When His Adultery is Partially Her Fault

A wife may be partially to blame for her husband's adultery, according to Saints in the Orthodox Church. This does not absolve him of his crime. But in many cases, she may share in the guilt. Here is what she can do to avoid it.

It needs to be clearly stated that there is no excuse for committing adultery. If a husband is unfaithful to his wife, his actions need to be strongly condemned with no whataboutery. This article is not intended to absolve adulterers from guilt. Criminals need to be held accountable for their crimes.

That said, it is still important to recognize that criminals often have accomplices — people who share in the guilt, and who also need to be held accountable. If a thief robs a bank, then that thief should go to jail. The existence of accomplices does not lessen his guilt. Nevertheless, the person who drove the getaway car is also a criminal, and likewise should be held accountable for the crime.

When we read the writings of Orthodox Saints, we find clear condemnations of adultery.

We also find clear condemnations of their accomplices — a sound chastisement for wives who tempt their husbands to sin.

St. John of Damascus is one of the Church's most celebrated Saints. He lived during the 8th century, and his writings have been very influential in the Church for more than 1000 years. Consider his warning to frigid wives:

Let every man enjoy his wife. Nor should he blush, but let him go in and settle down in bed, day and night. Let them make love, keeping one another as man and wife, exclaiming: "Do not deny one another, save perhaps by mutual consent." (1 Cor. 7:5) Do you abstain from sexual relations? You don't wish to sleep with your husband? Then he to whom you deny your bounty will go out and do evil and his wickedness will be due to your abstinence. 
~ St. John Damascene, Se sacris parallelis, in PG 96:258

Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk (Russia - 18th century) also emphasizes this:

There is a custom that some men leave their wives and some wives leave their husbands under the pretense of abstinence [from sexual relations], but this is a very dangerous matter. For instead of continence, there may follow the grave sin of adultery in one or the other, or in both parties. When the husband leaves his wife [without her consent] and the wife sins with another, then the husband is responsible for this sin, as he gave his wife occasion for sin. Likewise, when a wife leaves her husband and the husband sins with another, then the wife is guilty of that sin, for the same reason.

— St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Journey to Heaven: Counsels on the Particular Duties of Every Christian, trans. Fr. George D. Lardas (Jordanville, N.Y.: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1991), pp. 117-118.

In this passage, notice that St. Tikhon says it goes both ways. If a wife withholds sex from her husband, and he cheats on her as a result, then she is guilty of his adultery. Likewise, if a husband withholds sex from his wife, and she cheats on him, then he is guilty of her adultery.

As a priest, I have counseled marriages which go in either direction. I know of times when a wife will withhold sex from her husband. I also know of times when a husband will withhold sex from his wife. It doesn't matter which spouse is guilty of doing this. Either way, it is a sin against the marriage, and a sin against God.

St. John Chrysostom explicitly says that a wife offends God whenever she withholds sexual relations from her husband:

The wife has not power over her own body; but is both the slave and the mistress of the husband. And if you decline the service which is due, you have offended God. But if you wish to withdraw yourself, it must be with the husband's permission, though it be but a for short time. For this is why he calls the matter a debt, to show that no one is master of himself but that they are servants to each other.
— St. John Chrysostom, 19th homily on 1 Corinthians

In agreement with the words of the Apostle Paul, Chrysostom says that a wife must never withhold sex from her husband, unless he freely agrees to a time of abstinence. Otherwise, she is guilty of defrauding her husband, and she becomes accountable for her husband's sins: 

Let not the wife, says he, exercise continence, if the husband be unwilling; nor yet the husband without the wife's consent. Why so? Because great evils spring from this sort of continence. . . . A thing which many women do, working sin rather than righteousness, and thereby becoming accountable for the husband's uncleanness, and rending all asunder. Whereas they should value concord above all things, since this is more important than all beside.

We will, if you please, consider it with a view to actual cases. Thus, suppose a wife and husband, and let the wife be continent, without consent of her husband; well then, if hereupon he commit fornication, or though abstaining from fornication fret and grow restless and be heated and quarrel and give all kind of trouble to his wife; where is all the gain of the fasting and the continence, a breach being made in love? There is none. 
— St. John Chrysostom, 19th homily on 1 Corinthians

St. John Chrysostom says that when a wife withholds sex from her husband, she is to blame for the bad mood that her husband has as a result. When she defrauds her husband in this way, it causes quarrels and fights within the family, and this is her fault. 

Of course, none of these Saints condone adultery, and none of these Saints condone family quarrels. So why do these Saints take so much time talking about the sin of being a frigid wife? If the Saints are not letting husbands off the hook for bad behavior, then what is the point of these teachings?

The central point is simply this: Encouraging Christian spouses to avoid these sins in the first place.

If you are a married Christian woman, then you have a responsibility to make yourself sexually available to your husband. Even if there is a particular day where you "don't feel like it" or just "aren't in the mood", it is not OK to tell your husband "No." Your body belongs to him.

Likewise, if you are a married Christian man, then you have a responsibility to make yourself sexually available to your wife. Even if you are one of those husbands who does not desire sexual relations with your wife, it is not OK to tell her "No." Your body belongs to her.

Of course there are rare exceptions. Sometimes a spouse has a medical condition which makes intercourse impossible. Sometimes a disease or an accident may render one spouse physically deformed or mentally incapacitated. These are medical conditions which must be handled with compassion. These are not cases where one spouse is intentionally defrauding the other, by intentionally withholding sex.

Most of the time, of course, these exceptions do not apply. Most married couples are physically able to have sexual relations. Therefore, in the vast majority of marriages, it is important for the couple to have sex frequently.

God gives a husband and wife to one another, so that they may help one another on the road to salvation. A husband is supposed to serve his wife, and a wife is supposed to serve her husband. Their bodies belong to one another. It is a sin to withhold sex from your spouse, without your spouse's consent.

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