Countless couples – possibly nearly all couples who have spent more than a year or two together – have experienced a loss of interest in sex by one partner or the other. Often this causes real distress. One partner may end up feeling rejected, unloved, and frustrated, while the other may feel guilty and inadequate. The lower-desire partner may avoid even kissing and hugging for fear that the other will interpret this as a sexual overture, so all affection may soon disappear. The marriage becomes vulnerable to distancing, increasing arguments or tension, and not uncommonly, affairs.
Based on numbers alone, “loss of desire” is completely normal. It’s perhaps how we think about it, and how we act when it happens, that can cause a real problem in a marriage or relationship.
The mistake that we make, I believe, is believing that desire is necessary.
To wait for “desire” to occur before being sexually intimate may be a big mistake. Instead of seeing desire as the necessary first stage of sexual activity, it helps to think instead of willingness. To be willing to be sexual is essential, and may be all that is necessary.
Willingness to engage in playful, intimate touching can lead you to find the time and space and energy to be sexual. You may be willing simply to please your partner, or for the sake of the relationship. Once you get going, you may find that the next stage is arousal, and once aroused, you may indeed finally feel desire to continue the activity to climax or conclusion. But even if arousal is not forthcoming, you and your partner may feel closer and better together. Just try not to waste energy criticizing yourselves because desire and arousal were not equal for both of you.
I have found that there are three additional factors that may lead to more willingness, interest, and even desire for sexual intimacy in a relationship.
One: “Discovery.” The excitement that most of us experienced when we first met our partner stems from discovering a new person and feelings of delight and awe in that discovery. In a long-term relationship we may forget that we don’t already know everything there is to know about our spouse! Take some time to share a childhood memory, a dream for the future, a favorite activity you have never shared with the other person. If you can, try seeing them in a new environment – get away for a night or a vacation together. Then “discovery” can come into play again.
Two: “Fantasy.” Before we have sex with someone – or even kiss them – for the first time, we’ve often been imagining this for quite some time! It’s the fantasy, or in a long term relationship, perhaps it can be a vivid memory, that heightens the excitement. Try purposely fantasizing about an imagined sexual encounter with your own husband or wife. Or re-live an exciting memory from early in your relationship. Doing this for a day, or an hour or a few minutes, before sexual intimacy can often increase both willingness and desire.
Three: Feeling “Sexy.” While anger and disgust toward your partner will certainly get in the way of good sex – and do need to be addressed – it’s anger and disgust toward yourself that is perhaps the most common blockade that prevents willingness, desire, and arousal. Take a look at how you see yourself in the mirror. Can you find anything in your reflection to smile about? Can you feel any satisfaction or appreciation for your body’s curves, softness, strength, and sensitivity, or do you only feel critical?
Feeling better about yourself is a long-term project, to be sure, but one suggestion is to start to treat your body better, especially when you want to be sexual with your partner. Bathe using fragrant soaps or oils, groom yourself lovingly, wear something in which you feel as comfortable and yet attractive as possible. These steps may help you relax and accept your partner’s loving touch in a way that can ultimately be exciting and fulfilling.
Useful links to learn more about improving sexual satisfaction in long-term relationships:
Emily Kahn-Freedman is a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist at Psych Choices of the Delaware Valley in Drexel Hill, PA.