Is it fair/OK to demand faithfulness if one witholds sex?

Dan Savage, the sex columnist, answered a few letters last month about spouses involved in sexless marriages. His general view is that witholding sex can be/is often a form of “emotional violence”

He has received many letters from readers commenting on the topic and his responses here and here.

Two comments stood out in the first set of responses:


On this Board we occasionally see the Thread about someone’s relationship being in the pits. Sometimes it is mentioned that sex is non-existant. A few have stood out as being right in-line with what Dan is speaking about here. There have also been a few Threads I recall (no I will not cite because it could really point fingers) where not only did the partner not want to have sex, they even tried to keep the person from masturbating. Effectively “I don’t enjoy sex, and NEITHER SHOULD YOU because we’re married.”

So, is this right? Because one says “I do” then they are expected to don’t ever stray? Or even to masturbate?

We probably all go through periods of waxing and waneing w.r.t. sex. During pregnancy my spouse doesn’t have much of a sex drive. But she does take matters into her own hands to keep me happy. I fully expect to return to a ‘normal’ sex life after she gives birth and heals a bit. So I recognize that a period of time going without can be expected. But how long should that last? Until death do you part? Potentially going for decades without sex solely because the other partner expects faithfulness seems…well, like too much to ask for.


not really debateable beyond opinion… I mean I feel sex is an important part of a relationship, I have friends who feel sex just get in the way of a good relationship. For some people the two are completely seperate things, for others one involves the other.

all the problems arise when you get two people in a relationship with diferent views on the subject. If you expect sex as a regular thing in your relationship but your partner doesnt then its not that one of you is wrong and the other is right, its just that you have different needs and beliefs. you either find a comprimise you can both live with or consign the relationship to the dustbin of life before (or after in most cases) youve driven each other totally insane.

I agree with you Mordib… but the problem is when the “rules” change after many years of marriage. Getting into a marriage knowing your not getting much sex is bad… but its worse when you didn’t know.

I think sex is part of a healthy and normal adult lifestyle. If you are denied it… you should get a divorce. Its normal to have certain periods without sex… like preganancies or when someone is overloaded with work. Long term I agree its “emotional violence”.

At what point does having sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex become abusive? When does it step over the line to become marital rape?

Yes, witholding can be emotionally abusive, but so conceivably, is pressuring someone to have sex when they really (for whatever reason) don’t want to oblige.

If things have broken down to the point where adultery seems like a workable solution, I would imagine that the marriage, for all intents and purposes, is over. Staying in a relationshipp where compromise requires breaking marriage vows means that either it’s the wrong compromise or the wrong relationship, and that couple probably needs some professional help to get to the bottom of things.

I don’t know that someone else’s poor behaviour can be used as justification for your own but on one level I would go further than Savage - I believe that any withholding of affection is a form of abuse. I’m sure that everyone who has acted coldly toward their partner to punish them (secretly of course) has felt the frisson of glee that indicates that what they are doing is very, very hurtful and very, very wrong.

I think adultery, if agreed to in a sexless relationship, is fine. You can have a working marriage in every other way. There can be love, respect, cooperation, etc.,…just no sex. If it truly isn’t of importance to one party (as opposed to other factors such as menopause, non-medical impotence, etc.) I don’t see why a couple couldn’t factor in a “surrogate” to maintain sexual contact in a marriage.

Well let’s first differentiate from one partner not being in the mood for a few weeks and a true sexless marriage.

This topic is of interest to me because I’ve given advice to a friend of mine who is in a true “sexless marriage.”

They’ve been together for about ten years and have been married for eight. About a year after they started dating she got pregnant, they decided they didn’t want to be a couple that just “married for the kid” but they also didn’t want to not have the child. So they have the kid out of wedlock and live that way for awhile. Eventually they feel they love each other enough and are committed to one another enough and etc etc etc that they get married (I was the best man.) Early in the marriage they have two more kids.

About four years ago, she just basically turns off the sexual relationship.

After about 2 months of no sex he finally confronts her, and asks her why she’s “never in the mood” anymore? For a long time he tries to get something out of her. He was imo very supportive at first. He asked her if it was emotional, if she needed to talk about something with him, or with a professional, did she want to have marriage counselling, was it medical, would she consider perhaps seeing a doctor and etc etc. He didn’t ask all of this at once, as months wore on he kept suggesting more things, she basically just kept her stonewall approach that she just wasn’t “into it.” He’s asked her if it’s him, is she no longer attracted to him, she replies no. Is she no longer in love with him? She replies that isn’t it, either.

He’s never asked her if there is someone else, eventhough I have told him he should.

After about 8 months he someone convinces her into marriage counselling, and they actuall have sex again. However, in his words he said he felt like she was just doing it to appease him, that she had no interest in it whatsoever. Counselling stopped because he said in his opinion there was nothing changing and she seemed to have no interest in the matter.

My friend has had a lot of problems arise out of this. He’s questioning of course if she no longer is attracted to him, if she no longer loves him etc. He’s even questioned if maybe she never loved him but married him because of their first kid. He’s tried his best to get anything out of her but she’s effectively (and quite adeptly from what I hear) dodged the issue for basically four years now.

My friend is an understanding guy. He understands it could be psychological or even medical in nature. But what is he supposed to do when she refuses to tell him what’s wrong and refuses to try and do anything about it? In my opinion I think any rational purpose in a relationship like a marriage has to admit to themselves that something isn’t right if you’re truly not in the mood to have sex with the person you love (as she still says she lvoes him) for a period of four years.

