On the duty of wives to render the marriage debt to their husbands

There has been a lot of publicity lately over Afghanistan’s new law which absolves a husband of his duty to feed his wive if she is derelict in her duty to have sex with her husband.  The original law said that a wife should accomodate her husband every four days.  There is a certain logic to the law:  husbands are obliged to support their wives; wives are obliged to put out for their husbands.  Why should party A carry out his end if party B isn’t carrying out hers?  The reason, of course, is the logic of marriage itself.  Marriage is not a contract between self-seeking individuals.  It’s a reciprocal act of total self-donation.  Therefore, the duty of each party to the other is unconditional; it is independent of the behavior of the other party.  Consider the opposite case:  suppose the husband lost his job, and the family had to live for a time off of charity or the public dole.  Would anyone say that the wife would be right in depriving her husband of his conjugal rights?  Wouldn’t this be a heartless way to treat a man already down on his luck?

Of course, we in the West have been brought up to believe that wives have no duties to their husbands whatsoever–this would impair their all-trumping freedom–and a woman should never have sex unless she feels like it.  Heaven forbid that a woman do something from a sense of duty or a desire to please someone she claims to love!  The average westerner would be outraged to learn that Christianity has always held, and continues to hold, the doctrine that wives have a duty to sleep with their husbands.  Here’s Saint Paul:

The husband should fulfill his conjugal obligations toward his wife, the wife hers toward her husband.  A wife does not belong to herself but to her husband; equally, a husband does not belong to himself, but to his wife.  Do not deprive one another, unless perhaps by mutual consent for a time, to devote yourselves to prayer.

—-1 Corinthians 7:3-5

Notice that the wife also has a claim on her husband’s body.  Given the differences of need and desire between the two sexes, this claim has more to do with her right to the fruits of her husband’s labor and his duty to take care of the more physically arduous tasks around the house.  The husband’s right over his wife’s body, however, refers to his right to children.  To speak bluntly, if women only had sex when they were “in the mood”, the human race might soon perish.

There is, admittedly, a practical problem:  namely, that one partner (the man) desires sex much more often than the other (the woman).  (You may have been brought up being told that men and women are identical in this regard.  This is a lie, and everyone knows it.  Everyone, that is, except those poor young women who think there’s something wrong with them and waste their days reading magazine articles about how to “improve” their sex lives.)  Actually, I think this is a case where we can see something of Divine Providence.  You see, it creates a situation in which each partner can charitably defer to the other.  In an ideal case, the couple would couple often enough for the race to continue, but not enough to satisfy the husband’s concupiscence.  Remember, God doesn’t care about the satisfaction of men’s carnal desires; He cares about the generation of a next generation.  Therefore, I propose that the “natural” timescale for this duty should be once a month, to correspond to the woman’s fertility cycle.  A woman may, if she chooses, accomodate her husband more often, but she shouldn’t feel obliged.  Of course, there may be extenuating circumstances (e.g. illness, infertility) which absolve a wife of her conjugal duties.  Also, the Church allows a couple to take vows of continence if both partners agree.  Obviously, there is no sin of omission in such cases.

Suppose a wife refuses to sleep with her husband once a month.  What can her husband do?  He can try to soften her heart with acts of kindness and by trying to make himself appealing to her.  He can pray for God to change her mind.  He must always meet all his obligations to his wife, because, as I’ve said, these duties bind him regardless of his wife’s behavior.

I know many of you are thinking, “Oh, you horrible man!  How can you say that women have to have sex once a month even if they don’t feel like it?  That’s no different than rape!”  Actually, it is not like rape at all.  Rape is coercion; what I’m talking about is duty, and duty is the exact opposite of coercion.  To impose on someone’s sense of duty is to treat her as a person with free will and to appeal to her moral center.  Physical coercion circumvents this moral center, and treats the other as recalcitrant matter to be bent to one’s will.  I would even say that we show more respect for someone by appealing to his duties than by appealing to his self-interest.  I can’t see how it’s more respectful to women to expect them to act only from their own self-interests.

One Response

  1. […] Let me pose a question about Divine Providence:  why did God make it so hard to be chaste?   A typical man must, if he wants to avoid sin, endure more than a decade, sometimes more than two, of sexually mature celibacy before getting married.  Then after marriage, his ability to enjoy his wife is (again assuming he wants to avoid sin) limited by how many children he can support.  As a final cruelty, many wives lose sexual interest in their husbands shortly after marriage and refuse to sleep with them.  (See these harrowing stories from Sunshine Mary, also Baumeister and Vohs’ shockingly honest–for academic writing–ruminations on sexual economics.  I’ve also raised the issue before.)  In today’s perverse world, it’s actually easier to get laid outside of marriage than in.  Even those men (the majority) who don’t have women throwing opportunities for fornication at them must endure the constant temptations of pornography and masturbation.  It seems like God is just setting men up to fail.  (Women too, although they tend not to realize the gravity of the sexual sins to which they are prone:  contraception, pornographic “romance fiction”, divorce, refusal to render the marriage debt…) […]

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