Are You Owed Sex in Marriage?

I’ve been hearing more and more from spouses refused sex for a long time in their marriage. They are understandably disheartened and frustrated, but some are also angry.

Not just angry with their spouses, but angry with me and other Christians for letting their spouse off the hook. What they seem to want is the full force of Christendom, or at least a fair number of Christian marriage bloggers, to insist their spouse owes them sex.

First, let me say that if you are in a marriage that is abusive or emotionally destructive, lack of sex is not the problem. The good and godly thing to do is to address the abuse! Please go read Are You in an Abusive or Destructive Marriage? instead.

For the rest of us, let’s consider: Do marriage vows infer an obligation to have sex? Does your spouse have a duty to say yes to your sexual advances? Are you owed sex in marriage?

Here’s the “marital duty” passage.

Most proof-texters open up their Bibles and turn to 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 to demonstrate that yes, we have a duty in marriage to have sex.

Just in case you haven’t read this passage nearly enough on my blog (I sure have!), here it is:

The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 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.

1 Corinthians 7:3-5, NIV

But that passage wasn’t written in the context of one spouse withholding sex from another and Paul intervening with marriage counseling.

Rather, it was a theological question for the Corinthian Church, where some had begun to believe that sex itself was unspiritual and should be avoided even in marriage.

The apostle Paul answers that sex is good and should be a regular part of marriage; in fact, if you feel you must avoid it focus for a period of time solely on spiritual things, make sure your abstinence is agreed to by your spouse and short-lived.

Paul is not addressing in this passage specific obstacles to lovemaking tonight or tomorrow or even next week, but the way marriage is supposed to function generally.

Sex should be part of marriage.

Even without 1 Corinthians, however, we’d know that marriage is supposed to include sex. It’s in a whole lot of other places in the Bible. Here’s just a sampling!

  • Genesis 2:24: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” How are you united? Not only in partnership to live life—which you could do with a friend—but physically.
  • Genesis 29:21: “Then Jacob said to Laban, ‘Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to make love to her.'” Get married –> make love. Not only that, when Laban deceived Jacob and gave him Leah instead, what did Jacob do? We may think this is awful in our non-polygamous culture, but he made love to Leah. Why? Because it was understood that taking a marriage covenant involved physical intimacy.
  • Proverbs 5:15, 18-19: “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.” A father is giving his son advice here, saying, “Have sex with your wife, and your wife only, for the rest of your life.”
  • 1 Samuel 1:19: “Elkanah made love to his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her.” Despite Hannah being unable to conceive, they’re still getting busy. Why? Married.
  • Luke 1:18: “Zechariah asked the angel, ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.'” When told by an angel that Zechariah and Elizabeth will have a son (John the Baptist), Zechariah doesn’t say, “But we don’t have sex anymore.” Despite infertility and age, it seems they were still sexually active.
  • Song of Songs. The whole book. The fact the book is even in the Bible.

Basically, every time you have a married couple in Scripture, they are expected to have sex, and not just for procreation. Marriage is a covenant relationship that God designed to include lovemaking.

Marriage is a covenant relationship that God designed to include lovemaking. via @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

So you’re owed. Now what?

Or maybe instead of “now what?” I should have said, “So what?” Because I’ve witnessed many spouses camp out on this concept that they are owed sex in marriage. They get upset that I won’t just tell their spouse to have sex with them already. Instead, I address reasons why a spouse doesn’t want sex and suggest tips for getting your lower drive spouse to say yes to sex.

Why? Because I believe it’s not only the ends that matter, but the means. And so does God. Even with a covenant debt as important as sex in marriage.

Let’s imagine the sex you’re owed is an invoice to your spouse.

Now, how are you going to get your spouse to pay up?

I can say with 100% certainty that your spouse owing you sex will not get you sex. Just shoving an invoice in someone’s face is no guarantee they’ll pay.

How you try to collect this debt matters not only in whether you reach your goal of more sexual intimacy, but also in whether you make your marriage worse or better and whether you become a worse or better person.

What kind of debt collector are you?

Have you ever had to deal with debt collectors? I have.

Some debt collectors are wholly intent on the amount you owe and getting paid any way possible. Others are willing to negotiate to collect what’s possible for you to pay. Still others take the approach of “let me see how I can help you with this issue.” Which collector would you like to encounter?

