A friend of mine recently emailed me this great question. Let me know if you feel like you can relate to this too! He says,
“I’m in an otherwise happy marriage but my spouse is old-fashioned when it comes to sex. She says she’s not interested in trying new things (such as new positions, toys, different sexual behaviors, etc.). Every time I approach her about it she shuts it down. I bought a book once that came well-recommended but she refused to read the book, saying I shouldn’t look at that stuff. If I were to approach her to do the Intimately Us app with me she’ll shut it down right away. Our sex life is OK, but I feel like she does it out of duty rather than really desiring me sexually. What should I do? I feel stuck and wish things were better and more exciting. It feels sad to think that I may never have a great sex life like what it seems like others are having.”
I started to reply to him and thought, ya know what, this would make a great podcast episode and blog post! Even though relationships with the dynamic like my friend’s are common, this is something that’s not talked about or addressed head-on very often. We mistakenly think everyone else seems to have a happy sex life but us. Not so. Let’s go there today!
My purpose today is to share a message of hope and understanding to those that feel like what they’re getting is duty sex. I want to talk about what duty sex is and isn’t, why couples fall into the pattern of duty sex, and what you can do about it.
In this episode I’m using the stereotype of the husband being the one feeling like he’s only getting duty sex from his wife. In your marriage it can certainly be the other way around, but the same principles still apply. In reality it goes both ways, as I’ll explain.
What Is Duty Sex?
I think sex is absolutely beautiful, God-given, and amazing. There’s a spectrum of how fulfilling sex is within one’s marriage. On the high end of the spectrum, I’d put “intimate sex” as the very best kind of sex you can enjoy. This is when the sexual relationship is about loving and caring. There’s a deep intimate feeling: a sense of closeness and cherishing. There’s passion and lots of desire. It can also be really fun and goofy! This is the ideal to shoot for.
On the lower end of the spectrum would be sex when you can tell the other person’s heart isn’t in it. This is when he or she is having sex with you just so that you’re placated — as if they’re saying, “I am doing this for you, just to make you happy”. Sex is less about a shared experience of connection and pleasure. Instead, she wants you off her back for three days (or more) of freedom before having to have sex with you again.
Of course she or he might not ever say that with their words. After living with someone a while you get really good at communicating things that don’t necessarily need to be said out loud. The person receiving duty sex senses that the sex lacks desire & passion and doesn’t feel fully chosen, even if you’re both having orgasms.
Duty sex always comes with a cost, such as a build up of resentment. This could happen on both sides. She feels resentful because she’s giving in to doing something she doesn’t want to do, but she wants to make her husband happy. She may think she’s morally superior for not desiring sex like her husband does. He gets resentful too. He wishes his wife was more interested in sex for her own sake.
In the end, the couple colludes in the downward spiral of resentment. And the debt adds up – with interest! She opens up her body but not her heart. She’s afraid to open up her heart. He’s afraid too — he may not know how soon he’ll be getting sex again, so he takes the offer for duty sex. His participation in duty sex makes him unattractive, because he’s saying in effect, “I’m so desperate for sex that I’ll settle for whatever crumbs I get.” Seeing him needy for sex is a huge turn-off, which impacts her desire for him, and so the cycle continues, sometimes for years or decades.
What Duty Sex Is Not
We’ll talk about why duty sex happens in so many marriages in a moment. But first I want to clarify what duty sex is NOT.
There are two “laws of the universe” when it comes to romantic relationships. The first is that in EVERY marriage, there will always be a higher desire and a lower desire spouse, and this rule applies to all things: sex, cleanliness, parenting, spending money, saving money, adventure & travel, you name it. There’s nothing wrong with being the lower or higher desire spouse unless you turn it into a problem.
The second is that the lower desire spouse will always control the amount of sex there is in the relationship. But remember just because you have lower desire for sex doesn’t mean you don’t like sex. If you WANT to want sex, there’s nothing wrong with going through the motions, at least at first, to see what happens. The key here is that you willingly lead with your heart and hope your body catches up (and it usually does!).
It’s also not duty sex when you engage sexually as a gift to your spouse. The difference is a matter of the heart: you’re not doing it begrudgingly. You’re freely and wholeheartedly choosing to participate because there’s goodness to share, and you like to give and receive in this way.
Also, scheduling sex, recreational sex, “I miss you and want to connect with you” sex, “I’m sorry” sex, or the many other positive meanings you associate with sexual connection & pleasure isn’t necessarily duty sex.
Good sex is a matter of the heart. It’s the desire to be intimate. It’s about wanting to choose and be chosen. It’s about giving to and receiving from each other whole-heartedly.
Why Sex Feels Like A Duty
So how do couples get into a pattern of duty sex in the first place? Here are three principles to consider:
1. Freedom and Desire are Interconnected
The first principle is that desire and freedom are interconnected. You can’t truly desire something if you feel like you don’t have a choice in the matter. Ever thought to yourself, “I was going to do that but now that you’ve told me I have to do it, I don’t want to do it anymore?”
