Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” I had a lot of sexually unsuccessful years with my husband.

Big Guy never went months or years without sex. At my worst, it was once every three or four weeks, with one stretch of five weeks of nothing. I would sometimes read a reference to someone going months without, and I smugly would think that I was doing better than other women.

The frequency wasn’t nearly enough for him (or for our marriage), but frequency wasn’t the biggest problem. I had become a very reluctant participant in sex, and I said “no” more often than “yes.” My husband never knew if he was going to get a physical release, and even when he did, that was ALL he got.

I was the queen of duty sex, also known as “lying there waiting for it to be over.” I was the wife who would sigh, roll her eyes, and say, “Let’s get it over with.” I had an immature response to a request for a healthy, normal, marital activity. Duty sex is essentially the same thing as pity sex, but pity implies a bit more sympathy than I often had. For me, the purpose of duty sex was to get my husband to stop bugging me about sex for a few days.

Get ‘er Done

We’d go to bed, I’d get naked and lie down, and I would say something along the lines of, “Let’s get ‘er done.”

My thoughts went something like this:

  • I’m not emotionally connected here, so I can’t really engage.
  • All he wants me for his sex, so that’s all he’s going to get.
  • I don’t like my body, so it needs to stay hidden.
  • I can’t do anything that will encourage more bed-shaking or noise because then the kids will hear.
  • Why couldn’t he try to romance me first and help me want to be here? Doesn’t he love me?
  • If I do anything to indicate participation, he’ll think I like sex and then he’ll expect me to want to do it more.
  • Wait, didn’t I used to like sex? And wait, after he’s been at it for a while, don’t I start to feel a little interested? Maybe I could participate after all, and oh, darn it, he’s done already.

I would end up feeling used and sexually aroused with no release—all because I didn’t fully participate. I was the author of my own frustration. And my husband? Well, he had his physical release, but he would pull away from me—physically and emotionally—after duty sex. I understand now that it was because he felt so emotionally emptied by the experience. I would think about how even after I agreed to have sex, even then he wasn’t emotionally available to me. And the not-so-merry-go-round of disconnection and refusal would keep on spinning.

What’s the problem, with duty sex, anyway? I figured he was the one who wanted sex, so he should be happy he was getting it. It was better than no sex, right?

Well, maybe. Or maybe not.

Duty Sex Is Better Than No Sex at All. Or Is It?

A conversation with my husband the other day led me to wonder what other husbands think about some of the experiences my husband had with me. I’ve been conducting a survey about what duty sex is like for husbands. (Guys can still take the survey by clicking here.)

So far, over 130 men have responded (including Big Guy).  The first question is, “Which is better–duty sex or no sex at all?” Since the survey opened, the responses have been evenly divided on this. Some say duty sex is better because there is at least a physical release. (My husband said that duty sex at least included the hope that he could change my mind as we proceeded.) Other men say that duty sex leaves them so empty and lonely that they are worse off than they were before the sexual encounter.

Did you see that sisters? When we don’t fully participate in sex, we make our husbands feel empty and lonely.

I want to share some of the explanations men gave for their preference. [Editorial note: I’ve corrected some typos to enhance readability.]

  • “Eventually I’ll prefer duty sex, but then I feel worse emotionally afterwards.”
  • “I would have originally said duty sex because it at least shows SOME effort.   But it usually feels worse adding more distance and loneliness in my heart knowing she wasn’t really there WITH me.  Sex IN her is not the same as sex WITH her….”
  • “It depends how long it’s been, duty sex is not fun but sometimes I just need a release. It got to the point where I would just focus on me and block out her non-participation.”
  • “It’s two edged sword. It’s good to get to get the release.  But there is still an empty disappointed feeling afterward.”
  • “As bad as it is, at least you know she cares enough to provide you with sex.”
  • “I would rather be forced to watch a “GLEE” marathon then have a wife that just lays there and counts the minutes until it’s finished.”

The responses on this survey have overwhelmed me. For years, I was sure that my husband valued me primarily for physical release. Oh, how wrong I was. (I already knew that, but the results reminded me.)

When their wives don’t fully participate, men experience feelings of loneliness and emotional disconnection. The survey comments noted the feelings of emptiness and the lack of feeling whole. My heart aches when I think of how many times I hear women talk about how they feel these same things in their marriages. When we provide duty sex, we damage our husbands’ hearts.

I’m sure some women read this and think, “Good. If duty sex is so bad, then my husband can go without any sex at all. If he can’t control his overactive sex drive, he can go masturbate.” Sadly, I was once a woman who would say this. In fact, I’m pretty sure I did say that, out loud, several times to my husband.

