- The sexual relationship is most often disrupted by a pursuer-withdraw cycle between partners.
- Sexual withdrawers can help change this dynamic with proactive ways to engage around sex; not necessarily to have more sex.
- Talking with your partner is the best way to get on the same page.
Are you seemingly in a constant struggle over sex with your partner? One of you pushes for more frequency, variety, or intensity and the other withdraws feeling drowned by the requests? Just like a cycle in the emotional relationship, in the sexual relationship, we have pursuers and withdrawers—those who seek sex and those who withdraw from it. Believe it or not, sexual withdrawers often like sex but pull back from a negative dynamic created with their partner. Couples usually have opposite protective strategies which can create psychological and sexual tension and frustration. When there is conflict, pursuers start to ramp up requests, sometimes complaining, getting angry, or critical. Withdrawers shut down, back away, become oblivious to problems so they don't need to think about them and deny communication to their partners.
Thankfully, this is not an insurmountable challenge. Withdrawers are not the only partner who needs to change, but over and over in session I hear, “No matter what I do, it won’t be enough; I can’t make you happy.” In other posts, I'll address what pursuers can do to heal the negative cycle. But for now, here are five ways withdrawers can seek to understand and help their frustrated sexual pursuers:
Recognize The Sexual Pursuer Cycle of Rejection
Because sexual pursuers are usually the sexual initiator, they are often facing rejection. Over time they become anxious about initiating. For pursuers, rejection goes beyond being told “no” when they make a sexual advance. Rejection happens when they are actually rejected and when they perceive or assume rejection. It may seem unfair but it feels true to the sexual pursuer.
Pursuers are prone to stories from others, historical experiences, and ideas they tell themselves about what will happen if they ask for sex. The feelings created by potentially false assumptions are as real as the sting of actual rejection and can leave a pit in their stomach. The feelings can surface when they think about sex (which is often) or when they pick up on subtleties such as hearing their partner say, “I have a headache” or “I’m tired.” While the partner sharing these sentiments is probably doing so casually, the pursuer hears, “I have a headache, don’t ask me to have sex.”
The solution to this challenge is two-fold.
First, we must understand that the pursuer’s anxious behavior is fueled by self-protection. Assuming the answer will be “no,” the pursuer may refrain from asking. Instead of embracing vulnerability, they disengage and repress their sexual desire out of fear for a time, but inwardly a belief that their partner doesn’t care about them or their needs gains strength. Or they may fuel their request with pent-up frustration—hardly seductive or inviting.
Second, withdrawers can help pursuers disengage from this unhealthy cycle by being more cognitive of how they communicate. For example, instead of saying, “I’m tired,” try, “I wish we could have sex tonight, but I’m exhausted. Let’s make time to connect tomorrow.”
Acknowledging the pursuer’s desire and drive verbally when you can’t acknowledge it physically will go a long way in creating a healthier relationship.
Understanding the Origins of Hurt and Anger
In my practice, what I often hear is that pursuers have a sense of “unfairness.” In many relationships, emotional needs are valued and tended to more than sexual needs. Pursuers may accept this imbalance in an effort to meet their partner's needs but if caught in the negative cycle, they may feel a storm that can lead to outbursts.
In an effort to meet the emotional needs of their partner, (who is perhaps in the reverse position in the emotional cycle—the emotional pursuer) the sexual pursuer arranges for an evening together. A withdrawer might say, “I overate and feel so full” after enjoying this lovely dinner out with their sexual pursuer. The pursuer hears, “I’m full. I don’t want to have sex,” and thinks, "My partner's needs are met so they don't need to care about my needs." In rage and frustration, the sexual pursuers might sharply retort, “Fine. Have a good night,” turning away from the emotional connection created by the experience.
The sexual withdrawer’s nervous system will likely react to the snub in a negative way. When triggered, it can be challenging to be empathetic. The result? The sexual withdrawer who might be the emotional pursuer withdraws from sex, thinking, "You just ruined my mood and now I can't have sex with you because I'm emotionally disconnected," creating a loop of hurt and anger.
