Last week, I wrote about advice given by Nashville Statement signer Rosaria Butterfield to a heterosexually married woman who fell in love with a woman. In addition, this woman had come to dislike her husband greatly and had not been intimate with him for over a year. Butterfield’s answer to the intimacy problem was for the woman to submit to sex often, even though she said she couldn’t bear it. My strong criticism of this generated intense discussion and questions about what I would do in such a situation. This post addresses those questions.
I don’t have to speculate since I have encountered scores of these counseling situations over the years with both straight and mixed orientation couples. Let’s review Butterfield’s scenario:
Sitting across from me at the kitchen table this afternoon, you poured out your heart. When you married your high school sweetheart at 19, you never once suspected you would be in this place. Now, at 39, after twenty years of marriage, you call yourself gay.
In tears, you tell me that you have “come out,” and that you’re not looking back. You haven’t had an affair. Yet. But there is this woman you met at the gym. You work out with her every morning, and you text with her throughout the day.
Even though you are a covenant member of a faithful church, sit under solid preaching, and put up a good front for the children, you have been inwardly despising your husband for some time now. Hearing him read the Bible makes you cringe. You haven’t been intimate with him for over a year now. You tell me you can’t bear it.
Apparently, according to Butterfield, the kitchen table woman is considering an exit from the marriage to be with the gym woman. Butterfield denies that the woman is gay since, in her mind, sexual orientation isn’t a category of existence. She cautions the woman against destroying the family, urges her to repent, submit to her husband’s leadership, and have sex often. It is the last bit of advice that I called the worst advice ever. Butterfield said:
Second, embrace the calling that God has given to you to be your husband’s wife. Your marriage is no arbitrary accident; God called you to it in his perfect providence. And God’s providence is your protection.
Your lot has fallen in pleasant places (Psalm 16:6). Pray for eyes to see this. Recommit yourself to one-flesh love with your husband. Pray together that your hearts would be knit together through Christ. Make time to talk honestly with your husband about how your body works. Show him. Make time to preserve your marriage bed as a place of joy and comfort and pleasure. Have sexual intercourse often. This is God’s medicine for a healthy marriage. One-fleshness is certainly more than sex, but it is not less than sex. Your husband is not your roommate. Treating him as such is sin.
Based on my experience, I think Butterfield’s advice, if followed by the woman in her current emotional state, would hasten the demise of that marriage.
What is a Better Approach?
The first thing I would do in this case is to determine who the client is. Is it the woman or the marriage? If she came in to see me alone then I would work with her to pursue her goals in accord with the sexual identity therapy framework I developed along with Mark Yarhouse. We work within the value framework of the client after a vigorous process of clarifying values and beliefs.* This might mean the marriage might never be the focus.
Even though I would focus on her values and beliefs initially, I would certainly ask if she had any interest in saving the marriage. If she did, I would recommend that the husband come in as well. If he agreed, then the couple and relationship would become the focus. For the sake of discussion, I will assume she has some interest in saving the marriage.
Intimacy is always a focus on marriage counseling but can never be forced. Especially in the church, there is a power differential between men and women. Counselors must be sensitive to this and treat each member of the couple with dignity and equal respect. No one is to be shamed for sexual desires nor should anyone be shamed for lack of sexual desire. The partner who is more interested in sex must understand that intimacy cannot be forced or coerced from the partner less interested in it. This truth applies to so many situations in marriage, not just the one in the Butterfield scenario.
Full personal histories and a history of their relationship would need to be fleshed out with all of the triumphs and failures. Circumstances surrounding courtship, marriage and births are critical to the development of their story. We want to figure out how the current crisis fits into the ongoing narrative. This is standard counseling work but it sets the stage for making intelligent recommendations tailored to the couple in the room.
I have worked with dozens of Christian couples who have implemented some form of Butterfield’s advice prior to seeing me. When women have done this against their will, the results have been resentment and anger. The marriage deteriorated to the point that counseling was a last resort before seeing the lawyer. I recall one case in particular where the a woman not only left her husband but left her church and lost her faith. Her husband had required her to see the elders on more than one occasion because sexual frequency wasn’t to his liking. Even after he realized how degrading the whole thing was, it was too late. She had enough.
Another woman complained of pain in intercourse but was forbidden by her husband of seeing a gynecologist. After she went anyway, it turned out she had a medical reason why intercourse was painful. When this information was shared with her husband and the pastor, it didn’t matter. She was still required to fulfill her wifely duty because it couldn’t be that bad. She had children after all. That was it, the marriage was over. There are too many more stories.
In the context of mixed orientation marriages, some marriages have stayed together and some haven’t. Some women are bisexual, decide that the family is irreplaceable and worth more than another relationship. Other women determine that they lied at the beginning, were never straight and feel horrible about it. The couples decide it would be best to end the relationship for everybody concerned. Some gay people (I call them spousosexual) have sufficient fluidity in their orientation that they fall in love with one member of the opposite sex without losing their general attraction to the same sex. Although I don’t think it is common, some of those marriages survive. The point is that the one-size-fits-all advice offered by Butterfield to woman who have resentment against their husbands would almost never fit anyone and should be removed from the web. I can only see pain and destruction coming from it in the context it was offered.
What About I Corinthans 7?
Let me close by saying a word about those who protest by appealing to I Corinthians 7. Here is the passage:
7 Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
First, Paul said that he wrote this as “a concession, not as a command.” Now, I am not a theologian, I am not from Nashville, nor have I ever been a theologian in Nashville signing important documents, but it seems like it is important to note that this instruction isn’t a command. Those are not my words, but Paul’s.
As an aside, Paul said he wished everyone could be single. Does that mean God’s design is singleness? He said everyone has their own gift. What does that say about the person who never has had an opposite sex attraction?
Back to the passage, I recognize that this sounds like marriage is a kind of a transaction, each person has a duty. There is a sense in which this is true in a normal marriage. When people are basically happy with each other and want to have sex, then Paul said they should not deprive each other. Paul started off the instruction by saying he didn’t think it was good for a man to touch a woman (is that God’s design?), so he had to make it clear that for those who are married and want to have sex, he would make a concession and say it was fine for this occur. In the face of some killjoy saying “no sex,” Butterfield’s advice is great.
However, a little later in the passage, Paul gets to the situation Butterfield encounters in her article.
10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.
Butterfield’s kitchen table lady might leave her husband according to Paul but she shouldn’t remarry, nor should he remarry. I know mixed orientation couples who have an uneasy separation along these lines because living together was too confusing and painful. Of course, that result is not ideal, but it appears to be one envisioned even by a literal reading of I Corinthians.
In short, I don’t think Butterfield’s advice is a proper application of I Corinthians 7 to a marriage where both partners are not invested in the marriage.
*For more on sexual identity therapy, see these articles in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal as well as the SIT website.