Men can often be the sexual withdrawer in a relationship contrary to our modern stereotypes. The reasons for this are several. Join sex therapist and author Laurie Watson and couples therapist George Faller as they talk about the male sexual withdrawer.
George Faller: Welcome to Foreplay Radio. All right. Everyone, last time we were talking about female sexual withdrawers. This time we’re going to check into the world of a male sexual withdrawer.
Laurie Watson: Hey, you’re listening to Foreplay Radio, for couples and sex therapy. And I’m Laurie Watson, your sex therapist.
George Faller: And I’m George Faller, your marriage therapist.
Laurie Watson: We want to take a wide lens on sexuality and talking with you about what we’ve learned as experts in the field on how you bring your body, your mind, and your brain to the sexual experience.
George Faller: We want to expand people’s perspective of just talking about sex, that it’s not something to be avoided. It’s actually something to embrace and to lean into with an openness to be changed by what you hear.
George Faller: So Laurie, I want to give you a little example of a couple I was working with, and let’s-
Laurie Watson: See where it goes.
George Faller: Hopefully you can jump in and give me some direction.
Laurie Watson: Okay.
George Faller: The husband was the sexual withdrawer. The couple reported having a pretty good love life, and as the years added up, the husband started to show less and less interest in sex.
Laurie Watson: How old was he?
George Faller: He was 45 years old. And his wife, he understood sex was a way that she’s wanted to connect and stay in shape and have fun. And she liked having sex and if they’re tired or not. And over time he started to feel a pressure to be there, when he always felt closer afterwards and he knew it was a good thing. But it just kind of getting going was a little bit difficult for him. Then he started having some sexual dysfunction problems, being able to stay aroused. And then also by the time I saw them he was avoiding sex. But what was really confusing to his wife is he still was watching pornography and masturbating on the side. So he still seemed to have some sexual libido, but when it came to their marriage, he really never initiated, felt all this pressure.
Laurie Watson: So you’ve given us a lot of clues already. I mean one of the things you were aware of is he’s having problems with performance. If I were looking at a 45 year old man who comes in and says he’s a sexual withdrawer, or he’s not interested in sex. Low desire guy. First thing that I think about doing my assessment, I’m kind of looking at him physically. I know that a guy who maybe is carrying at 45, 10 to 15 pounds of belly weight, it’s going to be really problematic on his erections. Because belly weight is kind of the first sign of the metabolic syndrome and one of the first places that men notice it is in their erections. So 15 pounds at 45, by the time he’s 50, it’s a huge problem. He’ll need Viagra. Even at 42, 10 pounds. If that’s his trajectory, that’s a problem.
Laurie Watson: And it’s not talking about his attractiveness really, but I’m always looking for that because I know that that’s going to be a problem. And so this guy that you described, he sounds a little tired to me. A lot of times men, they start working, they’re putting all their energy into work. They forget about self care, forget about exercising. They forget about how important that might be and they don’t even think that it’s that important for their love life. So that could be one part. And I kind of assess the body first because I know that some of those blocks are resolvable and more easily understood if I can get them right away. So the first thing I’m looking for after I assess just how he looks is, I want to figure out if he has low-T, low testosterone. And it’s not statistically going to be very low at 45, but it’s possible that there’s an anomaly.
Laurie Watson: So a lot of times what I’ll ask a guy like that is, when you’re by yourself… Obviously he’s using porn, is everything good? Is everything fine? Sometimes with people, it depends on how open they are, if I’ll use the word masturbation or not.
George Faller: I just want to make sure I’m following you from last time. Are you still doing that same assessment, oh please?
Laurie Watson: No, I’m not. I’m doing a different assessment for men because first… The first thing that I want to know for a woman if she has orgasms, and I’m just going to assume that a man does. Although not necessarily with his partner, but I’m going to assume that overall he does. If he doesn’t, he’s going to tell me that right up front. Yeah.
Laurie Watson: So first I want to just check physiology. Is it possible that he already has ED for physiological reasons? And does he have low testosterone? And some of the way I ask that is, how is it by yourself? So if he has a fine erection by himself, we’re probably good. I also ask sometimes, depending on the openness is, does he have morning erections? Because if he has a morning erection, he’s got T. So that’s good.
George Faller: And if you don’t have a morning erection.
Laurie Watson: So that wanes with age in general, it doesn’t necessarily mean low testosterone. But at 45, he probably should be having them, especially if he has enough desire to masturbate. So that tells me he has some sense of subjective desire. So I know that’s actually pretty good. But I’m also looking at him-
George Faller: We have a saying, in a firehouse the plumbing is working. Checking out for that. Okay.
