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Question 8.24:
Can a wife refuse to have marital relations with her husband?


Halachically, a woman is not obligated to keep her husband sexually satisfied. Men do have such an obligation toward their wives, but not the reverse. Theoretically speaking, this is an incredible perspective, totally unlike the cultures that Jews lived amongst at the time. So, in biblical times, what did men do in such a situation? Well, until a millenium ago or so, when Rabbeinu Gershom enacted some new legislation, only men and abused wives had the power to initiate a divorce. This meant that there was no way for a woman to get out of an unhappy but not abusive marriage. The courts would get involved in various issues to guarantee her happiness, including sex. Note also that a women refusing marital relations can be deemed "rebellious" and be fined from the money due to her upon divorce, to such an extent that the man will eventually be able to divorce her without any divorce settlement at all. This balances a man's obligation, to some extent. Also note that, in such a case, a real-world beis din would typically try to get them to go to counseling.

Thus, it was assumed that if a man felt that he would be happier without her than with her, he would divorce her. Sex is a significant part of that—but not the only part. Further, it was a given that if the marriage was otherwise happy, the actual divorce wouldn't be necessary—knowing that her husband was miserable enough to consider it would be enough to motivate a loving wife.

What should you do today if you are in such a situation. Here's some advice:

  1. Be careful never to imply to your wife that you thinks she's off kilter or a chemistry set. Not having her feelings taken seriously is a definite turn-off.

  2. See if there is a reason why she's not interested. Is she overtired or overworked? Do you ever do anything romantic when sex is not at issue? [For example, try surprising her with flowers on a day that happens to be during her time of the month, and you can therefore resist the temptation to "cash in" on it.]

  3. Perhaps she prefers being the pursuer than the persued. Since it's not working anyway, you can experiment to see what would happen if you drop the subject for a while.

  4. Try comprimise. Solving problems by comprimise is a key ingrediant in a successful marriage on the intellectual level as well. Totally unrelated to the sexual problem, an inability to see each others side would be itself a problem.

  5. Consider obervance of the halachos of taharas hamishpachah (lit: purity of the family; i.e., the laws about sex). This would guarantee her that for around 12 days a month the marriage will be centered on the head and heart, not the gonads. Deciding to try these halachos may be a good framework with which to begin. It is interesting to note that seven of these twelve days were not part of G-d's original legislation, or even a rabbinic enactment. Rather, they are something women of the early second Temple period took on themselves, and only subsequently became enshrined into custom and law. Perhaps they speak to a need inherent in female sexuality.

  6. See a counselor by yourself. Often, we lack the tools to change what we must. Ask someone for help is like stocking your toolbox.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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