This is one of the many common and sensitive issues that come up for couples. While there is certainly the opposite stereotype too: the wife who loves shopping, dressing up, and spending lots of time and money on her appearance, we also see a lot of the reverse: women who have little interest in or patience for this, and men who wish they had more.
“Why can’t my wife just make the effort for me? Is it such a big ask?”
On a superficial level, it’s not essentially an unreasonable request, but for many women, it’s a lot more loaded than it seems. It’s not just about a simple: “ooh- could you wear this; I love how you look in it!”
There are a bunch of different places this reluctance might be coming from, and often it’s subconscious. Some women will even say:
“I honestly don’t even know why I can’t bring myself to just do this for him. I just know that when I try, I really hate the way it feels, and I feel icky and resentful, especially afterwards.”
Here are some possible explanations we’ve explored, ranging from the intrapersonal to the interpersonal, and not all will fit any one person or relationship:
Intrapersonal: (within herself)
*Maybe she was raised in value-culture that discouraged aesthetics. Either for religious reasons, or for anti-materialism, she internalized that it’s shallow, snobby, irresponsible, showy, lewd, immodest, or unspiritual to pursue beauty or eroticism. That a mature woman has better things to do than spend time on vanity. If this is what she learned, then she may view your request as pressure to betray her ingrained values.
*Maybe she’s not comfortable in her skin, or with her femininity. Some women, either because they don’t feel attractive, or simply got used to a more simple personal style, and feel awkward dressing in a way that feels phony or foreign to their tastes.
*Maybe she has a negative association with sexuality or sexiness; thinking that it’s inappropriate, seductive or promiscuous to dress more elaborately than she does.
*Maybe it’s coming from a concern about being perceived as “just a pretty face.” Women have worked hard to be taken seriously in society, and still have a way to go in some communities. Some may have been exposed to condescending, unhealthy, and pressuring premarital (or postmarital) advice like: “No matter how hard your day was, make sure to put on a smile and look great for your husband at night.” So this might come from a sense of push-back; an idea that women dressing up for men nullifies or objectifies them, reduces their dignity, or undermines their intelligence and substance.
*Maybe she’s sensory. Some people are sensitive to specific textures and don’t like the feeling of them on their skin. They get ticklish, itchy, or bothered. This goes for cosmetics and jewelry too- these people will always choose comfort over aesthetics. (Fancy clothes, shoes, and nightwear don’t tend to be designed with ease and comfort in mind.)
*Maybe it’s hard for her to segue from work-mode and/or mom-mode into lover-mode. If she wears simple, sensible, easy-wash, utilitarian clothes during the day, and is busy with practical matters, it can be hard to make the switch afterwards, especially if she’s tired or overwhelmed.
Interpersonal: (connected to the relationship)
*Maybe she doesn’t enjoy the sexual relationship as much as she’d like to (or as much as you’d like her to.) And then she feels like dressing up for you would betray her own feelings, conveying a message of: “I’m feeling in the mood” when she in fact, is generally not in the mood, and doesn’t want to encourage overtures.
*Maybe she’s resentful about something, or not loving the marital dynamic, and doesn’t feel amorous to go that extra mile. Maybe she feels some of her needs are not being met. It can feel unmotivating, or even dishonest, to dress up with you’re not feeling connected.
*Maybe she’s tried but been criticized. Not all men do this, but some do: Has she tried to dress up, only to have her style, body, face, or accessories put down in some way? Women, people in general, but especially women, are very sensitive to this: reject them once or twice, and they’re unlikely to try again. That hurt sticks around for a while, and renders people reluctant to open up and try again.
*This one is delicate but… in the past, has she been treated differently when dressed up? Some women will say: “I don’t like the way my husband responds to me- the way he talks to or looks at me when I’m dressed up; it feels predatory- even humiliating. Or: He gets too excited; grabby and aggressive, and it doesn’t feel good. I’d rather play it safe and be treated with respect.”
*Maybe she actually is dressing nicely, but it’s not your particular taste.
*Maybe she just wants to know that she’s appreciated and attractive to you regardless of how she looks. That might not be so easy for a man to hear or practice, but it’s sometimes the starting point.
With all these possible explanations, and probably some that I missed, does that mean there’s no hope for you on this issue?
But most women won’t enjoy getting fancy out of a sense of obligation, pressure, or guilt, and even if they did it, it wouldn't feel great for either of you. So what’s a man to do? There isn’t a one size fits all solution. But here is an idea of something you could say (besides for sharing this blog post with her and asking if any of these reasons resonate):
“I want you to know that I find you naturally beautiful. I don’t mean to, and I shouldn’t tell you what to wear. I'm sorry if I have. I just enjoy seeing you in different styles, and the idea of you enjoying how pretty you are too, by adding some variety, particularly when it’s just the two of us. But if it bothers you to do that, or if it bothers you for me to mention it, then let’s leave it alone. If there is something that I’ve been doing or saying that specifically makes it uncomfortable for you, please let me know so I can be more sensitive to you.”
Is your desire legitimate? Yes, probably. Is her choice not to fulfill it legitimate? Also, yes.
Having the discussion with respect, empathy, and openness can go a long way.
If her not wanting to dress up runs deeper in a way that’s connected to the relationship- emotional or sexual, it might be a good opening to discuss what’s going on between you, and address any underlying issues, together or in couples therapy. If it’s her own thing, or it doesn’t seem to run deep, and the relationship is safe, healthy and happy, then it’s probably worth trying to put the issue to rest. Let go. You never know: by removing the pressure for real, and sincerely accepting and appreciating her the way she is, the authentic love and connection that result might even eventually spark some desire-driven change down the road, or even better: it might make you not even crave it anymore, because you’re busy enjoying your wife as she is. Either way, you both win.