Withholding Sex & What to Do About It

Updated on June 16, 2016

by Kathy Batesel

Lack of Sex Can Affect Emotional and Mental Health

Rejection hurts. Ask any guy and he'll tell you stories of rejections that cut him to the bone. When a lover withholds sex, it's a particular kind of rejection that can affect a person's self-esteem and thought processes.

People can have many valid reasons for not wanting to have sex, but often this physical act of intimacy can be weilded like a sword. "Do as I wish or I will cut you to your very core!"

In my article about dealing with silent treatments, I used the word "he" to describe an act that can be started by both men and women. Turnabout is fair play - this time I'll be speaking as if women are withholding sex, though it could just as easily be a man.

Is Refusing Sex a Sign of Emotional Abuse?

Many women think of sex as their ultimate power when it comes to relationships. Even a joking comment, "Haha! No bootie for you, patootie!" can make a man's chest clench in anticipated agony!

When she's not joking, and instead uses her sexual availability to manipulate her boyfriend or husband into doing things her way, she's engaging in a form of emotional abuse. This passive-aggressive technique may be overt or covert. She might say she doesn't want to play unless he comes around to what she wants, or she may feign headaches, tiredness, or other ailments to avoid intimacy.

It can be a slippery subject, because many people and women, in particular, have a hard time feeling turned on when their minds are preoccupied with other things, especially topics that make them angry or hurt. Then there's the added fact that valid reasons do exist for avoiding intercourse, such as:

  • Some people dislike having intercourse when they're on their menstrual period (or their partner objects for the same reason).
  • Certain physical conditions can make penetration painful or even impossible.
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can cause a person to avoid intercourse, either during an active outbreak (such as herpes) or until they've confirmed whether or not they have an STD.
  • Reasonably benign conditions like yeast infections and hormone fluctuations can create barriers to sex.
  • For men who refuse intercourse, erectile dysfunction can cause anxiety they want to avoid.
  • This common experience where men feel they're defiling the woman they love.

Most valid reasons for avoiding sex resolve themselves in a few days or can be treated with good medical care. In the meantime, oral sex and manual pleasure can fill the void. When a partner's refusal endures for many days, is a direct response to anger, and/or they refuse to seek medical care even when it's clear that the condition is affecting their relationship, there is a high likelihood that they're intentionally using sex to create pain for their partner.

The following table gives a basic guide for understanding where to draw the line, though every situation is unique and should be weighed carefully.

When is Withholding Sex Abusive?

She doesn't feel like it because of an argument that just ended.
She rejects sex after an argument that took place a week ago.
She refuses sex because of a medical condition.
She refuses to seek treatment for a condition that prevents sex.
She refuses to offer alternate means of pleasure when she can't have sex.

Emotional Abuse May Be Planned or Unintentional

Even when withholding sex does qualify as an abuse, it isn't always intentional.

Sexual abuse victims, people with attachment disorders, and people who feel powerless may withdraw from intimacy as a means of protecting themselves. Sexual intimacy is still intimacy, after all. Intimacy requires vulnerability, and when a person feels great about herself, she is more likely to be willing to become vulnerable. However, when she's under stress, depressed, or doesn't feel like she has enough influence in her relationship, she may choose to avoid feeling vulnerable even if she isn't intentionally trying to force her partner to a specific response.

Whether she's withholding sex as a conscious way to manipulate her man or as a self-protective measure, the underlying reason is the same: she feels a lack of power and control.

This video illustrates how sexual aversion can restore a feeling of being in control even when a person's experience of having too little control took place many years earlier:

Sex and Control

Humans have an innate need to feel as if they have control in their environments. It helps them feel safer and more secure. When a person's need for control is unreasonable, it can hurt other people, in which case it can be called abusive.

Every form of abuse stems from a need to exert control. In some cases, the abuser has found themselves in a situation where they aren't getting a reasonable amount of influence over the problem, while in others, no amount of influence is enough!

However, abuse rarely happens in a vacuum. There are usually two abusers and two victims when emotional or physical abuse invades a relationship. While it's possible for a healthy person to be abused by their loved one's dysfunctional behavior, most often, both people in a marriage are contributing to the problem.

When a person withholds sex to an abusive degree, their partner may have ignored or denied their viewpoints and requests. They might have learned that their opinions and desires are unimportant to their partner, and even if they don't verbally acknowledge their anger and hurt, their feelings are reflected in the bedroom.

The sex-deficient partner experiences this bedroom behavior as an ongoing rejection, not all that different from the way the withholder may have been feeling for days, months, or years.

Addressing these issues early and sensitively can produce profound changes that increase a couple's intimacy.

