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Withholding Sex and What to Do About It

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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 wielded 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

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.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Since women don't see me in a sexual way anymore, would I be better just paying for needs from an escort?

Answer: If you have physical needs that you can't satisfy, I personally would support your decision to hire someone.

Yes, there are a lot of judgmental people out there, but let's be real for a moment. Nobody complains when a woman gets paid to sing, or to clean house, or to model in Vogue magazine, so why should they judge a woman who gets paid to use the skills she has by someone who wants to pay her for those skills?

Question: My partner has rejected me in every way! He has ED, but will not help me have an orgasm or any other kind of intimacy because he says he does not have the urge. It has been thirteen years! Is there any hope?

Answer: Oh, wow! That goes deeper than someone simply withholding sex, doesn't it? I'm so sorry you're going through this. How hurtful it must be to have been dancing this dance for so many years! So let's start with this: It is not about you at all. It's entirely about him.

My gut instinct says he may have what I call a "Madonna-Whore" complex (I've written about that topic here, too.) Sometimes men simply cannot by physically attracted to a woman that they deeply love. They believe a good woman can't be a freak in the sheets and still be a good woman, essentially. If this is the case, it's doubtful that you'll find any changes heading your way.

Then there are closet gays who feel a need to pass themselves off as straight, for a variety of reasons. I hate to say that, because so many women jump to this kind of conclusion any time a man isn't interested in them for *any* reason, but thirteen years together without sex is a much different issue that warrants this consideration. Some other signs to look for: his computer history could reveal visits to the site that have classified ad sections that allow arrangements to be made for meetups. Alternatively, he may frequently erase his browsing history so you won't see such things. Any gay porn, emails or phone calls to work pals or social friends at unusual hours, or extreme homophobic attitudes around you. Decisions to sleep apart or have separate vacations or activities, or more physically affectionate with other men than he is with you or other females in his life, like sis or mom. There can be tremendous hurt and shame surrounding this topic (for both parties), and it can cause a great deal of damage. Whether there is hope if this is the case would depend on whether you both wanted to make the marriage work, whether you could accept him, whether you can find a way to meet your needs and if he'll accept that, and more.

The third possibility, though I think it's unlikely due to this being more than five or six years, is that he may have a serious testosterone deficiency. This is easily fixed with supplements.

Question: I was told by my boyfriend that he was withholding sex as a form of punishment, because he didn't like my attitude toward him. I argued too much. He said I would have to change and be more submissive in order to have sex. Is this common?

Answer: No, it's not common. And I would have to wonder about anyone who believes that "punishing" the person they love is an appropriate thing to do for ANY reason.

Question: Is avoiding sex a good punishment for my partner?

Answer: Is there such a thing as punishment that is "good?"

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