THE BLOG
07/27/2014 12:37 pm ET Updated Sep 26, 2014

Is It Really OK to Deny Your Spouse Sex?

The now infamous Spreadsheet Sex couple may have inspired jokes and anger, but they also remind us of where sex fits -- or doesn't -- into a marriage.

Some people believe it's essential, others not so much. Which raises a few questions: Do you owe your spouse sex? If you stop having sex with your spouse, is he or she justified in having an affair? Is the denial of sex just as much as a betrayal as infidelity?

Is denying sex a betrayal?

While there are all sorts of discussions about marital sex or lack of sex, philosophy professor Mark D. White says, we rarely, if ever, talk about the ethics of a spouse refusing to have sex with the other for years. Is denying sex a betrayal?

Because we see sex as something that must be consented to, we are loathe to say a husband or wife "owes" the other sex, yet I imagine few people don't want and expect a healthy sex life when they say "I do." In the work Susan Pease Gadoua and I did for our upcoming book The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, we asked soon-to-be-married couples to check off all the reasons why they're getting married. Often they list the same reasons, but one time the guy checked off "to have sex" and his fiancee did not.

When he read his reasons out loud and "sex" rolled off his lips, the look on his fiancee's face was priceless.

"You want to marry for sex?" she asked, somewhat horrified.

He immediately got sheepish as he defended himself: "Well, they asked us to check off all the reasons, so, um, yeah..."

So, yes, people marry with an expectation of sex, but few people talk about how they will handle things if one or the other loses interest in sex especially since that happens more frequently than not.

Does an absence of sex in a relationship justify adultery, White asks. No, he decides:

Whatever insufficient sex means to any particular person--even if that can be considered a betrayal of his or her partner's obligation--the fact remains that adultery just makes it worse. ("Two wrongs" and all.) In addition, adultery brings a third person into what is a problem between two, which may only aggravate whatever problem led to the breakdown in sex in the relationship in the first place.

While I wouldn't promote affairs as a way to deal with sexlessness in a marriage, I acknowledge there are many other ways spouses betray each other beyond just affairs or denying the other sex. Spouses can treat each other horribly, and yet we only get in a tizzy when one or the other cheats. Why is sexual fidelity considered the number one marker of a good relationship?

As Mating in Captivity author Esther Perel so beautifully puts it:

I have a lot of people who come to my office who think that they are the virtuous people because they haven't cheated. They have just been neglectful, indifferent, contemptuous, asexual, demeaning, insulting, but they haven't cheated. But betrayal comes in many forms. Betrayal is a breach, the breaking or violation of a presumptive contract, trust, or confidence. While it is always involved in an affair, in most cases it isn't the motive of the affair. An affair may be about completely different things but it implies betrayal.

Being "neglectful, indifferent, contemptuous, asexual, demeaning, insulting" is not loving behavior and is often as -- and sometimes more -- damaging as physical abuse (and there are some who argue that infidelity is abuse). And yet, there is no great societal outcry over ending those sorts of behaviors, just societal shaming and blaming of often-long-suffering spouses who cheat -- or who make a spreadsheet expressing utter frustration of being continuously rejected.

In my (admittedly unscientific) poll, 60 percent consider withholding sex just as much of a betrayal as infidelity. What do you think?

A version of this article appeared on Vicki Larson's personal blog, OMG Chronicles. Want to keep up with The New I Do (Seal Press, Sept. 28, 2014)? Pre-order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
We’re basically your best friend... with better advice.