Laurie Watson: I am definitely checking out the plumbing. And I know that from what you’ve told me, is he’s struggling with performance. So a lot of reasons that men withdraw from sex is because of performance issues, not desire issues. Women often withdraw because of desire issues. But man, if they can’t perform, they think if they can’t have an erection, which to me is very different than whether they can actually perform or not and make her happy. But if they don’t have an erection or what is in their mind, like a ready made erection, right? They want to come into the moment already there. And as men age it isn’t always like that. Sometimes they need stimulation. 45 you’re right on the edge there. So I kind of want to be really sensitive when I’m talking to him about these kinds of things because no man wants to admit in front of another woman or probably in front of another man, “Yeah. The plumbing’s not working.” Some guys are really open, but I’m going to assume this guy wasn’t. So that’s kind of where I begin.
George Faller: Right. I’m sure you’ve covered it on previous shows, Emily Nagoski’s work around the brake and the gas pedal. So that’s part of your assessment. So what you’re saying is this guy, he has desire, the gas pedals working okay. He wakes up with a morning erection, he can look and masturbate to pornography, but there’s something in his marriage that’s putting on a break, right? That’s kind of stopping the pressure, the performance. And that’s really what we’re going to go to try to figure out, that context of exploring that break and figuring out ways to free that up.
Laurie Watson: Right, exactly. So we want to figure out what the break is. Why not with his wife? A lot of times I think men start to struggle with performance issues and it’s incredibly normal to have that happen. I mean so normal. And so many guys are caught unaware of that and they’re anxious. And unfortunately with erections, if you have one failure and you get anxious about it, it leads to more failures. And so I mean it’s kind of like don’t think about pink elephants. I mean it’s a really hard thing to get through to them about, but as we talk, I mean it’s the co-regulation of his partner that heals that. So we want to form a team between the two of them.
Laurie Watson: I think with a guy who is not approaching his wife, there’s certain things I want to check on. Just is there somebody else? We know there’s porn, but is there energy that’s going to an actual person somewhere else? One of the things with porn is, I’d love it to be just porn these days, but sometimes it’s chat rooms. I mean it goes so far beyond porn these days or magazines. I mean it could be real live interactions that absorb an emotional energy as well. So I want to know when he says porn, and is he able to talk about that? I mean, oftentimes the partner’s really angry, he’s using porn and she’s hurt and she’s rejected. So it’s very hard in the beginning to talk about it. It’s also hard to understand what he gets out of porn. Is it a type? Is it a fantasy? Is it a type of sex? And you want to do that sensitively because I don’t want to offend her. I don’t want to put her off or make her feel like, well, you’re just not his type. Let’s throw our hands up right now, right?
George Faller: There’s something to be said about the results that are delivered predictably through the porn. And if he’s going to masturbate and have an orgasm then there’s no pressure, it’s a sure thing. Right? As compared to his marriage and the sex with his wife is loaded with all this sense of failure and rejection and that’s probably not going to happen with the porn.
Laurie Watson: Exactly. And I think that’s one of the reasons men use porn, because it’s so easy. Their body works and that is reassuring. Nobody is telling them they did it wrong and they’re always open for it. The picture or the film or whatever they’re looking at is always up for it. And there’s absolutely no risk. No vulnerability in it.
George Faller: So is it easier? You were talking last time about the female sexual withdrawer who can’t access her libido? Here’s the male who can access it, but can’t channel that towards his partner.
Laurie Watson: Right.
George Faller: So is it easier to get him heading back towards his marriage?
Laurie Watson: I think it depends. I probably think-
George Faller: I knew you were going to say that.
Laurie Watson: I know, I’m sorry. I think that a male sexual withdrawer is working against his biochemistry, right? His biochemistry, if he has good testosterone, he’s working against that, to express that in the marriage. So that to me tells me that there’s some counter force that is really powerful, because testosterone is so powerful. I mean it is moving him in huge ways compared to a female and her levels of testosterone. I’m going to show you George, so a man’s testosterone looks like this. I wish we had Madison here to take the picture. But there’s this much, and when a guy is… It’s like 1,000 to 300 nanograms per deciliter is what the measurement is of normal testosterone. So when he’s at 300 he says, “I have low libido.” And I say, “What does that mean?” And he says, “I don’t have morning erections. When I’m having sex, I’m having trouble keeping my erection. When I use Viagra, it doesn’t always work that well. And if I have a fight with my wife, I don’t want to do it.” So in essence, at 300 he is acting much like women act.
George Faller: Yep.
Laurie Watson: And so a woman actually starts with 70 nanograms per deciliter of testosterone in her blood when she’s 18 years old. By the time she’s 40, it’s in half. That’s 35. By the time she’s menopausal, .2 is considered normal. So I mean we are talking very, very different body chemistries. And I really think that what I’ve learned as a sex therapist and as a couples therapist is that this level of hormones impacts our psychology. So let’s say this guy comes in and if he tells me, “I’m having trouble with performance, I don’t have much desire,” but he’s masturbating twice a week. I’m not that worried. But if he says, “I’m masturbating once a month,” then I want his testosterone checked. So this guy, not that particular character, but I might have his testosterone checked.