When we deprive our husbands of sex—of fully participatory sex—we deprive them of the very thing that helps them feel emotionally connected to us, their wives. And for so many of us, that emotional connection is what our hearts are craving. When we deprive our husbands of the sex they need (to borrow one man’s comments, by giving them Sex IN us, rather than sex WITH us), we hurt our hearts along with theirs.

Participation Counts

When I made the decision to make some changes in my sexual interactions with my husband, my first step toward sexual generosity (other than making the decision to try something different) was to be a full participant in our sexual activity. In some ways, it was easy to make that decision. It’s what my husband complained about the most, so I figured it was likely to have the biggest impact. I figured if that was the only change I made, it should still make a difference that he would notice. I told myself that since I was having sex anyway, it wouldn’t take me any more time to participate and enjoy it than it would to lie there waiting for it to be over.

But oh, those first few times were so difficult. I had forgotten how to be fully present for sex. I had to retrain my physical, mental, and verbal responses. I learned, all over again, to put my hands on my husband’s shoulders and chest. I learned to kiss again. I learned to push the grocery list out of my head. I learned to pay attention to my own sexual responses. Pretty soon, I was learning to ask him to slow down so I could enjoy it more.

Making just this one decision—to actually participate in sex rather than begrudgingly offer duty sex—made so much difference. My husband knew that when he had sex, he would actually be with me rather than just in me. Although he was still somewhat sexually frustrated because of the infrequency, he began to feel like a man again. He began to feel connected to me. He was whole. Sexual activity no longer nurtured the seeds of resentment I had sown in him.

And for me? Participating in sex meant that since I’d shown up for the whole show, I was more likely to enjoy a happy ending.

If you’re going to have sex, show up.

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In an upcoming post, I will share what husbands have said about sex with fully involved and participating wives. (Hint: Sisters, we have a superpower!)

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27 Thoughts on “The Value of Showing Up

  1. Chris what a great post and tying it to the emotional connection a wife is craving is spot on. Just imagine you had a horrible day and are sharing your heart with your husband and he seems disinterested in what you are sharing. It would probably make a wife feel unloved,not valued nor treasured. It truly is the same connection a wife and husband are looking for just in a different way, a wife by the husband being attentive and understanding and involved in his wife sharing her heart,struggles,rough day etc. The husband in communicating his emotions through sex. Beleive it or not most of us husbands correlate showing how much we love our wives by our GOD given desire for her and that’s how we interpret the love our wives have for us in responce during sex. Marriage bliss is not complicated just requires a lot of dying to self on both parts and living out Romans 10.12. Thank you so much for your transparency.

  2. “most of us husbands correlate showing how much we love our wives by our GOD given desire for her and that’s how we interpret the love our wives have for us in response during sex.”

    Profound statement! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Many women do not understand that husbands are not looking for just sex! But sometimes they will take our crumbs if that is all that we will offer. What most husbands really want and need is the close emotional connection with their spouses that they can get no other way. They need to feel desired, wanted, loved, and cherished and full enthusiastic participation from their spouses in sex provides them with these feelings. When we choose (it is a choice we make) to lie on the bed like cold fish and tell them to just get it over with – we are still denying them – only instead of denying them sex, we are making a choice to deny them and our marriages what they need the most!

  4. Great job – thanks so much.

    One of the horrible things about being offered duty sex is it is a no win situation. You need the release desperately, but want and need far more than that, and you know you will only get the release. What’s more, doing it for release only seems to prove to her that she is right, you only care about the physical pleasure.

    Saying no to duty sex is a lot like going on a hunger strike – it may or may not change the way others see you, but it will hurt you.

    • That’s exactly what so many men said–both those who say duty sex is better than no sex and those who say no sex is better.

      There’s another post on the way about what I learned with this survey. I was blown away by the depth of emotional connection expressed, and I’m still trying to think through some of the patterns I’m seeing in the results.

  5. GeneralJoe on November 2, 2013 at 6:18 pm said:

    I would rather her offer something else then duty sex. for instance butt cheek sex (may sound funny to some).

  6. Your story sounds a lot like mine…I know duty sex better than I would like to admit. It took some serious fights between the hubby and I before I finally learned how to have sex again. And I like what you mentioned…”Wait, Didn’t I used to like sex?” That was what kept going through my head when I tried to figure it all out.

    I think that, when we are young and first married, sex is still new and exciting, but, as we get older and have more of it and get to know our spouse’s body, we don’t adjust to keep it “new”. We settle into ruts and rituals and, frankly, it becomes boring. I think that being open to new ideas to bring to the bedroom is of great importance. There needs to be a little bit of the unexpected. That’s part of the thrill!

