Back in 2014, I asked my readers the title question, “How do you handle a reluctant spouse?” in the context of purity concerns related to intimacy in marriage in the light of instructions in Leviticus 15. My husband gives me all the leeway I’ve ever asked for regarding what I want to do as it relates to holiness in the home. Even though I’m not ethnically Jewish, he gives me full command over the three spheres of the home women rule in Orthodox Judaism: I control the food; I control the Sabbath preparations; and I control purity. What is sacred is totally in my court. It’s pretty cool.
Leviticus 15, at least as interpreted by Orthodox Judaism, maximizes the power of the woman over intimacy: everything depends completely on her body and her calendar. I know I’ve said it before in other posts, but imagine how unique this situation is in the ancient world: A husband’s access to his wife is protected and mitigated by a partnership between God and the wife. In one sense, one could say that because of the law of God, neither the husband and wife are really in control of this potentially extremely volatile aspect of a marriage; however, the playing field is tilted toward the woman because she is the only one who can call niddah, separation, and she is the only one who can call permitted, the end of the separation.
So when I originally asked readers the question, it was because clearly, some husbands would not want to make this switch to limited access. I’m not sure the extent to which the husbands understood Lev. 15 to be a hard limit on their power, but if a husband were particularly keen on the implications of the law, it’s possible that he could see it from afar, thinking that before Lev. 15 he had access on demand; after Lev. 15, his demands would be irrelevant for half of each month.
Here’s the original post from this page (all that was here when Chana responded):
How have you handled the transition to living Leviticus 15’s marital purity regulations (or counseled others to handle the transition) when a spouse has been reluctant or even hostile to making the change?
Would your advice change if the spouse was a nonbeliever verses a believer?
I hope to write a post at some point that brings in the scriptures I feel address this issue, but I value your experience and want to start a discussion first.
Please comment below or link to posts where you’ve addressed this issue. Thank you!
And, now, four years later, perhaps the most important thing I have to say about this situation is that when it comes to intimacy in marriage, both husbands and wives are on the hook to walk a tight respect line.
If a husband refuses to go hands off for two weeks at the request of his wife, something is wrong. That’s not respect.
If, on the other hand, a wife refuses her husband during the permitted two weeks, something is wrong. That’s also not respect.
Respect is the heart of love. It’s not love if there’s no respect for the other person. Someone who wants to serve God by honoring the break but feels compelled by the other to violate his or her conscience for the other person is likely to feel used. Someone who wants to serve God by honoring the permitted time but is refused is likely to feel rejected. What relationship can withstand those kinds of dynamics? That would be cultivating resentment, not intimacy.
I’m not sure if this is the right place to write about a third situation, but instead of proof-texting or whatever I’d intended to do in 2014, I want to write about another type of breakdown, the kind that leads to the “sexless marriage” phenomenon due to either the husband or the wife or both. It’s similar in that it is an indication that something is desperately wrong. It must also be tied to a breakdown in respect in some way, but the connection is more subtle.
I first heard about this phenomenon when a young man I knew made off-hand, bewildered comments about his new wife’s lack of zeal. A wise older woman suggested to him that perhaps childbirth had changed her body and that had something to do with it. Legit, right? I’ve never had a child, but I know all too well that trauma in the body can have unpredictable, lasting, devastating, painful consequences. Of course that could affect how a person experiences intimacy, and that could affect how someone approaches intimacy within marriage.
I don’t know what happened to that couple, but a reason for a situation is not a justification for staying in that situation. By that I mean that if the husband or the wife is not on board get professional help. Yes, it could be health related. Fine: go to a doctor. And if there’s no solution from that doctor, go to a different one. It could be mental health related. Fine: go to a counselor. If it doesn’t work, go to a different one. Emotional trauma is also trauma. It could be spiritual. Fine: go get spiritual help, perhaps from a pastor or priest or rabbi. If that person does not help, go to another one.
Obviously, I’m excluding situations where one person has, God forbid, some kind of challenge or disease or something that hinders that part of the relationship despite the intentions of couple. I’m talking here about willfully neglecting that part of the relationship.
“Easy for you to say, HB. My spouse won’t get help.” That’s what I would expect someone reading this to point out in response to my advice. That’s a problem, and in that situation, I would encourage you to please, please, please get professional counseling yourself–even if you’re going alone. You cannot have your spouse pouring the acid of rejection over you every. single. month. and expect to survive, tethered but isolated, married but functionally single, supposedly one flesh, but entirely alone. It messes with one’s mind. It’s a deferred hope that makes the heart sick. I hope you would object to your spouse pouring acid on your body, and that you would take it seriously as something that is damaging to your life. Take this seriously, too.
I have more to say on this. More about how to survive if you’re not ready or willing to leave such an unhealthy and destructive situation. The short list goes something like this:
1. Give up the anger. Of course you’re right that you have been deeply betrayed by your spouse. It’s incredibly painful. But being right in this case just exacerbates the pain as you bring the guilty party before the courtroom of your mind again and again and again, rehashing the record of wrongs. If you’ve calculated the number of times you’ve been rejected in your marriage based on the number of days you’ve been together, you’re only hurting yourself. It can feel like a triumph: “A-ha! This many rejections, and I am not defeated!” If that’s the case, good for you, but don’t be so sure that is evidence of success. What are you trying to prove by passively subjecting yourself to constant rejection, and beneath the anger, is it possible that you are afraid of something you haven’t yet been able to face? Like maybe an identity crisis of whether or not you’re a desirable, lovable human being; or maybe a crisis of what difference your life makes in the world if you cannot even win the affection of the one closest to you–and others find out about it; or maybe a faith crisis of what will become of your legacy if you never have children and can’t even say you and your spouse are a family?
2. Get help. I covered that already, but it’s worth repeating. Get help for yourself at least. Marital intimacy within Judaism is both a private and community thing. There are obligations–explicit and detailed–for what constitutes appropriate frequency and so on under different circumstances. Someone, male or female, who is rebellious (and it is called rebellion) can be held accountable by the community. Counselors perform a similar function of supporting a person in finding the boundaries of what’s safe for them to subject themselves to from a spouse. Repeated rejection is not safe.
3. Mind your own mitzvahs. (Mitzvahs are commandments.) That sounds harsh, but I use that phrase on myself in all sorts of circumstances to remind myself that I have power over myself only, no one else. You cannot make your spouse faithful or kind or concerned or… anything. How, then, do you handle a reluctant spouse? You release them from your expectations and mind your own mitzvahs. If you’re a woman, it means going through the mikvah–all that careful wedding-night-like preparation–for the sake of the mitzvah of doing your part. Go under the water in wide-eyed disbelief if you must, but do it as your own act of heroism and as a declaration that what you do in this world is in response to the voice of God, not your circumstances. If you’re a man, it means pursuing at the appropriate time even if you think there is no hope. If you get a no, you get a no, but ask anyway as your act of heroism and as your declaration that what you do in this world is in response to the voice of God, not your circumstances. The good you do in this world reaps benefits in the next.
God doesn’t will any of these disrespectful situations within marriage for you. How do I know? His commands tell me that much. Yes, he can use any circumstances to ultimately benefit us in the long game of our lives and eternal lives, but that doesn’t mean he’s behind the circumstances, engineering them. He is good, and he does good, and he has not left you alone.
Great peace to you, Beloved, whoever you are.