“She never initiates sex.”

“She always says she’s too tired.”

“She says I only touch her when I want sex.”

These are some typical complaints I hear as a certified sex and relationship therapist. Often what lies beneath these complaints is a raw sense of fear, sadness, and hopelessness.

“Is my wife not attracted to me?”

“Does she not love me?”

“Does she not want me?”

“Am I doomed to live in a sexless marriage?”

What Can You Do About It?

The truth is that, most likely, many things are contributing to your wife avoiding intimacy with you. The question is, what can you do about it? To answer this question, it’s time to open your eyes, challenge some of your beliefs, roll up your sleeves and get to work. Who knows, a more fulfilling sex-life might be right around the corner.

Hard Truth #1
Sex is the Last Thing on Her Mind

Most women these days are juggling a variety of different, and sometimes conflicting, roles and responsibilities in their daily lives. Motherhood, managing a home, career demands, community and religious service, and her relationship with you! Tending to all of these commitments leaves her with little time to relax long enough to allow her sexual desire to grow to a level of conscious awareness, let alone pass the threshold into wanting to do something about it. At the end of the day sex can feel like yet another thing she has to do instead of something she wants.

A woman’s brain is her most powerful sexual organ. Dr. Emily Nagoski, author of “Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life,” describes the brain as having an “accelerator,” which responds positively to sexual stimulation, and “brakes,” which provide all the reasons not to have sex.

Women’s brakes are sensitive. They screech sexual desire to a halt with too many responsibilities and too much stress on her plate.

What You Can Do About It:

Be her partner in managing and taking care of the household and the kids. Ask her specifically what you can do. Research shows that women take on most of the domestic work. The more you can contribute, the less burned out she’ll be. Cook dinner. Do the laundry. Drive the kids to their activities.

Ask her about her day—listen. Be interested in what is going on in her life. In a word—care.

Ask her about the things that stop her from feeling desire and arousal (brakes) and the things that help her feel relaxed and sexy (accelerators). Remember: Sex is about pleasure and connection, and sexual pleasure is not easily experienced when a woman is under a lot of stress. If you want better sex and more of it, help lower her stress levels.

Hard Truth #2
She Isn’t Feeling Attracted to You

Did you know women’s sense of smell is more sensitive than men’s? Her standard of hygiene might be different than yours. Do you know what things turn her off? Turn her on? If you’re unsure, ask her!

Visual cues, such as seeing an attractive, well-dressed partner with confidence and class can be a huge accelerator for women. Women also generally respond to romantic cues and intimate behaviors such as dancing, watching a sunset, and massage. These behaviors may help her to feel connected with you and accelerate her desire and arousal.

Some women report feeling more attracted to their husbands just seeing them going to the gym—even if he has extra pounds on him. His effort and determination to better himself is attractive to her.

What You Can Do About It:

Are you taking care of yourself physically? Are you being your best self and living in a way that you can take pride in yourself?

Get to the Gym. Make an effort to smell good. Dress nicely, and take pride in how you present yourself.

Work on being a better person and let her know what goals you are working on. Get your own therapy. She will be amazed and proud that you are committed to working on yourself.

Hard Truth #3
She Isn’t Feeling Sexy

Research tells us that negative feelings about one’s body or appearance is a huge brake for women. Her negative reaction to weight gain—and your perceived reaction—is a massive turn off for her. When a woman feels confident and healthy—both emotionally and physically—she will be much more in the mood for intimacy.

There is strong societal pressure to be a certain size and look a certain way. Women contend with much stricter standards than men do in this area, and this leaves her vulnerable and feeling like she is not enough. The media has unforgiving standards about not only what a woman should look like but also what it means to be sexy. She sees these portrayals of what “sexy women” are everywhere, and feels she can’t compare. Oftentimes, she gives up even trying. She doesn’t realize that every woman has her own unique authentic way of being “sexy.”

For some women, staying at home a large part of the day and not having hobbies or outside interests facilitates lower self-esteem and overall lower self-confidence. When women allow themselves to start feeling pleasure and confidence in other areas of their lives, it is easier for them to start feeling like they deserve and want sexual pleasure in their lives as well.

What You Can Do About It:

Offer to take care of the kids and other responsibilities so she can have some time to herself. Encourage her to develop her talents and interests. Pamper her a little bit.

Avoid saying things that could be hurtful. Genuinely compliment her on what you find attractive and sexy about her—and do it at times when you’re not in bed.

Many women report feeling turned on when they feel desired by their partner and are approached in a way that makes them feel special.

Hard Truth #4
You Haven’t Been the Greatest Partner

Maybe you haven’t been supporting her emotionally. Maybe you’ve gotten angry or mopey in the past when she hasn’t been interested in sex. Maybe you’ve been a little grumpy or emotionally withdrawn from her lately.

A woman is vulnerable physically and emotionally when she is sexual with a man. Remember, the brain is the most powerful sexual organ, and for most women, sexuality is tied to their relationship. If she is feeling disrespected, uncared for, or negative emotions in general from you, it will be very difficult for her to relax enough to experience desire.

What You Can Do About It:

Do a self-inventory. When is the last time you took her on a date? When was the last time you initiated a conversation about a topic she’s interested in? Are you treating her with respect and appreciation in your daily interactions? How do you react when she doesn’t want to be sexual? Mopey? Angry?

Apologize for poor behavior in the past. Talk with her about what you have realized you need to do better. Be willing to do couples counseling. Ask her gently how you could meet more of her emotional needs. Listen to what she says, and do it!

