My wife Emily is one of the kindest, most naturally caring and generous people I know (and also super pretty, might I add!). As a busy mother of six that wants to homeschool our kids, be a good friend and neighbor, volunteer at our church, and be supportive of an entrepreneur and sometimes demanding husband, you can probably imagine that it’s easy for her to feel depleted and disorganized at times.
A little while ago she decided things needed to change so that she could be less drained, more in control of her life, and happier. She started a new schedule for herself, including an earlier morning routine that ensures she gets her cup filled before the children are awake so that she can plan her day and have the energy to help others. This included us going to bed a lot earlier than we were used to.
This also meant OUR routine got disrupted. In other words, where we used to take time to connect emotionally and physically often after the kids went to bed, this shift in schedule meant less “us” time at night and in the morning. Okay, I’ll say it this way: it meant less sex for me!
It’s hard for me to admit that I didn’t handle this situation well. This opened my eyes to the fact that I tend to depend on sex for validation. It wasn’t my best moment.
At first I played it cool. Besides, I was 100% in support of her taking better care of herself! I told myself I’m tough and can handle going without sex for periods of time. And hey, we all make sacrifices for each other in order to have a great marriage, right?
But as the weeks of less frequent sex wore on, “playing it cool” turned to “white-knuckling”, and “white-knuckling” turned to anxiety and neediness on my part (which, by the way, is super unattractive!). As the higher desire spouse for sex in my marriage, I was preoccupied wondering when we would have sex again. My validation seeking made me easily defensive. I put up emotional walls, and ironically, I was less invested in her wellbeing. This made me even less desirable and more irritating to her, which led to even less desire for her to connect with me sexually.
I hate being wrong but I hate staying upset and resentful even more. I’m grateful that I belong to a group of guys that are a support system for me, that can help me see clearly and honestly call me out when I’m operating from a place of weakness. It’s like having a personal trainer point out the muscles that are weak and giving expert recommendations on what exercises you need to do to strengthen them.
I’ve put a lot of thought into why higher desire spouses tend to be more needy and anxious and what a stronger, more mature response would be in moments when you’re not validated sexually.
There’s Always A Higher Desire and Lower Desire Spouse For Sex
In every marriage, there is a spouse with higher desire for sex and a spouse with lower desire for sex. Usually the one with the higher desire pursues more, initiates more, and cares more about the quality of sex that’s shared in the marriage.
First I want to talk about the lower desire spouse, then I’ll talk about why the higher desire spouse is often anxious from a place of weakness, and then I’ll conclude with some ideas of what the higher desire spouse can do to improve intimacy and connection in your marriage from a place of strength.
The Lower Desire Spouse Has The Control
A few years ago I came across a business I wanted to buy. I thought it was a great opportunity for me and that I could do a great job running it. The problem was, the seller wasn’t motivated to sell.
When it came down to trying to negotiate a deal, their “no” was ultimately the end. The less interested party had the control over the negotiation even though I thought my skills, expertise, experience, capital, and willingness to pay a fair price would have resulted in a better business outcome for both of us and the customers of the business.
In a marriage, the spouse with the lower sexual desire has the control when it comes to sex. We don’t believe in coercion. All the lower desire person has to say is “no” and ultimately that’s the end of the sexual negotiation. He or she pretty much gets to set how often sex will happen and when sex does happen, what kinds of activities will happen or not happen during the encounter.
In many cases, the lower desire spouse likes being the one in control and doesn’t want to give it up. Giving up control would risk giving up the benefits to being the lower desire spouse.
I want to be clear: I’m not saying all lower desire spouses are manipulative and power hungry. Nor did they sign up to be the lower desire spouse. Some of them hate being the one with lower desire and wish it was otherwise.
Being The Lower Desire Spouse Has Its Benefits
Besides being the one with all the control, there are many advantages to being the lower desire spouse in marriage.
First, they’re the one being pursued, and being pursued feels good… really good. It feels great knowing that you’re desired and wanted. As long as the lower desire spouse can maintain the right amount of power differential between them and their spouse, they’ll keep being pursued.
It’s tempting to let the higher desire spouse know that you’re interested just enough to keep them coming, but not give them everything they want (at least not at first). The strategy is to keep them in want, leading them on just so, just enough, so that they keep pursuing you.
Secondly, it’s easy to mask one’s insecurities by being the lower desire spouse. It’s easy to avoid the inconveniences that growth requires. It’s an easy way out.
For example, if I was doing a bad job at cleaning the kitchen, and I didn’t want to put in more effort, all I need to do is pretend to care less about the cleanliness of the kitchen than my wife so that I don’t need to step up my cleaning efforts. When my wife complains about my sub-standard cleaning, I can tell her things like, “it’s not that dirty” or “it’s not that big of a deal” or “your standards are unreasonably too high”. By having lower desire for a clean kitchen, I could make the problem about her and the way she’s behaving in her anxious state. I can probably get out of cleaning altogether if my wife over-functions and ends up doing the deep cleaning.
