“You never want to have sex!” Whether you’re the one hurling these words at your partner or he or she is spitting them in your face, the accusation lands like a grenade. Kaboom. Caught off guard, the person on the receiving end can become defensive or critical, shut down, or explode. Clearly none of that will help resolve this issue. What will: Digging beneath the surface to discover what’s truly causing your desire discrepancy.
When it comes to issues of sexless marriage, any number of things could be going on — and it may or may not be about sex. The good news is, you can address these underlying problems and get back to a sex life that satisfies both of you.
“It may take an initial effort,” says integrative sexual health psychiatrist and sex therapist Elisabeth Gordon, MD, “and that effort is worth it.”
How Common Is the “You Never Want to Have Sex” Argument?
This fight is one of the most frequent ones that sex and relationship therapists encounter with their patients.
“Many clients have begun therapy because of this problem, and once clients are in therapy for myriad other reasons, it is not unusual to see sexual problems brought to the surface eventually,” says Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, Ed.S. is a licensed marriage and family therapist and the author of A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage.
The argument can take many forms, Gordon adds. Sometimes one partner truly never wants to have sex, other times one wants it considerably less than the other, such as once or twice a month versus almost every day.
What We Think the Fight Is About
When partner A claims, “you never want to have sex,” you can’t predict partner B’s reaction.
“As a gross generalization, men hear they need to do more or be more and women hear they need to give more,” Gordon says. She and other therapists identified a few common thoughts that could be going through the other person’s head.
Partner B may interpret the statement as partner A expressing:
- Am I not desirable?
- Am I a bad lover?
- Am I not giving enough?
- What’s wrong with you? Men always want sex. You’re not a real man.
- You’re avoiding sex because of your issues (such as body image or erectile dysfunction).
- Why don’t you ever desire me? Why do I always have to initiate?
- You’ve changed; you’re no fun anymore; it’s not like it used to be.
Or partner B may fear:
- Are you cheating or interested in someone else?
- What’s wrong with me? Men always want sex. Maybe I’m not manly enough.
What the “You Never Want to Have Sex” Fight Is Actually About
“You never want to have sex” can be code for many, many things or a combination of things. “Sexual health is a reflection of everything else that’s going on and our state of health in many ways,” Gordon says. When a couple comes to her with this problem, she first tries to determine if it’s a personal or a relational issue (although the two overlap).
If one partner has a physical problems, such as pain during sex or erectile dysfunction, it’s clear that sex may not be so pleasurable for them, and in turn, they may seek intercourse less often. For women, pregnancy, going through menopause, or being on oral contraceptives can also impact libido.
If there’s nothing physical, there could be something going on mentally. Maybe the person is exhausted from trying to work from home, assist their kids with virtual schooling, and maintain the house with everyone there 24/7. Or they could have gained some weight and feel less sexy. And of course stress from work, parenting, taking care of older parents, financial concerns, and worries about the state of the country can make sex less desirable.
“People who are experiencing large amounts of stress or emotional duress often find it difficult to get out of their heads long enough to feel open to giving and receiving sexual desires,” explains Dana McNeil, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of The Relationship Place, a group practice located in San Diego, California. “Or the person saying ‘you never want to have sex’ may feel undesirable or rejected.”
Clients, McNeil says, often worry that their partner no longer finds them attractive because maybe they have gained a few pounds in quarantine or have aged since they were first dating. “Some clients have fears that their partner may be more attracted to someone else and then create negative self-talk about their own diminished value. Others create all kinds of internal stories about what it means that they are not having sex with their partner.”
Relational issues for the “you never want to have sex” fight include having resentment toward your partner about other things. (Did you blow hundreds on sports betting? Did they have a sparring match with your mom about visiting the kids without masks?) Boredom is another culprit. “Often in the length of a relationship, we fall into ruts and don’t realize we need to stir it up and have fun,” says Gordon, adding that men tend to have a gradual decline in interest while women may have a faster decline when cohabiting.
Or you may have a desire discrepancy that went overlooked at the start of your relationship because the partner who wants sex less often was spurred on by the rush of a new courtship. Back then, the excitement made them also want to get naked every day. Now that things are comfortable, their interest seems to have waned, but it’s actually just their normal level.
