Manipulation: A Strange and Terrible Bedfellow, Part 1

By Anne Gagliano

How do married couples use sex to manipulate? What does that even mean? Professionals declare this to be a prevalent way that sex is misused in relationships. Manipulating your partner sexually has a negative impact on intimacy by turning an act meant to create closeness into something that instead causes distance. “Sex can be used to frustrate, disappoint, reject, or pay back—deliberately. Negative feelings are easily vented through the very act (meant) to bring two people together.”—Ed Wheat, M.D. Using sex as a tool to manipulate your spouse may lead to sexual dysfunction within marriage, and both men and women can do so. If not addressed, sexual dysfunction, or the distance it causes, can end the relationship. Many factors go into creating a healthy marriage; sex is just one of them. But, unfortunately, the converse is also true: A problem with sex can impact the entire relationship.

In one-third of marriages there is a “desire gap,” or one who desires sex more than the other. Typically, men want sex more than women do–not always, but it strongly trends that way. The one who wants sex the least is the one who is in control, and this is how the positives of love making can be turned into the negatives of manipulation–when one partner tries to assert control over the other.

To manipulate means to coerce someone into doing what you want by promising to give them something they want. For example, if you buy me this, I will reward you with sex. If you accomplish the items on my “Honey-Do List,” you will “get lucky tonight.”  We all chuckle at this, as most couples experience harmless situations where this type of language is used. When it is good-natured, whimsical, and mutual, it is healthy and normal, even fun and playful. Most people want to be desired and pursued. But this type of “bargaining” can become destructive to a relationship if sex starts to be viewed as currency. For the married couple, sex is synonymous with affection—something that shouldn’t be bought or sold for this simple reason: What happens when a spouse cannot pay?  This leads to the darker side of manipulation—punishment.

One husband writes: “My wife placed manipulative conditions on our sex life. I had to do certain things such as wash dishes, etc., to win a few intimate moments …. We grew farther apart … I did not really feel necessary in her life … our separate paths began to bring about a sexual hunger in me, and I failed … I had an affair …. My wife’s divorce proceedings are just days away.” (Love Life for Every Married Couple)

To punish someone sexually is to deny them—deliberately. The intention is to hurt, to wound, to retaliate for not getting what you want. This type of wounding, especially for men, can shake confidence and cause tremendous depression. To be rejected sexually renders one psychologically vulnerable to injury; feelings of low self-esteem and failure are but a few examples. To wound a spouse in such a personal way, to deny them sexually just to spite, stems from pure selfishness and is a way to gain power. Knowing the spouse has committed to be faithful and not seek sexual satisfaction in the arms of another, the manipulator has them over a barrel. If there is not a reasonable effort made to meet the sexual needs of the relationship, what recourse is left?  My and my husband Mike’s experience with couples facing this has demonstrated a strong likelihood that if the denial persists, the answer will eventually be found with another person. We have seen this same thing play out in more couples than we can count, and it doesn’t need to happen.

There are several ways to punish a spouse sexually. The obvious way is to repeatedly just say “no.”  A less obvious way is to so irritate and so criticize that desire is dampened. With terse remarks and disrespect, passion can fade. And yet another way is to make zero effort to be “sexy,” to completely ignore your spouse’s requests in this area, to quit trying to be attractive as you once did when you were dating, or to not make any of the romantic or physical gestures you know your spouse likes. This too can be a type of sexual punishment when it is done deliberately. To do these things is to lose touch, to not care what your partner likes, or to turn away from someone who’s reaching out to you. Rejection can be very painful.

For the one who desires sex more, their tactics are the opposite. They seek to be rewarded with sex, so they must find means with which to “buy” it. This, too, borders on manipulation—coercing someone into doing something you want them to do. Within marriage, it can look like this: “I’ll take you to a nice dinner and let you pick the movie and say sweet things to you all day if you’ll give me sex.”  Again, we may laugh, as this is a very common type of romantic interplay in both dating and marriage. If it is mutually approved and reciprocal and stems from genuine affection, then it’s a healthy part of the give-and-take of marriage. But when the motive is control or comes from a negative emotional place, this is no longer “bargaining” but a type of manipulation that can be cruel and destructive, as kind gestures should be given freely without “payment.”

This topic is a weighty one, so I will continue with it in my next column. A healthy sex life is central to a healthy marriage, and those of us who wish to live long with the one we love must constantly be vigilant as to how we’re treating them. Negative behaviors have a way of creeping up on us if we’re not paying close attention, and manipulation is one of them. It stems from pure selfishness, which is, indeed, a strange and terrible bedfellow.


Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 32 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.

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