He even had me hire a private investigator for him in an act of ultimate desperation. I might blame myself to a degree on that one, because I long suspected it was someone else, as that’s one frequent reason for a complete shutdown in sex in a marriage. The PI never saw any evidence of it over a period of several weeks, apparently she isn’t involved with another man.

I’m not one to give out unsolicited advice, and in general I don’t, he has however solicited my advice/counsel on this man many times. At one point I just told him he should propose a divorce to her, both in seriousness and perhaps as a way to try and get her to tell him what’s wrong.

Personally, my friend didn’t sign up for a sexless marriage. He’s married to someone that refuses to communicate with him at all on the issue. If there’s some problem she has with HIM she refusees to tell him the truth, and if it’s a problem she has with herself she’s refusing to recognize it or even try to correct it, and in the process is more or less destroying her husband. People have needs, and out of what I consider to be extreme devotion he’s never cheated on her.

Personally if I was in a situation like that, I wouldn’t cheat on my wife. But if she refused to have sex with me, or refused to even explain why for a time period like that, I’d tell her that I was going to divorce her because I need to be in a relationship that meets my needs as a human being.

“Constructive abandonment” is just as valid in divorce court as infidelity, although there are people reluctant to restart their lives due to being witheld sex as they feel obliged to “wait out” thier spouses adulteries.

Why is this? My pet theory is that all but the worst marriage is still better than the dating scene (and I’m only half kiddng about that).

Me and my pet theories aside, I do stand firm on my belief that the term “emotional violence” is bad language. There is only physical violence. There can be emotional abuse, even emotional cruelty, but if we allow for “emotional violence,” as in the moral relativism “unlike boys, girls tend to engage in emotional violence,” then we have to allow that financiers engage in financial violence and fly-fishermen engage in casting-rod violence, etc.

I find it hard to label “adultery with permission” as adultery, in the traditional sense, but that’s not really the point of my reply…

My point is, it’s very unsual for there to be no sex, and still have love, respect, cooperation, etc. It does happen, but usually only when there is a medical condition at work. When the abstinence is by choice of one partner, there are very often other issues at work, as well.

Hehe… I just thought of something. There might be couples out there that both don’t want to have sex… but they have sex because they feel they have to provide sex to their partners ! Obviously lack of communication can lead to all sorts of things.

I don’t understand his confusion, frankly. His wife told him she is just not in the mood. It’s seems pretty clear that her issue is a low sex drive. Why must it be deeper than that? The fact that he hired a PI to snoop on her and keeps hunting for other reasons suggests he is very insecure and distrustful of her. Seriously, I think their problems go beyond just what they appear on the surface.

Now as to why she refuses to do anything about it, well maybe she doesn’t know what to do about it. Or maybe she doesn’t care enough to figure out why. I think the willingness to at least try to accomodate your partner’s needs is the most crucial thing. If he has told her it is a problem for him and she isn’t trying to meet him half way, then she carries some responsibility for driving him away from the relationship.

Marriage is a compromise. Even if one partner had low sex drive, that does not mean the partner should withhold an important part of the relationship from the other for four years! Heck, some men have low taking out the garbage drive.

Martin, has your friend’s wife been to the doctor? Going into Dear Abby mode, isn’t it possible that this is the root of some physical or psychological problem, like depression? Certain drugs (prescribed, not illegal) can depress sex drive. So, it might be deeper.

I wonder what her reaction would be if he announced that he was going to try to find a partner for sex, while not hiding his marital status? That might be a less radical step than divorce. I’m assuming that he likes her, except for this.

I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. I believe that I made a promise (or vow, if you prefer) and the behavior of my spouse in no way excuses me from keeping it. If my husband’s behavior becomes unendurable for me, I would leave him, but I would never, ever be unfaithful.

What about doing it openly? With permission? I feel that the problem with adultery is the lying part, not the sex part. The Bloomsbury crowd seems to have had happy and open marriages. My vow didn’t say anything about sex, but it does prohibit sneaking around and lying.

Maybe. It really doesn’t matter what the reason is if the person has no interest in fixing the problem but still wants to be married for all the other reasons. If that’s the case, I’m sure some couples could agree that they’re going to pursue sex in other places.

I was using the term adultery in its purest form.

If a couple discusses the matter and decides to have an open relationship, more power to them. I agree with you that the problem with adultry is the deception and betrayal aspects, not necessarily the sex.

so, are we all at the point where we agree it’s a lack of communication?

first and foremost, when a problem comes along (you must whip it) you’ve first got to point the finger at yourself and ask what you did to let the situation get out of hand. then, you can point the finger at the other and see what they might have contributed. only after this, i believe, can an adult discussion about disagreement work. problems are rarely the cause of only one individual. usually when they are, or so it seems to me, these tend to be some manifestations of psychological issues (not necessarily freudian, just…baggage).

It’s not cheating if the other partner witholds sex more more than 30 days.

“Faithfulness” means keeping faith, keeping one’s promises and agreements. I would say that it is always acceptable to expect people not to betray commitments.

If one agrees to particular parameters in a relationship, it is the responsibility of the people involved to keep those agreements or renegotiate them if they are untenable. If one has agreed to provide sex, then that holds. If one has agreed to provide sexual exclusivity, then that holds.

But it’s probably not a good idea to make unilateral decisions about whether and when the other person’s failure to keep their agreements excuses you from having to keep your agreements. (Along those lines, I’m presuming that msmith’s “30-day rule” is a joke!)

ISTM that the honorable thing to do is to keep your commitments no matter what; if you can’t tolerate the other person’s not keeping their commitments, get out of the relationship. (Or candidly renegotiate it, if possible.)