This article was written for my friend Shaunti Feldhahn’s website – Shaunti.com. It is copied here but I recommend you also view it and the comments on her website. While there, sign up for her email list. – Dr. Mike
Conflict over sexual desire and frequency is the most common sexual issue causing distress in couples today. The age-old stereotype, of course, is that the husband wants sex all the time but the wife isn’t interested. Increasingly, though, we hear from wives who are trying to figure out what it means when they are the high-desire spouse and the husband doesn’t seem to want it as often. These women want to know what on earth is going on and what to do.
Ladies, while you can’t change your husband, there is a path you can start down that can help remove the conflict related to sexual desire within your marriage – and bring hope for a great mutual connection.
But are you ready for the hard truth? As with many worthwhile changes, the first stage begins with you. So the focus of this Part One article is this:
Prepare Yourself Before Addressing it with Him
Conflict over sexual desire is often really difficult for couples to work through, especially since many don’t have the critical tools they need. Since you must understand each other to make progress, the most important tool is good communication. So….how are you at that? If you personally can’t talk about finances, in-laws, or parenting without getting defensive, shutting down, or blowing up, it is unlikely you will be able to talk about the emotional topic of sexual intimacy without doing the same. If you need to, first seek some help learning good, solid communication skills.
Next, prepare yourself to address this well. Keep in mind that beautiful flowers grow when we have provided the proper soil, nutrients, and moisture. Similarly, here are three critical steps you can work on to build a great environment for addressing this important topic with your husband.
Step # 1. Embrace Your Feelings, But Monitor Them Too
We are all created with the desire to be pursued and wanted, especially by our spouse. When that doesn’t happen, it is normal to feel wounded. When the one closest to us doesn’t want to connect sexually, it is normal to feel hurt, concerned, and confused. Your fears are energized and begin to conjure up scary reasons he might not want to have sex. This can cause some people to get completely bogged down in anxiety and fear; they can feel just plain stuck, or they can totally freak out.
I tell husbands in these situations that they need to allow their wives to be human. I warn them that if they don’t pursue their wives sexually, and if they turn them down when pursued, it is only normal for the wife to have normal, and typically negative, human reactions. The only way not to have those is to not care. And if she reaches that point — where she no longer cares— the marriage is potentially moving into the terminal illness stage and needs immediate assistance.
That said, though: Wives should not give full license to those negative emotions. That will not be helpful! It is human to want to blow up, cave in, or run away when we feel a negative emotion, but allowing such reactions will almost always make the problem worse. When your hurt turns into an attack on your husband, that does not make you more desirable. I have worked with many husbands who, because of how their wives reacted when they didn’t desire to connect sexually, began to avoid sex altogether, even when they did have the desire. That can escalate into a pattern of avoidance that can be difficult to break.
Rather than blowing up, caving in, or running away (even subtly), I encourage wives to center themselves. Recognize the hurt, but manage it well. This allows you to lean into him and do the next steps. This is tough work and can be an exercise in true selflessness. (I work in a lot of church settings, and in that context we acknowledge this is also true discipleship.)
Part of being centered is acknowledging both who you are – and whether you have your own issues to address. I have worked with a number of wives who have a particularly high drive –and some who are actual sex addicts. If that might be you, I urge you to meet with a qualified female sexual addictions specialist for an assessment and a plan to address the issue. Now, if you simply have a particularly high level of sexual desire, it is important to own it. It isn’t a bad or wrong thing. It may just be how you are wired, and it will be important to accept that about yourself. Being the high-desire spouse means your husband might not be able to keep up, which brings us to the next recommendation.
Step # 2. Double-Check Your Expectations
It is easy for us to get caught up in cultural stereotypes and expect our spouses to behave that way…. like the idea that men are always craving sex. While this may be true for many men, it is far from true for all men. Additionally, men aren’t always as simple as they are made out to be. The idea that men are testosterone-driven, desire-driven, and need sex frequently, is not typically true — especially as men age.
It is true that testosterone activates the part of the brain that focuses on sexual objects and has sexual thoughts. At a young age, many men must work diligently to discipline this part of the brain. Some men learn the skill quickly and become fairly disciplined in their sexuality. Others learn to repress (shut off) that part of who they are and may have difficulty turning it back on in the appropriate context, such as marital sex. Or physical issues like aging can cause a decrease in testosterone and result in a drop in the intensity of sexual thoughts. There are many issues that may result in a husband who doesn’t fit the stereotype of always wanting sex.
