When Your Husband Isn’t Interested in Sex
Throughout their eight years of marriage, Becky and Matt had enjoyed being part of a close-knit group through their church. Most of the couples had known one another during their college years, had attended each other’s weddings, and had celebrated each announcement of newborn arrivals. Because of the longevity of their relationships and how they had together experienced each stage of young-adult life, the couples in Becky and Mike’s small group shared openly with one another.
Whenever the women got together for social time, they compared notes on in-laws, labor and delivery, and the common joys and frustrations of married life. Becky was happy to join in on the conversations, except when her friends alluded to sex. All of them griped about how their husbands constantly wanted sex. They joked about creative ways to say, “Not now, honey.”
Although Becky chuckled and pretended to share their experiences, these conversations created a deep sense of inadequacy and shame. She could never tell her friends that she longed for the day when Matt would sexually pursue her or even respond to her requests for sexual intimacy. Surely, there must be something repulsive about her.
The ’20 Percent Club’
Of all the hidden sexual secrets that couples carry, one of the most painful is this reversal of sexual stereotypes. Without fail, every single time I have spoken on sexual intimacy and mentioned this problem, women have approached me, relieved to know that they aren’t alone. Like Becky, most of them have been silent for years, listening to friends rant and rave about their amorous husbands.
Almost all marriages go through periods when the man has a lower sex drive than his wife. Stress at work, depression, grieving, a physical illness, or extreme tension in your marriage can each radically decrease your husband’s interest in sex. While these periods are disconcerting or frustrating, they pale in comparison to the pain and conflict caused when this is a couple’s consistent pattern of sexual intimacy.
Although it doesn’t alleviate all of the pain and conflict, it helps couples to know that around 20 percent of marriages fall within this category. Both men and women are reluctant to share this struggle with others because it is so private and potentially humiliating. Because people don’t talk about it, couples in the “20 Percent Club” can begin to believe that they’re alone in the universe—that no one else could possibly relate to their struggle.
A primary challenge for you if you fall within this group is the shame and blame that’s often attached to your sex life. As a wife, you may struggle deeply with feelings of inadequacy. You may wonder what’s wrong with you and why your husband seems to not be attracted to you. You may even question your femininity and sexuality. Along with those feelings and doubts, you may also wonder if your sex drive is abnormal. If the average wife seems bent on avoiding sex, is there something wrong with you if you actually crave it?
Other days, you probably shift from shame to blame, feeling angry with your husband for his seeming inability or unwillingness to meet your needs for love, affirmation, and sexual fulfillment. Your situation may cut to the very core of who you are as a woman. You desperately want to be cherished and embraced by your husband. His disinterest feels like a total rejection of who you are as a wife and a woman.
To make matters worse, your husband may be dealing with wounds just as deep as yours. While you long for affection and affirmation, he yearns to be a competent husband. Your husband’s sense of well-being and confidence is tied to his ability to perform in all areas, including his sexuality. From the time he was a young adolescent, he has been programmed to believe that masculinity equals sexual conquest and that real men can perform in bed. Although he may not be able to articulate it, he likely feels deep shame and inadequacy rooted in his inability to perform on demand.
So, here you are, both feeling incredible shame and inadequacy. How can you reassure him when you are the one reeling from rejection? Likewise, how can he comfort you when your pain is rooted in something apparently “wrong” with him?
What Is ‘Normal’ Sexual Desire?
Every couple has a unique sexual relationship. Accept yours for what it is and enjoy working toward wholeness as a couple. You can have a very fulfilling sex life even though you may not be functioning like the average married couple.
There are a few primary reasons why couples find themselves outside the norm in their sexual relationship. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of individual differences, and other times it can be attributed to a dysfunction that you may be able to address. Unfortunately, in some cases there are more menacing reasons couples struggle with this issue. Let’s look first at normal differences between individuals before we address dysfunctions and other issues.
