The Sex-Starved Marriage -- Michele Weiner-Davis -- 02/04/03

By Michele Weiner-Davis
WebMD Live Events Transcript

Finding a balance between you and your partner's differing desires is a tough task faced by many couples. But left unsolved, out-of-sync sexual relationships can shake the foundation of a marriage. We discussed bridging the libido gap when Michele Weiner-Davis, author of The Sex-Starved Marriage, was our guest.

The opinions expressed herein are the guest's alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Hello Michele. Welcome to WebMD Live. How common is the problem of sex being out of balance in a marriage?

Weiner-Davis: It's estimated that one of three marriages struggles with this issue. I think it will help though to define what I mean by a sex-starved marriage. It is when one spouse desperately longs for more touch, more sex, more physical closeness and the other is too busy, preoccupied or disinterested, and thinks "what's the big deal? It's just sex."

To the more sexual spouse, it's a really big deal because it's about feeling wanted, loved, appreciated, important, and close to one's spouse. And when this disconnect happens intimacy on all levels begins to drop out. They stop having meaningful conversations. They stop sitting next to each other on the couch, laughing at each other's jokes, spending time together. In short, they stop being friends. And this puts the marriage at risk of infidelity and even divorce. As the original divorce buster I am determined to get the message out that there are steps that couples CAN and SHOULD take to boost their passion and their emotional intimacy.

Member: How do you get it back once it seems to be lost?

Weiner-Davis: The road to boosting one's libido is not a precise science. There is a lot of trial and error. A lack of desire can be due to complex and varied factors.

Sometimes the cause is biological. For example:

  • Hormone fluctuations
  • Underlying medical diseases
  • Medications (even some birth control pills and antidepressants)
  • Recreational use of drugs

Other times the causes are personal:

  • How a person feels about one's body
  • Grief issues due to a recent loss
  • Feelings of depression
  • Poor self-esteem

And finally, a lack of sexual desire is often due to relationship issues:

  • Unresolved feelings of resentment
  • Anger
  • Hurt
  • Disappointment

But the good news is that with what we now know about improving both physical and emotional health there is no reason why anyone wanting a more robust sex life can't have one.

The problem I have seen recently is that we have been spending so much time trying to figure out WHY someone is not feeling desire as opposed to beginning to take the steps to doing something about it. Plus, there is some exciting new research that indicates that for at least half the population sexual desire doesn't just happen; you have to make it happen. I wish I had a dollar for each time someone with so-called low sexual desire said to me, "I was not in the mood once we first started making love, but once we got into it, I really enjoyed myself."

Most think sexual desire starts with an idea. In other words, you are folding laundry, working on the computer, paying bills, and all of the sudden you have a random, lusty thought that propels you to find your spouse. But the truth is it doesn't and will never work that way. Instead, many find that if they are willing to be receptive to their spouse's advances, once physically stimulated, they are really turned on. Hence, sexual desire.

I worked with a group of women who wanted to improve their marriages. One night they were all complaining their husbands were not helping around the house, participating as fathers, spending time with their wives, or even talking about their days. I smelled a male-bashing session coming on, stopped them, and asked they tell me on a one to ten scale how they would rate their sex lives. All of the women hovered around two or three. I wasn't surprised and asked them to go home and do an experiment: For the next two weeks, whether in the mood or not, make your sexual relationship a bigger priority. I told them to initiate sex more often, flirt, leave sexy notes around the house, get out of their sweat pants and put on something a little more appealing, and watch what happens.

I guaranteed them that within two weeks they would notice a big difference in their marriages. After some initial complaining, they all agreed to try it. Two weeks later, the women returned giggling. Their stories were similar and I will tell you about one: She said, "Even though we had company over the past two weeks, I initiated sex more often and could not believe what happened. My husband read the kids bedtime stories each evening. He put up wallpaper in our den. He grouted the kitchen tiles." These were jobs she had asked him to do months ago. Others talked about lawns being mowed.

