"I'm Not in the Mood." The Usual Decline of Sexual Interest (and what do do about it)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

“I just want a quickie.”  

“I feel used.” 

“I think we should have sex more often.” 

“I think you need to show me more emotional support first.”

“How about just a blow job?” 

“How about a back rub?”

“Why do you always want sex?”

“Why don’t you want it more?”

“God, I’m just so…bored.”

Sound familiar? If you're like thousands of other couples this Valentine's Day, you might be having one of these conversations. We can't all be like Shannon and Morrison in my second novel, Conviction. (Rawr.)

Sexual issues come up often in relationship counseling, and they can be tricky to tease apart, unlike your husband’s legs. (Ba dum dum, ching). While sexual activity is at a peak in early relationships, it tends to decline over time. But why? We surely love our spouse more now than we do when we met them, don’t we?

Why would our sexual desire so reliably go down (and not in the fun way)? There are quite a few reasons, and obviously all of them cannot be discussed in one post. But while this isn’t a universal truth for everyone, there are a few, very common reasons for a loss of desire. And while I will be addressing the ladies here only because I more often see couples where women have lower drives, keep in mind that these roles can be reversed. 

Come with me. (heh) Let’s check this out.

Why does sexual interest decline so readily within relationships? 

Dr. Michael Bader, author of Arousal, notes that there may be a few reasons for this shift that are more common than others1

  • Oxytocin, newness and excitement about an unknown future: In new relationships, both are excited about the other and the promise of the future which tends to give each an added boost of confidence1. We also feel butterflies related not only to the excitement, but to the fear of loss because commitment is not yet cemented (and the misattribution of arousal in combination with this underlying fear can make things that much more intense). In an effort to cement these early bonds and alleviate fear of losing, your oxytocin and other hormones are at an all time high, driving us to more frequent sexual escapades in order to cement those attachment bonds. But this newness wears off. Familiarity and commitment breeds sexual boredom. Not only are you not driven to sex as a way to form bonds (because you’re already committed), but just being around someone over time ensures that you know what to expect of them in the bedroom. Yawn. It’s a bummer, but it doesn’t mean you don’t love them despite popular fairy tale notions of love. Those fairy tales also include talking mice and magic apples. Come on, people. The anxiety butterflies (and the sex we desire as a way to dissuade them) can’t last forever. Congratulations, you’re normal.    
  • Increased Sexual Ruthlessness at the Outset: Bader believes that guilt and worry tend to reduce sexual self centeredness for many. In other words the worry about a partner may, for some, reduce the amount of pleasure they experience because they don’t let go fully and enjoy themselves. But, in the beginning of relationships, people are less familiar with one another, and less attached emotionally which decreases guilt and worry about the other. It allows for what Bader calls “sexual ruthlessness” because they have not yet fully tuned into the needs of their partner. Bader even notes that some couples may be prone to fighting and “make-up” sex because it serves to reduce attachment if only for a time and allow each to focus on their needs instead of the other, because “fuck him, he pissed me off.” (However I would argue that this might also be a function of misattribution of arousal as well as a way to reduce stress hormones from the fight flight response) This isn’t to say that in some couples sexual pleasure doesn’t increase over time, for once someone knows what you like things do have a tendency to improve. However, attunement can be a double edged sword IF you happen to have a history where guilt and worry are paramount (read more about it here in Fantasy Roots, Uses and Fifty Shades of Awesome).
  • Less Identification in the Beginning:  The closer we are to someone the closer they start to resemble early patterns of behavior, also known as transference1. For example, we are more likely to experience partners the way early experiences tell us we should as echoes of early attachment come up. And when those early issues rear their sometimes less-than-sexually-exciting heads, we may find times when desire is diminished from something as simple as, “He told me I shouldn’t buy these shoes I wanted, just like my father used to. I never realized until just now what a controlling bastard my husband was.”
  • Male tendency to separate emotionally: While we are more likely to overlook initial closeness due to the fact that we don’t know one another all that well, we do tend to expect increases in closeness and emotional expression over time. Attunement and empathy are normal experiences in emotional intimacy, but these emotions may threaten men because their view of what it means to be “male” is commonly derived from rigid independence and autonomy, not a caring merger with others. When coupled with the societal ideas that femininity and masculinity are opposites, that femininity is inferior and that emotional connections mean less independence, men may be taught to embrace distance in order to be what they see as “normal, strong men.” Now this certainly isn’t to suggest that all men are incapable of being intimate, that they are unwilling to open up to us, or that they are jerky. But when our ideas of relationship success is at odds with closely held societal ideals of masculinity, it is worth noting, particularly if we see less emotional expression as threatening which turns us off. 
  • Healing from trauma: For people who have more significant issues to work through, fantasy and the type of man they are attracted to may be reflective of what they need to heal from a past trauma. However, once they are able to find safety, and release those issues, will they still be attracted to the same characteristics? If I was attracted to my partner because I needed someone domineering so that I could work through a rape, once I am able to internalize that I am safe even with those who can overpower me, will I still want the big strong dude? The short answer is that no one knows. But the good news is that because personalities are relatively fixed from childhood, even a change in the attractiveness of certain traits won’t necessarily thwart the entire relationship. It may mean a shift in perspective, finding new things to appreciate about the other. For as Dr. Peter Kramer notes in Should You Leave? the overall goal is growth, and that often occurs within romantic relationships2