Don’t Confuse ‘Average’ With ‘Normal’
The next time you’re in a large group of families, pay attention to the height of men and women who are married to each other. You’ll notice that in most cases, the man is taller than his wife. The average height for an American man is five feet, nine inches, while the average American woman is five feet, four inches. However, you’ll find a few couples that defy the odds, with the wife being taller than her husband. Does this mean that there is something wrong with this couple? Averagemeans that many will be taller and many will be shorter. So, what if a five-foot-eight-inch-tall woman falls in love with a five-foot-seven-inch-tall man?
Are they weird or abnormal? Certainly not. They both fall within the normal ranges of height, but they don’t represent the average coupling.
The same principle applies to sexuality. If the average married man desires sex every three days, there will be normal men who have both higher and lower sex drives. Likewise, if the average woman desires sex once a week, the bell curve will include women with both higher and lower natural sexual desire.
The first step on the journey to communication and healing is to revisit this concept of normal sexuality. Both research and society’s representations help form our perceptions of what’s normal. Based on what you see on television, hear people talk about, and read in women’s magazines, you may conclude that you and your husband are sexually abnormal because you don’t fit the stereotypes. But don’t confuse what is “average” with what is “normal.” Although in the average marriage, men desire sex more often than their wives, there are very normal marriages in which the opposite is true. Be careful not to get hung up on what everyone else seems to be doing in their bedrooms. The only thing that matters is assuring that you and your husband work toward intimacy and fulfillment in your own bedroom. Standards such as how often the average man or woman wants sex are really irrelevant and may become a destructive measuring stick. Your relationship with your husband is what it is. What your friend, your neighbor, or the rest of the country is doing should have little bearing on how your marriage works.
If this explanation describes you and your husband, healing begins when you embrace the fact that there is nothing wrong with your marriage. Like the woman married to a shorter man, although you don’t reflect the average couple, you are perfectly normal. Resist the urge to blame your husband or entertain feelings of inadequacy. Every couple has a unique sexual relationship. Accept yours for what it is and enjoy working toward wholeness as a couple. You can have a very fulfilling sex life even though you may not be functioning like the average married couple.
How Do Aging and Illness Affect a Man’s Sex Drive?
Although a diminishing sex life may be disappointing for you as a wife, it’s potentially devastating for your husband.
As your husband ages, his body will steadily produce less and less testosterone. He may struggle with arousal, maintaining an erection, or ejaculation. In addition to these differences in sexual functioning, men also experience a decrease in muscle tissue, more difficulty concentrating, and less energy resulting from this hormonal change. Naturally, as a man ages, he’s also at greater risk for the illnesses I’ll address in the next section that further complicate sexuality.
Although a diminishing sex life may be disappointing for you as a wife, it’s potentially devastating for your husband. His sexuality represents his youth, vitality, and masculinity. Be very sensitive to how you respond as you notice these changes taking place in your husband. This is a tremendous loss for him, likely coinciding with other losses, such as retirement or illness. More than ever, he will need your reassurance and love.
On the bright side, the decrease of testosterone that results from aging may have some positive effects on your marriage relationship. Your husband may become more sensitive, nurturing, and relational as his sex drive diminishes. Elevated levels of testosterone in men are linked with aggressive and competitive behaviors, while lower levels correlate with nurturing and attachment behaviors.1 Many women report with delight that their husbands are becoming more interested in talking, bonding and relating as they age. Their husbands’ decrease in testosterone and libido has opened up new avenues of relationship.
The effects of aging on sexual desire and functioning also impact a woman’s sexuality. After natural or surgical menopause, a woman’s level of estrogen decreases. She’s likely to experience such symptoms as vaginal dryness, decreased sensitivity to touch, and decreased blood flow to the vaginal area. These typically translate into a lower sexual desire, difficulty becoming aroused, and even pain during intercourse.
Modern medicine has provided some remedies for low sex drive related to aging for both men and women. The most common are hormone therapy and medication to increase blood circulation.
In many of the marriages represented in the 20 percent, the dynamic of their sexual relationship is simply a function of the bell curve, as described above. These couples don’t fit the typical stereotypes, but their differences are completely normal. However, some couples experience an atypical sexual relationship because of some form of physical dysfunction.
