Dear Neil: My wife of 25 years and I are both in our late fifties. We once had great emotional and physical intimacy, but now her desire for sex is non-existent. She constantly repels my advances—to such a degree that we now sleep in separate bedrooms. I find myself getting short-tempered, irritable and grumpy, which is out of character for me. This increases the tensions and frictions in our marriage. What is causing this, and is there anything I can do about it?
Desperate in New Zealand
Dear Desperate: Here is a list of factors that contribute to the loss of sexual desire. Which of these apply to you, your wife and your marriage?
- Other than sexually, how close and intimate are you and your wife? For her, a more intimate relationship and stronger connection may be what she needs in order to be more in the mood. How romantic is your relationship? How affectionate? How much friendship and camaraderie is there? Do you open up and share your inner worlds and feelings with each other? Do you guys regularly spend time together, use endearments, cuddle, go out on dates and act sweet and romantic with each other?
- Is she angry at you? Have you guys addressed and resolved issues that are in her way?
- Is there a lot of hostility in your relationship? If you have been critical, angry, withdrawn, abrasive or mean-spirited because she has sexually retracted, such behaviors are likely to make her not want sex with you at all.
- Is she feeling blamed, judged or criticized a lot? Do you make her feel she’s inadequate?
- Might you and your wife be in a power struggle? Does she feel controlled by you? Could she be punishing you for something? What? Are the two of you in competition?
- Does she have a fear of being taken over, of losing herself, of being used or dominated?
- Is she depressed? Does she have unresolved trust issues from her past? Is she grieving the loss of somebody or something—even the loss of a previous self-image?
- What’s going wrong with her life in general? How well is she dealing with it? Is she under a lot of stress? Does she have medical conditions that make sex challenging?
- Is she taking any sedatives, diuretics or medications that could be affecting her libido? Is she drinking large volumes of alcohol?
- Is she getting enough sleep? Might she be chronically fatigued or tired?
- Do you treat her with kindness and respect?
- Other than your relationship, how’s her self-esteem, sense of self-worth and sense of self-confidence these days?
- When you were most recently making love, was the sexual experience enjoyable for her? Did you allow enough time for adequate foreplay and help her warm up at her own pace?
- Might she be feeling unattractive, unappealing and embarrassed to be seen naked?
- Do you regularly make love with her in non-sexual ways throughout the day?
You may feel totally justified and self-righteous in feeling rejected, hurt and angry, but if you allow those feelings to dominate your words and actions, you are likely to push her away even further. So here’s what you might do: broach this topic with your wife. Tell her that her physical withdrawal really has your attention. Then ask what she’s been trying to communicate to you through her withdrawal. What would she like from you? Like you to do differently? What would it take for her to warm up to you? See if you can get her talking about why she retracted from you, and what she would need in order to come back. And then—if you possibly can—consistently do the things she asks for, and reach out to her with non-sexual affection.