Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Repairing Sexual Withholding in a Marriage

If talking about sex is difficult, talking about not having sex is worse.

  • Sexual avoidance or disinterest exacerbates feelings of self-exposure and judgment.
  • Both partners can feel confused, rejected, and resentful.
  • Repairing sexual withholding means opening up a discussion.
  • The first way to start reconnecting is through the simple act of kissing.

Sex is one of our most private experiences, according to Stephen Mitchell, author of Can Love Last? Talking about sex is self-exposing because sex is about basic drives. “The corporal intensity of sexual arousal and gratification, in its very power, contributes to its utter privacy” ( Mitchell, 2002, p.17).

Despite that sex is a common experience we share, we don’t really know what sex is like for anyone else—even our partner.

When the sexual life in a couple’s relationship meets their mutual needs, regardless of style or regularity, the feeling of satisfaction and of being desired often buffers feelings of exposure and self-consciousness and makes non-verbal and verbal communication possible. This in turn enhances desire and connection.

A Night for Couples Struggling with Sexlessness
Source: Eimizu/IStockPhotos

As opposed to this, unexplained sexual withholding, be it refusal, avoidance or more nuanced sexual disinterest exacerbates feelings of self-exposure and judgment and leaves both partners feeling confused, rejected, and resentful. The situation not only further compromises communication, but it also erodes the day-to-day intimacy and knowing each other that fosters sexual connection.

  • "When he stopped initiating, I figured he was no longer interested in me. I’m not going to reach out."
  • "When I try to be affectionate, she seems to brush it off like she is busy, I don’t want to be rejected."

If imagination fuels sexual desire, imagination in the face of sexual withholding fuels negative presumptions, blame, self-loathing, fear of replacement, retaliation, and detachment.

While it is often feared, for example, an affair is not the most common reason for sexual avoidance. Far more likely sex killers are stress, kids, lack of sleep, alcohol, self-image, erectile dysfunction, and medication.

Sexual Withholding in a Marriage Can Be Addressed and Repaired

What I have found with many couples, over many years: When one partner’s willingness to open the discussion about lack of sexual connection is met by the other’s equal wish to understand, a step toward mutual connection becomes possible.

As I have asked many couples: “You did not become partners and lovers under duress, did you?”

A way to take present guilt or tension out of the situation is to start by remembering the original feelings of choosing and wanting to be with each other.

Think back to the circumstances of your initial meeting, what was the first step toward intimacy? What is the best memory as lovers?

The important question to ask is whether you still want to be “more than friends.” Many partners are shocked by the other’s expressed wish to be much more than friends, especially in the face of sexual withholding.

If so, you have set the stage for authenticity and hope. Even if connection can’t happen tomorrow.

How Do You Make Connection Happen?

It is not uncommon for sexual withholding and the downward slide in a marriage to begin with a physical problem that a partner is actually struggling with, but not talking about. Exhaustion, pain during intercourse, erectile dysfunction, depression, body image, addictions, and other problems.

When the fear of the other’s response or self-judgment gets projected on to the partner, the reality of who you are to each other becomes compromised.

  • “With the pandemic, the kids, and working from home, I am so anxious and tired, I can’t sleep; I have been avoiding affection because I can’t do one more thing.”
  • “I am having trouble; it’s a bad feeling. I didn’t know how you would feel about my using Viagra or something."

Partners usually sigh with relief and show concern when each finally understands what is going on.

That doesn’t mean sudden pressure to have sex. It means becoming more informed (Information on Male Performance Drugs, The Viagra Myth, A Tired Woman's Guide to Passionate Sex, Great Sex Starts after 50). It means seeking medical consultation and re-thinking exhaustion in terms of chores and obligations. And it means slowly re-instating small but powerful steps to bring back interest and intimacy like compliments, love texts, neck rubs, hugs, mini rituals like watching re-runs, new rituals, soft landings for saying: “Not now, but let’s make a plan.

An Often Overlooked First Step

Dr. Helen Fisher, author of Why Him? Why Her?, recommends that to turn on the adventure in your sex life, start kissing.

Forget that one or both of never liked it, don’t know how to really do it. Just start. Plan to wait for the first scene of kissing in a Netflix series or steamy movie, put it on pause, and give it a try for as long as you can.

Helen Fisher recommends that you devote 15 to 20 minutes just to kissing. Why? Kissing sets your brain into high activation because all of the senses are involved. Your lips, tongue, and mouth are packed with neurons that are responsive to the subtlest sensations. Attachment hormones are elevated, stress hormones are reduced and male saliva contains an abundance of testosterone that can prompt sexual desire. Why not?

No matter what you try, there is nothing more potent in stirring sexual interest than the feeling of being desired. Consider finding each other as lovers again.

Facebook image: Syda ProductionsShutterstock

More from Suzanne B. Phillips, Psy.D., ABPP
More from Psychology Today