Or ever have a house guest giving you unsolicited advice that’s borderline criticism about how you should be doing things differently in your home? The little rebellious part inside you wants to stick it to them by doing the opposite of what they suggest, doesn’t it? In a way, you feel like your freedom to be yourself is diminished when they’re around. You feel less enthusiastic to invite them over again.
When threatened, most people would rather hold on to a sense of self rather than invest in the relationship. Sometimes our reason to say “no” to sex may be just so that we can establish that we have room to be ourselves in the relationship — just to assert our independence. Otherwise you feel emotionally claustrophobic and resentful.
You can’t really say “yes” to something if you don’t feel like you can freely say “no”. That’s why I think the worst marriage advice brides get the night before their wedding is, “always say yes when he wants sex.” Talk about a quick way to put an end to passion and deny sexual agency!
Some well-intended church messages get internalized the wrong way too. “Do not deny your husband” can often look like a weapon when taken out of context. Nothing will zap passion and desire faster in your marriage than the message that sex is an obligation or a duty, as if you have no right to your own feelings, preferences, or freedom to choose in the matter. This is why sexual agency is so important.
You hear of couples that had such intense desire for each other before they were married, but after they said “I do,” the passion is gone. This happened to a friend of mine. They couldn’t keep their hands off of each other while dating but once they were married and could have sex, the passion was gone. It’s not that the marriage killed the passion as they sometimes mistakenly think. It’s that they now think that their freedom is stifled. They stopped “choosing” each other every day..
2. Sex isn’t about intimacy. It’s taken on other meanings.
The second principle behind why couples fall into the rut of duty sex is how they define sex and the meanings they’ve associated with it. When sex is no longer about intimately knowing someone, closely, and open-heartedly sharing your heart, spirit, and body for connection and pleasure, it takes on different meanings.
One common meaning is that sex is something you do or provide to your spouse to manage your spouse’s ego or sense of self. I see this with a lot of the men I work with. They have anxieties about their legitimacy as a husband or about their own sexuality, so they look to their spouse to fill that emotional void through sex. They depend on the validation and good feelings sex provides in order for them to feel good about themselves.
Dr. David Schnarch is quoted saying “You can prop up your husband’s penis or his ego, but not both.” So sex is no longer about meaningful connection and pleasure, but her job to prop up his ego. What would that do for your relationship? I think it’d get old really fast!
Duty sex also happens when the higher desire spouse feels entitled to it or as it’s something they’ve earned. Their attitude that they are owed it for some reason, or that they deserve it can lead to a relationship where duty sex becomes the norm. For instance, they might say “I’m stressed and sex is my stress relief,” “We did the 5 Love Languages quiz and you know full well my love language is physical touch, so you need to love me more in my language,” or “I took care of a chore for you so you should give me sex now.”
It can happen when they think the other partner is only in this marriage for the sex or that that’s all they are good for. So this person controls the sex to control the marriage to maintain their legitimacy in the relationship. Sex isn’t about love anymore, but a pseudo-love, a game of establishing one’s legitimacy in the marriage.
Finally, duty sex can be the norm due to upbringing. Unfortunately a loving, intimate marriage may not have been modeled in your home while growing up. Or you received messages such as “sex is dirty, hedonistic, and beneath your dignity”. Sometimes we mistake sex for its darker, uglier side such as the evils of pornography and throw it all into the same category, and shun it all together.
We hear noble messages about serving one another, especially in our marriage. But when that service takes on the meaning of servicing each other sexually rather than with full-hearted intimacy, that “service” begins to feel like a duty.
3. Control & Manipulation
The third principle is fear: where we’re acting out of fear rather than trust and faith in each other.
Recall that desire is linked to freedom, and in order to have freedom, there has to be choice. Giving your spouse a choice feels risky because there’s the risk of not being chosen and rejected. So they try another approach: to control and manipulate the other person into choosing them. But controlling another person is only an illusion. As much as we think we try to, we can’t truly control our spouses.
This control can be overt or covert. It can be passive or aggressive. Sometimes men think that if they’re nicer, they’ll be rewarded with more sex. They read somewhere that if they do the dishes, help kids with their homework, help with her mental load, and draw a relaxing bath for her, she’s going to be so turned on by his “chore play” that there’s nothing that can keep her back from eagerly jumping his bones later that night. But in reality she rolls over tired, but appreciated, and starts to snooze. He gets resentful. His “chore play” was really a manipulation tactic to trick his wife into having sex with him.
Pouting, being a jerk, being grumpy, or withdrawing because you’re not getting the sex you want is also an attempt at controlling or manipulating your spouse. Besides, who has ever responded positively when their spouse is being rude? You’re not going to open-heartedly choose to want to be with someone that’s trying to punish you!
This sense of trying to control each other in the marriage happens on both sides and is fear-based. He’s deathly afraid of being stuck in a sexless marriage, and she’s afraid to give up control and a sense of belonging to herself. There could be other concerns outside the bedroom that either person is unwilling to address out of fear of an argument. A friend of mine was recently talking to a fellow classmate about how her husband won’t go to counseling with her to work on their communication skills because he doesn’t want to open old wounds. There are many people out there that feel the same way. They don’t want it to get worse before it gets better.
