Retaliating against a spouse who refuses sex

Is it every morally licit to retaliate, in any way, against a spouse who refuses sex?

For the sake of this thread, let’s assume two things:

  1. We are talking about non-violent, non-abusive, legal forms of retaliation like refusing to clean the house or take out the trash. Maybe even refusing to sleep in the same room or never mow the lawn.

  2. We are not talking about whether or not this is an effective method of getting what you want.

  3. The marriage is otherwise normal–there is simply a huge asymmetry in the sex drives of the spouses and one of the spouses will only have sex when they are in the mood.

I hope that this thread does not degenerate too quickly.

I sympathize with your dilemma/pain, however, Jesus never spoke of using retaliation of any kind. These things usually come down to communication problems. May I suggest a Catholic program of rediscovery, Retrouvaille ( It can be a lifeline for your marriage & they do not shy away from any issues.

It woudn’t be morally licit because retaliation lacks charity. Also, not likely to remedy the situation but likely to make it worse.

Hmm, I don’t think so but then again as someone who has spent 12 years in a sexless marriage (from day 1), I certainly didn’t behave the same as I would have if my spouse did want to have sex with me. But my action, or inaction, was never out of “retaliation”. Maybe that’s just semantics. Sometimes my husband would reveal his disappointment that I wasn’t waiting on him hand and foot as if I was in some kind of happy marriage. Um, no. After so many years of rejection through no fault of my own, there’s just no way I could carry on in such a manner. I feel like there are some natural consequences to all actions including the action of withholding sex (literally zero sex for years). You can’t expect a spouse in that situation to behave normally.

Some people even or especially after marriage, need to be seduced and wooed before they become receptive. This process can take time (not a 5 minute thing)

When my wife’s sex drive is Low I will spend days or weeks encouraging her and reminding her that I Love her. Showing her all the affection she will accept, and waiting for her to be ready to move that intimacy to a more sexual nature.
It certainly can be hard work. That’s the self-sacrificial nature of marriage. Other times the tables are turned, and my wife finds me less receptive than she would like or I fail to rise to her desired occasion - again that’s life. I tend to have very much shorter recovery periods form these times, my wife’s less fecund-able times can last many months.

“Vengance is mine” - God.
ergo: it’s not yours!

I believe it’s all in the intent, and in the effect.

2 examples:

  1. Wife never wants to be intimate. Husband does. He’s frustrated. He takes to doing “other things” on Saturday nites, etc., which are not immoral, i.e., he goes out to a bookstore, drinks coffee, and reads history books, because he is feeling rejected and knows his advances will be unfavorably received and he is trying to avoid feeling hurt (or getting mad at her and hurting her feelings). It’s rather the 2013 equivalent of taking a cold shower.

  2. Wife never wants to be intimate. Husband retaliates and refuses to do laundry or mow the lawn.

Ex. 1 is understandible IMHO, although at some point it’s counterproductive because the marriage suffers. Husband is basically trying to avoid being hurt (or hurting someone else). Ex. 2, IMHO, however, is always wrong, because it is essentially revenge (which is bad enough), worse because it is directed at someone husband is supposed to love above all others.

Effect is important because the effect is very different in the examples.

You should not retaliate because it is lack of charity.

What you are dealing here is a sinful behavior from your partner: according to the bible, neither the husband or the wife have the right to deny sex to the spouse, whatsoever. Instead, after marriage, their bodies belong to each other.

So, treat your spouse as you would treat any other sinner: with lots of patience and charity, seeking that he/she someday will live a holy life, full of God’s joy.


I respectfully suggest you’re approaching this from the wrong direction. Take a look at Ephesians 5:25-33.

“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her.”

That’s powerful. As husbands we are called to hand ourselves over for our wives, not only to the point to death, but also in life and how we live our lives.

So, as husbands we should not so much ask when is it morally licit to take vengenace or punish our wives. Instead, we should ask “how may I best serve my wife according to my God-given vocation?”

I understand how frustrating a sexless marriage can be. I have lived it. However, no matter what our wives do and how it hurts us, we are called to take up the cross and follow Christ first.

Not that you want to be complacent or just accept it. Try retrouvaille (I’m sure I’m mispelling it) or counseling if you can, and communicate with her respectfully and lovingly. Pray she will change. However, if she does not, your own responsibility to love her as Christ loved the Church does not change.

God Bless and I will pray for you!

