One of the biggest issues brought up in therapy is the lack of or a decrease of physical intimacy after a few years into the relationship. I can write many pages on the topic about why things change after 1-2 years of waking up next to the same person, but I’ll stick to the short version. Other than strictly medical issues (which are not covered in this post), there are two big categories that encompass most of these reasons. The first bucket consists of reasons related to the individual and have nothing to do with the quality of the relationship or the love for the partner. The second bucket is directly related to the quality of the relationship or things that the partner says or does that makes one not be physically or mentally attracted to that person anymore even to the point of turnoff.
Of course, we don’t start like that. We start with big hopes and dreams that our relationship is special, different than anyone else’s and that the sex is going to be hot and mind-blowing for the rest of our lives.
I would like you to imagine the following wedding vows, and let me know if you’d still sign up for marriage:
Right as of this moment, I love you with all my heart, mind, and body. I am more focused on you and what I can give you to make you feel good, loved, and appreciated. I feel we are on the same page, we are connected, and we can make it through anything together. However, about 3 years from today, we will start getting a little bored with each other. We are also not going to agree all the time. I may label things you say and do as pretty dumb and I will let you know that my ideas are better, which is going to make it really annoying to be around each other. My way will generally be the right way. Maybe we will talk about it, or maybe we will just scream at each other, or maybe we will do the passive-aggressive thing where we don’t say anything is wrong, but then we just purposefully ignore each other’s needs. That one is fun! That’s going to build some resentment, a lot of hurt feelings, a feeling of disconnection, some thoughts the grass is greener somewhere else, but oh, well, that’s part of marriage, right?
In addition, I want you to be ready and willing to be intimate when I want to. I may want sex all the time or I may not want it at all. If I want it all the time, I want you to put everything else on hold and take care of my needs. If I don’t want it for like 3 months, I want you to be okay with that. Finally, and most importantly, no matter how crappy our relationship is, or how much sex we have or don’t have, I do not want you to ever look at other people, fantasize about other people, or cheat on me. This is only for the next 50 years, doesn’t this sound like fun?”
Relationships and sexuality are SO very complicated and often difficult to understand. At any moment in time, our needs for connection, attraction, and intimacy could be influenced by tens of social, emotional, and cognitive, in addition to physical and medical factors.
Nonetheless, what I’ve learned, time and time again, is that no matter what the reason, after a lengthy period of physical intimacy starvation, both spouses become highly sensitive and insecure about themselves and the status of their relationship. The saddest part is that partners are usually not aware that this is normal; they don’t want to acknowledge it as normal, and they don’t talk about it. Instead of humorously accepting that their relationship is changing, they may nag each other about it, but they often don’t discuss the common reasons behind a lack of interest in intimacy.
They don’t do it because they are ashamed, embarrassed, afraid of hurting the other one’s feelings, or afraid of what it says about them if they are not interested. Over time, both partners may feel widely invalidated, misunderstood, estranged from each other, ashamed, or afraid that something is wrong with them. This vicious downward spiral will continue with poor or limited communication, anger, lack of cooperation, and a high level of tension. Overall, it is a very sensitive subject for both people. Learning how to talk about it in a confident but empathic manner makes a whole world worth of difference. It is the key to making or breaking the relationship.
More importantly, sometimes, these reasons have nothing to do with the quality of the relationship or with your partner; and sometimes, they do. It’s important, that you figure out what category they fall in, and you find the best way to explain it to your partner.
By the way, this is only a problem if there’s a difference in the level of sex drive and desire. If both partners are at the same level, low or high, this is not an issue.
Here are the most common reasons for differences in sex drive!
Personal reasons that have nothing to do with your partner
Mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion. When life just happens and work, kids and other stressors put a lot of pressure on our bodies, sleep is more of a priority than anything else. Lack of sleep is a HUGE deal that screws up with all of your systems.
What do I do about that? Recognize and be honest (don’t just use it as an excuse) that you need some time to catch up on some sleep and relaxation, give each other some space, and actually sleep, don’t just waste 10 hours on Netflix.
