I’ve spent the last few years trying to get better insight into the mind of a spouse who desires less sex. Why? Because I’m married to one, and one of my goals in life is to make her feel known and loved. Unfortunately, the more I learn the more I realize just how bad a job I do.
It’s sort of like in Christianity, where the more you grow, the more you realize just how sinful you are. You start realizing that avoiding sin is not just about not killing, stealing, lying, etc., that the law is not an exhaustive list of what’s right and wrong. The closer you get to God, the more you realize how often you hurt Him.
This journey to know my wife has been similar. At first, I’ll admit, my intentions were not quite so noble. I think I spent a lot of time trying to simply get more sex. I was trying to soothe the part of my life that hurt the most.
To be honest, I’m not sure I had the willpower to have a less selfish goal at the time. But as I’ve grown, and my wife has taken leaps and bounds to better meet my needs, I constantly learn new things that make me realize I’ve not been making it easy for her. Often, I’m a stumbling block to my wife trying to love me better. This, in turn, causes her stress and anxiety because she feels she should be doing better. I make it hard to love me. I make it work to have sex with me. Not only is it counterproductive in a selfish sense, but also it hurts her, which is the last thing I want to do.
So, I wanted to share some things that I think are common to a lot of couples in a similar dynamic. Some of these will be better suited to the stereotypical husband/wife dynamic, but others will be more gender neutral.
Be careful with the words you use to describe your spouse
I’ve always disliked the terms “high-drive” and “low-drive”. They’re not great descriptors. As well, “low-drive” I think sounds insulting. My wife, being generally classified as “low-drive” doesn’t like it either. It makes it sound like there is something wrong with her, when in fact there isn’t. It’s just the way she is.
So, when you call your spouse “low-drive”, or someone else refers to them that way, they start to internalize it. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. They believe and adopt the role.
It also creates another negative tie to sex. Them being “low-drive” becomes associated with sex, so it’s a more difficult topic to discuss, because it brings to mind this perception of being inadequate.
So, I’m going to try and never refer to my wife, or anyone else, as low-drive again. I’ve, unfortunately, spent years, and written countless articles doing so already. The typical terms others use aren’t much better, such as sexual distancer or low libido. The best I’ve found (mixing and matching from a couple researchers in the field) are:
Sexual pursuer – the one who tends to pursue by default, who spontaneously desires sex more often.
Sexual responder – the one who tends to take a more receptive role when initiating sex, for whatever reason.
I’m going to try and work out some more robust definitions later, but so far I like them better.
The point is, we have to be careful with the roles we ascribe to people, especially our spouses. If we continue to call them things like “low-drive”, “selfish”, “abuser”, “lazy”, or a host of other things, they may begin to internalize and believe they can’t change. It makes it harder for them to change certain behaviours. They are not those things. They’re just acting out behaviours. Behaviours can change much easier than a character. It’s also the first step to changing a character: Start behaving the way the character you want to have would.
Instead of saying they’re “low-drive” or whatever, start praising and pointing out when they do the behaviours you like. Praise them for being sexy, for initiating, for responding positively. Don’t box them in a negative role.
Be careful what you say when sex is over
After sex, we sexual pursuers who desire sex more, tend to say something like:
I can’t wait to do that again.
We should do that again tomorrow.
How about round two?
When can have this kind of fun again?
We should do this more often.
While we’re trying to express how much we enjoyed it and, frankly are a little depressed, dismayed or anxious that we now likely have to wait a while to experience that closeness again, we inadvertently send the message that we aren’t satisfied. As a result, many sexual responder spouses end up feeling that they’re not good enough, particularly if they already have anxiety at not having as strong a desire to have sex as their spouse.
While we hope it to be encouraging, it tends to instead have the opposite effect. Our spouse ends the sexual experience with a negative feeling. The next time sex is initiated, that is often the feeling they remember. While they often know that sex is something that connects you two, is important, and even feels good, those thoughts are masked by the anxiety and worry about whether or not they’ll be good enough this time that their spouse will actually feel satisfied.
For many sexual responders, it takes mental work to shift gears and get into the right headspace to be able to enjoy sex. If they then get the impression at the end that their spouse feels the sex wasn’t good enough, then that translates into a lot of work that resulted in failure in their part.
