When A Spouse Refuses Sex

In the Catholic Sacrament of holy Matrimony, natural marital relations open to life is the right of the spouses. And each spouse has a duty before conscience and God to have marital relations with their mate. The primary purpose of marriage is procreation, which occurs by marital relations. And sex in marriage has other purposes: expression of love, strengthening of the marital bond, helping the spouses avoid sexual sin and remain faithful to one another, and the quieting of concupiscence. So if one spouse refuses to have sex with the other spouse, for a lengthy period of time, without a reason of proportional weight, that spouse sins.

The Marriage Debt

Marital relations is the privilege, right, and obligation of the marital state.

Pope Pius XI: “By this same love it is necessary that all the other rights and duties of the marriage state be regulated as the words of the Apostle: ‘Let the husband render the debt to the wife, and the wife also in like manner to the husband,’ express not only a law of justice but of charity.” [Casti Connubii, n. 25]

The term ‘marriage debt’ refers to the mutual obligation between the husband and wife to engage in natural marital relations open to life. This obligation is mutual because it is a requirement of the moral law, that is the law of justice. The husband and wife are equal under the moral law. The reasons for the marriage debt, i.e. the obligation of the spouses to engage in sexual relations with one another, are several. First, the human race would not continue without sexual relations leading to the procreation of children. And children are best served by being conceived and born into a family with a father and mother. The emphasis in modern secular society on sexual relations for pleasure has led to a decline in the birth rate in many nations below what is needed to sustain the population.

Second, marital relations offers the goods of expressing and strengthening the marriage, and of binding and keeping the couple united in mind and heart by an outward expression of the body. The marital and unitive meanings offer goods to the marriage in addition to the good of the procreation of children.

Third, the aforementioned goods, by benefiting the husband and wife, also benefit the whole family. For when the spouses regularly express and strengthen their love, even in this bodily manner, the benefits to their souls and spirits then also benefit the whole family.

Fourth, marital relations quiets concupiscence, thereby protecting the spouses from the danger of sexual sins, including sins in the mind and heart, as well as bodily sins, such as masturbation or adultery. This purpose to marital relations, though certainly secondary to the primary threefold end of the marital, unitive, and procreative meaning, is nevertheless so important (for us poor sinners living in a sinful world) that the Apostle Paul emphasizes it when speaking about the marriage debt in Sacred Scripture.

[1 Corinthians]
{7:1} Now concerning the things about which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.
{7:2} But, because of fornication, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.
{7:3} A husband should fulfill his obligation to his wife, and a wife should also act similarly toward her husband.
{7:4} It is not the wife, but the husband, who has power over her body. But, similarly also, it is not the husband, but the wife, who has power over his body.
{7:5} So, do not fail in your obligations to one another, except perhaps by consent, for a limited time, so that you may empty yourselves for prayer. And then, return together again, lest Satan tempt you by means of your abstinence.

Scripture begins this passage by asserting the truth, also infallibly taught by the Council of Trent, that virginity and celibacy are better than marriage. But as our Lord also taught (Mt 19:12), some persons are called to the lower state of marriage, and other persons are called to the higher state of chastity as a single person.

Within the married state, natural sexual relations is not only a right and privilege given to married persons, it is also a duty. The husband and wife have a mutual obligation to one another, sometimes represented under the figure of a debt that is to be paid, to engage in marital relations for the good of the other person. The reason for this marriage debt is not to make certain that both spouses have ample sexual pleasure in their life, but rather so that all the goods of natural marital relations will benefit both spouses, and the family, and humanity.

[1 Corinthians]
{7:6} But I am saying this, neither as an indulgence, nor as a commandment.
{7:7} For I would prefer it if you were all like myself. But each person has his proper gift from God: one in this way, yet another in that way.
{7:8} But I say to the unmarried and to widows: It is good for them, if they would remain as they are, just as I also am.
{7:9} But if they cannot restrain themselves, they should marry. For it is better to marry, than to be burned.

No one can be compelled to choose the married state; it is not a commandment that any particular person marry. Neither is the married state, and marital relations in particular, ordained for the purpose of self-indulgence, so that each person will have the pleasures that they desire. Paul would prefer, and Christ is also speaking to us through Paul, in the Holy Spirit, that the faithful choose the higher state of virginity and celibacy over the lower state of holy matrimony. But this gift is not given to all persons. Each person has their own gifts and their own calling, some to marriage and some to virginity and celibacy.

If any persons, due to their own sinfulness, find virginity and celibacy too difficult, then they should marry. For it is better to be married, i.e. to be in a lower but still holy state of life, than to burn with desire, which leads to sin, and which finally may lead to being burned in Hell. Illicit sexual acts are always gravely immoral, and so the danger of Hellfire should caution us in this area of life. Whoever preaches unrestrained sexual practices even within marriage, sins by formal cooperation with evil, harms the holy Sacrament of Marriage, and endangers many souls.

