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When Sex Becomes Abusive in Marriage

Sexual abuse can happen in marriage. Here are a few ways to identify it.

The hallmark of Satan’s work in our lives is to distort good things. Food, instead of bringing nourishment, becomes a compulsion. Work, rather than giving us purpose, often enslaves us. And some relationships that should represent love and intimacy are in reality violent and destructive. Sex was created to be a profound source of bonding for a married couple, but in some marriages it has become the source of division and destruction.

Sexual abuse within marriage can be quite a confusing concept. After all, doesn’t the Bible teach that a wife’s body belongs to her husband, and her husband’s body belongs to her? Specifically, it says, “The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:4). Husbands have been known to quote such biblical teaching as a justification for sexually abusing their wives or demanding sex as a God-given right, but this verse seems to leave both a woman and man open to unwanted sex.

The recent popularity of BDSM (which stands for Bondage, Dominance, Sadism, and Masochism) has blurred the lines of consensual sex even more. A couple that may begin by consensually experimenting with one person dominating the other in the bedroom may end up violating the will of the “submissive” spouse. This is simply sexual abuse by a chic name.

It's critical to be able to recognize when your marriage has become abusive in the bedroom. The dictionary defines the verb abuse as “to use something to a bad effect or for a bad purpose.” God did not create sex to be a weapon used to harm, manipulate, or coerce. Sexual abuse in marriage is just as vile as any other form of sexual abuse. It's one person exploiting the trust and vulnerability of the other person, and God hates it.

Overt Sexual Abuse

After a recent speaking event, Hannah approached me visibly trembling. She explained that her husband was regularly abusive—physically, emotionally, and sexually. When I asked her to describe her marriage, she shared how her husband regularly took her sexually by force. At other times when sex was consensual, her husband forced her to engage in acts that were physically and emotionally harmful to Hannah. When she tried to approach the issue with her pastor, he made light of these incidents and encouraged Hannah to be a loving and submissive wife and to be a more willing lover.

Unfortunately, this type of overt sexual abuse in marriage relationships is more common than we might think. Sometimes alcohol and drug use are involved in prompting such violent behavior, but sexual coercion is often just one aspect of a controlling, dominating relationship. Dominating men typically find themselves married to dependent women who don’t know when or how to stand up for themselves. He demands what he wants when he wants it. Unfortunately, conservative religious communities sometimes encourage this abuse with unbalanced teaching on submission and patriarchal authority.

The Bible says that God hates a man who covers himself in violence. While God has ordained that the husband be a leader in his family, that leadership should always be characterized by servant love. Paul could not have used stronger words in his challenge to husbands: “Love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25, NIV). He expounded by saying that a husband should care for his wife as much as he would care for himself. A man who uses his physical strength or authority to harm his wife is clearly disobedient to God’s Word and should be accountable to his church, his community, and the law.

Subtle Sexual Abuse

Not all sexual abuse involves violence and physical coercion. Other forms of sexual abuse can include sexual humiliation and manipulation. Sexual abuse in any form is not simply about sex; It is also about power. Sexuality is a powerful force within a marriage relationship, and that power can be misused to inflict harm on the other person. Sexual abuse can include a spouse who makes inappropriate or unwanted sexual comments in public; it can include a spouse who uses sex to degrade or humiliate. The most common and overlooked form of sexual abuse involves manipulation and even spiritual themes to coerce a spouse to act sexually against her will.

From the beginning of their marriage, Jake expected and even demanded sex from his wife every day. He walked through the door of their condo after work and became irate if Shelly didn’t have dinner cooking and a willing bedroom attitude. This was why he’d married her in the first place, he reasoned. What good was marriage if he didn’t get his “needs” met? Jake never forced Shelly to have sex but withheld all affection and “punished” her with critical comments if she didn’t give him what he wanted.

Understandably, Shelly began to hate sex. She avoided it with physical complaints and by filling their calendar with social events. As children came into the family, she had legitimate excuses to shut down sex in their marriage, including hanging onto baby weight that made her feel more like “Mom” than “Lover.” Jake threw fits and complained about how frigid Shelly had become. He threatened to take his sexual needs elsewhere unless she met his demands. The more Jake insisted, the more Shelly resisted.

Calling It What It Is

If you are living with a man who uses any form of coercion in your sexual relationship, please stand up and call it what it is. Sexual intimacy was designed to be a beautiful exchange of your bodies in order to build love and intimacy. What is happening in your marriage is a destructive distortion of God’s intention. It is never God’s will for a husband or wife to live within an abusive environment.

Confronting abuse in marriage is always a scary endeavor. You may feel ashamed and wonder if it’s your fault that your husband is treating you the way he does. You probably feel isolated and wonder if anyone would believe you or be able to help. Above all, you are probably afraid. Standing up to an abusive spouse could make him more violent or abusive. For this reason, it's very important for you to get wise counsel and help. Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or counselor. If that person isn’t able to help, find someone who is. Abusive relationships never magically become healthy. For there to be any hope of true intimacy, the problem must be brought to light.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Juli Slattery

Juli Slattery is a TCW regular contributor and blogger. A widely known clinical psychologist, author, speaker, and broadcast media professional, she co-founded Authentic Intimacy and is the co-author of Passion Pursuit: What Kind of Love Are You Making?

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