I call this the Great American Sex Challenge. This is not rocket science. Good marriages are based on mutual care-taking. When one spouse shows her love by being more caring, it's almost always reciprocal. And before you jump to conclusions that low sexual desire is a woman's issue, I am convinced low sexual desire in men is America's best-kept secret. Millions of men are not in the mood for sex. And when I say that, most think about men who have difficulty performing. This is not so. Men who turn down their wives' advances do so for many of the same reasons women do. It's my hope with The Sex Starved Marriage that more men will be willing to step forward without shame to discuss this issue and get the help they need. Too many women married to low-desire men have suffered in silence and believe their husbands are the only ones who don 't have permanent erections.

Member: I will try harder to initiate sex even though my husband is tired most of the time; that's why I don't try to do anything until he does. He has no problem with erections; it's just tiredness.

Weiner-Davis: It's entirely possible that his fatigue has been based on his uncertainty as to how you would respond if he reaches out to you. Maybe he fears rejection. Your plan to become a little more assertive sounds like a great one. Also, for men's testosterone, which is one of the primary hormones responsible for sexual desire, peaks at 7 to 8 in the morning. Consider this in terms of when you approach him. Many couples wait until the evening when fatigue due to work, putting kids to bed, and emptying the dishwasher makes sexual encounters less likely.

Member: How do I become more assertive and risk rejection? Yes he likes morning sex but it's always quick...he gets done in 10 minutes or so -- no fun in that.

Weiner-Davis: First, get over it. In regards to worrying about being rejected, I am sure there have been times in the past he has been receptive. Figure out what's different about the times he has been open to advances. Secondly, if his quickies don't delight you, you should have an open conversation with him about that. So often couples don't feel comfortable really sharing what's in their heart about their sexual experiences together. If you are not adverse to quickies once in a while, suggest you have sex sometimes when you have time to spend more time together. Don't assume your partner or spouse is a mind reader. Talk about what you need.

Many times people complain instead of asking for what they want. Instead of saying, "I don't like it when we have sex in the morning and we have a quickie because it's not satisfying." Instead give an example of when you made love last Friday night and you made time for each other; "I would like it if we would do that more often." Talk about what you want instead of what you are unhappy about.

Sexuality is such a sensitive subject. Even the most innocent comment can sound like a barb. Stack the deck in having your spouse more sensitive to you by the way you talk about your needs. I divided the book into three sections:

  1. For the people with low desire
  2. For those with high desire
  3. For the couple to work at together

In that third section, I suggest ways for couples to talk about sexual issues between them.

Member: All there is for us are quickies. He wants his way or no way. I feel like I am not even necessary. How do you tell him it's too quick without hurting his feelings?

Weiner-Davis: I guess I would wonder what you have done to try to let your feelings be known. It sounds like you are angry. And my guess is if there is anger unresolved, then two spouses aren't allied in finding a solution. Although I completely understand why you are resentful. Try to talk about how it hurts your feelings that you don't feel important. He might be more responsive if you express feelings of vulnerability rather than resentment.

I am wondering it's too quick because you like longer lovemaking, or if he's just satisfied before you are. If he doesn't last long enough, that doesn't mean he can't continue to do something to satisfy you. You might ask him or coach him as to what he can do to pleasure you. And if he's willing you should express your appreciation for his willingness to be open to his suggestions. These kinds of issues are addressed thoroughly when people come to my web site, thesexstarvedmarriage.com. Folks share their stories on the message board and sometimes talk to a coach we have there.

Member: I tell him all the time about it and I guess he feels that it's good enough for him. I guess I will just have to GO FOR IT. RIGHT ?

Weiner-Davis: Right!

Member: To me, sex is a release and a way to wipe clean all the bad things that happened during the day. To my wife, a bad day and tension make sex less appealing. Any tips on meeting in the middle?

