Masturbation and Your Marriage

Can We Revisit Masturbation in Marriage?

Masturbation and Your Marriage

I’ve tended to come down pretty hard on masturbation (I really hope there’s not some ugly double entendre there that I’m not seeing) in the past when it’s done for selfish reasons.

In this post, for instance, I went over two scenarios for masturbation:

  • Masturbation and porn use which steals sexual energy from your spouse
  • Turning to masturbation instead of dealing with key issues in your marriage.

I think (hope?) we’d all agree that number one is wrong. You should not be masturbating, especially not to porn, instead of having sex with your spouse, and yet I have letters everyday from women especially whose husbands choose porn and masturbation over them. Not okay.

But what about the second one? Here’s what I said in a previous post on masturbation in marriage:

God gave us our sex drives so that we would be drawn to each other. That uncomfortable feeling of not having intimacy is so bad that it forces us to work on our issues and to improve the relationship…

I have known so many couples where sex starts to become nonexistent because they prefer masturbation to intercourse.

 When you masturbate, it feels more intense immediately, because you give yourself feedback on what feels good.

And you can bring yourself to orgasm without all that hassle of having to make someone else feel good, too! Plus, some spouses are not that skilled at making you feel good, so masturbation can seem preferable.

Even if it doesn’t start off that way, it can become that.

Second, it does change the dynamic of sex. There’s something about unfulfilled sexual desire that makes you long for each other even more.

When you want someone but you can’t have them, but you can text them and tell them what you’re feeling, or you can plan out elaborately what you’re going to do to them that night–well, that can heighten passion.

If you deal with all of that tension yourself, you really do miss out on something together.

And finally, self-control is not a bad thing. To have to channel sexual energy into something else for a time when you can’t get fulfillment teaches you a lot about yourself, about God, and about growing your character. Is it really so bad to have to wait?

What I also said in that post, though, is that touching yourself during sex or as part of foreplay is not masturbation. There is nothing evil, per se, about putting your hands on your genitals. And the problem with masturbation comes in two ways:

  1. When it’s done secretly and shamefully, creating distance between you, in lieu of working on an issue
  2. When it steals sexual energy from your spouse

But are there cases when masturbation in marriage could actually be a kind and helpful thing to do?

That’s the question that I was confronted with late last month when Keith and I were speaking at the FamilyLife Canada conference in Whistler, British Columbia. Here’s the scenario: A woman has tremendous pain during sex (vaginismus), which she is getting treatment for.

She is discouraged and depressed and feeling a failure. The husband feels a build-up of sexual frustration, but the last thing he wants is to burden his wife with this. He wants to love her and let her feel unconditionally cared for as she goes on her treatment.

Is masturbation in this case wrong? 

He’s doing it not to steal the sexual side of their relationship, but rather to protect her and help her feel loved and accepted while she’s going through a time when she can’t have sex (and apparently the couple was connecting in other ways sexually, but this, too, was sometimes difficult for her because she still felt a failure. So she was getting orgasms at times, but found the pressure to perform sexually to be daunting).

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I’ve had other questions from people in similar situations:

  • Couples where there is a prolonged post-partum healing time because of a difficult birth, while there is also exhaustion from the newborn days
  • Couples where there is a chronic pain condition or injury
  • Couples separated from each other for prolonged periods of time (weeks or months at a time) due to work, military deployments, or immigration problems.

Anything we do in marriage should enhance intimacy, not detract from it

The goal of marriage is oneness–“the two shall become one flesh”. That doesn’t just mean sexual oneness, but spiritual oneness–feeling as if you truly are one. If masturbation is being used to allow you to be more giving in the relationship, that’s one thing.

But if, in the example of the woman with vaginismus, for instance, he’s using masturbation to relieve sexual frustration but he’s also not initiating any intimacy with her (including just being naked together and taking baths together, or touching her, or even bringing her pleasure), then that’s a problem.

Similarly, if someone has a chronic illness and just doesn’t feel sexual for a time, they still need to feel close to you. If masturbation is used as a way to relieve frustration so that you then can ignore your spouse, then that’s selfishness, not selflessness.

Be careful about justifying the use of masturbation

Please don’t take what I’m saying to mean, “If I’m sexually frustrated, it’s a gift to my spouse for me to masturbate!” That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying “if you’re sexually frustrated because it’s impossible for you to make love for an extended period of time, it could be a gift to my spouse for me to masturbate.” 

I’m not talking about some Tuesday where she turns you down. I mean when there’s an extended period of time.

This is why I hesitate to write posts this, and often come down really hard on practices using some sex toys, or watching nudity on TV. If you give exceptions, it can easily open a Pandora’s box.

So be honest before your spouse, before God, and before yourself. No excuses.

What is really your motivation? I guess in this post I’m moderating a bit what I’ve said previously, but I really don’t want anyone to take this to mean that it’s all a-okay.

