'My low sex drive means my husband is threatening to 'find it elsewhere''

Looking for a juicy summer read? This popular agony aunt column from the IMAGE archives is worth a look. Here, agony aunt Rhona McAuliffe shares advice with a reader from Cork, who fears she's not having enough sex to satisfy her husband


The problem

Dear Rhona,

I’m with my partner eighteen years, since we were in our early twenties, and we have three kids together. We both work full-time and have a busy life at home. Our sex life never really recovered after our first child, or certainly not to the level it was pre-kids.

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We used to have sex three to four times per week when we first met – per day at the very start – and now we’re lucky if we do it about once every six weeks, usually because I feel pressurised into it.

My husband is going mad and says he would happily have sex three times per week. He says he has been patient and waited for the kids to get into decent sleep patterns and our lives to regulate before he has really pushed it but is now at the point of needing an active sex life or potentially having to find it elsewhere.

That’s the first time he’s threatened (it was more exasperation if I’m honest) having an affair or one-night stand or presumably paying for it, I didn’t ask any questions. But it has made me think. I know we should be having more sex but I just don’t feel like it.

I feel like our libidos are completely incompatible and generally, I’d much rather read or watch a movie together. When we do have sex I end up enjoying it but not enough to fast-track the next session.

I’ve also started dreading going to bed. It’s almost like he’s waiting for me to initiate it and when I don’t he quietly seethes and neither of us can then sleep. I know something needs to be done and I do want to grow old and snuggle with my husband and enjoy some much-deserved downtime after some crazy busy years. But I also don’t see regular sex in our future as I barely have the urge.

Do I just have to put out, even if I’m not feeling it?

Under Pressure, Cork.

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Rhona says...

First things first: you are not alone. Depending on what research you reference, at least 33-60% of women experience low or no libido at some point in their lives and up to 66% of women agree that their partner’s drive to have sex is higher than theirs. It’s considered to be one of the most common sexual complaints of women of all ages, and also, unfortunately, one of the most difficult issues to treat. This is likely due to the myriad and complex causes, which I’ll touch on in a minute.

Although it’s harsh to hear it and has no doubt shocked you into exploring the boundaries of your inertia, your husband has done the right thing. He’s waited patiently, having derived a temporary self-maintenance regime, I suspect, and has shared his frustration and urges with you before he’s acted on them. He’s opened the lines of communication beyond the passive aggressive ping on the small of your back at bedtime, and essentially laid down the gauntlet: more sex or he’s off. We’re just not sure where at this point.

His needs

In the wake of Kristen Roupenian’s short story, Cat Person which ran in the New Yorker last year, and the flood of bad and compliant sex confessionals it triggered, your husband’s ultimatum could be laughed off in the face of redressing male sexual entitlement. However, I don’t think that would be fair.

When we enter a monogamous relationship, we are committing to sex with only that person. If you are no longer interested in sex but your partner is in a permanent state of volcanic suppression, it seems only fair to either address the problem or renegotiate the terms of your relationship. And low libido in itself is not a ‘problem,’ per se, it’s a disparate desire that throws couples off course.

In Joan Sewell’s 2007 memoir I’d Rather Eat Chocolate: Learning to Love My Low Libido, she claims that the male need for regular sex established the idea of the twice-per-week norm, not female tendencies. What’s needed, she argues, is acceptance of and respect for the idea by both sexes that there’s a significant biological difference in their sex drives.

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She says: “No one is trying to lower men’s sex drives. I don’t hear, ‘Doctor, my sex drive is too high. Please, do something about it. I feel guilty and ashamed that I don’t want less sex. It’s killing my marriage.’” Sewell, who was deeply in love with her husband, Kip, but felt no desire to have sex with him (or anyone else), documents her sexploration and ‘journey’ to finding the right, intimate balance for both of them.

More to sex than penetration

Despite some criticism once the book was published – that the couple were wildly mismatched in the first place – they managed to agree on a contract that worked. It involved hand jobs, lube jobs and, when she didn’t feel like being touched, her dressing up like a Playmate and letting him watch.

For a resolutely un-horny woman, her sex quest was borne of generosity and love, with Kip her willing and apparently satisfied subject. Sewell hasn’t followed up her bestseller and seems to be generally incognito online so there’s no way of knowing how the marriage panned out or whether her libido sky-rocketed mid menopause. I, for one, would devour an update!

However, what Sewell’s eventual agreement with Kip does support is the long-standing advice from sex therapists that penetrative sex should not be viewed as the Holy Grail, of love-making, and non-penetrative sex play as a consolation prize or ‘tide-over’ until the main event.

All intimate touch and play is valid and strengthens a couple’s connection and should be respected as such. In the same vein, women often ‘gift’ sex to their partners when they’re not in the mood. This works in the short term or every now and then, especially if delivered with love and enthusiasm and not mid-waiting for your nails to dry as you catch an episode of Queer Eye over his shoulder. But ‘gifting’ is not a long-term solution either as the exchange will always feel one-sided.

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Other solutions

So, what can you do? A visit to your GP is a good start to establish if there are any physical or psychological issues that you need to address. These could range from compromised thyroid function, diabetes and anaemia to exhaustion, anxiety and stress, as well as low self-esteem.

Open up with your husband about your wants and needs – which are likely to be non-sexual – and help him understand where you’re at. Your low libido could be due in part to the multiple non-sexualised roles you inhabit – mother, carer, provider, referee etc – as is common and related to always being in demand, or things being demanded of you. But try to separate yourself from this narrative and take responsibility for a return to your sexual self, showing your husband that you are seriously addressing his frustration and prioritising your sex life.

It’s also recommended to start masturbating again if you have stopped to reactivate your neurotransmitters and get a much-needed hit of serotonin, hopefully edging you back into the game.

Schedule ye olde weekly ‘date nights’ to talk and re-connect without the kids. It’s easy to let that slip but at this point open communication is imperative.

I would strongly suggest visiting a sex therapist, taking the time and patience to find the right one, which might mean several hits and misses. Sharing your sexual desires with each other and talking openly about your sex life is the next step. Your letter suggests that your lust bank is empty right now, or that you will at least have to dig very deep to conjure up a scenario that turns you on. A sex therapist will help you get there.

Worth a read

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Another almost-vintage (2009) book universally recommended for it’s holistic approach to addressing and solving low libido in women is A Tired Woman’s Guide To Passionate Sex: Reclaim Your Desire and Reignite Your Relationship. Author and psychologist, Laurie B Mintz focuses on six pillars: thoughts, talk, time, touch, spice and tryst and has had incredible feedback in terms of readers’ significant increase in desire, arousal and sexual satisfaction. It is the one book referenced over and over again on the subject and is definitely worth a read.

As there’s no magical fix to incompatible libidos and a lot of hard work ahead, it’s also worth exploring the concept of an open relationship. It’s not for everyone but it might be something you could investigate in the short term to reignite that sense of ‘newness.’ Or not.

I also can’t help but think of my favourite sex guru, Dan Savage, here who said that if men were penetrated every time they had sex, they would likely want less sex. Something to think about as you embark on round one of your negotiations.

And remember, much as you had hoped to ring in your fortieth year by renewing your celibacy vows only good can come from rediscovering your erotic self.

This article first appeared on IMAGE.ie in April 2o18.

Feature image: Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

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