Can You Save a Sexless Marriage?
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This article first appeared on the Good Men Project.
Let’s be honest—sex is a big deal. Great sex makes you feel like you’ve transcended into some heavenly plane. For some people, it’s a bond between partners that can’t be created in any other way. When you look at it objectively, it’s sort of odd what a big deal we humans have made of it. It’s two bodies, moving in a weird way, with the ultimate goal of achieving orgasm, a goal which can be reached any other number of ways without all the mess. And yet if you consider all of our sex-related industries here in the USA—from pornography to Viagra and everything else—we worship sex probably even more than we worship any religion. Any way you look at it, sex matters to human beings.
That’s why a loss of libido is such a huge deal. When once you were full of desire and lust, now you feel like a flat line—no ups, no downs, no nothin’. You can observe someone is attractive, you can remember when you had insane sex, but it becomes sort of like skiing or shooting skeet. It’s fun to do a few times a year, but you don’t need to do it every day. You most likely don’t even think about it all that often.
In the times when a person’s libido is low, having sex is so far from his or her mind that often it doesn’t even occur to them that they aren’t having it. Lots of people find those times in life to be very productive for work and other non-sexual relationships. Of course, problems arise when person who is in the “flat line” stage is in a monogamous relationship with someone who’s still burning with desire. Then it feels terrible for everyone.
There are a lot of caricatures of a sexless marriage, first and foremost that of the couple who had a blisteringly hot sex life early on in their relationship, and once kids come along, the wife is no longer interested. Her sexy lace nighties become giant flannel pajamas buttoned up to the neck. Eventually, the husband becomes so weary from being rejected that he either has an affair or shuts down completely and becomes an asexual being, completely emasculated.
The next caricature of a sexless marriage is one in which the woman becomes a bitter crow of a wife who uses sex as a tool to get what she wants or as a weapon to punish her husband for being “bad”—and not in a fun way, like with a spanking—but by abstaining from him, forcing him to the couch. The man in this scenario is so sex-starved and sex-crazed that he will do anything to get some, and will always relent, leaving this caricature of a wife smirking over his shoulder with her new Prada bag by the bedside.
We often hear both of these scenarios referred to as “withholding sex”, when in truth, only the latter is actually withholding sex. In both situations, the couple isn’t having sex the way they used to, and both are probably dissatisfied. But in the first scenario, the person who has no desire isn’t “withholding it”—they simply don’t have it to give.
And that’s where the point of miscommunication becomes tragic. In many relationships (we’re going to presume the relationships we’re talking about are monogamous, for the sake of this article) both partners feel entitled to sex—and to a certain type and frequency. Both partners feel entitled to have their needs met by their partners, and because of their belief in monogamy, they cannot have their needs met elsewhere.
But the truth is, we aren’t actually entitled to anything—even when we’re committed to monogamy. Sex is sort of like a gift given from one person to the other, and it becomes truly great when both partners are equally giving. As Dan Savage says, “good, giving and game” are the three Gs that are the foundation of a great sex life.
In reality, during 50 years of a life together (some lucky ones get 75 years, imagine that!), we’re not always going to be able to be good, giving and game. Sometimes we are a flat line. Sometimes we have no desire. Sometimes we need a lot of space and don’t want to be touched. That’s life as a human. It’s messy and imperfect and trying to match two humans together is almost never easy.
I think most people recognize that this mismatch will occur at times, but they intellectualize it and don’t quite realize the impact it could have upon their relationship as a whole. And the harm done to a relationship that becomes sexless over time isn’t necessarily from the lack of sex itself, but from a fundamental miscommunication that happens which can turn a good thing toxic…and fast.
In order for me to explain this miscommunication, I’m going to have to do some generalizing. What we all know is that gender expression is an ever-shifting spectrum of masculine and feminine traits, and no one person owns the definition of what is “manly” or “womanly”. But there are some general trends we’re going to cite here in order to facilitate the conversation. Knowing that we’re generalizing, we recognize that anyone who doesn’t feel this way or fall into this pattern is just as authentic and entitled to their own way of being.