Proportionality

One spouse may refuse the other spouse, on any particular occasion for little or no reason. But as the length of time without marital relations continues, it becomes a question of justice. Refusal for a moderate length of time requires a reason of only moderate weight, such as an illness or a current state of conflict in the marriage. If the spouses are arguing and disagreeing continually, this is sufficient reason to delay marital relations, while they work out their issues.

But refusal for a lengthy period of time, or a stated permanent refusal, requires a grave reason. If the wife’s life will be endangered by a pregnancy, this would be sufficiently grave for a continuous refusal of sex. If the child conceived would be subjected to a severe birth defect, this would also be sufficiently grave. An illness that causes sex to be painful would also be a grave reason.

Without a grave reason, lengthy or continuous refusal of sex by one spouse, without the mutual agreement of the other, would be a grave sin. It is a sin against charity, as it exposes the other spouse to the danger of mortal sexual sins, it harms the marriage and therefore indirectly the family, and it is contrary to Church teaching on the marriage debt [Casti Connubii 25]. The spouse who refuses for a lengthy time period, without a grave reason, commits an objective mortal sin.

The permanent refusal of sex is a graver sin if it occurs early in the marriage, before the couple have procreated children. Procreation is the primary purpose of marriage. When this refusal occurs later in marriage, after the couple have conceived a few children and are raising them (or have raised them), then the sin is still mortal, but it is less grave.

Recourse

What can a husband or wife do, if their spouse refuses sex, indefinitely, without a grave reason? Perhaps he or she has a medical problem, and needs to see a physician. Perhaps he or she has a psychological problem, and needs to see a therapist. Perhaps the problem lies with the relationship, and they need to see a marriage counselor. But when these measures fail, or are not fitting, what can be done?

Can the offended spouse obtain a civil divorce, with the bond of the Sacrament remaining? This type of divorce is permitted by the Church only for a grave reason, if all other alternatives are exhausted. The refusal of the marriage debt can be a grave sin, and grave sin is at least a starting point for a claim of civil divorce. The problem here is that a civil divorce does not remedy the problem, since the divorced offended spouse still cannot have sexual relations. He or she cannot remarry, and cannot have sex outside of marriage. And the civil divorce makes reconciliation and any real remedy to the problem more remote.

Civil divorce is possibly an option if there are other serious problems in the marriage, and the children would not be harmed by the divorce. However, a threat of divorce might be sufficient to prompt the offending spouse to see a physician or therapist or counselor, or to consider a change of heart. Overall, I would say that even the mere threat of divorce is unwise in most of these cases.

Given this continuing grave injustice, the offended spouse would be justified in withholding some of his or her marital duties, withholding non-sexual types of physical affection, or withholding other benefits that the offending spouse receives. Unfortunately, among fallen sinners, marriage involves a certain balance of power, and when one spouse has much more power than the other, he or she sometimes decides to refuse sex as an expression of that power. Perhaps the offended spouse can make some changes so that a balance of power is restored to the relationship. Marriage is a type of contract, and when one party gravely violates that contract, the other party has at least lessened responsibilities. However, this may make the conflict worse, and lead to divorce.

Perhaps, with prayer and self-denial, the offending spouse will change their mind. And keep in mind that this refusal is a mortal sin. The spouse should be made aware that it is a grave sin, and should be asked to consider a change of heart. But, on the other hand, continual arguing over this subject may do more harm than good.

In many cases, the offended spouse will be placed in a situation where he or she must live without sexual relations, for a lengthy time or for the rest of their life. The emphasis here should be on prayer, self-denial in all things, and works of love and mercy for other persons.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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19 Responses to When A Spouse Refuses Sex

  1. What if a person is unable to support a family, mentally or emotionally?

  2. Dora says:

    The father is the Christ figure in the family. In today’s crisis of fatherhood (decades in the making), countless Dads somehow became playmates and pals with their kids, forcing many a mother into the role of authority, a daunting task for the “weaker vessel.” There were other problems as well, and of course, I see it from a woman’s perspective. Remember that women once stayed home.

    Good men working overtime felt they were doing charity for their families, yet countless mothers with six kids at home were at their wits end. Yes, overtime is not always voluntary, and it is important that people play and enjoy their kids. However a crisis was brewing.

    It was very easy, in this context, for the culture to embrace birth control, even call it a “right.” It was easy for sympathetic priests to declare the church was wrong. I think if anyone was justified in refusing sex, it would be these women, compared to walking out on their families, or adding still more children – I know devout Catholic women who declared their hatred for sex. Of course, millions rebelled and took on jobs – most any job for any amount of pay is easier than being a “solo parent.” Now, with today’s day care, plus government schooling, the abandonment of the children (and their eternal souls) to the care of strangers, is complete. We have a crisis of motherhood, too.

