How To Go From Demand and "Duty Sex" to True Sexual Intimacy
As Roy and Stacy listened to their pastor teach on I Corinthians 7, they began to shift uncomfortably in their seats. “Paul is saying here that a wife is to meet her husband’s sexual needs. If she doesn’t, he may be tempted to seek sex outside of their relationship.” The pastor tried to dampen the tension in the room with an ill-advised joke. “Men, maybe you are like me and this is your favorite passage in the Bible. I once told my wife that I’d love for her to get me a plaque for our anniversary with this verse: A wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband.” As the congregation chuckled nervously, Stacy wished for a way to inconspicuously escape the sanctuary.
Stacy feared today’s sermon would reinforce Roy’s belief that she owed him her body. How could she explain to her husband how she felt used and coerced the rare times she said yes to sex? Was God actually Roy’s co-conspirator, demanding that she give her body even through the triggers of trauma and the physical pain of the act?
And then there is Roy… a good man who would never want to hurt his wife, but feels desperate after 17 years of marriage to a woman who hates sex. He often wonders, “God, what did I do to deserve this? You gave me a strong sex drive, and I want to channel it towards my beautiful wife, but I might as well not even be married! Every time I even mention sex, Stacy shuts down.”
For many couples like Roy and Stacy, jokes about sexual frequency and the importance of sex are not funny. They touch on a subject that has fractured the foundation of their marriage. Rather than a celebration of love, sex has come to represent profound experiences of shame, rejection, and loneliness.
At Authentic Intimacy, we frequently hear from both sides of this dilemma: the husband who is tortured by continual sexual rejection in marriage and the wife who feels obligated to put herself through pain, sometimes retraumatized, for the sake of meeting her husband’s sexual desires. If you are in either of these situations, I am so sorry for the ways that sex in your marriage has been a source of such deep pain!
Why would a good God give couples like Roy and Stacy a gift that has soured into a curse? What was intended to unite has become their greatest source of division. What are they to make of a passage like I Corinthians 7:1-5 that seems to reinforce the destructive pattern of initiating, rejecting, obligation, and resentment?
The most important principle in understanding the Bible is to read each passage within the context of the rest of Scripture. Unfortunately, these five verses in I Corinthians 7 have often been understood and applied in ways that poison a couple’s sexual relationship, even prompting couples to divorce. I want to share with you three larger messages within God’s Word that may help you reset your perspective and renew your desire to build true sexual intimacy within your marriage.
Remembering the Purpose
God has given you and your spouse sexual intimacy as a gift. Yes, I understand that it doesn’t feel much like a gift. Although this is certainly because of the effects of living in a broken and fallen world, we also miss the gift of sex because we don’t understand the fullness of its purpose.
Sex is intended to be passionate and pleasurable, but that is just one aspect of the gift (and arguably not the most important). Sexual intimacy in your marriage is a way to remember and celebrate your covenant promise in marriage.
Sex is about love. Not primarily romantic or erotic love—it is the expression of your covenant love. A covenant (which is what you formed in marriage) is a promise to love in ways that transcend your feelings, circumstances, and desires. It is the promise, echoing Jesus’ words, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Likewise, the act of sex at various seasons in marriage (and for some, throughout marriage) invites you to reach beyond your natural instincts of love. Will you love one another deeply even when it costs you greatly?
“A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34). Your love life is far more important than your sex life. Even in a broken and fallen world, God’s design for your sex life is that both of you embody unselfish love for the other. The greatest call of every Christian is to live a life of love.
This truth is not to be suspended at the threshold of your bedroom. The wife who hates sex is called to love her husband sexually. Likewise, the husband must love his wife unselfishly in every area of marriage, including their sex life. But what does that love look like practically when their desires are so incompatible?
When a husband and wife get into a pattern of withholding or demanding sex from each other, they are actually sabotaging sexual intimacy for the sake of sexual activity.
Reframing the Passage
As we read I Corinthians 7:1-5, we must understand it with the backdrop of this larger message of love. Understanding the difference between sexual activity and sexual intimacy is crucial in our application of biblical teaching on marriage and sex. Sexual intimacy, not simply sexual activity, is very important in marriage. It has the power to unite or divide a couple.
With sexual activity, all of the focus is on what our bodies are doing. How often should we be having sex? Am I attracted to my spouse? With sexual intimacy, a couple works on sharing their sexual journey with one another. This means communicating and caring about the experience of sex and all it has come to represent.
When a husband and wife, like Roy and Stacy, get into a pattern of withholding or demanding sex from each other, they are actually sabotaging sexual intimacy for the sake of sexual activity.
What you owe your spouse is not the act of sex, but the promise to minister to each other sexually.
For a wife like Stacy, that doesn’t mean giving her body over and over again out of duty. More likely it means a commitment to work toward healing. She learns to value the power of sex in her marriage and refuses to allow the enemy to continue camping out in her wounds, hurt, and resentment. She takes steps like seeking counseling, going through a study like Passion Pursuit, and praying for sexual healing. She is open to exploring ways to be sexual with her husband (perhaps beyond intercourse) that feel safe and inviting.
For a husband like Roy, ministering to his wife sexually means listening and striving to understand how sex has come to represent pain and confusion for her. He “loves his wife as he loves his own body,” nurturing a safe emotional environment for her to heal. Rather than demanding, he is patient and willing to address barriers that make sex feel more like a duty than an invitation to intimacy.
“For He works all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purposes.” All things means ALL things, including the broken pieces of your sex life.
Rely on the Power
As you read the description of how a husband and wife might this minister to one another sexually, you may be thinking, that’s impossible. And at one level, you would be right. Your human ability to love your spouse has limits…. Limits to how long you can “deny yourself,” forgive, or be considerate of your spouse's needs.
In an unrelated passage, Jesus made this statement, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore as your heavenly father is perfect" (Matthew 5:46-48).
If we apply this truth to sex within marriage, it may sound like this, “If you pursue intimacy with your spouse when it is easy, what reward will you receive? Everyone knows how to do that! Only those who follow God can continue to love when it costs them greatly. This is how I call you to sexually love your spouse.”
A Christian marriage is only possible through the power of Christ living in us through the presence of the Holy Spirit. God’s call for us to “be perfect” is meant to show us the utter futility of trying to honor Him in our own strength and wisdom. A supernatural marriage requires a supernatural power.
It is not ultimately your wife’s sexual love that will keep you from lust or fulfill your desire; it is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not your husband’s kindness that will heal your wounds, but the unfailing love of Jesus Christ.
“For He works all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purposes.” All things means all things, including the broken pieces of your sex life. My friend, God wants to do a mighty work in your marriage. I can’t promise you that a year from now you will be having great sex in your marriage, but I can promise you that if you both commit to building true intimacy through the power of Jesus Christ, He will redeem your sex life.
In your despair, will you and your spouse get on your knees together and plead with the Lord to pour out His Spirit? Will you humbly ask Him to heal, to redeem, and to reveal His goodness in the gift of your sexual intimacy? And will you be willing to say yes to the journey of rebuilding authentic intimacy in your marriage?
Here are a few next steps you can take:
Meet with a Christian sex therapist. Try mycounselor.online Mention AI and get 25% off your first session.*
Read a Christian book on sex, such as Enjoy! The Gift of Sexual Pleasure for Women and A Husband’s Guide to Great Sex both by Cliff and Joyce Penner.*
Attend a marriage event like Reclaim.
Go through an online book study like Passion Pursuit (for women) or God, Sex, and Your Marriage (for couples). New groups start in June!
Java #406: Every Couple Has a Sexual Dance. What Does Yours Say About You?
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