s all it was, your spouse could achieve that without you.) Rather, it’s about emotional connection. Making love, as God designed it, is incredibly intimate expression of love.
Withholding your body, your participation, and your pleasure from your spouse is like walling off a huge part of yourself — saying you don’t want to share, to trust, to unite with him or her. Consider Proverbs 13:12: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” For the higher drive spouse, it doesn’t feel like merely a rejection of the act, but a rejection of the person himself or herself. That emotional pain far outweighs any physical discomfort.
Sexual intimacy, however, nurtures emotional connection. Becoming vulnerable, trusting your spouse with your body, sharing what pleasures you and discovering what pleasures them, touching and kissing and fondling, letting go and experiencing a full-on climax — all these things bind you a special way. You can talk to others, spend time with others, laugh with others — but you share this intimate act exclusively with your spouse, and that makes it an emotional bond beyond any other.
Refusal breeds sexual temptation outside marriage. Sexual intimacy promotes faithfulness. Proverbs 5 is a warning against adultery, with plenty of advice on avoiding lust of the eyes, compromising situations, and extramarital temptation. But in the latter half of the chapter, the writer speaks to another important aspect: “Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well . . . May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, a graceful deer — may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be intoxicated with her love” (v. 15, 18-19).
I’ve heard from so many refused spouses who ache so intensely for sexual connection that temptation taps them on the shoulder and digs in its claws for good measure. Most of them are resisting; they know what they really want is their own beloved in their bed. But it’s hard, because Satan is all over that — seeing how vulnerable a deprived spouse can be. Why leave your spouse so vulnerable to temptation?
Look, I know some people cheat anyway. Yet I believe the vast majority of spouses do not want to cheat on their spouses — they stood up and said their vows fully intending to never bed another person again. Regular sexual intimacy fills their well in a way that leaves much less space for temptation to infidelity. It’s not an affair-proof measure, but it makes a marriage affair-resistant. After all, why be with someone else when your spouse willingly and happily meets all your sexual needs, and lets you meet theirs?
Refusal breeds resentment. Sexual intimacy promotes grace. Refused spouses understandably resent their withholding mates. Here’s an enjoyable experience God has said they can only have in marriage, and they only want from their chosen beloved, but they can’t get it. The one person who could grant sexual intimacy is the one person blocking it. How frustrating!
If you’ve been denying your spouse, imagine how you’d feel if tomorrow he decided to simply stop talking to you altogether? Or if she decided to stop sharing her money and resources, essentially dividing all your finances down to the last penny? What if one of you claimed dibs on the kids and kept them from the other? This sounds preposterous, but withholding something in marriage the other is clearly entitled to leads to real resentment.
But that’s not the whole of the story, because sexual intimacy promotes grace. 1 Peter 4:8 says: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” I believe that’s true of sexual love in marriage as well. When you are engaged in regular physical intimacy, it can be easier to overlook slights.
Honestly, I’m not that annoyed about my husband leaving out his shoes all over the floor after he’s brought me to the pinnacle of pleasure and left me as a heap of happy flesh. A healthy sexual relationship between husband and wife helps you give grace in other areas. It’s a positive that balances out the negatives, puts points in your “love bank,” and serves as the sort of rose-colored glasses that are good for a marriage.
Refusal breeds doubts about God’s plan. Sexual intimacy promotes trusting God’s design. The questioner said: “The effects on my faith and my self-esteem have been devastating.” Which is another theme I’ve heard many times: An individual excitedly enters marriage, fully expecting to experience God’s blessing of sexual intimacy in its rightful context. Yet, they are denied at every turn.
They feel cheated, especially those who waited until marriage and now face the possibility of never fully knowing the delights of sex. It can quickly turn into laments the likes of the psalmist David: “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?” Of course, David was speaking from a different context, but the sentiment is a familiar one to long-refused spouses.
It can be hard for a refused spouse to trust God’s design for sex in marriage. They wonder where God is in helping to heal their pain, improve their marriage, bless them with the gift of intimacy. Why isn’t He coming to their rescue? Why are they rewarded for desiring their own spouse with constant rejection?
Experiencing true intimacy through sexual fulfillment in marriage fosters an entirely different conclusion — that God is good and His design is perfect. Moreover, sexual intimacy can help us better understand God’s plan of intimacy with His bride, the Church. It fosters gratefulness for His generosity. Faith and marital intimacy are not unconnected. There’s good reason why spouses who pray together tend to have more intimate sex lives.
Quick summary? Refusal bad. Intimacy good.
Of course that’s not the whole of it. For instance, a single not-tonight does not constitute refusal; the higher drive spouse needs to be loving and understanding as they pursue healthier intimacy; and sex should be mutually satisfying. But I hope this illuminates some of the damage done by long-term sexual refusal and the far-more-positive effects of seeking sexual intimacy in your marriage.
If this is your situation, I’m not expecting you to start jumping into bed regularly right away. But ask questions about what’s hindering you, diligently seek answers, and open yourself up to pursuing intimacy. One step at a time, and you can discover a much better approach to sex in your marriage — benefiting not only your refused spouse, but you as well.