What is sexual abuse in marriage?Written by Darby Strickland
What's inside this article
Focus on the Family Canada is dedicated to bringing healing and restoration to couples who are struggling in their marriage. But God’s design for marriage never included abuse, violence or coercive control. Even emotional abuse can bruise or severely harm a person’s heart, mind and soul. If you are in an abusive relationship, go to a safe place and call an emergency helpline. You can find a full list of helplines and shelters across Canada at EndingViolenceCanada.org. If you are in immediate danger or fear for your safety, please call 911.
We recognize that both men and women can be victims of abuse in marriage. However, since most of the victims we hear from are women and Darby Strickland’s counselling experience is with women, this article focuses on wives as the oppressed. Please be aware that these principles apply to both wives and husbands.
One day on our honeymoon I just wanted to go out for a nice dinner. When we got back, I wanted to talk and cuddle. My new husband kept advancing physically, and I put him off in a playful way. I don’t understand what happened next. All of a sudden, he got this odd look in his eye and said, “You cannot disrespect and reject me. Our marriage will not start off like this.” The next thing I knew, he had pinned me down and was physically forcing himself on me. I could tell he was angry, and I was terrified, so I didn’t resist. I had never seen him like that before. To this day, I can’t understand how he could do that to me while I was crying. Didn’t he care that he was scaring and hurting me? – Janet*
As a counsellor, I’ve heard many stories of Christian women like Janet who were raped on their honeymoons. They were conditioned early on in their marriages to be compliant or else be terrorized.
When I began counselling, I didn’t realize that I needed to be alert for sexual abuse in marriage – which includes much more than physical force and rape. Now that I see its prevalence, I’m deeply concerned about the fact that many in the church remain unaware that sexual abuse even occurs in Christian marriages.
Wives often seek counsel for anxiety, depression or sometimes even guilt that they feel about their lack of sexual desire for their husbands. These women are often unaware of what’s at the root of their suffering because they’re confused and can’t see that what’s happening to them is wrong.
Let’s first define what sexual abuse in marriage is and is not.
What is sexual abuse in marriage?
God designed a married couple’s physical relationship to express their emotional and spiritual intimacy. And more deeply than that, a couple’s love for each other is meant to be a picture of how Jesus loves us, his church. Jesus’s love is patient, kind, faithful, self-sacrificing, accepting, honouring, honest and caring. By God’s design, this type of love should characterize a marriage relationship – including a couple’s sexual intimacy.
Sadly, as we look at marriages that involve sexual abuse, we encounter something very different. We see sex being corrupted by those who lust to fulfill their own desires at any cost. In too many marriages, sex is not a picture of loving mutuality and intimacy but is tainted by domination and manipulation.
Marital sexual abuse is a broad term that can encompass many heinous and exploitive acts. The worst violations occur when sex is demanded, required or taken by force, as in instances of rape or forced sex acts. Other abusive acts include the unwanted intrusion of pornography or implements into sex, undesired sexual activities, peeking or spying. Sexual abuse in marriage can be manipulative and coercive. In such cases, an oppressor uses unrelenting pressure or threats to leverage a sexual encounter even after a victim expresses discomfort or refusal.
It’s essential for us to also clarify what marital sexual abuse is not. Many couples struggle with differences in their sexual appetites and comfort levels. In a healthy relationship, couples can discuss, and even debate, their differing physical desires without pressure, fear or rejection. Spouses should be able to express different preferences without either of them imposing their desires on the other in the form of a demand.
Also, not all usage of pornography is abusive. Both the use and the creation of pornography is always sinful, but it’s not abusive unless it’s undesired. Mutually agreed upon evil behaviours are simply wrong – not abusive. Abuse requires coercion.
Abusers love themselves above all else
Abuse is fuelled by entitlement. Entitlement says, “My needs and desires are the priority; it is your job to make me happy.” Abusive entitlement says, “If you fail to fulfill my desires, I will hurt you.” Sexually abusive oppressors believe that they are entitled to sex. They love themselves and their own pleasure to such an extent that they’re willing to harm another person to be satisfied.
Years ago, I came across a study in a book called Real Rape, Real Pain: Help for women sexually assaulted by male partners. The study helped me to better understand what goes on inside an oppressor’s heart. The study asked rapists – of both partners and strangers – why they raped. It found that whether a man rapes a stranger, his wife or his partner, he does so for the same reasons: power, anger, retaliation, sexual arousal from causing pain and fear, a preference for coercive over consensual sex and a deep sense of entitlement.