Weiner-Davis: In your case, your wife probably thinks you don't care whether you are emotionally close or not. You just want sex. It's a biological urge. It's like scratching an itch. Unfortunately, lots of women believe that. It might really help for you to talk about your feelings in the same way you've done here. It's wonderful that you think of sex as a way of touching, to reconcile, to heal, to forgive, to let go. Obviously for you physical closeness is a way to reconnect. If you talk about your feelings, and I sometimes jokingly refer to this as the F word, you may just help your wife understand you better, be more empathetic, and perhaps begin to view touching as a way to break the ice. And conversely, since feeling sexy is a two person job, sometimes you will have to understand your wife's need for some down time after arguments and then some emotional closeness, often through conversation, as a means of fueling or re-fueling her sexual desire for you.

You have the right idea when you talk about meeting in the middle. But I want to add something here: Very few relationship experts talk about touching and sexuality as a means for making up. Generally, the thought is people need to feel emotional intimacy before they are sexual. And while this is true for millions of people, for many others, the act of sex, touching, affection, are the means through which people begin to feel emotional closeness.

What happens in many marriages if you are the one where emotions come first, is you avoid sex until your spouse does the things that help you feel connected emotionally. On the other hand, if you are the sex-leads-to-connection person, you go into a cave emotionally until your spouse shows interest in you physically. Too many marriages go down the tubes while each spouse waits for the other to change. It's imperative that both in a marriage take responsibility for tipping over the first domino and stop keeping score.

Member: Why does the solution to this issue always seem to involve "fixing" the spouse with the lower sex drive? I'd be perfectly happy having no sex. It's my husband's need to have sex every other day that gets me thinking of divorce.

Weiner-Davis: Good question. The truth is the person with the lower sex drive almost always controls the frequency of sex in the relationship. And the agreement that millions of couples have in this country is the following: The less sexual person believes, "I don't need to care about your sexual needs, but I expect you to be monogamous and not complain about this." This arrangement, which is almost always unspoken, is unattainable, unworkable, and unfair. Healthy marriages are based on mutual care-taking and compromise.

We understand this when it comes to parenting decisions, how to spend free time, who does what around the house, how much time we spend with the in-laws, but noticeably missing from the mix is how two people feel about sex. I am convinced this is wrong. We need to care about each other, about all the issues confronted in marriage. Plus, as I talked about before with the Great American Sex Challenge, when you are more willing to care about your spouse's needs, the rewards you reap are amazing. If you push yourself to give this a try, instead of asking, "Why do I have to be the one to change?" you will ask, "Why did I wait so long?"

Member: I had a total abdominal hysterectomy on Dec. 12, 2002. I am 48 years old and enjoy sex. I am married. My husband has decided on his own that I am numb "down there" since the surgery. Not true, but he will not listen that even before the surgery my "spot" is less vaginal and more clitoral. He will not do anything "for" that; he only wants oral and/or with me on my hands and knees from the back (not anal). It makes me feel so detached from the whole thing. I desire him so very much and wish I knew a way to get him to listen to MY needs. He says when I try to speak with him about it that I am trying to put stipulations on our sex and he will not have anything to do with it. When he comes to me for sex it WILL happen and if I approach him, no way. He makes excuses like not feeling well or being tired. I really want help with this issue and want a healthy relationship with my husband.

Weiner-Davis: It sounds to me as if your bedroom has become the arena for major misunderstandings and miscommunications between you. I recommend you both read The Sex Starved Marriage. I also suggest you consider seeking professional help to talk about the differences and how they might be resolved. Sometimes when there is not sufficient information about sex, the slightest suggestion about doing things differently can feel threatening to one's spouse. It sounds like your husband feels this way. Even if he won't seek professional advice, I encourage you to go yourself.

Member: My husband is very attractive to me and is ALWAYS ready to have sex. The problem is me -- I want more romance than just ordinary sex. Any suggestions?

Weiner-Davis: Yes, know your situation is common. So often the person with more sexual desire does the very things to turn him on rather than turn you on. For example, it's typical for more highly sexed spouses to buy sex toys, buy stock in Victoria's Secret, and plan for sexy evenings without the kids. But to people like you, your reaction is often, "You have a one track mind. Back off!" Your husband would be wiser to focus on the things he can do outside the bedroom that will feel like aphrodisiacs for you. For example, you might feel turned on if he suggests you sleep in in the morning and he will get up with the kids. You might also feel turned on if you get to take a class in the evenings just to replenish your soul.

