When “Do You Want to Have Sex?” Fails

How to improve your initiation game and enhance your sex life.

Posted Mar 05, 2020

Altrendo Images/Shutterstock
Source: Altrendo Images/Shutterstock

Let me guess—it used to be effortless initiating sex with your partner. It wasn’t even clear who was the invitee and who the inviter. Somewhere along the way, though, things changed. Now, making sex happen has become a chore. You are starting to think that it’s just easier not to try. 

I hear this story frequently in my therapy room. These are two common scenarios I hear from hetero couples struggling with their sex lives: 

Scenario 1: She used to come on to him all the time—so much so that he rarely had to extend the effort. It worked for both of them—she enjoyed asserting her sexual power, and he found her assertiveness super-hot. Until things mysteriously changed. 

Almost overnight, and without understanding why, she stopped coming on to him. Oftentimes, this shift happens when a couple moves in together, gets engaged, or marries. Suddenly she wants to be the recipient of sexual energy and feel his sexual power and desire. 

She wants to feel wanted in a more primal, lusty way. But he’s at a loss. This was never his sexual style with her, and it seems that every sexual overture he does try, she rejects. This leaves them both feeling misunderstood and unsatisfied. When they arrive at my office, they have sex monthly—if they are lucky.  

Scenario 2: He more often initiated sex. As their relationship aged, and sex became a bit less exciting, she started rejecting his bids for intimacy. For a while, they both thought this was an unexpected blip on their sexual radar screen and figured that things would eventually get back to normal. 

After a while, though, he grew tired of her lack of interest, and he stopped initiating. Porn was just so much easier. At first, they didn’t discuss it—he wondered if she’d even noticed the shift. Eventually, she missed his attempts to initiate and became alarmed. 

Now he wants her to initiate, but this makes her self-conscious. It was never something she was comfortable doing. When they arrive at my office, neither one feels desired. Sex remains at a standstill. 

How does sexual initiation become so very complicated? It seems that initiating love-making should be so simple. You love each other; you are committed to each other—what’s the problem? 

Oftentimes at the beginning of a relationship, the sex is so hot that no one really thinks about initiation. But as the raw lust of a new relationship dies down, couples must more consciously negotiate the logistics of making sex happen. Rather than sex being the body’s decision, which occurs in the form of lust, initiation then becomes the purview of the mind. 

From the mind’s perspective, there’s always a reason not to initiate. The mind’s incessant chatter is delighted to weigh in—often from a variety of perspectives. “Is this a good time to initiate?” “Does she want sex right now, too?” “Is he horny?” “Am I horny?” “Maybe I should wait until her show is over?” “Maybe I should take a shower first?” “Maybe it’s too late—I have to get up early... but it’s been over two weeks since we’ve had sex!”  

A second challenge is the level of vulnerability involved in initiating sex. When we initiate, we are communicating so much more than meets the eye. We put ourselves out there, essentially unprotected. We are acknowledging that we have a very personal need and that we desire our partner. Our partner’s rejection, like their lack of initiation, suggests that we are not sexually desirable or wanted. 

In this way, sexual rejection—just like rarely initiating sex—becomes a blank slate onto which we project all of our deepest fears. “She doesn’t want me because I’m _____ (fill in the blank: ugly/weird/unintelligent).” Repeated rejection of our sexual self—this most personal aspect of our being—offers proof that everything we’ve found shameful or unacceptable about ourselves is true. 

Of course, no one wants sex every time their partner initiates. Occasional rejection doesn’t typically add up to much. It’s the repeated rejection that becomes damaging for intimate connection. 

Emotional distance intensifies, which only decreases the desire for sex. As couples become less connected, the sex they do have becomes more boring. Ultimately, they risk joining the ranks of the 20 percent of couples who have a sexless marriage

When this happens, relationships become less intimate. After all, sex is the most intimate act in our relationships, and the most profound way the majority of us give and receive love. That’s a lot to lose. 

But fear not, there’s a lot you can do to prevent this scenario from unfolding! First, you’re gonna have to talk about it. You will learn something new from your partner by discussing initiation—even if you notice no issues with this aspect of your sex life. Great questions that you both should answer include:

  • What do you like and not like about how I initiate?
  • How would you prefer I initiate? Is there something you’d like me to try? 
  • What do I do that makes you want to initiate, and what makes you not want to initiate sex? 

Many couples make the faulty assumption that if initiating sex is simple at the beginning of the relationship, it should always be simple. But that’s not realistic. After a relationship no longer feels new, both partners must make efforts to keep their sex life interesting and alive. 

This means they can’t just wait for their bodies to simply want sex, as they did at the beginning of the relationship. Instead, a satisfying sex life takes effort—sometimes even when you really don’t feel like you’ve got the energy to devote to it. 

What’s the best way to initiate sex? Well, of course, that varies for everyone. But some general advice could include:

  • Don’t overthink it! Don’t ruin the urge for sex with the mental chatter that will only dampen whatever lust you are feeling.
  • Don’t ask your partner if they want to have sex in the same voice that you’d use to ask them if they want another cup of coffee. Use a bedroom voice—a voice that would be considered sexual harassment if you said to a co-worker, “Would you like another cup of coffee?”
  • Try a more sensual bid for connection—like a flirty body movement or strong, blatant eye contact. Use your body to invite your partner into connection. More often than not, this is sexier than words. 
  • Make sure you take turns initiating. Not doing this increases the chances that you will live out one of the scenarios I described above. Everyone needs to feel wanted, so be sure to reach for your partner on occasion. 

Struggling with initiation is more common in long-term relationships than many people realize. But don’t use your discomfort as an excuse to ignore the issue. Your romance may depend on it. 

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