Question about the Church's teaching regarding the marital embrace

I have read a lot of material in which theologians discuss the Church’s teachings on the marital embrace. Overall, I find the teachings quite freeing and beautiful. But one question keeps troubling me.

If a spouse may not say no to a reasonable request for sexual relations with their spouse without committing grave sin, then how is the marital embrace really a self-gift? If one is bound to comply with a request or risk committing sin, how is that a gift?

For example, what if a wife decides to continue conjugal life with her husband after some sexual transgression, but is still dealing with woundedness from his previous actions and his occasional lapses into his old ways, is she bound by the nature of the marriage vows to continue to always comply with his requests? Or do his prior injurious actions release her from the normal obligations, so that if she is struggling with lack of responsiveness or not feeling connected intimately or safely she may ask for a period of a day or a few days of reconnecting and rest before they attempt relations?

I am very confused by this aspect of Church teaching, so if someone could respond either to my general question or to my example, I would appreciate it greatly. Thank you.

The Church recognizes that in some situations a couple may need some help if they want to save the relationship broken by infidelity, alcoholism or other event.

There are for that reasons retreats offered to help with the spiritual aspect and also counselling for the medical aspect if there are psychological issues to be worked out.

If there is reason to believe that the safety of one of the spouses is threatened he/she can request a temporal separation (Church decree, distinct from a civil court separation) of the couple. Hoping always that the individual with the issues can work through them toward an eventual reunification of the couple.

Some couples have been able to save their marriages and worked through the issues that were affecting their happiness and harmony. is one such resource for couples in trouble.

There is bound to be more.

A spouse in an abusive relationship and/or in an abusive situation concerning the children may (and should/must) remove herself from the situation.

If a spouse was wronged by a transgression of the other spouse, and the spouse seeks penance for what they did and by all appearances their desire to restore the marriage seems authentic and not feinted… then yes, the spouse is morally obliged to forgive them and to do their best to maintain harmony in the relationship. i.e. One spouse failing at their vocation doesn’t give you the right to fail with them.

As with countless other situations, we must be careful in understanding what “forgiveness” is. Forgiveness is not a feeling. A spouse that continues to suffer pangs of woundedness and bitterness from a betrayal of some sort does not mean that they have not forgiven. Forgiveness is an action of the will and it is made manifest through how we choose to respond to the person in our words and in our deeds. The sense of loss - of a sacred and exclusive and holy relationship shattered - will almost surely remain for quite a time, and even leave a permanent scar. For the spouse that committed the wrong, if they really are contrite, they will see the pain in their spouse, and so they, too, will suffer a severe pain of remorse from the knowledge of what they have done. Therefore, if the wounded party desires a period of absence from conjugal relations, the offender ought to naturally and even heartily agree to it. To my knowledge, you could even make this official in Heaven’s Court by the offending person requesting a priest to have them do penance in this fashion. This was practiced in the past and still could be practiced today. However, indefinite separation is not and never will be and never can be what married life is suppose to be. An indefinite separation is a victory for the devil.

The best way to minimize this from happening is to set some standards from the beginning. There are far too many practicing Catholic women out there that are married to losers. Maybe they thought it was the best they could get, or that they had to marry right away before it was too late, or that they could “convert” him once they were married. I don’t know. But if you marry a guy that doesn’t have a strong grounding in the faith, you are making yourself a candidate for suffering down the road. I’m in no way unsympathetic towards her, but at the same, when a see a woman that marries a guy that never really had values in the first place, and she’s caught up and suffering in a bad marriage down the road, my jaw isn’t going to drop in shock.

Harsh. I think it’s hard for women because some (not all by any means, but some) really devout men are also of the “women will obey at all times” mindset, and that can be scary. I know I ran into a couple of those while dating, and honestly, it was slightly frightening.

To answer the original post, though, I agree that if your spouse is abusive in some way, you have the right to separate from them to whatever degree is needed to keep you and any kids safe, including emotionally safe.

In my example, I did not mention separation. There are situations where a spouse might have transgressed sexually against their spouse and later sincerely repented and the couple moves forward in their marriage together. But that repentance doesn’t erase the damage that was done and the couple must confront that, and create safer boundaries for sexual behavior. If a wife had been the victim of acts of sexual violence from her husband, or he had insisted upon acting out scenarios from pornography, or had used the notion of the marital debt to his advantage and had used his wife to the point of injury, or had coerced and manipulated her into acts, etc…all of these behaviors seriously violate his wife’s dignity and her feelings of safety with him. If he later converted, and she had always been accustomed to acquiescing, but was struggling with PTSD and fear of physical intimacy, is it acceptable for her to occasionally say “not tonight, honey”, for the sake of waiting a day or a week until they can work through whatever might have triggered her? Sometimes, victims of sexual violence struggle to be able to allow themselves to be sexually vulnerable, because fear and feelings of being dirty or being used overwhelm them.
So my question is, does such a spouse commit a sin if they say “not tonight, honey”?

Spousal love demands a person to be sensitive and accommodating to any difficulties suffered by their husband/wife. A husband in this situation who is aware of his wife’s trauma will consent to a time of abstinence.

It is true in the ordinary sense that marriage involves the couple granting one another access to their body in sexual union. If you are married, you cease to belong only to yourself. The wife belongs to her husband and the husband to his wife (Corinthians). This still needs to be tempered with the fact that each spouse should desire the ultimate good of the other, and therefore will not make burdensome demands of them.

I think the obvious classic examples where a wife is denying herself to her husband for unwholesome and nefarious purposes would be:

  1. Using sex as a bargaining chip
  2. The age-old technique of using sex denial as a weapon in revenge
  3. Using NFP with a contraceptive mentality

Those are pretty clear-cut instances of sinning against charity.

