I 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 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.