Saturday, 6 September 2014

Spreadsheets and Bedsheets

Not long ago, the Internet was abuzz with the story of a man who kept track for a month of all the times he attempted to initiate sex with his wife and what the results were.  He recorded if he they had sex and what his wife's response was if they didn't.  Out of 27 attempts they had sex 3 times.  He sent the spreadsheet to her to make a point about his dissatisfaction with their sexual relationship.  His wife took offense over this and posted the spreadsheet online expecting a wave of sympathy for having to put up with a husband who would do such a thing.

Comments from the Internet were all over the place.  Some posters taking the view that if she doesn't want to, she doesn't have to and he just has to deal with it.  Others saying that she obligated herself towards him by choosing to marry him and it was wrong of her to not follow through.  Some denouncing what the husband did as immature, others the wife for being frigid.  In general it appeared to me that people were more sympathetic towards the husband (although not always approving of his tactics) which makes sense as most couples do have sex more than 3 times a month.

Obviously we do not know the full story of this couple but it raises some worthwhile questions.  Is there an obligation for a spouse to be intimate with their partner, and if so, how often?  Is it wrong for a spouse to express dissatisfaction with how frequently they are intimate?  How do you resolve situations of this nature?

This is related to the question: 'Is having sex a a need or a want', and like most questions that come up about sexual relationships, this is not a simple yes or no question.  If we look at Paul's counsel in 1 Cor 7:2-5, he refers to rejecting intimacy with one's spouse as defrauding them.

We can also look at what Elder Richard G. Scott said in the Priesthood session of the April 2000 General Conference:
When we were created, Father in Heaven put in our body the capacity to stir powerful emotions. Within the covenant of marriage, when properly used in ways acceptable to both and to the Lord, those emotions open the doors for children to come to earth. Such sacred expressions of love are an essential part of the covenant of marriage.
However it would be wrong to take that as meaning that every single time one spouse desires sexual intimacy that the other is obligated to comply no matter what.  Elder Scott went on to say:
There are times, brethren, when you need to restrain those feelings. There are times when you need to allow their full expression. Let the Lord guide you in ways that will enrich your marriage.
And likewise Paul's counsel included that couples could refrain for a short time by mutual consent for righteous purposes.

The difference between defrauding one's spouse of intimacy and righteous restraint lies in the reason.  Are we obligated to be kind, charitable, considerate of our spouse's feelings and needs, and willing to serve our spouse in love to the best of our ability?  As people who have covenanted to follow Christ we are, so we can't then justify rejecting a spouse if that rejection is based on selfishly putting our own desires above the stewardship we have towards our spouse.  If however something like illness, exhaustion, other obligations that leave no time for sex, or serious unresolved relationship problems are what is preventing us from going ahead with it then restraint is appropriate.

While one couple may have sex every day, or nearly every day, and another couple may rarely have sex, as long as both spouses are happy and feel their needs are at least adequatly met there is no problem.  It is rare for both spouses to need the same frequency of sexual intimacy their partner does to feel sexually fulfilled so finding a point where both are happy and fulfilled can take some effort.

The tricky thing is that neither spouse should feel pressured to perform sexually or pressured to repress their desires either.  Those desires are from God as Elder Scott (and others) have indicated.  While they do need to be temporarily restrained sometimes and controlled, they should not be repressed and eliminated.

If a spouse feels pressured to be intimate, some introspection is called for.  Pressure requires resistance, so if one feels pressured, where is the resistance coming from?  What perceived consequence is being avoided?  Is the resistance the result of some idea about sex or marriage that is incorrect, or some selfish impulse, or is it a situation like the ones mentioned above where restraint is the right choice?  If you know where the resistance is coming from, you can know if you should drop that resistance or not.

Communication is an important tool to prevent misunderstanding and hurt feelings.  Responding to a spouse with a flat 'No' when they try to initiate intimacy is far more likely to wound than a gentle explanation of what obstacles stand in the way of saying 'Yes'.  Even if those obstacles are not things that can be resolved that day it helps to prevent feelings of personal rejection.

If the frequency of sexual encounters is not meeting the needs of one spouse (as in the case of 'Spreadsheet Guy', they need to communicate that without making anybody feel accused or attacked.  It is often true that a spouse who refuses intimacy frequently also overestimates how often they have sex, so sometimes some factual historical data is useful, but in this case it was presented vindictively.  Even when presented in kind way, there is always a chance that a conversation of this nature could become very tense, and if so it would be good to follow the advice in How to Fight with your spouse (and why you should).

In a nutshell, the obligation is not really to have sex, or to meet some target for how often sexual intimacy takes place.  The obligation we have as people trying to be Christ-like is to be loving, generous and kind towards our spouse. If the situation is such that one spouse desires intimacy but it would be a negative experience for the other spouse, that kindness is manifested by that spouse exercising temporary restraint on their desires and both working to overcome the obstacles quickly.  If there are no such obstacles, then kindness is shown by the other spouse willingly and happily doing what they can to meet their spouse's needs.

I feel safe saying that the spreadsheet couple were not acting in that way.  Hopefully they have both taken a closer look at what each of them is doing and made some positive changes.  Ask yourself however what your spouse's spreadsheet would look like if they kept track the same way, and what could you do to make it a record to be proud of.