Husbands do not sexually abuse their wives because sex is a biological need for them that their wives are failing to provide. They don’t do it, as many have claimed, to keep from sinning – from straying from the marriage bed. Husbands who sexually abuse their wives do it because they love themselves and their own pleasure to such an extent that they have no self-control (Consider 2 Timothy 3:2-5). They are willing to be reckless, treacherous, brutal and heartless. Their love for themselves knows no bounds.
Examples of sexual abuse in marriage
As is the case with any sinful behaviour, there tend to be patterns within sexual abuse that can be observed over time. Common characteristics of sexual abuse include unrelenting pressure, callous disregard, unwanted acts, coercion, degradation, accusations of adultery, using sex as a bargaining chip and technological abuses. The following examples of sexual abuse in marriage are just a few stories from Christian women who are married to professing Christian men.
A few weeks ago, my husband started showing me porn clips and asked me to re-enact things in them with him. I try to do it, but it makes me feel dirty – and some of them are painful. I try to tell him that this stuff is not God-honouring, but he says, “You are a prude. God gave me the most frigid, unloving wife on the planet. And if you’re not careful, I will leave you for someone who knows how to love me and fulfill her duty with joy.”
One time, after my gallbladder surgery, we hadn’t had sex for two weeks. When I went to check out at the grocery store, there was no money on our bank card. Later my husband told me that I’d been neglecting him and that I needed to know what it was like to not get what I needed.
Bob wants lots of sex. If I refuse to be intimate with him, he’s rotten to the kids the next day. He becomes so irritable and loud that even our dog cowers. I try to interject and tell him not to be so harsh and punishing. He just barks at me, “If you want me to be in a good mood, it’s your job to put me in one.” Many nights I’ll provide him sex just to spare the children from being hurt.
When I was out with my church friends, Peter would call me every 20 minutes. Sometimes he would find reasons for me to put one of them on the phone to make sure that I was where I said I was. He was convinced I was keeping a lover. When I would get home, he would insist on oral sex, saying that I needed to prove my devotion to him and help him to handle the “stress of doubt” I was putting him through.
I would be nursing, and suddenly Chris would inundate my phone with sexting messages. I told him that they disturbed me. He said that he just wanted to help get me in the mood, since after the baby I wasn’t as interested in sex. One time he convinced me to send him some pictures. Now he threatens me with them, saying that he’ll show my sister what a tramp I am if I can’t keep him happy.
The impact of sexual abuse in marriage
Sexual abuse has devastating impacts on a person, and those impacts are compounded when the abuse occurs in a marriage. Two of those impacts – faith struggles and shame – leave a victim confused and often silent.
Statistics reveal that sexual assault or forced sex occurs in approximately 40 to 45 per cent of marriage relationships that have involved verbal or physical violence. Marital rape occurs in 10 to 14 percent of all marriages. These numbers should alarm us. And they should also cause us to ask why we don’t hear more about it.
We don’t hear more about it because many of its victims remain silent. Women often don’t reveal sexual abuse in marriage – not even in counselling. Shame is a contributing factor to this, but victims often also experience confusion about what’s happening to them. Over the years, I’ve had hundreds of conversations with women who are being sexually abused by their husbands but don’t realize it. They know something is wrong but don’t know what it is.
Sources of confusion
In my experience, there are two primary sources of this confusion.
1. Unbiblical teaching
The first source of confusion is the pervasiveness of unbiblical teaching about sex in marriage. Such teaching places the responsibility for a man’s purity on his wife and her ability to provide unlimited sex. But it’s not a wife’s job to keep her husband from sin; each person is responsible for his or her own sin (see Luke 6:45). Yet church leaders have promoted false beliefs related to this, such as the following:
- Men need sex.
- Withholding sex is always a sin.
- Your spouse has rights to your body, anytime and in anyway.
God’s call for a healthy, willing mutuality is ignored, and sex on demand is made to sound like God’s will. These teachings wrongly portray a God who not only is indifferent to a victim’s suffering but also sanctions it. This creates a wedge in a wife’s relationship with God when she needs him the most. Christians need to be clear about God’s design for sex so that we do not add to the chaos that is already occurring in a victim’s heart and mind.