Don’t use masturbation as a short-cut to avoid doing real work in the relationship

If your spouse is consistently rejecting sex and has a really low libido, the answer is usually not masturbation as much as it is working on the relationship, figuring out why she says no to sex, or why she doesn’t want to have sex, trying to rebuild your friendship, or even going for counseling. If you’ve been living in a sexless marriage, I feel for you, and I can see where masturbation may seem necessary. But I would say that if you’re going to do that, you should at least also be trying to get to the root of the sexless marriage, and insisting on some marriage counseling.

And I’d strongly urge you to work on your emotional connection, so that you can talk about this stuff more. I’ve got a great FREE 5-week email course you can sign up for to help you build oneness.

What if she’s away for work for three weeks, or he’s temporarily stationed away from home?  And you’re both getting sexually frustrated? My quick answer would be to at least let each other in on it. That’s a lot more fun.

I’m going to try really hard not to be too graphic here, but chances are you each have phones and can talk to one another. (Please beware of Skype/FaceTime on public wifis from hotels! Just be smart. It’s really easy to hack those signals.

Get a VPN to make emails and other apps secure when you’re traveling).

Okay, now I’d love to know what you think.

I understand that many commenters will say that masturbation is wrong regardless, but can we agree that before we make pronouncements that, we do two things:

  1. Make a strong biblical argument, don’t just say something as if it’s true without showing why it’s true
  2. Take into account the husband in the first scenario who honestly is trying to love his wife.

Thanks! Now have at it! (that’s not a bad double entendre, too, is it?)

UPDATE: My real motivation for the post was this: I’ve written before some posts that come down pretty hard on masturbation, and then I’ve heard back from people who have read it who now feel so guilty and so sinful, when their motivation does seem loving.

They want to be patient and affectionate and available to their spouse, but frustration builds and they’re getting irritable. And I’m just not willing to label all of these things sinful. I don’t think that’s helpful and I think it adds a layer of shame that doesn’t need to be there.

There’s just so many issues and permutations that marriages go through, and I don’t want to add to legalism. So this is my attempt to try to find some nuance!

And what I should have said more explicitly is that, if a person has a history of porn use, then masturbation is not a good idea. It’s too caught up in porn and lust, and could suck someone in to that again. 


A Biblical Approach to Masturbation

Masturbation and Your Marriage

“My mother caught me!” lamented George Costanza, in an episode of the TV show Seinfeld. Of course, he was referring to being caught masturbating. That episode famously brought to light a subject that remains difficult to talk about.  Whether you are young or old, male or female, married or single, you ly have some experience with masturbation.

Your experience may be one of shame and embarrassment over your habit of masturbation – a habit you have fought to overcome.  You may be a single person who uses masturbation as a way to experience sexual release, or a married person who feels guilty for hiding your habit from your spouse.

Does masturbation have a place in the life of Jesus’ followers?

What does the Bible say?

If we listen carefully to what the bible says, we will find that when it comes specifically to the topic of masturbation…God is silent. (Genesis 38:8-10 has been cited as a biblical argument against masturbation; however, the context makes it clear that God was punishing Onan not for masturbation, but for failing to fulfill his obligation to produce an heir for his brother.

) That’s right – you could read all 1189 chapters in the bible, and not once does the bible mention masturbation. That’s significant, given the fact that the bible deals with a whole lot of topics, many of which are just as personal, and just as explicit as masturbation. What that means is that we have to be careful about making blanket statements about masturbation being a sin.

That said, however, it’s important to recognize that masturbation is not God’s ideal plan for us. God designed us as sexual beings. That means that we are created with sexual desires that are as deep and unique as our personality.

But God also created our sexuality to be communal; that is, our sexuality is meant to be a way that we share the most intimate part of ourselves with our spouse.

Sex finds its fulfillment not in orgasm, but in the experience of vulnerability and intimacy that we experience with the one to whom we are bonded for life. The apostle Paul wrote about sex, “the wife’s body dos not belong to her alone but also to her husband.

In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:4). In that context, Paul was urging Christians to give themselves sexually to their spouse, because they are in essence, one flesh.

When it comes to masturbation, this means that there is a sense in which it falls short of God’s ideal for our sexuality. Solo sex is focused on my needs, my gratification, and my pleasure, perhaps to the exclusion of my spouse. Thus, to borrow again from Paul, masturbation may (in some cases) be permissible, but not necessarily beneficial.

Is masturbation harmful? 

Once upon a time, it was taught that masturbation would lead to a whole host of physical problems: blindness, impotence, hairy palms, or an inability to orgasm. Of course, these myths now sound absurd. Yet there are ways in which masturbation can be harmful by leading us into sin.

 Masturbation often – though not always – can foster lust, especially when it is accompanied with pornography. Men in particular are prone to sexually explicit thoughts which may involve images other than his wife.