George Faller: So let’s go with the character that he’s got high testosterone.
Laurie Watson: Okay. He’s got high testosterone.
George Faller: That’s not the problem. It’s not biophysical, there’s something else.
Laurie Watson: There’s something else.
George Faller: What’s your theory of change? How you going to help?
Laurie Watson: So this we have to figure out, what has happened between the couple ship? My most important question is when did it change? Do either of them know when it started to change? I mean for a lot of people it could be progressive and I don’t think that progressive diminishment of eroticism is what’s natural. I think that it doesn’t have to be. That we can actually grow in safety with each other and sex can get better. But I think that a lot of people don’t prioritize that. They’re not intentional about it. And so it does get progressively lower in their relationships. So sometimes they don’t know. But maybe there’s a moment, maybe it’s, “When my wife had our first child, suddenly I felt all this pressure about making a living and providing for my family.” And so he channels all his energy into his work.
Laurie Watson: And I say, the work is basically the mistress. He still feels sexual desire in his body, but he channels all of that energy into producing for the family. Which is ironic. If you would ask him, right? He’s essentially a withdrawer in both ways and he’s going to say, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong? I’m doing everything I can to make this happen.” Or maybe there’s this moment of, maybe it was a performance failure, maybe it was a rejection. He comes to her at some point and she’s too tired, something. And it’s weird, but sometimes the single incidents and single episodes can wound somebody in a way that they take this kind of vow that says, “I’m shutting down. I’m not going to be vulnerable again. I’m not going to risk.”
George Faller: And if there’s not that one moment, it’s more accumulative impact.
Laurie Watson: Which it often is. Then I want to know what happens. I want to know what they do in bed, what does he like? What does he not like? What is he afraid of? And you can’t ask a sexual withdrawer just like you can’t ask a emotional withdrawer, what are you afraid of? That would be a horrible question in the beginning, but eventually kind of chip by chip, I can begin to hear that. And I’m looking for that because there is often an origin and sometimes it’s the way she approaches. Sometimes it could be he’s not as attracted to her. It turns out we all age and there is difficulty I think in our idealism about who we’re attracted to when we’re young and who our partner becomes.
Laurie Watson: I mean I think there is difficulty in conservation. The principle of conservation, I know who you are no matter what happens to your body, how you look. I still know who you are, you are who you are in my heart to me, and that’s a principle of conservation, right? We learned that as children. When your brother pours Coke into the skinny cup and pours Coke into the fat cup, it may be the same number of ounces, but we have to learn that. So let’s come back and talk about some more with the male withdrawer after the break.
Speaker 3: Speaking with certified sex therapist, Laurie Watson from Awakening Center for Couples and Intimacy. Laurie, what is an intensive?
Laurie Watson: So an intensivist is 12 to 14 hours of therapy all in one weekend. And 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 awakenloveandsex.com.
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 georgefaller.com.
George Faller: So it sounds to me very similar with both the female or male withdrawer, that you’re trying to help them lean into themselves and get curious. Try to identify what’s blocking his natural process. That if the male is able to have an orgasm but can’t with his partner, then something’s blocking it. So how are you going to… I think you’ve done a good job of explaining how you might identify that in different settings. How are you actually going to work through that block to kind of free up that desire?
Laurie Watson: First I want to know when it does work. We know it works in porn that he has desire, he has erections, it’s all good.
George Faller: So you’ll ask questions like, what turns you on? What kind of… What really gets you engaged in the process? How do you like touch? What does it feel like? Get them more in touch with their body?
Laurie Watson: Yeah. A lot of people, a lot of men particularly who become sensitive to performance anxiety, they don’t feel anything anymore. They literally go numb.
George Faller: They’re in their head.
Laurie Watson: They’re in their head, they’re not in their body. And so that’s difficult. So I’ll want to know what touches he can feel, can he feel oral sex? Can he feel manual stimulation? Can he feel when he’s having intercourse? What is he thinking? I want to know what he tells himself. Is he telling himself destructive messages? And I want to know how he experiences his wife. A lot of women make up in their heads that if he’s not erect, she’s not attractive. And so that’s a terrible myth that becomes really self funding in a way that’s toxic. She may be saying to herself, “Don’t I turn you on anymore?” Which of course just increases the pressure. And so I want him to be able to tell her, especially if he does find her attractive that he does and that this has nothing to do with it.