Also, while most of this article will presume that either partner can have a loss of libido, there is a unique challenge when a male partner goes through a lack of desire. While we won’t dive into the specifics of that here, please check out a unique and helpful article called “But He’s Supposed to Want it More”: The Damaging Expectation of Higher Male Desire by Hugo Schwyzer.
With those caveats in mind, let me explain how these sexual ups and downs become toxic and snowball into huge divisive issues.
First, there is a fundamental divide between the way most women and men regard sex. As traditional thinking goes, there is a saying: “Women need to have intimacy in order to have sex whereas men need to have sex in order to experience intimacy.” That’s a HUGE generalization, but sometimes there’s a kernel of truth there. My blogging partner, Eli, and I always joke about how foreplay to a man need only be his partner saying, “Wanna have sex?” His partner could look ugly, smell bad, be sick or have just eaten a head of raw garlic and he’d still want to do it. It’s a joke, but the truth is that for many guys it’s easy to get turned on and easy to perform.
For some women, all the factors have to be right. Not only do the sheets have to be clean, but her legs have to be shaved, the kids have to be away at the grandparents’ for the weekend, and Mercury can’t be in retrograde.
Thankfully, this is just a joke, but the truth behind it is important to understand. In a relationship, if one is an “always on” and the other is an “only in certain circumstances” person, the “always on” is going to have his or her feelings hurt by multiple rejections. It feels very personal. When his wife says, “I’m not in the mood, work was so stressful today,” or “I’m bloated,” the husband who is an “always on” can’t help but imagine what it would mean if he begged out of sex. To him, it would mean, “I don’t like you enough to have sex with you.”
In turn, an “always on” woman who is rejected multiple times may also have to contend with a cultural voice that has taught her that men are sex-crazed and always horny. When a woman is faced with a man who has a lower libido than her, she may not only question her own desirability, but also his fidelity, masculinity, or even whether he’s gay. In truth, he may love her dearly and desire her completely and still have a lower libido. This doesn’t make him less of a man, it simply breaks with the cultural narrative about men and sex that we’ve been hearing since the first time we heard the phrase, “boys are only after one thing.”
Let’s take a moment with the part that both genders may share: the shame. When the higher-libido partner is rejected multiple times, he or she thinks, I am not desirable and maybe even I am not lovable—no matter how untrue it may be.
He can tell himself that his wife is different from him, but often there’s an internal voice that says, “That’s just an excuse, man, she just doesn’t like you. You’re too _____ and she just doesn’t want to do it with you.” On top of that, society tells the guy that he’s not supposed to feel bad about himself, he’s not supposed to feel fat or ugly or hairy or short or whatever message the rejection keys into. He’s a dude, he’s supposed to feel awesome about himself at all times. Insecurity, especially body or sexual insecurity, is for chicks.
And so he probably wasn’t given the language to say to his partner, “I know you’re not in the mood and I respect that, but I gotta be honest… Being rejected makes me wonder if there’s something about me that you don’t like, and I’m worried that I don’t turn you on anymore. Even worse, I’m worried that I’ll never turn you on again and that really makes me feel like crap.”
It’s not just men who have communication problems when it comes to sex in long-term relationships. The first assumption about men and sex that many women go into relationships with is that the desire for sex isn’t really about us. You’re men, you’re sex-crazed. We’ve been told this since our first sex-ed class. Even if we know better intellectually, a part of us often tells us that your desire to have sex has more to do with putting your thing in a warm spot, and less to do with knowing, loving, or connecting with us. So we think our rejection of you won’t phase you. Sure, it might make you mad or frustrated, but we don’t assume it’s going to hurt you.
Beyond that, there is an idea in our minds that if we do any little thing that might turn you on, we’re guilty of feeding your frustration and therefore deserving of your anger. When I worked in retail buying, a coworker of mine and I were ordering cute pajamas for the store. We would tack on an extra of any item we wanted to buy for ourselves once the delivery came. There were a lot of traditional top-and-bottom sets and a few sexy little shorts or nighties. I asked my friend if she wanted me to put one on the order for her.
“No way,” she said. “I can’t wear anything but sweats to bed. I don’t want Sean to get the wrong idea.”
