When a Husband's Libido Lags

Beth Leary is one of those lucky people who are still happy after nearly 20 years of marriage. Leary (not her real name) and her husband are the best of friends. Both are middle-aged college-educated professionals with demanding jobs. But they call each other frequently during the day to chat, go to church together, and spend their limited free time either going out to restaurants or staying at home reading and enjoying each other's company. Many women would envy the setup. Except for one thing: Leary and her husband rarely have sex. By her estimate, they make love about every other month. And it's always at her urging. "In terms of sex, this isn't what I signed up for," she says. "But I don't think we're that unusual."

Leary may be on to something. Research shows that about 20 percent or more of the married among us are DINS: Dual Income No Sex couples. While conventional wisdom holds that it's usually women who aren't up for sex (no pun intended), marriage experts say that's not necessarily true. Many men who are physically capable of having sex don't fit the stereotypical image of macho sex machines who want to do "it" anytime, anyplace.

Whether due to a demanding job, anger, boredom, insecurity or a host of other problems, an increasing number of otherwise healthy married men like Leary's husband are telling their wives, "Not tonight, honey, I have a headache." Though there are no good statistics about just how many men are the culprits behind the so-called sexless marriage, loosely defined as having sex 10 or fewer times a year, some intrepid relationship experts are trying to get a handle on why some husbands prefer a good night's sleep to a roll in the hay.

For their new book, "He's Just Not Up for It Anymore: Why Men Stop Having Sex, and What You Can Do About It" (HarperCollins), Dr. Bob Berkowitz, who has a Ph.D. in clinical sexology, and his wife, Susan Yager-Berkowitz, surveyed more than 4,000 people in long-term heterosexual relationships in which the absence of sex was due to the man forgoing sexual intimacy. Though there has been a significant amount of scientific literature about treating erectile dysfunction, for example, there is "surprisingly little data" on men who are physically able to have intercourse but whose libidos are stuck in neutral, says Berkowitz. "When people think of a sexless marriage, they automatically assume it's the woman who doesn't want sex. We wanted to find out the reasons why men may choose not to have sex."

Though they admit the survey doesn't meet the rigorous requirements of an epidemiological tome, the data is nonetheless compelling. A mere 14 percent of men said they were "too tired" for sex, while more than 60 percent said their wives were simply not sexually adventurous or didn't seem to enjoy sex. When wives were asked why they thought their husbands were uninterested in sex, nearly 70 percent said they had no clue. "What this tells us is that people simply aren't talking," says Berkowitz. "And without that communication, no one can resolve any issues, especially sexual issues."

While it may seem that the uninterested male is too quick to put the blame on his partner, that doesn't translate into the real scenarios that happen (or don't) in the bedrooms across America. The Berkowitzes found that when it comes to the "sexually unadventurous" wife, for example, some men simply don't understand that sex changes over the course of a relationship, going from passionate during the dating, honeymoon, and early years of marriage to a "calm, Sunday kind of love," says Yager-Berkowitz. On the other hand, one of the requests men had in the name of adventure was to leave the lights on—which may not seem all that wild a move.

Some experts, such as anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, theorize that the mellowing may be due to certain brain chemicals that come into play during three distinct relationship phases: lust, romantic love and attachment. "That's not to say that passion goes away entirely, but it certainly wanes," says Yager-Berkowitz.

The couple also believes that the complaint that a woman is "sexually unadventurous" may be a code for other problems, such as a husband who doesn't do anything a wife finds enjoyable or because he may feel underappreciated. Apparent indifference can also be a cover-up for other problems, like erectile dysfunction or depression.

Despite the dearth of intimacy, most women and men surveyed say they aren't thinking about divorce. The rationale: sex, or lack thereof, wasn't an important enough reason to end an otherwise fulfilling relationship. But what does trouble experts is that this lack of sex generally masks some other issues that will eventually rock the foundation of a marriage—and for the woman, feelings of rejection can be devastating in the long term.

Michele Weiner Davis, author of the newly released "The Sex Starved Wife: What to Do When He's Lost Desire" (Simon & Schuster), has also found that women "don't have the corner on low libido." But men, she says, have difficulty opening up about their lack of desire, making it tough for couples to work on a solution. "Even though men have been told for decades it's important to be in touch with their feelings, men have a terrible time talking about what it feels like to be less than a stud," she says.

Anger is often an underlying issue contributing to low libidos among men. According to the Berkowitzes' survey, more than 40 percent of men said they're angry at their wives. That anger can stem from a rotten job, feelings of inadequacy and desire-busting problems like having a partner who focuses on the negatives in a relationship. "Rather than standing their ground, men can fall into the pattern of a constant simmer that eventually boils over," Weiner Davis says. "It's a classic pattern that's deadly, especially in killing desire."

What to do? The conventional wisdom is that if a married couple is happy not having sex, it's all good. But Weiner Davis doesn't buy it. "I believe that sex and touching is a tie that binds," she says. "Sex isn't like vitamins. There's no minimum daily or weekly requirement. But human touch is important."

Both books offer comprehensive advice on how to identify the problem and work through it (that is, if you think it's a problem). But the most salient suggestion may just be that well-worn Nike adage: Just do it. Even if you're not in the mood. According to Weiner Davis, many men with low sexual desire can get into the mood for some carnal gymnastics if they simply follow their wives' sexual overtures and allow her to get things started physically. "Desire often follows arousal," she says, and sometimes all men need is a little "jump start." If that doesn't work, says Weiner Davis, a husband can still be sexually attentive to his wife. "Marriage is supposed to be a partnership," she says. "A woman will feel very good about herself, and the whole relationship can improve, if a husband with low libido says, 'Honey, I'm not in the mood, but I want to make you feel good'." Not good enough? Then counseling or sex therapy may be the next step.