Women need to feel loved and have a sense of connection to have sex. Men need to have sex to feel loved and appreciated. Does that ring a bell? Is it always true? Or are these just stereotypes that have been perpetuated over time? And more importantly, what happens to a long-term relationship when there is no intimacy?
In my previous blog post, How does a man feel when there is no physical intimacy, I looked at that what men may experience. In this post, we’ll take a look at the other side. But first, I have to say I was overwhelmed by the positive responses to the first post from many men feeling validated and from women thankful for the reminders and the reframing of this sensitive and somewhat controversial topic.
On the other hand, I have also received messages that my post does not apply to ALL men. Interestingly enough, those messages came from women, which as a couples’ therapist always makes me question whether that was the man’s response or the woman’s, who is just assuming she knows what her man wants. But I digress; either way, I guess I should put a disclaimer that I am fully aware that my post does not describe everyone’s experience and there are many exceptions to pretty much anything I write about.
Now, back to women and how they feel when there is no physical intimacy in a relationship. I have to admit that when I wrote my first book (which assumes that men want more sex than women), I did not expect to hear from so many women that identified with my writing (mostly young mothers who are tired and stressed out), but also from women that told me that their situation was the exact opposite. They told me that they actually want more physical intimacy than their husbands and are feeling extremely rejected when they don’t get it.
Obviously, that threw me off a little bit; a lot of my reaction was based on my faulty stereotypes about men, which I have described in the previous post. But it definitely got me thinking. I remember the few times when I was interested and my husband wasn’t. That rejection stung like crazy. You see, men are socialized to handle rejection from women; that’s really part of growing up as a male. But women don’t really have the same experience, so when our loved one says NO, we take it as “he is not interested in me anymore”, “he is seeing someone else”, “what man says NO to sex”, “is there something wrong with me? Or is it him?” And of course, women are well-known for overthinking pretty much anything, which NEVER, EVER leads to anything good or positive.
When there is such a dynamic, that the woman desires physical intimacy more than the man, I also wonder and challenge the woman to answer these questions (and there is no wrong or right answer, it’s just good self-awareness because sex can mean a lot of things):
- Is it truly a physical need to have the physical connection?
- Does it have to be intercourse or can it be just kissing, a massage, holding hands, or cuddling on the couch while watching Netflix?
- Do you sense that there is an emotional connection missing and are you trying to fill the stereotypical role that that’s the only way to connect to your man (because men only respond to sex)?
- Do you think that sex is the only way a man shows he is really interested?
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that a woman’s physical pleasure is not important and cannot be a stand-alone need. But in my experience, most women do not take the time to separate the physical from the emotional needs and how they all really look like in terms of physical intimacy and just the act of sex. This lack of clarity of their own needs mixed with faulty assumptions on what the men need and want and communicated inappropriately can surely cause some problems in a relationship. And I’ve seen it many times in my office.
Now, let’s talk a little bit about the other side of the continuum, women who experience big changes in their needs for physical intimacy and see a dramatic drop in their desire and drive. Of course, there are many reasons why that could happen, but a very, very common one is having kids. I touched on this topic in my book, My Spouse Wants More Sex Than Me: The 2-Minute Solution For A Happier Marriage.
Here is a short excerpt from it:
Becoming a mother is an overwhelming, everlasting sensory transformation. I can’t stress this enough. Esther Perel does a beautiful job of describing this experience. In her article, When Three Threatens Two, she explains how the same senses that used to be utilized for sex, although no longer used for sexual gratification, are now fully employed for a completely different function, as we become an extension of our babies.
“We caress their silky skin, we kiss, we cradle, we rock. We nibble their toes, they touch our faces, they breastfeed. This blissful fusion resembles the physical connection between lovers.” Of course, the woman does not feel one ounce of sexuality, and she obviously cannot be turned instantly just because her husband enters the room. Being around their babies or kids is an all-consuming, exhausting, and equally fulfilling experience for many mothers.
“At the end of the day, there is nothing left to give but there may be also nothing more that she needs” (Perel, 2006). She doesn’t need anything from her spouse because she is so content from holding and cuddling her baby.
I’ll admit that I can fully relate to this experience. When I first met my husband, nothing could keep me away from him. I never thought I would experience a bigger love than that. And then, I had kids. Cuddling with my kids, touching their hair, kissing them, wrestling with them on the floor, holding them when they cry or get sick, all of that is the best feeling in the entire world, and nothing makes me feel more complete. Being away from them for more than one night is physically and mentally painful. This is exactly how I felt about my husband when we were dating, but fifteen years later, it seems as if my children totally hold my heart.
Depending on each couple’s approach to parenting and the level of attachment to their children, this experience may continue for up to ten years, as parents and children often cuddle and share the bed at night until the kids are ready to separate on their own. Although, as the kids go to school and the mothers get some space, they are usually able to detach, find themselves, and re-experience sexual moments, most parents go for a second or third child during this time span, so the cycle starts all over again, leaving very little physical, emotional, or sexual energy for their spouses.
One mom said to me once, “I would rather snuggle with my kids than my husband most days. I feel bad that I don’t have a desire to be with him, but not bad enough to change it. He definitely feels like I don’t care for him or that I am not attracted to him, which is not the case.” She is certainly not the minority.
The good news is that most women will be able to recapture some of their femininity and sexual interest in time, especially as the kids get older and become more independent. This should offer some comfort to them, as well as to their spouses. The women will become interested in their looks, their hair, their make-up, and their general appearance. They will want to look sexy and appealing again. And with that, some of their initial sexual friskiness may return.
However, there is also a good possibility that despite recapturing their sexy selves, many women may still not have a dire need for sexual contact or intimacy. In the meantime, the husband, who never stopped needing the closeness and the sexual release, will be completely dismayed to realize that his wife still doesn’t want sex. After he waited patiently for months and perhaps years, nothing changes. This can create an immense rift in the marriage.
This brings me to the solution you’ve been looking for, and this is what I, unromantically but effectively, call the 2-minute solution. It is a great bridge for these times. It is a great compromise. It allows women to find themselves, and enjoy their sensory experience with their children without completely sacrificing the sexual connection with their spouses. It allows men to enjoy their spouses sexually without having to apologize for their sex drive. It is my way of saying: “Don’t let your lack of desire become a roadblock to a happy and healthy marriage.”
Things are definitely not easy. The ongoing hormonal changes coupled with the tendency to overthink everything and the stress that comes from caring for others, create a lot of fluctuations in a woman’s mood, her sense of connection with her spouse, her interest in self-care, as well as her interest in taking care of her spouse’s needs can lead to A LOT of fluctuations in her own need for physical intimacy. Honestly, it throws us for a loop; I can only imagine how confused men may feel. Just like with anything else, self-awareness (how we feel and how we come across to others), empathy (for the other side’s experience), assertive communication and a willingness to compromise on both side are key to managing the ups and downs, which don’t necessarily ever go away.
Communication about physical needs in a relationship still seems to be a taboo topic. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t happen until one or both partners are highly frustrated or choose unhealthier ways to fill those needs. The willingness to listen to and accommodate each other is what makes a difference. And, trust me when I say, it’s better to do it earlier in the relationship to set the right foundation for when those stressful times hit.
ABOUT: Dr. Ruxandra LeMay is a private practice psychologist in Litchfield Park, Arizona with experience in family therapy, ADHD, stress and anxiety management, and executive coaching. She is the author of My Spouse Wants More Sex Than Me: The 2-Minute Solution For a Happier Marriage. Click HERE to check out her free resources on effective communication, emotional unavailability, intimacy, and anxiety management or join her at www.ruxandralemay.com for monthly blogs posts.