Initiating and Declining Sex in Marriage Need Not be Awkward or Upsetting

This post is an excerpt from the mentoring manual that accompanies the upcoming “Creating a Gospel-Centered Marriage: Intimacy” seminar.

For many married couples initiating sex can be an awkward moment that leads to conflict or hurt feelings. They’re not sure what to say. They fear being rejected. They want sex to be “special” but most of the moments they’re both home together are “normal.” They don’t want to seem demanding. They want their spouse to “just know.” They don’t want to interrupt and their spouse is always doing something else. They’ve tried and been told their attempt was crude or unclear.

This may begin to sound overwhelming, but there are few simple points to keep in mind when initiating sex with your spouse. Taking a few minutes to talk through these with each other can prevent a great deal of awkwardness and hurt feelings over the course of your marriage.

1. Use Mutually Honoring Language or Actions – Do not refer to sex with terminology that is offensive to your spouse. That is a turn-off at the moment you’re striving for a turn-on. Do not grab or grope your spouse in ways that are unappealing to him/her. That makes your touch a threat at a time when you want it to be welcomed.

As a couple, discuss the kind of language that is comfortable and appealing to use when initiating sex. How many ways would the two of you complete the invitation, “Do you want to… have sex… have a date… make a rendezvous… dance… enjoy one another?” If you don’t like these phrases, that’s fine. Their purpose is to break the ice and help you come up with your own (variety is good, as long as it’s mutually agreeable and understood).

2. Be Clear – A lack of clarity in your request is a great way to make initiating sex an uncomfortable experience. Generic questions like, “Are you doing anything right now?” when you’re interested in sex are bad. If you’re spouse says “yes” (which will be most of the time) you’ll hear him/her say “no” to sex and feel rejected. When they finally realize you’re pouting and you finally explain why, an extended time of hurt feelings will have passed; making initiating sex feel like an “emotionally dangerous” thing to do.

One of the benefits of having agreed upon language to initiate sex is that it adds to the clarity of an attempt to initiate. Ambiguous requests are a form of game-playing that expects your spouse to read your mind. They are unfair and are easily avoided with a few minutes of intentional conversation.

3. Invite Don’t Demand – Questions honor; expectations dishonor. “Are you interested in…?” or “Would you like to…?” are much better introductions initiating sex than “Let’s…” or “It’s time to…” Consider the fact that even when God offered you all the pleasures of Heaven, He still invited you to accept it (John 3:16) instead of forcing the invitation upon you (Mark 10:22).

However, if you know your spouse is interested in sex, then a more assertive initiation can be a way to show your enthusiasm. This playfulness rooted in an awareness of your spouse’s desire for you reveals a level of sexual maturity; knowing each other and resting in each other’s acceptance should result in occasions for this kind of confident seduction of one another.

4. Have Realistic Expectations – Don’t let your sexual imagination ignore the realities of your spouse’s life and skillset. Initiating when you know your spouse is exhausted is rarely a loving thing to do. Expecting an eloquent initiation from a “spouse of few words” is unrealistic. While both of you should be willing to sacrifice and stretch yourselves to please the other, love does not make untimely or against-another’s-nature requests.

A responsibility that each of you share is to manage your life so that you are regularly available to your spouse. A blessing each of you should want to provide to your spouse is the willingness to grow in areas that are important to your spouse, but unnatural to you. But these things should be a gift you give each other, not a tax you exact from one another.

5. Be Balanced as a Couple – Both husband and wife should regularly initiate sex. The ratio does not have to be precisely 50-50, but it also shouldn’t be 80-20. Both initiating sex and responding affirmatively to the initiation of the other are unique ways to love each other. You each should be able to bless the other with both responses: pursuing and responding. This maintains a balance in confidence and voice for both of you.

Consider this parallel to initiating sex; worship is the balanced experience of love drawing us towards God and the awe-struck suspense of being allowed into His presence. Both experiences are needed for worship to occur. The more both are present the more intense our worship. Initiating sex carries both of these dynamics; we are drawn by love towards our spouse, yet there is the suspense (e.g., anticipation) of requesting an intimate encounter. The more both are present, the more enjoyable our sexual encounter will be.

