Sex is almost always a topic of conversation at some point in couples counseling. The husband complains there isn’t enough sex, while the wife laments that she’s too tired, overwhelmed, or not feeling loved enough to be motivated for sex. Of course, husbands can also be guilty of rejecting their wives’ advances, with equally negative consequences. Unless the couple is able to resolve this dilemma, the tension between the spouses is usually played out in a variety of unhealthy and unproductive ways. Often, a couple finds themselves fighting about things that have nothing at all to do with intimacy as a substitute for confronting the real issue.

Husbands who treat their wives harshly often claim that they feel disrespected in their homes. Sometimes, the husbands aren’t even able to articulate why they are acting badly toward their wives.  What they fail to understand is that their wives are usually responding to their husband’s unloving behavior. As Dr. Emerson Eggerichs illustrates so clearly in his seminal book, Love and Respect, this destructive “crazy cycle” is circular and builds in intensity over time. Dr. Eggerichs points out that there is no justification for a husband to say: “I will love my wife after she respects me,” nor for a wife to say: “I will respect my husband after he loves me.”

At this point in my couples’ sessions I usually need to explain that when we talk about “respecting” husbands, we mean that the wife is to act respectfully, even if she feels the husband hasn’t earned respect. And when we say the husband is to “love” his wife, we mean that the husband is to treat his wife in ways that she values as loving, unconditionally. Of course, this isn’t natural behavior. When a wife feels hurt, it’s almost impossible for her to act in a respectful way. Dr. Eggerichs explains that doing something when you really don’t feel you want to do it, is an act of faith.

A husband caught up in the “crazy cycle” might approach his wife for sex and encounter what he feels is rejection. He is oblivious to the fact that he has been sarcastic or harsh with her (or the kids) only hours before. Perhaps he failed to include her in an important decision or failed to follow through on something he promised that was important to her. If this situation is repeated again and again, rather than beginning a dialogue on the subject, he’ll start to distance himself from his wife, giving her the “cold shoulder.” The “cold shoulder” can also include rejecting her own attempts to initiate sex. By withdrawing his affection he avoids additional rejection and exacts payback for the wounding he feels he’s endured. This pattern may seem obvious, and it is common indeed. What’s not so obvious is the insidious effect this tension has on the relationship over time, as negativity builds and the spouses begin to find fault in each other over issues that would, in the past, have been considered trivial.

Wives are often not aware of how hurt their husbands are by their rejection and husbands are equally oblivious to how unloved their wives are feeling, as their arguments rarely involve sex itself. The pattern continues as the wife is furious that her mate leaves his wet towel on the bathroom floor and he’s incensed that she spends an hour on the phone with her sister every night. Frequently, these complaints are merely more comfortable substitutes for the unspoken topic: SEX. Of course, the sex — or lack thereof —  in this context, often represents the level of closeness and trust present in the relationship at the time. When the topic of sex is actually discussed, the air is usually highly charged with hurt and anger, thus inhibiting any truly satisfying outcome. The danger is that sex, more specifically, the withholding of sex, often becomes a tool through which the spouses express their pain and disappointments.

In Christian-based counseling sessions we turn to the Bible for answers as to how to handle this seemingly daunting issue. 1 Corinthian’s 7:3 offers guidance:

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The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

This passage can be misused by a husband (or wife) who feels entitled to sex “on demand,” but there is another way to view the passage. It seems clear that both husband and wife are to make themselves available to their spouse sexually at all times (do not deprive each other…). Thus, rejection is taken out of the mix. However, in context, it should be noted that while sex should be available upon request, it should never be demanded by a spouse when it is clear that his/her partner would suffer in some way by complying with the request. Examples would include a wife who is in bed with a fever, a wife or husband who feels uncomfortable engaging in intimacy when the children are under foot, or perhaps one or the other has just received some troubling news.

The sexual arena is a prime example of how godly submission and leadership can be implemented within a Christian marriage to great benefit-breaking the “crazy cycle.”  Submission would imply that the wife “suck it up” and make herself available to her husband sexually whenever he asks. Godly leadership, on the other hand, would entail a husband never imposing himself sexually on his wife when he sees that she’s uncomfortable for any reason. One can extrapolate from this example to the marriage relationship as a whole: The wife should be in godly submission (meaning that she voluntarily places herself under the care of her husband). The husband should not take advantage of this gift of submission, but should instead seek to put his wife’s needs ahead of his own both sexually and in making decisions in general for the family. In this way, the marriage works, like hand in glove, in a way that is edifying and emotionally fulfilling for both partners. The bottom line is that obedience to the biblical principles of leadership and submission, especially in the sexual arena, can be instrumental in helping couples minimize conflict.

It seems obvious that marital partners should endeavor to go out of their way each day to make their spouse’s life better. After all, this was the way they acted during their courtship. It seems so simple, yet the concept has often been lost in a maze of anger and hurt. Sometimes couples just need reminding with respect to why they loved each other in the first place and there’s no better way to revive the old feelings than by following God’s plan for marital success.

Copyright © 2012 by Lee J. Langley, M.S., MFT. Used with permission

Lee J. Langley, M.S., MFT is a therapist in private practice (Cornerstone Counseling) in Valencia, California, specializing in Christian-based counseling for couples, individuals, and families in the Santa Clarita Valley. Mr. Langley obtained his M.S. (Counseling) degree in 1993 from California State University, Northridge and has been providing Christian-based counseling to the Santa Clarita community as a licensed marriage and family therapist since 1997. Contact Lee Langley at (661) 297-7255.