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Never has society made me feel more inadequate than when it comes to the vicious cycle of no sex in a long-term relationship.
Society also does not make it okay for me to talk about this. Yet there has long been brewing in my head this theory, and I can’t believe it’s not taught in schools. In many candid conversations with clients in therapy, and not-so-candid ones with friends, I came to realise that I definitely wasn’t alone. In fact, there were too many others.
Ann was devastated when she first came to counselling. Her marriage of 25 years was on the rocks, and it had all come to light at their anniversary party. She had discovered that her husband Brian was using a sex chat app and was chatting to other women. She had lifted his phone, when a message came through, and the content shocked her. She felt betrayed and humiliated, but most of all, she was confused.
Ann felt like another woman with self-respect would end the marriage, but she wasn’t sure that she wanted to. She felt that she was the hurt party, but she also felt guilty.
“Why?” I asked. “Because we weren’t really having a lot of sex,” she replied. “And that was down to me.”
John came to me on the advice of a friend. He had recently split from his wife and was missing his little girl. He felt hurt and shocked as all his friends and family had sided with his wife and no one was speaking to him. According to them, John had caused the split as he had had an affair.
Unbeknownst to his family, John was living with the lady he had an affair with. He felt that she was the only one who understood him. He said he loved his wife, but she had become possessive recently. She would continually ring him when he was at work—and they weren’t having sex. She didn’t seem to want him anymore.
Holly was only 26 when she came to see me. She was a professional who loved her work but was worried about her future. She married the man of her dreams at 23 but felt like the magic had gone. Her husband said he wanted the old Holly back and she felt like she just wanted him to care about her work, dreams, and interests. She felt under huge pressure in response to his continual requests and efforts to initiate sex. She didn’t want to have sex with him because she didn’t feel like her needs were being met.
Their families had started to put pressure on her about starting a family and her husband never shut up about it. But she wasn’t sure she could see her future with him—let alone commit to a family. She cried every time they did have sex.
What was happening with these previously happy couples?
Of course, there is one common theme: no sex. In personal conversations and in my own experience, the women would say they just didn’t want sex anymore and the men would say they never had any sex and didn’t know why. The women felt under pressure and the men felt rejected.
Loving and committed couples carried on in this cycle, or rather, the vicious cycle of no sex.
I have come to realise it is not really about sex—at least for women and some men. Men are biologically built to think about and need more sex, and that is part of what makes them who they are. Women actually have a greater propensity to enjoy sex, but they need other things to be able to want sex in the first place. And I hear a plethora of men chorusing, but what do women want? I realise that each woman is different in what she wants specifically, so each man still needs to figure out what his woman wants.
To my understanding, there is a common underlying factor.
Holly wanted to be able to talk about her day and for her husband to listen like he cared, indeed, to enquire about how her day had been. She wanted to be able to hug him and cuddle on the sofa without it always having to end in sex.
Ann wanted to be able to go for a walk with Brian like they used to. It was the only time they got to spend together. Since he had stopped bothering to go, she felt that the only time they did spend together was when they had sex. They never just chatted about things.
John said that his wife was always asking him to go to his daughter’s events when she knew he didn’t have the time. “I know that this was important for me. Spending time together with the children. A day out, the cinema, just doing things together outside of the home, with or without the kids. Going for a meal as a couple, going for a walk, and yes, some help with the housework.”
So, what is the common factor to all these seemingly different things that women want?
The answer is emotional connection. Women really need to feel emotionally connected to their partner to want sex. I have met so many women who have said to me that they feel they must be asexual as they just don’t want sex anymore. And I have met an uncomfortable number who say they have sex to please their partners but cry afterward. When I begin to speak of feeling connected, they tear up. They nod their heads and wonder how someone can understand so well.
None of this means that men don’t need emotional connection. They do need it, but they can find that connection in sex. According to Esther Perel, a New York psychotherapist, “…sex is their language of intimacy.” It is the space in which they express their loving and gentle sides.
Men will often tend to think, “Well, we both needed sex, we had it, and our needs are met. Let’s get on with it.” But that’s usually wrong. Women are similar to men in the honeymoon period of a relationship, but once that period is over, they need something different. According to Edward O. Laumann, Ph.D., professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, “Sexual desire in women is extremely sensitive to environment and context.”
Is it too late? For couples in long-term relationships, is it too late to reverse the patterns?
I say it’s not, but it will take both partners to want it badly enough.
Gentlemen, simply pay attention to what your partner says she wants. Ask about her day when she comes in from work, do some dishes, take the kids away for a bit, hug her from behind when she least expects it, kiss her on the neck, and cuddle—and don’t grab at her as you do it. Let her feel the warmth, without feeling your gesture is a means to an end.
And ladies, don’t doubt yourself. You are not asexual—you just crave connection. Take responsibility and ask yourself what you need to feel connected. Communicate this to your partner in a loving and positive way. He gets that connection through sex so finds it hard to see that you need something different. He is not a mind reader.
Some men won’t pay attention. And some women won’t be able to say it. But if you can get over this hurdle together you can exit the cycle, or rather get into a better one.