While you might agree with me, you may be asking yourself, "How do I get him to do this?" In Getting Through to The Man You Love, I suggest you ask for what you want. Be clear and specific. Don't say, "I want you to be more romantic." Or, "I want you to be more affectionate." While you know what that means, your husband may be clueless or have a different definition. Instead, identify the actions that he could take that would really make you feel good. Make sure you describe what you want in action-oriented terms. For example:

  • "I would be more likely to want to be sexual if you courted me by calling me a few times during the day to say, 'Hi.'"

  • "I would feel closer to you if you complimented me on the way I look or told me you appreciated something I have done for you such as make your favorite meal."

You might also be specific about the ways you like him to touch you that you feel more romantic instead of just sexual touches. For example, you might say, "I love it when you touch my hair or look into my eyes, or give me little kisses on my cheek." You need to really get specific.

Member: Please give me some suggestions on how to approach him in a sexual manner. Do I wear nothing when he comes in from work or what? Give me some pointers please!

Weiner-Davis: Reflect on times in your marriage when he seemed really hot. Rewind mentally to those times and ask yourself, "What was I doing there?" One of the basis premises in The Sex Starved Marriage is that no matter how far apart couples are sexually there are times in the past when things felt better. Identifying what you were doing differently then is often a key to the solution. If greeting him naked at the door was something that lit his fire, by all means disrobe.

Member: I've been married over 13 years but with my husband over 16 years. I truly love him, but I just don't have the energy to make love on a regular basis. He thinks that I'm avoiding him, but I'm just tired and not interested in making love. It's not easy when a 2 year old is screaming, "Mommy," when you're in the middle of doing it. I'm at the end of my rope and I'm afraid of losing him. I've talked with my doctor about this and actually asked if there is any medication out there to take and I was told to get a babysitter and go out on a date. Unfortunately, I don't have anyone around to babysit. What would you recommend for a situation that probably a lot of us are going through?

Weiner-Davis: Good question. DON'T WAIT TO FEEL INCREDIBLY LUSTY. Adopt the Nike philosophy, Just Do It. And there are many good reasons why I am suggesting this. For one thing, as a mother of two children, I know how trying and tiring and burdensome it is to try to be good at everything you do. But if you don't take this situation seriously now, you may not have a family in which to bring up your precious 2 year old.

Sexuality is a very important issue. If you are willing to take the Great American Sex Challenge I guarantee you your life will improve. In addition to becoming more proactive and being responsive to your husband, you might consider going to a sex therapist who can direct you to a doctor who is more informed about potential biological reasons a woman might be lacking desire.

The bottom line is that the road to boosting desire is not a precise science. There is lots of trial and error. The only way you can really create problems is by sticking your head in the sand, hoping it will go away, or telling your husband to take a cold shower. If you are willing to read this book, go to a doctor, or talk to a therapist or begin the journey to boosting desire, you'll be on the path to more closeness and connection with your spouse.

Member: Sounds like all of us on here want to try The Great American Sex Challenge -- tell us how.

Weiner-Davis: Again, for the next two weeks, whether in the mood or not, make your sex life a big priority: initiate sex, flirt, get out of sweat pants, grab your spouse as you pass in the hall, be more physical. And in the next two weeks pay close attention to the ways in which your spouse changes. Then you can report your findings at the message board at www.sexstarvedmarriage.com

Moderator: We will discuss the results in the near future -- look for an update on WebMD Live. Michele, we are almost out of time. Before we wrap up for today, do you have any final comments for us?

Weiner-Davis: It's really important for anyone chatting with us to know if they are struggling with a sexual desire gap, there are many things they can do to bridge the desire gap. You don't have to live with the distance -- both physical and emotional. You can become the friend and lover you really want to be.

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