Recently I received the following question, “How does a Catholic man survive in a sexless marriage? I love my wife very much.” This can be a very challenging situation. I commend the man for asking this because it tells me he loves his wife and his faith.
It is not too hard to find out what the Church says (see the list below) about fidelity in marriage. The Church also talks about how sexual relations outside marriage are violations of the Sixth Commandment against adultery. Marriage is meant to be a loving act of intimacy expressed by a man and woman united in the Sacrament of Marriage.
I suspect the man who asked this question is aware of the Church teaching about sex and marriage or he would not have asked the question. I’m glad to see both his wife and his faith is important to him.
I think the heart of the matter here lies in an understanding of the question of what is “chastity” and what might seem like natural biological desires. I will start with the natural biological urges first. Our desire for sexual intimacy is indeed natural. Sexual intimacy serves the same two purposes as marriage. Marriage is for the unity of a man and woman and for procreation. It is natural and necessary for us to desire to procreate. By necessary, I mean if no man and woman bore children, the human race would cease to exist when all the current living people died. Sex within marriage is meant to be an expression of the man and woman coming together in loving intimacy. When done for intimacy within a valid marriage, sexual activity is a good thing.
The problem is that many people today see a third purpose for sex and they put this purpose at the top, physical pleasure. When something brings us physical pleasure, we can be very motivated towards it and see it as a good. Yet, if sexual activity becomes centered on the physical pleasure, it misses its true purpose, intimacy. When we seek sexual activity with others simply for physical pleasure, we are treating the other person as an object to bring us this pleasure. This misses of the dignity of that person. I will add here that if this is the way you feel about the other person, that they are simply a means to a pleasure, how likely is it that they feel the same way about you, that you are just an object for their pleasure (that would mean you don’t matter to them).
Here I also want to clarify something. I have using the phrase “sexual activity” more than “sexual intimacy.” This is deliberate. “Sexual activity” should always be “sexual intimacy” but when it is used with the physical pleasure as the goal, it is not intimacy and it falls short of God’s intended purpose for the act.
Going back to the man’s question, “How does a Catholic man survive in a sexless marriage?,” if a person sees physical pleasure as the goal of sexual activity and that is good, then masturbation may seem to be a valid solution here. I suspect here that this man is already aware that the Catholic Church sees masturbation as bad because it centers on the physical pleasure rather than the purpose of two people coming together as a loving husband and wife.
What about “chastity”? See in an overly simplistic sense, “chastity” has sometimes focuses only on the time before marriage and once one is married, “sex” becomes okay and chastity is no longer a question. Chastity is not just a prohibition against sexual activity before marriage. Every person is called to be “chaste” their entire life. That does not mean that married people aren’t supposed to have sex. To be chaste in the proper sense is to look at the person with love and compassion, to see them as a gift from God for who they are, not the physical pleasure they can be. I believe the man knows this and strives to live this out when he said, “I love my wife very much.”
So what is one to do in a sexless marriage? I am going to make one assumption here. Generally, when someone asks this question, the person is in a marriage where they once were sexually intimate with their spouse but no longer are because of medical issues or some people “lose interest” in sexual intimacy as they grow older. It does also happen that someone simply does not feel “good” about sexual activity at any point in their lives. This might be because of physical issues (here it might be possible to see a doctor who sees sexual intimacy as a loving act and address medical issues with ethical treatments), emotional issues, or sexual abuse. In any of these situations, the spouse who (still) desires sexual intimacy must first always focus their thoughts on their love for their spouse as a person gifted with life from God.
What can a person do with his or her own desires for physical intimacy? First, in a world full of images on TV, Internet, and even billboards that say sex is okay, we need to ask God for the strength to turn away from those images that can intensify our physical desires. We need to change the “channel”. Here one might ask for the intercession of St. Maria Goretti who died rather than allow herself to be raped or perhaps St. Augustine who knew what it was like to struggle to be chaste.
Secondly, to understand that intimacy is much more than just “sex.” Find ways to be close to your spouse without physical sex. What do you enjoy doing with your spouse? What does your spouse enjoy doing with you? What brings you closer together? What makes you feel “whole”? That is real intimacy.
I do not expect this to fully answer the man’s question. For others, it may raise more questions than it answers. I hope it is a start. You can feel free to ask more questions.
For further reading:
- “The Sacrament of Marriage” – this is an article on my website about Catholic teaching and Marriage
- Catechism of the Catholic Church Catechism of the Catholic Church. Second Edition. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997.
- Paragraphs 1601 – 1666 “The Sacrament of Matrimony”
- Paragraphs 2331 – 2400 “The Sixth Commandment”
- USCCB, United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. Washington, DC: USCCB, 2006.
- Chapter 6 – “Man and Woman in the Beginning”
- Chapter 21 – “The Sacrament of Marriage”
- Chapter 30 “The Sixth Commandment: Marital Fidelity”
But how can I open myself to be intimate in other ways (doing things together, talking…) when I’m being denied that physical part of intimacy most proper to marriage?
I’m being rejected by my own spouse who promised to accept me.
A sexless marriage lacks both the unitive and the procreative aspects of marriage. What can I possible strive for?
First, I pray for you as you face a difficult situation.
Without being able to speak to face to face, it is difficult for me to offer specific guidance. So, I will offer some general suggestions for you to take to prayer. Is your wife not physically able to engage in sexual intimacy because of health issues? If she is not able to, then, as difficult as it may be for you, she is not rejecting you. Perhaps she might be struggling with the lack of sexual intimacy herself. If she is unable to engage in sexual intimacy, please also think about your wedding vows, “sickness and in health,” and ask God for the grace you need.
Looking at it from another way, if she is able to engage in sexual intimacy but chooses not to, do you have know why? Is it painful for her? Can a doctor help? Or is there something in her past, perhaps past abuse from someone else that makes sexual intimacy difficult to bear because it reminds her of past emotional and/or physical pain with the abuse? Has she sought help to deal with any issues from the past? How can you support her in that? In prayer you can ask God for the grace to realize it is not you she is rejecting but the past pain.
I turn now to your final comment, “A sexless marriage lacks both the unitive and the procreative aspects of marriage. What can I possibly strive for?” I invite you to take what I have already commented on to prayer and relfect on the following. If she is unable to engage in sexual intimacy because of physical health issues, that makes the expression of the unitive aspect of marriage different but it does not stop the unity. If she finds sexual intimacy difficult because of past abuse, she may be facing the same struggle as you for the unitive aspect. Whatever reason there is for her lack of sexual intimacy, in its understanding of procreation, the Church includes adoption here. I know there can be a strong desire for biological children of your own but ask God for the grace to offer your desire for children to accept a child in adoption who does not have their biological parents to care for them.
There are other reasons why a person may not engage in sexual intimacy. Whatever the reason, ask God for the grace of understanding.