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I was invited to speak on low sexual desire at a women’s gathering. After listening to the participants’ conversation, I piped up and said I thought I might be in the wrong place. They all sounded full of desire if not bawdy with sexual innuendo. “Yeah, we’re horny!” they replied, “Just not for our husbands.” I’ve worked with countless women who tell me that their problem is – selective desire…. Brad Pitt, yes, the pool boy, yes, their child’s soccer coach, definitely.. their husband, no!
Hardly, an exclusively female problem. Obviously, men too can find their wives suddenly less desirable. If beauty is our highest value we are in for a rough ride as we age and outgrow the irreplaceable, dewy look of youth—or our spouse does. Always there will be someone more attractive. But many times married couples come in for therapy, seem well put-together, not out-of-shape but still they complain about not feeling attracted to their partner. Why would anyone hook-up with someone they don’t think is attractive? An obvious question with an obvious answer. So goes the logic, why would I stay hooked up with someone I don’t think is attractive? Or a more subtle variation… the attractive person who I don’t feel attracted to? Most of the reasons for loss of attraction are more than skin deep. We’ll examine a few and what to do about it.
1) You let yourself go: Everybody loses hair and collagen and probably gains a little weight and adds a few wrinkles. Nobody is as nubile by middle age, no matter what the surgical procedure. Not many real women are porn-worthy ever and it’s discouraging that desire in men is seemingly being conditioned to be excited only by an impossible standard. Certainly there is cultural pressure on men compared to media personalities but women don’t usually watch movies while masturbating to reinforce the attraction. Unfortunately some men and women have a narcissist standard used to criticize the slightest flaw pushing their partner to wit’s end. But certainly, decent dental and physical hygiene, clothes in good condition that flatter whatever our shape, complimentary haircuts and enough exercise to not be decrepit should be a minimum offering of respect for our sexual partner. Weight gain—in our thin-obsessed culture is the most common complaint from people who feel less attracted to a partner. And a beer belly or broader backside does interfere with flexible sexual positioning.
Solutions: Make a positive clear request tied to a wish for increased sexual desire. No cruelty or repetitive nagging. “I love your thinner body. I’m more attracted to it and I love the way we can move and fit together when we’re having sex. Please lose the weight for both your health and our sex life!” Don’t ever try to monitor food intake—that’s codependent and codependence always fails. Do plan a family schedule that includes enough time for your partner to exercise without mandating how that time is spent. Do realize that weight is a complex issue. Your partner probably wishes to be thinner, too and isn’t holding onto the weight to spite you.
2) I need more than a practical marriage: Perhaps you have married for reasons of stability, common interests, or by arrangement. This doesn’t doom you to a sexless marriage or to never having desire for your partner.
Solution: Become technically proficient in turning on your partner sexually. Read books, watch films and invest time and creativity into this wondrous activity. Oxytocin released during orgasm will help build a physical bond cementing your more intellectual decision. Many people throughout the ages have started out as a cold pot and turned the heat up with continuous sexual contact creating the hot, bubbling, excitement of passion.
3) Our sex isn’t sexy any longer: Marriage is made up of three buckets: practical functioning, friendship, and sexual intimacy. Putting too much energy into practical functioning during career-building or child-rearing leaves the friendship empty. Often one partner needs feelings of connection (friendship) to feel sexual. Too little energy in practical functioning—job loss without sustained effort at looking for a new one, messy house, disorderly children, debt, poor nutrition etc.—can also create so much chaos or disappointment that relaxing during sex is impossible. No energy in the sexual bucket can leave the bed dull.
Solution: Prioritize the marriage above the children and above work. Turn your phones off for the dinner hour. Go out every week for a couple hours only the two of you. Hire a set babysitter. During times of high stress and more money (is there such a thing?)—delegate all non-essential chores to hired help. Free literal and psychic energy for the marriage. Have one weeknight set aside for intimacy time- baths, cuddling, talking. Don’t legislate the sex but give it time to occur in an organic manner. Sharpen your sexual life with an intentional plan at reasonable intervals: go on a couple’s retreat, read a sex book, seek sex therapy. Low desire spouse: put one night of initiating sex on your monthly calendar without notifying your partner. Let nothing dissuade you from this commitment. High desire spouse: honor the small requests your partner makes toward feelings of connection. Put romantic alerts in your calendar and follow through. Call during the day to touch base. Help more with the burdens of daily life.