Your View

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Getting Sex Back into the Bedroom

The woman who withholds sex believes she has been treated unfairly and lacks a way to get fair treatment. Even if she's completely wrong, there's no way to reach her and persuade her to change her mind by telling her she's wrong. It just won't work, so don't try it!

In fact, she probably believes she's being nice by not bringing up the things that bother her. She'll minimize her role in creating a problem or worse, blame him, though not to his face unless she is pushed to her breaking point.

To recover a lackluster sex life, the denied partner should follow these steps:

  • Recognize her need for recognition and praise, and give both generously where it's deserved. (She does deserve it for plenty of things, because her entire life revolves around pleasing others.)
  • When she talks about how she feels or what's bothering her about any subject, listen carefully and make sure you understand where she's coming from, even if you don't agree. Don't argue your point while you're listening. Let her talk herself out.
  • After she agrees that you understand her viewpoint, find at least one or two of her points that you can validate as reasonable, good points. Assure her that she's important to you, and let her know that while you don't agree fully, you'd like to find a solution you can both tolerate.
  • Use fair fighting techniques whenever you discuss matters you disagree upon.
  • Work with her to find win-win solutions.
  • If there may be a medical reason for her behavior, offer to set an appointment to get treatment.

There are some specific "don'ts" to keep in mind, too:

  • Don't allow yourself to be treated unfairly, either.
  • Don't try to read her mind. You can say "When you're ready to talk about why you're no longer attracted to me, I'll be ready to listen, because I don't have the answers that can help us resolve this."
  • Don't tolerate what isn't tolerable. Sure, a few days without sex won't kill anyone. But ongoing rejection is bound to affect your self-esteem eventually. It's okay to set a reasonable deadline and consequences, and to honor them, too. "I understand that you don't feel like being intimate with me right now. If you still don't feel like talking or being intimate in the next two weeks, I'm going to get a hotel room for a few days while I decide what to do about the breakdown of our marriage."
  • Don't make empty threats. If you set forth a consequence, follow through. Let her be responsible for her own feelings and behaviors, and set an example by being responsible for yours.
  • Don't criticize, blame, lose your cool, or attempt to teach her why she's wrong.

Some couples have sexless marriages and have learned ways to cope with the lack of intimacy because they value other benefits of the relationship. Then there are those folks who never find a way to bridge the gaps that come between them. These tips won't solve every problem, but if they're used consistently with a passive-aggressive partner, they can show her that it's safe to be vulnerable and that not having open communication no longer works.

Questions & Answers


    Submit a Comment

    • profile image

      Jibaro 5 months ago

      Using sex as a manipulation tool? Great! Now get the F$%# out of my life! NEXT!

    • jellygator profile image

      jellygator 8 months ago from USA

      I'm so sorry you're going through this! This probably has nothing at all to do with you, but it's easy to feel like you must be doing something wrong. It sounds like he is going through something himself. Maybe he feels like he won't be able to perform. Maybe he feels guilty about something. Are you able to help him feel safe about talking to you? If he thinks you'll get hurt or angry, he probably won't open up to discuss it, but if he feels like you'll accept and support him, you might be able to get to the heart of the problem.

    • profile image

      Simplystunned 9 months ago

      I am not used to this. My guy won't have sex with me. Today is day 76. I can easily get him hard but then he literally throws my hand off him and turns around. I feel hurt and confused. What do I do?

    • MsJoseph profile image

      MsJoseph 9 months ago

      good one

    • jellygator profile image

      jellygator 18 months ago from USA

      I bet you do! I hope you found something here that can help change that for you.

    • jellygator profile image

      jellygator 18 months ago from USA

      Welllll, I'd say that no two contracts are alike when it comes to marriage, but in general this is true.

    • jellygator profile image

      jellygator 18 months ago from USA

      Hi Samantha, your situation a lot like your husband is showing signs of Madonna-Whore syndrome. I have an article on here about it that you may find helpful.

    • jellygator profile image

      jellygator 18 months ago from USA

      I'm sorry, Erika!

      If your husband isn't providing you with the validation that you're beautiful and sexy, then please find a way to remind yourself! Obviously, cheating is not a great answer and can cause too many problems, but having spa days or exercise groups and appreciating that other men find you attractive can all help.

      I have another article about Madonna-Whore syndrome. If your relationship is good in other ways, you may find that article helpful, too.