And there is usually more.

  • Negative cycles of sexual frustration (ie, experiences that are less than satisfying to women) may breed patterns of avoiding sex altogether out of frustration or bitterness that “He always gets to come and it just isn’t fair.” In addition, things like birth trauma can lead to fear or discomfort perpetuating similar cycles. Plus, whenever stress is mixed with sex, we run the risk of not being able to (ahem) finish at all because stress hormones like cortisol can plug into those receptors for oxytocin and hinder orgasm (Find out more here in: The Big O: What Women Need To Understand About Sexual Frustration and Overall Happiness). 
  • Hormones: As we age we may also see a normal decrease in sexual desire, particularly once menopause starts picking at us. And don’t even get me started on the hormones following childbirth. Most of the time, women have a decrease in sexual desire following childbirth which may stick around until the kids are walking and more independent. It has rarely made sense for us to get knocked up closer than a few years out in our historical past. Our body isn't going to start wanting to now. 
  • The Myth of Monogamy: Humans didn’t evolve to be strictly monogamous. It is an unexpected evolutionary phenomenon that in a relatively safe and healthy environment we should be stuck with one partner forever. (Read more here in Secrets Every Married Woman Should Know: What Penis Size Can Teach Us About Monogamy.)

Not enough triggers to a lack of desire? How about this then: most folks aren’t having sex as frequently as the general public seems to believe, particularly when we are bombarded with surveys of couples that claim “The average couple has sex at least three times a week!” Case and point, here are a few of my favorite blogger friends with their weekly “average” none of whom have a sexual problem: 

 

Averages are bullshit. if the average couple has sex three times a week, this means that a bunch of folks are doing it once a year and others are in the sack four times a day. So knock it the fuck off Cosmo. You’re making married men think they should be having it more, and women feel abnormal (and sometimes the other way around). That shit is whack. 

Instead of it being a numbers game, Dr. John Gottman, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, notes that successful couples tend to see sex as a fun expression of intimacy, but don’t take differences in desire personally. Because a securely attached couple can have nights where one just doesn’t feel like it. It doesn’t mean that we don’t love you. It doesn’t mean that we don’t think you’re sexy. It means that our hormones are not currently in a place that makes taking off our pants seem like a good time. This is something you will both need to understand moving forward: that differences in need for sexual frequency are not an attack on the relationship itself. 

Lowered desire is a common thing and it doesn’t mean less love. If you’re not interested for six months after childbirth, congratulations, you’re pretty darn normal. But if it is bothering you or your spouse, you can discuss it to see what it is that bothers you most. For some men, it is the closeness that they desire as opposed to the actual hide the pickle. But you don’t know unless you ask.

However, if you find yourself not interested due to disturbing fantasies or constant rage, that’s probably something to work on. If you’re not interested because you get frustrated at having to go finish yourself in the shower, you’re normal but also have something to work on, possibly together. 

These (and numerous other sexual issues) don’t have a specific fix that I can just give you and say, “do this, and you will feel better,” because individuals and relationships are so entwined with sexual desire. If I could solve the problem in 500 words, trust me, I would people. I don’t want to give you one of those and make you feel more abnormal when a quick fix doesn’t work. So here’s my advice: 

  • Determine whether you have an issue and seek compromise. Do you want more sex but feel thwarted by your own brain?   Are you being held back from orgasm, or just the initial desire part? Is the issue that he wants more but you find yourself angry at him about other things? Is he angry about the lack of desire, or about a lack of connection and closeness? Is part of the frustration coming from misinformation about what “normal” couples are doing in the bedroom? The main issue here is: is it the sex that’s the problem? 

