Sex can be a wonderful part of a couple's relationship, but when one partner desires sex more than another, intimacy can quickly become a fraught and emotional issue. I've certainly wondered, "How do I tell my husband I don't want to have sex?" How do I express my wishes without making him feel rejected or hurt? Every couple faces their own unique challenges, but it's always important to speak up when you're not in the mood. While it can be hard to say no to your partner, expressing your true feelings matters both for your sexual health and for the health of your marriage.
Mismatched levels of desire are a common issue between couples, according to Shannon Hickman, LCSW, of Core Healing Counseling in Utah. She recommends that couples schedule sex, just as they schedule other important aspects of their lives. For Hickman, making an appointment to be intimate "allows for the lower-desire partner to spend time preparing and getting in the mood," while the higher-desire partner can relax, and not worry so much about rejection, which can be painful.
"It's important to be very tender and sensitive to the vulnerability we all feel regarding the fear of rejection," explains Laura Silverstein, LCSW, of Main Line Counseling Partners. So emphasize the positive: that you love being close to him, but would rather cuddle and fall asleep in his arms tonight. Instead of making love when you're not really feeling it, consider doing something else that fosters a similar sense of connection — giving or receiving a massage, for instance. Asking for a rain check on making love will also keep your partner from feeling rejected by you.
Additionally, if you're willing to explore other means of being intimate beyond intercourse, you should absolutely do so. According to Rosara Torrisi, Ph.D, of the Long Island Institute of Sex Therapy, broadening your definition of sex and exploring other forms of sexual closeness can add richness to your life between the sheets. It will also give you options when you're not interested in one particular thing (penetrative sex, for example). The bottom line is that sex is about connection, and that it should always be a pas de deux — a dance for two.
Sex is meant to build a bond between two people, and having sex just to fulfill a sense of duty won't strengthen that bond, according to Torrisi. Indeed, the desire and pleasure of both partners is what gives sex its soul. "Even when there's a religious expectation to have sex regularly, "most [places of worship] want sex to be mutually pleasurable," she tells Romper. She suggests thinking of it like this:
"You're going to church, but you don't really want to be there. You have a million other things to do. You're sitting in church, but you're not feeling the spirit. You're just there. But that's not what you're really looking for with church. You want to be engaged, to be trying to reach someplace higher. It's the same with sex. If you're not both excited to be there, you've fallen short."
Ultimately, a strong marriage is built on meaningful sex — not dutiful intercourse — and you can't have meaningful sex without desire on both sides. This means opening the lines of communication. By talking about what makes your toes tingle, exploring what feels good to you, and discussing how you like to be approached for love, the two of you can elevate sex to something higher.
As with everything else in marriage, communication is the key to a good sex life. "Without discussion, there is usually a lot of ambiguity regarding what feels good and what doesn't, what and when people are having different kinds of desires," says Silverstein. "We know from the research that the more couples talk about what they want, the more likely they are to get it." If you find that conversation is a struggle, consider reaching out to a marriage counselor, a certified sex therapist, or a religious figure you trust.
I know it can be really difficult to talk about sex if you grew up in a religious household, especially if there wasn't much emphasis placed on a woman's enjoyment. Because many people grow up in a patriarchal context, men tend to be more aggressive about expressing their desires, while women might not have a firm handle on what, exactly, they want from sex. To Torrisi, this dynamic leads to a sex life that revolves around one person. In the end, that's not satisfying to anyone:
"Usually that one person, as much as they want sex to be on their terms, are then finding themselves having sex acts that feel empty. They want to connect with their partner, and they want to feel some spiritual aspect to what they're doing. So you can start talking about it — how can we enjoy this together?"
No one has the right to ask you to engage in a sex act that feels cold and empty — not even your husband. Making an appointment to make love tomorrow, or asking for something else you'd rather do instead, are both ways to say no without leaving him feeling rejected. Remember that true intimacy always requires enthusiasm on both sides — never a shrug, but always a heartfelt yes.
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