  7. I am a woman still trying to learn about these differences-have come a long way and have a long way to go. I am now happily married after a first failed marriage and I now know more about the gender differences, enjoy sex and do feel connected through making love. This issue is so complicated-the gender differences, needs, perceptions and how the chasm can keep widening with the lack of our ability to communicate through it-and likely not possessing the knowledge in the first place that we do experience these things so differently. In my first marriage I felt very disconnected emotionally from my then husband, very lonely in my marriage (he had good intentions as a husband but operated w his male mind and as I did with my female mind-I’m sure I assumed he thought and perceived the same way I did on most things). Sex with this emotional disconnect did not make me feel one inch closer to him but drove me further away and indeed made me feel completely used as a a human being-very hurtful. How could he ignore my feelings all day, all week, and then want to f*** me? (Obviously more complicated over years of marriage) It definitely had nothing to do with an expression of love to my hurting heart and made me angry and resentful. I knew sex was in theory supposed to be a wonderful part of marriage but I had no idea how to make that happen–and it wasn’t my experience and couldn’t have been for my ex either. I have learned much since those days but admit it is still at times hard to process through some of this and I sometimes struggle with confusion. Why did God make us so different? Why is this so complicated? Do we as women not learn young to protect our sexuality and experience on a daily basis how men use women for their own pleasure both visually and physically? Etc. My heart can still hurt over some of these differences. Thank you for helping me in my journey of learning.

    • I’m glad you are on a journey of learning and healing. As I have come to enjoy some of the gender differences between my husband and me, it has become a bit easier to accept some of the differences I don’t yet understand or appreciate. Instead of looking at how he is different from me, I have tried to look at how he might see me as different from him so I can try to explain what I’m doing and why within his own framework.

      • That is a helpful way to look at things. I will work on that more. I’ve been trying so hard to learn his perspective and what is important to him that I have put all that responsibility on myself–to adapt to him. I need to work on teaching him more about me! Thank you.

  8. TheHubby on November 8, 2013 at 5:34 pm said:

    I think TheMarriageBed hit the nail on the head about duty sex being a no win. I would add that my wife would be upset when I would turn down duty sex because she would say she was doing what she thought I wanted, giving me sex and even initiating, but that wasn’t really what was desired.

    I’m somewhat flattered you used my quote, the 3rd in the preference section about it depending on how long it had been and blocking out my wife’s reaction, but it’s also saddening because she doesn’t understand what I really want. It seems like she’s upset that she has this great power to make me and consequently our relationship happier (which you talk about later). I hope the lightbulb turns on.

  9. I think “duty sex” works both ways, too. No matter how enthusiastic and “into it” I’ve tried to be, I feel like I get little out of it except for taking care of him. Usually once he’s done, we’re done, because it’s never worked well for me and we still can’t figure out why. So it ends up feeling more like a duty and there’s less incentive to be enthusiastic. It’s a vicious cycle, certainly, but I can’t help but wonder if some of the wives that “just lie there” started out on this kind of downward cycle of not feeling connected and not getting their own physical needs met.

    • This is probably the case for quite a few wives. In my case, the problem wasn’t about whether or not I was enthusiastic or not. It was about the fact that my heart and mind weren’t present along with my body. Even now, there are times I know “it” just won’t happen for me. But I can still make love to my husband, find joy in being able to give him pleasure in a way no one else can, and marvel in what it means to have a one-flesh relationship.

  10. Pingback: A Damaged Heart | The Forgiven Wife

  11. Enthusiastic exciting sex from a mans wife is necessary to keep him from engaging in other activities that the wife will not like at all. A man needed to be needed. Duty sex just proves we are nothing more than human dildos, or worse, were are not needed nor attractive to our wives.

    Wives continue with the duty sex at your marriages peril.

  12. Getting Better on July 21, 2014 at 4:00 pm said:

    I am a man who has been recently told that his wife has been having only duty sex with him as long as she could remember. Small wonder my wife and I slide into an emotional black hole where most of life was consumed with family duty rather than celebrating our relationship. We have missed so much of what we could have had and can never get back. At this time we are trying to fix the problem, duty sex is not love and it furnishes little or no release it only digs a deeper and deeper whole. When confronted with the problem a couple needs work it out in a manner that is agreeable to both. GOD made us spiritual and physical beings, if one suffers so shall the other.

