I was trained, like most therapists, to believe that when a marriage is rocky and the couple’s sex life stinks, you have to solve the emotional problems and the rest will fall into place. But I discovered that doesn’t always work, so I needed a new way to work with couples, especially when one person was more interested in having sex than the other—a sex-starved marriage.
When I talk about a sex-starved marriage, it’s not about the number of times per week or per month people are actually having sex. After all, unlike vitamins, there’s no daily or weekly minimum requirement to ensure a healthy sex life. Instead, the sex-starved marriage is one in which one spouse is longing for more touch, more physical closeness, more sex, and—here’s the rub—the other spouse is thinking, “What’s the big deal? It’s just sex.” But it’s a huge deal because it’s really about feeling wanted, loved, and connected. Couples who experience this kind of sex–desire gap stop spending time together, stop watching TV together, don’t laugh at each other’s jokes, and quit being friends. It places the marriage at risk of infidelity and of divorce.
There’s a misconception that what I’m talking about is the typical scenario of a man who has a permanent erection and is more interested in sex than his wife is. Often it’s the woman who has the higher drive. Another misconception is that sex-starved couples present their sex life as their primary issue when they come into couples therapy. The reality is that it’s typical for these couples first to come in talking about differences in parenting styles, in how they handle money, or in how they take on chores around the house. But if they give me any clue—maybe because their body language seems cold and distant—to suggest they’re leading parallel and separate lives, I’ve learned to just jump right in and say, “So tell me about your sex life. How’s that going?” I’m very direct about it these days. In fact, more often than not, I ask about it in the first session.
It’s common for the lower-desire spouse to feel that it’s okay to make a unilateral decision about whether or not the couple connects sexually, thinking, Why in the world would my partner be interested in sex if we’re not feeling close? But when the higher-desire spouse is either directly or indirectly rejected sexually, he or she can shift rapidly into anger. It may be focused on the wet towel on the floor, or the beer in the den, or the tricycle left in the driveway. But I’ve never seen a relationship where anger is an aphrodisiac. It usually pushes the other spouse even further away.
One of the things I’m doing early on is to get the higher-desire spouse to share openly what it’s been like to be sexually disconnected. It’s usually poignant, and there’s always a deep expression of a sense of rejection and hurt. Then I turn to the low-desire spouse and ask that person, “What’s it like for you to hear this?”
I’m hoping for some empathy, but if it doesn’t come, I have a story that I tell people about a couple I’ll call John and Mary. John was a laid-back guy, who rarely complained about anything. Toward the end of one session, he said, “There’s something I’d like to talk about. In our relationship, there’s only a two-hour window of opportunity on Friday nights between 10:00 and 12:00 when my wife might be interested in sex. If we miss one Friday night, I know not to ask until next Friday night.”
As John said this, Mary started to chuckle because she recognized it as true. But when I glanced over at John, he wasn’t chuckling at all. With some encouragement from me, John said to Mary, “When I reach out for you and you’re not there for me, I think to myself, Is she still attracted to me? Does she love me anymore? Then, when you go to sleep and I’m staring up at the ceiling, lying next to you in bed is the loneliest feeling in the world.”
Mary’s eyes filled up with tears, and to her credit, she grabbed John’s hand and said, “When you touch me, all I ever think about is Am I in the mood? Am I not in the mood? I never, not once, have thought about what it’s like to be you. I’m so, so sorry. I promise I’ll try harder.”
I remember how incredibly touched I was by that moment, and it’s a story I tell almost every couple. It immediately helps the higher-desire spouse feel that I just spoke their story, and it opens a chance to connect with the lower-desire spouse. Getting the lower-desire spouse to feel a bit more empathy is the first step, but it’s not enough to just feel sorry or sad or remorseful: it’s essential that you get that person to take action.
So I explain that the conventional way of thinking about the human sexual response cycle is that first comes desire, which is followed by the stage of being physical. When your body’s working correctly, the third stage is orgasm, and the fourth is resolution, where your body goes back to its normal resting state. However, it’s estimated that for about 50 percent of the population, stages one and two are actually reversed. They have to be sexually aroused before their brains register that they have desire. I wish I had a dollar for each person in my practice who’s said to me, “When my husband approached me for sex, I really wasn’t in the mood. But once I got into it, I really enjoyed myself. I had an orgasm, and we got along so much better afterward.” In fact, I once had a guy in my practice say to me, “I wish my wife would just write ‘I like sex’ on her hand so she remembers it for the next time.”
Part of my approach with sex-starved couples is to coach low-desire spouses about being receptive to their partners’ advances from a neutral starting place. They don’t have to feel really excited. If they just allow themselves to get into it, it’s amazing how many people actually have an enjoyable experience, and the relationship benefits are plentiful.
Of course, there are many situations where people don’t want to have sex because they’ve been sexually abused, or they’ve gotten bad messages growing up about sexuality, or they hate their body. But for the average therapist who’s dealing with a couple with a sexual-desire gap, the underlying problem is that one person needs to feel connected emotionally before he or she can be physical, and the other person needs to feel connected physically before he or she can invest in the emotional aspects of the relationship. Each person is waiting for the other to make the first move. It’s job security for marriage therapists, because when both partners are waiting for the other person to change, marriages fall through the cracks.
A major part of how I try to jump-start things in these couples is to encourage them to adopt the Nike philosophy—Just Do It! I tell them that people tend to give to one another in the way they like to receive, and that’s not real giving. Real giving is when you give to your partner the things your partner wants and needs. Whether you understand it completely or not, whether you like it or not, whether you agree with it or not, is completely irrelevant.
That leads me into a discussion and actually an exercise that I do with people around Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages. Chapman’s idea is that people typically express love in their own love languages but not their partners’ love languages. According to Chapman, there are five of them.
The first one is spending time together. If you’re really busy and you take time out of your busy schedule to spend time with me, I feel important, I feel like I’m a priority, I feel love. The second language is touch, physical affection, sex, walking down the street arm in arm. If you’re married to somebody whose love language is touch, you can spend hours and hours of time with them and it’ll be nice, but it’s not going hit the mark unless you touch them. Another language is words of affirmation, usually heart-to-heart conversations that are acknowledging and validating and appreciating. Another one is acts of service, including cooking, cleaning, taking care of the kids, going out on a wintry day and turning the heat on in the car so your spouse can get into a warm car, bringing your spouse a cup of coffee. The last language is one of material gifts, both large and small.
I explain these five love languages to couples and ask them to silently identify the languages that make them feel loved. Then I have the spouses guess what each other’s top two love languages are. Afterward, we find out whether the guesses are accurate. The next step is for me to ask them to grade themselves on how well have they’ve been showing love in their partner’s preferred love language. In sex-starved marriages, people usually give themselves a low grade, and for many people, it’s the first time they actually admit that they haven’t stepped outside their comfort zone to really show their partner that they care in the language that their partner can hear, feel, and see. For a lot of couples, that’s a turning point.
Here I’ve focused on helping the lower-desire spouse feel more empathy. This isn’t to say that I don’t nudge the higher-desire spouse to feel empathy for his or her partner. In general, therapists are fairly skilled at doing the latter; it’s almost a therapeutic given. The key to working with sex-starved couples, or any other kind, is that you have to join with them in significant ways. Both partners have to feel like you completely understand how they’re feeling, why they’re feeling it, and why they’ve been doing what they’ve been doing. As I always say, the art of doing really good marital therapy is having both people leave the room thinking you’re on their side.
Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW, LCSW, is director of The Divorce Busting Center and author of several books, including The Sex-Starved Marriage.
Illustration © Adam Niklewicz