I am honored to be the subject of your first post! Welcome to the forum and thanks for the advice.

It’s all fine and well to discuss this on a forum, but has the OP actually attempted to discuss his needs with his wife, and find out why she is so uninterested?

Lack of interest in sex can be an initial symptom in many chronic illnesses, anything from depression to fibromyalgia to cancer. Has the wife in this marriage recently (within the past year) actually had a physical exam? I’m not talking about the annual GYN exam that most women get. I’m talking about a complete physical including blood work, and following up on findings.

I’m approaching this from a wife’s point of view, but in our case it was my husband who started exhibiting a lack of interest in sex. After I got over my own feelings of rejection, I was talking with a close friend who is a nurse, and she reminded me of the above. I asked him if he was feeling well, and he reported to me that he felt tired all the time, regardless of whether he was working. He also moans and groans when he gets up in the morning (depressing and maddening to listen to, as I tend to be an early bird.) I insisted he get to a doctor and get a physical. For years, he has only gone to the doctor if he has a specific problem. It took me close to a year of reminders and culminating in actual nagging for him to go to a doctor. I nearly had to drag him there by the ears!

He turned out to have COPD, sky-high cholesterol, hypothyroidism, and a badly enlarged prostate that was irregular with an elevated PSA. The doctor sent him home with a prescription for Lipitor and referrals to a pulmonary function lab and a urologist. He had a prostate biopsy about a week ago, and we’re waiting for results. He also hadn’t been to a dentist in eons, and turned out to require an extraction, three root canals, and I lost count of how many fillings. His gums are sore from gingivitis. He needs a gingivectomy, otherwise, his teeth will start to fall out.

No wonder he wasn’t interested in sex! If someone feels lousy, it’s difficult to work up interest in sex, regardless of the quality of the relationship.

My advice to anyone in a sexless marriage is–start talking with your uninterested spouse, ask questions, and really listen to the answers. If there is no readily discernible reason, there is a communication problem. Learn to listen. You might be shocked at the real reasons. And it would be beyond ludicrous to behave in a retaliatory fashion against someone who had a legitimate reason for their lack of libido. IMHO, it’s ludicrous to retaliate in any case: It never results in a good outcome. It does not address the problem and only leads to escalating resentment. It demonstrates a lack of charity, and in a marriage, it betrays one’s vows to love, honor, and cherish UNDER ALL CIRCUMSTANCES. It is not only sinful, it’s stupid. Most sins are.

Has she had a full medical work up? Some conditions affect sex drive. Tracking hormone levels to see if they follow normal levels may be helpful. Also is she on the pill/shot for contraception? Those kill female sex drive, by completely changing her hormones. That’s one reason the Church recommends NFP. Even if she has zero sex drive, she could at least demonstrate her affection once a week, for love of her spouse. This problem could be much more than sex. Does she welcome other forms of affection? Abusive past?

My husband & I have an agreement. The person who is in the mood initiates, and puts forth the effort until their spouse gets in the mood. It’s worked well for us.

Will pray for you.

Retaliating, whether wrong per se, is always risky. Often it will escalate to the point where each party is retaliating to the other party’s previous retaliation and each retaliation gets worse than the last.

But…sex within marriage is a duty each spouse owes to the other. In that way, a spouse may need reminding that each of you has duties to perform and the marriage is worse off whenever either of you fail to do those duties. If you don’t clean the house, take out the trash, cook dinner, etc, then you both suffer. I don’t really know how a person can properly express this to their spouse without making sex seem like a chore that they simply have to put up with. Because of this, it’s better to involve a preist or good counsellor in the process.


OP, I get the impression from your post – forgive me if I’m wrong – that you’re asking this question because this is a situation you are in and your wife has accused you of sinning by your indirect retaliation against her, and you want to know if her accusation carries any weight. From my understanding of biblical teaching and Catholic tradition, I would say that yes, you are sinning, but so is your wife, and her sin is probably more serious (I say probably because there could be mitigating factors that we don’t know, such as medical problems as mentioned by other posters) because both the Bible and tradition explicitly prohibit denying a spouse sex for frivolous reasons, and not being in the mood falls under that category. It also goes against the traditional Catholic marriage vows.

None of that makes it okay to retaliate, but it does make the resentment and urge to do so understandable. Indeed, one of the big reasons we are not to deny our spouses sex is because it can tempt him or her to sin, and while most Catholics I’ve discussed this with seemed concerned about temptations against chastity, it is just as likely that the denied spouse will be tempted to anger and sinful displays thereof.

