“I was taught that my husband’s purity and holiness are basically my responsibility. As long as we can ‘be together,’ that saves him from sin. And if we’re not, then I’m guilty,” she explains tearfully. “It feels like my job as a wife to be there for him that way.”
His facial expression implies that his instruction was similar.
The young couple sitting before me shares the same demeanor as many who’ve been here before. They’ve relayed the devastating story of their agonizing attempts to consummate their marriage and cultivate a sexual relationship. Like so many others, they’ve suffered, in large part due to first their sexual noneducation, followed by their hasty premarital maleducation. By the time they’re referred for therapy, they’re both somewhat traumatized by the ordeal of trying to figure it all out. It’s now taking a toll on the marriage and their general, individual wellbeing.
After the initial assessment, I recommend that we begin with a period of abstinence from intercourse. This is to give them a chance to heal from the disturbingly forced-feeling nature of what they’ve been trying, and to gradually reboot, building body awareness, physical communication, loving touch, and healthy desire. Essentially, in this case, they need to learn how to not have bad sex before they can learn to have good sex. Then, right on cue, one of them objects: “But- how can we even do that? What about zera l’vatala? [spilling seed]”
Zera l’vatala, and the acts leading up to it, are the whispered and implied impetus for a tremendous amount of religious and cultural practice. The separation of genders, men abstaining from fantasy, masturbation, deliberately viewing romantic or erotic content, the way women dress and conduct ourselves publicly, and the degree to which dating and premarital relationships are limited are all connected to the prohibitions of gazing, arousal, and most seriously, wasting seed.
As a woman, I don’t pretend to understand what it’s like for a young man to grow up in a society where extra-vaginal ejaculation is forbidden, especially in such stark contrast to the permissive sexual norms of the broader secular culture. I see the struggle, the emotional and sexual complexity involved. My job as the marriage therapist is to help the couple from where they are, honoring both their religious values and their psychological needs, with empathy and sensitivity.
What I do know, is that from the onset of puberty at anywhere from around ages 9-14, until marriage, which doesn’t happen until at least the ages of 18-22, boys are expected to both not have sex and to try not to ejaculate. I’m fairly certain that the majority are unable to completely refrain from any masturbation, fantasy, or ejaculation during these hormonal and turbulent developmental years. The way they navigate this challenge often impacts their self-concept and adult relationships. Some repress developing libido and disassociate from their sexual selves. Others split, embracing one conscious, religious identity, and another secret sexual life, often involving pornography and sexual experimentation. Still others recognize that the ideal they are presented with might be unrealistic for them, and try to limit sexual behavior, while allowing for and forgiving their human needs.* How adolescent boys process this challenge has much to do with their family and cultural messaging, natural temperaments, and variations in libido.
I know that many of these young men who have struggled for years, often hope that marriage will somehow be a reward for their efforts- finally the pleasure they’ve so badly craved. Imagine their disappointment when the joy often doesn’t proceed as “planned.”
Many of these young women have been primed to desexualize from a young age, covering up, behaving modestly, and retreating from boys, from years before puberty. (The irony is that extreme desexualizing messages actually end up sexualizing, with the hyperfocus on avoidance.) They too respond to their instruction in parallel varied ways: repression, distraction, secret split off sexual pleasuring and exploration, or moderate integration of the sexual self.* Again, their development too will be linked to family and cultural messaging, natural temperaments, and variations in libido.
Fast forward past the teen years to the newlywed stage, and you have two young people with nowhere near enough knowledge or self-awareness to attend to their own sexual and emotional self-regulation, much less a partner's. This doesn’t happen every time; there are some couples who figure it out immediately or shortly thereafter, and then go on to build mutually loving and pleasurable relationships. Then there are the many who are less fortunate. These are the ones that fill our offices and wait lists.
We now return to the young man in our scenario, who expresses his concerns:
“I definitely understand the logic of taking a break. Honestly, I think we could both use it. My wife is suffering badly, and I’m frustrated too. It doesn’t feel good the way we’re doing it; I feel like I’m using her body instead of having pleasure together. But she’s right- this is the only option we have; what are we supposed to do? Zera l’vatala is a serious problem. We don’t have a choice.”
I acknowledge their dilemma, empathize, and reassure them that this is a very common concern. I then explain that most people are capable of more than they realize. I ask him what he did about zera l’vatala between the ages of 12-20, when is wife is in nidda, and what he plans to do about it during the 6-10 weeks after childbirth.
“You don’t even need to answer the questions. The point is that part of being an adult is learning how to manage temptations as they arise, albeit imperfectly. It might be considered a sin to waste seed but it’s not very holy to have sex that is psychologically or physically painful either. Intercourse is not supposed to leave you both feeling like the wife is a sexual toilet. Zera l’vatala is a big deal, but so are shalom bayis (marital harmony) and mental health. These issues are complex, so we invest in the relationship’s clinical needs right now, in a way that sets it up for long term success, and just try our best.”
In many cases, the couple opts to consult a Posek (Rabbi of Jewish Law) or other religious mentor, due to these concerns. Fortunately, most of the time, the Rabbi or mentor, who understand the importance of a healthy long term sexual relationship, will help alleviate their guilt and religious hesitation, and guide them spiritually during their treatment.
While religious couples surely don’t have a monopoly on sexual dysfunction, the particular fears around zera l’vatala and other theological concerns are very culturally sensitive. Knowledgeable, well-trained practitioners who can both honor the values of the clients and strategize therapeutically within their systems are key to helping these clients formulate workable solutions and stronger marriages.
On the preventative end, better premarital sexual education for religious children and teens can preempt many of the excruciating cases like the one described above. Teaching children and teens about their bodies, relationships, and sexual development can make all the difference between a smooth transition into sexual activity and marriage, versus the traumas we see instead, saving future newlyweds months of suffering and thousands of dollars in treatment.
*There are two other categories beyond the scope of this article: 1. Young people who naturally don’t develop much of an interest in anything sexual, either due to biological or psychological idiosyncrasies. And 2. Those who find the religious expectations and practice around this and/ or other customs that they reject this lifestyle entirely.