I can tell you that the harassers’ calls are the ones most likely to be ignored or actively avoided.

You won’t get paid in the way you want if you take a Guido’s Goons approach to your spouse’s debt of sex to you. Plus, in the process, you turn into a bully. And believe me, even if you haven’t said it aloud, when you’ve soaked in resentment, it seeps out in interactions with your spouse.

With that in mind, ask how your spouse views your attempts to collect the sex debt. Are you a harasser or a helper?

What if your spouse really could pay?

We’ve all seen those news stories where someone is knee-deep in debt while living in a mansion and vacationing on a yacht. Such people could pay what they owe; they just don’t. Their priorities are way wrong.

Plenty of you view your spouse’s withholding the same way.

Some of you are correct.

Many more of you are incorrect.

Most of the time, a spouse withholds sex for what seems like a good reason to them. They aren’t “yachting” with their sex life elsewhere. They really, truly feel they have little or nothing to give in the sexual arena.

Yes, I know you’re hurting, but so are they. And that is why I have become ultra-focused on helping spouses figure out why a spouse is refusing sex and showing them how to address the baggage and the barriers.

Consider it the difference between taking someone’s last dollar and setting them up to make enough money. When someone is flush with cash and they care about you a great deal, then you can say, “Hey, can I have a dollar?” and they’ll say, “Sure” and hand it right over. It’s easier to pay a debt and even be generous when you have more than enough to give.

Debts in a healthy marriage get paid.

Imagine this scenario: Husband and wife are both aware and appreciative of how God created them as sexual beings. They enjoy their physical intimacy, but also the companionship, the flirting, the sensuality, and the generosity that all lead up to those special moments in bed.

One night, as they’re cleaning up the kitchen together, she leans back against his chest and says, “According to our marital contract, you owe me some sex, handsome.” He pulls her close and whispers, “Ready to fulfill my marital duty, gorgeous.”

Despite the words “owe” and “duty,” would you find that banter troublesome? I wouldn’t. These spouses understand the marriage covenant includes sex, but their exchange is surrounded with respect, honor, and love.

Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.

Romans 13:7-8

Although this passage is about how to treat governing authorities, there’s a principle here: The debt we most owe one another is love.

When we focus in on being owed sex to the exclusion of other callings about how we should treat one another, then we’re missing what matters to God.

When we focus in on being owed sex to the exclusion of other callings about how we are to treat one another, then we're missing what matters to God. @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

Yes, marriage should include sex. If it’s not happening, it should be a priority to figure out why and address those issues. But while working on our frustrating lack of sex, we also owe our spouses respect, honor, and love.

From a practical standpoint, that approach is far more likely to work anyway.

What’s the upshot?

The upshot is that marriage involves a debt of sexual intimacy. But you are not the one who should demand payment. God is the ultimate creditor.

The more you can come alongside your spouse, figure out the issues, and help your beloved fill their coffers, the better a person you will be, the better your marriage is likely to become, and the better chance you’ll have that your sex life will turn around.

Also see my post Does Your Wife Owe You Sex? on KHS Ministry.

23 thoughts on “Are You Owed Sex in Marriage?”

  1. “How you try to collect this debt matters not only in whether you reach your goal of more sexual intimacy, but also in whether you make your marriage worse or better and whether you become a worse or better person.“

    Well said!

    Sex has to be drawn out of a woman. Many men lack this ability. They don’t make her feel sexy and intensely desired. Rather than exude confidence, they exude neediness. These men would do well to learn from man coaches/PUAs. Men are born with a penis. They are not born lovers ❤️.

  2. What if he does want sex, but sex means satisfying his body by using his wife’s body, instead of considering how he can use his body to satisfy hers. How can a woman keep loving a man she feels isolated from? What if sex is being offered, but only as a way of saying, “if you want to make me happy, here’s your chance, have sex with me”.
    How can a woman respectfully point out to her husband that his words say, “I love you” and his actions say, “I love me”.?

    1. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times, but I’m always happy to say it again: You are not your husband’s sex toy.

      Sexual intimacy as God designed it is not using one another’s bodies as tools for our own self-pleasure. If that’s the version of sex a spouse is expecting, then that should be addressed. And frankly, it’s okay to set standards and boundaries. Yes, marriage matters to God, but we as individuals, as His children, matter more.

