10 Min Read
- Is There A Difference Between Not Being Interested And Intentionally Withholding Sex?
- Reasons Why Partners Withhold Sex
- Is It Okay For A Spouse To Withhold Sex?
- What You Can Do About It
- What To Take Away
For most people sex is an important part of a romantic relationship. And for most people it’s exciting, fun, and good (some say amazing) in the beginning. Unfortunately, those good times don’t last for many couples.
Dissatisfaction with sex in marriage for at least one partner is extremely common. Some even believe their partner is withholding sex in their marriage for punitive reasons or as a method of manipulation.
There are a lot of things partners can be unhappy about regarding sex –
- It’s not frequent
- It’s not enjoyable
- There’s no variety
- They always have to initiate
- It’s controlled or limited.
Many people have had at least one or more of these complaints at some point in their relationship. These complaints don’t always mean there’s a bigger problem. All intimate relationships have ups and downs. If it doesn’t become persistent it can be just part of the way a normal relationship rolls.
But what about a partner withholding sex in a marriage?
Is that ever okay?
Unfortunately, sex is one of the most uncomfortable, difficult, and therefore the least talked about topics in marriage.
As a result, it’s very easy to develop perceptions that are based more on feelings than facts, and for those beliefs to last because there’s no communication about them to clarify and confirm whether or not they’re true.
Few people walk up to their partner and just blurt out –
I’m not happy with our sex life.”
Is There A Difference Between Not Being Interested And Intentionally Withholding Sex?
Yes, there’s a big difference.
Let’s start by acknowledging that it’s not only women who sometimes lack sexual desire or withhold sex. Men can be disinterested or use sex to manipulate their partners or punish them too.
But women typically have a different viewpoint on sex than men. Put simply, most women feel that sex follows or occurs in concert with expressions of emotion, whereas men usually don’t make that correlation between the two.
Because men are more able to separate the physical from the emotional, if there’s any emotional strife or distance between partners, it can seem that women are not as interested in sex as their male partners. It should be noted this isn’t usually the case, the disconnect is often more about approach and viewpoint rather than interest.
So, what’s the difference between a partner’s approach to sex and whether you’re making it a priority in your relationship, versus deliberately withholding sex?
If sex isn’t happening because of a lack of interest, sex drive, or distractions – all of which can be pretty common in a busy, overly scheduled life – its usually become a longstanding problem.
Partners in this situation typically know some of these reasons and have come to accept (usually not willingly or happily) that this is the state of the sexual intimacy in their marriage.
On the other hand, when sex is being withheld in marriage it’s often connected to a negative event, such as a big fight.
In fact, it can actually be announced or threatened –
I’m not having sex with you anymore!”
Getting a declaration like this isn’t a certainty though, as withholding sex can at times be a passive-aggressive attempt to hurt the other partner and thus is never communicated directly.
My husband is withholding sex to punish me. He’s done this before when I don’t act like the way he says a wife should. It makes me angry and I’m beginning to hate him for it." -Erin
Most often there will be signs. They may not be obvious, but signs your spouse is intentionally withholding sex as opposed to just not being interested exist. But you need to be careful about judging their intent and becoming accusatory, because it can be difficult to know their motivation for sure until they tell us.
For Erin it sounds like this has become a pattern by her husband.
Reasons Why Partners Withhold Sex
As I mentioned above, withholding sex in marriage is usually a result of problems in the relationship and is an attempt to leverage sex to –
- Force change
- Sex can commonly be used to coerce, manipulate, and control.
While both partners can behave in a controlling manner, in my counseling experience I’ve found that it’s more often women who will do this as they’ve learned men are often driven by their interest in sex and become vulnerable when the possibility of sex (or no sex) is presented. They’re therefore able to use their sexuality to influence their partner.
Most women don’t misuse their sexuality, but some do.
While men don’t typically use their sexuality in the same way, they can be controlling, and this can come out regarding sex as we can see with Erin’s husband.
A woman I was counseling this week admitted she’s withheld sex from her husband. When I asked her why, she explained that she didn’t feel heard or respected by him, so she began using sex to get his attention. It worked, but it didn’t get her the result she was looking for and their problems persisted.
I’ve also had men tell me that they’re not having sex with their wives because they’re unhappy or mad about something in the relationship – often it’s something about sex.
For example, one man I counseled was very unhappy that his wife wasn’t willing to have sex more frequently. After years of asking for more and getting no change from her, he got so fed up that he started turning her down on the rare occasions when she was interested.
Despite still wanting to have sex (badly), he was willing to deprive himself of the enjoyment just so he could withhold it from her with the hope that he could make her feel some of the pain he’d been feeling (it didn’t work, by the way).
I resent my husband for calling me fat and I’ve been withholding sex ever since. Why would I want him to see me naked if he thinks I’m ugly? I’m so hurt. He’s gained weight too and I don’t say anything about it. I know he wants to have sex but I have no desire when he keeps saying I need to lose weight and compares me to other women. I feel so rejected. He’s killed my self-esteem." -Teresa
Sadly, withholding sex in a relationship is most often done as a form of punishment, to exercise power, or manipulate a partner. It’s a passive aggressive approach that usually doesn’t produce positive results, but nevertheless is a not so uncommon response.
