Dear Sex-Starved Husband,

conflict, couples, desire, marriage, sex

sex starved hubI know you are angry. Resentful. Frustrated. Or maybe just living with quiet desperation. But because I see so many of you in the safety of my office I also know how hurt and vulnerable you are.

You’re thinking that when your wife does not respond favorably to your advances, that she is rejecting you. I know that secretly you fear that you aren’t good enough or desirable. Your self-esteem gets bruised every time it happens. To make matters worse, she might even roll her eyes or use sarcasm, like, “it ain’t your birthday!” or “you have a one-track mind!” which stings at the very least and can be crushing at it’s worst. This hurt quickly morphs into resentment and you stop initiating out of fear of rejection. You just can’t risk it. So you wait to see if your wife will eventually initiate and you start counting the days until she does. She has no idea she is being tested and will most likely fail this test, creating even more resentment and self-doubt. You try to talk to her about it and she complains about you not being affectionate until you want to have sex. You can see some truth in that so you vow to become more affectionate. The problem is, the pattern has already been set. Now when you offer a hug or back rub she tenses. Her first response is feeling pressured. Or worse, dread.   These are a long way from desire. You are stuck in a trap where she has been conditioned to feel pressure and nothing you say or do seems to change that. Trust me when I say, she wants to want to. But the desire isn’t there and pressure kills libido.

Here’s what you need to understand about women. Without desire, it feels to her like you just asked her to go into the kitchen and prepare an elaborate 4-course meal for you. All for you. This registers as work. She doesn’t desire more work. So this feels like a selfish request. But she is not rejecting you, she is rejecting the work. When desire is present, it no longer feels like work, it sounds like fun! Think of desire on a continuum with zero being no desire at all and 10 being climax. When you started dropping hints, you were probably already around a level 5. You’ve been thinking, imagining, and anticipating for some time. She is completely unaware of this and is at a level zero. Getting from a zero to a five – just to catch up – is not that easy! So she starts out at a disadvantage. You have essentially set her up to fail. The days of spontaneous sex where you are both ready to go all the time are long gone. Get over it. You have to learn to cultivate desire. Marriage Therapist and Researcher, Esther Perel, gave a fascinating TED talk called, “The Secret to Desire in a Long-term Relationship”. She outlines the ingredients that are necessary for desire and many of them run counter to our common perception of marriage. Desire requires imagination, novelty and anticipation. But marriage tends to be routine, predictable and unexciting.   Perel accurately points out that “sex is not something you do, it’s a place you go to”. This speaks to the crucial role of imagination in the creation of desire. If sex is premeditated, that allows time for the mind to imagine and anticipate and removes the toxic ingredient of pressure. According to Perel, the key ingredients for cultivating desire are imagination, novelty, risk, mischief, mystery, adventure, surprise, anticipation, playfulness. And the buzzkill? Predictability, responsibility, pressure or resentment.

Here are three things you can try immediately.  Gently explain to your wife that the rejection really stings. That feeling “wanted” means the world to you and makes you feel closer to her.  Invite your wife on a “playdate” that incorporates a few of the key ingredients above.  Ask your wife what she sees as obstacles to desire and work on those. These may include stress, fatigue, anxiety, body image or boredom with your routine, predictable sex life.  She may have loved cereal for breakfast every day for the first year you were together, but if she has cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner every meal for the rest of your marriage she’s going to get bored with it.  She needs a menu with lots of tasty options that appeal not just to you, but to her.

And as always, if problems persist in your marriage, do not put off seeking professional help. Do not make the mistake of neglecting this important part of your bond.


  1. Reply

    You get A+ and an Amen on this, Gina. Funniest thing ever is when I try something new and I think she is going to like it and she tells me, “This is not doing it for me”, which she says in a tone that asks me,” Where in hell did you come up with this?” I go to story/ action plan B (and believe me I have learned to have a plan B), trying not to feel ridiculous and to keep both of us from losing the moment. Sometimes we lose the moment and start laughing. Sometimes we don’t get back to sex. Everything becomes funny. That can be sexy. It is all delicious. Suggestion for men: Tell your woman she is “off” for the night and you are “on.” You do all the work. Let her read a nasty essay you got from the book store or some crap while you go to work on her, so to speak. There is no pressure for her to do a thing but enjoy herself. She gets to tell you what she wants and you do it, even if it doesn’t include penetration. Expect nothing in return. In the end, she will probably want penetration. If she doesn’t, don’t worry about it. Let her be selfish. She will eventually want you, but for now you are reinforcing or training her to be open and responsive to pressure-free pleasure. You will probably be rewarded for your investment and patience. Warning: You could be creating a sexual monster. Hopefully she will eat you alive.

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    Yes, yes, yes! Excellent advice PB!

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    This blog seems to put the onus of responsibility for cultivating a good sex life solidly on the husband in the relationship.

    Regular physical affection and sexual contact is a legitimate need and a perfectly acceptable expectation in a relationship. Both partners should be working toward what they can do to make sure that this is a reality.

    1. Reply

      All I’m saying is anyone who is unhappy needs to take “responsibility” for finding solutions to their problem. In this case, it happens to be men who are married to women who have lost all interest in sex. If he doesn’t take responsibility for getting them back on track he’ll stay mired in resentment. Affection and sex are more than a legitimate need, they are essential to bonding. But some women are perfectly happy in sexless marriages and aren’t nearly as motivated as their husbands to find solutions.

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    Since when did sex become the sole responsibility of the husband to generate? This is patriarchy disguised as advocacy for women. “Poor little wife with passive sexuality oppressed by demanding, mean husband with unhealthy sex drive.” As if women aren’t interested or capable of creating a healthy sex life.

    No way.

    Not one young woman wants to think that this is her fate. Not one sexually expressive woman gets married thinking that sex is going to go away. Sexual dysfunction in marriage is an epidemic. We need to address this in a way more subtle and mutually empowering way then to tell men to “get over it”. They are standing for something both members of the couple wanted at the beginning and they should be celebrated for doing so. Men should, in the same breath, also take full responsibility for their experience and be open to engaging and responding to the sexuality of their partners in a supportive way. But to expect them to do this heavy-lifting on their own is not the way to happiness.

    1. Reply

      I mostly agree with you except for the “patriarchy” comment which seemed to come out of nowhere. This particular post is written for men in a sexless marriage to women who are happy to keep that status quo. So the responsibility in this case falls on the man – because unless he takes the initiative to find the way back to a healthy sex life, resentment and pressure will ensure nothing will change and the relationship will suffer. It is incredibly unfortunate that women don’t take more responsibility for a happy, mutually satisfying sex life. But like most things in life, we focus on what is really important to us. And for some women, sex is at the bottom of the list. And of course, for some women, it is important. And what men need to “get over” is that the limerence phase of a relationship is 6 to 18 months. After that, desire is typically not spontaneous for women, but rather responsive. And her “response” to pressure is anxiety.

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