If the answer is, “No”, carry on and keep the lines of communication open to make sure that everyone is getting their needs met and that issues can be resolved before they become problematic. If the answer is, “Yes, differences in our desire are in fact an issue,” you need to determine whether the issue is yours or his. Because while the below tactics can be helpful if it’s your issue, no one likes to feel like they are changing themselves when their partner is simply demanding changes that may simply reflect differences in drive. Can you find common ground in connection or time together instead of sex? If he’s demanding a specific number (twice a week), ask why that particular number matters so much. Does he feel that the two of you aren’t normal due to misinformation? If you need a break while you explore things on your own, let him know that too.  

Honesty will be critical in making sure that partners know what to expect while you’re determining the nature of the problem. Once you do that, you can move on to the hard part. That’s what she said. (wink, wink)

So, what to do now?

  • Work through your own issues. Figure out if your avoidance is part of an actual problem, and if it is, explore that. Without understanding underlying sexual hinderances, it will be difficult for your partner to help you. Whether it’s disturbing fantasies, depression or other sexual hangups, these books have some great insight into the nature of fantasy and sexuality and how we can use it to heal and improve sexual desire. Books to read: Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasiesand Private ThoughtsAnd if you want a more sensual (though fictional) inside look into trauma and healing Beyond the Break is a wonderfully erotic and hauntingly emotional novel about struggling to overcome a history of trauma using a sexual relationship. 

You may also want to check out Should You Leave? to explore your part in relationship distress and glean insight into the mind of your partner. This may also mean seeking assistance from a professional for you individually or as a couple. Don’t put us out of work, people. 

  • Increase emotional connection. Okay, so here is where Bader and I disagree a little. Because while it’s pretty important to let go and have a good time during sex, which may mean worrying less about the other person for a moment, relationships tend to fare better with strong emotional attachment between couples. And Bader agrees that the best relationships have a combination of sexual ruthlessness and caring give and take1. So how to achieve such a thing?

Read this post on improving relationships and check out the following books: The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work and Should You Leave? 

  • Create positive cycles of sexual satisfaction. Fellas, if you want her to keep her coming back for more, you gotta make her come to begin with. Okay, that’s not really fair. How about this: Ladies, get your shit together and figure out what gets you off. Because he isn’t a mind reader. But really guys, don’t expect a blow job without reciprocating at some point unless your wife is really, truly into it. Because while some are fine with it, it makes a number of others bitter over time if they feel used.  

Books to read: Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of the Female OrgasmESO: Extended Sexual Orgasm and Urban Tantra (This one is not for the faint of heart. Pick it up if you’re excessively adventurous, but it’s one of where you have to be prepared to take what you like and leave the rest.)

  • Herbs such as Maca Root and Saffron have been shown in clinical trials increase libido. While they may take time to work, there is little downside to whole food supplements, particularly ones with antioxidant effects. 
  • Above all, no matter what you are doing, work together. Whether you’re talking it out, learning to read each other’s signals in non-verbal form or just generally being nice to one another to increase connection, sex isn’t the end all be all of relationship satisfaction, though happier couples may want to do one another more often2. Instead it tends to be about feeling appreciated, feeling connected and being secure enough with your own sexuality to know when you actually have a problem (and when you don’t). 

Relationship satisfaction isn't always sex. Satisfaction isn’t always orgasm. But damn if it doesn’t help.  

Related Posts:

Citations
  1. http://www.amazon.com/Arousal-Secret-Logic-Sexual-Fantasies/dp/0312302428
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21400335
  3. http://www.amazon.com/Should-You-Leave-Psychiatrist-Autonomy--/dp/0140272798/
  4. http://www.amazon.com/Seven-Principles-Making-Marriage-Work/dp/0609805797/



Topic-Relevant Resources

Should You Leave?: A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy--and the Nature of Advice
Psychiatrist Peter Kramer on the nature of relationships and the journey towards self discovery

Private Thoughts: Exploring the Power of Women's Sexual Fantasies
Detailed descriptions of the rich fantasy lives of women, the underlying meanings behind them and how to decide if they are working for you or hurting your sexual desire.

Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies
Everything you ever wanted to know about the psychological causes of fantasies. How to use them, when to lose them and what they mean.

Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of the Female Orgasm (Paperback) - Common
Sex and increasing the capacity for orgasm. You know you want to read it.

The Woman That Never Evolved: With a New Preface and Bibliographical Updates, Revised Edition
Anthropology, wit and the evolution of the modern female.

What Do Women Want?
An exploration of female sexuality through interviews with prominent researchers in the field, including not yet published research (at this time)

Beyond the Break
What if the forbidden could heal you?



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