I’ve been married for over 20 years, and though my wife and I have a very good relationship, she has a low sex drive and never initiates sex. She used to make snide remarks about my sex drive, but I pointed out my options (no sex, self-service, her or someone else). She knew I wouldn’t cheat, so rather than let this cause a rift, she said she wanted me to come to her for my sexual needs. We now average two to three times a week. A couple times a month, we have mutually mind-blowing sex, but other times, she does it just for me. I never get the feeling she really wants me, and it’s deflating when I sense she’d rather do laundry, watch TV, or water the plants. I’ve tried holding back and waiting for her to make the first move, but that seems like a head game to her and makes her feel something’s wrong. Is there a way to get her more interested?
You poor darling. After 20-plus years of marriage, you only have sex three times a week. And only a couple times a month is it “mind-blowing.” What’s next on your list of complaints, “There’s a cracked tile in my Aspen ski house”? Or maybe “My Ferrari has a small scratch under the bottom left side of the bumper. If you crawl under the car, it’s very apparent.”
Every month, I get a slew of letters from married people — mostly men — whose spouses haven’t had sex with them in this century. Of course, it’s got to sting a little to feel you’re competing with houseplants for your wife’s attention (“Not tonight, honey, I have a ficus tree”), but if you look at this another way, you’re writing to complain about how good and healthy your marriage is. There was no dragging your wife off to years of marriage counseling or therapy weekends. You simply explained your needs, and she set about meeting them. Sure, sometimes you get the sense that she’s jumping your bones when she’d rather be getting a jump on the week’s laundry, but if she might not always be in the mood for sex, it seems she’s often in the mood to make you happy.
Both men and women are prone to what evolutionary psychologist Donald Symons calls the human tendency “to imagine that other minds are much like our own.” This causes us to project our sexual psychology onto the opposite sex and expect them to think and act as we would. So, your wife thinks you’re oversexed because you want it more than she does, and you’ve diagnosed her with a “low sex drive.” (Basically, you’re expecting her to make love to you like a wife named Bob.)
I suspect that many marriages and relationships that have tanked have done so because of the assumption that male sexual desire and female sexual desire play out the same way. They actually don’t. Sexual medicine specialist Dr. Rosemary Basson discovered this after she wondered about data suggesting that a third of women were pretty uninterested in sex. She began to suspect that the problem wasn’t in the women themselves but in how male sexual response, with its spontaneously occurring lust, was held up as the female sexual norm. This led to couples sitting around waiting for desire to strike the woman like they were waiting for aliens to beam down into their front room.
Basson discovered that in the early stages of a relationship, or if a woman is away from her partner for days or weeks, she’s more likely to experience the “spontaneous sexual desire” and “conscious sexual hunger” that men typically do. But, once a woman’s in a relationship, the desire for sex may be there, but it often needs to be physically activated. Basson calls it “triggerable,” meaning that the couple start fooling around, kissing, whatever, and the woman gets aroused, which makes her want to get it on.
Basson’s findings suggest that for many women, initiating sex doesn’t come naturally. So, your “holding back and waiting for her to make the first move” and then getting pouty that she isn’t reading your mind is a particularly bad strategy. Seeing as she made an effort the last time you told her what you needed, there’s a pretty good chance she’d do it again. Just tell her you think it’d be really hot if she’d initiate sometimes. You might also try to appreciate what you have. You two are probably somebody’s parents and you’re still doing it — regularly and even “mind-blowingly” — 20 years in. You’ve got a lot to be happy about — even if when the wife’s looking for “The Big O,” she’s probably wondering where she left that magazine that always has that really famous black woman on the cover.
Read Amy Alkon’s book: “I See Rude People: One woman’s battle to beat some manners into impolite society” (McGraw-Hill, $16.95).