Can a Christian wife withhold sex as a way to change her husband’s bad behavior?

Can sexual refusal be used by a wife to change her husband’s bad behavior? Does God allow sexual refusal as method for addressing wrong behavior on the part of a husband? Can bad behavior on the part of a husband justify a sexless marriage?

I recently received this very heartfelt comment from a Christian wife named Jenn and you can see how much she is hurting as you read this. I would be willing to bet there are many Christian wives that face a very similar scenario. The emotion runs deep in this story, and I think for some valid reasons.

Jenn’s story

“I agree that a sexless marriage is not God’s plan and that both parties should do everything in their power to maintain their physical union and covenant. However, I do not believe it is appropriate to give a blanket statement that denying sex in a marriage is sin. Sometimes, refusing sex becomes necessary as an effort to PRESERVE THE MARRIAGE when the husband repeatedly shrugs off spiritual leadership in the home, ignores the wife’s emotional needs, treats the wife as a roommate, does NOT consistently do the steps you outlined above (going on dates, upgrading around the house, show any type of affection, etc.) leaves ALL THE PARENTING TO THE WIFE, and then just expects to get laid!

Continuing to engage in intercourse under those circumstances is submitting to sexual abuse, even though there is no force or violence involved. Continuing to engage in intercourse for the wife leaves the door open for bitterness and resentment to fester. NO! The wife does NOT want to live in a sexless marriage, but neither does she want to be devalued and violated, either.
Yes, private communication was sought out to correct these issues… as was counseling that went on for 18 months… communication among godly, loving friends. To make matters worse, this person is an elder and a counselor in the church! Is all this grounds for divorce? Most say no. Does one uproot the children because one spouse is spiritually lazy and hypocritical? Difficult call.

Should the pleading spouse continue to allow the husband to treat her this way? Or should she stand her ground that she needs to be valued and cherished? The sexless part is actually the decision of the husband for refusing to correct his behavior out of pride.
So before you heap on condemnation, perhaps you should spend more time encouraging the husbands (or the wives, for that matter) to deeply investigate WHY there is no interest in sex in the first place.”

My response to Jenn and any other Christian wife who finds herself in this situation

I believe it is possible based on Jenn’s statements that her husband is sinning against her by not “knowing her” as the Bible commands him to do:

“Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.” – I Peter 3:7(KJV)

I wrote a post a while back entitled “10 ways to know your wife” – and these things are a challenge and admonition to all of us as Christian husbands (including myself). Yes we will fail as husbands and we may not do all these things as we should, but we need to get up each and every day and ask ourselves as men – “Am I communicating with my wife as I should? Do I know her concerns? Am I addressing areas where she needs my help?”

God knows that a wife needs her husband to know her on a spiritual, emotional and physical level. This is why he commanded husbands to dwell with their wives “according to knowledge”. A man cannot know his wife as God would have him to without talking to her, and listening to her on a daily basis.

Sometimes we as Christian husbands can become so wrapped up in our careers, hobbies or even our ministries (as this woman’s husband is a church elder and counselor) that we can become neglectful of the needs of our wives and children. This woman’s story should serve as reminder for each of us as believing husbands to make sure we are knowing our wives as God would have us to.

The second thing that Jenn’s husband might be doing is neglecting to honor his wife. This is a duty that God calls Christian husbands to. He does not appear to be honoring her in her role as his helpmeet. I also wrote a post on this subject entitled “12 Ways to Honor you wife” where I go into detail on how a man can honor his wife.

A big part of honoring one’s wife – is to show her that she is valued and to praise her for her work in the home. It is also about making sure that her children are respectful of her. From what I saw in this woman’s sad account – it appears her husband may not be doing any of this. This story should serve as admonishment to all of us as Christian husbands how it makes our wives feel when we don’t know them(talk to them and listen to them) and when we don’t honor them(value them and praise them).

It appears that if this woman’s account is accurate – her Christian husband has been neglecting many of his duties to her (and perhaps his children as well).

Is withholding sex a tool that God allows a wife to use to change her husband’s behavior?

Jenn as well as many other women (Christian and non-Christian alike) believes that withholding sex is valid and justified tool when a husband is neglecting his duties to her and his children. But as sad as these types of stories are – two wrongs never make a right. God does not allow for sex to be withheld as a tool to modify bad behavior, or to encourage right behavior on the part of a spouse (either the husband or the wife).

“Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband.

The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.

Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.” – I Corinthians 7:3-4

“Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.” – Ephesians 5:24 (KJV)

The Scriptures are clear in the area of sex that a wife is to willingly give her body to her husband, she does not have the power to deny him or withhold sex from him. The Bible says she is to submit to her husband in “every thing”, and this includes in the area of sexuality.

