By Cheryl Dickow
My first job after college graduation was as a “Training Specialist” at a large corporation. I taught computer software classes. It was the mid-80’s and I had all sorts of plans for life. I had just delivered my first son and my sister was his caregiver during my long days at work. I loved my job, I loved my new baby, and I loved my husband. Although the plan was to essentially have it all, I can’t say it was as much my own personal goals as simply the general goals of women my age. Many of us weren’t consciously choosing this life; rather, we were swept along in the tides of liberation. I suppose many of my generation probably felt obligated to at least make a nominal grab at the brass ring, after all, our predecessors had done an awful lot of bra-burning and picketing to make our life better. Right?
So, when a page from a 50’s woman’s magazine made its way around the office, and then was posted in the break room for all of us to see, we chuckled -- as required -- and poked fun at the list of “Wifely Duties” as laid out in the one page copy.
I can remember that day as if it were yesterday because there was something deep down inside of me that stirred in response to that 50’s woman’s magazine. And the stirring wasn’t anger or resentment but a sort of envy. “Hmmm,” I pondered, “what would that life be like?” Her obligations may have appeared a bit different than mine but had to be just as demanding and I would imagine just as fulfilling and frustrating as well. To this day I believe that most of the young women who ridiculed that picture had to have some sort of recognition that “wifely duties” weren’t all bad things. In fact, I’m sure that every woman who laughed at the idea has her own list of “husbandly duties” and wouldn’t think twice of adding to it.
No matter what age they live in, women will always have certain obligations if they have been called to the vocation of marriage. Some obligations will be embraced while others will be considered necessary but unpleasant. This attitude towards these “duties” is certainly affected by the culture, as witnessed from the magazine page all the way through today’s Hollywood messages. Cleaning bathrooms is probably at the top of the “necessary but unpleasant” list, should a woman be asked to make such an inventory. Sadly, however, what may very well compete for one of the top spots of this imaginary “necessary-but-unpleasant” list of wifely duties happens to be sexual relations with her husband.
I will admit right here and now that I’m not big on statistics. It seems that just about anyone can find at least one study done by some particular group or another that will support an argument being put forth. So, I am positive there are studies that will show that many women have stopped having sexual relations with their husband after 15 years of marriage while others will say some enjoy an active sex life well into their 50th year of marriage. But let’s face it, many of us know of someone – and that someone might be you -- for whom marital sex has become a “chore” or is no longer part of the marriage. Or, it may occur once a month or every other month. I know many such women, all with varying reasons, for whom sex is non-existent or barely existent within their marriage.
But is this good for the woman? The marriage? What does this say to the husband? The Catechism of the Catholic Church # 2332 states:
Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others.
In regards to the sexual nature of the married man and woman there is a bond that forms, and continues to develop, that will be unlike any other bond that this same man and woman would be able to form with any other person. To deny the development of this bond is to deny a unique communion of these two people who will otherwise never be able to know such a bond on earth. In other words, the physical intimacy of their union is such that nothing else will ever be like it or will ever produce the same results – whether this means children or an intimacy experienced that is holy and from God.
JPII taught very clearly on the “gift of self” and when a woman understands that gift of self has many dimensions, she will also see that one of those dimensions is the physical way in which she can give herself to her husband. A husband, then, also has obligations as the “receiver” of this gift. Jewish law teaches that a man who pleases his wife is doing a mitzvah – a good deed. This teaching is many thousands of years old and clearly based upon the understanding that God created the martial union for the pleasure of both husband and wife but also in the ways in which it elevates them as pro-creators with God. The rules and regulations of sexual intimacy between a Jewish husband and wife are many and are meant for their mutual benefit. Of those laws there are specific ones in regards to what is not acceptable. This includes exploitation, rape, incest, coercion, or subjugation of another person.
Sex within a marriage is considered sacred. Jewish teaching says that it is a sin not to enjoy sexual intimacy within marriage.
If we can collectively agree that the need to practice self-control is a given part of man’s nature – and we are specifically speaking about “man,” then wives should feel an obligation to at least consider ways in which their denial of sex puts undue strain upon the expectation of a husband’s fidelity. While this does not give a man freedom to place blame on a woman for his infidelity, it does make it necessary for a woman to take responsibility for her decisions regarding withholding sex in a marriage.
The sexual revolution screamed for women to take control of their bodies, to no longer be tied to one man, to have control over their sexual reproduction. When a woman responded to the sexual revolution with an attitude that her body was specifically hers to give or keep, all else became secondary. Most specifically, this attitude ended up in the marriage bed where a woman was now “expected” to withhold herself even if it was just to make a statement. It was all about “her” and not about “them.” Women were now “in charge” of everything and men were on their way to paying the price for whatever role they may or may not have had in the repression of women. Emasculation began in full.
