If you read the title and thought, “Well, she doesn’t know my husband,” I admittedly don’t. Trust me, I have met with plenty of men who model unfavorable gender stereotypes when it comes to sexuality. However, I have met with many more who are far more relationally complex in their sexuality than modern western culture leads people to believe.
I felt validated by a recent Canadian study exploring the tenets of male sexual desire among 30-65-year-old heterosexual men in long-term relationships lasting 2.5 years or more. The study used a small sample size (n=30) typical of qualitative studies, but the findings were so congruent with my experience with men in therapy that I wanted to shed light on the topic. In essence, the authors wanted to know if the way men really feel about sex fits the predominant sexual scripts imposed on them in society.
In short, what elicits sexual desire and what inhibits sexual desire for adult men in long-term relationships?
The common expectation imposed on men is that they will have higher sexual desire than their female partners–pretty much always–and that they will generally have a high enduring interest in sex in general. A basic assumption is that male sexual desire is independent of emotional closeness or relationship quality fluctuations.
However, the study found that male sexual desire was highly tied to relationships. This did not surprise me at all. The study reflected what I consistently see with most men in long-term marriages.
The three most common themes associated with evoking sexual desire were:
- Feeling desired—the majority of participants described this. This is incongruent with a social norm that men are the ones who should do the wanting. Females often underestimate the importance of communicating desire for male partners, believing instead that they are the ones to be desired. Please, can we just normalize the female sex drive already???!!!!! Best way to communicate desire for a male partner: initiate sex, which was described as the “ultimate expression or reassurance,” communicating “I (still) want you.” BAM! I have explained this in therapy so many times I am sick of hearing myself say it out loud. Need inspiration? Play Cheap Trick’s I Want You to Want Me, circa 1979. Catchy and straight to the point. (What? I’m old? Yeah, I know).
- Exciting and unexpected sexual encounters—this was most often presented in the context of spontaneity. Kind of like—“Do you realize this is the first time we are actually in our house alone without children for the first time in 127 consecutive days? What should we do about it?” Extra points if that question comes from the wife—as an integration with #1.
- Intimate communication—defined as intelligent exchanges with talking and laughing. Men explained that talking was actually connecting for them, which led to more intimate sexual encounters. A lot of men said that they wished they could talk about the sexual relationship with their partners. I can verify that this is a healthy and advisable process—it creates more possibilities for increased sexual quality. Unfortunately, I can also verify that many couples struggle talking about their sex lives, and in my experience women are generally more avoidant and uncomfortable about it. If you struggle with this, start with just discussing what it would be like to be able to talk about sexuality, or talk about what makes it hard for you, or what gets uncomfortable when you think about it?
The factors inhibiting sexuality were mostly things that inhibited general relationship closeness.
The three most common were:
- Rejection—this is HUGE and way too many wives underestimate the profoundly devastating impact on their partners—mostly because men do such a good job of hiding their hurt by numbing, turning away, becoming dismissive, or transforming it into anger. They rarely talk about how painful sexual rejection really is. In my therapy experience, it’s one of the most painful rejections and can have a long-term impact. These men often stop initiating, and some wives experience that as favorable, or being “off the hook,” when in reality it is creating gargantuan relationship distance which can be difficult to repair. Rejecting your partner makes you untrustworthy.
- Physical ailments and negative health characteristics. This can be extra challenging if the physical ailment is directly affecting sexual performance.
- Lack of emotional connection with partner—This is where some people might be surprised and I’m not surprised at all–men commonly want to feel connected when having sex with their wives. Many of the respondents said they would still have sex if their wives initiated, but their desire would be lower. This is an area where women may be generally different. More women might outright refuse sex than participate with a disconnected partner, while men MIGHT be more willing to participate in sex even with lower desire, but they still described preferring emotional connection. Most of them said their emotional connection was entwined with their physical desire.
The big takeaway here is that the men’s answers were so similar to what we know from studies of women and reported sexual desire. Male sexual desire waxes and wanes in long-term relationships with other relationship variables.
In our sexcentric society, multiple casual, disconnected and meaningless sexual encounters are presented as the norm, while co-created meaningful sexual encounters in long-term relationships seem almost non-existent. However, in my clinical experience, both men and women generally have greater sexual desire when the emotional relationship is safe and healthy and when mutuality is high, meaning both partners want to participate. We limit ourselves in marriage when we categorize our partners according to socially projected stereotypes. We limit ourselves even more when we allow the media to inform our sexual relationship expectations.
Before you feel the urge to email or message me about your stereotypically hypersexual and insensitive husband, I can assure you I already know those humans exist. So do mean, critical, withholding wives. So do emotionally disconnected wives. My point is that before you write off your spouse, take some time to get to know him individually and try to suspend preconceived malicious intent. If you can do that, you can generate different possibilities for connection…as in WE WE WE….all the way home.
A Qualitative Exploration of Factors That Affect Sexual Desire Among Men Aged 30 to 65 in Long-Term Relationships (2017) by Murray, S. H., Milhausen, R. R., Graham, C. A., & Kuczynski, L. in The Journal of Sex Research, 54(3), 319-330.
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