The only way sex can be halted or denied in marriage is by mutual agreement to do so for a short time. People talk about consent in regards to sex all the time. Biblically speaking sex is only to occur in marriage. But in the context of marriage, consent is about ceasing from having sex for short period (mutually agreeing to not have sex). Consent is not about ALLOWING sex as sex is a duty and responsibility in marriage – it is a central part of the marriage covenant that you freely give your body to your spouse for the purposes of sex.

I have talked in previous posts about a husband having the right to discipline his wife, to motivate her to repent and change her bad behavior. But a husband is never allowed to use sexual denial to his wife as method of discipline. So for instance, if a man’s wife keeps denying him and then eventually she comes to him for sex – he is not allowed to deny her because she previously denied him.

The Bible tells us we should not repay evil for evil:

“Recompense to no man evil for evil..” – Romans 12:17 (KJV)

A wife in the same way is not allowed to deny or withhold sex from her husband in an effort to reform his bad behavior. When a wife withholds sex from her husband because of his bad behavior in other areas – this is a textbook example repaying evil for evil and God will not bless such actions by a wife.

In fact when we look at sex from the wife’s role, this is just one part of her overall submission to her husband. God does not allow a woman to stop submitting to her husband in any area of her life (including sex) in order to reform his bad behavior – except if he asks her to engage in an immoral or sinful activity.

But doesn’t giving a husband sex when he behaves wrongly encourage bad behavior?

Many women ask this question, and I think Jenn is inferring it by her comments above. The answer is that it is never wrong to do what God has commanded, in fact it is ALWAYS right to do what God has commanded. Short of a husband asking his wife to engage in a sinful activity – she is always to submit to him (including submitting her body to him for sex).

The Bible tells us this:

“Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing.” – I Peter 3:9 (KJV)

In God’s view if a woman’s husband is treating her sinfully by neglecting his duties to her, she is to repay this evil behavior by blessing him with her continued submission, even in willingly giving her body to him for sex.

I know what I just said sounds CRAZY from a human perspective. But this is God’s way, not man’s way.

I completely realize that Jenn’s head is probably spinning right now and I truly feel for her situation with her husband. If she does not withhold sex, but blesses her husband with her body – freely and willingly won’t this tell him that everything is ok and she is fine with his neglectful behavior?

No – and here is the reason why. Jenn and any other woman can continue to bring her grievances about his neglect of her and her children. Nothing stops her from doing that. I think it would really make a man’s head spin, that his wife brings her grievance before him in a respectful manner in one hour, and later that evening willingly gives herself to him when he initiates sex with no attitude or hesitation. This can be a powerful tool for change in a husband, when he sees that his wife continues to submit to him, even though she has legitimate grievances with him.

Isn’t this abusive behavior?

Jen said this about submitting her husband sexually under these conditions:

“Continuing to engage in intercourse under those circumstances is submitting to sexual abuse, even though there is no force or violence involved.”

This is not sexual abuse for her husband to have sex with her while neglecting her legitimate needs in other areas.

Her husband’s behavior in other areas may definitely be inconsiderate, neglectful and sinful by Biblical standards. But him asking for sex and her yielding to him for sex(regardless of his failings outside the bedroom) is NOT sexual abuse. I have said this in previous articles and I will say it again here. Christian wives need to be very careful of using terms like “abuser”, “rapist” and “molester” when it comes to their sexual relations with their husbands. Unless a husband actually rapes a woman(has forcible sex with a woman he is not married to), touches a person other than his wife in a sexual manner, or actually physically abuses his wife, his children or others these terms have no place in these kinds of discussions.

Let be clear as I always have to be in these posts. If a husband forces himself sexually upon his wife, Biblically speaking this is not rape but it could be abuse. So in that case it might be legitimate to call the husband an abuser, but it would still not be right from a Biblical perspective to call him a rapist.

But based on this story, there does not seem to be any forcible sex going on.

But won’t allowing sex to continue cause bitterness in the wife?

Jenn said this about bitterness:

“Continuing to engage in intercourse for the wife leaves the door open for bitterness and resentment to fester.”

I think we could safely say, and Jenn would probably concede that bitterness toward her husband has definitely “festered” in her heart. God says this about bitterness:

“Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice” – Ephesians 4:31

Someone once said of bitterness, “Bitterness is like talking poison when you are mad at someone for wronging you, and then hoping they will die from it”. I have many men write me with bitterness in their hearts towards their wives over their wife’s sexual denial – some say some very hateful things toward them and I have to remind them that they need to let go of that bitterness, that it is a sin against God, their spouse and really their own bodies (because it hurts you when you are bitter).

This same truth would apply to Jenn and other Christian women that are dealing with husbands who are sinning against them by neglecting their duties.

