Welcome to Relationship Rehab, news.com.au’s weekly column solving all your romantic problems, no holds barred.
This week, our resident sexologist Isiah McKimmie hears from a woman who feels she’s being “strongarmed” into having sex with her husband of more than 20 years.
QUESTION: My husband and I are high school sweethearts who’ve been together for over 20 years. We’ve never really been sexually compatible and I have a very low sex drive.
For most of our marriage, I’ve put up with at least one sexual act with him or given him a sexual favour each day, although we rarely have intimacy such as kissing or cuddling.
Lately, I’ve grown resentful of taking part in the sexual acts and I’ve started to hate him for expecting it. He doesn’t understand why I don’t want to do it anymore and says if I’ve “done it unwillingly for 20 years, why stop now?”
What can I do? I feel strongarmed into taking part in sexual acts I don’t want or enjoy.
ANSWER: There’s a lot to unpack here that goes well beyond sex. I’m not surprised you’re now feeling resentful after “putting up with” sexual acts. I feel sad hearing that’s been your experience.
It’s normal to have different levels of sexual desire in a relationship, but how you manage that makes an enormous difference to how you both feel in your relationship.
I need to address my concerns straight up. The fact that you’re feeling “strongarmed” into sex and that your partner is asking you to do something that doesn’t feel good for you is ringing alarm bells for me.
However, I know that sometimes we can say things in a relationship that we don’t really mean out of hurt or frustration. Your partner may not be as inconsiderate as he’s appearing right now. I’ve seen many couples be more considerate and understanding towards each other as we’ve worked on improving communication.
Sexually mismatched relationships can still work
You can have an amazing relationship and not be having the best sex of your life. Many people tell me that sex with their partner isn’t the best they’ve ever had, but they still love their partner and make their relationship work.
What is important is how you talk about this together and that you try to understand each other’s needs.
Obligation sex doesn’t help mismatched sexual desire
As you’ve discovered, “pity sex” or “obligation sex” doesn’t work long-term. It becomes unsatisfying for one or both partners and can lead to the resentment that you’re describing.
It can further lower your sexual desire, because you end up having sex that doesn’t feel good for you.
There are steps you can take to increase sexual desire
A helpful way to consider desire is as having “brakes” and “accelerators”. In order to get desire “moving” we need to remove the brakes and increase the accelerators.
Your husband’s pressure for you to have sex (and any moodiness he displays when he doesn’t get it) is a “brake”. Arguing, not feeling listened to and not feeling connected to your partner are also brakes.
My concern is that without addressing these, any “accelerators” I suggest, such as massage, starting slowly, lingerie etc, just won’t be effective.
You need to talk to your partner – without arguing
I realise this is easier said than done, but you need to be able to understand each other’s perspectives and work together to effectively move forward.
It’s understandable that your husband feels upset at not having sex and may even feel shame at being rejected, but he needs to find better ways to express that or he’s going to end up pushing you away completely.
It sounds like you have needs like kissing, cuddling and general affection that aren’t being met at the moment. As a couple, you’ll need to work towards both your needs being met for the relationship to stay happy. But he can’t meet your needs unless you share them with him. So again, you’ll need to talk about it.
Get help if you’re struggling
Conversations about sex and feeling hurt by each other are sensitive. If you feel like you’re struggling to talk without arguing or shutting down, reach out to a couples therapist or sexologist to help you.
Please keep in mind that sexual coercion is a red flag and you may benefit from therapy either alone or with your partner.
Isiah McKimmie is a couples therapist, sexologist, sex therapist and lecturer. To book a session with her, visit her website or follow her on Instagram for more advice on relationships, sex and intimacy.