This series of blogs comes from FAQ’s from the guys in Summit’s “Preparing for Marriage” ministry. They represent a conglomeration of questions from many different husbands-to-be during the Engaged Discovery Weekend. If you are interested in serving as a marriage mentor or are engaged, click here to learn more about Summit’s “Preparing for Marriage” ministry.

What’s a way to handle one of us saying no to sex? How do you deal with times when you want sex and the other doesn’t? What do you do if you are not having your physical needs met? When the other person is not in the mood and you are – how do you deal with that?

We can begin to answer these questions by saying, “Expect it to happen.” If you read this question with the sense that this is a marital emergency and this post better “fix your spouse,” then chances are you have a bigger problem with sexual idolatry than sexual infrequency. Not every sexual urge will be fulfilled in marriage; no more than every urge for chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream is fulfilled.

If you are shocked or offended by this, then your expectations are unrealistic. But the question is important, because as the adage says, “Sex won’t make a marriage, but it can break one.” How a couple handles disappointment (sexual or otherwise) is one of the primary indicators of the health of their marriage.

In order to proceed well, we will have to address the subject of “need.” So much teaching on marriage focuses on “meeting each other’s needs.” Frequently, it drives couples to begin to emotionally live off of one another for their sense of security and identity in a way that makes God practically irrelevant to a good marriage. In effect, God is only there to meet your needs when you cannot convince your spouse to do so.

This need-language creates a trap. Both spouses can look at areas where their “needs” are not being met (that is what it means to be married to a sinner in a world of limited time and resources). The banter inevitably begins, “How can I meet your need for _____ when you don’t meet my need for _____.” This is a verbal formula that makes any disappointment (sexual or otherwise) relationally toxic. Suddenly the marriage becomes mired in score keeping and everyone has a reason to blame the other person.

At this point, the focal point of the marriage has become on “getting” not “giving.” The Gospel has left the home, and everything is about fairness, rights, and equality. When the Bible is mentioned, it is a tool of guilt, manipulation, or demand. No longer is it used as a book of grace and life. The whole Bible (and marriage) becomes about submission, your body belongs to me, if we’re not praying we should be having sex, and it is not good for man to be alone.

The whole time we are making it harder to come close to one another in a way that makes sex satisfying and something we would want to do frequently. The question that has been lost (and must be regained in content and tone) is: Does our marriage foster an environment where we joyfully sacrifice for the pleasure of our spouse in all things? If the answer is yes, we can navigate the differing timing of sexual urges with grace and unity.

To answer the practical side of the question, I’ll lay out a five step process by which you can evaluate how healthy conversations about declining a sexual invitation should go. As you read, this should serve as a “map” to help you see where your conversations may get “off track.” This progression assumes the decline is not based on verbal/physical abuse or medical reasons.

1. Recognize that sex is good but not ultimate. This is the danger of the word “need.” It makes whatever we designate as a need a matter of relational survival. The interaction about this need begins to overpower each moment when it is discussed.

2. Initiate in a way that gives honor (see blog posts for questions 4 and 5). Sex should not be presumed even within marriage. Initiating sex is an invitation not a demand, otherwise it becomes a functional ultimatum – have sex with me or be punished. Thoughts towards sex being mutually enjoyable (timing and tact) should be evident in every initiation of sex.

3. Decline only with reason and with grace. A married couple does belong to one another (I Cor. 7:3-4). The desire for marital sex is a good thing. Unless there is a reason not to engage your spouse’s desire, it is good to accept. If there is a reason, then the initiation should be received as a compliment of affection (per #2 above) and declined graciously.

4. Receive decline without pouting or punishing. A passive aggressive or angry response to a decline sets the wheels in motion for a sexual spiral. If you’re thinking, “Who cares, I’m never going to have sex anyway,” then you likely need to return to #1 above.

5. Reciprocate initiation within 24-48 hours. If the spouse declines, then he/she should seek to be the initiator of sex within a prompt time frame. This prevents a cycle of begging and rejection from emerging within the marriage and is a way to honor the desire that your spouse has for you.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Sex and Sexuality” post which address other facets of this subject.