Masturbation can also damage our relationships when it is used as a substitute for intimacy; after all, it’s quick and easy to have an orgasm on your own, if you aren’t concerned for the needs of your spouse. So, a habit of masturbation can become an easy substitute for the challenging yet necessary work of intimacy in marriage.

Masturbation can also become addictive. When it becomes something you cannot stop, despite repeated efforts, or when masturbation takes precedence over sex in your marriage bed, it has become a cause for concern.

Can Masturbation be helpful? 

Suppose you find that you are able to masturbate occasionally without falling into the trap of lust, and suppose that, if you are married, you enjoy a healthy sex life with your spouse. Can masturbation serve a helpful purpose? There may be several ways in which it can, assuming that (if you are married) you are hiding nothing from your spouse. 

  • Masturbation can provide sexual release if and when sex is not possible due to distance, or other factors.  Sometimes chronic illness prevents frequent sexual intimacy. Sometimes your spouse may refuse you sexually, and may not be willing to address the sexual and other relationship issues, and so masturbation can become an outlet in a less-than-ideal situation. 
  • Masturbation can help you understand your body better so that you can communicate your needs and desires to your spouse. If masturbation is giving you a context to experiment, so that you better understand what does and does not feel good, and how your body can experience sexual climax, you can then share this with your spouse so that your sexual enjoyment is enhanced.

So, what should you do about masturbation? In general, it’s necessary to consider whether or not you are honestly able to masturbate without lusting.

If pornography is regularly a part of your masturbation, or if you have frequent sexual fantasies about people or situations that include people other than your spouse, or situations outside the biblical bounds of sex, then your masturbation habit is harmful. Beyond this, there are specific factors to consider, depending on whether you are single or married.

Masturbation and marriage

There are a few things that you need to consider. First of all, openness and honesty with your spouse are key. If you masturbate, but you cannot tell your spouse, or if there are aspects of masturbation that you keep hidden, then masturbation is hurting yourself, and your spouse.

A healthy conversation would include talking about under what circumstances you would find it acceptable to masturbate.

Do you give your spouse the opportunity to have sex with you, before deciding to masturbate? Does your desire to masturbate stem from a deeper issue in your marriage (sexual refusal, lack of intimacy, or other emotional pain, for example)? If so, masturbation is only serving to cover deeper issues that ought to be addressed. But if you can agree to be open and honest with one another, and if you can set healthy and biblical boundaries that you can both agree on, masturbation may be acceptable in your marriage.

Masturbation and singleness

If you are single, may masturbation play a part in your life? As a single person, you are no less a sexual being than a married person – and this is a part of how God has made you.

  Although masturbation is not the ultimate goal of our sexuality (whether we are married or single), masturbation may be a permissible way for you to manage your sexuality. Of course, this means that, married people, you need to be careful to avoid lust that can be a part of masturbation.

You may also need to reflect on if or how masturbation will be a factor in a future marriage. Is masturbation becoming an addiction? A means of stress relief? Will these patterns need to change after you are married? At the same time, masturbation can be a cause for significant guilt and shame, especially for single people.

You may struggle with feelings of unworthiness or that you are somehow damaged goods. Some of this guilt may be false guilt – believing that you have sinned, just because you masturbate. From that sort of guilt, you can live free of shame, since God says nothing about masturbation.

Some of the guilt may stem from your struggle with thoughts that are lustful, or with what seems an addiction. Even here, we can be assured that there are no sins beyond the reach of God’s grace. God knows of your past, and your present, but that doesn’t change how he sees you, through Christ.

What do I do if this IS an issue? 

If masturbation is causing you to lust, if it is replacing sex in your marriage, if it has become a habit that you have trouble breaking, what should you do? As difficult as it may be, the most helpful option would be to confide in someone you trust – a pastor, a close friend, a counselor, or a mentor.

They can help you by asking you every few days how you are doing, and by encouraging you, and praying for you. They can help you form a plan to get through a day or two at a time, and they can be there for you when you fail. If masturbation is causing pain in your marriage that isn’t resolved, speaking to a marriage counselor can help you work through this area.

Again, one of the assurances that we have in the bible is that our Savior is not one who is unfamiliar with our temptations and struggles, but one “who was tempted in every way as we are, yet was without sin.” Jesus can relate to our weaknesses.

And because he knows our weaknesses, and because he has conquered sin, he is for us both an advocate who defends us before God, and a Savior who gives us strength to break sinful habits.

Masturbation is a tough topic to tackle. At best, it’s embarrassing to talk about, even with our spouse – and at worst, it can be a cause for guilt and shame. Yet it remains a very real matter for nearly everyone. God’s word says nothing specifically about this subject, which gives us freedom – within boundaries – to find the place that it may have in our life.


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