Last time, I addressed the issue that some wives have encountered—a husband who forces, demands, pressures, or intimidates his wife into having sex. I labeled such men “bedroom bullies,” because of the tactics they use to satisfy their own sexual desires without regard to the impact on their wife.
Before reading this post, I encourage you to read that one: You Are Not Your Husband’s Sex Toy.
Today, I want to talk about what to do if you’re married to a bedroom bully.
Before Anyone Says “But What About…?”
A few things I want to stipulate before I jump in:
- Wives can also be bedroom bullies. Husbands shouldn’t experience bullying either. But this post is aimed at wives because the vast majority of communications I’ve received on this subject have been from women. (The one husband who wrote me about his bully wife got an individualized response.)
- Ongoing sexual refusal can also be a problem. A concerned husband wrote me after my last post saying that for every bullying behavior I listed, an opposite extreme from a selfish wife could be cited. Fair enough, but none of that is the purpose of this post. If you want to know what I’ve said about refusal and sexless marriages, you can check posts here, here, and here.
- While I have a master’s degree in counseling, I’m not licensed, nor am I trained in the specific areas of addiction or trauma. If you’re dealing with such issues, I strongly encourage you to seek someone with experience and expertise to address your particular situation.
What’s Not a Bedroom Bully
Also, some attitudes and behaviors could be labeled bullying when they’re not. For example, expressing a strong desire for more frequent sex is not bullying. Nor is saying that sex should be part of marriage. A longing for variety in the bedroom is not bullying, nor is a request for a specific act.
Being asked to do something you don’t want to do does not make your spouse a bully.
But too many wives have been deluded into believing their husband is pursuing reasonable requests or marital rights when in fact he’s being coercive or abusive. That’s what I want to talk about today.
Your Body Belongs to You Too
Among the reasons given for a husband to have sex on his terms in the marriage—and thus bully to get it—are that a wife is called to submit (Ephesians 5:22) and that her body doesn’t belong to her but to her husband (1 Corinthians 7:4).
I encourage you to read those scriptures in context, but let me reiterate that Submission Doesn’t Mean Putting Up with Sexual Misbehavior. Wherever you fall on the egalitarian/complementarian spectrum, there is no doubt that a wife is not expected to fall in line with her husband’s sin.
Moreover, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 7:4 (NASB):
The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise the husband also does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
Inasmuch as the wife’s body belongs to her husband, the husband’s body belongs to his wife. He doesn’t get to do anything and everything he wants with his body and hers while she has no say!
Besides, this verse isn’t about getting sex whenever and however you want it. Paul was writing to a situation in which some new Christians, specifically men, suggested that abstaining from sex would make them more spiritual. These husbands were depriving their wives of sexual intimacy, and Paul says, “Knock it off! Share your body with her.” (Loose paraphrase.) Plus, he goes on to stress the mutuality of lovemaking in marriage, making sure that each command to a husband has a parallel for the wife and vice versa. (For more on that, see Rescuing 1 Corinthians 7:4 from Abusers.)
Finally, you can’t hang everything on one text to somehow prove that a husband gets to have sex his way because he has authority over her body. Even if this verse said that—and it doesn’t—numerous other passages indicate that a wife’s body belongs to her too. Just one example is Song of Songs where the husband and wife clearly view one another as having independent desire and capacity for consent.
Marital Rights Are More Than Sexual
1 Corinthians 7:3–5 is about the inclusion of sex in marriage and mutuality between spouses. But doesn’t this passage indicate that a husband has conjugal rights? That he is owed sex in marriage?
A bedroom bully focuses on those conjugal rights to the exclusion of other rights and responsibilities in the marriage. What are those rights and responsibilities?
Well, God has long called on husbands to give their wives proper care, to remain faithful, and to avoid violence. Where that’s not displayed in a story in the Bible, it is not prescriptive (an example we should follow) but descriptive (showing human failings). The reader is expected to draw conclusions based on consequences; that is, a man reaps what he sows.
Consider also how the apostle Peter intimates that God won’t listen to the prayers of a husband who mistreats his wife:
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.1 Peter 3:7 (ESV)
If God won’t grant prayer requests from your husband while he’s being dishonorable to you, why would God expect you to grant any and every sexual request from your husband while he’s being dishonorable to you?
Again, I’m all for sex in marriage. I have 10 years of blogging, five books, and three ministries to back that up! But as another well-known Parker once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Sex in marriage is important, but a spouse’s conjugal rights come with responsibilities to treat their mate with honor.What If Your Husband Is a Bedroom Bully? " Sex in marriage is important, but a spouse's conjugal rights come with responsibilities to treat their mate with honor." @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet
So What Can You Do?
Hopefully, I’ve said something so far that convinces a sexually bullied wife that she deserves better. I took a long time to get to this section, because you likely have and may continue to experience such things from your husband as:
- Gaslighting, in which your husband challenges your perception in a way that makes you question what’s real, reasonable, and right.
- Shifting blame, in which the victim is blamed for the bullying with “if only you would/had/did A, then I wouldn’t B.” That could be something like, “If you would give sex to me the way I want, I wouldn’t have to force you” or “If you hadn’t already done this with a boyfriend, I wouldn’t make you do it with me.” (See Knowing Her Sexually Episode 34: “She Did It with a Boyfriend, So Why Not with Me?”)
- Rationalization, in which the bully believes his own lies. Narcissists and addicts are particularly given to convincing themselves what they are doing is okay through a series of rationalizations.