A man’s sex drive is determined largely by the presence of testosterone levels in his body. Although a man’s level of testosterone naturally fluctuates throughout his lifetime, some men have unusually low levels, resulting in a very low sex drive.
An unusually low production of testosterone is medically referred to as hypogonadism. Testosterone in the male body is produced in the testicles. When a problem with the testicles results in low testosterone levels, it is called “primary hypogonadism.” This condition can be caused by chromosomal abnormalities, complications with mumps during adolescence or adulthood, too much iron in the bloodstream, injury to the testicles, cancer treatment, and normal aging.
Hormones produced by the pituitary gland and regulated by the hypothalamus signal testosterone production in the testicles. When something goes awry in this stage of the process, the problem is referred to as “secondary hypogonadism.” Hypothalamic and pituitary disorders, therefore, can cause a lack of testosterone. Inflammatory diseases, HIV, depression, thyroid disease, obesity, and certain pain and hormone medications can also contribute to secondary hypogonadism.
As if your husband’s system weren’t complicated enough, low sexual desire and sexual dysfunction can also result from problems with blood circulation. Just about any systemic illness can impact this aspect of sexual function, including diseases of the kidneys, lungs, liver, heart, nerves, arteries, or veins. Medications such as antihistamines, antidepressants, and high blood pressure treatments may also be culprits. Lifestyle issues such as substance abuse, smoking, and obesity, as well as the effects of stress and even prolonged bicycling, can cause erectile dysfunction.
If you feel overwhelmed by all these possibilities, remember the importance of adequate and regular medical care. Your husband may be hesitant to ask his physician about his sexual functioning. However, your encouragement, your doctor’s advice, and medical intervention when necessary could make all the difference in your sex life.
Emotional and Relational Barriers to Sex
You cannot underestimate how injurious it can be for your husband to find himself unable to perform sexually or to become the victim of a nonexistent libido.
A purely physiological problem can quickly snowball into an emotional roadblock. You cannot underestimate how injurious it can be for your husband to find himself unable to perform sexually or to become the victim of a nonexistent libido. Although he may appear nonchalant, more than likely he’s devastated and deeply wounded. In fact, he may avoid sexual encounters because of his tremendous fear of failure.
If your husband has experienced impotency or low sexual desire, the possibility of sex can immediately invoke anxiety and fear. Rather than face possible humiliation, he may make excuses to avoid sex, perhaps even blaming you for his disinterest.
Dr. Archibald Hart makes the astounding statement that more men have experienced unwanted sex than have women. His findings are based on the fact that men feel the need to prove their masculinity through always being ready for sex:
Men feel tremendous pressure to prove that they are adequate as men. They do this through succeeding in business and sports and through talking tough and boasting. They also do it through sex—especially through sex. Sex has long been a major arena in which to assert one’s manhood. . .. Men also equate sexual frequency with masculinity. They imagine that other men are more active than they are, and may have gathered their information from that great source of all wisdom on sexual matters, the movies. Film stars always seem to be ready, willing, and able.
Remember back to Viagra commercials you may have seen within the past few years. A man walks into work with a smile on his face. Everyone tries to guess what’s different about him. A haircut? Is he working out? Did he get a promotion? No. Thanks to Viagra, he’s able to perform sexually. The message is clear: Sexual adequacy is linked to a man’s confidence, well-being, and overall sense of power in all areas of his life.
What may have begun as a physical dysfunction can quickly turn into a devastating lack of confidence, depression, or anxiety disorder, which complicates the solution.
Past sexual trauma often plays into sexual dysfunction as well. In some marriages, the wife is hypersexual because of a traumatic past, unconsciously acting out feelings of shame or compulsively using sex as a way of gaining acceptance or affection from her husband. Alternatively, in other marriages, the husband’s lack of interest is due to emotional traumas he has suppressed. For example, he may fear intimacy or losing control. These fears will naturally inhibit his desire for healthy sexual expression. He may harbor shame related to past sexual indiscretions, sexual addictions, or childhood sexual abuse.
