Marriage is a Covenant, Not a Contract

[content note: mentions of marital rape, rape apologia, purity culture]

In doing research for my book and in discussing marriage throughout my blogging career, I’ve come across a disturbing trend in how evangelicals talk about marriage, particularly in relationship to sex. They analogize marriage and sexual relationships as part of a contract one enters into, as part of the (usually wifely) duty to one’s spouse. Refusing your spouse sex, they say, is analogous not fulfilling the terms of your contract, to violating an agreement between two business parties.

The most recent example of this comes from “hardlining moderate,” Carson T. Clark, who clarified in the comments of a miniblog clarifying a controversial blog post:

Imagine there's a woman who's a teacher at a private christian high school. Each year she signs a contract that includes salary, medical benefits, retirement benefits, and so forth. It also includes a list of the maximum number of fundraising activities she'll be required to participate in as well as what resources the school is required to provide to enable her to do her job.

Year after year the school refuses to honor the contract. Her paychecks are low. Her health insurance isn't being kept up. She's being pressured to attend fundraising events every week. The school isn't providing the textbooks they committed. That sort of thing. Year after year she's self-sacrificial, sucking it up and allowing this to go on because she loves the children and the school. She understands its dire financial situation.

…But for years she's been doing her role … while the school has neglects its role. She's pointing out that the contractual relationship is not being honored. That's not being demanding. That's acknowledging that their contractual relationship is not functioning.

Prima facie, this analogy is heavily problematic for its misunderstanding of what a marriage vow means and how it functions within people’s lives. The basic fact is that marriage is not a professional relationship – it is a personal one. It has emotions, understanding, and spirituality all wrapped up into it. As such, it cannot be analogized to an exchange of services or goods. A marital relationship is not a business relationship, and to say so, even in analogy, is to undermine and confuse the purpose and mystery of marriage.

Marriage is first and foremost about two people coming together, committing to be with each other and to become a new family. The sexual relationship is one element of a number of things that have to come together and be communicated about in order to make a marital relationship work. This new family must decide where and how they’ll live, how they’ll communicate and check in on the relationship, make end of life decisions in the event of illness or accidents, what churches they’ll attend, whether or not to have kids and how they will parent them. It is two different people working out how to support each other throughout their lives and committing to loving each other (often) exclusively. This may or may not include sex, but sex is not the end-all-be-all of the marital relationship.

The purity movement views it differently. Sex is so vital, and so important to a marriage that dry spells, problems with the sexual relationship, and sexual incompatibility are fundamental causes for worry. The problem is that purity proponents set themselves up for this particular kind of difficulty by promising a smooth and easy and awesome sex life in marriage, if only you’ll say no to dirty, shameful sex outside of marriage. The only thing that changes is a wedding and an “I Do.” This indoctrination of “sex is dirty and sinful” is, for many of the women I’ve spoken to over the years, incredibly hard to overcome, even after marriage. Shedding the idea that sex is something you shouldn’t be doing, even when you’ve done everything else right, is very difficult. This is one of the reasons I speak out so much against the purity movement and abstinence only teachings – it doesn’t teach you have to have sex in a healthy manner; it just tells you that it’s bad if you don’t have a wedding ring.

Unfortunately, the flip side of purity culture is that it often fails to develop what a sexual ethic needs to look like after marriage. In attempting to create an ethic for a sexual relationship, many evangelicals and post-evangelicals fall into the trap of treating sex as a transaction between married couples. It is “how you connect” as a married couple, and it is part and parcel of the marriage vows – therefore to “deny” your spouse sex through an extended period of time is to break your marital vows, to violate your contract.

This view of marriage objectifies both partners and turns sex into a utilitarian exchange instead of a mysterious beautiful method of connection. It’s ass-backwards – sex is how only married people connect, so if married people aren’t “connecting,” the marriage is invalid. Sex is, as Carson T. Clark says, what differentiates married people from roommates. Such a view turns sex into the fulfillment of a contract, a service exchanged for the payment of vows and a wedding ring.

Such a view is harmful because it strips both partners of their ability to communicate with each other honestly about their needs and about whether or not the sexual relationship is actually working. It focuses on the harm done, on the "denial" made by one partner against the other, and forces us to stay there, stewing over the broken contract. If sex only means the fulfillment of a marital contract, then there is no guiding principle for how we can move through sexless periods in a marriage. Marriages built on the idea that sex is a transaction, a necessary part of a contract that needs to be fulfilled, will always and inevitably circle back into a blame game of who is denying who and who’s fault it is that sex isn’t happening.

It creates a collapsing house of cards of shame heaped upon shame, an vicious cycle that will end marriages and relationships, because one spouse is unable to stop blaming the other instead of actually communicating about their needs.

A contractual view of marriage encourages this blame game. A contractual view of marriage means that any negotiation beyond the contract means first determining who was at fault and then demanding compensation from the guilty party. This is how contracts are settled when they aren’t fulfilled. Anchoring marriage as something in which spouses give and take and fulfill designated actions as part of their contract creates an environment based on obligation, not love. Viewing marriage as a business deal turns people into two strangers living together more than kind of sexless dry spell can.

Instead, we need to remember that marriage is a covenant. It is two people committing to each other, and committing to care for each other deeply, through all things. This means, guys who grew up evangelical, if your wife has problems with sex because of her purity culture upbringing, the answer is not to say she’s not doing her duty, but instead to figure out how to work through this and care for her. Her body does not belong to you, and coercing her into sex by telling her it is part of her marital contract and that she is not fulfilling her duty is wrong. No exceptions.

To treat sex as a transaction is to undermine the beauty and the mystery of the connection that Christian evangelicals claim to prize. Your body is not a service you must provide to your spouse at regular intervals. Even with marriage vows, you have a right to bodily autonomy, you have a right to say no, and you have a right to feel whatever it is you’re feeling.

How far does your marital duty extend? You should try to work through things with your spouse. You should communicate about sexual desires and drives together. You should see a counselor together or separately. That’s it.

You are not obligated to have sex with them because their supposed “need.” Marital vows do not mean you get to be violated when you have discomfort about sex. Sex where one of the partners is only consenting out of a sense of “duty” is not glorifying to God – it is not some exemplar of connection and grace simply because it happened after the wedding. Coercion via shame, logic, bribery, or “biblical sense of duty” turns sex into rape. And rape is not glorifying to God, regardless of whether it is before or after vows.

You own yourself. You are a capable human being. And you have a right to say no. Even in marriage. Even with vows.