This discussion comes up a lot when talking about sex. It’s usually framed around the concept of rights and duties. But marriage isn’t about rights and duties, it’s about love, respect, and service. One of our readers asked for a post on this topic during one of our surveys:
biblical context or statements about sexual ‘rights’ during sickness. I always feel bad about the fact that my husbands needs aren’t met when I am sick, or after childbirth, etc…
So, I thought I’d tackle it, and see if I can answer, what I believe, is the proper biblical context for this type of discussion.
Rights and duties regarding sex
Since everyone always wants to jump to the rights and duties regarding sex, let’s get that out of the way first.
The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
1 Corinthians 7:3-5
If you’ve been reading here for a while, you can probably quote this verse from memory. It’s a staple among Christian sex bloggers like myself. Why? Because you can write a series of sermons just on the message contained in these few words, but it can be broken down to a simple phrase: Neither spouse has veto power over sex.
There it is, those are your rights and duties, as the Bible states them.
But, as Paul writes a mere 5 chapters later, right before 1 Corinthians 13, “let me show you a better way”.
Love, respect and service regarding sex
Instead of being wrapped up in what is owed you, in what your spouse aught to be doing as their duty, we should instead focus on what we will do for our spouse, our of love, out of respect and as a service to them. As 1 Corinthians 13 explains, all the actions, all the tasks, all the works, the fulfilling of rights and duties are nothing if they aren’t driven by love.
But, in the same way, we have a calling in Christianity to honor our own bodies as well. Because, while it is true that our bodies belong to our spouses, they ultimately belong to God:
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20
It’s a little bit like our bodies belong to God, and we are it’s steward. That is, until we get married, when we share that stewardship with our spouse, and they with us. And so, there are times when we must protect our bodies, as a precious thing, the temple of God. At times when you are sick, when you are recovering, healing, etc, I believe it is our duty to ensure we give our bodies the best chance to recover. That may mean different things for different people at different times.
As well, you have a marriage that almost has a life of it’s own. It is your relationship and it must be nurtured. Sometimes you must take into account long term affects rather than immediate needs or wants. There are times when having sex will damage your relationship. Don’t believe me? Ask a wife whose been pressured to have sex before she’s done healing from childbirth. Or a husband whose been pressured to have sex in order to conceive when he’s not ready to be a father. They’re having sex, but the damage to the relationship, the break in trust, can take years to recover from.
A better way
And so, we get stuck in a difficult position, trying to balance one spouses rights against the other, balancing your duty to keep your body and relationship safe against meeting the needs of your spouse. How does one manage this? There is usually some way you can manage to keep the relationship sexual without overextending your health. Every situation is different, and some solutions may be a bit awkward at first, they may be out of your comfort zone, but growth often, if not always, requires discomfort.
But, this requires a new mindset, of looking out for your spouse, actively searching for ways to meet their needs without compromising your own. When thoughts of duties and obligations drop away and are replaced by love, you will find ways to ensure your spouse is fulfilled. When sex isn’t possible, you can offer oral sex, if you have a cold and oral is out of the question, you can resort to manual sex, if you’re just worn out and can’t manage the energy to do that, just be with your spouse as they masturbate. I wanted to share this comment I got from our mutual masturbation survey that is just amazing:
My wife is terminally ill and is unable to have sex, however she finds ways to be involved while I masturbate so that I can feel close to her and she feels that she is doing something for me. Typically she lets me kiss a body part such as a foot or something to help keep us close and so that I can at least have some part of her. It helps to deter lust and harmful thoughts of other women.
That’s incredible: to be terminally ill and still looking for ways to serve your spouse. Just amazing.
However, if your so sick you can’t remain conscious long enough for that, well, then I give you a pass. I think your spouse should really be re-prioritizing their needs, I mean, you can’t share a connection if you’re not conscious.
You can only control yourself
So, what do you do if your spouse isn’t following this Biblical model? What if they aren’t looking for opportunities to serve you, what if you have a question like this:
I am a 72 year old man who loves his wife very much, but she is physically unable to engage in sex anymore. I’ve tried to convince her to try other methods with each other but she feels it is weird unless it is standard intercourse. (See the full comment here)
What do you do? I’ve written about this before, but in short, you can’t force them to. Depending on the strength of your relationship, you have a couple options. If you have a strong marriage where you are accustomed to holding each other accountable in your walk with God, you can sit down with them and show them the truth. Then it’s the Holy Spirits’s job to convict, and their job to obey, and hopefully you have the wisdom to make it easy for them along the way.
If you don’t have that kind of marriage, then you can try to start building one. The best way to start is to strengthen your relationship with God. Lean on him in the interim and model for your spouse how to really live in Him. Hopefully they will see there is a better way and start living it as well.
Do you tend to think of your marriage in terms of rights and duties or in terms of love and service? What changes do you need to make in your life and marriage?