If your sexual role reversal is potentially rooted in either physical or emotional dysfunction, it is not normal. The dysfunction represents a roadblock that you and your husband must accept but also work toward resolving. As difficult and embarrassing as it may be to seek help, you may need to reach out to a medical doctor or psychologist to address the issue that is interfering with your sexual fulfillment as a couple.
Understanding Relationship Dynamics
Another reason you may find yourself identifying with this chapter is that the bedroom mirrors the rest of your relationship. Take Annie and Dale, for example. By nature, Annie is a type A personality. She is a go-getter who has strong opinions about everything. Dale, by contrast, is an easygoing, laid-back guy. Although Annie was initially attracted to Dale’s carefree approach to life, she has quickly become irritated when Dale forgets to pay bills, leaves his dirty clothes all over the house, and approaches his job with a minimal amount of effort.
As Annie’s aggravation with her husband builds, she begins nagging and criticizing. She, in no uncertain terms, lets Dale know that he isn’t living up to her standards. Whether Dale is cooking in the kitchen, picking out Christmas presents, or “babysitting” their children, he can’t seem to do anything right, according to Annie. Being a laid-back individual, Dale allows Annie to nag and take over. Ten years into their marriage, their pattern is definitely established. Although Dale and Annie rarely fight, their relationship seems to reflect a mother-son dynamic. Annie orders the household, and Dale halfheartedly participates.
True to form, Annie drags Dale to my office for counseling. She does most of the talking as she pleads with me to fix her husband. Through tears of frustration, she recounts how passionately Dale had pursued her when they were dating, but how his interest in her has evaporated with time. She confesses that Dale hasn’t responded to her sexually for several months. She is devastated by the fact that Dale avoids sex with her but is flirtatious with other women. Dale remains quiet but also seems puzzled by his sexual disinterest.
Dale and Annie have no idea that their problems in the bedroom might be linked to the dysfunction in their overall relationship. However, as we talk, Dale begins to express how inadequate he feels around his wife. Although he presents an unfazed exterior, Annie’s nagging and criticism chip away at him. If he feels defeated and incompetent in all other areas, how could he be competent as a lover? He’s destined to fail Annie in that area as well.
Annie never intended to dominate her husband. Their respective personalities just pulled them into this dynamic. On the surface, their marriage seems to work. The main reason they rarely argue is because Annie is content to be in charge, and Dale is OK taking a backseat. However, the dynamic of their relationship has created underlying tension, unmet needs, and resentments that play out in their sexual relationship. Annie blames Dale for his failure to initiate and perform sexually. Dale blames Annie for emasculating him
This pattern of marital dysfunction is certainly not new, but it’s becoming more commonplace. If this relationship dynamic seems to reflect your relationship with your husband, there is hope. No matter how long you’ve been married, you can learn how to reverse the pattern that ultimately discourages your husband’s confidence and masculinity.
I feel so passionately about this topic that I wrote a book about it. The book is called Finding the Hero in Your Husband, and the content stems from my struggle as a young wife to learn how to use my strengths and abilities without stepping on my husband’s need to lead our family.
The Impact of Pornography on Marital Sex
One of the devastating effects of pornography and other sexually explicit material is that it sabotages the ability to enjoy normal sex.
The final, and perhaps most damaging, reason couples fall into the 20 Percent Club is involvement in pornography on the part of one or both partners. One of the devastating effects of pornography and other sexually explicit material is that it sabotages the ability to enjoy normal sex. In many marriages, the husband isn’t interested in sex with his wife because he has been programmed to respond to a much higher level of erotic stimulation.
After viewing material filled with perfectly shaped women doing wild and perverse acts, a man naturally may have difficulty becoming stimulated by his 40-year-old average-looking, reserved wife. In his clinical research, Dr. Victor Cline described this progression as “escalation”:
With the passage of time, the addicted person required rougher, more explicit, more deviant, and “kinky” kinds of sexual material to get their “highs” and “sexual turn-ons.” It was reminiscent of individuals afflicted with drug addictions. Over time there is nearly always an increasing need for more of the stimulant to get the same initial effect.
