You know that feeling where you finish a conversation, and then a little later, mentally review it and wish you could go back and change your answer? I had one of those., recently.
I was speaking at an event where the audience was invited to submit anonymous questions. One of the questions that was written in was one I’d heard before:
“I would like to observe the niddah laws the way I was taught them- not touching at all during the niddah time period, but my husband doesn’t want to; he feels just abstaining from intense sexual activity is enough, so that’s usually what we do, but I feel guilty. Not sure what to do about it, though.”
I said something along the lines of:
Couples confront lots of different areas of disagreement, and this is a discrepancy in a practice that affects both of them, so it needs addressing. This is one of those many delicate situations where the marital mixes with the religious. It’s very personal, and might benefit from consultation with both a Halachic arbiter and a marital counselor. I also encouraged them to discuss what deeper emotional needs are being met or not met, in the relationship, that might be hiding beneath this issue, and how understanding the feelings around this problem might present a collaborative way to navigate a solution where both parties feel heard and considered.
It’s not that I disagree with the answer I gave, but shortly after I left, I realized I had neglected a major point, and missed an important opportunity to educate, and so I will try for a do-over here:
It is never ok for one spouse to demand or force touch on another, period. Some people operate under the misconception that once a couple is married, their partner’s body is fair game, and consent for any kind of touch was given at the wedding until death do us part. But consent is an ongoing and vital prerequisite. For many couples this is a nonissue- they enjoy spontaneous touch, and mostly agree on the when and how of it. For them this intuitive system works. But many of the couples I see have a discrepancy in this area- personal or ideological. With some couples I treat, we need to put an “ask verbal permission clause” into their sexual work, because one party has been feeling unsafe or uncomfortable, either from past life experiences or from feeling pressured, smothered, or bullied, by the other one’s need for touch. In these marriages, for the time that this agreement is in place, they need to explicitly ask permission for whatever level of touch determined by the partner in need of boundaries, sometimes even for a gesture as simple as: may I hold your hand now?
While not every couple will require explicit verbal consent for every instance of touch, every single person in any sort of relationship, deserves the right to say no, or ask for touch to stop if they need it. Touching a person when s/he clearly doesn’t want to be touched is not loving- it’s selfish and disrespectful- at the very least annoying, and at worst traumatic. (And if they said no beforehand, it’s assault.)
Back to the original question: if she had only said: “We’re not sure what to do, because we disagree on how to observe the niddah laws,” and not that she was already doing it his way, then my answer would have sufficed. But the idea that one spouse felt she had to capitulate to unwanted touch against her own will or beliefs, warranted more focus.
So what should someone do if married to someone who seems to be pushing them away? Step one: don’t push back and bulldoze them; read the cue and have a conversation. Explain that you are feeling rejected and craving more physical closeness and contact, but don’t want to overwhelm. Listen to the response. There may be a clear solution. Step two: if the conversation does not prove productive, get help- ideally couples therapy, but if not, then individual counseling can help get the insight necessary to evaluate what is happening in the relationship and what can be done to improve it.
A healthy relationship is one is which is there is mutual respect, and that means only consensual touch. The rest is commentary.