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  • Writer's pictureAnnelisa MacBean


Many heterosexual couples come to me because they’re not having sex. Sometimes sex is a forbidden or denied topic of conversation so the couples come to our work together with multiple issues and problems which eventually lead to the revelation and discussion about the fact that they aren't having sex. I see a lot of angry, shut down men . . . men who are trying to be sensitive, accommodating and patient who are increasingly frustrated and tired of trying. This provides a clue for what might actually be going on. At least it gives us a clue about HIS experience and perspective.

When a hetero-couple isn’t having sex, its often the wives who initiate therapy. They feel they are losing their husbands or they are worried because their husband is often angry and irritable or emotionally unavailable. Sometimes they are in my office because the husband has had an affair, or because he said he wanted a divorce. The wives are afraid of losing their marriage, but aren't really looking where the husband is pointing . . . toward sex.

As the therapeutic process unfolds it eventually comes out there has been very little if any sex for months or years. I say eventually because frequently the wife doesn’t mention it – she doesn’t think it is that big a deal. She's more concerned about the ways her husband is becoming more remote and inaccessible. She knows they don’t have sex often but they get along in other important ways and he doesn’t complain about it much.

The husband doesn’t mention it right away for a number of reasons: he doesn't want it to appear as though he's a sex fiend who is only in the relationship for a good fuck! He is embarrassed or even humiliated by the possibility that anyone else might find out his own wife doesn’t want him!

The wives are almost always surprised, even shocked to discover how deeply hurt and rejected their husbands feel because they aren’t having sex. Wives will admit to knowing, obviously, they aren't having sex. Wives will acknowledge that its a problem for their husbands. But wives generally don't realize just how much of a problem it really is!

When a wife rejects her husband's advances . . .

  • He feels inadequate.

  • He questions whether or not she loves him at all.

  • He fears he is disappointing her sexually and that is the reason she turns him down.

  • He feels completely helpless and then starts to resent the hell out of her for putting him in a powerless position.

  • He may act out in passive aggressive ways to alleviate both his sexual frustration and his building resentment toward her by using porn or having an affair.

  • He might avoid coming home and works longer hours.

  • He will justify this by believing she forced him to do it.

  • Then he may get even angrier with her . . . because he really just wants to be loved by HER.

. . . . . At least he does until he is so angry and so shut down that he starts to despise her.

When it gets that bad, he tries to stay civil but the contempt leaks out at times and this confuses her.

But it also helps the wife to justify why its ok not to have sex. After all, who wants to have sex with a jerk?

All of the intense feelings listed above are going on under the surface for the husband but most wives are oblivious to how much pain their husbands are in. There are two important reasons for this . . .

1. The husband has not been direct enough in telling his wife what he is feeling. He is in some denial, himself and isn't self-aware. He talks about the sex he's not getting but doesn't know how to express his vulnerability.

2. The wife doesn't want to see his pain. She's overwhelmed already by the demanding needs of others and doesn't want to deal with the prospect of him needing more from her.

If the husband has tried to talk about it, he has probably spoken inarticulately about SEX, but he hasn't actually talked about his insecurities and fears around rejection, his need for reassurance and love. The wife has likely responded by telling him “all you want is sex,” or "I'm just a body to you; you don't care about me." This hurts at a fundamental level, so deep that the husband usually represses the pain and moves to anger. Not being seen infuriates him and widens the chasm. He feels hopeless and thinks to himself, "If all I wanted was sex, I sure wouldn’t be here with YOU!"

As time passes, the husband notices that the wife has also started pulling away from non-sexual physical affection. She stiffens when he hugs her. She gives him the “push off” kisses that let him know she doesn't have the time or desire to linger. At some point, to protect himself, the husband comes to accept this as his “normal.”

He begins to feel trapped in a sexless marriage. And he starts to detach.

This is the point most men leave their marriages. If this is happening in your marriage, wake up now!

Men, if this sounds like your situation, you will need to learn to be direct with your wife about your feelings. Find a therapist or a coach who can help you access and articulate the feelings of loneliness, isolation and shame you have been repressing. Gain insight and understanding about the developmental wounding that has set you up to retreat and withdraw when you are hurting, or to act like you're fine, when you're not.

If you want your wife to change, change yourself first . . . and then see how she responds. Learn to feel your feelings . . . then learn to communicate with your wife about those feelings, about how much pain you feel and how much it hurts to feel rejected time and time again. Don’t hide behind your embarrassment or humiliation. Your only way out of this is to get into relationship with yourself first so that you can show up authentically with your wife. Awaken to your vulnerability and then let that tenderness be seen, let your shame and fear find expression.

The alternative is to leave the relationship. Leaving usually seems easier but it rips the family apart and still leaves you in a repressed state of denial, unevolved emotionally and ready to set up the same pattern with your next partner.

Tell your wife what is happening. Tell her how lonely you feel. If she doesn’t get it, take the initiative and make an appointment for the two of you to talk with a marriage expert. If your wife doesn’t want to join you, go alone. Don’t make the excuse that you have tried to tell your wife what's going on but she's not listening. Every husband I’ve seen in this situation has a wife who will tell me she didn’t know how her husband was feeling, didn't know how much pain he was in, didn't realize how her insecurities and resistance was affecting him. Wives mostly think their husbands are blaming them.

Men who haven’t told their wives directly enough how much pain and confusion they are actually experiencing often attempt to extract some concern or care from their wives by threatening to leave. Threatening abandonment does nothing to communicate pain and only gives the wives more justification for withdrawing and withholding themselves. Alternatively the wives may succumb to the intimidation, hate themselves for faking interest or affection and then act out their shame by throwing criticism and judgment at the husband over dinner, or in the car.

Men, remember this: Intimidation does not communicate need. Angrily dominating your wife will not invite her into the intimacy you are seeking.

Don’t be afraid to find out exactly why you aren’t having sex. Whatever the reason, there is very likely a solution that can satisfy both members of a couple.

Women: there are many reasons you may not desire sex or desire sex with your husband. Ignoring the problem and avoiding sex or avoiding talking about is an indication that fundamental issues in the relationship are not being attended. It is natural for women to resist having sex if their husbands are inattentive, controlling, critical or abusive. If this is happening in your marriage, there are some serious issues needing to be addressed. Sex is a great springboard for looking more deeply into the relationship dynamics. Use sex as an opportunity to make other things better.

If you don’t like the quality or kind of sex you're having, learn to talk about it, go to therapy, read some books together. Make an effort!

If there are emotional issues that dampen the mood, learn to talk about it, go to therapy, read some books together. Work at it!

If you love your husband, find a way to let him know. Your husband needs to know you love him and want him, that his existence makes your life better. You may not be interested in intercourse, but are you interested in him? Learn to explore and inquire about his emotional needs as well as his sexual needs. Learn more about his early relationship experiences with family members. Learn more about his adolescence and the development of his sexuality. Talk about sex stuff instead of watching TV. Don't wait to have the conversation until you are in the midst of a reactive or escalating situation. Let him know that all his needs matter to you, even if you aren't always able to meet those needs as he expects. Remember there is big difference between saying no to a behavior than saying no to a person. Acknowledge that you may need to learn to set boundaries and say no without making your husband's desire wrong.

The good news is its absolutely possible to learn to talk about sex and all the feelings that are activated by the topic. It's possible for husbands and wives to learn about how to enjoy each other and love each other . . . again.

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