4) I have a little secret, I’m more sexy than you: Many self-diagnosed low libido women end up telling me tales of their previous wild, sexual exploits and have become discouraged by their partner’s lack of technique, low energy or clumsy initiation. While it’s a male fantasy to discover the true nympho inside his more reserved wife, it shouldn’t be the male burden to do so.
Solutions: Clear the decks with some forthcoming information. “I think I haven’t been that into sex because I haven’t really let you know many of my turn-ons.” Take responsibility for the hurt your withholding has caused. Try to make suggestions that are positive for future intimacy rather than criticizing inadequacy. Show your partner how to touch you. Use more words to guide him. Earmark sexy passages in books that turn you on. Rent a romantic movie with a favorite scene. Write down the sexiest fantasy you can think of and give it to your partner. Tolerate effort toward making you happy rather than expecting perfection all at once.
5) I’m thinking about someone else: Nothing competes with a fantasy of another lover. They are so suave, so ready, so willing. Our fantasy lover doesn’t have needs of their own that are difficult for us to meet. Affair sex is heightened by the breaking of taboos and moral codes in ways that a marriage with its sexual ordinance will always suffer by comparison. It’s true that the apple is sweeter in someone else’s garden. But we will need to keep stealing to make this so unfortunately, because as soon as we purchase the orchard we become responsible for the growth of the tree.
Solution: There’s a difference between enjoying the moments of attraction with someone other than our partner to remind us that we are sexual creatures and starting to invite your best friend’s spouse out to regular lunches. Fantasy is just that. Every other real person is a mix of good and bad, selfishness and generosity. They too go to the bathroom and wake up with greasy hair. Sex for the long haul takes considerable effort. Fortunately, the rewards of that work can give us incredible sensation and deep attachment to one person.
6) I’m afraid of you: Patterns of angry or critical exchanges are a sure-fire way to extinguish your partner’s sexual desire for you. Out-of-control bursts of rage will make an insecure climate for any family member to relax with you let alone your partner to relax enough for sex. Smoldering anger will snuff your own desire. I know that sometimes rage is triggered by sexual withholding.
Solution: All couples feel angry with each other from time to time. Differences are natural even for people in love. We have to represent our differences clearly and respectfully. Going along with someone for the sake of harmony when you strongly disagree isn’t right nor is blasting the person for their stupidity in holding a different opinion. Adjust your expectations; if you barf up your feelings—you feel better; your partner feels the need to take a shower away from you. See a therapist if you can’t control yourself or if you repetitively hide your real feelings. Don’t let your resentment over sex boil over and spoil the mood – take action regarding the pattern before your frustration gets the best of you.
7) I’m afraid to give my whole heart: Taking your partner for granted is a tried and true method for denying the fragility of our heart’s investment in a one and only. People do this with affairs and split off their sexual excitement into another reserving the marriage for security needs. They do it by believing that their partner will never leave them and test the limits of their partner’s patience by ignoring them emotionally and/or sexually. We let the other be the one to need. Essentially, we distance and wonder at the franticness of our partner; sometimes we scorn them for what we have unconsciously co-created. We think their vows or spiritual commitments are strong-enough walls to hold our partner in and guard them against temptation without ever reassuring them of how much we love, need and desire them. We think there will be another day for sex.
Solution: Feed your partner. Commit to appreciating your partner. Every. Single. Day. Live open to the possibility that this could be your last day of partnership for any number of reasons. For every criticism you utter; compliment three times. The best marriage ends in death and widowed spouses regret most the love not given, the words unspoken, the passion unshared.
8) I’m done: This is a sexually-deprived spouse’s first thought and worst fear. You don’t have sex with me because you don’t love me. But some partners have left the marriage in their heads and the marital bed to hoard up their energy for leaving for real.
Solution: Admit you are done as soon as it becomes feasibly possible to spare your partner self-esteem. Both partners need to see how they have contributed to the downfall of the marriage. Figure out with a therapist what part you played so you don’t play it again in a second marriage. Never, never, never marry someone who blames their partner completely for the breakdown of their first marriage.