    • profile image

      Green 19 months ago

      My wife is withholding sex now and I hate it

    • profile image

      tom waters 19 months ago

      my wife says that she wants to reconnect because of problems which is bullshit cuz I been dealing with this shit since the beginning it goes weeks months. and I'm the type that is very vengeful I want payback in the worse way. thinking divorce right now and kicking her the fuck out let her reconnect on a new place to live. you meet a guy and have sex with him the same day but you get married and wanna reconnect bitch get the fuck outta here I'm done

    • profile image

      Erika 19 months ago

      Hi Samantha,

      So sorry to hear you are going through the same thing. unfortunately for me, it didn't get better.. I've been dealing with this for the past 4 years.. only when he is really in " need" he seeks me out.

      I have told him I want a divorce. I told him, it's "my" time now. I have always loved the outdoors, travel, wine, and have always been a free spirit. I have given myself the permission to reach out and explore and just move forward and take this as a life lesson.. not going to be bitter about it,but be even better in my present and future, this will be second divorce for him as well. He has been begging me now to reconsider. But, I've been giving him chances these 4 years and you know what?

      I am absolutely done. I love my husband but his control and abusive behavior will no longer be tolerated by me.

      This is just odd for me because when we hear about someone witholdin affection /sex we tend to think women..but, it happens to us as well.. we are more quiet about it because, if a woman dare wants more sex than the man, she is usually criticized by being called a slut or other offensive words. It's been good sharing my experience, it's helped me put things in perspective. I feel that a relationship is to give yourself to the other person and basically trust them with your life..unfortunately, at times we can end up with someone so oblivious to what a real loving relationship should be and only begins to care when the other Is done. I hope your relationship mends samantha. Wish you the best.

    • profile image

      gbo 20 months ago

      At the end of the day sex is part of the marriage contract. Unless there is a medical issue and you are playing games with that then do not be surprised when your spouse is sleeping with someone else. Life is hard work. Even the fun things.

    • profile image

      Samantha 20 months ago

      Hi my situation is the same as Erica's. My husband stopped having and wanting sex as soon as we got married. I've confronted him about it and suggested that he's either gay or was molested. Either way it's selfish and at some point I told him will be the cause of a divorce if he doesn't get real with me and fix it. You're a grown man figure your crap out and stop letting your issue hurt your loved ones. If I leave him this will be his second divorce by age 34! I've tried everything and nothing is working or has worked. My next step is to leave him and hope the reality check wakes him up...or not

    • profile image

      Erika 20 months ago

      My husband knew from the beginning of us dating, sex was very important to me. Sex was a way of connection that I wanted on a daily basis. I have 3 children , he has three children. We both work..we both have busy lives but, we could make time for us. We have communication problems but most stem fron lack of sex. Why? Because I'm tired of feeling rejected. I'm a attractive female, never had a problem with sex in the past. My exes never had to worry about me witholdin from them to have them do what I wanted them to do.. I never disrespected anyone like that and never used sex as a way to get what I wanted. This has broken my self esteem to the ground. Why I couldn't cheat on my husband even if I wanted to. I have lost my sex appeal mentally. Because sex appeal is not just what you show physically but mostry mental, I feel so unattractive even though men constantly give me compliments and such. When I speak to my husband about the pain I feel over what he's doing.. it almost seems as though it gives him more of a "high" to reject me for even longer. I've haven't been with him for over 3 months and I'm dying inside.

    • profile image

      Trax 21 months ago

      Hi, it is my Alpha male partner who withhold sex from me..ok, I would love someone to help me on this

    • profile image

      happyman 22 months ago

      I'm really surprised that the author has replied to the comments written to this article. Rarely seen with other websites. Great job.

    • profile image

      MarkNap128 23 months ago

      I've had a few LTRs and the one thing that never left was the sex except of course, for my last. Of course there exists medical issues that could cause a loss of intimacy in a relationship/marriage, but do I need scientific data to backup a claim that if this were the case, the partner would understand? Besides, as stated, there are other ways to pleasure or give affection to your partner. Man, I myself used an SSRI a couple of years ago and it totally wiped my drive. I went from a hound to a sexless zombie yet I still took care of my woman and when i was all set and it upset her i explained what was going on and how it had nothing to do with her. Because I loved and cared for her i wanted to make her feel good. Well it was a few times before the last six months of our almost 5 years together where she would withold after giving. I shrugged it off until it because obvious it was a control issue. Mind you, this girl had serious issues wirh emotional and verbal abuse as she suffered through it as a child (at least when she was honest shed admit to this) so it was always a struggle to prove that I wasn't A. Cheating and B. Loved her more than anything ever and was willing to be patient and put the extra effort in to make her feel appreciated. But as in most cases with these insecure control freaks, when they see you trying harder to appease to their demands, they realize their control tactics are workinf and the withholding only gets worse. If you feel sex is a reward for your man or if you feel he should know what's going on in that crazy mind of yours without solid communication, you're only destroying what uou once had. Sex isn't about getting off, it's about joining as one, it's a gift indeed, and to starve someone emotionally is just as brutal as doing so with basic living necessities. End the relationship, and find a healthy woman (or a man if you're the woman receiving this form of abuse), and move on. It's usually when you pull the plug they start offering intimacy which is usually too late as they have lost your trust and what value you had left. Make excuses all day long, but its said women have affairs when there's a void, well deprive a man of intimacy to control and you have no right to whine when he's given in to another woman's advances. You hung yourself in this scenario. Learn from it, and realize your vagna isn't golden, because there most likely is a woman out there who would appreciate you and value the love and empathy you could have towards her