Is It Okay For A Spouse To Withhold Sex?
Answering the question of whether it’s okay to withhold sex in your marriage is a tricky one. Each relationship needs to be assessed and considered individually.
So, the answer really is – it depends.
Generally speaking, no, it’s not okay to withhold sex from your partner. However, that doesn’t mean you have to be willing every time your partner wants it either.
Here are a couple of responses I heard this week about how one partner feels about the other’s desire for sex:
I’m not a morning person and he wanted to do it at 5 am before he goes to work.”
The kids were playing video games in the next room and he wanted to have sex. I’m just not comfortable with that and can’t get into it.”
These are perfect examples of how a reasonable and understandable response could get defined by the other partner as,
She withholds sex in our marriage.”
In fact, in this couple’s situation he feels that she does withhold it. She says she’s been more than willing to have sex, as much as a couple of times a day, but she’d like some consideration of her wants and needs as well.
Because sex is a topic many couples see and feel differently about, it’s a common area of dissatisfaction and disagreement. As a result, sex is frequently an issue that brings partners into couples counseling.
Unfortunately, as we can see above, it’s also easy to get blamed for withholding sex when that’s not actually what you’re doing.
There are situations, however, when withholding sex in marriage is appropriate, such as when a relationship is abusive. This includes verbal, emotional, mental, and certainly physical abuse. Yet sex can become abusive too.
Sex should always be something both partners are willingly choosing, even if one is doing it more out of care for their partner than their own desire. If sex is forced, that’s abusive. If sex is uncomfortable or painful, that can be abusive too.
What You Can Do About It
The first thing you should do if you feel your partner is withholding sex in your marriage is talk about it.
Unfortunately, most couples don’t communicate well, and many have developed a history of being unable to talk about difficult subjects. The fact that sex is a topic that most partners don’t talk about only compounds the challenge of talking.
A lack of communication fuels other problems creating misperceptions and assumptions. For example, since most partners don’t know the other’s true intent or feelings on the subject, they form them in their own mind.
A big part of the problem with this particular topic is that a lack of sex in the relationship is often determined by the dissatisfied partner as being due to an intentional withholding of sex when that isn’t always the case (and many times it’s not).
My husband doesn't seem to be attracted to me or interested in sex with me. I feel like we have a role reversal when it comes to sexual desire. This has been from the beginning and there is always a new reason why from him. When we first were married he said I was too focused on sex, too aggressive. So I stopped initiating. Well when I stopped initiating we could go weeks, even a couple months without sex. Then he said this was because he was stressed (he was in the military at the time). Now he is out of the military and things improved for about a year. In fact we now have 2 kids in 2 years. Then it was he can't focus on sex if the house is a mess, so I try to make sure the house is clean when I want to be intimate. He can't focus on sex with kids needing so much. It's a cycle. We have sex regularly for awhile, then something happens or life gets busy. Then we slow down, and then we stop. We go weeks with no sex and no obvious desire for sex. It's not just the lack of sex, its that the touching stops, the kissing beyond a peck, holding hands, hugs, he doesn't do any of that even though he knows my 'love language' is touch. He also seems so unbothered. It'd be one thing if we were busy but desired each other, but its like he doesn't even miss it. I don’t want to think he’s withholding sex from me but I’m not sure. Things usually come to ahead after several weeks with me crying or being angry that we've gone so long. He feels bad for making me feel unloved. We start having sex regularly again (I think pity sex) and the cycle continues. We go through this about 2-3 times a year. It's exhausting. We've done counseling, I've asked if he's attracted, if there's an issue. We talk frankly but it always occurs again." -Elisha
There are certainly topics that are difficult to talk about for just about everyone, and sex is one of the most common.
If you and your partner are struggling to talk about this constructively then get some help from an experienced counselor. Sometimes we all need an unbiased, unemotional mediator that can bridge the divide and keep the conversation from getting too heated, misunderstood, and sidetracked.
What To Take Away
Sex should be a regular part of a heathy relationship. That physical connection helps,
- Reinforce the bond a couples have
- Deepen emotional intimacy
- Add an additional layer of enjoyment and satisfaction to a relationship
If you feel that your partner may be purposefully withholding sex it can be very frustrating. But before you assume the worst, here are few things to keep in mind:
- There’s more than one reason your partner may not want sex. The only way to know what’s really going on is to talk.
- Talking about sex and intimacy with your partner may be uncomfortable, but it’s crucial and will only bring you closer in the long run.
- Sex shouldn’t ever be weaponized or traded upon. Doing so will create resentment and set up an unhealthy dynamic.
If you feel truly stuck, seek the help of a qualified counselor who can help break down the barriers to communication.
As we’ve seen, withholding sex in marriage isn’t seem that uncommon. Or more specifically, the belief that sex is being intentionally withheld isn’t that uncommon. Often, however, sex isn’t truly being withheld. It’s really a lack of communication that’s the issue and compounding other problems within the relationship as well.
The good news is that both these problems can be fixed. Better communication is the road to resolving most problems in a relationship, including sexual ones.
Think your partner is withholding sex in your marriage? You’re not alone. Please share a little about your situation with other readers and you’ll probably hear back from others in the same situation.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published June 3, 2020 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
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