A wife needs to understand the source of her bitterness towards her husband about sex

“Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled; “ – Hebrews 12:14-15(KJV)

If you don’t understand the root of your bitterness as a Christian wife, then you will never be able to remove it. The reason you grow bitter and resentful toward your husband when he initiates sex is this – you believe he did not earn it.

Let me put this another way. It is very easy for us as men to shut our wives out, to stop talking to our wives when they deny us sexually. It is easy for us to grow bitter and think – “She wants me to sit down and talk with her when every time I go to touch her she tells me “not tonight honey”. But our wives do not have to earn the right to talk to us by having sex with us. Talking to our wives, whether we feel like it or not is a duty of every husband.

In the same way as a Christian wife you must realize the truth that your husband does not have to earn sex with you by talking to you(as he should), honoring you(as he should) and doing other nice things for you. He has a right to sex with you because of the vows you made to him and before God.

When you as a Christian wife let this truth really settle in your heart, then you will find that you are no longer bitter at your husband when he goes to have sex with you – even when he is not doing right in other areas.

Does the husband’s behavior warrant divorce?

A husband being “spiritually lazy and hypocritical” is not grounds for Biblical divorce. Now if a man fails to provide for his wife and children and just sits on a couch all day while they lose their home and starve that may be another issue. But nothing I have seen in this story would allow for Biblical divorce.

A wife is not responsible to discipline her husband

A wife is not Biblically responsible (or allowed) to discipline her husband. The husband is spiritually responsible for his wife and his children and as the head of his wife and his home he has the right to attempt to discipline. As I stated in previous posts when it comes to the wife I don’t believe physical discipline is warranted or prescribed by the Scriptures. But other types of non-physical discipline like taking credit cards away, or stopping household upgrades may be used as discipline.

God does not hold a wife responsible for her husband’s wrong behavior, he only holds her responsible for her own behavior.

A situation like this can be extremely frustrating for a Christian wife, and we can see that all throughout Jenn’s post. But she and any other wives facing this type of situation needs to make sure they take a step back and realize they are not their husband’s mother, they are his wife.

What recourse can a wife take in this situation?

I think we can see that scripturally speaking a wife has no right to discipline her husband for sinful behavior and she does not have the right to stop submitting to him in any area, including in the area of sex because of his sinful behavior. To do so amounts to repaying evil for evil – something that is very plainly condemned in the Scriptures.

But a wife can continue to bring her grievances to her husband in a respectful way. She can ask her husband to attend counseling as this woman did.

But what if the husband never changes his ways?

Jenn would most likely respond to my last comment that “I tried counseling with him for 18 months and nothing changed! He says he will change with the counselor but he comes home and nothing changes!”

Is it possible that even if Jenn repents of her bitterness, and submits herself in all ways(including sexually) to her husband that he will still not change his ways and do what God would have him do as a husband? Unfortunately the answer is yes – he may never change his ways.

Also it can help to realize that you are not the only woman or man that faces these issue of being mistreated by their spouse. I often get emails from Christian husbands asking if they can divorce their wives for less than Biblical reasons.

These are some of the things they ask about:

They ask if they can divorce their wives for belittling them and disrespecting them – the Bible says no.

They ask if they can divorce their wives for going against their wishes and disobeying – the Bible says no.

They ask if their wife is giving them sex, but with a bad attitude and she just lies there like a dead fish can they divorce their wives – the Bible says no.

They ask if their wife is too involved in her career and other activities outside the home can they divorce their wife? Unless their wife is sexually denying them or cheating on them they cannot divorce her for being too involved in her career.

The truth is that we live in a sin cursed world and sometimes people do not submit themselves to God and repent. Sometimes our spouses have horrible attitudes, or they are neglectful of our feelings. Sometimes spouses are extremely selfish.

I believe though in these cases where husbands are not doing what God says they should do for their wives – Christian wives can get through this difficulty by depending on the Lord, and recognizing that their submission to their husband, is really them submitting to God.

“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.” – Ephesians 5:22

So perhaps from a human perspective, your husband has done nothing to earn your submission. But would say you don’t owe God your submission? It is God who is commanding you to submit to your husband.

What Jenn and other Christian wives need to do in this situation

Acknowledge your hurt and your feelings of disappointment with your husband, don’t bury it, don’t repress it. Give it to God, Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.(I Peter 5:7)

Pray and ask God to forgive you for any bitterness you are harboring in your heart toward your husband. Pray that God will strengthen you to be able to submit to and please your husband with a right heart and a right attitude. Pray that God will change your husband’s heart and reveal his sin to him so perhaps he will be the husband that God meant him to be.

Pray that God will continually remind you that your submission to your husband is really submission to God himself.  When you submit to your husband it pleases God, especially when he knows it is hard for you to do it because of your husband’s behavior.

All of us need God each day, we can’t live this Christian life in our own strength.