Oftentimes, bad teaching sets wives up to believe their husbands’ lies that the sexual abuse in marriage is their fault. The misuse of passages such as 1 Corinthians 7:2-5 (which people interpret as saying that sex is women’s “wifely duty”) has compounded these wives’ guilt and suffering. This passage is misused or misunderstood so often that it’s crucial for us to understand what it actually says.
First Corinthians 7:4 combats the idea that since a wife’s body is her husband’s, he is therefore entitled to sex however and whenever he wants it: “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”
If we read that verse to the end, we learn that it’s not only the case that the wife does not have authority over her own body but that the husband likewise does not have authority over his own body – rather, his wife does.
This means that she can tell his body not to do things to her body. Paul is saying here that each spouse has equal and reciprocal authority over the other’s body. So neither spouse can force the other to do anything that they don’t want to do.
Sex should involve both spouses loving and giving pleasure to each other. If one party doesn’t feel comfortable with something, then that thing shouldn’t be done. Sex is never about forcing one person’s will on another or making them feel uncomfortable. It’s about spouses willfully gifting their bodies to each other and committing to use their bodies only in ways that are in accordance with God’s design (see 1 Corinthians 6:16-20).
2. Manipulative tactics
The second contributor to a wife’s confusion is the husband’s manipulative tactics. Abusive men want their wives to believe that they’re responsible for the marriage distress, since a wife’s shame makes her easier to dominate.
Abusers often use coercion to gain consent to their demands. Though coercion itself is obviously abusive, it still contributes to confusion regarding abuse. For example, if a husband asks for sex repeatedly and his wife knows that he will punish her and her children in some way if she doesn’t comply, she may give in to his demand to avoid an escalating outcome.
What’s confusing about coercion is that if the wife acquiesces, she believes that she’s agreed to have sex. It’s then challenging for her to be clear about what’s happened to her. She may feel defiled but think that it’s unreasonable for her to feel this way.
Why aren’t more wives able to clearly state, “My husband sexually abuses me”? Because abusers are also adept at finding excuses to avoid taking responsibility for their demanding ways. They blame alcohol, a stressful job, the temptation of pornography, their jealousy – and especially their spouses. As a wife begins to feel sorry for her husband, this adds to her confusion.
By claiming to be a tortured sufferer in need of relief, a sexually abusive husband preys upon his wife’s kind heart, hoping that she’ll feel sorry for him and then do what he wants. If that doesn’t work, he may escalate to using threats, while still blaming her.
- “If you don’t provide sex, I’ll turn to porn to meet my needs.”
- “I can’t go on like this! So many other women want me. You leave me no choice but to get my needs met elsewhere.”
- “Your constant rejection of me is torturous. I’m better off killing myself than living in this loveless marriage.”
Finally, a husband may even use his own abuse to make his wife feel like she is to blame for his sexual violation of her by making comments such as:
- “I did that because I know you like it dirty.”
- “I’m just jealous of all the other guys you’ve been with. I want what they had.”
- “I’m helping you not to be so frigid.”
- “You act like a whore in bed. I can’t help myself.”
These two tactics – coercion and blame-shifting – make such men very convincing. They leave their victims paralyzed with shame. Is it any wonder, then, that wives who suffer sexual abuse in marriage are vulnerable to confusion about their situation and keep it hidden?
To help these women lift their confusion, we must carefully dispel and dismantle the myths that ensnare them. We can help them identify coercive tactics and make sense of the emotions they’re feeling. We need to refute wrong teaching, expose manipulation, correctly assign blame and reconnect them to a rescuing God who grieves with them and desires to protect them.
To learn more about spiritual abuse and other types of abuse in marriage (such as financial and spiritual abuse), and to access abuse assessments and tools to help victims of oppression, see Is It Abuse? by Darby Strickland.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, we encourage you to contact our care and counselling team at 1.800.661.9800. Our office hours are Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT.
*Names have been changed.
Darby Strickland is a counselor and faculty member for the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation. She is the author of Is it Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims. She is also a contributor to the free web-based training curriculum Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused. Darby has a Master of Divinity degree in Counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary, where she currently teaches a course on counseling people in abusive marriages. She and her husband, John, have three children. Learn more about Darby at her website, darbystrickland.com.
© 2021 Darby A. Strickland. All rights reserved. Used with permission. The article was adapted from Is It Abuse, published by P & R Publishing Company, © 2020 Darby A. Strickland.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.Our recommended resources
Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox