You are currently viewing 206: Female Sexual Withdrawers

206: Female Sexual Withdrawers

Sounds pretty discouraging if your partner says she’d be fine never having sex again. Laurie and George discuss how to get to the root of what she’s saying. Using an acronym O P L E A S F helps us organize what has obscured her libido.

The Show Transcript is available here.


George Faller: Hello, welcome back to Foreplay Radio. Last couple of weeks, we’ve been immersing ourselves in the world of a pursuer and withdrawer, and today we’re going to get a little bit more specific, and we’re going to try to understand the world of a sexual withdrawer.

Laurie Watson: Hey, you’re listening to foreplay radio for couples and sex therapy with your host, myself, Laurie Watson, sex therapist and George Fowler, expert couples therapists. George and I are counselors, educators, authors, researchers, contributors, and leaders in our field, with a collective 50 years of experience working with couples and sex therapy. We’re grounded in the best and most scientific research from attachment theory, with our emphasis on emotionally focused therapy. Using all we’ve learned from our clients, our work and our own lives, we want to have this open, frank and informative conversation about love and sex, to help you and your partner keep it hot.

George Faller: I know Laurie has lots of experience in this area. The floor is yours Laurie, what do you think? What makes for a sexual withdrawer?

Laurie Watson: Well, it always sounds the same in the beginning. Frequently they call in and they say, you know, I could care less if I ever have sex again. It sounds so hopeless in the beginning, right. What do we do with a person who is married, who has pledged fidelity, but they don’t care about it anymore? That’s kind of the trick. I think in the beginning I too was stumped. Now I think good, we can start there because I really believe, first of all, sex feels good, and libido is a life force. It’s something that I know happens inside them, but for whatever reason in a sexual withdrawer it’s been obscured in some way, and for maybe many reasons. Sex for us, it’s really the adult version of that childhood need for affection. Our need for connection physically gets eroticized at adolescence.

George Faller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laurie Watson: As an adult, that’s how we often think about getting our affectionate needs met.

George Faller: Right.

Laurie Watson: I mean, certainly touch is very important. Kissing hello and goodbye, cuddling, all that is important. For most of us, when we are in a romantic relationship, especially in the beginning, I mean we are drawn to sex as that way to connect. When somebody says to me, oh, I don’t care about it. I know that something has gone wrong. Most of the time they have cared about it-

George Faller: Right.

Laurie Watson: – at some point in their life. Sometimes maybe they come in and they say, you know, I married this person, and I never really was attracted to them, and I don’t know why I married them. I sort of think, why did you marry them? It sounds crazy.

George Faller: It sounds really familiar, just in a general category of withdrawers, that the strategy is to avoid the difficult conversation, what it feels like kind of upsetting your partner, upsetting yourself that this strategy that’s adaptive at certain points. Right.

Laurie Watson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Faller: I don’t want to feel and have… I’m going to have no success with those feelings, so let me just stop doing it. Right?

Laurie Watson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Faller: It’s the avoidance that’s at the heart of it.

Laurie Watson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Exactly.

George Faller: Right.

Laurie Watson: I think that desire is vulnerability. To have desire leaves us always vulnerable, always wanting. It’s really something that we do to protect ourselves, mostly for women because of their body and their hormone levels, they can turn off desire.

George Faller: Right.

Laurie Watson: They’re not doing it consciously. I think their partners think you’re doing it consciously. For men, what I observe, is oftentimes they just dilute that, they use porn, they have more partner specific lack of desire.

George Faller: Right.

Laurie Watson: You know, they don’t want to put themselves out to their partner for a million reasons.

George Faller: I just want to highlight what you’re saying. I think it’s very wise that, if I don’t want to do vulnerability, then turning off desire is a great way of doing that.

Laurie Watson: Absolutely.

George Faller: Right, if I’m not going to have success with this vulnerability, if I’m not going to like how it feels, or how it feels with my partner, then turning off desire, turns off that opportunity to kind of reinforce those fears.

Laurie Watson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Faller: Okay.

Laurie Watson: Some of them, I think particularly women are unclear as to when they turned off, and why they turned off that. That’s why for me, the good news is I can always figure it out. I can always figure out why and when.

George Faller: You got an example of that?

Laurie Watson: Yeah. I think about Sarah, and Sarah she’s like 42 years old. She had three kids and she came in, she was an extroverted person. She was probably the emotional pursuer in my world. Of her partner she wanted more emotional closeness. She didn’t want sex ever. She had said, you know, I could care less about it. I just don’t have any time. I looked over and I said, you know, hey Sarah, do you exercise? Because this woman was fit. I mean, super fit.

George Faller: Right?

Laurie Watson: She’s like, yeah, yeah, oh yeah, I exercise. I said, well what do you do? She said, well, you know, I do aerobics three days a week. I have a trainer that I train with twice a week, and I lift weights. Her husband kind of chimes in and says, you’ve got your tennis clinic twice a week, so she had training in tennis twice a week. And we added it up, and she had 11 hours of fitness every week, and her kids were in school.

Laurie Watson: I said, what is your life like, in terms of how unhappy does this conflict make you? She said, we have a great life. We have enough money, we have great kids. I love my husband, he’s a great guy, and this conflict of my husband always wanting sex. He said, just for the record, I don’t always want sex. I would be happy with sex once a week. But she says, you know, my husband always wanting sex, makes our marriage like, I don’t know, six out of a 10. I said, okay.

Laurie Watson: I know her first presentation, right, of I don’t have enough time. I’m thinking, okay, let’s take one of those 11 hours, one quickie, one longie, you know. Quickie on Wednesday and a long time on Saturday night, and you just went from a six in a marriage to a 10. It’s not about time. It’s never about time, because I know it’s never about time because couples get into my office once a week. If they were just having sex that one time a week, they’d be good. Sometimes I tell them that, just take the money, go to a hotel. I’m at least that expensive. Go and have sex and you don’t need to come see me, but they don’t.

George Faller: You’re going to put yourself out of business.

Laurie Watson: That would be okay. That would be okay. I got a lot of work. I go through a triage, usually in my assessment is probably what EFT people would call it, and I’m just checking in to ask a few questions that are curious. I don’t necessarily ask the questions in a routine way, because it’s such a sensitive subject that I’m just kind of listening and usually I fill in the blanks as they go, and sometimes then there might be one or two parts that are missing for me before I can figure out what’s really happening.

George Faller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laurie Watson: But for a sexual withdrawal, or let’s say female, with Sarah, I do something called, oh please. I start with, O, I want to know if she has orgasms. I’ll probably ask directly of them, you know, is it good for you? Do you have orgasms? She said, yes. Okay. It’s good for her. At least she’s orgasming. And crazily enough, I think this is difficult for a lot of men listening to understand, if she’s having an orgasm, why doesn’t she want to do it?

George Faller: What’s the problem, right?

Laurie Watson: What is the deal? Like why not? But for some women, that’s not enough to give her a sense of desire for the next time.

George Faller: Okay.

Laurie Watson: Then P is for pain, and I check out and I say, okay, is there any kind of pain? This is something that is probably not well known to many couples therapists, but I think it’s like 28% of women experience sexual pain during the sexual experience. It could be pain on intercourse, but there’s a lot of weird different pain issues that are out there.

George Faller: Sure.

Laurie Watson: I listen for that. Most women will volunteer that a menopausal woman might say, it’s just not as good, it hurts a little.

George Faller: Right.

Laurie Watson: Blah, blah, blah. Then I check out libido. Libido, we’ve talked about it being life energy, but it’s also the way she has any kind of subjective thoughts about sex. In my mind, the only thing I’m looking for is, I ask her, how many times a month do you think about sex in a positive direction? If it were a man, I might be asking how many times a day, but for a woman, I’m asking how many times a month? The answer that I know is a big win for me, is twice.

Laurie Watson: Because if she has positive sexual thoughts, and the way a woman has a positive sexual thought can be really different than the way a man does. She may say, you know, I never think about sex. I’ll ask her, do you ever see a man who has great hair? Yeah, yeah, I noticed that. Okay. Do you ever see a man as a great ass? Yeah, I might see that. Or something that is a trigger. I said, are you ever in line in the grocery store and there’s the cosmos… Oh, I hate those magazines, they’re always talking about sex. I know. And that’s a negative reminder, but it’s something that she’s still noticing. In some way she is touched in her world by a sexual prompt, and whether she chooses to turn toward it in a positive way that it enlivens her or not is different. But if she tells me twice a month, I have a positive sex, this is easy peasy to get the couple back on track.

George Faller: Great.

Laurie Watson: Yeah.

George Faller: I was working with a couple, it made me think of Sarah that you’re talking about, where the wife was the sexual distancer.

Laurie Watson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Faller: She didn’t want to have sex and yet she loved reading erotic novels. I found an interesting statistic about the billions of dollars that women are spending-

Laurie Watson: Absolutely.

George Faller: – on these erotic novels.

Laurie Watson: Right.

George Faller: – which I think most men don’t recognize.

Laurie Watson: Right.

George Faller: But what’s happening in these erotic novels is this passion, there’s high levels of engagement is this. It’s so fulfilling and meaningful, and it’s meeting so many different levels. Then I had the wife and husband say, all right, write me a story. If I was looking at you, your love life, what would it look like if this was sort of erotic novel? You know, basically she’s not in a mood.

Laurie Watson: Yep.

George Faller: She wants him to be kind of more confident, or he’s been shot down so many times, he has no confidence. What does their erotic novel look like? He like reaches over with this passive hand that basically says, I’m interested.

Laurie Watson: Shakes her a little.

George Faller: Right. Gives her a little wiggle shake, hoping that turns her on. She kind of rolls over and as got a headache. Right. Which makes him feel, again, like he’s a totally rejected loser. He has got no confident and she;s not turned on. I was like, I don’t think that story would turn anyone on. If you are reading erotic novel, you’d want your money back if that was the story that you were reading.

Laurie Watson: Yeah.

George Faller: Right. How do you help Sarah, or these different couples kind of change their story?

Laurie Watson: I think what is so exciting in erotic novels is really anticipation.

George Faller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laurie Watson: I often say women are more responsive to Christmas Eve than they are to Christmas morning. Christmas Eve is the pageantry, the lights, the anticipation, the candles, the meal. It’s the waiting, and it’s desire, right?

George Faller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laurie Watson: It’s the wanting, and that is like, that’s it. That’s the huge turn on. Christmas morning is exciting, you’re unwrapping the gifts, you’re getting it. But I mean truly from any women, it’s that Christmas Eve moment, and I think that’s what the erotic novels do really well. There’s 135 pages about the buildup, and about the increase of want.

Laurie Watson: I think that of course that happens in dating, right? I mean there’s a lot of anticipation in dating. She wakes up and she says, I’m going to shave my legs for tonight, and I’m going to get ready. She puts on something pretty underneath, and she goes to school, or she goes to work, and she starts thinking about that evening, where is he going to take me? What are we going to do? At noon she goes out and gets her nails done thinking about him. Then in the mid afternoon she’s bored with what she’s doing, because all she can think about is that time together. She tunes her mind toward that moment. When she gets to dinner, where they have six hours of course together, like all of us have six hours to go out with our partner. They have cocktails, they have dinner, and by the time he touches her, she’s wet because she is so turned on. She’s used her mind to build to that point.

Laurie Watson: I often tell women, you can have that experience again if you’ve got eight hours. Some of it, when we were talking last night, George, I said to you, you can tell when a person has libido, there’s like a life force. If the woman, and this was not Sarah, she had a lot of vibrancy and vitality, but some women maybe come in, and she’s more depressed, slumped over, there’s something about her that doesn’t give you, this doesn’t scream life.

George Faller: You felt Sarah had that-

Laurie Watson: Oh yeah.

George Faller: – libido?

Laurie Watson: I did.

George Faller: Okay.

Laurie Watson: I did. Then I checked for E, which is, oh please, emotional connection. She told me, you know, we are totally connected.

George Faller: Okay.

Laurie Watson: We have good stuff, except that we have this recurring fight all the time about sex.

George Faller: Right.

Laurie Watson: He wants sex so much. Not so much. Then I go through A, which is I’m checking for many things. I check a lot about the body, so I want to check, is she on a medication?

George Faller: What’s the A stand for?

Laurie Watson: Is affective for me. I’m checking to see is she on any medication? Does she have any disease state? Is there something that’s going on? I also shove into that body image, because this is kind of my body category that I’m checking for, and probably next to resentment, women with their body image problems is a huge shutdown.

Laurie Watson: Then I want to check into S, which is, is it sex worth having? Are what they doing in bed something that she enjoys, that she finds sexy? I have had umpteen women who come in and say, ah, I don’t care about it. And the reason is, because they’ve whispered to their partner about what they really do like and he hasn’t picked up on it. He hasn’t heard it, or he’s forgotten about it in the throes of passion, he doesn’t do the thing that she likes. She says, he doesn’t want to do that. She tells herself all kinds of things about that.

Laurie Watson: Then I actually switched the E on oh please to be an F, which is frequency. I know that if a couple comes in and says, yeah, you know, sex is good and maybe we’re chit chatting a little bit and I say, well, how often are you guys intimate? Are you in bed together? And they say, Oh, once a quarter. I know that there’s something that’s not right. That’s sexlessness in my mind. I listen to that. But really what we’re going to talk about when we come back is how to help women, how to help their partners with this.

George Faller: We got to get back to Sarah.

Laurie Watson: We’ve got to get back to Sarah and how we help Sarah.

Speaker 3: Speaking with certified sex therapist, Laurie Watson from awakening center for couples and intimacy. Laurie, what is an intensive?

Laurie Watson: An intensive is 12 to 14 hours of therapy all in one weekend. It’s a way to really make fast progress compared to weekly therapy. I mean there’s just so much more you can get done when you have a chunk of time.

Speaker 3: Overcome the challenges in your relationship and your sex life. Learn more about intensives and Awakening Centers other services at

Laurie Watson: Hey, I want to let you guys know all about George. He’s written and contributed to several books, and I’d especially like to draw your attention to his book Sacred Stress, a radically different approach to using life’s challenges for positive change. His book is about a mission on how you adopt new strategies, and turn stresses into a positive force in your life, and who among us doesn’t live with a lot of stress these days. We’ll keep you posted as to all he’s doing. But George and other EFT therapists all around the country and the world, hold couples retreats called Hold Me Tight, which is developed by Sue Johnson, and it helps secure your own relationship. If you’d like therapy with George, find him at

Laurie Watson: Sarah had orgasms. She was a beautiful woman. Her husband desired her, and that’s a really big turn on for a lot of women. He definitely desired her and she was gorgeous, but she had turned this off. In part, her early life was that, to be a mother of course is to be all giving and to turn over her libidinous energy to her children. She didn’t understand that she could do both, that she could have enough for herself, and her husband, and for the children. It turns out Sarah had had some difficulties in childhood that we had to work through. In part it was between the two of them, and in part it was inside of her. As a sex therapist, I think about several different things, I think about the body, I think about their history, the messages that they learned about sex, and I think about what they’re doing wrong with each other, or what the negative cycle is.

Laurie Watson: One of the things that her husband did was similar to what your guy did. He would approach in kind of an anxious way at this point.

George Faller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laurie Watson: He needed to talk to her in vulnerability, to say, to me, I don’t get connected to you unless it’s sex. Because the only thing she could hear was, all you want me for is sex, which is very different. I knew it was very different than what he was saying. I mean, what he was saying is, this is home to me when I’m with you sexually, this is where I feel so deeply connected. There was a lot of working with him about how to say it.

George Faller: Could we just pause that a second, because again, I just want to highlight, he might not be capable of being the confident lover who can just take charge and rip her clothes of given all the rejections, all he can do is be authentic with where he’s at, right? If he just comes towards her in an anxious way, that’s a big turnoff, right? That’s both of them seeing a negative pattern. He has good reasons not to have confidence given a rejection.

Laurie Watson: Yeah.

George Faller: She has good reasons not to be turned on by that, right. They’re set up to fail.

Laurie Watson: Yeah.

George Faller: But if he can start talking about his vulnerability in that-

Laurie Watson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Faller: – that he wants to be this guy who he truly is, that there’s just a block that’s developed because of their relationship style.

Laurie Watson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Faller: Right. There’s something about his vulnerability that she starts to see more than just a pathetic guy who’s reaching over.

Laurie Watson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Faller: Right. She starts to see this real guy who’s struggling. There’s a lot of courage to have that conversation.

Laurie Watson: There is.

George Faller: I think that’s the opportunity we’re trying to get here. That heading towards the sexual blocks of dysfunction is where we really can find such great connection.

Laurie Watson: Absolutely. I think that’s what is so frustrating for the person who’s trying to pursue sexually. They often say, you know, I did do all that, Laurie.

George Faller: Yeah.

Laurie Watson: I was that guy. I was romantic. I wooed her, I was confident. And now we’re in shutdown, and I don’t know how to get it back.

George Faller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laurie Watson: I know I can’t be this romantic guy in the novels that she’s reading. He’s discouraged and doesn’t know how to do it. Always a job for sex therapists.

George Faller: Right.

Laurie Watson: For Sarah, partly we had to work through kind of this idea of how she could come back into herself. She was able to do it with exercise.

George Faller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laurie Watson: She owned her body there, but she couldn’t own her own libido. She couldn’t own sexual desire. I think, as we’ve just on the side talked a little bit about, this was so vulnerable for her to be able to say and want him to touch her in ways that were attuned and brought her pleasure. I mean, even though she reached orgasm easily, it was different than what she wanted. She wanted this experience with him that she couldn’t somehow or another talk enough about to get through to him. That was like a lesson for her to begin to put language to the way she liked to be touched. It’s not that specific. I mean, I think for many sexual withdrawers, it’s more than that, it’s a feeling that they want to have. That’s what they’re going for is. It’s not just orgasm, it’s really this other kind of feeling that is so important to them that when you reduce it just to orgasm, it’s too simple.

George Faller: I guess my question for you would be, and I totally agree that if you can get Sarah to be curious and open, to explore herself, then you’re good to go.

Laurie Watson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Faller: Well, what do you do when that sexual withdrawer doesn’t want to do the exploration? They’re not willing to look at their blocks.

Laurie Watson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, it’s the exact same thing you just said about emotional withdrawers. I mean, who wants to do that? It’s so painful. Whatever it is they’re going to look at is difficult. In essence, I’m very patient, and somehow or another, by listening carefully, you begin to see what the block might be-

George Faller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laurie Watson: – and where it lies, and then you kind of chip away at it. I think this is discouraging probably, potentially to the sexual pursuer listening. It’s like, but I tried every which way, I’m open, I keep asking them how do they like it, what do they like? I’d do anything. I’d hang the moon for them, and they can’t get through. This is, I think the work of the sexual withdrawer, but the work has to be done in a place that they’re held, because there’s no way they want to do this work by themselves.

Laurie Watson: I think about the sexual withdrawer, like we do a lot of work with sexual pain problems. Do you know what vaginismus is?

George Faller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laurie Watson: It’s a condition where a woman cannot be penetrated, for our listeners. Without a counterbalance of a partner saying, I need this from you, she is unable to face that. Sometimes she’ll say to me, you know, my husband’s so great, he would never pressure me, he would never make it difficult for me. And part of me just goes rats, you know, because I need him to be the counterbalance.

George Faller: Right.

Laurie Watson: You know, I can’t supply that as a therapist that says you got to look at it. I mean, this is a system. We need both of them together to think about this. And for the love of him, she might face the dragon.

George Faller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laurie Watson: I mean, because behind, oftentimes our sexual withdrawn is, it isn’t necessarily trauma. It isn’t necessarily being molested, but there are pieces of vulnerability that are so exquisite because they’re in the body. I mean, George, you talk about emotions are in the body, but sex is in the body.

George Faller: Absolutely.

Laurie Watson: And so to face that we have to be willing to go toward what is [uber 00:25:03] painful to us.

George Faller: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laurie Watson: I mean, we think about the child who wasn’t held enough. A lot of people say, my partner doesn’t even like affection, not only do they not like sex, but they don’t like affection either. I know that they’re essentially anorexic, their desire and need for touch is so primitive, but they have turned it off. When you turn that off, there is something behind that, that we have to get to.

George Faller: It’s a great example being an anorexic. I mean I’m imagining myself as a partner, married to somebody who, because of good reasons they can’t take the food I’m giving-

Laurie Watson: Yeah.

George Faller: – and then I take it so personal. Right? What you’re saying is really honor that block. How do you help the partner to a sexual withdrawer get curious about, who is my partner and what are the good reasons why they’re blocked? They’re not doing it to hurt me or reject me. They just don’t know themselves in these places.

Laurie Watson: Yeah.

George Faller: How do I open up my heart and empathy? They get curious about that. Who has really ever done that for the withdrawer? If I grew up in a family where touch wasn’t okay, and I have body image problems, you know, I don’t know how to take in food in those areas.

Laurie Watson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

George Faller: Right? I just need that missing ingredient provided to me, which is somebody else’s safe, secure… and I think it’s so hard for the partner to be able to do that because they take it personal. I love what you’re saying, which is really trying to keep the partner’s eyes focused on that sexual withdrawer, and saying, you know what, I want to be here to help you with these blocks.

Laurie Watson: Yeah. Sounds good. Okay. Thanks for listening to Foreplay Radio couples and sex therapy.

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