Hard Truth #5
She May Have Some Health Issues

Her low desire might have very little to do with you. Hormonal imbalances, depression, chronic illness/pain and some medications can all contribute to low sexual desire.

Women are about twice as likely to experience depression as men. Over 60% of people who experience depression report having a negative effect on their libido. The same neurotransmitters that control mood also are involved in stimulating blood flow to the genitals. If neurotransmitters are not in the proper numbers, then there is less chance of arousal.

Chronic illness and pain makes it hard for her to even think about being sexual. She intuitively knows that her body will pay the price for being sexual and/or she’s so uncomfortable physically, that the idea of sexual pleasure seems impossible.

What You Can Do About It:

Ask her questions about her health and whether or not she feels it effects her sexuality. Know what is going on with her physically and be sensitive to it. Encourage her to see a doctor, endocrinologist, or therapist. Be supportive.

Talk with her about ways you can be sexual as a couple that are not painful. Find out what kind of touch is pleasurable to her.

Hard Truth #6
She is Battling Her Own Feelings About Sex

One in five girls is a victim of child sexual abuse. This can leave lasting scars as well as unhealthy beliefs about sex. So many survivors of sexual abuse do not get the support or therapeutic help that they need to heal from the trauma. Often women “push through” by forcing themselves to be sexual and not realizing that additional layers of pain are being added to their sexual wounds. Women need to internalize the idea they have a right to say “no” before they can feel excited to say “yes!”

Many women adopt powerful cultural messages that sex is shameful and bad. Having received strong “no” messages enveloping them with fear of sex, reinforced over decades of life, naturally there are strong patterns of negative thinking related to sexuality as a result. Decades of conditioning doesn’t just go away when suddenly a woman is in a relationship with you and sex is now “okay.”

Often after the marriage ceremony, other dominating “shoulds” come into play that do not lead to healthy sexual attitudes and fulfilling sexuality. Some of these “shoulds” that women internalize are: “I should have sex—even if I don’t want it.” “It’s my duty.” “If I don’t have sex he will be mad, turn to porn, etc.” Those thoughts and beliefs are huge brakes for women and squash out pleasure and eroticism. Acting sexual out of fear and obligation instead of desire and connection can continue to cause damage to her already conflicted sense of sexuality.

What You Can Do About It:

Be sensitive to your wife’s past experiences. Talk to her about the cultural messages you internalized related to sex and ask her about hers. Challenge your own beliefs and assumptions about sex in marriage and how it “should be.”

Adopt a strong position of consent with how you behave with her. Just because you are married doesn’t mean you are entitled to have sex when you want. She still has a right to choose when to be sexual and when not to. You can ask her “Are you comfortable?” “Is this okay?” “Do you want to slow down?”

Find ways to touch her without any sexual undertones. Give her a hug. Hold her hand. Put your arm around her. Most of all, be sensitive to how she responds to this touch, and act accordingly.

Hard Truth #7
She Isn’t Enjoying It

Pain is often something women experience during sexual intercourse but for various reasons feel embarrassed or scared to talk about with their partner. The problem is, when the brain connects sexual experience with pain, a learned negative response is created and reinforced. Automatic aversion is often the result.

After having a few painful sexual experiences a woman might come to believe that she just doesn’t like having sex. She doesn’t realize that pain does not need to be part of her sexual experience. A certified sex therapist can be very helpful in providing psychoeducation and solutions to help eliminate pain.

Women generally need a lot more time for foreplay and time for her brain and body to become adequately aroused than men do. Erotic and enjoyable foreplay helps with lubrication and managing pain as well as allowing more time for arousal to reach the tipping point into orgasm.

What You Can Do About It:

Talk to her about her experience. Ask her if she ever experiences any pain. Ask her what types of foreplay she enjoys. Be brave and ask her what other things she might like. If any of this feels too uncomfortable to talk about, a sex therapist is skilled in having these types of conversations with couples in a safe and comfortable way.

If you are being sexual with your wife and she is experiencing pain, stop what you are doing! There are many tools such as lubricant, pillows, and toys that can allow couples to work around sexual pain issues. There are different positions and options available that do not need to include pain. Sex should be pleasurable for both people involved. Make this a priority in your relationship.

Final Words

Sometimes you can feel helpless to know what you can do to make your sex life better. You desperately want to connect with your wife, and sexuality is an unparalleled powerful way to experience deep connection with the woman you love. The truth is, it takes two committed people valuing their sexuality for it to thrive. You are just one person in this equation, but there are things that you can do to start to make things better. Scheduling an appointment with a Certified Sex Therapist can be very helpful and provide you with insights and better understanding.

Stay tuned…
Do I Just Hate Sex?
Seven Steps for Reclaiming Your Sexual Desire

References

1. Binik, Yitzchak, & Hall, Kathryn. 2014. Principles and Practice of Sex Therapy. New York: Guilford Press.
2. Davis, Michele Weiner. 2003. The Sex-Starved Marriage: Boosting Your Marriage Libido. New York: Simon and Schuster.
3. Maltz, Wendy. 2012. The Sexual Healing Journey. New York: HarperCollins.
4. McCarthy, Barry & McCarthy, Emily. 2003. Rekindling Desire. New York: Brunner-Routledge.
5. Nagoski, Emily. 2015. Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

©2018 Paige Vandersloot MS, AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.