Changing a Willingness to Make Love into a
Desire to Make Love

Introduction: I have received thousands of letters from couples who want to improve their sexual relationship. The most common sexual problems are more about a bad relationship than they are about bad sexual adjustment. The solution to these common problems are to improve the relationship by eliminating Love Busters (such as demands, disrespect and anger), by making mutually beneficial decisions (Policy of Joint Agreement), and by meeting important non-sexual needs (such as affection and conversation). I address this solution in my Q&A column "How to Meet the Emotional Need for Sexual Fulfillment."

But there are a significant number of couples that struggle with sexual problems when Love Busters, lifestyle decisions and non-sexual emotional needs have already been adequately addressed. One of these problems is the issue of sexual desire, or more accurately the lack of it, among women who love their husbands.

These women are "willing" to make love because they are in love with their husbands and want to meet his need for sexual fulfillment. But since they do not share the same emotional need, they do not "desire" to make love.

When one spouse has a sexual desire, while the other is only willing to make love, a problem usually surfaces. Sex, like all other emotional needs, is fulfilled in the truest sense only when both spouses respond to each other enthusiastically. Mere willingness is often not enough. Mutual sexual desire is often necessary to provide sexual fulfillment to the one who has the need for sex.

The cover story for the May 29, 2000 issue of Newsweek Magazine, "The Science of Women and Sex," devoted most of its space to the fact that no one had yet come up with a solution to the problem of female sexual desire. Testosterone, the only known aphrodisiac, is plentiful in men and scarce in women, which helps explain the difference between male and female sexual desire. And after menopause, testosterone in women can sometimes disappear entirely.

It's been common knowledge that testosterone supplements for women (available in both oral form and patches from your doctor), raises a woman's sexual desire. In one case mentioned in the Newsweek article, "one woman unwittingly doubled her testosterone dosage and had to excuse herself every few hours just to seek relief." But there are many unwanted side-effects to testosterone (risk of heart disease and liver damage, and development of male physical characteristics such as facial hair), so medical research continues to look for a drug that does what testosterone does without those side effects.

Mary, who writes the letters for this column, finds herself in the same unpleasant position as many other women. I don't have a simple answer, but my complex answer has worked for many women. So I am posting a series of letters we exchanged to describe the approach I suggest to help convert sexual willingness to sexual desire without the use of testosterone.

Dear Dr. Harley,

I have been married to a great man, the father of my 4 year old son, for over 11 years and we've known each other for a total of 18 years (7 years courting before we were married). Our relationship has always been great in every way and we've been the envy of all of our friends (male and female) since we started dating back in 1981. We're the best of friends! The only problem that exists and has ALWAYS existed from the beginning, is our difference in sexual appetite.

We have tried years of counseling and I've even attempted hypnotherapy for a while... to no avail. We're both only in our mid 30's and genuinely love each other. But when it comes to sex, we couldn't be more different. He always wants it and equates sex with love (and the lack-there-of with me NOT loving him) and I hardly ever want it. One could use the excuse of work and children, but I was like this even in my early 20's, way before we even wanted children, let alone had any. I have no "sexual baggage:" Never been abused or raped.

Dr., we are at our wits-end... my husband has decided to get another apartment and feels the case is hopeless. Having already been down this road a zillion times with him, I can't help but feel hopeless, too.

We've seen 2 different sex therapists (one was referred to us by the other after feeling he couldn't help us) for over 6 years. All those sessions did was dredge up sad childhood memories and made us fight a lot more than usual. Both therapists were very competent, but the problem still very much exists.

Can you help us? Or can you refer us to someone who can?


Dear Mary,

The question you ask about sexual interest has been one of the most difficult problems to solve for most sex therapists. Many have simply given up on it. Others keep trying to help their clients with methods that don't work, sometimes knowing that they don't work. "Dredging up sad childhood memories," is a favorite method of some therapists that keeps a client in therapy for years, with absolutely no evidence that it ever helps solve the problem.

My guess is that within five years, a pharmaceutical company will announce a pill to increase female libido. It will take effect within one hour of its administration and its effect will last about two hours. Buy stock in that company because this aphrodisiac will become the best-selling medicine in history, and there are many, like you, who would pay almost anything for it.

Right now, the only aphrodisiac that works predictably well is testosterone, and most men have it flowing through their veins in abundance. That's why the issue of sexual interest usually focuses on women, and men who have a testosterone deficiency.

You are apparently willing to make love to your husband because you want him to be happy. But mere willingness is not doing the trick. If your husband is to feel sexually fulfilled, he wants you to desire sex, just like he desires it. As you mentioned in your letter, he interprets your sexual desire as evidence of love. Since you lack desire, he thinks you are not in love with him.