This is an example of how we’ve turned sexuality into an all-or-nothing equation. If Karen wore a tank top and little shorts to bed, Sean would want to have sex, and if she wasn’t in the mood just then, she would be the guilty party who incited his desire and then rejected him. And so she only wore sweats to bed, every single night, as an insurance policy that if Sean became aroused, it somehow wasn’t her responsibility.
As goofy as the pajama example may seem, this all-or-nothing attitude does a lot of damage to marriages, and ultimately it’s the fault of both partners. As we said before, sometimes the guy doesn’t feel comfortable enough to say, “the lack of affection or sex is really hurting my feelings. I’m starting to feel really bad about myself.” Even if he did, because of our expectations that men are obsessed with sex and are almost animalistic, the woman may not be able to hear the statement without defensiveness. She may be hearing, “You’re an asshole for not having sex with me,” instead of, “I feel like an asshole because of desiring you when you don’t desire me back.”
The version that the woman is hearing is filled with blame, guilt, responsibility and maybe even a threat (of him looking elsewhere to have his needs fulfilled), regardless of whether he intended them to be there. And let me tell you what will kill someone’s libido: guilt.
This guilt is what keeps many lower-libido partners from reaching out for non-sexual affection or non-penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex. If you think you might not want to have intercourse, the idea of reaching across the bed for a snuggle, or intertwining bare legs, or even kissing, becomes guilt-inducing. You think, if I snuggle in and spoon, he might think I want to have sex. Then I’ll have to say ‘no’ and he’ll be mad and I’ll feel like a jerk again. And so that gap between two partners who once couldn’t keep their hands off one another becomes a giant chasm, and both partners are left unsatisfied. Now they’re not only not having sex, they also have lost all physical affection.
So, how do we bridge this gap?
With honest communication where both partners are ready to engage without defensiveness. I like a version of the Imago Therapy model of mirroring, particularly a model set up by Dr. Bill Cloke in his book Happy Together: Creating a Lifetime of Connection, Commitment, and Intimacy. I’ve simplified both the method in Dr. Cloke’s book and the Imago method into a simple bare-bones framework so that it’s a great place to start communicating about sex. I highly recommend reading Happy Together for more ideas and further extrapolation. Also, this is sort of a cheat-sheet to help you get started, but I highly recommend seeing a therapist individually and/or as a couple for more information.
The first step is for one person to say how they feel about something—one simple thought or feeling. This is done without accusation, just a statement of how they feel. The partner listens quietly until the first person is done with the first thought. Then, instead of defending or even responding, the second partner tries to re-state what she heard so that everyone’s clear on what’s being said. It might look like this:
“Karen, I feel like our sex life has really fallen off a cliff lately, and I love you and I really miss that connection.”
At this point, Karen needs to remind herself that she is not to be defend herself, as much as she may want to. Instead, her job is to tell Sean what she believes he’s saying. She could say this:
“What I’m hearing, Sean, is that we aren’t having much sex lately and that you miss having sex.”
And he can correct her here if he wants. He may say something like, “It’s not just the sex, I really miss the connection we have when we’re having more sex.”
Then she can say, “Okay, I get it. It’s not just the sex, it’s also that connection.”
At this point she can say how she feels about this subject, and the roles will be reversed. He listens quietly and then repeats what he thinks she’s saying, and they clarify until both people feel heard.
Karen may then say, “I miss the connection too, and I really miss my libido. I don’t know what happened to me. But every time I say ‘no’ I feel so guilty, and I know you’re upset, and that makes me feel worse, and then I really don’t want to have sex.”
Sean then repeats what he thinks she’s saying. The couple continues this pattern until they both feel more resolution. The key here is to just try to understand what your partner is saying. Don’t judge and don’t defend. Just explain, listen and clarify. Those three words will get you where you need to go.
If anyone starts to feel really angry, the best thing you can do is walk away for 20 minutes with a reassurance that you want to try talking again in 20 minutes. As Dr. Cloke points out, once a person’s blood pressure starts to rise and they feel evoked, it’s hard for them to remain reasonable and stick to the guidelines of the communication model. And the goal isn’t to dump anger on someone, it’s to move through and past the issues that are making us angry.
Once you have a really good understanding of what’s happening inside each other, you can move on to the final steps of finding ways to avoid the problem in the future by doing things differently.
