If sex is an indispensable part of a healthy marital relationship - and most of the material I've read says that it is - what does this imply for a marriage in which the act of sex has become traumatic for the wife? That's my situation. There are a couple of reasons for this, and neither of them has anything to do with past abuse or a history of negative sexual experiences. It's partly a question of pain and discomfort due to physical issues, but the bigger problem is my emotional revulsion to the perverse sexual practices in which my husband wants me to engage. He's been addicted to pornography for at least a decade and half (only recently discovered), and he's constantly asking me to help him act out the disgusting images he sees in magazines and on the Internet. As a dutiful wife, I've tried to maintain a "healthy Christian marriage" by accommodating his requests. Unfortunately, it's only made things worse. This leads me to wonder: can sex actually become a barrier to a healthy marriage when it can't be expressed in the way God intended? Is there no place for a man to "love His wife as Christ loved the church" by laying down his "rights" to sex - especially when it's his behavior that has made sex traumatic for her on every level?
This is an excellent and extremely important question. We're pleased that you've had the courage to come forward with it. As you're well aware, it isn't easy to be honest about issues of such a sensitive and intimate nature. You're to be commended on your openness.
Whether you realize it or not, you're not alone. There are many other women in a similar position, and you've done them an important service by broaching this difficult subject in this context. You also deserve credit for having the clarity of vision to recognize your situation for what it is - a serious marital crisis - and for taking the initiative to reach out for help.
We want to begin by urging you to do some careful thinking about your personal background. It would also be helpful to find out as much as you can about your husband's sexual history. You may think your current marital issues have nothing to do with childhood abuse or negative sexual experiences, but over the years our Counseling staff has observed that problems of this nature are often traceable to some kind of past trauma.
Where your husband is concerned, we think it's highly likely that he's dealing with complicated issues of his own. Studies show that most men become involved with pornography because they've been sexually hurt or broken in one way or another. As for you, it's important to remember that a person can be sexually abused without ever being touched. You may have been traumatized at some point in your early life without even realizing it. We don't offer this observation as an authoritative "diagnosis" - obviously, we don't know enough about you and your husband to do that. We only mention it because we've seen how common it is for a sexually traumatized woman to end up married to a sexually broken man. It's a familiar pattern, and you may want to ask yourself whether it has played any part in the development of your present difficulties.
It might also be a good idea to consult with a physician or gynecologist regarding the physical pain and discomfort you've been experiencing. There could be many medical reasons for this, some of them fairly easy to resolve; though, having said that, we should hasten to add that you are absolutely right to assume that the physical dimensions of your problem are the lesser concern. There is no medical situation in which husband and wife can't achieve genuine sexual intimacy if their hearts and minds are in the right place.
We're not surprised that your method of confronting this challenge has yielded such disappointing results. When you assume the role of the "dutiful Christian wife" and "submit" to your husband's "authority" (as some would have it) by subjugating yourself to his perverse sexual demands - violating your own sense of decency in the process - you unintentionally yet actually facilitate the development of a relational disconnect during intercourse. You unwittingly help to create a situation in which sex is emptied of its essential mental, emotional, and spiritual components and becomes nothing but a joining together of two physical bodies - a sort of "mutual masturbation," devoid of any kind of human warmth or communion. Consequently, you end up feeling used, objectified, and depersonalized - like a "prostitute" - and a wedge is driven between you and your husband that damages the marriage on every level. This, in turn, encourages him to objectify his lusts even further and depersonalize sex to an even greater degree. It's a vicious cycle.
What can you do to reverse the pattern? Your first assignment, as we see it, is to adopt a more proactive approach. There's a difference between serving your husband and servicing his so-called "needs." You will gain nothing by making yourself his sexual slave, nor is it God-honoring to allow him to go on sinning in this way. You need to step up, speak out, and let him know how you feel about being coerced into engaging in activities you find repulsive. Educate yourself in the basics of God's design for healthy sexuality. Communicate this perspective to your husband. Explain to him your concerns about sex becoming a barrier to true relationship. Seek professional treatment and set your sights on creating an atmosphere of safety and mutuality at the heart of your relationship. Let your ultimate goal be growth in true intimacy. Work toward the redemption and renewal of your marriage.
Your husband, in the meantime, has some lessons of his own to learn. He simply must figure out what it means to respect his wife's feelings. He should know that when one partner in a marriage isn't comfortable with some aspect of their sex life, it must be eliminated no matter what the other partner thinks about it. There has to be mutual consent. He has to realize that trust and safety are matters of prime importance for you, and that the heart and mind are the most important part of human sexual expression. He must recognize that both of you are going to have to take some time to heal before real sexual intimacy can begin to develop in your marriage. He needs to be patient, remorseful, service-minded, and willing to seek professional treatment with his own issues.