The quality of sex we enjoy in our relationships is limited by how much intimacy we can tolerate in our relationship. Really good intimate sex involves a willingness to be open and explore each other, to be vulnerable and exposed emotionally and physically. The path to good sex is fraught with insecurity and it’s scary to really open your heart so wide to another person that matters to you. It’s no surprise that it’s often easier to hide our insecurity, so being the one with lower desire is one way to avoid the discomfort and insecurity required. It’s also no surprise that we’re not happy with the results we get from living beneath our privileges.
This isn’t to say that everyone with lower desire is intentionally hiding. Like in the previous kitchen cleaning example, I could catch myself taking the easy way out of cleaning and step up my efforts because I care about creating a home that’s comfortable to live in. I may have a lower desire for cleaning but that doesn’t mean I make that an excuse to slack off. A stronger self would invest in the good of the whole, confront myself over my laziness, and find ways to get my part done.
Third, the lower desire spouse often doesn’t see that they’re co-constructing a marriage with a needy, insecure higher desire partner. The higher desire spouse may be anxious and needy for sex precisely because the lower desire spouse is participating in a marriage system where sex doesn’t get the attention the other wishes. The lower desire spouse looks at their spouse and says, “Hey buddy, what’s your problem? Why are you so needy and anxious? Why can’t you get it together!?”
Just to be clear, I’m not saying lower desire spouses need to have as much sex as the higher desire spouse would like. I’m saying that if your spouse is needy and anxious about sex, it could be because you’re a contributing part of that dynamic whether you realize it or not.
One of my children is more “needy” and insecure than the others. She’s the one that tends to linger around her parents when she knows they’ll be leaving on a date. She’ll give lots of good-bye hugs and wave goodbye from the front porch when we leave. It’s actually really sweet.
There are times when I’m busy working on a project and she’ll try to get my attention. I don’t like to be interrupted, so in my worst moments I give short, terse responses. She’s not satisfied that I’m not giving her more of my attention, so she’ll keep persisting (it feels like she’s pestering me from my perspective). She’ll get more needy for my attention precisely because I’m not giving it to her. She’ll get more creative in getting my attention with notes or “nice” gestures such as hugs. I then push her away, making her more anxious. Her “niceness” is then replaced with an upset daughter that misbehaves. Finally I get angry at her bad behavior and ask her to leave me alone. And then I feel bad for treating her that way.
When I stop to think about it, although I’m not responsible for her decisions and actions, I can see how I contribute to her neediness. At the moment I think it’s all her problem (“gosh, she’s so anxious. Can’t she just get it together?”), but the reality is I have a part to play in her behavior. Next time, I can see her bids for attention for what they are: bids for my attention. I love my daughter. If I can just stop what I’m doing and give her just a moment of my undivided attention within appropriate boundaries, she has what she needs, she’s happy and not needy, and I’m happy and can resume what I was doing.
In my coaching, I see a pattern where couples view the problems they face as primarily the other person’s problem. Take, for example, unwanted and distressing pornography use. It’s easy for the other spouse to say it’s the pornography user’s problem, and it’s all on them to fix it. However, because marriages operate like a system, we always co-construct our problems.
Co-construction doesn’t mean you carry the blame for the other person’s actions – your spouse still has agency and may not have made good choices. It just means you view issues as an “us” issue and therefore take the attitude that you’re going to work together as a team to resolve them.
After all, doesn’t Jesus teach that as a married couple we should be “one flesh”? Like Paul’s Body Of Christ metaphor, where you don’t say you have no need of your foot or your eyes, what affects one spouse affects the marriage. Shouldn’t one person’s concerns and anxieties be addressed together as a team?
The Higher Desire Spouse Has A Secret Advantage
By now you probably get the picture that the higher desire spouse is often more anxious about sex because he or she doesn’t have the control position in the marriage. Remember, anxiety is rooted in fear: fear of not getting sex, fear of not being wanted, fear of losing connection with someone that matters a lot to you.
But the higher desire spouse doesn’t always have to be insecure or anxious. There is a stronger stance he or she can take. In fact, the higher desire spouse actually has a secret advantage that the lower desire spouse doesn’t have.
Before I share with you what this secret is, let’s quickly spotlight what it is not.
When you’re anxious and feel like you’re in a powerless position, it’s easy to go for “losing strategies” to get your way. I call them “losing strategies” because in the short term you think you’re getting what you want, but it comes at a heavy cost to your relationship.
It’s easy to try to get your lower desire spouse to give in to your desires by pouting, withdrawing, putting on a guilt trip, using logic to explain why your way is better, begging, being extra “nice” to try to win his or her favor, or outright demanding what you want.
