Dear Roe, I'm a 34-year-old woman, and my fiancé is 35. This year he's been very stressed and anxious because of work. We usually have sex quite regularly, but since this work situation started, we haven't had sex in over two months. The last few times we tried he had trouble staying aroused, and we ended up fighting about it. Now, any time I try to initiate sex he just shuts down, which is bad enough, but he's also been far less affectionate generally. I'm feeling totally rejected and like a failure for not being able to turn him on.
Darling girl. Having your partner go through a stressful period and a sexual rut doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It means you’re in a long-term relationship.
It’s a pervasive myth that men want sex all day, every day, while women are the reluctant sexual gatekeepers, batting away their man’s constant sexual advances with excuses of headaches and stress until they finally concede.
This stereotype is damaging for many reasons, one of which you’re experiencing. If men are supposed to always want sex, women can take it personally when they don’t, ignoring all external factors and believing that they must be – to use your words – a failure.
in the absence of a bear attack, these hormones can also cause myriad different physical and emotional side-effects
In this case, the external factor you’re ignoring is that your fiancé under a lot of stress, which is one of the most common reasons for experiencing a low libido.
The biology of stress involves the release of certain hormones, cortisol and norepinephrine. These hormones are an evolutionary tool designed to help us during stressful or dangerous situations, as they keep us alert and wary, steering us away.
However, in the absence of a bear attack, these hormones can also cause myriad different physical and emotional side-effects, including headaches, anxiety, sleep disturbances, libido loss and erectile dysfunction. Which is fair enough – if our ancestors' reaction to an imminent bear attack had been to pop on some Marvin Gaye and try to have some nookie first, we wouldn't have made it far as a species.
So stress is a nasty beast all of its own, but when sex is involved, the anxiety can also be cyclical. As men are pressured to always be in the mood, when stress affects their arousal they can feel self-conscious and anxious. Soon, the original stress is heightened by performance anxiety – and hey presto, sex itself is now a stressor. It’s a vicious cycle, and because men aren’t encouraged to talk about either sex or their emotions, they can begin to avoid sexual intimacy altogether.
Reasons for sex
The problem is that sex, particularly in long-term relationships, isn't just about expressing sexual desire. In a study by Cindy Meston and David Buss, they report 237 reasons that men and women cite for having sex – unsurprisingly, not all (or even close to all) of these were to do with sexual desire. The reasons included "I wanted to show my affection to the person", "I wanted to express my [emotional] love to the person", and "The person made me feel sexy."
Start a conversation with your fiancé about how he's feeling, being sure to focus on how you want to support him
As you’re experiencing, when one partner withdraws from sex and physical affection, we don’t just miss the sex – we miss the things that sex can communicate, such as love, appreciation and emotional closeness. Having a few no-sex weeks isn’t the end of the world, but feeling emotionally rejected too can be very difficult.
So right now, the two pressing issues aren’t actually your sex life; they’re giving your partner ways to manage his stress, and rebuilding your pathways to communication and affection.
Start a conversation with your fiancé about how he’s feeling, being sure to focus on how you want to support him. Suggest ways that he could destress, including exercise, getting more sleep, or even seeing a therapist. Given that you two are engaged, is there extra stress around the wedding that you could tackle together?
Be open without blaming, and tell him you completely understand if he’s too stressed out for sex right now. But explain that you miss feeling close to him, and the physical affection of kissing and cuddling. Suggest carving out some time to spend together, whether it’s snuggling on the couch or going on a romantic date.
For the next little while, don’t escalate kissing or cuddling sessions into sex, so that your fiancé doesn’t associate those activities with pressure or performance anxiety. Down the line, you could ask if he feels comfortable engaging in other sexual activities that don’t involve penetrative sex, which is only a small part of sex, anyway!
Having him see that you can still be sexual together and he can give you pleasure could help combat the idea that his sexual prowess is completely dependent on his erections, removing some of the performance anxiety.
If his stress continues, it’d be worth having him chat to a GP. But for now, see this as an opportunity to improve your communication skills, and build upon the way you express affection and support for each other. Improving those skills will only make your future life together all the sweeter.
Roe McDermott is a writer and Fulbright Scholar with an MA in Sexuality Studies from San Francisco State University. She's currently undertaking a PhD programme studying Gendered and Sexual Citizenship at the Open University and Oxford.
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