One of the most common reasons that individuals and couples seek out a sex therapist, is that they are not having much or any sexual intimacy.
Some people are A-sexual, meaning they don’t feel sexual desire and that’s just how they are, but for people who are not A-sexual, maintaining a healthy sex life in a long-term relationship is hoped for and expected.
Is this Normal?
It is a myth that couples in long-term relationships don’t have great sex and regular sex. ‘Regular’ is whatever feels good for the people involved. For some once a week is perfect, for others once or twice a month is just fine. Others like to have sex a few times a week. It is not that common for people in long-term relationships to have daily sex, life is just too busy! But if all parties enjoy daily sex and can find time, that’s fabulous too!
Are you enjoying the sex you are having?
More important than frequency of sex is the quality of sex, as Emily Nagoski, author of the fantastic book ‘Come As You Are’ says “Pleasure is the Measure”.
Couples in long-term relationships are often having amazing sex, but it does take effort to prioritise and make space for pleasure, as well as investing the relationship.
In the book ‘Magnificent Sex’ by Kleinplatz & Menard, they share quotes from older couples in long-term relationships who speak about sex improving in older age. Reasons they suggest include learning to talk about what they like and want, being more willing to put effort in to have magnificent sex and not focusing on the goal of orgasms and intercourse, instead just enjoying the ride. If you need some inspiration to make sex more intentional, have a look at this blog on bringing some tantric practices into your sex life.
Common experiences for the partner that wants less sex.
They often say they ‘want to want’, and wish they had more interest and desire. This person might feel obligated to have sex, but not really be engaging in sexual intimacy for themselves. The pressure to be more sexual can create anxiety, which is counter-productive and makes them feel like even less sex.
Common experiences for the partner who wants more sex.
They often feel rejected and over time take it personally. The situation starts to affect their confidence. Feeling desired by your partner can feel very validating and good for your self-esteem, when you are not getting that, it is hard to not take it personally.
Reasons some people may stop having sex with their partner.
1. Too much closeness can neutralise desire.
For a successful long-term relationship, you need to feel close and connected to your partner, you need to feel like good friends. However too much closeness can make you feel like extensions of each other and not individuals, and this can dampen the passion that is needed to fuel desire. Finding a balance of closeness and separateness is an art. Quality of connection when you are together at times is crucial, not just rushing around each other managing a busy household. Quality ‘me time’ is also crucial. Lack of excitement in your sexual interactions can dull desire, if you always do exactly the same things in the same order it gets boring. Check out Ester Perel’s great book ‘Mating in Captivity’ for ideas on keeping desire alive in long-term relationships.
Sometimes passionate sex might be associated subconsciously with different ideas about yourself and the other person. There is a cultural trope about ‘good girls’ being the ones you marry and have kids with, and ‘bad girls’ being the ones you have sex with before the relationship or outside of the relationship. This may be an unconscious influence for some men, however lack of desire in a relationship is not gendered. Some people may feel too shy to really let go and enjoy sex deeply and fully with their long-term partner, it’s too exposing and vulnerable. They can only do this with someone they don’t know very well. Others may not have much access to the sexually liberated parts of themselves once they are ‘committed’ or once kids come along and they now see themselves as parents rather than also lovers.
3. Health and Mental Health
Changes in sexual desire and sexual functioning can be symptoms of physical ill-health. Be sure to have a full check-up with your Dr if you are noticing changes. Mental Health challenges also have a big impact on sexual desire. If you are anxious or depressed, sexual intimacy may be the last thing on your mind. There are lots of ways to cope with mental health challenges that can be taught to you by a counsellor, or you may be ready to do some deeper healing work such as EMDR Therapy.
Another big impact on sexual desire is resentment. Are past infidelities still causing resentment? Does one partner hold most of the mental load of running the household? If so, no wonder they are not that interested in sex, it can feel like another thing on the to do list!
