FamilyLife Today® Podcast

“My Spouse Doesn’t Want Me”: Differences in Sexual Desire

with Michael Sytsma, Shaunti Feldhahn | February 8, 2023
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Feeling undesired, unattractive? Researcher Shaunti Feldhahn & sex therapist Michael Systma get real about differences in sexual desire—and how to deal.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Feeling undesired, unattractive? On FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann Wilson host researcher Shaunti Feldhahn & sex therapist Michael Systma, who get real about differences in sexual desire and how to deal.

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“My Spouse Doesn’t Want Me”: Differences in Sexual Desire

With Michael Sytsma, Shaunti Feld...more
February 08, 2023
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Shaunti: The people who are connecting less and less and less intimately, their marriage starts suffering; their emotional health starts suffering. And the reverse happens, too. When they say, “We have to work on this! You know, we can’t let this go,” things start to improve.

Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.

Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at or on the FamilyLife® app.

Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!

Dave: So, we’re going to talk about a sensitive topic today that, if I was a parent, I’d want to know it’s rated PG-13, at least.

Ann: Yes.

Dave: And make a decision as a parent, you know?

Ann: Yes; it’s a great topic.

Dave: Oh, it’s a great topic! And here’s what I was thinking about this topic—and I’ve told you this before: I didn’t know this about myself as a pastor and preacher, but I have no fear talking about this at church from the stage. I want our congregation to know what God’s heart is on sex. I have a whole ton of fear talking about this with Ann in our kitchen or our bedroom.

Ann: Or even with the boys, it was a little awkward for you.

Dave: It was weird. “Why am I so free here, but—?” It was a scary thing to talk about that. So, we’ve got Shaunti Feldhahn in the studio, back with us, and Dr. Michael Systma with us, who’s a sex therapist. You guys have combined to write The Secrets of Sex in Marriage: Eight Surprises That Make All the Difference. Welcome back to FamilyLife!

Dr. Michael: Thank you.

Shaunti: Thanks so much!

Dave: Yes; we’ve already, you know, previously, talked about some of the surprises.

Dr. Michael: Yes.

Dave: One of them that I read in the manuscript [was] that desire tends to work differently for men and women, so, educate us!

Shaunti: The basic premise for this, which is why it is so helpful for people, is we don’t realize [that for] the average couple, we have in our heads everything that we’ve seen in the movies or, you know, seen on television; and we don’t recognize just how much we think that is what sex is. Now, we know that movies put people in crazy situations, but the process that we think happens—you have the boy and the girl, and they look at each other, and there are like sparks that fly, and they’re in bed.

It turns out, that’s only one type of desire. There’s another type of desire. That sort of Hollywood type, where you feel desire and you pursue it, that’s called “initiating desire.” And the average couple doesn’t know this. And here’s the key that is so powerful for people: it’s to recognize, “Okay, that is one type of desire;” but there’s a completely different type of desire, called “receptive desire,” which works almost in the reverse, physiologically, where someone who has receptive desire, which tends to be the woman, but it’s not always. I think it’s like 74-75% of women—

Dr. Michael: And older men.

Shaunti: And older men.

Dr. Michael: Fifty or 55, it starts to show up consistently.

Shaunti: It starts to show up more in men in that way. There are also some younger men that are in that category.

Dr. Michael: Yes.

Shaunti: But someone with receptive desire feels it differently - where you don’t look at the person and automatically have that sense of desire. You decide to get engaged. Then, as you do, assuming that it’s positive, eventually, you start feeling the sense of desire that, maybe, your spouse felt from the very beginning. One of the main questions that I would get all the time in our previous surveys is, “Why isn’t my spouse interested the way I am?!”

And the reality is, you’re thinking of interest as meaning one type of desire. Your spouse may have this receptive desire, and interest comes as you start getting engaged. Once you recognize that, it’s like, “I’m not broken!” Or “my spouse isn’t broken.” There are just two different types of desire.

Ann: Well, Shaunti, what you just said is not romantic according to Hollywood. [Laughter]

Shaunti: [Laughing] Yes!

Ann: Because you said you’ll make a choice.

Shaunti: Yes! You decide.

Ann: You decide.

Shaunti: Yes.

Ann: So, I remember saying to someone, after we’d had kids, I said, “We’re so busy, we have to put it on the calendar!” [Laughter]

Dr. Michael: Well, good for you!

Ann: And the person said, “That is the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard!”

Shaunti: But it’s not really!

Ann: So, what you’re saying—

Shaunti: Once you connect—

Ann: Yes.