Laurie Watson: But sometimes he needs to be able to come forward verbally with his words, with reassurance. And I think a lot of men shut down if they’re having ED or something, they won’t necessarily talk about how hot she is because then it’s going to start sex and then he’s going to fail. And so he won’t do that. And I think this is more classically what you do with the withdrawers emotionally, right? Is trying to help him express sort of his inner world so that it can be reassuring to her. And then she can learn to encourage him more softly with what she likes about him. She likes his body. Most women don’t climax with sexual intercourse, so he can still make her really happy in many different ways. But is he doing that? Probably not.
George Faller: Well the target’s really important. If the target is the orgasm, then there is a lot of pressure. But if the target is just to connect and to enjoy each other’s space and touch, then that becomes much more doable regardless of the orgasm. So are you seeing the same opportunity you talked about earlier for the male to go into their vulnerability, to talk about their fears if they failed. And what that means about themselves and feeling less than. To kind of share those parts of themselves to get there with their wives, to reassure them. To recognize that the risks that they’re taken, it’s only because they care so much about the relationship that they’re putting this pressure on themselves. So that reassurance from their partner that can keep their focus on them saying, “Hey, regardless you’re still wanted and cherished and special.” I mean that’s where the vulnerability becomes that doorway into connection.
Laurie Watson: Exactly. And I also want them to open up in the body because men with performance issues get very focused on their penis. And so they don’t feel the rest of their body and they don’t allow good feelings to happen that are sort of less pressure. They just get focused on the moment. And you said orgasm focused. I would also add, sexual intercourse focused. A lot of men think it’s a successful moment if we’ve had sexual intercourse. And I don’t think that women necessarily believe that sex is successful if they’ve had intercourse. I mean, it could be many things and it could include orgasms. And just for the record, men can have orgasms without erections. So he could even have an orgasm. Even with just touch.
George Faller: I haven’t heard that one. See, I’m learning something every day.
Laurie Watson: I saw your face.
George Faller: A man can have an orgasm without an erection.
Laurie Watson: Absolutely.
George Faller: Interesting.
Laurie Watson: Yeah. So she can touch him. He can still climax and he can touch her.
George Faller: Well, they could also masturbate together.
Laurie Watson: They could do it together. I mean, there’s a thousand variations when people have flexibility. I say that flexibility is sex insurance. So if they have that kind of flexibility, they can have pleasure. But these issues basically constrict sex as does the emotional cycle, the toxic cycle constrict emotional sharing. This constricts sexual sharing in a way that couples get really rigid, no pun intended.
George Faller: That’s good.
Laurie Watson: So it shuts them down. But I think the last thing I would end on-
George Faller: Could I before that I just-
Laurie Watson: You go.
George Faller: The gender piece, it’s just interesting how we focus more on the emotional, the spiritual, the intimate, the vulnerability. When we’re talking about the female side of this, right? In the male, it seems like we’re emphasizing more of the physical and the biological and…
Laurie Watson: Okay, you got to help me here George. Because if I’m overemphasizing that I want to hear the other part.
George Faller: I’m not sure you are. That’s just the conditioning I’ve received, but it seems like there isn’t a lot of room for trying to… You’re talking about getting a male back into their body, which is incredibly helpful. And part of that process is also they get more emotionally engaged to really understand these places of their own fear of helplessness. It’s so counter intuitive to want to head towards those places. So if you have an emotionally avoidant male who’s also sexually avoiding, that’s a massive amount of avoidance in someone’s life, right?
Laurie Watson: It is. In both pieces, right?
George Faller: Exactly.
Laurie Watson: No, I agree with you. I think the last thought I would have is that there’s something that goes on inside men, many different parts of them that are sexual. There could be… I know one guy talked about this 16 year old boy part that was really anxious about approaching a girl. He also talked about a caveman who was very sexual all the time. Always thought sexual thoughts and yet he never let that out because he believed through another aspect of himself that that denigrated women. So he lost his sexual energy because he muted that part. And then the anxiety on top of it. I mean it’s just, I love listening to people’s minds, all our different parts inside and kind of putting it together. But it’s definitely something that I think men get a really terrible message about, that somehow or another, their sexual energy, their sexual drive is toxic and bad. And this is a difficult culture to be male in.
George Faller: It’s a nice erotic playground when many parts of you could come out. So it’s nice to be… You could be the caveman and the little boy and you could be the firefighter rescuer and you could also be the confident lover. Or somebody who just needs some cuddling, right? There’s so many parts of who we are sexually and to get that safe space to explore that really makes such a big difference.
Laurie Watson: Yeah. I love that.
Laurie Watson: Thank you for listening to Foreplay Radio, Couples and Sex Therapy.
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Speaker 3: Call in your questions to the Foreplay question voicemail. Dial 833-MY4PLAY. That’s 833, the number four, play. And we’ll use the questions for our mailbag episodes. All content is for entertainment purposes only and should not be considered as a substitute for therapy by a licensed clinician or as medical advice from a doctor.