So, as sexual pursuers, we need to be very careful about what we say after sex. Something as simple as “That was amazing!” is far better than “That was so good, I can’t wait to do it again!”
You see, sexual pursuers create pressure to have sex. Yes, sometimes that is a bad sort of pressure, but generally not. I just mean, they create the impetus to have sex. The sexual responder, then, is looking to release that pressure. If they go through the trouble of relieving that pressure, only to find out the pressure is still there, then they feel they’ve failed. They haven’t done their job. It becomes a futile exercise.
So, given that perspective, is it any wonder some responders react negatively to initiation? It’s not that they’re rejecting their spouse, or sex, but rather trying to protect themselves from feeling like a failure.
Don’t ask if they want to have sex
Most sexual responders don’t feel a desire to have sex without some sort of pressure from their spouse. They don’t often just suddenly feel like having sex.
For many, they don’t feel aroused until after sex has been initiated. That’s one reason why massages work so well, it’s sexual without being intercourse, so it helps give them time to respond.
The problem many sexual pursuers make is asking if they’re “in the mood”, or if they “want to” have sex. In short, the answer is almost always “no”. For someone who experiences almost exclusively responsive desire, often the closest they get, outside of an already sexual context, is feeling willing to be aroused. Asking if they want to have sex kicks off a pattern of thought like:
Am I in the mood? No. Why aren’t I? Something is wrong with me. I’m not enough for my spouse. I’m such a disappointment…
Even if they were willing to be aroused before you asked, you’ve just pushed them further away from being willing. Now they’re actively not up for sex because they’re dealing with anxiety, depression and pity which you invoked by your question.
Obviously this is less than ideal.
So, what’s the alternative? There are a few:
Tell them what you want instead of asking what they want
I know this goes against everything were taught in polite society, but the truth is, if you want something, ask for it. Ideally, your spouse wants to make you happy. Trying to negotiate what you want by asking what they want turns sex into a transaction. Trying to make it seem like your doing it for them is manipulation.
Initiate a precursor to sex
Offer something like a massage instead. Now, this can be manipulative as well. It depends on the situation. If they’re exhausted and you offer a massage to help them sleep, then try to turn it into sex, that’s manipulation. If they can’t switch gears, or are stressed, and you offer a massage that turns sexual and they’re content to be lead that way, then that’s helping them out.
This only works in some dynamics, though usually people are surprised it works in theirs. There are a great many spouses who much prefer not to be asked at all. Not to have a chance to say no. Typically this applies to wives. Our culture has done such a good job of teaching them that they should reject their husband’s advances that it’s easier simply to have the opportunity removed. I think this is why rape continues to be high on the common list of women’s fantasies. It’s why the 50 Shades of Grey erotic stories swept through the women in churches as well as the general public. It solves the problem of wanting to feel desired, pursued, aroused and sexual ecstasy without the guilt and shame of admitting that deep down they want to feel those things. Just a warning though: a hard no still means no. This isn’t permission or an excuse to rape your spouse or force them against their will.
Don’t expect them to initiate
Expecting a sexual responder to initiate regularly, or getting upset that you have to do the bulk, or even all, of the initiating is futile.
You are more interested in sex than they are. Get over it. As a result, you’re going to do the bulk, or all of the initiating, depending on where you both sit on your respective spectrums. Some will, because they’re closer to being a pursuer than others. Or because they’re particularly generous or mindful of it. But you shouldn’t expect your spouse to be there if they’re not there. To do so just puts a negative sort of pressure on sex that will ultimately result in them stamping out the thought of initiating if it does occur to them.
If they initiate, praise them for it, thank them, and accept it graciously. But if they don’t, just accept that they’re not at a place yet where it occurs to them.
For the sexual responders who are reading this: If you are able to bless your spouse by initiating, please do so. For them, and for yourself. Set a calendar reminder if it never occurs to you. You’d be amazed at the difference it will make to your marriage. There are lots of reasons why you should initiate, even if your spouse shouldn’t expect it.
Don’t limit the reasons or type of sex they offer
The last item I want to touch on today is that I often get the complaint from the sexual pursuers that even when their spouse initiates, it’s not the way they want or for the reasons they want. I’ve made this same complaint myself.