Dr. Michael: Look at how many things we put on the calendar that are important to us. Once we begin engaging with them, it’s rich. I will often look at people, and say, “Do you do devotions every morning?” A group of them will say, “Yes, I do.” Are there not those mornings that you wake up, roll over, and think, “I do not have the time or energy. I am not interested in this,” but you make yourself do it because it’s the discipline of it. “It’s who I am. I know it’s important.”

Five to ten minutes into it, God has met you and it is rich, and you’re so glad you did.

Ann: Yes!

Dr. Michael: That’s a similar kind of experience that the husband or wife—he approaches her, and he says, “You look really cute. It’s been a couple of days. Can we be together?” [Laughter] And she thinks, “You know, I’ve got five other tasks to do yet this evening, and if I can get those done, that wouldn’t be bad.” You know, she’s got other things on her mind, but then she says “yes,” and they begin to engage. What we know is, once arousal begins, and she assesses that arousal positively, that then the desire turns on.

It's almost like until we begin to get engaged, that part of the brain doesn’t activate. But once it’s activated, we don’t want to stop! Now, Shaunti made a good caveat in there,  of saying, “If it’s enjoyable.” It does need to be enjoyable. We can choose to engage and keep the brakes on through the entire process, and that actually gets counterproductive; it gets destructive to us, because if we are only engaging out of fear or out of duty, and we can’t figure out how to enjoy it, then it actually becomes counterproductive.

So, if we can find the—one of my colleagues, Edward Taylor, says, “You have to find that peace inside where it feels good, grab hold of it, and follow it on.” That’s where the receptive desire really kicks in, and now it’s legitimate desire.

Dave: One of my frustrations many years ago in our marriage was this very conversation.

Dr. Michael: Yes.

Dave: And we’ve shared this when we’ve talked about this, in our book Vertical Marriage, and when we do conferences. This terminology opened up, “Oh, that’s what our conversation was!” I was—

Shaunti: Interesting.

Dave: I was saying, “I don’t feel like you want to make love as much as I do.”

Dr. Michael: Right.

Dave: She was feeling like, “You don’t even love me. There’s no affection.” And it was initiating desire.

Dr. Michael: Right.

Dave: She has always been receptive, but I had never had categories for that. I’m like, “Oh, you really do want to make love! Probably as much as I do; it just looks totally different.”

Ann: But I felt really guilty about it, and I felt a lot of shame toward it.

Dr. Michael: Right. And that doesn’t facilitate intimate connection, when we step in with guilt and when we step in with shame. The invitation is two-fold. If you’re the receptive desire spouse, acknowledge that: “You know, I haven’t thought about it in a couple of days. And that’s okay; that’s how I work. I need to be drawn into it, and once that happens, it is going to turn on, and it is a legitimate type of desire. At that point, I do want to engage with you.”

And then, for the other spouse, to recognize they might not have thought about it in 2-3 days, and we need to ramp up our game; not of putting guilt or pressure or shame on them. Not saying, “There’s something broken” or “There’s something wrong with you.” No, there’s not. Your task is: how do I create a space that they want to step into? And when they do step into it, it’s rich for them? The next time I come back and say, “Hey, you look really cute. You wanna?” [Laughter]

And they go, “Well, last time that worked out really well for us. Yes, I want to create space for it. Even though I’m not hungry to start, you’ve created a space that I want to step into, and it’s going to be enjoyable when I do.”

Dave: Boy, that’s wisdom! I mean, you know, one of the analogies you use in the book—and I want to say it because you wrote it so well—was like a car.

Dr. Michael: Right.

Dave: Initiating desire is sort of the car in drive; receptive desire is the car in neutral.

Shaunti: Yes, it’s not being pulled forward or backward or anything.

Dave: Yes, and it can be pulled. I think one of the things—Ann does this great illustration when we talk about this—about the difference between men and women’s brains is, I’m initiating desire. We have never used those terms. We will never not use those terms going forward! [Laughter] Seriously!

Dr. Michael: Yes.

Dave: Even reading your book, it’s like, “Oh, we have to reframe even how we talk about this.”

Ann: Well, I said, “This is what I’m feeling.” And I’m sure a lot of women can feel like this.

Dr. Michael: Right.

Ann: He’s upstairs waiting for me, but I’m thinking, “Is there milk in the refrigerator? I need to pack lunches for tomorrow.”

Shaunti: Exactly!

Ann: “Did I get the wash done? I need to give the dog some water. My mom’s sick.” So, I have all these things on my mind!