This discrepancy may be tied to differences in your desire frameworks, which isn’t uncommon, according to Ian Kerner, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist, couples and sex therapist, and author of the upcoming So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex: Laying Bare and Learning to Repair Our Love Lives. There’s spontaneous and responsive desire. Spontaneous desire is when a single cue — for example, seeing your partner come out of the shower—sparks desire. On the other hand, someone with responsive desire “takes more simmering of sexual cues,” Kerner says. They need some kind of emotional context to feel turned on and can’t have too many stressors (like knowing the kids are in the next room or seeing piles of laundry), or that will block any arousal.
What to Do in the Short Term
During any fight—and especially a fight about sex—it can be easy to see this as a battle and defend your position, Kerner says. Of course, that will only escalate things. So rather than engaging in a screaming match, stand down.
“Back off, take a few deep breaths, and ramp down your emotions or at least your tone of voice,” Gordon says.
Once you both have cooler heads, “recognize that in anything you fight about, there is a level of vulnerability,” Kerner says. “You need to have a dialogue that’s emotionally safe so vulnerability can come out.”
This means using “I” statements and inviting your partner into the conversation. You might say something like, “I’m really missing sex lately” or “I feel like we’ve been neglecting sex.” This is more likely to have your partner acknowledge, yes, it’s been a while, and explain why.
Be sure to listen to what your partner is saying. This needs to be a true dialogue, so resist the urge to interrupt and, if you can, repeat back some of what they say so you can confirm that you heard and interpreted them accurately.
“Try to be very specific what you are upset about,” Gordon says. If you’re the one saying you never have sex, is this about sex or are you feeling rejected or is something else going on? Or if you’re the one who doesn’t want sex, is it that you feel pressure? Do you feel you’re only desired for how you can provide sexual activity and your emotions aren’t being considered? Tackle the issues one at a time and try to find common ground. “You don’t always need to meet in the middle,” Gordon adds, “it can be give one, get one.”
Also try starting with the solution, Kerner suggests. For example, you could say, “I’ve been thinking about how great it would be for us to plan a staycation or date night that would lead to sex. I’ve been missing kissing you, and I really want to get naked with you.” Or tell your partner you had a sexy dream about them last night that really turned you on. When you share the dream, describe the sex you want to have with them.
Lastly, if you can tolerate it, have this conversation while sitting next to each other and touching, whether that’s holding hands or having your legs against each other. “Touch increases intimacy,” Gordon explains. “It has physiological repercussions, including increased openness to connection.”
What to Do in the Long Term
Truly resolving the “you never want to have sex” fight takes time, and communication is vital. “Nothing will happen without it,” Gordon says. “It helps you understand where each other is coming from, what the problems are, the solutions, and how to tackle things in a way that allows you to progress forward.”
Working both together and separately, try to troubleshoot the problems. You may need to try several things and it can take time. Keep it up and keep the dialogue going. Discuss what you each need to feel sexual, what turns you on, and if anything is inhibiting your sex drive, Kerner suggests.
It also helps to remember that sex isn’t always penetrative intercourse—it’s so much more! “Experiment, help explore each other, rebuild enjoyment, broaden your repertoire, and find other ways of connecting that lead to an increased likelihood that you want to engage sexually in more ways, which may include intercourse,” Gordon says.
And yes, scheduling in sex can help—and even be sexy. Together, decide when sex can happen and what you each need, such as a neighbor to watch the kids, to adjust your workout schedule, or reading erotica to get your mind in the right frame. “Sex is something to look forward to, and scheduling helps you carve out and sanctify that time so you can relax into it and focus on being sexually engaged,” Gordon explains.
But don’t ignore the space between sexual events, Kerner adds. “Most couples say, ‘We should do this more often, that was really nice,’ when they have sex. Then they lose that initiative and the erotic thread.” Instead, take moments each day to notice each other erotically without feeling pressure to demand or invite sex. “Sex is something to be valued and prioritized,” Kerner says. “In a monogamous relationship, it’s really the only way we get to experience this aspect of life in a connected way.”
Lastly, if none of these suggestions work or you have a physical condition, seek help. The Society for Sex Therapy and Research and American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists list sex therapists online, and the International Society for Sexual Medicine and the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health have directories of sexual medicine providers.