      As for your question: “How can a woman respectfully point out to her husband that his words say, ‘I love you’ and his actions say, ‘I love me’?” I think you can simply express your own feelings, by saying that he probably doesn’t understand how it comes across, but here’s how you experience his actions. Rather than attack his intentions or heart (which you can’t really know anyway), discuss the behaviors and the resulting effect on you. Then talk about what you long for instead, painting a picture of an intimate life that you could both enjoy.

      I hope that helps! And if you don’t make good progress, it may be time for marriage counseling. Blessings!

  3. I especially like the parallel between invoices, bills owed, and sex. I like the example of playful banter, too. The point really is to owe nothing to anyone but the continuing obligation to love, and the sex will come. Maybe quickly, maybe a whole lot longer than we hope (raising hand), but it’ll come. No pun intended.

    I know you like baseball, and there are baseball fans on here, so my favorite analogy is a slumping hitter who hasn’t hit a home run, or gotten any other hits lately. Very often, when such a hitter reverts to “just hitting singles”, the home runs start to come back. That example might seem quaint to some, but it still applies – in baseball, and I believe translated to life, love, and marriage too.

    Prayers for all of us affected by the frustration.

  4. Wonderful reflections!!!
    I loved the invoice design!!!

    I just want to say that in 1 Corinthians 7:5 don’t includes the word “short” (time) in Greek. It talks about an agreement about prayer and don’t quit sex forever, because of Satan. But the Bible leaves room for freedom: the amount of time depends on the couple and the scenario. For instance: It could be two days but also it could be two months, if there is a problem to solve. The important points are the agreement and the prayer.
    Just a thought.
    As always, thanks for your great insight!!!!

    1. Yes that is where I an struggling. Satan has been tempting me in horrendous fashion as my slump has gone on for 19 months now. My wife knows this and still refuses. She has all but clammed up with deeper communication, so I don’t know what else I am supposed to do.
      Also having an in-house separation for a year now and she is doing just fine without me in the same bed. She prefers snuggling with our dog over me. Heck, she pretty much prefers anything or anyone over me.
      I know we have both hurt each other tremendously in the past. I have been doing my best to change into a better man on my own and also take ownership for where I have come up short, but nothing is helping on the marital front.
      I am not going to throw this Scripture in her face again because I have used it years ago and all I got was a very begrudging and cold wife who just lied there with zero emotion or intimacy.
      But not having ANY physical touch of any kind (even non-sexual) has just devastated and killed my soul to the point I don’t even know if I want this 26-year marriage to last. It just breaks my heart daily and my wife doesn’t seem to care about how I feel about our disconnection.
      I truly want our love to be rekindled, but can’t keep on doing this any longer.
      Just heartbreaking.

      1. Truly heartbreaking. I do wish I could pierce that barrier she has erected, whisper through and explain how hurt you really are, and help you both reawaken physical intimacy. Praying.

  5. I’ve been through all the emotions on this issue. Anger. Confusion. Betrayal. Despair. Depression. I’ve prayed. Studied. Read. Meditated. Been to counseling. All to no avail. I love my wife. As incredible as that may seem to some (I am amazed how many have suggested I divorce). But it’s been 13 years since I’ve enjoyed the company of her intimacy. And the feeling of unloved is crippling. I am no slouch. I take care of myself. I help around the house, daily. I compliment and thank her. We go on dates. On trips. We have an amicable marriage but one like between two good friends and not lovers. I am beginning to realize this will be my situation for the rest of our lives. And I’m not sure if I can handle it. Thanks for your writings. They encourage me. I’ll keep searching, praying for a solution.

    1. I’m so saddened by your story. I am praying for a breakthrough! I desperately wish I could help more refusing spouses understand the heartache their mates feel and convince them to prioritize physical intimacy — figuring out why they’re so resistant and resolving the problems — so that both spouses can experience the beauty of God’s gift. May you feel God’s comfort as you experience this heavy debt.

  6. I love your writing J. You remind me it’s important to remember not all refusing spouses are the same. Some are dealing with hurts that we’re long ago inflicted and take a lot of courage and strength to overcome. Some, just aren’t interested. They don’t think sex is important. I wish we could do a better job in marriage counseling trying to flush out those on the second camp. They shouldn’t get married and there is nothing wrong with that. I would be curious to know percentages (I am sure we will never know) of the number of spouses who refuse or avoid sexual intimacy because of other issues that need to be addressed. Either physical or relational and those that refuse sex based on lack of interest.