- Compartmentalizing, in which the bully sees sex as separate from the rest of their relationship to their spouse and/or to God and the bedroom as a place where anything that provides pleasure is fine—since it’s happening in marriage.
But let’s talk about what you can actually do to address your situation.
Get Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s excellent book Boundaries in Marriage. If you cannot afford it, borrow it from the library, a church, or a friend. If you can’t do that either, find articles online about establishing boundaries in relationships. You can start with their website here. I’ve also written about boundaries in the bedroom here and here.
Basically, you can and should set parameters, or boundaries, for what you will and won’t do.
Everyone sets boundaries, but spouses in healthy marriages don’t have to insist on them so firmly because they’re understood or respected once stated. If your boundaries have been repeatedly crossed, however, it’s like your fence has been damaged and needs to be rebuilt and reinforced.
In such a case, it’s good to state calmly but firmly what your boundaries are, such as:
- If you speak foul language you know I don’t like during sex, I cannot engage. I feel degraded by those words and need you to stop saying them.
- I will have vaginal intercourse, but not anal sex. If you try to have anal sex with me, I will stop altogether.
- I know that oral sex is okay and that you want it, but it’s part of the abuse I endured and I need time, space, and understanding to work through that trauma. I may have oral sex someday and may not, but you need to stop pressuring me because it’s triggering.
- I will be sleeping in the guest room until you put filtering software on your devices and get help for your pornography habit.
I should warn you that when there’s been a dysfunctional system and you change what you’re doing within it, you’ll likely get a counter-reaction from your husband. You’ve thrown a wrench in the gears, and at first the grinding might get louder and sparks might fly.
But rest assured that you are worth the effort. And if your marriage and sexual intimacy can be made better, it must begin with someone saying, “Enough. We can do better.”
Limit Sexual Interaction
That is likely the one and only time I’ve written “limit sexual interaction.” Generally, I’m trying to get spouses to have more sex in their marriage, not less. However, when you’re dealing with the three As (adultery, addiction, abuse), it may be the best course of action to declare a sex fast.
What is a sex fast? It’s a break from sex for a defined period of time, so that intimacy in the marriage can ultimately be restored. It’s like a reboot for your sex life, and a reboot involves shutting the system down, clearing certain stored data, and starting afresh. The primary reasons for a sex fast are:
- to help the sexually unhealthy spouse reset their perspective—cognitively, behaviorally, and neurochemically
- to give the betrayed spouse time to grieve and heal
- to focus on the relationship and building intimacy outside the bedroom before reintroducing sex
A sex fast is sometimes recommended for couples dealing with sexual betrayal, trauma, addiction, and compulsion. Some have said this was a crucial step in their recovery.
For those screaming that this is “depriving one another” (1 Corinthians 7:5), note that a sex fast follows the biblical prescription of taking a break “for a time” and for a higher purpose. Moreover, the Bible provided for couples to take a break from having sex now and then, primarily to protect against illness and infection.
Should you have a sex fast? And can you declare one on your own? Well, ideally this is decided in concert with a licensed counselor and includes ground rules for length of time, what happens during the fast, etc.
But a fast doesn’t have to be total either. When Daniel and his friends were called on to eat what their faith declared detestable, they engaged in a vegetables-and-water-only fast (Daniel 1). Likewise, if a wife is being called to do detestable things in the bedroom, she could limit sexual interaction to more basic activities. That’s what some might call “vanilla sex,” but as my colleague Chris Taylor has pointed out, vanilla is a flavor.
Personally, I can tell you that if my husband started forcing himself on me or treating me like a prostitute instead of his wife, sex in this marriage would stop. My husband wouldn’t get to break his covenant with me and then demand I fulfill that broken covenant with sex for him.
Get Professional Help
Please get help from someone who knows what they’re talking about in this area. Counseling from a licensed professional, particularly one with training in abuse or trauma, could be the key to getting on the right track for yourself and your marriage.
In this case, marriage counseling is not the first step. If there has already been such an imbalance of power in the relationship, that will likely carry over to the therapy environment. You wouldn’t feel free to say what needs to be said, and the bedroom bully could re-frame what’s happening as no big deal or your fault. A good therapist can see past some of that, but it’s easier to get a grip on what’s happening when s/he hears from spouses separately.
Whether or not your husband seeks counseling—and yes, he should—you should go. Talk about what’s going on, find out where you might have bought into wrong messages or pressure, learn appropriate communication and behavioral skills, and determine whether and how the marriage can be saved.
It’s Not Your Fault
There’s a powerful scene in the movie Good Will Hunting in which the therapist explains to Will that the abuse he endured as a child was not his fault. (Warning: strong language in that scene.) Although Will logically knows it’s not his fault, it takes a while for him to absorb that truth. Why was that scene poignant to so many viewers? Because when someone we love mistreats us, we tend not to blame them but ourselves.
A wife instinctively believes that a husband who loves her wouldn’t treat her so badly, so maybe it was something she did or didn’t do that caused his bullying. I want to finish this post by saying no, it’s not your fault.
I don’t know why a particular husband becomes a bedroom bully. It could be that he’s a narcissist, a sex addict, or compulsive porn user. It could be that he experienced sexual abuse in his own background and is now acting out. It could be that he embraced terrible messages about being owed sex however he wants it. It could be something else entirely. What I do know is that his bullying is about him, not you. It’s not your fault.
But you can do something to protect yourself and your marriage. God designed sexuality to be a gift, not a weapon. Pursue what God longs for you to have.