When Jenny's husband of several years barely ever initiated sex, she started to believe he wasn’t attracted to her anymore. He claimed he was, but he still never seemed to make a move. Jenny was, understandably, confused and frustrated.
I see this problem fairly often in my practice and on my podcast, Foreplay: Radio Sex Therapy, about 20 percent of the couples I counsel are in situations like Jenny and her husband. And though loss of attraction may be the first explanation that comes to mind for the female partner, as it did Jenny, there are several other possible reasons why a man isn’t initiating sex:
1. Low testosterone.
Most men have a great supply of testosterone, the “hungry-for-sex” hormone, all their lives. When desire wanes, and the man’s experience is different than earlier in his relationship, it’s time to go to the doctor. Sometimes there are serious health issues that cause low testosterone, but often a man’s T-levels fall for unknown reasons, leading to reduced desire and often poorer erections.
2. No attraction.
Sometimes a man does lose attraction for his partner and no longer want to have sex with her — this is true. But it’s important to remember that in a long-term relationship, attraction is a complex emotion — it’s a mix of visual pleasure and sexual chemistry, as well as feelings about the relationship, like how well you get along, being able to relax together, and being respected.
Loss of attraction can also be a psychological defense. If a man is feeling suffocated in the relationship, he may experience a loss of attraction as a way to create some space and avoid the closeness that sex brings. Narcissism can also be a factor — it may cause a man to feel deeply disappointed in the normal and inevitable physical changes in his partner, which are threatening his own sense of mortality.
3. Performance anxiety.
Many men believe their status as a lover is determined by their ability to get, and maintain, a firm erection. Regardless of whether he feels desire, if a man has problems getting or keeping an erection, or if he has trouble lasting a fair time during intercourse, he may hesitate to initiate. Unfortunately, women can misinterpret these problems as attraction problems and become critical or reactive, which just complicates the dynamic further.
Whether to escape the vulnerability of being the initiator or simply to take a break from depending on another to meet their sexual needs, some men prefer masturbating over partnered sex. Often they use porn because it’s easy, it’s exciting, and it’s efficient. And it spares them the sexual negotiation with a partner that can feel exhausting. Even when their partner wants sex more than they do, a man might withhold sex out of an unconscious need for the autonomy of sexual aloneness.
While women typically respond best to a slow sexual approach, the truth is, sometimes men want to just “get after it” when they feel the urge. With a body full of testosterone, they are sexual kindling to the sexual stimuli all around, and it can be discouraging when they have a female partner who cannot fathom what it feels like to ignite instantaneously. And when a man hears his partner’s complaint of “all you want is sex,” it can feel like male-bashing — when the truth is, while he does desperately want sex and is physiologically programmed to want sex, he wants sex with her specifically, his partner, to express both desire and love. Occasionally, men need reciprocity of pure lust: “You want it, so I want it!” They’d love an aggressive partner, an animal moment, an uninhibited encounter that is wild and free.
Especially when there is a change in a man’s desire without apparent good reason, he might be having an affair. Certainly, affairs can start because of sexual frustration, but they are often a complicated solution to seemingly unsolvable problems within the primary relationship. Within a relationship committed to fidelity, sexual acting out can take a variety of forms, including a love affair, a one-night stand, online chatting, sexting, escorts, etc., and may result in the man not wanting sex with his partner, either out of guilt or satiety. While an affair can destroy a relationship, it is possible that partners in the primary relationship could examine what the affair means, why it started, and find a stronger relationship together.
To understand which of these reasons applies to your situation — and to improve it — you need to talk with your partner about what you’re experiencing (or not experiencing) and your feelings about it. Start with one-on-one conversations, but if you have trouble communicating, or don't see any progress, seek the help of a counselor.