Many couples go through seasons where sexual intimacy is left on the back burner. Sometimes an illness makes sex too painful or just low priority. Other times, the demands of work, family, or other responsibilities leave us feeling too exhausted by the end of the day to even think about having sex. In other cases, a spouse has been raised with a low view of sex, seeing it as shameful, dirty, or wrong, so that, even in marriage, sex is habitually avoided. Is God concerned when you and your spouse ignoring your sex life?
Paul illustrates God’s intentions for us:
…each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband (1 Corinthians 7:3-4).
Sexual intimacy is a part of what God intends for married couples, and neglecting this aspect of married life can indicate issues with the health of a marriage. But what does Paul mean (and not mean) with these words, and why does it matter?
It’s helpful, even necessary, to be clear up front what problem Paul is addressing here. Paul is not concerned about a couple who may desire to have sex, but is not able to do so, due to health problems or other circumstances that would prevent intimacy. Furthermore, Paul would never intend these words be used to demand or coerce sex from a spouse who is not in the mood or is not desiring sex. Sex is meant to be a sacrificial giving, not a selfish taking. God forbid that Paul's words be twisted for selfish gain!
Instead, Paul is addressing a group of people in the Corinthian church who had been led to believe that spiritual self-denial meant rejecting all desires, including a desire for sex in marriage. So, some Corinthian Christians were refusing to have sex with their spouses, believing that God would be especially pleased with them for super-spiritual commitment to Christ. Paul corrects them with encouragement to be fully intimate with one another as part of God's design for marriage.
In our context, the exact circumstances may be different, but the problem can remain the same. For a variety of reasons, couples can simply neglect their sex lives out of busyness, tiredness, lack of interest, or a distorted view of sex. These all can contribute to a couple actively or passively disregarding their physical relationship.
Later in the passage, Paul offers one of the reasons why God doesn’t want a couple to neglect their sex life: “Satan [will] tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” When sex isn’t a priority, Satan can seize this opportunity to tempt one or both of you to sin.
One possibility would be sexual temptation, such as pornography, lust, or even an extramarital relationship, but other possibilities exist as well. Because your sex life is closely tied together with the rest of your relationship, when physical romance is dismissed, the rest of your relationship may suffer as well. You may find yourself drifting apart as a couple. You may realize that you begin to quarrel more frequently, or find growing resentment between the two of you. Satan will exploit any weakness he can for his purposes.
Paul’s language may sound strong to our ears when he writes that both the husband and the wife must fulfill their “duty” to one another. Interestingly, the word “duty” summarizes the norms and expectations of a person in a given social situation. In other words, in the context of a Christian marriage, the norm (according to God’s design) would be that a couple would have a healthy relationship that includes the enjoyment of sexual intercourse. Ideally, husband and wife are more than roommates, they should be lovers too.
Even more interestingly, Paul uses this same word in Ephesians 5:28 where he writes that “husbands ought to love their wives.” The expectations of a Christian marriage are not just sexual; God’s intention is that both husband and wife love each other sacrificially and selflessly, making a commitment to meet the emotional and physical needs of each other. A spouse who simply expects the other to meet physical needs while not considering at all how to cultivate the full range of emotional and relational needs is not living out all that God desires of marriage.
Taking God at his word, in this passage, means at least four things, explained in 1 Corinthians 7:5.
Do Not Deprive: Healthy marriages enjoy sexual intimacy. The text doesn’t tell a couple how often they are to have sex, but it does show us that neither spouse should feel as though they are being deprived. A husband and wife should have clear communication about what they desire when it comes to sexual frequency, but sex should not be neglected.
Except by mutual consent: There may be times when a couple would do well to refrain from sex. But this decision must be mutual and limited; withholding sex should not be a power-move made by one person, or a unilateral decision made by either husband or the wife.
For a time: Abstinence in a marriage should be for a defined period of time. If the marriage is struggling, refraining from sex might be a needed step to seek healing and restoration in the marriage. It might be a period of time where other demands need to be the focal point of the marriage. But this time should be limited and agreed upon.
For prayer: This time of abstinence should be an opportunity for prayer. Fasting from sexual intimacy allows time to seek God’s strength, or healing, his renewal in your marriage. Focus on seeking God in prayer during this time apart, in order that, when you come together, your marriage will be stronger.
God’s design for sex is that husband and wife enjoy the depth of all forms of intimacy, which includes sexual intimacy. If there are issues or concerns that are hindering this, don't hesitate to seek the professional help of a licensed counselor. Invest your time and energy into building the marriage to a place where you can enjoy it again.