Rick and I attended a marriage retreat a few years ago. We were about to have a baby. I'd been so sick that we hadn't put a lot of effort into our relationship for a time, so we (okay, okay, it was me. He would happily avoid these things if he could). So, I signed us up to learn more about how to have a dynamic marriage.
Several of the sessions had been good, encouraging, and helpful, when a session "just for men" and "just for women" came up next on the schedule. Rick and I discussed whether or not we should skip these sessions. We've been to things like this in the past and figured we knew what was coming, but we decided to give the leaders the opportunity to surprise us. We both had some dry places in our souls that we hoped might be filled by the wisdom of our leaders.
But what we heard was not the encouragement we longed for. Wives were chastised for withholding sex from our husbands, and husbands were chastised for lust and pornography. You may wonder, what's the problem? Isn't that what the church is supposed to teach? As we've grown up in the church and attended many such events in the past, we've discovered that's it's a very popular topic and have had many opportunities to discuss it together. The leaders of this marriage retreat taught the same things we've heard repeatedly over the years.
At the risk of getting a little uncomfortable. let's consider this teaching more critically though...
In our session, wives were told that they'd learned that men NEED to have sex once every three days, If this physical need is unmet, they'll be very tempted to wander. It's our job to fulfill their needs so they don't get tempted and turn elsewhere. This is how we hold onto these undisciplined, sex-fiends we've married. (Okay, they didn't say that part, but it's the message I received.) Have you heard it before?
I wanted to ask, "So, are you saying that if our husband's cheat on us - literally or in their minds - it's not the sin in their hearts, but our fault? We failed them because we didn't provide for their 'needs'?"
I wanted to give the leaders, a panel of women, the benefit of the doubt, so I remained silent. (Also, I struggle with trying to please everyone and didn't want to be the one who made them very uncomfortable.) It was hard to sit there quietly while I just wanted to point out... Sex is not a NEED.
Jesus was unmarried. He was also sinless, so he lived for 33 whole years without having sex. (Gasp.) He was in every way human, but without sin. The church fully expects singles to remain chaste, but there are those who teach married couples that husbands basically turn into lustful beasts if they have to go a few days without sex.
I thought about the woman going through chemotherapy, or the one recovering from surgery. I thought
about the new mother who needs 6-8 weeks, or longer, for her body to heal. I thought about the woman who just discovered that her husband has betrayed her.
I looked over and saw a woman in a wheelchair, weeping openly.
The leaders paid her no mind as they continued their admonition to never withhold sex from our husbands, no matter what. We have to forgive and forget! Even if they betray us. Even if we're sick, men need sex so much that it doesn't matter if we're coughing in their faces. We are obligated to give our bodies to them and thus serve God.
I thought about the woman who just discovered that her husband has a pornography addiction, or the one who's husband mocks her for her post-baby body. I thought about the exhausted mother who has nothing left to give at the end of the day.
I thought about the wife who would love to have sex with her husband more, but he's uninterested. She's turned herself inside out to be beautiful by today's standards, but he doesn't even notice.
My heart ached as I sat there, listening to this message again, seeing the looks of pain on the faces of the women around me. Did they really think that sex was so awful that they should force themselves to do it? Did they wonder if there might be some responsibility on their husbands to help them feel so loved, comfortable, and desirable that they anticipated it? (Maybe that's what they're teaching the husbands, I hoped!)
The husbands in the "men only" session were actually being chastised for looking at pornography and lusting after other women. They were told that if they claimed not to have this problem, they weren't men at all, or maybe they were liars. The attitude of the leaders was "knowing" as they bumped elbows and said, "We ALL know we have this problem. I mean, are you even a man if you don't?" Hahaha.
My husband didn't laugh.
Perhaps this problem IS what most couples face today. The husband is accustomed to seeing airbrushed and surgically enhanced women who have no family responsibilities and are always eager to fulfill a man's fantasies. How does a flesh and blood wife look to a husband who has filled his mind with such images and ideas? In reality, the women he has spent his time lusting over are unlikely to enjoy anything about what they're doing, forced into it by desperate need, addiction that must be fed, or fear. Maybe most wives don't feel cherished and desired because their husbands actually don't feel that way about them.
But my husband thought about the men like him who don't have this problem. Do they also feel like they're being emasculated because this isn't the sin that so easily besets them? He wondered about the men who could have used some practical advice for getting through hard seasons in marriage when sex isn't possible or responsible. Instead, the men received an hour-long lecture on a problem they were told they should have - and if they don't, there's something wrong with them.
There is a much richer, more helpful conversation that we could have. We could really help married couples to work through challenging circumstances, point them to resources to help when one spouse has suffered abuse or mistreatment, encouragement for those going through infertility, or those with small children, and so much more.
I'd like to offer a different perspective for how the church can support marriages.
1. Teach couples that self-control is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and it's available to them when they submit themselves to God. We are more than objects created to fulfill one another's fantasies. Wives have desires too, and female satisfaction is important. If wives feel cherished and desired, they are typically generous.
2. Teach couples healthy ways to cope with seasons when they are unable to fulfill their desires (illness, distance, relationship healing, etc.).
3. Teach couples to give each other space to come around when they've hurt one another. Find ways to show genuine sorrow and restore what's been lost. Treat one another with compassion, not demands. (The greatness of God is that HE forgives and forgets, but we are not God. We can forgive, but we don't forget. We may need time, healing, and reassurance to trust again. That isn't a sin. That's a healthy boundary and it's important in any relationship.)
4. When challenges arise that are beyond the couple's ability to handle alone, encourage them to seek out a doctor to treat a possible physical ailment, or help them get quality marriage counseling. Also, normalize getting that help. Rather than hiding it when leaders need help in their marriages, they can find respectful ways to share it with their congregations. Even the most godly among us may need help to navigate relationships. There's no shame in that. There's great humility and bravery in acknowledging that we are imperfect and don't have all the answers.
Marriage relationships can be complex and challenging. The happiest of couples go through very hard things, and our foundation in Christ must be secure if we're going to honor our vows. We need to confront the culture that's invaded even our churches that says, "boys will be boys," or "women are cold and distant".
Godly couples give one another so much love, acceptance, and security that they don't withhold their bodies from one another without cause. (And if they do, then confrontation may be necessary.) The godly person's perspective on pornography should be compassion, not lust. If we think about exploited women as if they are our sisters and daughters, enslaved, forced to provide financially for themselves or their families, then the lure is gone.
We CAN do better. Let's consider what we're teaching and change this hurtful narrative.