It is natural for a man to be attracted to, drawn into, sexual activity by the prospect of the pleasure he will attain in it: we are naturally made to be sensitive to that, to want it! (If God attached such pleasure to the marital act, how could He critical of our pursuit of it – as long as that pleasure is intertwined with the purposes of the act, and not divorced from them?)
How can we prevent the sexual urge toward marital relations from becoming merely selfish, motivated only by a focus on our own pleasure? How can we move into lovemaking, looking forward to its delights, but also with a concern for something than pleasure: a generous and loving concern for our spouse, a desire to express our love for her, to bestow delights on her, and to achieve a personal union with her?
Sex is a mutual exchange of gifts, each spouse bestowing his or her body on the other as a source of pleasure and delight, and giving his or her self as an expression of love and desire for a union that is more than physical.
But there is a practical problem here: how do we ask for a “gift” (a specific gift) from someone we love? Genuine gifts are ordinarily “gratuitous” – they are given at the initiative of the giver, not asked for by the receiver. That’s why a Christmas gift that is the result of someone keeping an eye out for something we want, anticipating our wants, and surprising us with something that delights us is so much more special than a gift that someone simply takes off a list of gifts the person is asking for.
The problem is particularly challenging, given that it’s a gift that a man really wants and that only his wife can give him! This can put an urgency in the request that makes it sound like more than just a request. Often, it comes across as a man asking for (or even demanding) something to satisfy his “need” – that need not being loving communion with his wife, but the pleasure of marital relations, the satisfaction of the powerful sexual urge. The “asking” – especially when relations haven’t been frequent recently and when the wife is less impelled by her own desire into having relations – can sometimes become “whining.” A husband who hasn’t had relations in a while (for whatever reason) can often act like a two-and-a-half year old, if he is denied his “request.” And a wife who has had relations more often than she is inclined to can be resentful of being nagged about having them yet more often.
As most readers probably know, this is not an uncommon issue – it’s very commonplace, and, indeed, a perpetual tension in many marriages.
It certainly is important for a wife to understand the power of the sexual urge in her husband, which he has freely and happily chosen to focus on her alone – she has become the unique object of his sexual urge. (This doesn’t mean that other women don’t attract, and even stimulate, him – it means that he tries to turn his focus from any such attractions to the one person to whom he has given himself entirely.) So she needs to be receptive to him, and even to initiate relations herself on occasion (so he doesn’t feel as if he’s always the “beggar”).
But a husband has to take on the serious responsibility of taming his sexual urge. He has to recognize when his wife his tired. He has to recognize that she is not as impelled to have relations as he is. (Of course, there are marriages that are exceptions, where a wife wants lovemaking more than her husband – but the data strongly suggest that this is much less common.) He has to reject the temptation to regard marital intercourse as a satisfaction of his needs. He has to (often) “wrench” his perspective from that temptation by reminding himself that it is an exchange of gifts between two lovers. (Satisfying a need, psychologically, is very far from bestowing a gift.) For many (probably most) men, this is not easy.
Unfortunately, there are precious few resources in our society to encourage him to view his sexual urges this way – as a natural impulse that reaches its mature fulfillment, by our rational choices, in our choice to give, and to receive, a gift. For the most part, society treats the sexual urge simply as a personal need, and marital lovemaking as a mutual satisfaction of personal needs.
As I suggest elsewhere on the website, there is no easy answer to this problem. It requires a significant level of maturity and virtue on the part of both spouses – a selflessness and generosity that leads them to move beyond a focus on their own desires (whether to have, or not to have, marital relations).
The good news is that each spouse in a good marriage can see this personal struggle and effort that his or her spouse is engaged in, and can appreciate and admire it. A husband can see that his wife often accedes to his initiative, out of love for him rather than the kind of sexual urge that he is moved by. A wife can see that her husband often forgoes pressing her to have relations, recognizing that she is too tired or distracted by other problems or that circumstances simply aren’t propitious (in her perspective). They can admire the consideration and kindness in each other, and also forgive the occasional slips into selfishness that afflict every human being.
As always, marital sex has to be human – not a matter of biological needs or preferences.
Learning to think about sex as a gift is the foundation for confronting the ordinary tensions of marriage. And this perspective, lived well, will usually result in a great deal of marital love and sexual delight.