Let’s say this same woman, who no longer gave freely of herself in bed, was married to a man who woke up one Saturday and said, “Honey, I need a break today. Is it okay with you if I don’t cut the lawn?”
All other things being equal – meaning we assume this husband is responsible and a good husband and father – this wife’s response will be something like this, “Sure! There won’t be any problem if it waits till next week.”
The week then passes and Saturday morning the wife fully expects that the lawn will be cut because now it is getting a bit long and the neighbors are eyeing it. The husband wakes up and stretches his arms out and says a bit sheepishly, “Gee, it was good to take a break from cutting the lawn last week. What could another week hurt?” To which the wife’s dismay may be seen on her face but she is willing to let it slide.
By the third week the husband no longer cares about the lawn. The wife could hire someone to cut it but the husband would be furious and she is left seeing her husband in a less than stellar light. This continues and then begins to affect additional aspects of how each views the other. This was a conscious choice of the husband’s, not to cut the lawn. It wasn’t something that was out of his control. This isn’t to say that he was always in the mood to cut the lawn but that, regardless of the mood, it was something that he should be doing.
Is it ridiculous to expect the husband to cut the lawn? I think not.
Is it unreasonable for a wife to give herself to her husband even is she is not “in the mood?” I think not.
But this brings us back to the point where there has to be a common understanding that the union of a husband and a wife is a gift from God. Both ought to come to a place in their marriage where they see this union as a way for them to grow and develop together. Whether they are in the middle of child-bearing years or at a time when the union itself offers an intimacy that can only be had within that union, a married couple should see their sexual relationship as holy and sacred. A husband should learn ways in which he can romance his wife and put her in the mood while a wife should learn ways in which she can still give of herself when the mood doesn’t manifest.
It is not right for a woman to expect faithfulness from her husband and yet stack everything against his being able to be faithful. It also is not right for a husband to always expect his wife to be intimate as her emotional and physical make-up is different than his and requires different stimulus, so to speak. However, and most importantly, it is not right for either a husband and a wife to believe that “duties” are not part of the marriage.
I know a woman who, for physical reasons, began abstaining from relations with her husband. The reasons were legitimate, her ailments real. But as time wore on, and the reasons for abstaining from a sexual relationship began to wane, the physical intimacy did not get re-established. In the interim, her expectations of her husband’s patience for the situation continued to mount. “If he loves me,” she would say, “he will know that I just can’t.” And, of course, he did love her. He loved her tremendously, but his physical needs were just as real as her ailments and as time went on, and he could see that she was not going to make an effort towards the intimacy they once had – even if it would be different because of time and circumstances – and he began to question her love for him. His final, painful conclusion was that she no longer loved him and their marriage ultimately ended.
Surely blame can be laid at the feet of both husband and wife and yet there can be no argument that the husband’s need for physical love from his wife was as real as his wife’s need for abstinence at the outset of her medical condition. But once things began to change, there needed to be a renewed interest in their physical love for one another. Two very real Catholic teachings on marriage are important to understand when discussing a sexual relationship for husband and wife.
The first is to recognize that a married couple’s combined goal is to help one another get to heaven. This involves the day-to-day responsibilities that require patience, perseverance, and commitment to the union and the family unit. In addition, to achieve this goal, both husband and wife must be interested in the faith development of the other and not only support and encourage it but never become a hindrance to it.
The second is to recognize what we read in Matthew 5:27-28:
You have heard that it is said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
In other words, a wife should be cautious and not put her husband in a position where he will surely have committed adultery in his heart, break the sixth commandment, and then fall into mortal sin. The husband still has his own responsibilities and obligations to keep himself from mortal sin but the wife should not become “Eve” in her marriage.
The great Jewish sage, Maimonides wrote:
No prohibition in all the Torah is as difficult to keep as that of forbidden unions and illicit sexual relations.
The knowledge that the physical intimacy that can exist between a husband and a wife is also something that can exist as an urge outside of that union has always been recognized. But just as it is recognized, it is expected to be controlled. Catholicism has long taught the virtue of self-control and it is completely reasonable for a wife to expect that virtue to be practiced by her husband. However, she should not put him in a position that the virtue becomes impossible to attain.
In the end, both a husband and a wife have duties or obligations to one another. The good Lord has made one of those obligations physical and sacred. It is meant for their mutual pleasure and continued growth as man and wife. It can be used as one part of an earthly journey where the ultimate destination is heaven or it can be misused and become a instrument of control or sorrow. For each to fully embrace the gift of physical love, both husband and wife are obligated to fulfill their duties with love, honor, and respect.
Cheryl Dickow is the Associate Editor of www.Woman.CatholicExchange.com an online magazine for Catholic women.