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Can you say "no"?

I received an email from someone struggling with guilt about "denying" her spouse. She even questioned if it was okay to say "can we wait until this weekend?"

She clarified that her spouse wasn't pressuring her at all; the guilt stems from teachings she heard over the years-- often from older women or clergy.

I wish this was rare. I wish we didn't have current Christian influencers speaking with extreme authority and condemning women for sinning because they don't "put out" enough for their husbands.

But it's not rare. At all. And my heart breaks every time.

So let's dive in.

I"m not going to parse out the details about how we translate deprive/deny or how the Bible says "do not deprive one another." There are other blogs and speakers who make excellent points about that. Shelia Gregorie is my favorite for all things related to this topic. She is who blew the lid off the lies I didn't even know I believed.

I'm going to share what has helped me. Because I've been there-- I've lived with the guilt. I've believed the lie that I was worth nothing more than to be a morally acceptable semen receptacle for my spouse.

And before you scoff at that as something ridiculous that no one would actually believe-- I was following a thread on this topic recently with overwhelming support for the idea that women cannot deny their husbands.

A woman who'd been married for 25+ years commented that her spouse told her "your mouth does the job just as well" for when she was menstruating.

Sex is not about intimacy to him. It is about his wife having some opening-- any hole-- where he can ejaculate.

And she was encouraging other women to never deny their husbands on these grounds.

Matthew 7 tells us we will know a tree by its fruit.

What is the fruit of the current duty sex/“don’t deny him or he will go elsewhere" teaching?

Guilt, feeling used, being used, fear, lack of self-control

Those are some rotten fruits in marriage and toxic to intimacy.

I want to be clear that I'm not denying Scripture. I'm using another piece of Scripture to provide context and clarity because we should always be reading individual verses within the context of the entire Bible.

The issue with the instructions about your body not being your own and not "depriving" one another is not the instruction itself; it is how it is used in our current culture.

The problem is when Scripture is wielded as a weapon to hurt people, to destroy intimacy in marriage, and to encourage toxic use of one another.

"The Second Vatican Council indicates three criteria for interpreting Scripture in accordance with the Spirit who inspired it.

1. Be especially attentive "to the content and unity of the whole Scripture".

2. Read the Scripture within "the living Tradition of the whole Church".

3. Be attentive to the analogy of faith."

(CCC 111-114)

God is love and truth.

What is love? St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that it is will the good of another. It is not about one spouse using another. In fact, St. John Paul II taught that the opposite of love is use.

Teachings that encourage one spouse to use another for pleasure are not integrated with the content and unity of the whole Scripture nor the living Tradition of the whole Church.

St. Paul often spoke to specific issues occurring in the areas to whom he was writing, and there were times in the Church when abstinence was required/recommended during Lent or. until the baby weaned. These are two examples where the three criteria listed above become so important. This topic is so much more complex-- both in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition-- than a single verse about "not denying another person" can possibly capture in its fullness.

A wise man will hear and increase in learning, and a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel. -Proverbs 1:5

My recommendation for couples who are struggling with navigating sexual frequency and desire in the context of Christian marriage is to seek wise counsel.

Not gonna lie, wise counsel can be hard to come by.

Not every priest is wise on these matters. (A priest is the person who first told me this!)

Not every couple married for 20+ years is wise on these matters. (See the example above or one I'll share below.)

And for the love, not every person with 10k+ followers is wise on these matters.

Go back to the first verse— you’ll know by its fruits. Find wise counsel that has produced good fruit.

What are the fruits of the spirit?

St. Paul lists the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit in his letter to the Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

God corrects and disciplines, this is true. Wise counsel will understand this and not shy away from it when necessary.

But shame and accusation? Well, we know who the accuser is. (Hint, it's not God.)

Any counsel that does not have an element of self-control regarding sexual desires and urges is outright ignoring this fruit of the Spirit and this part of Sacred Scripture.

Side note: This is why my marriage has needed NFP, even when we have been grumpy about it. NFP forces us to keep our desires in check. We control our sex drives, they do not control us, And this has been such a GIFT when raising 3 boys. I have rejected the lie that my boys cannot learn and exhibit self-control. My husband finds the insinuation that he cannot control himself to be a disgusting insult.

But this wasn't always the case.

At a women’s Bible study, a respected older woman in the community shared: “Ladies, if you don’t meet his needs, he will get them met elsewhere.”