    • Sandi on July 21, 2014 at 4:22 pm said:

      “duty sex is not love and it furnishes little or no release it only digs a deeper and deeper whole. ”

      I understand and can sympathize with your feeling here, but I don’t think I can agree that it’s not love and only digs a deeper hole. It’s not God’s best for a marriage, but for women that would rather say “no”, duty sex can be love. Saying yes when everything in you is screaming “no” because you recognize your spouses need is most certainly love.

      I wouldn’t want women to hear “it’s not love”and “it makes it worse” as a reason to say “no” because they’re not at the place of being enthusiastic yet..

      I sense a feeling of betrayal that she’s been hiding this all these years. Grieving what’s lost is understandable and I’m sorry you’re going through that. Perhaps now that it’s out in the open you can work together to make your marriage bed all that God intended.

    • I’m curious as to why you found this out only recently. If your wife is working on her own growth, being honest about this might actually be a sign that her heart is moving in a positive direction. If, however, it was something that came out during an argument, that might be something different.

      Duty sex may come out of love, even though it isn’t experienced that way. How are the two of you working on the problem now?

      • Getting Better on July 22, 2014 at 10:09 am said:

        She told me before we separated and I responded by trying harder to be pleasing, i.e. I was not doing my job in the bedroom. After we got back together after our separation she reminded me again about her sexual feelings 6 weeks ago (a period of 7 months after our reunion) and we have been discussing with our marriage counselor. We are talking about it right now and she insists that she solve this herself with her therapist which our marriage counselor supports. At this time we have both agreed not to have sex until she can find a way to do so in a positive way. I do not want pity sex and now believe that part of my anger toward her prior to our separation was out of the feeling of detachment from her.

        • I will pray for marriage counseling to lead to good progress in this area.

        • Getting Better on July 22, 2014 at 1:30 pm said:

          It already has, the emotional ties in our marriage have been mostly rebuilt. We both agree that our marriage is stronger than it has been for most of our 40+ years. I hunger and am impatient for our physical intimacy to return but I must wait. Patience is the key I know. Thank you for allowing me to vocalize my feelings. GOD is looking over us and I know his plan for us is a total healing but without pain we do not know joy.

  13. Another opinion on July 21, 2014 at 10:27 pm said:

    I have to agree with “Getting Better”. In my marriage, my husband was the one always turning me down. I absolutely, positively hate pity sex and would much rather have no sex at all. When you are a woman who is refused, especially when you read that every other man is constantly hot for his wife, it hurts so badly. You want so badly to be desired like all the other wives out there. Nothing is worse than pity sex. Nothing. When you long to be desired the last thing you want, the most awful thing, is pity. I’m sorry but in my opinion, in my heart, it made things 250% worse.

    Thank God we are healing from that rough time. But I can no longer initiate. The feelings of prior rejection are still too fresh. The pain too much to risk. I say yes when he initiates, but my desire to initiate is long gone. It’s very sad. Wives, think twice about what you are doing and what a blessing it is to be desired.

    • You may find that over time, your willingness to initiate returns. Healing takes time, and for now, I am glad to know that at least some healing is happening for you.

  14. Another opinion on July 22, 2014 at 10:36 pm said:

    Can I ask you a question? When you were refusing your husband, did you love him? My husband says he loves me all the time. He tells me I’m beautiful every day. (I do not believe he really feels that way, though.) he gives me a kiss before he leaves in the morning and when he comes home in the afternoon. He usually falls asleep on the couch not long after dinner. He says he loves having sex with me, and he’s always saying how much he loves me but I’m getting tired of hearing it. We have sex once a week. Twice if I’m really lucky. Everything I read is about husbands who can’t keep their hands off their wives. Therefore I know my husband must find me repulsive. I am at a healthy weight. There has got to be something about me that he finds repulsive. In my mind, no desire = no love. That’s why I wish he’d stop saying he loves me. It’s hard to feel loved by someone who obviously does not desire me. So anyhow, did you still love him? And if yes, how is that even possible? It is very hard to be the one undesirable woman on earth.

    • Is love a feeling or an action? If it is a feeling, I did love my husband. I didn’t desire him, because for me, desire was a physical response to whether I felt emotionally connected to him (which related to my perception of whether he loved me). To me, my desire and my love were completely unrelated.

      But that was me. I don’t know what is going on with your husband. Why do you say you must be repulsive because your husband does match other men? That is unfair to you and to him. If he has low desire, it might be connected to porn use (past or present) or low testosterone–or it might just be the way he is. It isn’t necessarily a reflection of you, even though it feels that way.

      What has your husband said when you’ve shared these concerns with him?

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