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He's Just Not That Into It.


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Think low libido and you picture work-weary wife feigning a headache.  But, as Stephanie Clifford-Smith reports, sometimes its women who are frustrated by their partner’s stalled sex drives.

It had been more than a month since Amelia had had sex and she knew it was time to take matters into her own hands. She picked the night, hit the beauty salon and went shopping for something special. That evening, she dimmed the bedroom lights and slipped into a red and black corset and stockings, bought with one goal in mind - seduction. The object of her affection? Her husband, Jason... Boldly, she sauntered into the next room, ready to tempt her partner of eight years. "He just looked at me, deadpan, and asked me what on earth I was wearing," says the 31 year old, sadly.

For the mother of three, Jason’s limp response was just the latest in a line of sexual rejections by her husband over the years. While he'd long been content with their monthly roll between the sheets, Amelia was definitely not. The sexy lingerie was her latest attempt to spice things up. However, the only thing she got out of it was humiliation. Undeterred, she plotted to bring some double-A powered fun into the bedroom - but this, too, failed to find its erotic target. "The thought of a toy or anything is equal to cheating in his eyes,”  explains Amelia. Next, she tried a sexy, nipple revealing top. "It failed miserably. He just looked at me and said, 'What are you wearing that for?' I felt a bit embarrassed. I went away and put my trackie daks back on."

When the topic of mismatched libidos comes up, we're more likely to picture a randy husband badgering his wife for a quickie than a woman dejectedly stuffing sexy lingerie back into the bottom drawer. "My husband wants it all the time," is a common cry. But for some wives, girlfriends and partners (sex therapist Bettina Arndt puts it at around 1O per cent of women), it's the other way around. Their sex lives are marked by frustration, confusion and hurt at being regularly rebuffed in the bedroom. While these dissatisfied women might be in the minority, low male libido can have a profound impact on relationships. For Jason and Amelia, their conflicting sex drives have put a heavy strain on their relationship. For the first four years they lived together, Amelia struggled with Jason's minimal interest in sex. She found herself crying most nights. "I couldn't function at work," she reveals. "I felt so bitter and hurt and angry for so long that I was wearing myself out."

In trying to understand Jason's comparatively low sex drive, Amelia admits she's considered the possibility he might be having an affair, but has ruled it out as unlikely. "He doesn't even look at porn, let alone at anyone else." Meanwhile, Jason blames his family history (he was raised by unaffectionate parents) and being hurt in a previous relationship. A few years ago, Jason's bedroom rejections almost became too much for Amelia to bear; her self-esteem was at such a low ebb that she thought the problems with their sex life might destroy their relationship once and for all, but since then she has learnt to cope with it.

The turnaround came when she took a good, hard look at the marriage and realised she'd rather have Jason - an otherwise good husband - without sex than not have him at all. Her previous husband had had affairs, so a faithful partner matters to her. She's also come to realise his lack of desire is not about her. Despite their problems, Amelia says she has no intention of leaving Jason or looking elsewhere for satisfaction. 'As much as I don't feel sexually satisfied in my marriage, the love I have for him and our children is worth more to me than whatever sexual pleasure I could get from another man," she concedes.  

"It can feel lonely and there'd be plenty of women who'd leave - I guess it depends on how strong the rest of your bond is." Pamela Supple, a sex therapist and relationship counsellor, says there are many reasons a man's libido might take a dive. They include depression, financial worries and alcohol, but a long-term soft-on might be a sign of low testosterone.

With medication, that's an easy fix. Trouble is, Amelia has struggled to get Jason to acknowledge there's a problem.  "I suggested a sex therapist, but he didn't want a bar of that because he thinks he's normal," she explains. "And because neither of us is cheating he doesn't see what the big deal is."

Amelia's struggle is something Ella* understands all too well. A science teacher, 32, she has been in a relationship with Rob, 41, a logistics manager, for five years. About six months after they met she noticed the gap in their sex drives; hers was way higher. 'About three years in I still wanted to have sex every day, but that was absolutely not an option," recalls EIla. "We almost broke up after the first 12 months because we hadn't talked about it openly. I'd been pent up with feeling really hurt and thinking crazy thoughts like, 'Is he having an affair? Does he really not want to be with me and does all of this mean I'm not attractive?"' That crisis prompted Ella and Rob to discuss the delicate subject openly.

"That was the first time I moved from being upset and worried about not being attractive to understanding that it wasn't a personal thing against me, that he wasn't going off and having sex with anyone else," says Ella. But, despite bringing the touchy subject out in the open, their libidos remained out of sync. "I've now scaled back to be a bit more reasonable and, ideally, I'd like to have sex about three to four times a week." Rob would happily let it dwindle to once a month with no complaints, notes EIla.