Not a priority biology-wise. Hormones are a crazy thing that often drives our needs for sex. They are also a little bit of a roller-coaster for women, and more stable for men. This is very simple, at the beginning of a relationship, other hormones kick in and heighten our need to connect physically. As we get used to each other, they go back to the baseline, and that baseline is different for everyone, and that’s perfectly normal. And when we get to the baseline, many are more interested in reading a favorite book or watching Scandal or Game of Thrones marathon (which has plenty of erotic scenes) and still have no interest in moving off the couch and doing any kind of physical activity (sexual or not).
What do I do about that? I highly recommend tracking down when you are actually physically interested and take some time to pinpoint what it is. For example, during ovulation, women are more physiologically primed to be interested in sex, but most of the times we don’t pay attention unless we are in a project mode to make some babies (then, we are super goal-oriented).
In parenting mode, not sexual mode. This is particularly true for couples with young kids that are highly dependent on the attention from their parents; it’s even more complicated for breastfeeding mothers to be using their breasts as a source of food every half an hour, and then turn them into sexual objects just because their spouse walks in the room.
What do I do about that? This one is a little tough. Babies come first. Give each other some time and have some patience. It’s a really tough, stressful time for young couples and it will take some adjustment. It’s hard for men to not get as much attention, but it’s part of the journey to fatherhood. Take some time to bond with the baby, give mom a break, and trust me, if you do that a few times, it will actually be more of a foreplay than you think. Involved fathers that give new moms a break are super sexy!
Not feeling good about self. Although this is often associated with women more than with men, it truly does affect them both. Our brains can come up with all sorts of movies and scenarios about what we should look like, comparing ourselves to other people, and internalizing feedback from our partners, which may or not be positive. Sometimes, our partner’s feedback could be misinterpreted and attributed meaning that’s not congruent with feeling hot and sexy.
What do I do about that? This could be a chicken or the egg kind of thing, and we will talk a little more about self-care below….but…this will require an effort on your part to make yourself feel better ….as well as some honest encouragement and support from your partner. Just waiting for things to naturally change isn’t going to do a darn thing.
The timing of desire vs. the practical circumstances (lack of spontaneous desire). This is kind of a big biological difference between men and women. Physically, most men are able to turn on their desire in a shorter period time subject to physical and visual stimulation; for women, things are just not as spontaneous. They could be turned on by a text from their spouse while stuck in traffic and a hot song on the radio, but then be all over it by the time they walk into the house chaos that requires them to feed the kids and do homework; and then by the time the kids go to bed, they are all exhausted and ready to go to sleep. For men, the sight of their partner could be enough of stimulation to get going; for women, the sight of their partner may send an infusion of oxytocin and an overall love vibe, but most of the times it does not translate into a dire need for intercourse.
What do I do about that? Well, as un-sexy as it sounds, you plan and set time aside for physical intimacy one or two times per month, and everything else that may happen in between, well, that’s just extra luck.
Reasons totally related to your partner and state of the relationship
These take some work and concentrated effort, lots of honesty, and commitment, so give it a good thought before you bring it up to your partner.
Not feeling connected to your partner and a feeling of not being on the same page. When everything attempted together feels like Navy Seal training, the sexual interest diminishes considerably, especially for women. This can happen quite often if the couple is one of those “opposites attract” kind of couple. Because after a few years together, opposites don’t attract anymore, they almost want to kill each other.
What do I do about that? By the way, this is the answer for this bullet point as well as the next three. The short and more expensive answer is find a good couple’s therapist and do at least a few sessions to get some clarity. In these particular cases, the lack of sex is not the main problem, it’s just a symptom of a bigger issue. The longer and much cheaper answer is check out My Spouse Is Different Than Me” which covers a few of these topics which may be deeply rooted in your attachment style, your childhood experiences, and your relationship role models growing up, and they are all replaying in your adult relationships (and they will continue to replay until you become aware of it and make some effort to change patterns).
