"Games are a compromise between intimacy and keeping intimacy away." - Eric Berne, M.D.

Sexual frigidity. A problem all too commonly found amongst married couples. The typical scenario is as follows: A man and woman marry. After a period of time—in some cases a year, sometimes five, sometimes ten or more—the wife begins to reject her husband's sexual advances. She doesn't just reject him on occasion, but rather consistently—more times than not, and sometimes all of the time. She has started to engage in what the famed psychiatrist Eric Berne referred to as the game of Frigid Woman, first outlined in his 1964 bestseller Games People Play: The Basic Handbook of Transactional Analysis. Surely, the game can be played by men, as well, though, as a rule, it is much more commonly played by married women.

Mark L. Ruffalo, LCSW
The national bestseller, published in 1964.
Source: Mark L. Ruffalo, LCSW

In Berne's description of Frigid Woman, the husband makes repeated attempts to engage sexually with his wife, to no avail. He is told that he doesn't really love her, or he doesn't love her for herself, or that all he is interested in is sex. Or, he is given constant excuses—she is too tired, she has been caring for the children all day, etc. He desists for a period of time, but eventually tries once more, only to be rejected again. Sooner or later, he resigns himself to the idea of a sexless marriage. The couple enters into a sexual stalemate—if she isn't going to try to have sex with him, he isn't going to try to have sex with her. The husband is unhappy, of course, and contemplates his options—including an affair—but for a period of time, he will still try to make his marriage work.

When the wife finally does approach her husband for a kiss, he initially doesn't respond, remembering his stalemate resolution. But soon biology takes hold and he becomes aroused. Berne (1964) writes of this scenario, "His first advances are not repulsed. He becomes bolder and bolder. Just at the critical point, the wife steps back and cries: 'See, what did I tell you? All men are beasts, all I wanted was affection, but all you are interested in is sex!'" (p. 99).

And so the game of Frigid Woman is played, sometimes for a short period of time, sometimes year after year. Interestingly, Berne contends, this game is not usually found outside of marriage, as a man would likely not put up with it for very long in a nonmarital relationship. But, according to Berne, the husband who does stay in such a scenario for years is believed to have fears related to his own sexual inadequacy.

What does a wife do to her husband when she repeatedly refuses to have sex with him? She places him into what Gregory Bateson, the well-known social theorist, called a double bind. The man essentially has three options: first, he can continue to attempt to initiate sex and continue to be blamed for his lack of "understanding". Second, he can engage in an affair and, if caught, be blamed for his "betrayal" (although it was he who was initially betrayed). Third, he could resign himself to a sexless life and resultantly face the psychological and existential consequences. Or, of course, he could leave. All of his options are "losses." The wife always "wins." Sex becomes more about power and control and less about sex or love.

What is the psychological origin of sexual frigidity? An object relations framework places the blame squarely on the person's early development, which is almost always lacking in empathy. If a person has not been adequately empathized with, she cannot provide empathy to others. At the root of the game being played is the wife's inability to recognize the pain inflicted on her husband by her unwillingness to engage with him sexually. Despite his attempts to convince his wife of the importance of sex in a healthy relationship, she remains unconvinced and continues to engage in the marital game. It could be postulated, as well, that the wife has fears of her own. She is fearful of intimacy, which Berne defines as the absence of game-playing.

The cure for the marital game is a psychoanalysis that points out the wife's strategies and their developmental origins. Of course, this is a route that is rarely undertaken. The game is usually played indefinitely or until the marriage ends in divorce.


Berne, E. (1964). Games people play: The basic handbook of transactional analysis. New York, NY: Grove.

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