Being married or in a relationship with a willing sexual partner did not solve their problem. Their addiction and escalation were mainly due to the powerful sexual imagery in their minds, implanted there by the exposure to pornography.
I have had a number of couple-clients where the wife tearfully reported that her husband preferred to masturbate to pornography than to make love to her.
Not only does porn present a higher level of sexual excitement than married sex, it also allows a man to have sex on his terms. Porn is always available, never too busy, and always inviting. It doesn’t criticize, doesn’t require foreplay or patience, isn’t dependent on “feeling close,” and never has a headache. When a guy is engaged in this type of sexual outlet, his sexuality becomes centered on his immediate needs and demands. The prospect of working through the messy issues of marital intimacy is pretty unattractive.
While reading through the possible reasons for your membership in the 20 Percent Club, you may find that your marriage fits into more than one of the categories. In fact, one cause for sexual role reversal may even feed into the others. For example, Brent naturally has a lower sex drive than the average man. He never compared himself with other men or thought anything of it until his new wife, Amy, began complaining about wanting sex more often. As a young husband, Brent has been thrown off balance by Amy’s lack of sexual fulfillment. He feels like a failure as a husband. If he can’t effectively meet his wife’s sexual needs, he must be a loser. Because of his fear of inadequacy, he begins withdrawing from Amy, failing to assert himself in all areas of their marriage. What began as a bell-curve difference has snowballed into a serious marital issue.
As you seek to address these multiple issues in your relationship, define them without blame. Regardless of how you got where you are, assigning blame to each other will only hamper your efforts to heal. Neither you nor your husband consciously chose to have a low sex drive, go through depression, experience childhood trauma, or any of the other maladies that compromise your intimate life. Every couple has roadblocks to address, and this is yours.
Sex Does Not Define Your Marriage
Friendship, seasoned love, and shared history are often enough to maintain a marriage in which sex is no longer possible.
Regardless of why you and your husband are in the 20 Percent Club, the most helpful route to take is to bring sex back to the purpose for which it was designed. While you can underestimate the importance of sex in your marriage, be aware that you can also overestimate its importance. Couples in their 70s and 80s are often asexual as one or both have medical conditions that prevent intercourse. However, their friendship, seasoned love, and shared history are often enough to maintain a marriage in which sex is no longer possible.
Being part of the 20 Percent Club often results in a couple allowing this one issue to dominate their entire relationship. Sex begins to take on an overwhelming meaning and magnitude. Both husband and wife harbor the deep fear that “something must be wrong with me.” As these emotions fester, they overtake the sexual relationship and possibly even the marriage. An invitation for sex carries the weight of the deepest emotional needs of both husband and wife: Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I be competent or a failure? Sex becomes a testing ground for each partner’s love, worthiness, or competence. The sexual environment is laden with expectations that reach far beyond the bedroom. In this context, no wonder both husband and wife routinely end up feeling as though they have failed and been failed.
As I mentioned earlier, your husband’s level of sexual desire is based on a number of complex psychological, biological, and relational issues, many of which may have absolutely nothing to do with you. His sexuality doesn’t define him, nor does it necessarily reflect how he feels about you. He can be absolutely in love with you and think you’re very attractive, yet still lack the interest or ability to perform sexually. Don’t allow this one aspect of your marriage to color and dominate your perception of your husband, your marriage, or yourself.
To put sex back into the appropriate context, you need to remember that it’s simply one expression of how you relate to your husband. You also share childrearing, hobbies, hardships, friends, spiritual interests, vocational trials and successes, ministry, mentors, and countless other aspects of the marital journey.
Taking the pressure off your sexual relationship may allow you to enjoy what you have instead of carrying the burden to create what you lack. Although you may experience frustration in the sexual arena, most likely there are many other aspects of your relationship that are thriving and can unify you. Build upon those aspects, even as you strive to address the roadblocks you experience in sexual intimacy.