Of course, the primary reason he has sexual desire for you is that he's endowed with considerably more testosterone than you. Take that away and see how much sexual desire he will have left! And if you were to use a testosterone supplement (they come in injection, pills, creams and gels), you would notice a most impressive increase in your sexual desire for him, but your love for him would remain the same.

Most women, like you, do not place sexual fulfillment among their top five emotional needs because of low levels of testosterone. They tend not to "desire" making love with their husbands as much as they are "willing" to make love. One of my prime discoveries was that men and women, for whatever reasons, tend to have emotional needs in a different order of priority, so what a man needs from his wife, she usually doesn't need as much herself, and vice-versa. The trick to a great marriage is to meet an important emotional need for your spouse that may not be all that important for you.

As a marriage counselor this usually means teaching a husband to be a more dynamic conversationalist, and expressing more heart-felt affection, and teaching a wife to become a better lover and recreational companion.

In your case, your husband is asking you to have a greater emotional need for sex, which would be like asking him to have a greater emotional need for whatever he would rate lowest on his list of priorities. While it can be done, to make his lowest ranking emotional need more of a desire for him, it can be achieved only by making its fulfillment more pleasurable and effortless for him. The more of an expert you would become in meeting this low-priority need, the more he would tend to desire it.

The same principle should be followed whenever a man wants his wife to desire sex: He must create the conditions that allow her to enjoy the experience effortlessly.

In spite of your hormone disadvantage, there are ways for you to desire a sexual relationship with your husband more than you do now. It's likely that you have not experienced as much sexual pleasure as you can, and that could be due to a whole host of reasons. So, to help you develop more desire for sex, I will need to show you how to enjoy sex with less effort, and to do that I need to know how you respond during the four stages of the sexual experience.

1. AROUSAL: What does it take for you to experience sexual arousal? This enjoyable experience is usually accompanied by vaginal secretion of lubricating fluid, which prepares it for intercourse. Without such physical preparation, and the emotional experience of arousal, intercourse can be quite unpleasant for a woman.

Foreplay is usually essential in bringing about sexual arousal in women, but the type of foreplay that leads to arousal varies from woman to woman. In some cases, foreplay is two hours of dynamic conversation and heartfelt affection with a heavy emphasis on kissing. For others, it is a massage that begins with non-erogenous zones and moves to sensuous touching of the breasts and genitals. For yet others, it is a romantic movie, or dancing, or listening to music together.

Whenever I've counseled women on this subject, I begin with an analysis of her erotic fantasies for clues as to what would work best to create sexual arousal, because that's essentially what an erotic fantasy is -- a form of imagined foreplay. My goal is for her to convert the fantasy into reality so that her husband can help her to become sexually aroused effortlessly and predictably. It's an essential first step in creating sexual desire for most women.

2. PLATEAU: Do you know how to reach sexual plateau? Once a woman knows how to experience sexual arousal predictably and effortlessly, the next step in my plan to create sexual desire is to reach the sexual plateau effortlessly and predictably. The sexual experience of the plateau is a more intense sexual sensation than arousal, and is accompanied by an involuntary tightening of the vagina.

Many women find that intercourse during sexual arousal can lead to the plateau when they voluntarily tighten the vagina and thrust rapidly. They also find that a certain position can greatly enhance the sexual stimulation, thereby making plateau during intercourse much easier. Some women find that oral sex is the most effective way for them to reach sexual plateau, and once they are there, intercourse sustains the plateau experience.

3. CLIMAX: Do you know how to climax? Once a woman knows how to create sexual plateau predictably, a climax is usually easy to achieve. Faster thrusting gets the job done for most women. And, unlike most men, women can have multiple orgasms, which means that they can do it many times whenever they make love.

4. RECOVERY: After you make love, does your husband spend time talking to you and showing you affection? Most women need at least 15 minutes to recover after love-making. They should be held by their husbands while the intense sexual experience subsides. If this stage is not completed correctly, she often leaves the sexual experience very frustrated and is less likely to want to repeat it.

The feeling of sexual desire prior to arousal usually depends on having a positive experience in all four of these stages whenever you make love. Your sexual experiences of the distant past would be relevant only if you had repeatedly bad experiences in one or more of these stages, but even then, you can overcome their effect by making your present experiences predictably enjoyable.

This analysis of the problem may seem somewhat clinical and unromantic to you, but I have seen some remarkable recoveries using it to create a treatment plan. If you would like, answer my questions about your experience with these four stages, and we may be able to solve this problem once and for all.

Best wishes

Mary's next letter to Dr. Harley (2 of 8)
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