These strategies make you less desirable because they’re done out of weakness. The intent is to get your spouse to change, or try to get them to feel a certain way – they’re manipulative. Even if the lower desire spouse gives in to the pressure and gives you sex, it will feel empty – besides, who wants to open their heart to make love to someone that is going to resort to childlike tactics and tantrums to get their way?
As the higher desire spouse, it’s easy to pretend you don’t have any insecurities and anxieties about sex. Besides, you’re the one with a wider array of sexual interests, and the one that wants sex more frequently. But when you’re desperate for your spouse to validate you through sex, they can see the insecurity all over you. So left unchecked, higher desire spouses do a great job masking their insecurity by expanding their ego and self-importance.
It’s easy to spot insecure people because they have fragile egos. Many lower desire spouses feel like they can’t be really honest with their higher desire partner to share their mind out of fear of hurting their spouse’s ego. One lower desire woman I coached wanted me to give her ideas on how she could tell her husband what she needed in bed in order for her to enjoy sex with him more WITHOUT hurting his ego. She was afraid he wouldn’t like to hear what she really wanted from him in bed because he would take it to mean he wasn’t good enough for her. The jury is still out if she will decide to tell him and both deal with his ego issues or if they’ll remain stuck in their same pattern with no improvement.
Lastly, when you’re insecure, it’s hard to be invested in your spouse. When my wife’s schedule changed which led to less sex for me, I was pretty anxious and insecure. On the outside I may have been supportive of her new morning routine but inside I was resentful of the lack of sex it was creating in our marriage. Because I looked to sex as validation that I was still wanted and desired by Emily. I would say things like, “I want to connect with you” but what I was really saying is “I really need you to reassure me by you wanting me sexually.”
My insecurity, which I thought I masked so well by the way, made it hard for me to care deeply about Emily, because caring about her would mean I would have to let my guard down and risk more invalidation. So it was easier for me to pretend to be invested without being really invested, and Emily could see right through my facade.
So, what’s the secret advantage that the higher desire spouse has? How do you get yourself out of this mess?
Although the lower desire spouse may have lower desire for sex and control the sex in the relationship, the higher desire spouse has the control and ability to set the tone for how much intimacy and genuine love there will be in the relationship.
Let’s get practical on how this secret advantage can play out.
When Emily and I were in our tailspin over my anxiety about sex, I handed over my control of my own happiness. I essentially made her the reason I was unhappy, and until she changed, I wouldn’t be happy. Once I took back control over my own happiness, I was able to step into a much stronger and intimate position in my marriage.
This required me to CALM THE HECK DOWN. When things aren’t going as well as you like, can you get quiet and still, and get centered within yourself when you’re fearful or anxious? Can you take deep breaths and focus on the emotions within you? Can you drop an anchor, so to speak, and get grounded?
The second step is to think about what it is you’re afraid of. Anxiety is always rooted in fear. In my case, I was unsure of my value and thrown off by our regular pattern of validating myself through sex. I was afraid that if we didn’t have sex so many times a week, we wouldn’t achieve some goal or ideal I made up.
Ask yourself, why are you afraid of it? What are you running from? Or another way to look at it could be, “where do I have a scarcity mindset”? Like a good plot line from the Harry Potter series, the path towards deeper intimacy and connection in your relationship is often in the same direction of what you are afraid of. It takes courage to move towards what you’re afraid of.
The third step is to confront yourself honestly, and bonus points for doing this in front of your spouse. I remember the night our weeks-long argument ended. We were both kneeling by the bed and I took a deep breath and told her about my fears and insecurities. I apologized for being so needy. I wasn’t seeking pity or justification. I was just being raw, open, and vulnerable. I wasn’t doing this to get her to do anything. I was just being me, not trying to change her. She really appreciated the honesty and apology.
Fourth, always prioritize valuing and desiring your spouse. People want to be valued for who they are. People want to feel valued far more than they want orgasms. As the higher desire spouse, you have an advantage in that you can be a really good friend. When you’re coming from a place of strength, you worry less about trying to make your spouse feel loved. Rather, you focus on being a better friend and being more loving.
And last, don’t underestimate the power of loving touch. It’s amazing what can be communicated through tender loving touch, especially sexual touch! Through your touch, you can communicate that your spouse matters, that you value them for who they are (flaws and insecurities and all). When done right, sex is a powerful way of saying you want to experience them, and really want to know them and feel them in a deep and personal way. And who wouldn’t want to be touched, experienced, and cherished when there are so many juicy and wonderful meanings behind that kind of sexual experience?
Your spouse cares far more about the size of your heart than the size of your genitals or breasts. You make love with your heart, not just your body.
I believe marriage is a system. It doesn’t matter if you’re the higher desire or lower desire spouse. It only takes one of you to make changes for good in your marriage.
Even though the lower desire spouse has the control for frequency or the type of sexual activites that go on in an encounter, the higher desire spouse has more control to set the tone for intimacy and deep meaning of sex in the relationship.