    1. I’ve come to believe that much better teaching in the church and better messages in our culture about real (not fantasized) sex would go a long way to avoiding some of the hangups we experience. And then I started writing the rest of this comment with all kinds of ideas about improvements we could make to set couples up for success…and realized I was writing a post. I grabbed that text, saved it, and will make a full article from it. So THANKS for the inspiration!

      But I agree on the marriage counseling too. I’m hopeful about more training regarding sex in Christian circles, but it still needs to be more and it needs to reach not only big universities and megachurches but throughout the Kingdom. Blessings!

  7. Active mom, Rick, I’m there and I know it hurts, being able to hold your dear spouse. Yet when your hand accidentally brushes the unimaginable softness of their leg, you move it knowing why would you dare let it rest there, knowing you’re only killing yourself, knowing it’s just a mirage and one you can’t have. I could hold her breasts as we spoon almost all night long every night but why would I do that, knives in your own heart, it’s too heartbreaking. You just can’t so you somehow can manage holding her around her waist, fortunately that doesn’t cut quite as much. The leaning back and snuggling in the kitchen mentioned above…maybe just me but that of course isn’t going to be happening in this type of situation as I’m sure you understand, there’d be no flirting, all of these things allude to that they’re be some kind of romantic relationship. After about 7 or so years of waves of emotions all over the place and dealing with it in almost every way imaginable…maybe I’m just a slow learner but you stop even discussing the “elephant” in the room, the pain just isn’t worth it, and I know J knows a lot of our story but unfortunately I guess you learn to live with the constant pain and learn to and maybe again, learn to deal with it in unfortunate ways. At times, the hypocrisy of “appearance” day in and day out to others…it can almost be maddening but then you begin to accept it, well, it is your life now…I guess, thankfully I can say, you almost can be best friends…but always know inside, why are you holding yourself from me…if we’re supposed to be, well, I guess it’s just “best friends” and not…Speak of maddening, when they do everything in the world for you…except give of themselves, the amazing special meals day in and day out, the desserts, the clean clothes, the house, the special tv shows that are ours each night as we marathon through them while in bed…yet, yet…you somehow try to “accept” it, yet I don’t know if I ever “truly” want to accept it. The strange things that you now hold onto that give you peace, feeling loved inside…the experiencing, making memories, those beautiful sunrises, clouds, new vacation places you’ve never seen but have always longed to, you’d want them to be with your spouse, the one you share your bodies with, the most intimate parts of you…but, but they’ve chosen not to do so…and you know that, you know it everyday and every night while your holding them and wonder why…Why is it like your living with the most amazing “housekeeper, chef” yet they keep themselves back, won’t share themselves, the real them with you, with you…it’s heartbreaking but, but, but God. I was thinking today, “ever told yourself that you know God knows best even though your heart is aching and yes, maybe you, with a divorce you may even find that one who like you wants a romantic love and a marriage with intimacy, the giving of yourselves to each other, not just in a business, friendship relationship but, but…the ramifications, the carnage, antoerh smear against the face of Christ and God’s love before the public, just another excuse the devil can use to keep the lost from believing that God can be, is the difference maker for everyone…no matter what, no matter what. We are an amazing team and that breaks my heart to say that, knowing that she won’t give me herself, tears welling up but maybe God knows best and that we wouldn’t be able to accomplish what we’re doing if we were lovers like we think we should be, like I think we should be…maybe I wouldn’t be able to be doing what I’m doing, maybe I’d be sidelined, consumed with wanting to make love to my wife but God, but God, I have to believe that he know’s best..and that he does know best and it’s even a part of a plan bigger than my emotions being met by her..but being used for his glory, for his glory somehow, but God, I have to believe that and that gives me peace, his peace which keeps my heart and mind, knowing he knows best, that there is a reason, a reason bigger than my feelings I somehow imagine can only be fulfilled by sexual intimacy with my wife. I have to believe he knows, he knows best.