5. Porn use and / or excessive masturbation.
Partnered sex takes effort, and masturbating with or without using porn is a quick fix to feel good. There is nothing wrong with this. Porn is great entertainment, and its use is not a reliable indicator of a less satisfying sexual relationship with a partner. However, if porn is used excessively, and is someone’s only way to relax- it can lead to laziness and become a substitute for partnered sex. If there is motivation to have more partnered sex, and the person desiring less sex is masturbating frequently, choosing to masturbate less may increase desire for partnered sex.
What can we do Do?
It is important to seek help regarding your unique situation as a couple. The ideas above are just a few common presentations, and each person and couple’s situation is different. If you are ready to try and find your way back to each other sexually, there are two approaches.
Build More Emotional Connection.
Casual sex can be deep and intentional, and an emotional connection is not always needed for great sex. In long-term relationships however, building more non-sexual intimacy can often pave the way for more sensual and sexual intimacy. Building emotional connection includes spending quality time together and appreciating each other more- check out these ideas. Also talking deeply to each other. If your only communication is about content, such as what, where, who, it’s quite surface level. Check out these ideas for deeper conversations.
Practice being more physically intimate.
I like to discuss 3 types of physical touch. More platonic touch; the types of hugs and kisses that you could give to your friends or family without it being weird. Sensual touch: the type of touch that is sexy, but not focused on arousing the other person. Caressing, canoodling, lingering kisses- more romantic than sexual. Sexual Touch: focused on arousal and sexual pleasure. When people have stopped being sexually intimate, often the platonic type of touch is still present, but any sensual touch has stopped, because it can feel like ‘leading the other person on’, or only used as a prelude or a steppingstone to sexual touch. Jumping from platonic to sexual feels awkward, but sensual touch can feel like too much pressure- if it is assumed that it has to lead to sexual touch.
Sensual Touch Exercises
As counterintuitive as it might sound, for couples that have stopped having much sex and are stuck in a cycle of pursue / rejection, stopping sexual activity all together can have a wonderful effect, similar to ‘turning the computer off and then on again’ when you have IT issues. It restarts things and refreshes the system.
I encourage couples to commit to a few weeks or more where they promise that there will not be sexual touch. Instead, they will commit and dedicate themselves to showing up at least once a week, to enjoy some sensual touch, without pressure.
Sensual practice sessions;
A great activity to do at least once a week comes from Betty Martin’s work on the ‘Wheel of Consent’. It is called the 3 minute game. She describes 4 aspects of giving and receiving touch. Giving- doing something for our partner’s pleasure. Receiving- enjoying being touched by our partner. Taking- touching our partner for our own pleasure. Allowing- receiving touch that is for our partner’s pleasure, but still consensual and enjoyable for us. A great example that my Sexology Supervision Lynda Carlyle gave me is about breasts.
A partner with breasts might not experience a great deal of pleasure from their breasts being touched, but their partner might really LOVE touching them. The person with breasts is allowing, it feels nice enough, but they could take it or leave it. They allow themselves to receive this touch for their partner’s pleasure who is in the ‘taking’ role.
Or a non-sexual example might be going to visit your in-laws. It’s an okay visit, but there are other things you would rather be doing, but because you care about your partner, you go along, your partner receives pleasure from being with their family, and you allow it, you go along with it for your partner’s pleasure.
Here’s the Game:
One person asks both questions first.
- What would you like me to do to you for your pleasure? (giving / receiving)
- What would you like to do to me, for your pleasure? (talking / allowing).
Ask Qu 1. Negotiate what you would like to do, set the timer for 3 mins and enjoy. Then the same person asks Qu 2. set the timer for 3mins and enjoy, then the other person asks the questions.
Do the game with sensual or platonic touch only, as described above for a few weeks. This game can build back playfulness, after a few times may reduce awkwardness and can build longing and authentic non-pressured ‘wanting’.
After you have completed 4 rounds of 3 minutes, have a chat about what felt comfortable and what has more challenging? Are you good at receiving but feel weird taking? Are you always in allowing, and ‘giving’ was a stretch?
Have fun practicing, and if you need more support please book a session.