Coping With a Husband's Low Sex Drive

By<i>by John Stossel</i>

Sept. 26, 2003 -- On your wedding day you assume you'll have a long future together filled with love, intimacy, maybe kids, and of course, sex. Cheryl Wolfe assumed sex would be part of her marriage.

She was mistaken. "Marriage was never consummated … The day we got married there was no sexual relationship at all, no honeymoon night and from that point forward — nothing," Wolfe said.

She isn't alone. Marriage therapists estimate as many as 20 percent of couples are mired in low-sex or no-sex marriages, and surprisingly often it's the men, heterosexual men, who don't want sex. Wolfe ultimately left her husband because he lost sexual interest in her.

Men's Low Sex Drive Rarely Discussed

Lori and Jim Barrett and Suzan and Chris Cummings — two couples who say their marriages are in trouble because they rarely have sex — bravely agreed to talk with 20/20 about it, and then to work with marriage therapist Michele Weiner-Davis to see if they could make things better.

In both cases it's the women who are frustrated that their sexual needs aren't being met by their husbands.

Barrett said, "I feel like we're living like brother and sister, because we don't have sex. I'm like what kind of relationship is this? This is awful."

Jim Barrett's someone people might call a manly guy. He's a motorcycle enthusiast, and a volunteer firefighter. He says sex has simply never been a high priority for him. He and Lori have two children, and they do have sex maybe 10 times a year, which is too seldom for Lori, but plenty for Jim. He says sex has just never been that important to him.

But it is important to Lori and to Suzan Cummings.

Susan says sex is the "foundation" of a marriage. "It's not sharing the bank account, and the car, and the toilet," she said.

Suzan and Chris Cummings have been married for six years. She has a daughter by a previous marriage and together, she and Chris have a son, Connor. Susan says sex was infrequent before Connor was born and afterward, Chris seemed less and less interested. Now it's been 15 months since they've had sex.

Chris says he doesn't see why sex has to be such a big deal. In fact, he's happy in their marriage without the sex."From my perspective it's wonderful. I would say that if sex wasn't important for Susan, if she never wanted to have sex again, I think, I would probably be very happy," he said.

The Barretts' and Cummings' problems aren't surprising to Davis, who's been counseling couples for two decades and is author of Sex-Starved Marriage.

"I'm convinced that low desire in men is America's best kept secret," Davis said.

According to Davis, women in low-sex marriages tend to think their situation is unique. "They start to wonder whether they're the only women in the world who are married to guys who aren't following them around the house with a permanent erection," she said.

Lori Barrett said her husband's lack of desire has been tough on her self image. "First it was for me almost like, 'What's wrong with you,' … and then I was like, 'What's wrong with me — he doesn't want me!'"

Davis said it's common for the partner who's not getting their sexual needs met to feel unwanted or unloved. "When this major disconnect happens," Davis said, "intimacy on all levels tends to drop out, and it puts the marriage in a danger zone."

Bedroom Troubles Boil Over

When one partner is unhappy in the bedroom, it often creates tension that spills into other aspects of the marriage.

The Barretts agreed to let 20/20 put a camera in their home, and sure enough, there was a lot of bickering going on.

Jim said he feels like he's walking around the house on eggshells. Lori and Jim both say it's usually Lori who's on Jim's case.

Lori thinks there'd be less tension in their marriage if there were more sexual intimacy in it. She begged Jim to go to a doctor to have his testosterone levels checked and see if his problem is physical. He won't do it.

"Yeah, let's send Jim to the doctor. He's broke," he said. But he doesn't think there's anything wrong with him physically. He thinks it's an issue of trust, and that he can't just be himself.

They're caught in a trap. Lack of sex makes Lori frustrated, and Jim says he's not in the mood for sex because Lori is so critical.If she weren't so critical, Jim says, he might be turned on to his wife.

"Things'd be a lot more relaxed and we'd probably be a lot closer. Yeah. We'd probably have a lot better physical relationship," he said.

Don't Ignore the Problem

There are many factors that can cause low desire in men, say the experts. It might be anger toward a spouse or a physical issue, but all say whatever the cause, the worst thing to do is nothing — especially when sex is a priority for your partner — as it is for Suzan Cummings.

