A Sexless Marriage (For Two Weeks of the Month)
I feel cheated.
I was in the ninth grade when I first learned that when I was to get married, I would only be able to touch my husband for about half of each month. I had known about sex for about eight years at that point, and no one had cared to mention to me that, oh by the way, you know how you’re supposed to wait until marriage to have sex? Right, well even then you can only have it two weeks a month. I went into shock, and I insisted that my classmate repeat what she’d said. As time went on, hilchot niddah — or the Jewish laws pertaining to marital ritual purity — were explained to me.
Essentially, a woman enters a state a ritual impurity when she starts her period, and that lasts for as long as the period (at minimum, five days) plus an extra seven days. After that, the woman goes to the mikveh and cleanses herself ritually, thus completing the niddah time. Not only is a married couple not supposed to have sex during that time (excuse me, have “marital relations,” as my teachers called it) but the couple can’t touch at all. It felt like a total scam to me. Every month? Two weeks a month? That’s half your marriage, until you hit menopause.
“It’s difficult,” my teachers admitted. “But it’s actually a beautiful mitzvah.”
We were taught that those two weeks a month were days when we would be able to communicate with our husbands on a higher plane, without the complication of touch. Niddah would help our relationships grow stronger, and plus, coming back from the mikveh at the end of every niddah cycle would be a magical night. Our husbands would do something special — sprinkle the bedspread with rose petals, say — and it would be like the wedding night all over again.
“This is actually wonderful for marriages,” we were told. “Most couples get tired of marital relations after a few years. But by not having it every two weeks, you appreciate it much more, and it never gets boring.”
Basically, niddah was depicted as a boon to marriage. Not only that, but the rabbis somehow must have known about ovulation, because the niddah cycle corresponds with the ovulation cycle, easing conception. So yes, it would be hard, but there were so many positives as well. At the time, I was shomeret negiah — I didn’t touch boys at all — and the lack of touch in my life altogether made it a lot easier to believe all that I was told.
Maybe it really is that way for some people. Maybe some couples experience two weeks a month of harmony and communication and meaning. But so far, I’ve discovered that niddah is incredibly difficult.
Thankfully, I don’t have niddah every month; my teachers neglected to mention the wonders of three month birth control pills, in which I have my period just four times a year. But niddah, for me and Jeremy, is not a meaningful experience, and it’s all the more disappointing and difficult for having been told otherwise. We were told by a rabbi that sex should never be used to resolve a problem, and for us that’s never been an issue. In fact, when we fight we each need our own personal space; we don’t want to touch. Then we talk about our fight, working towards resolution and understanding, a compromise. At the end, we kiss, like we’re sealing the deal; we feel united once again. We don’t use touch to solve our problems, but it helps us feel close once the problem is solved. And during niddah, we can’t have that.
Everyone told me that niddah would help us communicate with words what we usually communicate with our bodies. But there’s no way to communicate an understanding touch on the arm, a sympathetic squeeze of the hand. There’s no way to say what touch can say; it’s why we have touch, to communicate in ways that words cannot. People made it seem like niddah was a way to both rise above sex and appreciate it all the more when we had it; they neglected to talk about hugging or holding hands.
No one told me that being unable to hug my husband would make me feel as if he was angry with me. No one mentioned that after reconciling after a fight, even the smallest kiss would help me feel comforted — and that its absence would make me unsettled. No one mentioned that those 12 or so days would be tense and feel endless. No one told me that, more than anything, I would miss curling up next to him at the end of each day, our bodies fitting around each other as we read our own books, that I would wake up and miss putting my arms around his sleepy body so we could wake up together.
As Jeremy said, keeping niddah only helps you communicate in that it helps you communicate during niddah better. At no other time would I need to tell my husband, standing right in front of me, “If I could, I would hug you right now.” Keeping niddah helps us keep niddah better.
Maybe I feel this way because we’ve only done it once so far. Maybe I won’t always feel like a woman who’s sworn to cut chocolate out from her diet, only to spend all day with a delicious fudge cake right in front of her.
We intend on keeping niddah in spite all the negative aspects of it. We’re not keeping it because it builds our relationship or helps us communicate or whatever comforting reasons we were told to make us feel better about it. We’re keeping it because it’s halacha, and it sucks and it’s hard and I could very much do without it, but not every halacha needs to feel good. Knowing how hard it is won’t stop us from doing it in the future, and it wouldn’t have stopped us from doing it to begin with.
But it would have been nice to know.
Simi Lichtman is documenting her first year of marriage as a young Orthodox woman for the Forward. Follower her on Twitter @SimiLichtman.