  3. Steve says:

    This is a common problem is nearly all marriages. I’ve seen a Catholic spouse separate, not divorce, over a lack of marital relations. It seems that quite often one spouse is wired to not ever have a serious desire for sex other than procreation and not pleasure. The other spouse, typically men, are always on the ready when it comes to sex. One spouse truly does not understand on what harm it can cause to their marriage when they don’t desire sex with their spouse, or the sex is one sided, and for long periods without sex. Husbands become naturally withdrawn from the marriage. Years of heartache. It is quite the cross to bear. You really have no choice to divorce and remarry as you will become an adulterer and lose your soul to Hell.

    The best advise that worked for me is from Saint John Chrysostom. “Show her that you value her company, and prefer being at home to being out at the marketplace. Esteem her in the presence of your friends and children. Praise and show admiration for her good acts, advise her patiently. Pray together at home and go to Church; when you come back home, let each ask the other the meaning of the readings and the prayers. If your marriage is like this, your perfection will rival the holiest of monks.”

    • Marco says:

      “This is a common problem is nearly all marriages. I’ve seen a Catholic spouse separate, not divorce, over a lack of marital relations. It seems that quite often one spouse is wired to not ever have a serious desire for sex other than procreation and not pleasure. The other spouse, typically men, are always on the ready when it comes to sex. ”

      I don’t see today’s women having all those problems with sex, thankfully. And the “nearly all marriages” statement needs to be downsized a lot, from my experience.

  4. Matt Z. says:

    There is much wisdom from the posters on this blog.

  5. Paul M. says:

    If “the offended spouse would be justified in withholding some of his or her marital duties” as you argue, than marriage is not a union of two becoming one, but a “balance of power” as you argue.

    This reminds me of Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, conceding that, “Because Moses by reason of the hardness of your heart permitted you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.”

    While in a Catholic marriage neither spouse should deny the other their marital rights, it seems to me a case of situational ethics for you to argue that if one withholds one thing, another is “justified” to withhold another.

    • Ron Conte says:

      We are fallen sinners. So sometimes, to bring the other person to repentance, you have to resort to proportionate measures, as when the Church excommunicates, in order to bring the person to repent. I recall a co-worker of mine who shirked her duties and then asked me and another staff person to do her charting for her. We both said No, explaining the reason, and it worked to get her to change her ways. But she did have to stay late to do some extra work. If one spouse refuses marital relations, as described to the extent of a grave sin, then yes it is justified to withhold some things that the other spouse likes. It’s too bad when it comes to that, but it may help bring that person to repent from an objectively grave sin.

      The third font of morality is situational and admits of proportionality.

    • Paul M. says:

      Your example of the coworker wanting to shirk their worker is different. In that case, the coworker wants someone else to do their work, which the others refuse to do.

      If the case of the married couple, you are suggesting that one person is withholding something which gives the other the right (even responsibility by your reasoning) to withhold another thing. The only similar variable is that both the marital act and the other displays of affection center around the “physical gratification” of the other. Otherwise, the acts are independent of each other.

      By your reasoning, a spouse can exert any number of penalties on their spouse if they have committed a grave act, sexual or not.

    • Ron Conte says:

      No, not a penalty. This is a normal thing that happens in relationships. If you are always helping your friend, drive to the airport, moving, etc. and he/she never has time when you need help, it makes sense to start saying No. So if your spouse gravely offends you and God by the aforementioned sin, it is reasonable and just to say to him/her that you will be saying No (in ways that are not sinful). Otherwise, the one spouse is simply taking advantage of the other.

  6. Dora says:

    It is good for the husband to be naturally withdrawn from marriage. Another name for it is self-control, or chastity. When a couple makes a commitment to not use birth control, then each sex act is nothing less than a decision to accept a child. This is vastly different from the prevailing culture.

    Once sex is declared God’s work, then for recreation, a couple is forced to find other means – which is why rejecting birth control is so good for marriage. It forces the couple to build friendship outside the bedroom, so that he will truly be in touch with her needs. After all, her struggles with motherhood are his problem because the kids he sends into the world bear his name. He also needs to get his self esteem from the Christian community and from being a good parent, not from her acquiescence to his seduction.

    Any resort to flattery relegates her to a sex object, and is shallow and demeaning. He must be a grown up! So much heartache, even years of heartache, when a virtuous mother is constantly badgered for sex by a husband with the maturity of a teen, with his self-esteem tied up in her conquest. I can see that in many cases, total celibacy would be far easier.

    • Anon says:

      Your comment is well taken. However Ron’s
      post is about spouses that refuse marital relations. Also there is NFP method to limit size of family.

  7. Matt says:

    St. Augustine;

    But now in good, although aged, marriage, albeit there has withered away the glow of full age between male and female, yet there lives in full vigor the order of charity between husband and wife: because, the better they are, the earlier they have begun by mutual consent to contain from sexual intercourse with each other: not that it should be matter of necessity afterwards not to have power to do what they would, but that it should be matter of praise to have been unwilling at the first, to do what they had power to do.

    Ron, what does St. Augustine mean with what he wrote?

  8. Dora says:

    I feel the Christian community falls short of supporting families IN GENERAL, because ministries today seem to be all about LGBT.

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