The scriptural admonition is for married couples not to deny each other sexual relations, except by mutual consent for the purpose of prayer and fasting. If it is a difficulty for the husband or the wife, the stronger one is to be compassionate to the weaker one and not deny them conjugal relations [note: this applies with special force to the situation of Orthodox married to non-Orthodox]. For if our fulfilling of the “letter of the law” leads to a spouse falling into self-abuse or adultery, we cause a GREATER sin in the person with whom we share one flesh.
Abstinence from sexual relations (by mutual consent) is certainly appropriate the evening before receiving the Holy Gifts, and during the day that one receives them.
The Russian Church in the 13th century issued guidelines for married clergy on these issues, and they included as days of mandatory abstinence:
1) Clean Week (the first week of Great Lent)
2) Holy Week
3) Dormition Fast
4) Wednesdays and Fridays during:
- Nativity Fast
- Apostle’s Fast
- middle weeks of Great Lent
It should be noted that these days of abstinence are reckoned according to liturgical time (i.e., Vespers to Vespers) rather than from midnight-to-midnight as with fasting from foods. Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays in number (4) above (i.e., during the lesser fasts and middle weeks of Great Lent) therefore translates to abstaining from marital relations on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
Contrary to the common belief of some, it is not a requirement of the Church to abstain on all fast days (nor on the eves of fast days), or during the 11 days after Nativity when marriages are not permitted.
The married state is blessed and the marriage bed is undefiled. The Holy Church in protecting the sanctity of marriage and the well-being of the spouses, as well as encouraging procreation and the raising of “fair children” has no interest in creating artificial impediments to preclude spouses from “rejoicing in one another.”
If anyone wishes individual guidance on these matters, they should, of course, consult with their Spiritual Father.