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I heard a joke the other day. A couple seeks couples counseling. The wife complains that her husband isn't interested in having sex. At some point in the middle of the session, the therapist grabs the woman and kisses her passionately while she "oohs" and "aahs" with delight. The therapist then turns to the husband and says, "See, your wife needs this every Monday, Wednesday and Friday." The husband is quiet for a moment and then replies, "Monday and Wednesday will work, but I can't get her here on Friday. I've got a golf game."
This joke caught my attention because it had an unfamiliar ring to it: the husband didn't want sex. We're used to the standard jokes about desire-less women who prefer doing just about anything -- cleaning out the freezer, paying bills or taking out the garbage -- over having sex with their mates. But this was a new twist, a twist I might add, that has quite a bit of truth to it.
As someone who is in the front lines with couples, I have grown increasingly aware that women have no corner on the low libido market. In fact, based on my clinical observations and casual conversations with colleagues, I'd say that low desire in men is America's best kept secret. After all, in a culture where virility is inextricably connected with masculinity, why would any man want to broadcast his drop in desire? Most of the data available on the incidence of low libido in men is based on self-report and estimates vary widely. Do we really know what goes on behind bedroom doors? I don't think so.
Sixty percent of the women surveyed in a popular women's magazine said they wanted sex just as much, if not more, than their husbands. The majority of low desire men are unwilling to discuss this issue with their wives and resist seeking help from doctors or therapists. They also won't talk to their buddies about it. (It's hard to imagine a guy walking into a locker room, telling his friend, "I really wish my wife didn't want sex all the time. I hate that she thinks of me as a sex object. And another thing... why can't we hug without her thinking we have to have sex? She just has a one-track mind.") Men's unwillingness to openly discuss this matter leaves women feeling exasperated, lonely and hopeless.
Another interesting point is that the person with lower sexual desire (in this case, the husband) controls the frequency of sex. He has the veto power. Not only that, he expects his wife to accept it, not complain about it and to remain monogamous, an expectation that is bound to backfire over time. The survey also suggested that there is less sex in marriages when the husband has low desire than in marriages where women are the ones who say, "No." That's because, in our culture, men are expected to be the initiators and when it is the wife who initiates but gets turned down frequently, she is more likely to give up than her male counterpart.
Another myth-buster revealed by the survey was what women said were the causes for their husbands' lack of desire. Contrary to popular belief that the only reason a man would turn down sex is because "his machinery isn't working properly" or their wives are extremely unattractive, this just isn't so. Men, it seems, turn off to sex for many of the same reasons that their wives do -- emotional disconnection, underlying resentment or unresolved problems, depression, stress and so on. In fact, one of the most common reasons men reject their wives' advances is that they feel their wives are critical or bossy. Nagging simply isn't an aphrodisiac.
The problem is, which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Are men turned off to being sexual because their wives complain, or do women complain and behave angrily because their husbands are physically and emotionally withdrawn? Ah yes, the infamous catch-22. And therein lies the problem. When there is a sexual divide, each spouse waits for the other to change. "If you are nice to me, then I'll have sex with you," or "When you have sex with me, I'll be kinder to you." You don't need a degree in psychology to know that this sort of standoff is playing with fire. Stalemates make marriages go down the tubes.
And before I get nasty comments or emails about the fact that there are millions and millions of men who go to bed lonely... I know, I know. I have written and spoken extensively on this subject. For the record, I routinely encourage women who have little or no understanding about their husbands' sexual needs to place more priority on their physical relationships. But now it's time to nudge men who have shut down and turned off, to climb out of their comfort zone and reconnect with the women they love. Don't you agree?