The solution is to predict the pursuer’s needs and understand their frustration. Remember, for sexual pursuers, sex is usually on their mind.
Instead of: “I overate and feel so full.”
Try: “I overate and feel so full. I need thirty minutes to walk this meal off, but then, I can’t wait to take your clothes off.”
Acknowledge the Need For Sex
Remember that the pursuer isn’t just asking for sex. They are asking for acknowledgment that their needs are important to you. For sexual pursuers, engaging in or discussing sex is just as important as an emotional connection.
Imagine coming home from a long day at work and if you need emotional connection and support and hearing, “Your day sounds boring, I’m not interested in talking.” It’s easy to imagine how painful it would be. For sexual pursuers, it’s just as hurtful when the topic of sex is avoided.
Pursuers crave sexual intimacy. They need sex to feel connected and loved. That said, having sex is not always realistic. The solution is acknowledgment. Let the sexual pursuer know that their sexual needs are acknowledged and on your radar. Let them know that a sexual connection, when possible, is at the top of your list because you love them and know that it’s at the top of their list. Prioritizing their needs doesn’t have to be born out of a physiological desire. I’m not saying someone should have sex, or just do it, when they don’t want to. But for many, creating an intentional space for intimate time and sexual contact can get the ball rolling even for their own bodies.
If you aren’t in the mood, try saying something like, “I get that you need sex. I need it too, and I want that. While I just really don't want to tonight, let's make it happen tomorrow.”
Explore the Urge to Ignore
Withdrawers, it’s okay if you aren’t in the mood; just make sure your pursuing partner knows that you are not avoiding sex. It can be hard to tell your loved one that you aren’t in the mood, but avoidance makes things worse.
While avoidance may be a way to numb out and avoid discomfort in the relationship, the flip side is that avoidance may disconnect you from your own sexuality. The choice of avoiding sex gives temporary relief to the sexual withdrawer. But it can reinforce the easy path that dismisses the difficulties with wondering and becoming curious about their own erotic nature.
Helping your frustrated pursuer also means helping yourself. The solution starts with retraining your brain. Commit to choices that strengthen engagement with your own body over avoidance. Engagement might also come by exploring your own body’s accelerators and brakes. Looking inside means wondering about the sexual beliefs and messages you learned growing up. It might mean questioning standard gender assumptions about your sexual role.
Be Sex Positive
Finally, make a conscious effort to think about sex positively. When I ask my withdraw-prone clients how many times per month they think about sex positively and how many times they think about it negatively, many of them share with me that they think about sex negatively every day.
The key to changing this behavior is to take note of your thoughts. Negative thoughts about sex might sound like:
Oh gosh. Today my partner is going to want sex. I hope not.
I hope my partner doesn’t ask me to have sex tonight.
These thoughts and patterns create a relationship between the sexual withdrawer and duty sex or sex done only to avoid a fight. When you become aware of negative thought patterns, try leaving the door open for your mood to change. Curious thoughts can help lead to positive thoughts. Try:
I wonder if my partner will want sex tonight? What if I feel like having sex later today?
I don’t feel like having sex at this moment, but I might feel differently later.
What do I need to really enjoy sex tonight? Might it be time to exercise, a long bath, a nap before dinner, a babysitter so I can get some time alone?
Talk, Talk, Talk
If you remember one thing from this article, remember, talk, talk, talk. Couples can rewrite their story if they confront their challenges by acknowledging where they sit on the spectrum of sexual desire and drive. The key is to recognize each other’s feelings and get curious.
Why do I want to avoid talking about sex?
What do I tell myself when my partner says no that makes me feel angry?
Am I understanding my partner or reacting to their behavior?
A little tip: It’s unreasonable to think that sexual withdrawers will transition from “I’m not in the mood” to “Let’s do it nightly.” Instead, give your withdrawers success by appreciating when they bring up sex even if they are simply being direct about where their mood is in the moment.