Shaunti: Exactly.

Ann: And Dave—he’s ready! [Laughter] You know?

Dave: And it’s classic when she does this. She puts luggage on herself, and she’s got 18 bags on her.

Dr. Michael: Yes.

Dave: And then she comes in and she goes, “So then, I go up to get in bed—” And you know, all the women start cheering!

Shaunti: Yes, exactly!

Dave: They literally start cheering! That’s it. And you’re saying for a husband to understand that—

Dr. Michael: Very much so.

Dave: See, I thought, “She’s not interested.” No, she’s interested. She’s in neutral, and I need to help her lift off these bags!

Ann: And he said, “How can I help you move toward me?”

Dr. Michael: That’s the question, yes.

Dave: Create an environment.

Dr. Michael: That’s the question, because many times—you know, let’s reverse the roles, because in roughly 27% of the couples that reported to us, the wife was reported as being the higher drive individual in the marriage. So, we’ll reverse it for those quarter of couples. Let’s say she is the one who is initiating, and she’s wanting it more. If she gets critical of him, which I often see: “There’s something wrong with you! There’s something broken in you that you don’t want this all the time.”

I look and say, “That’s not seductive.” [Laughter] That doesn’t draw him out.

Shaunti: That is not helpful!

Dr. Michael: He doesn’t want to engage with you when that’s your attitude. How do you draw her? Ask your wife, “What would draw you towards me? How can I help create space that we both want to connect in that space?” That’s the task, and that will be different for each couple.

Shaunti: Well, and there’s something really important in there that I’d love to just press on, because one of the things that comes with all of this that we’re talking about—and I know we don’t have time to get into it, because this is a whole other topic—there are a lot of emotions that are running underneath the surface in both of these cases.

Ann: Yes.

Shaunti: Again, whoever has the higher desire; again, it’s not always the husband, right? Sometimes (about a quarter of the time), it’s the wife. Reality is, whoever that person is, there’s a lot of this emotional: “I feel like you don’t want me.”

Ann: “I feel rejected.”

Shaunti: “I feel like, ‘Am I undesirable?’” Yes, “am I undesirable?” So, it’s not surprising that when there’s this deep “ugh,” like a negative, “What’s wrong with me? I want you to want me, and you don’t want me.” It would be easy, for any couple, for that person to be sending out those signals of pressure, because it’s like there’s such emotion behind it. The need to understand that goes both ways. This is not just [that] the person who has initiating desire sort of understanding that their partner might be receptive; this is also the receptive person recognizing that, for their partner, this is an emotional thing. For their partner, they feel rejected, and it’s not, “Oh, that’s all they want!” Usually, there’s this feeling of, “I want to feel desired by you.”

We found that—and we haven’t done all of the surveys on both men and women on this particular question, but I know—for men, that feeling of being desired by their wife gives them a sense of confidence in all the other areas of their life. If they don’t feel desired, it’s just kind of, “Ugh”—almost this depressing feeling of, “I must be so undesirable. I can’t compete with the 18 bags she has strapped on.” [Laughter]

“What do you mean you want to check and see if the fridge—if the milk is in the fridge?! What are you talking about? I’m waiting upstairs. Surely you should want this!” And all of that becomes—All of the emotions on both sides can so easily create pressure, where one of the things that we think is so freeing about this knowledge is that you go, “Oh! This doesn’t mean that you don’t find me desirable. This doesn’t mean that you’re somehow locked down. This doesn’t mean that you don’t care about me.”

No! We care about each other; we just didn’t know that these things mattered or existed.

Ann: Because the truth is—and you could address this: we never talk about it. So many of us don’t talk about it, and then it is just stuffed down.

Dr. Michael: Right. Most of the couples that come to see me have never talked through a typical sexual encounter. They don’t know what seduces each other; they don’t know what draws; they don’t know what creates the setting that enriches. They don’t even know, really, what’s enjoyable.

Dave: Why do we do that?

Dr. Michael: I think that, [with] some of what Shaunti’s talking about, the level of fear that we have—

Dave: Yes.

Dr. Michael: If we stick with the stereotype, in 52% of the couples, the husband was the higher-drive person. So, he’s more likely to be the initiator. So, let’s say he initiates, and she says, “I’m too tired.” He’s going to be hurt; he’s going to be disappointed; he might be a little bit angry.

Shaunti: Pouty.

