Manipulation: A Strange and Terrible Bedfellow, Part 2

By Anne Gagliano

Manipulation is an act of coercion, an intent to control. To handle skillfully or shrewdly, often in an unfair way. A classic visual example is an actual puppet; the hands of the manipulator pull strings to make the puppet dance. In marriage, this can be ugly. Painful. Destructive. No one likes to be made to feel powerless or used or disrespected as a person. And this is especially true in marital love making, which is meant to be an act to bring couples closer together. With manipulation, sex may become a source of frustration, anger, hurt, or disappointment.

In Part 1 of this series, I detailed some ways that men and women can begin to manipulate their spouse sexually. Those who desire sex less (typically women) manipulate by denying it, and those who want sex more (typically men) manipulate by promising other rewards, such as kindnesses, to get it. This type of bargaining is usually harmless but can descend into the darkness of punishment if it’s taken too far. Physical desire with its sexual expression is undoubtedly the most complicated aspect of love and marriage.

How do we match our different needs and libidos without manipulating?

How do we express love and affection with all sincerity and no hidden agendas? And how do we know the difference?  To determine this, I’ll first look at some of the problems that may arise in the marital bed and then conclude with some solutions to those problems.

Sex can become complicated in any relationship; when it does, intimacy may vanish and communication shut down. Hinderances block the path to closeness. But, with effort, those hinderances can be removed and the path made smooth to a thrilling, fulfilling sex life.

The two chief inhibitors to sexual desire are fear and hostility. Fear, or anxiety and excessive self-consciousness, impairs pleasure, which can only really occur when relaxed. And hostility or anger kills emotional intimacy. Negative feelings in the relationship tend to be played out first and foremost in a couple’s sex life, which is directly impacted, as nobody wants to be physically close to someone with whom they’re angry. Both men and women can develop negative feelings about their marital sex life for various reasons. I’ll start with women.

One woman writes, “What can a wife do when the husband seems only to want sex and doesn’t care about her during the remainder of the day?  He forgets her birthday, doesn’t care when she has emotional needs, and won’t take any spiritual leadership in the family.”  Marriage counselors report that this letter represents a common complaint among the wives they counsel. Husbands often ignore wives’ needs for romance and tenderness before the act of making love; because of this, these wives have no desire for sex.

Studies indicate that a woman’s primary lack of response to her husband’s sexual desires stems from lack of trust. If she can’t rely on him, if he lets her down or denies her the affection she needs, she can’t relax and enjoy sex. Or, if she’s suspicious of his motives on the rare occasions he does exhibit affection, that he’s merely seeking sex, she will again not respond to him. This is not manipulative denial on her part, but a lack of desire stemming from a primary need going unmet, an emotional connection. Sex without signs of love is sure to cause resentment, not response, from a wife.

When a woman’s reason for not wanting sex is biological, it is not deliberate and should never be viewed as such. Fatigue is the primary hindrance. A woman’s hormones fluctuate ten times more than a man’s, every month. This, combined with a long, hard day at work or caring for demanding children, can be quite exhausting. Hormone fluctuations may cause mood swings or irritability. They may cause headaches and bloating, swelling, and other uncomfortable sensations that make a woman feel anything but sexy. A loving, devoted husband needs to be aware of these realities and not punish his wife for physical elements beyond her control by withholding tenderness or attention which she needs more than ever when she’s feeling hormonal.

Now let’s look at men’s sexual needs in marriage and what can happen when they are thwarted. Counselors report that a husband’s deepest need is to have his wife respond to him sexually. For this reason, he is particularly vulnerable to sexual rejection, much more so than she is. Avoiding sex, denying it for various reasons, or an utter lack of response can affect a man in a very negative way. And indifference is just as destructive as denial. When a wife continually withholds sex, a man may come to feel sexually “battered.” Just as physical abuse can cause physical injury, sexual denial and manipulation can cause psychological injury. Men report that if their wives reject them on a whim to get even, play blame games, show hostility, criticize their sexual performance, use sex to manipulate them, or fail to enjoy sex, it shakes their confidence as men. They may feel like a failure, like they’re unattractive, and may doubt their manhood. Persistent discouragement and rejection may even make them begin to wonder if their wives even love them.

A final way both men and women can sometimes use sex to manipulate is by threatening. Threatening to go elsewhere. Threatening to leave. Threatening to seek porn. Then blaming the spouse for their own bad behavior. Anger and hostility are then, unfortunately, vented through the very act meant to bring two people together. Sometimes this reflects your feelings about yourself or negative attitudes toward sex in general. Or, it may stem from ignorance–ignorance of your own body, your spouse’s body, or your spouse’s wishes and emotional needs.

Manipulation can be quite ugly; it is a desire to control, dominate, get your own way, put your needs ahead of your spouse’s. One couple writes about their marriage: “When other problems come up, we use sex in a negative way against each other. (Someone) needs to give a seminar on how not to use sex.”

In my next column, I’ll do that very thing–offer some solutions as to how not to use sex in a negative, manipulative way against your spouse.


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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