“Many Christian women believe that sex is a gift from God, but even so, they can’t give themselves permission to revel in the sensual pleasures of married love. Why? Because in their minds, the words godly and sensuous do not go together. Their definition of a godly woman does not include words like sexual or sensuous, and so in their quest to become godly women, they have denied their sensuousness (p. 13).” Linda Dillow and Lorraine Pintus in Intimate Issues

However, this begs a second question about initiating sex, “How do we respond if our spouse declines our invitation? How would we lovingly decline our spouse’s invitation? How do we protect these moments from becoming part of a negative cycle in our marriage? If my body belongs to my spouse (I Cor. 7:3-5), is it ever permissible for me to decline my spouse’s invitation to sex?”

“Please don’t use God’s loving guidelines as weapons against each other. Some husbands and wives club their mates with this passage and say things like, ‘If you don’t have sex with me tonight, you are sinning.’ The real sin is theirs because they usually have never taken the time, loving kindness, and energy to make changes needed to appeal to their mates romantically… Remember, making love is about giving—not demanding… On the other hand, are you too fatigued or busy or inhibited to have sexual relations regularly? You two are missing God’s plan for marriage and the enjoyment of one of His avenues for increasing intimacy (p. 5).” Doug Rosenau in A Celebration of Sex

Here are some suggested guidelines for these questions. Resist the urge to consider them “rules.” Instead view them as a conversation starter. As you read through them, discuss with your spouse, “What would this principle sound like in conversation for us?” and “How has / would neglecting this principle negatively affected our marriage?”

  • Only decline for important reasons. The perfect moment doesn’t occur very often; at least not often enough for a satisfying sex life in most marriages. There will be times when you are too tired or have an intense headache, but most often the disruption of declining your spouse’s initiation (e.g., hurt feeling, second guessing yourself, conflict) will be greater than the effort required to engage an enjoyable sexual encounter with your spouse.
  • Resist interpreting a decline as rejection. For some reason we are prone to think “no” means “never” when it comes to sex; we hear “I don’t like you” in “Not tonight.” Part of this is understandable; whenever we are disappointed about an anticipated pleasure it is hard to be objective. But when we do this, we are unfair with our spouse’s intent. We also undermine the future enjoyment of sex by creating conflict over an activity (i.e., sex) that is dependent upon closeness and vulnerability for its enjoyment.
  • Pair a decline with an affirmation. “Honey, I love you and want to be with you, but I wouldn’t be able to participate as fully as we both would like if we tried right now.” This kind of reply has both a direct affirmation (e.g., “I love you and want to be with you”) and an indirect affirmation (e.g., “I want to fully participate”). Even though we are not at our physical or mental best when we would decline, we do not want to be lazy in these conversations by neglecting to pair an affirmation with our words.
  • Pair a decline with another time. “That sounds wonderful, but if you give me 30 minutes I will be much more engaged.” Or, “I would really like to, but what if we got up 30 minutes early in the morning so we’re both rested.” Or, “I like the idea, but the kids are at a friend’s house tomorrow and we could be a bit more expressive with our love in an empty house.” Offering an affirmation and alternative time helps your spouse resist the temptation to interpret your decline as rejection.
  • If you are declining frequently, initiate frequently. If you find that you are frequently declining sex because of how you feel (fatigue or health), become the spouse who initiates sex more often. Find the times that are optimal for you and pursue your spouse. This shows your spouse that you are interested in sex and helps to create a rhythm for intimacy that is more conducive to the rhythm of your shared live.

“The only sexual life a Christian spouse can legitimately enjoy is the romantic life a spouse chooses to provide. This makes manipulation and rejection ever-present spectators in the marital bed. Anything denied physically becomes an absolute denial, because there is no other legitimate outlet (p. 194).” Gary Thomas in Sacred Marriage

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.