Unaddressed, underlying resentment. This is a tough one because most partners will not come out to say out of fear of hurting the other’s feelings. It’s the foundation of many passive-aggressive behaviors I see in couple’s therapy. Sometimes, the partner is feeling guilty for even feeling resentment, and is not willing to admit it to her(him)self. It’s often deeply buried, but it always comes out in a different area, and physical intimacy is one of the most popular choices.
Being hypercritical, negative, or mean to each other or the kids. This one is definitely a big one for me, especially being mean or rough with the kids, that’s a mood killer-for a while. I don’t know one person that’s attracted to someone who is mean, negative, judgmental, and overly critical (well, I guess maybe, if you are into S&M bondage kind of stuff). Unfortunately, in a marriage, when #1 and #2 are alive, it is very easy to get into a vicious gridlock of nasty fights, comments, and verbal and emotional jabs that continuously spiral down with no way out. And sometimes, when parents can’t take it out on each other, they take it out on the kids, which is very sad and troubling.
Attacking each other’s core identity & roles (making each other feel less of a man, or woman, or mother, or father, or breadwinner). These are those below-the-belt kind of blows. They are mean and nasty, and we do it when we feel like we have no control over the argument, we are in pain, and don’t know how to get the other person to listen and see our point of view. So, we want them to feel our pain as much as we do. Unfortunately, it NEVER solves any problems, it only makes them worse, as most people will shut down at this point.
No longer being attracted physically to your partner. I will say something that may send shock waves, so brace yourself for it. Your appearance, as well as your spouse’s appearance, will affect the way you feel about each other sexually. Although we may not like to admit it, women have “shallow” thoughts, just as men do; we are attracted to a six-pack a whole lot more than to a beer belly. That’s why all the romance novels have a man with hard rock abs on the cover. Vampires or not, these guys always seem to hit the gym a lot. And of course, we are attracted to that. But overall, I don’t believe there is anything wrong to want to stay in shape and remain attracted to your spouse. And even more importantly, this is about self-care. It’s about showering, brushing teeth, still wearing nice clothes, using deodorant, controlling the burping and the flatulence….you know, basic things you do during dating when you are trying to impress one another. Why do most people start hitting the gym and care about their appearance once they are out of a relationship and back on the market, but don’t do it for themselves and their partner while they are in the relationship?
What do I do about that? First, I would try to figure out what changed? Was there a big physical change like weight gain or loss of hair? Is it the self-care thing? Or are you just bored? Some things are fixable such as weight loss, but you have to be very mindful on how you communicate that to not hurt their feelings and kill their motivation. Secondly, if you are just bored, remind yourself that’s a two-way street, and your partner may feel the same way. I have to admit that the physical attraction is a big thing so I will have to come back to this one with some more actionable ideas.
Well, here you go. A list of hard truths about physical intimacy in a long-term relationship. I wrote My Spouse Wants More Sex Than Me to bridge most differences, especially the ones listed in the first category. If you have an open mind, there are some easy ways to help you and your partner when you are busy and tired to make it through some of these inevitable challenges. As long as partners keep engaged, and honest, and are willing to accommodate each other, a couple can successfully negotiate and bridge the gap caused by gender differences or any discrepancies in the desire levels.
As far as the second category is concerned, this one is a little bit more challenging and unfortunately, it does require some couples’ therapy to repair some of the communication and connection lines. I strongly recommend you check out some counseling when you feel there are things you just can’t say to each other but weigh heavy on your mind and heart. If you wait too long, some of these will become too deep and hard to overcome. You don’t want to be the couple fighting over the drapes on the second floor when there are big cracks in the foundation.
ABOUT: Dr. Ruxandra LeMay is a licensed psychologist with experience and interest in family therapy, stress and anxiety management, emotional intelligence and executive coaching. She is the author of My Spouse Wants More Sex Than Me: The 2-Minute Solution For a Happier Marriage and My Spouse is Different Than Me: How to Mediate Irreconcilable Differences and Grow in Your Marriage. Check out her 5-day free email series, From Emotionally Challenged To Emotionally Savvy for people struggling with emotional availability and lacking a sense of connection. For more information, join her at ruxandralemay.com, a website for people who hate therapy, but still need it!