The word ‘abstinence’ can evoke mixed feelings. Teetotalers breaking bottles of booze; young lovers straining to wait until marriage; observers of Lent giving up desirable foods; addicts making a stand against their addictions.
Abstinence means a refraining from certain activities or objects, to achieve certain positive things and/or to avoid negative effects. Spousal abstinence from the marital act, while less often considered among the various ‘abstinences,’ can be especially fruitful. Choosing to forego one expression of love precisely as an expression of love: what can seem counterintuitive can be one of the great lessons, and ultimately gifts, of marriage.
The issue of when and how to express love in marriage is, perhaps to the surprise of the newly married, one of the central challenges of spouses. In play here are not only basic issues of character but also the natural differences of man and woman.
Here is a brief consideration from a man’s side. A key disposition I must cultivate is that of looking to the needs and desires of my wife. I make bold to suggest, from a more retrospective glance, that this thorny challenge in the realm of intimacy is no design flaw. Rather, a man has a unique opportunity here to learn and practice precisely something he urgently needs to learn and practice.
Taken for granted is not that men are slaves of their bodily drives but rather that they do struggle more to integrate these drives with the ‘personal’ and deeper aspects of the marital relationship. This challenge, as all the respective challenges that men and women face, stems in part from a strength, or we might say from a positive aspect of the natural design. In other words, that a man is inclined here differently from a woman has a good reason and is in fact a gift, which becomes clear precisely when it is rectified and comes to fruition through the discipline of love.
At the same time, when not rectified, this can become a uniquely painful instantiation of the selfishness we all must overcome and that tends to show up differently in men and women.
In short, my suggestion is that well-discerned, rightly timed, and generously made offers to abstain are one of the best ways—in fact, I think, essential ways—a man at once shows that he really loves and also grows in that love. This comes not of a conviction that marital intimacy is peripheral or somehow unimportant in marriage. Quite the contrary. This is part and parcel of recognizing marital intimacy for what it really is: an utterly astounding reality the very nature of which is a call, indeed a demand, really to see and love each other.
Details here can be left in ellipsis. We might simply note how fitting it is that a woman, a wife, experience that her husband is willing to forego something he so desires: a willingness stemming, perhaps at long last, from a growing understanding of… of what?… of her. Her.
Odysseus says to Nausikaa: “…the best thing in the world being a strong house held in serenity where man and wife agree. Woe to their enemies, joy to their friends! But all this they know the best.” Indeed, all this they know best, from the inside, from hard won experience. And they rejoice together in a gift that continues to amaze them. ~ ~ ~
Perhaps some such abstinence might be part of a mutual approach to Lent.
This brief Video addresses a husband’s offer to abstain. . . Also:
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Husband, father, and professor of Philosophy. LifeCraft springs from one conviction: there is an ancient wisdom about how to live the good life in our homes, with our families; and it is worth our time to hearken to it. Let’s rediscover it together. Learn more.