Doing the work that I do, researching couple relationships, it has become more and more clear to me that at the basis of most divorces are problems in the sexual connection. The two people may think that they are fighting about the kids or the in-laws or about whether to renovate the kitchen, but underneath it all is that unspoken tension related to the pressure of establishing a satisfying sexual relationship for both parties.
In my therapy practice, the issues that people raise in sessions seem to come in waves and right now, I’m working with a wave of couples in which the tension between them expresses itself in the woman not wanting to be touched. She may go ahead and “do it” from time to time when the guilt builds up too much, but it is unpleasant for her and humiliating for him to have sex when she really doesn’t want to.
I want to explore a little bit what happens when a woman’s body shuts down and is no longer receptive to her husband’s touch. I’m looking at those couple in which there has not been sexual trauma in her history and where sex used to be a positive experience for her. This “shut down” phenomenon typically appears a few years into the relationship, often after the kids are born. Whereas, in the past, they used to have a fun, relaxed time in bed, now it has become a psychological wrestling match, with her avoiding and him bewildered and unsure how to proceed. This leads to her closing up and him feeling rejected and angry. And because she doesn’t understand and can’t explain what’s happening, it’s impossible to talk about.
The woman in this scenario may really wish that she could access that easy sexual pleasure that was so evident in her past. She wants to want it. But now his touch feels aversive and rather than turn her on, she hates it. Strangely, women have often told me that they can manage the vaginal part of things and find intercourse tolerable, but really don’t like having their breasts fondled. That stimulation is mixed—partly pleasurable but partly disturbing. It feels intensely intimate, flooding them with overwhelming feelings.
As a result, during sex their bodies become a patchwork of go/no go zones that are deeply confusing and frustrating to the partner who remembers the spontaneous freedom of their past sexual expression. He doesn’t know what happened, but then, neither does she. In this case, not wanting to be touched doesn’t necessarily mean the woman has some deep psychological problem. It just means that the couple needs some help.
One young mother told me that her husband expects her to have a switch on her shoulder that she can flip to get herself into the mood, and I think she’s on to something. I like to say that men are good at compartmentalizing—they can take a problem and shove it in a drawer and say, “I’ll deal with that later”. Women are multi-taskers. While they are taking their shower in the morning, they’re also planning what to cook for dinner and where to go on vacation. And they can’t forget problems until they get solved—like an itch that needs to be scratched.
So when they get into bed at night, the husband may be focused on the activity of the moment— sex—while the wife is still preoccupied by the tantrum their three-year old had in the grocery store that afternoon or the disagreement they had earlier about money. She feels that her husband is out of sync with her emotional state and concerns. He’s ready to go, but she cannot so easily make that transition from playground to pillow. She can’t shut down her mind in order to turn on her body and she experiences his eagerness as callous.
Any resentment she has towards him gets in the way of her opening herself up not only to being loving and giving, but also to being able to receive and be in the moment. So when he starts to make a move towards her, it’s unwelcome. She feels trapped and threatened that she has to perform or this will lead to a scene. This experience, multiplied over and over, damages the sense of sexual safety in the relationship for both of them.
Women in my office often complain that their husbands want sex, as if that’s a bad thing. They think that sex for men is all about orgasms. That’s part of it, but in long-term relationships, sex is also the fastest route for a man to feel close and connected to his wife. In good times, sex it a wonderful way to give and receive love.
Getting back to the fact that women wish they could want it—that would make their lives so much easier – and that they like to think of themselves as sexy—that’s a good thing. I believe that the road from being shut down to getting back into a more relaxed and safe sexual connection in a couple is not that long—that women’s bodies are funny in that way. Once they feel the caring coming from a partner, it’s possible to re-access the place of desire.
If your couple is engaged in a subterranean sexual push and pull, you’ll need help to get past it. Don’t let it linger year after year, assuming that it’s normal, because it’s a direct route to marriage breakdown. The problem feels big, but once it comes out from under the covers, it’s solvable.
I’m a family therapist and the author of Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife's Guide to Recovery and Renewal and My Sister, My Self: Understanding the Sibling Relationship that Shapes Our Lives, Our Loves and Ourselves.