I know it seems really forced to keep repeating each other’s words. No one wants to follow a script to talk to the person they’ve been with for years and are in love with. But the script is just a tool, like any other. You wouldn’t try to cut down a tree with a kitchen knife. It may get the job done, it may even be what you’re used to, but it’s far from the best tool for the job. If someone can offer you a saw—or better yet, a 316E Husqvarna chainsaw—you should at least give it a shot.
Finally, I have to address the people who actually do purposefully withhold sex—the ones like the woman with the Prada bag in the caricature I referenced in the very beginning. Those people are jerks. Sex is not a tool. It is not a weapon to be wielded. And unless you’re a sex worker or client, it is not a commodity to be bartered.
There may be traditional relationships where this works, I can’t say for sure, but in my mind, sex should never be used as a tool for manipulation. In a famous scene in the Bravo home remodeling reality series Flipping Out, a wife tells lead designer Jeff Lewis that he can’t go over budget because she’s all out of sexual favors, which is the only reason her husband allowed her to do the renovation in the first place. It’s a joke, we all laugh, but in truth this is probably a pretty unhealthy model for a long-term relationship.
In this scenario, she may feel like her voice, wants or opinions don’t matter unless attached to her sexuality, and he, in turn, may feel like his desirability has nothing to do with his value to her as a human. Without his wallet, he isn’t good enough to be found desirable to his own wife, and that’s obviously a recipe for disaster. If one partner doesn’t eventually leave the relationship, it’s likely one (or both) of them will find an outsider whose sex and affection—or respect and partnership—comes without a price tag…sexual or monetary.
The good news is that I think this is a pretty rare occurrence. My guess would be it’s more common that the couple has gotten themselves into a bad cycle of isolation and poor communication and are making repeated bad choices that may feel like one is withholding. Regardless, the model for communication I outlined above would still be really helpful.
While no one ever has the right to demand sex from someone, the person whose libido is lower isn’t automatically granted absolution from the problems in the relationship. His or her responsibility isn’t to have sex when they don’t want to, but rather to solve the problems at the root level to the degree that they can. These solutions are as varied as the issues that cause the libido disparity to start with, but a good place for most people to start is with a visit to a doctor for a general check-up to see if there is a hormone imbalance (yes, men too!). Other ideas are adding at least 20 minutes of exercise into the day 5 times per week, going off the birth control pill (use a back up method though, folks!), seeing an acupuncturist/herbalist, seeing a therapist alone or together, doing yoga, looking at some sort of visual stimulation like empowering pornography or even just hot black and white photos (Tumblr is a great place to start), or reading a sexy book.
The partner with the lower libido also may need to step outside of his or her self-implemented sweat pants-straitjacket and engage in whatever form of pleasuring that both partners feel comfortable with. Some ideas for women may be to start with just kissing his neck while he pleasures himself, or telling him a dirty story while he does it. If even that is too much, reach out for some comforting non-sexual affection and offer your partner some verbal reassurance such as, “I know it’s hard that my libido is so low right now, but I want you to know that I do find you so attractive, and I’m so glad you’re my husband (or wife). I love you so much.” Just hearing those words, coupled with affectionate touch, can go a long way.
The partner with the higher sex drive will need to understand and respect that these efforts are being made, and should take some comfort in them. The efforts do matter, even if healing the sexual rift may require a bit of time and patience. The partner with the lower libido, in turn, needs to understand that there can be fallout from a long period of unmet sexual needs, and try to be understanding that the other person may need to self-pleasure more or even use pornography. We hear a lot about women being uncomfortable with their husbands using pornography, but it is something that should be discussed. Pornography spans a wide range of definitions, from sexy art photography all the way to hardcore fetish porn. The couple, together, needs to discuss what boundaries to draw, just as they discuss boundaries with sex. If both partners are comfortable with it, they should watch some porn together in order to ease the conversation. It may even ignite a little spark!
Either way, both partners should do their very best to compromise with one another in a time when one partner doesn’t feel like having sex. After all, you love each other and you want it to work out. Pressure, anger, resentment and manipulation will only cause you to be further apart.
Also read: Is Marriage Obsolete? by Lisa Levey
Read more sex and relationship advice from the author on She Said He Said