I know from experience that being rejected is not only frustrating, it is intensely painful, and embarrassing to talk about. Nonetheless, talking is the only way to solve the problem. I suggest you tell your wife that when she denies you sex because she is not in the mood, it hurts you and you want to lash out by denying her something that you don’t feel like doing, like mowing the lawn.

I think sometimes when we retaliate in this way against a spouse who’s hurt us, it isn’t even really that we’re trying to hurt the other person so much as to show him or her (albeit in a very indirect, passive-aggressive way) what it feels like to be denied something. In some way we hope they’ll get the message, understand, and stop hurting us. It doesn’t work unless the other person has unusual qualities of introspection and honest self-examination.

Has your wife told you why she is refusing sex?

I guess, she probably has lower sex drives???

If this is the case, I think, BOTH of you should learn to accomodate each other. It will be not fair to ask your wife to satisfy your high sex drives while you completely ignore her state of low sex drives.

True. Personally, I see sex when I’m not interested as a way of showing love and concern, like giving a hug or a back rub, but it can help if there is a regular period of time when the spouses agree to give affection without sex – this is a benefit of practicing NFP, but even those who do not do this can get a “break” by abstaining for prayer, as the Bible suggests, or by following something like the Old Testament purity laws (not in a legalistic way, of course). This can also make both parties more interested in getting back together when that time of abstaining is over.

This post really hit home with me. My wife was diagnosed with low testosterone this last year, and yes her sex drive has greatly diminished. She’s in her early 40’s, so this whole thing has really been a struggle. I know what it feels like to hear the word no. It’s not fun, and I reacted in a negative way on many occasions.

Here’s what I found. Refusing to do my part around the house failed miserably! It just caused us to fight more. Talking to our Pastor after confession one day, he told me this was the time to really step it up and show my real love for her. He told me to embrace her and lover her even more when she says no. Funny thing is that it worked!

We’ve still have our moments, but I find that when I accept things the way they are, and not only do my regular duties around the house, but do even more, that’s when she says yes. She does this because she feels loved no matter what.

On another note, I agree that you should seek medical advice as to why the sex drive has disappeared.


The spouse, who refuses the marital request for conjugal sex, has the moral obligation coming from the natural institution and from the natural contract, in order to respect the natural moral regime of the marital act, and thus not to sin, of:

Knowing that the** reasons have to be real, objective, true, fair, realistic, balanced, legitimate and natural; the unilateral refusal of marital act has to be justified by this spouse via some good reasons;**

Being honest with the spouse in explaining the reasons, the causes, the motivations of this refusal of the marital act:** the need to talk and to say in the details and with all the subtelties the “Why” of this situation;**

Visiting **catholic doctors, catholic sexologists, catholic psychologists, catholic priests, catholic ethicists specialized in conjugal issues with a focus on the corporeity and the conjugal sex with all the corollaries; **and of taking the medical treatments (psychological treatments, mental treatments, physical treatments, physiological treatments), the moral treatments, and then the spiritual treatments;

Praying God for the spouse, for the couple and for the conjugal sexual life;

Being kind, affable, lovable and very charitable with the other spouse about all the other issues of the family and of couple: your first devotion is the spouse.

**Not being angry and upset because the other spouse is trying to touch the body of his wife or of her husband, **it is nomal and natural;

Trying to accept the physical tenderness without sex, per se, like a first step for solving the issues (efforts and sacrifices in favor of spouse, of couple, and in fine of the spouse who refuses): in the marriage, there is a presumption of agreement about intimate touchings,** this spouse has to be okay with that, intellectually speaking and morally speaking, per se.**

Not being angry and upset because the other spouse** asks the marital act**, it is normal and natural;

Trying to force himself or herself of practicing the marital act for your spouse, for your couple and in fine for himself or herself: yes,** the marriage means some sexual efforts and some sexual sacrifices, he or she needs to know that**; and of making some sexual efforts and some sexual sacrifices in favor of the husband or of the wife (give her or his body, receive the body of the other spouse), and try to force himself or herself, step by step. Trusting to spouse, for the foreplay and the sexual foreplay done on the body: the preliminaries, the sexual preliminaries (mental, moral, psychological, spiritual, physical, physiologic, sensual and sexual): the massages, the touchings, the kisses, the licks, the suctions on the erogenous parts and on the sexual organs, take long time during the attempting;

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