Things Don’t Need To Stay This Way
Now that we’ve talked about what, how, and why duty sex happens in marriages, I want to offer you a ray of hope! Things don’t need to stay this way!
We often get into our relationship patterns because of the way things started off early on, and over the years it just grows in the wrong direction. The good thing about people and relationships is that it only takes one person to affect change in the relationship. Whether you’re the higher or lower desire spouse, it only takes one of you to break the cycle of duty sex in your marriage.
Earlier this year I ran a marathon. The training required long lonely runs, tired legs, blisters, and dozens of cupcakes 🙂 Learning to run long distances requires conditioning your body to a new level of “normal.” A 6 mile run used to be hard but by the time you’re used to running 18 miles on a Saturday morning, 6 miles is a sinch. Creating positive changes in our marriage is no different: it takes persistent effort, discipline, and a commitment to a new way of doing things for the better. And sometimes cupcakes don’t hurt either 🙂
I’ll offer three ideas of things you can try to break the cycle of duty sex in your marriage.
1. Say No To Duty Sex
First, start saying “no” to duty sex whether you are the one giving or receiving it. This may be easier said than done when you feel like sex is scarce. Just think back to the Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2020: I bet you never thought of toilet paper as much as you did when it was perceived as being scarce. So you need to stop thinking that the sex in your relationship is a scarce commodity.
Saying no to duty sex may sound like you’re rejecting your spouse, so be really clear of what you want – your spouse! Express desire to genuinely want to connect and share whole-hearted pleasure together. This might mean a temporary dip in sexual frequency as you both get your bearings but try to see this as just an adjustment period to give both of you more freedom.
If you’re the spouse that has tended towards resentfully giving sex when you don’t want to, do some hard thinking as to why. You might have some real legitimate reasons why. Is it because you’re afraid that he’ll be a grump unless you give in? Is it a trust issue, and if so, can you address those issues with him? One tip in engaging in hard conversations is to make his response his responsibility. Hold on to what you really want: a higher and more worthwhile reason to have sex; for whole-hearted connection and pleasure.
2. Develop Self Worth & Acceptance
The second tip I have is to get better at believing in your intrinsic value. This means not letting another person dictate the fluctuations about how you feel about yourself. Your value doesn’t go up and down like the stock market based on how much or how little sex you’re getting. This goes the other direction too. If you’re the one offering duty sex, see that you’re worth far more than just a body.
Developing your self-respect is super sexy by the way. This might mean working hard at developing new skills. This might mean a new hobby. This might mean working on getting better at a few character traits. This will always mean living a life full of integrity and honesty. This could mean working harder at taking care of your body, your mind, and spirit.
This also means taking 100% control of your life. Put yourself in the driver’s seat. It’s funny how much energy we put into our spouse’s shortcomings but don’t look at our own faults.
I’m inspired by the story in the gospel of John where the Pharisees, wanting to trick Jesus, took a woman taken in adultery, “in the very act.” Tempting him, they asked him what they should do, because according to the Law of Moses, adulterers were to be stoned. Jesus wisely stooped, wrote on the ground for a little bit, stood up, and responded, “Let he who is without sin first cast a stone at her.” Then He continued to stoop down and write. One by one, the accusers left. I often wonder what Jesus wrote in the sand. Perhaps he was writing the sins of the guilty accusers. It’s so easy to cast stones at our spouse when we should instead look deep inside us and work on our own shortcomings first.
3. Faith over Fear
The last tip I have is to choose faith over fear. Duty sex is often driven by some fear of losing something you don’t actually have control over. If you want less fear in your life, have the courage to confront it. As you move closer to the things that scare you, the better you understand it, and the more personal power you gain over it. Sometimes this will require faith in God and asking for his Divine help. I’m a firm believer in the power of prayer. I’m a firm believer that God is the master healer!
I’m inspired by one of the good men in our current cohort of my Men’s Sexuality Course + Coaching program. A few months ago he and his wife got into a heated argument over something very trivial. He was offended that she didn’t share the same opinion as he did about a novel. Reflecting on that experience he was embarrassed at himself for taking her indifference to a made up story so personally. He resolved right then and there that he will no longer behave like a jerk and instead be optimistic about all aspects of his relationship.
He’s no Polyanna but after a few weeks their marriage shifted. He gave his wife space to think her own thoughts rather than being upset when she thought differently than he did. She had more freedom in the relationship, and with more freedom there’s of course more capacity for desire. With that desire came a more fulfilling, whole-hearted love life. When he’d been turned down, as he was from time to time, he stopped being a jerk (his words, not mine). He chose to not be grumpy and chose to believe there would be another time that would be good for both of them. When he’d approach his wife about something he’d want to try in bed with her, and she’d not be enthusiastic about it, he’d stay optimistic instead of sulking. And it’s paid off tremendously. In her eyes, she has more freedom and he’s become a good choice.
To my dear friend, don’t give up hope. Understand the importance of freedom, the need people have to belong to themselves, develop yourself to be a good choice, and choose love and intimacy. Hold her close, cherish her, look her in the eyes, and tell her how much she means to you. And always mean it when you say it.