When you should NOT have sex

If your marriage is relatively happy and healthy and your sex life together is satisfying, this is not for you. (If this article doesn’t apply to you, please simply move on.) But if you are facing elephant-sized problems that are destroying the intimacy between you, keep reading. Yes, there are some circumstances in which you should NOT have sex with your spouse. This article is about bringing wisdom and the gospel to bear on some of those very big marriage challenges.

I’ve written a fair bit about pursuing intimacy, making sex between you better, and how important pursuing physical intimacy is to strengthening the bond between husband and wife. But I’ve heard from some of you recently with questions and comments such as these:

  • “My husband is physically abusive, and then expects me to have sex whenever he wants. Is that what I’m supposed to do?”
  • “My wife is having sex for money with other men. Do I keep trying to have sex with her?”
  • “My husband has been living with another woman, but sometimes he comes home to see our children. Sometimes he asks for sex, and sometimes I say Yes. Should I be doing that?”

My short answer to these questions is No. Sex is not a magic fix. The deeper issues must be addressed.

But a one-word answer is not enough if you’re facing that level of challenge in your marriage. Let’s look at this in more detail. Understanding the role God designed sex to have in marriage will help. And then we’ll address some of the specifics these comments raise.

What Sex IS and what it ISN’T

God created sex to be ravishingly enjoyed between one woman and one man in the committed relationship of marriage. Tragically, sex has instead been used in many destructive and distorted ways in our sinful messed-up world.

Getting the negative out of the way first, sex is NOT:

  • Only or primarily a physical drive or need
  • Something a spouse has an absolute right to under any circumstance
  • An acceptable means of control or manipulation
  • Only for a husband’s (or wife’s) individual pleasure
  • An adequate “fix” for really big marriage problems

Sex in marriage is an important way to increase intimacy. But minus its emotional/relational/spiritual components sex is – well, just sex.

In a larger sense sex is never just sex. The act of sexual intercourse forges a connection between two people that God calls “one flesh.” (1 Corinthians 6:15-18) There’s a sense of mystery to this in the spiritual realm that we too often overlook.

Sex between husband and wife as God designed it IS:

  • A vehicle to connect more fully physically, emotionally, and spiritually
  • A means of bringing children into a maturing family
  • Fun, exhilarating, satisfying
  • A way to learn unselfishness, intimacy, communication
  • A mutual experience where both husband and wife experience pleasure
  • An expression of the covenant love God exhibits to us as His people

Through the years of marriage you are likely to go through many seasons where sex is not the “fireworks” you hoped for or perhaps experienced at the beginning. But in a godly marriage over time sex can become even more satisfying, nurturing, fulfilling, bonding, and meaningful.

Some Reasons to NOT Have Sex

Sex is never an end in itself. Since sex is both a means of and a result of “the two become one,” refraining from sex is the only wise thing to do when sex would destroy that oneness rather than nurture it.

Here are some circumstances when you should NOT have sex with your spouse:

  • When sex would increase resentment and alienation

This one is perhaps a little dangerous to talk about. It can sound like an excuse to not pursue intimacy, or to withhold sex when you “don’t feel like it.” That’s not what I’m talking about.

A sexual experience should be a time of mutually coming together, vulnerability, tenderness, passion, etc. Not every sexual encounter with your spouse will have the same level of excitement. But if you can’t bring your heart to the experience it’s better to step back and work on your heart first. As you work on your heart make a conscious choice to move toward your spouse mentally and physically. That’s what sex is supposed to be about.

  • When your spouse is being actively unfaithful

Sex is a benefit of the faithful commitment of marriage. The spouse acting out in infidelity has broken that commitment and given up their right to sex for this season. For some, agreeing to sex while being aware of your spouse’s current infidelity can give the message that your spouse can “have their cake and eat it too,” and that infidelity is not that big a deal. Having sex is not a tool to use in pulling your spouse out of an affair.

The promise of sex in the future, however, can be one inducement to work toward reconciliation. God can restore any marriage where both parties give Him an opportunity to do so, even after infidelity. Healthy forgiveness in marriage does not accept bad behavior, but makes it possible to move past it. Setting the boundary of “no sex until this is dealt with” is appropriate until your spouse leaves the infidelity behind and is working toward reconciliation.

  • When actively working through other BIG marriage challenges

If one spouse has serious old baggage surrounding sex, temporarily refraining while actively working hard to experience healing may lead to better intimacy down the road. Resetting the sexual dynamic may be critically important when one spouse is using sex to manipulate, demean, or control, often necessitating help from a counselor, therapist, or trained pastor. Anger or pity is never a good enough reason to have sex together.

None of this gets you off the hook from pursuing intimacy with your wife or husband. But please don’t use sex as a Band-Aid to cover over deeper destructive issues in your marriage.

If your spouse is engaging in bad behavior, don’t give in to sex just because it’s easier, or because of your own need for closeness. Do the hard work of dealing with the real marriage issues.

As you work on your relationship, coming together again in make-up sex will truly be the awesome experience it was meant to be.

Your Turn: Have you engaged in sex when it ended up destroying oneness rather than increasing it? What other issues do you need to work on first? Leave a comment below.

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Intimacy with your spouse can get better!

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