The considerations of a wife’s security and sense of comfort, especially in the case of PTSD, wouldn’t apply here. The husband is “Christ” in the family, and he needs to be considerate to this.

So then it would be safe to say that the obligation is not absolute, nor must it be immediate. I agree with these ideas, because it seems that such limits to the idea of conjugal duty or rights to each other’s bodies would safeguard the precious gift of self. From my perspective, it must be a self-gift each and every occasion of the marital embrace, and not just a once and for all declaration at the altar, by people who are not yet aware of what having an active sexual life is like.
For another example that I have pondered quite a lot, what about a couple that is attempting to overcome infidelity on the part of one spouse. The innocent spouse might struggle greatly to participate in marital relations again, even once they have agreed to forgive and continue that part of their marriage, and even after they have addressed the medical aspects like STDs. I would hope that the innocent spouse is not obliged to comply with any request immediately, even if it seems a reasonable request to the spouse who had previously been unfaithful. Forgiveness is an act of will, but the ability to participate in the marital embrace requires trust and vulnerability, and feelings are a huge part of that.

I suppose however, that these situations are perfect examples of why “hard cases make for bad law”. Still, real people have to wrestle with these very questions, and apply the universal moral law and the teachings of the Church to their own life. And I know, for myself and for others, it is not always an easy thing to just ask a priest.

I think we can look at the spouse’s obligation to sexual openness to one another as being absolute, but not unconditional. Paul isn’t being flowery or figurative. A husband quite literally shares in the ownership of his wife: she belongs to him. A wife quite literally shares in the ownership of the man: he is “her” man. In a glass half empty kind of way, this truth is scary. It suggests a certain domineering possessiveness. In a glass half full kind of way - in the way marriage is intended - it is indescribably beautiful. To willingly give yourself over to somebody and to forfeit the sovereignty that you have over your own body and allow another to have rights over you, puts you into a state of vulnerability and joy that no amount of easy sex or relationships can possibly compete with. There is no state of intimacy that can rival the intimacy of sacramental marriage. In today’s culture, even a lot of married Christians don’t really grasp the terrifying beauty of marriage. This is the reason for my - according to Lookingforjoy - allegedly “harsh” attitude. Marriage is a very beautiful but seriously grave covenant and you need to very discerning in entering into it, which a lot of people are not.

This is far from the entire scope of marriage though: to be a man and yet to have a feminine body belong to you. To be a woman and yet to have belonging to a man as though it were yourself. This is the bodily union, but the husband and wife are sworn to each other to show supernatural charity. To treat the other as they would have themselves be treated, and to desire the good of the other even in excess of the desire for the good of themselves. The epistles affirm with tremendous beauty: “Wives, submit to your husband, as to Christ. Husbands, love your wives, giving yourself up for her as Christ gave himself up for the Church”. Because of this other obligation - to desire the good of the other - the husband cannot in good conscience demand sexual union with the wife even when this union would cause her great pain. Since they are one flesh, he ought to look at her fear & discomfort as though he were causing pain to himself, and why would he possibly want to cause pain to himself? He would not ,and neither would he ever desire the sorrow of his bride. He is bound by charity to love her.

I don’t see why.

A spouse needs to have a reasonably serious reason to deny marital relations, but a need to go slowly in reestablishing a physical relationship after infidelity is (in my opinion) a fairly serious reason.

There are natural consequences to sin, and a natural consequence of infidelity is that it may take quite a while (all the way to never) for a wronged spouse to be able to get back to normal.

Please tell me exactly where in the Catholic teachings (or which books you have read) a spouse can not have a few days off from sex? Even in a marriage where the husband is the utmost gentleman I see NOTHING wrong with a woman not wanting sex for a few days:confused:

I am not familiar with the teaching you say is from theologians. This is from the Catechism:

“The chaste person maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love placed in him. This integrity ensures the unity of the person; it is opposed to any behavior that would impair it. It tolerates neither a double life nor duplicity in speech.” (2338).

I have never understood the Church to tolerate, let alone require, the emotional duplicity you describe. If your husband has done something to cool you, you are entitled (as far as I know) to your human response to that. It is commendable that you want to repair the relationship, but the work of repair would not be helped by mandatory submission to totally unwanted sexual advances.

I think the question might be different if you were asking about a permanent or even very long term state of affairs, but as I understand you it is more of a particular instance where you feel the Church compels your submission. Again, not as I understand it. I could be wrong.

Yes. Catholic teaching is NOT that one spouse must always say yes to the other spouse’s request for sex no matter what. For example, if the spouses have a huge fight and one spouse yells hurtful things at the other one, and then two minutes later wants to have sex, it is not a requirement for the other spouse to say yes. As you say, that’s not self-giving love, but coercion.

If one spouse never says yes to sex, then I would say that the proper thing to do is for the spouse who keeps being rejected to in a spirit of generosity and charity ask what is wrong and how they can be more loving.

Thank you for sharing this is extremely beautiful! I read it three times and I agree completely, I have learned over time that the intimacy of the two becoming one flesh really is a lot deeper than I ever imagined. The spouses can neither ask for intimacy, nor deny intimacy out of selfishness. I cannot use my husband as a “sex toy”, I also cannot use my husband’s emotions to “get even” with him when I am not in the mood.

**Keeping close to God is key here. ** When it comes to sex in a marriage the couple has to do regular examinations of conscience, as the dynamic can be changing constantly. Did he say “no” to get even or was it reasonable? Did she ask him for sex just to be manipulative or was it loving? Did he ask her for sex just to be manipulative or was it loving? Has she been saying “no” a lot lately and perhaps needs to examine why and seek medical attention as her husband is feeling lonely?

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