Help for Sex-Starved Wives

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Peter Banos / Alamy

Bestselling author and Today show and Oprah regular Michele Weiner Davis, is no stranger to private marital matters. Weiner Davis, a clinical social worker, has been working closely with couples — those on the brink of divorce or otherwise in crisis — for more than 20 years. She's collected some of her wisdom in her new book, The Sex-Starved Wife: What to Do When He's Lost Desire (Simon & Schuster), another intimate "brown paper bag" title, as she jokingly calls it (others include Divorce Busting and The Sex-Starved Marriage). TIME reporter Andrea Sachs caught up with Weiner Davis by phone at her home in Boulder.

TIME: There's a popular image of husbands who can't get enough sex. Is that a myth?

Weiner Davis: A few years ago, I wrote a book called The Sex-Starved Marriage, where I described what happens in marriages where one spouse is desperately longing for more touch or more sex than the other. In that book, I devoted a mere seven pages to the unique challenges for women when they're the more highly sexed spouse. I was inundated with calls, letters and e-mails from women saying, Thank you so much for writing about this because I honestly believed I was the only woman in the world whose husband wasn't chasing her around the living room.

A desire discrepancy, or a desire gap, is the most common problem brought to sex therapists. It's estimated that one out of every three couples experiences this difficulty. And that really doesn't count the kinds of hills and valleys that all couples go through, even when they have a really healthy sex life. It's really what becomes the main issue in their relationship.

Do these marriages often end in divorce?

Unless they get help, they often can. The other thing that happens is the person with the higher desire just lives their life in lonely misery. More men than women complain about not getting enough sex, [but] the difference between the two genders is not nearly as great as the general public believes. Low desire in men has got to be America's best-kept secret.

I teamed up with Redbook magazine to survey women about what goes on behind closed bedroom doors. Over 1,000 women responded, [and] 60% of them reported that they wanted at least as much, if not more, sex than their husbands. What was also interesting, but not surprising, is that the vast majority of men who experienced low sexual desire were completely unwilling to talk with their wives, go to a doctor or go to a therapist. In a culture that equates masculinity with virility, it's no wonder that these guys are tight-lipped.

So, what happens in these marriages is that women feel exasperated because they are incredibly lonely. They feel isolated. When someone is more highly sexed, the person who has less desire really thinks it's just about having an orgasm. [But] to the more highly sexed spouse, it is truly about feeling wanted and loved and emotionally connected.

You divide couples into higher-drive spouses and lower-drive spouses. Is that always true in marriages?

Sometimes [spouses] are fairly evenly matched — sex is not an issue, and it's a good part of their marriage. But it is very, very common for people to be mismatched in their sexual desire. That in and of itself is not a deal-breaker and is not necessarily a problem. How couples deal with that really becomes the issue. We discovered in the survey, and it bears itself out in my practice, that the person with the lower sex drive controls the sexual relationship, not out of a need to manipulate or control, but because they have veto power. If they're not in the mood, it doesn't happen. There's an unspoken agreement: the person with the lower desire expects his or her spouse to accept it, not complain about it, and also to be monogamous. In my years in working with couples, that's pretty much an unfair and unworkable arrangement.

What are the major reasons for these kinds of problems?

They fit into three categories: biological, emotional or relationship-oriented. [First], the biological reasons. There are many physical conditions that contribute to low desire, as well as the medications that treat them. It's a fairly well-known fact, for example, that most antidepressants dampen desire and the ability to be aroused. A cardiovascular disease of any sort is a problem too, as well as some of the medications that treat it. Hormonal fluctuations, such as testosterone, also affects sex drive. So it would make perfect sense for any man experiencing a drop in desire to start by visiting his physician and having a thorough check-up. That's step number one.

I know that a lot of women will be thinking to themselves, Yeah, right, how do I get my husband to the doctor? One of the tips I give women is that if your husband agrees, even mildly, to your suggestion to go to a doctor, use that as license to pick up the phone, schedule the appointment yourself and, when it comes time, get him in the car. You need to be the proactive one.

Very often the problem can be emotional. For example, depression is rampant. With the economy being what it is, companies are being downsized and men are losing their jobs. Women really do not understand the full impact it has on men's self-esteem when they are let go from their positions. Obviously the last thing they would be interested in is making love.

Other personal issues could be impacting on his desire to be physical: if he has a childhood history of sexual abuse, or if he grew up in a dysfunctional family and has low self-esteem. Or maybe he has a lack of knowledge about being a good lover. We're not born knowing that stuff. So education, therapy, talking about and addressing issues so that he feels better about himself — these are the steps he needs to take in order to feel like he's got something to give in the relationship.

What about relationship issues?

One myth I'd like to debunk is that if a man isn't interested in sex, it means there's some sort of sexual dysfunction. While sexual dysfunction undoubtedly contributes to a drop in desire, what I've found in working with couples is that the reasons men don't want to have sex are very similar to the reasons that women don't want to have sex. There could be underlying, unresolved relationship problems. Or one of the biggest complaints I hear from men is that their wives are critical or nagging. Trust me on this one, criticism and nagging are not aphrodisiacs. So, many men just go into a cave. You'll never be surprised to hear a woman say, If I don't feel close to my husband emotionally, I don't want to have sex. But you think men want to have sex regardless of the circumstances, even if the roof were caving in. It's not true. Some men may be like that, but many men really need to feel emotionally connected to their wives in order for them to want to be sexual.

You also talk about sexual confusion in the book.

Yes, there are many, many men who get married, have children and then, somewhere along the line, like in Brokeback Mountain, discover that they are either bisexual or homosexual. Needless to say, there's a time when they just don't want to have sex with their wives. [But] the man's drop in desire doesn't have anything to do with the wife, the woman. I point this out because one of the things that is so characteristic of sex-starved wives is that when their husbands aren't interested in sex, they immediately internalize it. They think there's something wrong with them — that they're not attractive, they're not lovable. They feel badly about themselves. And many times it has absolutely nothing to do with them and has everything to do with just the man himself.

But many women blame it on their physical appearance. Is that an issue?

Yes, and no. As I said before, sometimes guys are just overwhelmed, or they're fatigued, or they're drinking alcohol, which might lower their libido and their ability to function. So the "no" part is that it could have absolutely nothing to do with their wives.

But there's a "yes" part, too, that I don't want to overlook. I've gotten tons of e-mails and heard this many times from men in my practice, who say, "I love my wife. I want to stay married, but, I have to tell you, she has totally let herself go. She doesn't eat well. She doesn't exercise. All she ever wears is sweatpants. It makes me feel that she feels that the relationship isn't important. I've just lost my attraction for her." If [those wives] think there's any chance at all that their looks may have something to do with the problem, rather than bemoan the fact that they think their husbands are shallow — I agree — they should also understand that attraction is a very basic, animalistic thing — especially for men. Men are more visually oriented when it comes to arousal. So women can debate that, but the truth is, if they really want their husbands be more interested in them, they should pay more attention to how they're taking care of themselves physically.

Have you seen a lot of couples succeed in working out these types of problems?

You bet. I certainly wouldn't be doing what I do if I didn't see success, because it would be pretty depressing. I've already started to hear from women, based on this book, saying, I got my husband to read part of the book and for the first time he's willing to address this issue. That's the first step. In the same way that Bob Dole made "erectile dysfunction" a household word and took the sting out of having a sexual dysfunction, I think people need to feel it's okay. We know so much about how to help people, whether it's sexual dysfunction or biological problems, or emotional or relationship-oriented problems. There are so many resources available that anyone wanting a more robust sex life can have it. It's never too late to have a great sex life.