She was held in high esteem, and I know many women who suffered for years— decades even— after hearing this. This idea affected me for much of the first decade of my marriage.

Guilt, fear, threat— this is what surrounded married sex from this "counsel" of an older married woman.

Again, seek wise counsel. Not every married woman is wise counsel.

Wisdom on this topic likely requires knowing YOU and YOUR spouse: the intricacies of your relationship, as well as the sexual history you both brought to your relationship.

We live in such a broken world, especially with regard to sexuality. People who say “never deny your husband” as a blanket statement have no idea the dynamics of a couple's intimate relationship or history.

A person who was sexually abused as a child and was not allowed to say no needs that agency to be able to refuse in order to feel safe. Being guilted or threatened into sex will likely cause a traumatic response.

A couple who has had trust broken by porn use is in a situation where one spouse has a brain trained to view sex as simply for use for their personal pleasure. The other spouse has been used as a sexual outlet.

Both of these are VERY common and for couples in these situations, telling one spouse to never deny the other may not be the healthiest or holiest counsel for their marriage.

Let’s make sex about intimacy and connection and relationship.

Should we encourage each other to find answers to the obstacles, to seek healing in wounded areas, and to prioritize every aspect of intimacy with our spouses-- yes. Absolutely!

Should we threaten or make it something you should simply do out of duty—and use Sacred Scripture as our weapon of choice to force it? No. I have seen a lot of hurt come from that. AND it makes women LESS desiring.

Part of intimacy and connection is exploring the WHY. When the situation comes up, WHY is one spouse not wanting to have intercourse?

Is there a....

Medical issue?

Hormonal issue?

New baby?

Excessive mental load?

Overwhelming stress?

Fear of pregnancy?

Lack of emotional connection and intimacy?

Feeling of being used?

Etc. Etc.

I'm not listing those to say there are tons of "excuses" to use. I'm saying that if we talk about what is going on and find a solution, intercourse can be enjoyable for both. It can be intimate-- because the two spouses entered into the awkward space of talking about what the problem was and solving it together. They put in the work and prioritized their marriage and the two individuals in it-- not just the ejaculation of one.

Wise counsel might suggest using phrases like "Not yet." or "Not tonight, but how about this weekend?" or "Can you help get me in the mood? I'm just not there yet."

Wise counsel might also help a woman realize she has responsive desire. She may not initiate often, but she really enjoys it once they get going. In that case, maybe she just gives it a few minutes to see if she can get in the mood (because she acknowledges that is usually the case and she wants to try).

Wise counsel might simply encourage self-control and empathy.

Knowing how to help a specific situation and a specific couple requires specific knowledge--- and wisdom.

I think we need strong marriages. We need intimate and sexually healthy marriages.

I know the “don’t deny your husband” threat has not helped accomplish this.

We’ve fallen into the trap of quantity > quality.

There is emphasis on frequency of sex or never saying no as the hallmark sign of a good marriage.

Quality of sex and overall intimacy matters so much more!

There's a fear that if you don’t force a woman to have sex out of duty or obligation or threat, she won’t.

That's a lie.

Let’s ask better questions. Let's find out why.

Let’s talk about these things in our relationships.

God is all about freedom. Freedom to receive and respond to His love.

Marriage is supposed to be an icon to the world about God’s love for us.

He died on a cross for us. He sacrificed himself for us.

Can you say no? In love, there is freedom.

When you can't say no, what does your "yes" really mean?

The goal in marriage (as an icon of God's love for us) is intimacy.

Intimacy isn't a guarantee in sexual intercourse.

You can have sex with or without intimacy.

You can have intimacy with or without sex.

How your marriage will thrive with non-sexual intimacy and intimate intercourse is unique to you.

Wise counsel, fervent prayer, and cultivating the fruits of the Spirit in yourself and your marriage-- these are my recommendations.

If you need healing work or hormonal supplementation or a release valve for your overwhelming mental load, your health and your marriage are worth the investment in these.

If you've been hurt by people using Scripture in a way that wounded you, I'm sorry. God loves you, you matter to Him, and your marriage matters to Him.

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1 Comment

Mila Sz
Jan 11, 2023

I think I've arrived, after quite some time, to the discovery that I can be my wise counsel myself and I don't need anyone's approval for my 'no' to be taken seriously and respected. And I wish that upon everyone, every woman to find that within herself as well.

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