Guidelines for Groping and Grabbing in Marriage

by Willard F. Harley, Jr.


The issue of husbands groping and grabbing their wives in sexually sensitive areas of their bodies is rarely discussed publicly. So I am bringing up this issue because so many of the couples we counsel face it. What we know is that most husbands like to do it, and most wives hate it when they do.

I’m using the negative terms, grope and grab, instead of the more positive, fondling, to help the male reader to understand the problem from a female perspective. I will be trying to make it clear that whatever you want to call it, most women find it to be terribly offensive.

When I was in junior high school in Santa Barbara, we had student monitors to keep students from running in the halls between classes. A favorite sport of many of the boys was to grab a girl monitor’s chest or butt as they walked by. While it was degrading to the girls, and many simply chose not to be monitors after one incident, nothing was ever done about it to my knowledge.

In the 1980s, the Twin Cities of Minnesota, where I now live, was facing a moral crisis. I was being told by some of my clients that certain attorneys were molesting women in elevators. Women would chase these men to their offices only to find everyone laughing at them: They knew that there was no law against what they were doing. So eventually, in 1988, the state passed a new law to prevent men from groping and grabbing total strangers (Chapter 529, section 2-S.F.No. 1018). But why did it take a law to get grown men to stop doing what adolescent boys sometimes do?

We would have almost unanimous agreement that it is wrong for a man (or boy) to grope a woman (or girl) without her consent. But does that also apply in a marital relationship?

Before I answer that question, I would like to review with you a very basic fact in human sexuality: There are five stages of the sexual response. These stages are 1) willingness, 2) arousal, 3) plateau, 4) climax, and 5) recovery. While both men and women go through each stage in a complete sexual experience, they do it in very different ways. Those differences make sex very frustrating and unfulfilling if husbands and wives don’t understand and accommodate those differences.

The stage of the sexual response relevant to the issue of groping and grabbing is the stage of willingness. Since most men have a craving for sex created by their high level of testosterone, they pass through the first stage, willingness to have sex with their wives, very quickly. A mere offer on her part is enough for him to pass that stage and go directly to the next stage of arousal.

On the other hand, women, having a much lower level of testosterone in their bloodstream, experience a sexual craving much less often—usually only once or twice a month. But they can be willing to have sex at other times if certain conditions are met.

But a husband who does not understand her conditions for sexual willingness will tend to make advances that make her less willing. Groping and grabbing her in sexually sensitive areas of her body gives her the impression that he considers her to be a sexual object rather than a sexual partner. She feels that it really wouldn’t make much difference who she is when he’s in that mood. All he seems to care about is gaining sexual gratification any way that he can. She feels physically violated and used.

Such men can’t understand how she could feel that way. Because he is in an almost permanent state of sexual willingness, he certainly wouldn’t mind it if she were to grope and grab him. For him, it should be no big deal to feel her body. She should just lighten up.

But his insensitivity to her feelings drives her away from him, making her less willing because it proves that he cares only about his own sexual needs. How can she have sex with a man who doesn’t care about how she feels?

So my answer to the question, is it wrong for a husband to grope and grab his wife, is a resounding YES.

Types of groping and grabbing in marriage

1. The sneak attack

Wives tend to find unexpected instances of groping and grabbing to be the most offensive. Just like the boys in my junior high school, husbands are known to grab their wives in sexually sensitive areas as they walk by each other. Wives usually express their utter disdain for this behavior, but to no avail. Her only defense is to avoid walking anywhere near him.

Another form of the sneak attack is groping and grabbing a wife while she is asleep. A woman who is awakened by it is usually repulsed by the very thought that a husband she is supposed to trust would take advantage of her in that way. I know of many women who decided to sleep separately to avoid their husbands’ insensitive behavior.

2. The affectionate grab

Wives usually know the difference between affection and sex in marriage, but very few men do. Affection is symbols of care: hugs, kisses, cards, and flowers. These all communicate a spouse’s commitment to be there for each other—to put each other first in their lives. But when a husband uses the opportunity to grope and grab, he communicates the opposite message: He is doing it for his own selfish gratification. He’s not caring for her: He’s caring for himself.

Many wives have told me that they put up with their husbands’ inappropriate behavior because it’s the only way they can get a hug or kiss from him. Their husbands are affectionate only when they want to have the sexual experience they get when they feel their wife’s body. But that doesn’t mean she is joining him in that experience. Instead, resentment builds every time he does it, and eventually she doesn’t allow him to show her any affection.

3. The inappropriate foreplay

Some husbands think that their wives might become sexually aroused if they grope and grab them in sexually sensitive areas. That’s because of the power of partial reinforcement. Occasionally, maybe one time out of ten, a wife may sense that her husband wants to have sex when he touches her that way, so she lets him know that it would be okay with her. But his behavior is not turning her on sexually: It’s turning her off. In an effort to accommodate his desire to have sex, however, she pushes through her negative reaction, and rewards him. That’s enough to convince him that what he is doing works, so he keeps it up.

