From Marital Debt to Marital Credit

While the language of "marital debt" can turn the self-giving human relationship of marriage into a legalistic project of obedience, what is the proper approach to the marital relationship?

It has been quite the year since I first wrote critically about the “marital debt” debate. The LSU Tigers dominated the Iowa Hawkeyes to claim their school’s first NCAA title; we discovered that parrots like video calls; and I was forced to scroll through endless “Barbenheimer” memes. 

Oh, and my wife and I had a baby.

Such a milestone alters your perception of the world. Things take on a brilliant light and a terrible darkness, as life becomes at once more meaningful and more vulnerable. The experience teaches as only experience can; and what was merely theory in the head rather suddenly becomes concrete in the heart.

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The breathing techniques from that birthing class bang against the reality of pain and complications. Merely knowing that babies poop a lot, cry a lot, and sleep a little is replaced by understanding just how much, and just how little. And reading about the next stage in a marriage relationship is replaced by living it. I used to only know about the common difficulties with postpartum mental health, parental identity, and breastfeeding NFP. Now, I empathize.

So, it seems like an opportune time to revisit the marital debt debate, this time approaching it from another angle. The extreme side of the marital debt controversy holds that spouses must acquiesce every time the other requests intimacy (unless there’s very serious objective reasons not to), under pain of mortal sin. As I argued before, this idea turns the self-giving human relationship of marriage into a legalistic project of obedience; and by denying a partner’s subjectivity as a serious reason, it comes off as unhealthy. This language of a moral debt, then, is not helpful for governing a couple’s sexual life. 

But the untouched question remains: What is a helpful approach to the sexual life? 

Simply denying the obligation described in marital debt discussions will not create a happy sex life. One partner may become withholding. Changing bodies and growing waistlines may make one or the other partner increasingly uninterested. Or the cares of the world may simply choke out the usual times and spaces for lovemaking. In a word, physical intimacy is important for a relationship—but it’s not automatic. And if marriages in general are in trouble, it shouldn’t be surprising if sexual frustration is a growing part of the problem.

The denial of the “marital debt” obligation needs to be balanced with a practical wisdom. Frequent lovemaking is good for a marriage. But in the real-life world of laundry, children, and overtime, regular intimacy will require seizing opportunities even when one or both parties would rather be doing something else. This seems to be what the non-misogynistic/non-control-freak proponents of marital debt seem to be rightly getting at; even if they wrongly formalize it in the language of obligation and sacramental rights. The denial of the “marital debt” obligation needs to be balanced with a practical wisdom. Tweet This

Of course, hold-your-nose-and-get-through-it intimacy sounds less like a recipe for a good marriage and more like a recipe for bad sex. I would hope that intimacy always remains a positive; and I hope a partner wouldn’t insist if it isn’t. But there needs to be a willingness even when it’s not the foremost desire at that particular moment. 

Maybe she does have a little headache. Maybe he worked a long day and would like to take a nap. But, at least sometimes, growing a marriage means giving up a little sleep, or being a little uncomfortable. These are relatively small sacrifices; and the whole encounter should bring enough, er, benefits that neither party would classify it as sacrificial overall. Because waiting until everything is perfect for lovemaking won’t lead to perfect sex, it will lead to no sex. 

This isn’t paying off marital debt. It’s building marital credit. It’s strengthening a relationship that even amid laundry, taxes, spills, and stresses is a sexual relationship. That’s why spouses are not just friends. And while building friendship between spouses is arguably most important, it doesn’t negate the need to remain more than friends.

Importantly, this is not a question of following a moral algorithm. There’s no single acceptable answer on how often. That is up to the freedom of each couple to decide according to their particular circumstances, libidos, or whatever else.

And yet it is a generally applicable truth. Regular conjugal union is important for a good marriage, and keeping that regularity might take some effort. It seems trite advice for the sex-soaked secular world; but perhaps it’s advice not heard enough in our sometimes-squeamish Christian subculture.

Our secular holiday celebrating romantic love explicitly links such relationships to romantic intimacy. Let’s not forget the link just because we dislike the explicitness. We don’t need to surround the connection with moral legalism. But we should approach it with verve; even if its messy and sometimes far from the ideal.

So, in the time leading up to this holiday, let’s approach it as a true holiday and commit to each other anew with whatever physicality and frequency is fitting for our lot.

And please—no more Barbenheimer memes. 

Author

  • Adam Lucas

    Adam Lucas holds a Masters of Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and son.

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