As a sex therapist, the most common problem I’m asked about is the loss of sexual desire. Usually couples come in after years of infrequent or absent sex, and usually they can remember that when they first got together, they were both passionate. But then something changed.
It is completely normal for sexual frequency to diminish after the first year or two in a relationship; it’s a natural stage of couple development. But sometimes the problem is severe enough to cause conflict and suffering. One or both of the partners may be seriously considering divorce.
I find that about 2 out of 3 times, it’s the female partner (in a heterosexual couple) who loses desire first. About 1/3 of the time, it’s the male. But in either case, if the problem persists for some time, the higher-desire partner usually reports that he or she has also lost interest. “I can only take so much rejection,” they will report, “and after a while I just gave up.” Their partner’s lack of interest may have led to their own loss of confidence. They respond by shutting down their own sexual desire.
Here are some of the suggestions I usually offer to couples struggling with this problem.
(1) Try to talk about your feelings. If your partner tells you “It’s not you, it’s me,” consider taking them at their word. Often stress, exhaustion, depression, or medical problems can cause one or both of you to lose interest in sex. A history of sexual abuse or trauma can complicate the situation. If any or all of these factors are true in your relationship, try to address them directly. Individual and/or couple therapy can make a difference.
(2) Remember the good times you had with your partner in the past, and try to re-create them. For example, did you honeymoon romantically by the sea? Consider a weekend away at the Shore for just the two of you. Don’t bring your computers. Turn your cell phones off (at least for an hour or so!) Enjoy dining out and possibly a glass of wine, but don’t eat or drink so much that you dull your senses. Pay attention to each other.
(3) Plan regular times for intimacy. Many couples tell me “We don’t want to schedule sex, it should be spontaneous!” Please remember that when you were dating or in the early days of your marriage, you did in fact plan for sex, though it may not seem that way: it was usually on the agenda for both of you, because you kept it front and center in your minds. Once you live with someone, daily life often gets in the way. Work, family, housework, and different sleep schedules make “spontaneous” sex nearly impossible. Try to set a time to be alone together, preferably without distractions, about once a week. That might not seem like much compared to your early days together – but if it’s more than you are having now, it’s a good start!
(4) Try to meet in the middle. If you are the partner who wants more frequent sex, set the bar lower, and accept the fact that you may need to take care of your own needs some of the time. Yes, masturbation may help your marriage, if you use it to help reduce pressure on your partner. Pressure is often a big part of the problem. Meanwhile, if you are the partner who has less interest in sex, try to build up your own interest by fantasizing. Take the time to purposely imagine or remember exciting sexual scenes. This is an activity that high-desire people may experience naturally all day long, while low-desire individuals may rarely have a fantasy. You can learn to fantasize! Try reading or viewing erotica, if you like, to help jump-start your interest.
(5) Plan intimate interactions that are sensual and romantic, but don’t include intercourse. A sensual massage can help set the stage for sexual intimacy at a later time. Consider shopping together for lingerie or sex toys. Watch a romantic or erotic movie together.
(6) If conflict or emotional distance is part of the problem, consider getting help. In addition to regular relationship therapy or couple sex therapy, you might consider a couples’ retreat. Three such resources to consider:
Marriage Encounter is a long-established program of weekends for married couples that originated in the Catholic church but is appropriate for spiritually minded couples of all Christian backgrounds. According to the website, a Marriage Encounter weekend “gives spouses an opportunity to grow in their marriage through open and honest communication, face-to-face sharing, and heart to heart encounter in a comfortable, relaxed setting. National Marriage Encounter invites and encourages married couples of all ages and faith expressions to share in this experience and to become an integral part of this journey.”
Imago Relationship Weekend Workshops offer a way for couples to communicate and understand one another on a deeper emotional level. This form of treatment, developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix (author of the bestseller Getting the Love You Want), typically involves a group of couples from many backgrounds learning together. It is spiritual only in a general sense. An Imago Workshop resource local to the Philadelphia area is Self Expressions Counseling in Malvern.
For a very special vacation, consider Intimacy Retreats. Offered in Siesta Key, Florida, and sometimes in other vacation spots, these retreats are led by a couple therapist and her husband, who together coach groups of couples interested in a Tantric approach to sexuality. There is no nudity or sex in the group setting, but it does include explicit instructions and exercises that enhance sensuality as well as verbal communication.
A few books that may be helpful:
Getting the Sex You Want by Tammy Nelson.
Intimacy and Desire by David Schnarch.
The Sex-Starved Marriage by Michele Weiner Davis.
Reclaiming Desire by Andrew Goldstein and Marianne Brandon.
To make an appointment for couple therapy or sex therapy at Psych Choices of the Delaware Valley, call our Intake Coordinator at 610-626-8085, or use our Make An Appointment page.