While sexual drive is generally quite resilient in most men, we are affected by more than just testosterone. Male sexual drive can be affected by a host of external factors. A husband who is under a lot of stress, not sleeping well, not eating well, not exercising, or is generally out of balance, may totally lose interest in sex. While the male stereotype is, “If I only have a little energy left, I want to go out having sex,” I only see that in jest, or in a small percentage of husbands. To me it makes more sense that God would design our bodies in such a way that, if we are too stressed or out of balance, our bodies would lose interest in sexual relations. If a man is barely keeping his head above water in life, his body might simply move sexual desire off the table completely.
Besides testosterone, men also pursue sex for the rush and the connection. These too can be affected by a host of things that result in him having lower sexual drive. Most importantly: if he is feeling criticized, disrespected, or demeaned by you it might be very difficult for him to want sex. Pressure to perform, a lack of desire to connect, or the loss of the rush for any number of reasons can also lower his sexual interest.
The reality is that many men experience times when they lose interest in sex for any of a variety of reasons. This is normal. If you, as his wife, don’t expect this occasionally, you might allow your hurt, fear, or confusion to reinforce your inaccurate expectations. The result is rarely helpful in raising his desire to be sensual and intimate with you. I’ve worked with many couples going through a season where the husband has low desire. Often, in the wife’s fear-based anger, she attacks the husband and his manhood (“What’s wrong with you? Real men want sex.”). This attack cuts to the core of the husband’s confidence as a male and often totally disrupts sexual desire in the marriage, turning a temporary situation into a true problem.
Research consistently tells us that in any culture or subculture, husbands have the higher sexual drive in about 80 percent of marriages. While this is a clear majority, it does mean that the wife has the higher sexual drive in one of five couples. That is not a tiny number. So realize: It is possible that nothing is wrong with you or your husband, and that you just happen to be one of those couples. Expecting to be one of the 80 percent when you are actually one of the 20 percent can put undue pressure on your spouse, yourself, and your marriage. Again, it is fine if you wish you weren’t one of the 20 percent, but it is equally important to recognize that you might be.
Now, does that mean you’re simply supposed to accept that you have a mismatch and “live with” the challenging and negative feelings that come with it? Not at all. You might need to accept that you are the high desire spouse in your marriage, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do about it, or that you need to live with hurt, fear, and confusion. We’ll touch on this more in Part Two, but the bottom line is that there is a lot you can do to address the problem – but there’s also a lot you can do to address your feelings. Take charge of your emotions, so they do not take charge of you.
Another area in which high-desire wives might have unrealistic expectations is in how frequently sex will happen. Some wives simply believe that his desire “should” always be higher than hers– no matter what hers is. The reality, however, is that most individuals (meaning both husbands and wives) report they would like sex more frequently than it happens. So the problem isn’t always the natural desire itself: it’s that other things get in the way of desire, such as fatigue, work, distraction, and fear — to name a few.
His lack of desire might still seem like a problem to you, but before moving forward, try to check your expectations about what his desire should be, and what sex should look like as a couple.
Step #3. Monitor Your “Attributions”
(For Example: Don’t Assume You Know Why His Desire is Low)
Typically, when a wife comes into my office concerned about her husband’s lack of sexual desire she tells me she is afraid he is attracted to men, is getting his sexual needs fulfilled elsewhere, or is no longer attracted to her body. We call these explanations of someone else’s behavior attributions. We view their behavior and attribute certain explanations to it. Our attributions can be accurate or inaccurate. Attributions can be positive and can affirm the marriage, or they can be negative and destructive.
My doctoral research focused on desire discrepancy in married couples. My findings showed that the greatest source of pain in couples was not based on who had the higher or lower desire. In essence, the high-desire spouse’s level of desire was not the cause of the distress, and the low level of the low-desire spouse caused only a small amount of marital distress. Further, the greatest predictor of distress related to sexual desire in marriage was not the distance between the high and low spouse’s level of desire. The greatest predictor of distress was in the attribution of the high desire spouse.
Practically, what that means is that if you are the high desire spouse in your marriage, what you think about your husband’s low desire is far more important than his actual desire level, in predicting pain in your marriage. Occasionally I find that the wife’s worst fear about her husband’s low sex drive is true, but typically the reason is far more benign. In their hurt, fear, and confusion, many wives lock in on a negative attribution and don’t take the time to explore what might really be going on. They keep driving down the wrong road, demanding that their husband fix something that is not the core problem.
Thankfully, once you’re mindful of the attribution trap, you can easily avoid it. Especially as you begin a good process for understanding where he is coming from — which is what we will cover in Part Two.