"Why Can't I Get What I Want?"

He became the man his wife wanted—then she rejected his advances. Why?

By Hara Estroff Marano, published November 6, 2018 - last reviewed on January 1, 2019

I recently lost my job but work full-time taking care of the house and our two children while my wife works outside the home. I make breakfast, get our older child off to school, clean up, fix small things, watch and feed our toddler, and do laundry. My wife no longer cooks or cleans, but complains when things are not done or when she doesn't get her way. I can't give her material things right now, but I'm there to support her. Still, our sex life is nonexistent, even when I initiate it. It's always the wrong time, although she used to be interested. We love each other; we just can't seem to live with each other. She feels she has evolved and says she owes it all to me. She has what she wants! Why, when I ask, can I not get what I want?

HARA ESTROFF MARANO askhara@psychologytoday.com

Because…well, it's complicated. You have stepped onto an emerging front in the gender wars. It may be small consolation, but you are facing a problem that is cropping up with increasing frequency among contemporary couples—and bewildering both partners. On the one hand are men who have, to a greater or lesser degree, heard and heeded women's complaints that they need their life partners to share the burdens of housework and raising the children. The men feel they are striving to be the very people their wives want, sometimes risking the ridicule of others to take on their expanded household responsibilities, sometimes even sacrificing their own career ambitions. Then they are gobsmacked when their bids for intimacy are rejected, turning the bedroom, and often the rest of the house, into a cold or hot war zone. It feels like the ultimate betrayal and leaves the men sad and lonely to boot.

Yes, women want their partners to help out. Yes, it frees women to put energy into their careers and to develop a wide array of skills. But the act of male domestication can send out very mixed signals about their sexual role. It can de-eroticize men in the eyes of women. As a result, women may not be able to get turned on,  so they avoid sex. Not that they are aware of the psychosexual dynamics. Like men, women are caught in a bind between old and new templates of masculinity and femininity that operate below the level of conscious awareness. Precisely what it means to be a man or woman is shifting rapidly, leaving both sexes a bit unmoored. Not everyone behaves well when confused and sexually unfulfilled.  

That said, few things are more painful than feeling undesired.

In general, women's sexuality is more relationally driven, more affected by circumstances than men's, and desire is less directly tied to physical arousal; in fact, desire often follows arousal, rather than preceding it. As psychotherapist Esther Perel notes in her book Mating in Captivity, domesticity can be destructive to sex. "The very elements that nurture love—reciprocity, mutuality, protection, closeness, emotional security, predictability—are sometimes the very things that stifle desire. Love wants a certain kind of closeness; desire needs space and distance to thrive."

As many researchers of female desire have reported, women often find their own routines and burdens of caretaking as wives and mothers to be desexualizing, making it hard for them to shift into erotic mode. "The sexual role stands on the opposite side of the social role," Perel says.

So the shortest answer to your question of why you can't get what you want is: It's not you. It's the situation—at this particular moment in the history of gender dynamics.

You and your wife need a kind conversation that airs the hidden and not-so-hidden forces that are silently putting you at odds.