“It’s weird because he says his ideal would be two to three times a week, but there's a disconnect between what he thinks and what he actually does," she adds. "Life pressures, he's tired, work - those sorts of things." Come bedtime, Ella acknowledges that Rob finds it annoying when she "pesters" him for sex, but ultimately things have improved for the couple. "It's better now that we've talked about it," she admits. "He used to react quite badly because he felt he was being backed into a corner. He'd be getting into bed late at night, tired, and then he'd have me having a hissy fit."

Supple says men may feel disillusioned with themselves when they can't meet the sexual demands of their lusty partners, but they're unlikely to talk about it because they worry it will make them seem less manly. For the wives and girlfriends, it can feel acutely personal.

Ella was devastated when Rob mentioned his libido had never dropped off with any previous girlfriends. "But I think that's more tied to his age and general fitness level – he hasn't been with any other girlfriend." For Ella, looking outside her relationship for sex isn't an option. She doesn't like the idea of cheating and thinks she'd be hopeless at it anyway. Instead of hopping into someone else's bed, she's considering seeing a sex therapist. "I really don't feel comfortable talking to my friends about it in detail because I feel it's betraying Rob," she reveals. 'I did discuss it with my friends and my mum years ago when the disparity became apparent and that helped me calm down about it initially, but I tend not to talk about it anymore."  But the lack of sex isn't a deal-breaker for Ella who enjoys plenty of intimacy otherwise. "There's lots of tactile stuff that's important to me: spooning in bed, general snuggling without it getting saucy. He's a very affectionate partner, but I'm just not getting as much penetration as I'd like. Of course, there's the wonder of masturbation. I can take matters into my own hands!"

Bettina Arndt points out that men and women react quite differently to being turned down sexually. Her research into desire, documented in her book The Sex Diaries (Melbourne University Press, $24.99), showed that women generally  react just as Ella and Amelia did - feeling devastated and unsexy – while men usually bounce back more quickly. "I was astonished at the resilience of the men," she says. "Many were willing to risk rejection time and time again and still come back for more. 'Every 10 times i might be lucky!' said one man. But the women were far more likely to turn the rejection back on themselves, wondering what was wrong with them; why didn't their partners find them attractive? It shattered their self-esteem and left them feeling unwanted, undesirable and unloved."

When the sex at home is low to non-existent, women can't help but ask themselves whether their men are having affairs. And sometimes a third party as the reason for the apparently low sex drive. Arndt says one couple she spoke to hadn't had sex for eight years despite the woman being as up for it as ever. It turned out the man had been having an affair for the previous three years.  The only way to have avoided that, according to Supple, would have been better communication.

All very well in principle, but the woman had tried and tried to talk to her husband about why their sex life had died. He'd just change the subject. Even though Rose's' Libido out strips boyfriend Brendan's by about IO to one, she is reasonably happy because unlike previous lovers, he doesn't make her feel bad about it.

The 31-year-old airline employee says she would like sex two or three times a day, whereas comedian Brendan, 30 would be happy with once every three days. "I realised the difference in our Libidos’ pretty soon because we went the whole way on our first date, "remembers Rose. "I was ready to go again after a short break, but he was happy with just doing it once. We made an effort to be honest and realistic about our needs, and he's quite tolerant of stuff like pornography and me masturbating." Previously, Rose was married for seven years and says her former husband made her feel ashamed of her lust levels. "He made me feel guilty and that made me wonder what was wrong with me. Am I a slut or something? So I just became quite subservient and passionless and lost a lot of my identity in that time." Following the breakdown of that marriage, Rose's next partner didn't react well either, saying "God, again?" when she'd suggest sex, and making embarrassing comments in front of their friends. "I wasn't a slutty, crazy girl, but his reaction made me really angry," says Rose. "I've experienced a broad range of relationships, I've been married, I have two kids and a good job. Just because I have these needs doesn't mean I'm dirty." But now Rose admits she has simply learnt to accept it when Brendan says he's not in the mood. 

"I'm OK with it now" she reveals. "I think it makes some men question their sexuality if the woman wants it more than they do. They've been brought up to believe they're the ones supposed to take charge, and when they don't they feel threatened and react badly. Or they can respond with, 'I love you but I'm not feeling like that at the moment', which is what Brendan's very good at so I don't feel rejected. I'll just say, 'Fine, I'll go and do it myself' or I'll do something else.' "I've learnt that it's really good to channel that energy, for lack of a less hippie word, into something else."

Marie Clare Magazine
February 2013

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