    • profile image

      anonymus 24 months ago

      Very well written . Sadly even I am experiencing the same situation. Dont know what to do

    • jellygator profile image

      jellygator 3 years ago from USA

      You raise an interesting point!

    • dashingscorpio profile image

      dashingscorpio 3 years ago

      Very well written. Voted up and useful!

      However one has to wonder if the wives of Brad Pitt and George Clooney rejected them would it be a power play? Women want to take their place!

      Either guy could walk out their front door and there would be millions of women around the globe who would gladly jump into bed with them. :)

      It makes you wonder if male "sex symbols" or celebrities have to deal with the same bedroom issues as the average married man.

    • jellygator profile image

      jellygator 3 years ago from USA

      I don't see anything blocked, but I'm not the person who uploaded the video so I probably have very minimal access! :(

    • EuroCafeAuLait profile image

      Anastasia Kingsley 3 years ago from Croatia, Europe

      Most likely under You Tube settings when you linked the video to your Hub. I would first Edit your Hub, remove the video, re-check settings and ensure that there is no blocked access, then upload it again for overseas Hubbers / Guests.

    • jellygator profile image

      jellygator 3 years ago from USA

      Hi and thanks! How do we adjust the settings on that?

    • EuroCafeAuLait profile image

      Anastasia Kingsley 3 years ago from Croatia, Europe

      Hi Kathy, great topic. Couldn't get the video to work in Croatia - could you adjust the settings? Happy Hubbing... Anastasia

    • jellygator profile image

      jellygator 3 years ago from USA

      Thank you. I hope your username soon becomes "thelovedone!"

    • profile image

      therejectedone 3 years ago

      Thank you for this article. The video was dead on.

    • jellygator profile image

      jellygator 4 years ago from USA

      Well, Roby, I appreciate that you are direct with your opinion, but I respectfully have to disagree. The first half of this article says that women have a tendency to withhold sex more, and that it is a form of emotional abuse. The fact that I advise the victim on steps to take does not mean that it's blaming the victim.

      When I write to a woman that the next time her partner treats her poorly, she should remind herself that she is CHOOSING to participate, it doesn't mean that she caused her partner's bad behavior, but it does mean she has some power in the situation. The same is true of men who stay in relationships where a woman is withholding sex.

      If you are a man experiencing a lackluster sex life, denying that you have ANY role in the situation will NEVER work for you. Sorry, but that's a fact.

    • profile image

      roby61 4 years ago

      This article continues in the vain of many other articles. When the woman hurts the man, doesn't understand him, makes him lose his self worth and manipulates him, it's all because the man is doing something wrong. He should be more concerned about her needs, her emotions, her vulnerability - and then, BINGO! everything gets better - but not for him. It's a hypocritical mantra that is truly passive in it's aggressiveness. Men are to blame for their own problems. Hmphh!

    • jellygator profile image

      jellygator 6 years ago from USA

      Thank you! I agree, it can be hard for people to talk about this one, especially when their spouse isn't helpful!

    • shalini sharan profile image

      shalini sharan 6 years ago from Delhi

      a great hub

      many people shy away from trhe topic. bringing it up was a wise decision

    • jellygator profile image

      jellygator 6 years ago from USA

      Thank you, Dr. Pooja!

    • Dr Pooja profile image

      Dr Pooja 6 years ago

      A very thoughtful hub on a topic people may feel shy to discuss .Voted up.

    • jellygator profile image

      jellygator 6 years ago from USA

      I knew you said elsewhere you're happy with it. That's why I hope you stay that way. :)

    • rahul0324 profile image

      Jessee R 6 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      haha... my relationship works just fine my friend...

      thank you for your kind concern :)

    • jellygator profile image

      jellygator 6 years ago from USA

      Rahul, my friend, I hope you don't find yourself needing to!

    • rahul0324 profile image

      Jessee R 6 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      A very useful hub.... dealing with such kind of rejection can be tough...

      People can make their own conclusions but the ultimate solution for me is to handle thing patiently


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