Chris says he loves Suzan but he worries about not being able to please her sexually. He says he always suffered some level of performance anxiety, and it's only gotten worse over time.

He tried Viagra, but it didn't work. Chris hasn't initiated sex with Suzan in about three years and he says it's gotten to the point he's afraid to initiate any physical contact with Suzan.

"At this point," he said, "the kissing and the hugging and the holding, has kind of signified, has come to signify the, desire to go farther."

Chris's fear of having sex with Suzan is pretty ironic since she works as an exotic dancer. She performs at a strip club, where men pay big bucks to watch women strut around in sexual ways. Suzan is one of the star attractions — lots of men come to the club just to see her. At one time Chris was one of them. That's how they met.

Chris says he still finds Suzan sexually attractive but his anxiety dampens his desire for her.

But he hasn't entirely lost his sex drive. He says "it gets satisfied through masturbation."

Chris says he knows his predicament sounds odd. "I realize that obviously I look like a schmuck on TV. It's extremely humiliating to get up and speak publicly about the fact that I'm not good in bed or that I can't satisfy my wife. I'm not proud of it," he said.

Suzan says she used to try reaching out to Chris sexually, but she's given that up. She said it was painful for her to feel rejected by her husband. "I value myself, um my sexuality as a woman. And to have it turned down over and over repeatedly says you have no value as a sexual being. … I need to feel loved. And I feel loved through sexual contact."

Suzan said the practical aspects of their relationship works fine, but overall she feels the relationship is cold and lonely.

Watching them at home with 20/20 cameras, it sure looked that way. There was no physical affection, and barely any interaction between them. It was almost as if they were leading parallel lives. After dinner Chris went downstairs to play video games, while Suzan sat by herself at the computer, surfing the Web.

Suzan said this is what happens night after night. "That's the exciting life of a stripper on her days off," she said.

More importantly, Suzan said she thinks there's a good chance they'll break up if things don't change.

Working It Out

Davis sat down with the Barretts, and Lori quickly revealed how deep her sense of rejections runs.

"Growing up I had a family an extended family that was constantly teasing me about how I looked and it really hurt me a lot, and so when I had my husband … this person I felt loved me, married me, and then did the same thing, rejected me. It's been very, very hard."

For Jim, hearing Lori say she felt unloved, rather than just barking at him, provides a different perspective, says Davis."That's the catalyst for change, to truly understand what your partner is feeling, to be in their hearts, rather than to sit as so many couples do and point fingers," Davis said.

Davis says it's important for high-desire partners like Lori to understand that some people just have low sex drives and her husband is probably one of them What Jim has to do, she says, is to act sexually toward Lori even at first if he's not in the mood for sex. She says low-desire partners should try to just do it. Use it or lose it.

According to Davis, "The more a person is sexually active, the more it actually stimulates testosterone production, which is one of the primary hormones responsible for sex drive."

In Suzan and Chris's case, that's not so easy, because Chris now is afraid he can't perform. He knows it hurts Suzan. During their session with Davis, Suzan told Chris, "I don't understand how you can you love me, and not be there for me physically. How you could let me feel that way about myself?"

Davis' advice to them is to start touching each other affectionately with the understanding, at first, that they will not have sex. That will take pressure off Chris. Suzan said she'd be happy just to have simple affection, and Chris said he was surprised and relieved to hear that would be enough.

A month later, things were definitely better for Lori and Jim. He had initiated more sexual contact, and she said she made an effort not to nag.

Suzan and Chris were happier too. "First of all we're having sex," Chris said, "Not as much as we'd like, but that's the biggest fundamental change."

They needed another counseling session with Davis before Chris could really relax and feel it was OK to touch Suzan without it leading to intercourse and the fear of failure that gave him.

The couple says their renewed intimacy has brought other benefits.

Suzan said, "You feel good about yourself. When you feel good about yourself you can show love to your partner. You know it might not last forever until you're 90 but it gives you a warm, loving basis to go on, you know you feel loved."

For more information on Michele Weiner-Davis, visit her Web site at

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