Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Real Problem With Sexual Withholding in a Marriage

The problem with sexual withholding in a marriage has far less to do with actually having or not having sex and much more to do with misunderstanding.

If most people have a difficult time talking about sex, they have even more difficulty talking about not having sex with the person that they allegedly love and desire…couple

According to Stephen Mitchell, sex is one of our most private experiences. It is one, however, we share in connection with another be it in fantasy or reality. Talking about sex is self-exposing because sex is about basic or as culturally deemed “base” drives. As such, “ … The corporal intensity of sexual arousal and gratification, in its very power, contributes to its utter privacy.”

Despite the fact 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.

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, it erodes the day-to-day intimacy that fosters sexual connection.

  • When he stopped initiating, I figured he had stopped being interested in me. I’m not going to reach out.
  • She’s not too tired to speak on the phone, but she is too tired to speak with me, much less be with me.
  • I’m afraid to be affectionate, he/she will think I want to be sexual and I don’t want to be rejected.
  • I don’t feel sexual desire the way I did before. I think he is resentful. We are walking around each other.
  • I don’t want to risk a problem while I am on anti-depressant medication. She’s angry all the time anyway.

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,  affairs are not a common reason for sexual avoidance. Given the worst of fears and presumptions, however, by the time couples seek help it is often difficult for them to remember how it started and how they had once been lovers.

The Negative Impact Of Sexual Withholding In A Marriage Can Be Avoided And Repaired.

  • What I have found with many couples over many years is that when the wish to share anything related to the lack of sexual connection is met with the wish to understand, it is experienced as a step toward mutual connection.
  • Even if the only thing a couple verbalizes is the wish to share and to understand, the feeling of a “ we” can start to be re-set.
  • When guilt and obligation are taken out of the equation of sexual connection, partners are back in the original place of choosing the other—It is worth asking “Did you become partners and lovers under protest?”
  • If you can dare to ask and answer whether you still want to be “ more than friends,” you set the stage for authenticity and hope. Even if connection can’t happen tomorrow.
  • When there is no asking and no telling, most partners assume the worst – “She would never marry me again.” “ He wants some young, slinky thing.” Presumptions often keep partners from ever really knowing the other.
  • Many partners I have worked with are shocked by the other’s expressed wish to be much more than friends-especially in the face of sexual withholding.
  • Understandably they ask, “How do we make it happen? How can we find each other in the dark again?”

 Dealing with The Realities

It is not uncommon for sexual withholding and the downward slide to begin with a physical problem that a partner is actually struggling with but not talking about.

He is so anxious about his job situation that he can’t sleep at night. He is worried that the stress is going to give him a heart attack. Sex is the last thing he wants.

She envies the other women who seem to still want a sex life. She feels so tired that she has no sexual desire. She doesn’t want to risk having no feelings with him.

He is worried about performance and is not certain how he feels or she would feel if she knew he needed Viagra. He avoids the situation.

She is feeling pain with intercourse but she doesn’t want him to feel blamed so she is never too interested.

  • I have rarely heard a partner not only sigh with relief that they finally understand what is going on, but support and re-assure their partner.
  • When after sharing, partners feel pushed to “ taking care of it,” nothing different or great happens. That is pressure not support.
  • On the other hand, when partners stay supportive, caring and re-instate the many ways of being intimate from neck rubs, to hugs, to kissing and fondling, to texting and joking there is motivation for self-care.
  • Once a problem has been shared, the anxiety associated with checking it out lessens and getting a consult with the appropriate specialist, be it a gynecologist, urologist, or cardiologist becomes more likely.
  • Many issues like sexual pain or performance difficulties are more responsive to treatment than you think. It is best not to wait and build a connection of pain or anxiety with sexual responding.
  • With motivation and support, there is more reason to read The Whole Heart Solution, The Viagra Myth, or A Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex, etc.
  • There is more reason to share as confidantes.

What about the Mechanics

Sometimes sexual avoidance has taken its toll. Partners hardly know where to start without feeling like they are trying too hard. Take your time, let your goal be to have fun and take a step.

Reminisce about the funniest or best sexual experiences you had together. See how good your memory is about what, when and why–when comes to the early days of your relationship.

Turn on the adventure in your sex life–start kissing. Look at your watch and together devote 15 to 20 minutes just to kissing. Don’t cheat. According to Helen Fisher, expert and author of, Why Him? Why Her?, kissing sets your brain into high activation because all of the senses are involved in kissing. Your lips, tongue and mouth are packed with neurons that are responsive to the most subtle sensations. Attachment hormones are elevated, stress hormones are reduced and male saliva contains an abundance of testosterone that can prompt sexual desire.

See where it goes. Maybe a plan to meet later that night or that weekend will turn up desire even more.

Do Some Steamy Research –You might want to grab a Cosmo Magazine and read the latest sexual advice. If nothing more you will be laughing. The June 2015 issue promised something like “ Sex So Hot You’ll Need To Crank The A.C.!” (Right!) Research has shown that choosing an erotic movie or series to watch with a purpose can invite interest – especially when you remember that they are acting. Books like, Sex Matters for Women actually has some great chapters for couples.

Consider New Ways of Initiating Sexual Interest—Initiating sex can be a trigger of past confusion and resentment. Start again by considering creative, funny, unexpected ways that you each might initiate. (Talking about taking turns can be a great preview) Talk about missing the cues and talk about gentle and loving ways of saying “ No.” There needs to be “soft landings” so that there is room for choice without hurt or anger.

Use Affirmation and Affection—The sense of being special to someone goes hand and hand with increasing sexual desire. If both partners make an effort to be their personal best with grooming, the stage is set for enhancing the sensual and emotional connection. What a gift to compliment a partner when going to coming in the course of a day. Appreciation for little things is central to the feeling of being noticed and of being valued.

Reduce Stress—Health and well-being are essential to enhancing sexual interest and responsiveness. Support each other’s stress reduction strategies—be it meditation, mindfulness, exercise, reading, walking, gardening etc. Loving another means being happy with what makes them happy and reduces their stress.

 The real problem with sexual withholding is withholding the words and meaning that come when partners dare to share, work to understand and take steps to become lovers again.