Seven Good Reasons People Don’t Initiate Sex

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I’m still in New Zealand, travelling from North Island to South Island by (gorgeous) ferry and (fabulous) train.

And I’m pondering the four days of training I just provided the country’s sex therapists and marriage counselors. As is the case in every country I work in, everyone here wants to know more about desire. Why does it decline in loving couples? How do we enhance it?

One seminar participant brought up the subject of initiating. Indeed, we all have patients who want sex but don’t initiate it. We also have patients who are ambivalent—if their partner initiates they’ll have sex, but if not, they’d just as soon skip it.

So rather than pathologize men or women who don’t initiate sex, I always assume they have good reasons, whether medical, psychological, relational, or some combination of these. Here are some.

* They don’t expect to enjoy it: not initiating sex you don’t expect to enjoy isn’t a pathology, it’s common sense. It’s the same reason I don’t order broccoli in restaurants—I don’t expect to enjoy it.

* They don’t expect their partner to accept: everyone needs to be able to hear the word “no” without collapsing. But when experience (or bitterness or even guilt) predicts that “no” is the likeliest answer, not asking is understandable.

* They anticipate criticism: “Oh, you’re finally initiating?”; “Suggesting sex? I guess you want something from me”; “If you’re inviting me to have sex, it better be more than a quickie”…if this is what someone expects when they initiate, it’s no wonder they don’t.

* They’re tired of initiating: Some people are fine doing virtually all the initiating, as long as the answer is usually “yes.” But some people feel such a pattern is humiliating, and they’d rather break the cycle, even if it means less sex. Or at least that’s what they think when they stop initiating.

* They don’t feel attractive or desired: When people think “sex is for other people” or “my partner would prefer sex with someone else, but settles for me,” that can drain the energy out of any erotic situation—and discourage someone from translating sexual feelings into sexual interest or initiating.

* They experience “foreplay” as a chore or as one-sided: if you don’t enjoy the kissing, hugging, and transition from not-sex to sex, initiating what lies beyond “foreplay” typically seems like a lot of effort for low return.

* They’re waiting to feel incredibly horny: When beginning our sexual careers, desire generally feels overwhelming, unambiguous, irresistible. Ten or twenty years into a relationship, desire typically feels calmer, more rational, more easily directed or postponed. If people in long-term couples are waiting until they feel sexually ravenous, they may wait forever—and never initiate again.

Suggesting sex is an invitation to connect. If connection is not what someone expects or experiences, they’ll be slow to initiate sex—and with good reason. If that applies to you or your situation, some clear communication (accompanied by affection) is definitely in order.


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