  8. My wife is very good with money (pays off debts early) but is a debtor in another sense—marital sexual relations.
    I’ve had no sex the last 15 years but have finally made my peace (?) with it. I’ve become insensitive to living in this sinful situation. As an aside, I wonder if the penalty for this sin of omission is similar to sins of sexual commission?
    It hinges on her self-concept—-overweight, terrible varicose legs, and scarred chest from a bilateral mastectomy. So it’s undress in the bathroom, turn off the lights and hurry to get under the sheets. No touching my legs or body. Thankful, nevertheless for a very good roommate of 44 years!

    1. How frustrating for you and heartbreaking for your marriage! I wish your wife could see herself as you see her — lovely and desirable.

      As for “I wonder if the penalty for this sin of omission is similar to sins of sexual commission?” We have this verse from James (not talking about sex, but a principle here nonetheless): “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (4:17). Now I would argue that the “good” here is not having sex but prioritizing your marriage such that if sex is a major problem, you commit to addressing it. But in that same chapter, we also have these verses: “Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you — who are you to judge your neighbor?”

      My own conclusion is yeah, long-term sexual refusal can be a sin of omission, and slandering your spouse for it (as I’ve described in this post) can be a sin of commission. How will God judge each? The Bible says we will be rewarded or repaid according to what we’ve done (Romans 2:6, Psalm 62:12, Proverbs 24:12), but I don’t know how things rank. I’m content with letting God be the righteous judge.

  9. Just a thought, but underlying it all: When one of the couple no longer see themselves as part of a team, everything else will suffer. Sex is the most identifiable and quantifiable indicator, but i would bet that there are plenty more red flags, even if they are being ignored or dismissed.
    It is sad, and I pray that folks seek and find, the most healthy relationships they can with their spouses, that is so important for all the other areas of life.

  10. Wow…I feel like such an amateur here. I feel as if I’m going crazy because at the end of this August it’ll be twenty-two months of no sex in my marriage. And yet here I’m reading posts where some of you have been living in a sexless marriage for so much longer.
    Does this mean I’ll be experiencing an equally long sexual draught? I hope not. But it sure puts everything in perspective. Even though I don’t know any of you personally, I should be praying more fervently that God intervenes and restores the sexually intimacy y’all desire. And who knows? Maybe in the fullness of time He will do the same for me.

  11. I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to that one phrase you mention, that better teaching in the church “about real (not fantasized) sex would go a long way…”

    When the church, and I have to say parents also, don’t teach on this, then kids – and yes, church members – will inevitably go looking for the answers on the street. Not literally, perhaps, and certainly not everybody, thank God, but a certain number will definitely be lost that way. I know first hand that God is able to redeem that lost time, but why prolong it with erroneous or incomplete teaching?

    I think of my own background in this, of course, and your parenthetical remark about fantasy got me. I have had a rich fantasy life for a very long time, which I was very open about with my dating partner/ fiancee/ wife of 26 years now. I still believe it jumpstarted our romance in some ways, but it also got us – I’ll just own it and say me – sidetracked.

    That’s only one issue I’m dealing with as a husband. I don’t expect pastors, teachers, or parents to be perfect or have all the answers. But we have to do better – all of us.

  12. Debt collectors, aren’t sexy. We are responsible to save sex for our spouses and hopefully they don’t save it for special occasions. However, as a fully grown adult, why would you want to make love with someone you had to guilt, cajole, or otherwise manipulate into the act? I understand a burning sex drive, and pain of denial as well as anyone, but why would you want that frame to be a part of your marriage.

    Explain how you feel. Inquire as to why they don’t see it is important with a genuine desire to understand. Decide based on the outcome of that conversation whether to stay or go.

    I am a firm believer in “don’t have sex with a person who doesn’t want to have sex with you. And, don’t be married to a person not sexually interested in you.”

    But, if you decide to remain, in light of denial and disappointment you simply must find a way to be happy that doesn’t involve your spouse.

    I certainly know how difficult this is to do, and there are days that the burden seems insurmountable. But, I will never voluntarily leave my children. When they are living their own lives, then things may change.

  13. Like J. has written in the comments, I feel so heartbroken for couples who are struggling in this area. These distances between spouses aren’t supposed to be there, and they can feel heavy and discouraging. I believe God is really listening closely to anyone who prays for greater closeness with his or her spouse. This may not be much, but I recently read “Sex is not the goal, intimacy is the goal” (in a book called The Upside Down Marriage). Maybe, if your spouse is unwilling or unable to have sex, you could ask God to show you other ways to be intimate. This has helped me. God is caring and he is so near

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