With reference to the question with which you concluded your inquiry - "Are there cases in which a man should simply forgo sex altogether if this seems to be in his wife's best interests?" - we would have to respond that, in our view, choosing a sexless marriage as a long-term arrangement simply isn't an acceptable, God-honoring, and relationally healthy pattern. To be sure, a period of sexual abstinence, willingly entered into by both partners for a predetermined amount of time as a temporary therapeutic measure, can be a great way for a couple to detox, regroup, press the "reset" button, and reorganize their priorities. But the goal should always be to come back together again once the problems have been resolved.
In this connection, we think it's important for both of you to understand that a fundamental distinction needs to be made between sex and sexual intimacy. Animals can have sex. So can strangers. But sexual intimacy, as an aspect of a heart-to-heart, whole-person relationship between two intelligent human beings, is possible only when man and wife make up their minds to leave mere sex behind and start learning how to make love in the sight of God. This involves sensitivity, mutuality, deep caring, the kind of love that consistently puts the other person first, and a growing appreciation of the spiritual side of marital relations.
What happens if your husband is unwilling to cooperate? What if he doesn't want to go along with the plan of action we've outlined above? What if his addiction to pornography continues and he persists in making you an accessory to his efforts to live out his twisted sexual fantasies? In that case, we'd suggest that it's time to implement some tough love. Since this is a critical next step at this stage of the game, it's important that you not take it alone. We strongly recommend consulting a Christian counselor beforehand who can help you navigate the process with wisdom and from a position of strength. You can also pull together a support group of emotionally healthy and caring friends whom you can trust to stand beside you. Ask your pastor or a couple of church elders to get involved if you think it might be helpful. Then confront your husband about his unacceptable behavior. Create a crisis. Give him a wake-up call by proposing that the two of you separate until you can come to a meeting of the minds. Let him know that you're taking this step because you have too much self-respect and love for him to remain stuck in this dysfunctional and unhealthy relational pattern. Tell him that he's going to have to find new living accommodations - that you and your children (if you have any) cannot stay in the same house with him until he's ready to change his ways, seek counseling, and work with you to hammer out solutions to your marital difficulties. Enlist friends and family members (again, limit yourself to those you consider healthy, spiritually mature, and completely trustworthy) to back you up and hold your husband accountable.
Before closing, we want to reiterate and underscore a point we've already made several times: if you want to resolve this problem, it's absolutely vital that you and your husband seek professional counsel. We recommend that you begin by addressing the immediate crisis. Start with a few days of intensive porn addiction therapy. Make sure you do this with a psychologist who specializes in sexual trauma and addictions. As part of the counseling process, take a close look at your background issues and associated marital problems. Try to understand what each partner has brought into the relationship. Get a handle on what you're really facing. Then, when you've reached the point where both partners feel that their concerns have been heard and that there might be some real hope for the marriage consider the option of getting individual help in the context of a gender-specific accountability group or individual therapy. This will give both of you an opportunity to work on any personal issues you may have. If marital issues persist beyond this point, we highly recommend that you sign up for a four-day session with Hope Restored: A Marriage Intensive Experience. After that, it would be a good idea to follow up with a course of ongoing marital counseling.
Finally, a note about financial concerns. We realize that therapy and intensive sessions can be expensive. We don't know how you're fixed for funds, but we want to urge you to follow our advice regardless of your monetary situation. If you think you can't afford it, just remember that the price of counseling is miniscule as compared with the price of a divorce. If the Lord is leading you to move in this direction, you can trust Him to help make a way for you to do so. He cares about you, and somehow or other He will provide for your needs. So take a step of faith. Go forward leaning on His grace and let Him handle the details.
Focus on the Family has a staff of trained family therapists available to speak with you over the phone. They can refer you to reputable and qualified marriage counselors working in your area. They'd also be more than happy to discuss your concerns with you person-to-person. If you'd like to talk with one of them, you can reach them for a free consultation at this number.
Understanding God's Sacred Design for Sex (broadcast)
Men: Maintaining Sexual Purity (broadcast)
Pure Intimacy - a Focus on the Family Web site offering articles and resources that assist both men and women in the pursuit of God-honoring sexual purity, and recovery and redemption from sexual brokenness.
Hope Restored® marriage intensives - Focus on the Family offers marriage intensive programs in a retreat setting, designed to rebuild and restore marriages experiencing significant distress.
HopeQuest - A comprehensive residential treatment facility dedicated to helping individuals and their familes find restoration and healing from sexual brokeness and addictive behavior.