We often have the audacity to think that the way we feel about sex is the only proper way. We feel that because we want to have sex out of sexual desire, or a deep need, that if they come to us desiring to have sex “because it’s been a while and you seem to need it” isn’t a good enough reason. Worse, we sometimes flat out say “that’s not good enough” or something to that effect.
The truth is, if a sexual responder initiates in any way (provided it’s not so subtle as can be easily missed), then that should be not only accepted, but appreciated and praised. Otherwise, what happens is that they step out of their comfort zone to initiate, and then feel punished because they didn’t do it right. This leads back to not feeling good enough and will likely reduce any potential initiations in the future.
I’ve learned not to push for my wife to be “in the mood” before initiating, because, well, if I waited for that, it’s not likely to happen without abstaining from sex for a month or two.
However, I still have trouble accepting “just for me” sex. Truth is, I’m a giver more than a receiver. I’m not good at receiving. It’s something I’ve always struggled with. I think it’s a pride issue. I don’t accept gifts, compliments or offers for help well. I just never learned to. I’m also bad at asking for help. But I’m trying to get better at this.
This translates into our sexual relationship as well. When we have sex, and my wife makes it clear she’s more interested in me getting an orgasm than her, I have trouble accepting that. I want it to be for both of us, because then I don’t feel guilty for making her have sex and getting nothing out of it. Actually, it’s worse than that. It’s not even equitable. I’m such a hypocrite at this, that I’ve been fine with having sex “just for her” just not “just for me”.
For years, my wife has said that she’s a bit of a selfish lover, but the truth is, I’ve not only enabled that, I’ve contributed to that balance. She’s not really selfish. I’m overly “generous” (though not truly generous I guess) due to my own insecurities.
The truth is, I want to have a relationship where I can ask for “just for me” sex, or her offer it, and visa-versa. I think we should be comfortable enough to ask for that sort of “help”. Or to “use” each other like that. I know “use” sounds bad, but I don’t know how else to say it. I think spouses should be there for each other to help deal with pent up sexual urges, desires, temptations, or whatever, and limiting sex to only a two-way exchange limits our ability to lean on and accept our spouse from giving this to us.
So, I’m going to try and be better at this, knowing I’ve likely made it quite difficult to change that dynamic due to years of wanting every exchange to be either equitable, or weighted in my wife’s favour.
Don’t look the gift-horse in the mouth.
For others, I know they’ll turn down sex, because it’s not the way they want it. For example, their spouse will offer oral or manual sex instead of intercourse, because it’s quicker, or easier, or less painful, or whatever. If it’s every time, that might be an issue, but when it’s once in awhile, or during a difficult season, why reject their gift simply because it’s not what you prefer? Others get upset, because their spouse offers a particular position, when they want something else.
The classic case of this is a wife offering missionary, when they want woman-on-top. If she’s tired and just trying to make herself available, being on the bottom is far different than being on top and doing all the work.
The other scenario that comes up a lot is a spouse offering a quicky when the other wants “gourmet sex”. It’s quite possible they just don’t have the energy for that. Again, if it’s every time, that becomes an issue, but once in a while, or even for a season, it’s not worth rejecting them.
That’s like getting a birthday present and sending it back because it’s the wrong brand. It’s not only inconsiderate, it’s also pretty counterproductive. I mean, if you think they’re going to buy you a gift again, you’re dreaming. Likewise with sex, if you turn down their offer, there’s a good chance they won’t offer it again for a while, if ever.
Sexual pursuers often make the bed they’re having trouble getting their spouse to have sex in
I know I have contributed to the struggles in our sexual relationship. I hope by sharing some of the ways that I’ve added to our dynamic that you might recognize some of your own in your marriage. If you’re a sexual pursuer, maybe you do some of these too and need to change your behaviours. If you’re a sexual responder, then maybe you’ll recognize some things that are contributing to your struggles to respond positively.
What I don’t want is this to be pointed at as proof that it’s all the sexual pursuers fault. This is only one side of the equation. The marriage community often harps on the “low-drive” spouse, pointing at them as the source of the issues, but the truth is, generally both sides have plenty of responsibility for what’s going on. Anyone who thinks otherwise is likely fooling themselves.
What about you? What can you change that’s contributing to the struggles in your dynamic?