Addressing Unmet Sexual Needs
One of the keys to growing beyond the frustration you now feel is learning to accept the many ways your husband is likely showing you love.
Hopefully these articles have given you reassurance that you aren’t alone in your struggle and have equipped you with some understanding of the variables that may be interfering with healthy sexual functioning in your marriage. But however helpful this information might be, you are likely still left with unmet needs for affection and sexual fulfillment. Following are a couple of suggestions that may be of help.
Accept What He Offers
One of the keys to growing beyond the frustration you now feel is learning to accept the many ways your husband is likely showing you love. Many of the women I’ve met with who identify themselves with the 20 Percent Club describe their husbands as very loving and attentive in ways other than their sexuality. These husbands may be generous with words of affirmation or acts of service. Yet their wives discount these expressions because of what is lacking. If your husband tells you you’re beautiful or that he’s crazy about you, believe him. As you recognize the ways that he serves and affirms you, encourage him. Additionally, encourage forms of physical affection that don’t involve the pressure of sexual intercourse, such as back rubs, holding hands, playful touching, and hugging.
Learn to Compromise
Whenever one person wants sex more often than the other, the obvious answer is to compromise. The person with a higher sex drive may have sex less often than he would like, and the person with the lower sex drive may have sex more often than she feels the need to. The compromise is based on mutual love and care. Although this compromise typically works when the man is more interested in sex, it’s not quite as effective when the roles are reversed. Here’s why: A woman can have sex even if she’s not into it. A man can’t. He can’t feign excitement or have a quickie just to meet her needs if he’s not aroused.
One way around this is to broaden your definition of sex. If you desire intimacy with your husband and he isn’t able to meet that need, be creative. How can you experience a sexual release with him outside of intercourse? Remember that you’re still engaged in marital intimacy even if it doesn’t involve what you typically think of as sex. There is no shame in wanting intimacy with your husband more often. And there is no shame in encouraging him to seek other ways to please you.
Growing Closer Through the Challenges
In almost every marriage, either the husband or the wife feels sexually unfulfilled, at least at some level. What probably makes your situation more difficult are your expectations. Based on what everyone else seems to be doing, as well as the cultural stereotypes, you may expect that your husband should be pursuing you. This expectation is likely a huge barrier to accepting your sexual relationship for what it is and growing closer to your husband through this challenge.
Remember that sex isn’t love, but it is designed to be an expression of love. The most mature expression of love in your marriage is embracing your husband simply for who he is without demands and expectations. In fact, it is through your disappointment and lingering needs that your love is stretched to encompass more than self-fulfillment. Perhaps God desires to use your lack of fulfillment to foster a deeper love in your heart for your husband.
Next Steps and Related Information
Additional resources addressing sex and intimacy in marriage
Popular questions on this topic:
- I have a very high sex drive, and my wife has a very low sex drive. How is her “not in the mood” different from my “not in the mood?”
- Does my husband need me in ways I may not fully understand?”
- My spouse is frusterated by our bedroom relationship, and I’ve come to think of sex negatively. What can we do to fix this?
- Having children has hurt my sexual relationship with my spouse. How do we maintain enough privacy to be intimate?
- No More Headaches: Enjoying Sex and Intimacy in Marriage (Paperback)
- Finding the Hero in Your Husband (Paperback)
- The Sexual Man
- Sex 180
- The Fig Leaf Conspiracy
- The Passionate Marriage
- Five Essentials for Lifelong Intimacy
- The Way to Love Your Wife (Paperback)
- The Love List: Eight Little Things That Make a Big Difference in Your Marriage (Hardcover)
- False Intimacy
- God’s Design for Sex
- Understanding Your Husband’s Sexual Needs
- Managing Temptation
- Building a Pure Marriage
- The Overcoming Marriage
- The Role of Friendship in Marriage
- Devotional: Sex and Intimacy
- Devotional: Spiritual Foundations