Dr. Michael: Yes! He is having a normal, human response! He was wanting to connect with his wife, and you just told him, “No.” There’s nothing wrong with saying, “No,” and it’s okay for him to be discouraged and disappointed. Extending grace to each other in those moments and shooting for, “We are a couple that does want to connect intimately, so let’s plan out a time that we can. How do we talk through a better way to initiate with each other? How do we talk through a better way to say, ‘I’m not in the mood tonight, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like you. Can we just cuddle tonight, without the pressure for doing anything more? Because I still want to be with you.”

It takes couples talking through that, but we’re so afraid of being hurt, we’re so afraid of being wounded, we’re so afraid of being rejected; and for most of us, we’ve been taught it’s not an okay subject to talk about anyway.

Dave: Yes, right! [Laughter]

Shaunti: One of the things that was a huge surprise is just the concept of how often we aren’t—it’s not even talking. We don’t know how to signal that we want to go this direction, and we don’t know how to signal initiation. Like, literally, one of the reasons people aren’t connecting is that they don’t have the signal to sort of get things started.

Ann: I thought this was fascinating!

Dave: Yes, you had a whole chapter on it.

Ann: Yes.

Dave: Wow! This is really important! I would have never thought this was that important.

Ann: Yes.

Dr. Michael: Oh, I will spend, sometimes, weeks with couples, helping them to figure out how to start the process well.

Dave: Hey, let me ask one quick question before we jump in there: should we talk about resistant desire?

Shaunti: We probably should. That’s important.

Dr. Michael: Yes.

Shaunti: There’s a small, little percentage—3 percent or 4 percent—for whom it’s almost like the car isn’t in drive, and it’s not in neutral; the parking brake is on, or they’re in reverse.

And there’s a small percentage of people that are just—it’s called “resistant desire,” for whatever reason. And maybe they would have initiating desire, or maybe they would have receptive desire if everything were healthy in their life, but there’s something. It’s there for a reason.

Dr. Michael: The key is, if resistant desire is there—and I do want to say, a lot of couples come into me, and one of them believes that they have resistant desire or believes that their spouse has resistant desire; and it’s not resistant. It’s more the receptive desire that hasn’t been unpacked and explored. But, for those that there really is a resistant or a reverse-type of desire, exactly, it’s a signal! It’s meaningful.

My invitation to those couples is, “Do you know why?” Because sometimes, it’s important for a season. If something has been brought into the marriage that’s destructive, it may be safe to be resistant or to be in reverse for a while. Or sometimes, there’s been woundedness or trauma in the past, maybe even in their childhood. Now, they’re in a safe relationship, and they can begin to work on that trauma from the past.

They need to be resistant to the current relationship while they heal something from the past. That is healthy for them. Or there may be something physical that’s going on. The invitation is to lean in and really understand what is going on. That’s more difficult to do than it sounds, because desire is so complex; but the invitation is to lean in and start that process.

Ann: Well, I can relate to this, sadly. I’m just going to be totally real. When Dave and I were really struggling in our marriage, at year ten, I told him that I had nothing left.

Dr. Michael: Yes.

Ann: Where I was receptive before, now I was like—

Shaunti: The parking brake was on.

Dave: Yes.

Ann: Parking brake was on!

Dave: She was resistant.

Ann: I was like repulsed.

Dr. Michael: Right.

Ann: And I felt like it was the flasher on my dashboard of the car.

Shaunti: Yes.

Ann: Saying, “Something’s wrong! Something’s wrong!”

Dr. Michael: Yes.

Ann: And I didn’t know how to get out of it. I just knew that I didn’t like him very much.

Dr. Michael: Right.

Ann: It was a relational problem for us.

Dr. Michael: And yet, if the spouse puts enormous pressure on, that’s not helpful. Let’s step back to, “How do I help you to unpack some of this baggage so you can release that parking brake again?” But then, you have to take ownership and responsibility that, “I’ve got the parking brake on. It’s there for a reason. I need to figure that out. He can’t figure it out.” And you step up and then, the two of you begin to work on it together.

Typically, that does require an outside person.

Ann: Yes.

Dr. Michael: Because the emotions are so high, the resentment gets so high; contempt can start into the process, and now, we’re almost repelling each other. We move into what we would call a “polarized marriage.” It takes somebody to sit in the middle, who can absorb all that energy and invite you back to the table. That’s all we as marriage and sex therapists do we invite couples back to the table and sort through it.

Ann: I think one of the very first steps that I took, because I was so desperate at that ten-year mark, when we were struggling, was telling God everything that I felt.

Dr. Michael: Right.

