Sexual Stalemate


You know the sexual stereotypes, and they go beyond “honey, I have a headache”. It is common to hear the joke that nothing kills sexual desire like marriage. If we move into long-term relationships or marriage, are we killing our sexual drive?  The problems around sexual desire can grow intractable, feeling less and less like a difference of opinion and more and more like a standoff with deadly weapons. Why do sexual desire problems grow into battlegrounds like this?

Dr. Schnarch, in his book, Intimacy and Desire, brings the problem of unequal sexual desire under the spotlight and describes the intensity that the problem can bring into marriage. He spells out that there is nearly always a low desire partner and a high desire partner, no matter the actual frequency of sex in the relationship. It makes sense when you think about it, even if the two of you want the same thing, one of you wants it more than the other. Perhaps surprising to some, he finds that half the time, the low desire partner is the man and the other half of the time, it is the woman. (p.9) As desire level diverges, a certain insidious stalemate can develop.

“He (the low desire partner) feels oppressed, pressured to want sex and have sex, badgered by his mate’s higher desire. The high desire partner understands tyranny too: She feels pressured to have sex when and how it’s available, because opportunities may be few and far between. She has to settle for ‘getting lucky’ instead of being wanted, and act grateful for mediocre sex.” (p.91)

What this quote describes is the interesting way that the low-desire partner controls sex in the relationship. (p.33) Most low-desire individuals initially balk at this assertion, feeling that their position is the weaker one. They identify their own helpless feelings in the face of the pressure-cooker situation of their marriage. Motivation for change becomes a very real issue. “The low desire partner has nowhere to go. If she doesn’t develop more desire, she gets the blame. If she does, the high desire partner gets the credit. You supposedly created the desire in her. With nothing to gain and nothing to lose, the low desire partner isn’t highly motivated to make things better. She’s more prepared for rebellion and passive-aggression.” (p.49)

For many of you, I’m guessing this sounds all too familiar. And your identification with this problem puts you squarely in the category of normal. But to consider a sexual stalemate and invitation to newness is a challenge to anyone’s character and sense of personal ok-ness. Schnarch makes the claim that desire and wanting can be developed and grown. Both the high and low desire partner actually usually need to get more clear about their own wants and become more willing to express those wants. It is an emotionally risky choice to make!

Many couples are helped by therapy when they are stuck in sexual stalemate. For some of you, this might just be the confirmation you need to take that step. For others, what connection do you make? Do you sense the invitation to life on the other side of the stalemate?

What advice do you have for couples stuck in sexual stalemate?

The quotes are from Dr. David Schnarch’s book, Intimacy and Desire. For the month of October, I’ll continue writing on this topic. I invite your comments and questions. Click here to read my review.


  1. Married 21 years, we as a couple have both grown in faith and we realize sexual intimacy to be a key part of our relationship. This is a gift from God to married people to be used well. While we as a couple have cycled thru the “stalemate” in the article we now find ourselves more likely in another cycle. This cycle or phase is less blamed on one or the other partner, but to our aging bodies and busy lives. I know we both desire sex but relent to the other stronger fleshly “tiredness” and lack of motivation. This too, according to 1 Cor 7:5-6 is wrong in marriage… “Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment.”
    Essentially we are cheating in this agreement unless we are abstaining for spiritual exercise, and only for “a time”. So even those couples who consent and agree not to have sex and neither parties are bothered by it are walking counter to God’s will for marriage. So here the power play or stalemate is actually the couple against God. This is where we find ourselves.

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