Just about any wife can educate her husband on the topic of foreplay, but they often resist doing it. Some feel that telling him what to do ruins the romance. If he were to figure it out without instruction, it would be evidence that he understands her, something women need in marriage. Teaching him the mechanics of effective foreplay is just too . . . well, mechanical. So many husbands go through life failing to understand their wives’ sexual responses, a detriment to both husbands and wives.

4. The bad timing

But even foreplay that is effective when a wife is willing to have sex is usually ineffective when she is unwilling, which is most of the time. Husbands often miss that point because they are rarely unwilling. For them, foreplay would be effective almost any time of the day or night.

So even when a wife has taught her husband how to touch her to become sexually aroused when she is willing to have sex, she will interpret it as groping and grabbing if she is unwilling. A wife’s willingness to engage in a sexual experience with her husband is just about everything when it comes to have a mutually enjoyable experience.

You can very easily discover if you are guilty of any or all of these types of groping or grabbing: Ask your wife. She may tell you that it’s really not a problem for her, and she would encourage you to do as much groping and grabbing as you would like. If so, I would imagine that unlike most women, she is willing to have a sexual experience most of the time.

But she will probably tell you that she has tried to explain this to you, but you have not listened to her. If that’s the case, stop doing it. Instead, read on to learn how you can touch your wife in ways that she would greatly appreciate.

How to turn a wife’s unwillingness to have sex into willingness

Why did God make us this way? Husbands usually find their wives’ bodies to be so attractive that they can hardly resist touching her, especially in sexually sensitive areas. But when he tries to do what comes very naturally to him, she usually lets him know that she doesn’t like it. Why couldn’t God have made women to be just as enthusiastic about being touched as he made men enthusiastic about touching?

I don’t have the answer. But I do know that the problem exists in most marriages, and the problem has a solution if a husband and wife discuss the issue with each other’s interest in mind.

The solution is to focus primary attention on a wife’s willingness or unwillingness to participate in a sexual experience with her husband, and to discover how to turn unwillingness into willingness. Without sexual willingness, much of what a husband may try to do to trigger her sexual arousal won’t work.

If a husband thinks that once married, his wife should be willing to have sex with him whenever he feels the need, and that he has the right to do what he pleases with his wife’s body, he is sadly mistaken. The marriage vow does not entitle a husband to have sex with his wife on command or to grope and grab her body at will. She is not his property: She is his equal partner. That means that all decisions made in life, including sexual decisions, should be made with joint agreement. I go one step further and encourage enthusiastic joint agreement.

If a husband feels that sex with his wife is an entitlement, and that he should not have to bother with issues of willingness, he will find that having sex with her becomes increasingly difficult over time. However, if he recognizes her partnership in all decisions, including sexual decisions, mutually gratifying ways to fulfill his need is the result. A husband should want to know what he must do to encourage her willingness so that they can enjoy sex with each other more often.

Throughout my 50 years as a marriage counselor, I have asked thousands of wives that very question on behalf of their husbands: What would it take for you to be willing to have sex with your husband? And the answer is reasonably consistent: They want to feel emotionally bonded to him and cared for by him. Being emotionally bonded and cared for tends to make them feel sexually willing.

Then my next question is, what would your husband need to do for you to feel emotionally bonded to him and cared for by him? That answer is also reasonably consistent: He needs to be continually affectionate without sexual expectations, and to talk with her on a regular basis. Affection and conversation go a long way toward helping her feel emotionally connected with him and cared for by him. And that helps her feel sexually willing much more often.

Of course, Love Busters can complicate the picture. Demands, disrespect, anger, dishonesty, independent behavior, and annoying habits can make her feel disconnected from him and uncared for by him. But assuming that he is not been hurting her with those Love Busters, the simplest path to a frequent and passionate sexual experience is to be affectionate and conversant.

Well then, how much affection and conversation is necessary, you may ask? I have discovered that for most wives, it takes about fifteen hours a week of undivided attention for her to feel emotionally connected to her husband. While that formula may not work on the very first week that it’s put in place, most couples find that after several weeks of constantly spending that amount of time together, making that time for undivided attention mutually enjoyable, their sexual relationship blossoms.

For more information on how to become an affectionate and conversant husband, to understand the five stages of the sexual response, and how to build romantic love by giving each other fifteen hours of your undivided attention each week, read my book His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-proof Marriage. If you struggle with some of the Love Busters I mentioned, read my book Love Busters: Protect Your Marriage by Replacing Love-Busting Patterns with Love-Building Habits.

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