Ann: It was confession, like, “Lord, this is where I am. I don’t know what to do! I need Your guidance. I need Your wisdom.”

Shaunti: Yes!

Dr. Michael: Right.

Ann: And I think that part, like so often, we go all these other places. And I think some of those places, we need to go; but that first cry of help: “God, I need Your wisdom! I need Your help!”

Dr. Michael: Right.

Ann: “I need Your direction!” That, for me, was so helpful because God brought these people in. We started talking to others who were so helpful in our journey. This topic matters to Him!

Shaunti: Well, it was incredibly powerful, once we started looking at the data—we mentioned this a little bit in the last episode—when we saw [that] the people who are connecting less and less and less intimately, their marriage starts suffering.

Ann: Yes.

Shaunti: Their emotional health starts suffering. And the reverse happens, too. When they say, “We have to work on this!” You know, “We can’t let this go.”

Dave: Yes.

Shaunti: Things start to improve! I mean, I love Mike’s analogy of this. It’s like oil in an engine, because it lubricates the friction. The intimate life is like that oil. It lubricates the rough edges.

Dr. Michael: That every marriage is going to have.

Shaunti: That every marriage is going to have!

Ann: That’s so true.

Shaunti: You’re just going to! You just know that’s going to happen. And that ends up being this really special way that God appears to have designed to smooth out some of those rough edges. You know, somebody might get mad at listening to that: “It shouldn’t be that way!” Well, okay, maybe it shouldn’t be, but maybe it is!

Dave: At the same time, you’re not saying, “You know, we’ve got friction and problems in our marriage. Let’s get in the bedroom, and it all works out.” It’s so much deeper than that! Although this is an important part of it, right?

Dr. Michael: For some men, it does almost work like that. I’ll have wives that are really upset at that. My invitation to them is: recognize the power that was given to you; but it’s still not your job to reset him.

Dave: Yes.

Dr. Michael: But when she learns that it has that power, that can be really good. And it can, for her, as well, if it’s a good experience. The goal is to get to the end of this. Later, they’re cuddled next to each other, saying, “We do enjoy being with each other. We feel good together.” To relax into the comfort of the moment. Well, if there’s been a lot of pressure, demand, coercion, or anything, we’re not going to get to that point anyway. It’s counterproductive; it’s destructive.

But if we can keep in mind the vision and the goal of us intimately connecting and bringing pleasure to each other, deeply connecting with each other during the process, then that really enriches the relationship and pours a ton of energy into it! And “Okay, you did something stupid, but you can make me feel really good, so I think I’m going to overlook it this time.” You know, there is power when we’re connecting well.

Shaunti: It seems to make it more likely for us to have grace for one another, basically.

Dr. Michael: Yes.

Ann: Yes, that’s true.

Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Shaunti Feldhahn and Dr. Michael Sytsma on FamilyLife Today. Shaunti and Dr. Michael have written a book called Secrets of Sex and Marriage: Eight Surprises That Make All the Difference. We’d love to send you a copy as our “thank you,” along with an online course from FamilyLife called, Nearly Complete Guide to Better Married Sex. Both will come to you as our “thanks” when you give online today at, or you can give by calling 800-358-6329. That’s 800-F as in “family,” L as in “life,” and then the word, “TODAY.”

Alright, now, if you’ve enjoyed yesterday and today’s conversation, then Dave’s got some exciting news about a new podcast series coming up. The podcast is called, Married with Benefits™, and you can find it wherever you get your podcasts, or you can get the link in today’s show notes at Go ahead and subscribe now so you’ll get the new episodes as soon as they come out. And until then, you can go back and listen to the first two seasons of Married with Benefits.

Dave: Well, I mean, you guys have been so helpful! We barely scratched the surface, really. But you’re doing a podcast called Married with Benefits, Season 3. Is the whole season going to be on this topic?

Shaunti: It’s just on this topic.

Dave: Wow!

Ann: Wow.

Shaunti: It is, just because it’s so crucial! It’s called—because Seasons 1 and 2 were Questions Every Wife is Asking and Questions Every Husband is Asking, this is going to be—Questions Every Couple is Asking about Sex.

Dave: Ooh, great!

Ann: That’s good.

Dave: Yes. You can find that on our FamilyLife Podcast Network.

Shelby: So, something we often forget to ask is, “Where are my priorities right now?” Well, what if I asked your spouse? Or your kids? Would they say the same thing? Well, tomorrow, Dave and Ann talk with Lisa Whittle about checking in to make sure “Jesus Above All” is guiding and influencing your life. That’s tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.


On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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