What happens when one person just isn't that into it anymore? We consulted a sex therapist for potentially relationship-saving strategies.
Why libidos get off kilter
It happens more often than you’d think—and definitely more often than people admit to. A couple can’t get enough of each other when the relationship kicks off, but over time things like kids, conflict, health or money issues, work stress or aging parents lead to one person’s loss of desire. The partnership can appear perfectly functional otherwise. But it takes two to tango—or not, as the case may be. Says certified sex therapist (CST) and licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) Liz Selzer-Lang, it’s never one person’s fault. But instead of playing the blame game, she says its more productive to face it head on.
Plenty of couples have otherwise healthy relationships with mismatched desire, says Natalie Goldberg, LMFT and CST. “The reality is that due to the laws of nature and the uniqueness of all individuals, there are very rarely two individuals with the exact same desire for sex. There will always be one partner who wants it more—the question becomes how a couple navigates this discrepancy.”
There is no such thing as normal in any marriage
To start, it’s important to recognize there is no such thing as “normal sexual frequency.” Male, female, straight, gay, every human being differs. That said, female desire is academically less understood, and can be harder for a woman to explain. Oftentimes for women, desire comes after arousal, says Goldberg, “meaning she may actually need to be touched and in the midst of the act before the thought, ‘This is fun!’ or ‘This feels good!’ registers.” (A book she recommends about female libido: Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski.)
When one partner nags and begs for sex, the other sees unattractive desperation and gridlock can ensue. Sometimes, says Goldberg, one person sublimates their desires elsewhere which, A, becomes a running joke, or B, devolves into an explosion within the couple or outwardly through an affair. Obviously ignoring it is not the answer. The sooner you talk about the discrepancy in desire, the less solidified the dynamic will be. After all, deep feelings of hurt and rejection are difficult to recover from. “When it’s addressed early on as a difference in preference—almost like, ‘I like Italian food but you like Indian food and it’s not my job to convince you otherwise’—it’s less likely to get associated with other aspects of the relationship,” says Goldberg.
When low sexual desire is a medical issue
In some cases, low desire can be a result of hormones, stress, or trauma, says Goldberg, and then it’s important to have a supportive partner who will participate in treating the issue. There’s also the case of couples who start out with incompatible sex drives, ignored because of early infatuation or a walking-on-sunshine feeling—they, too, may need to employ a sex therapist to work on acceptance and other bonding behaviors, says Selzer-Lang.
Set realistic expectations
Regardless of the cause, Selzer-Lang’s job in these quite common scenarios is to invite both people to take responsibility for how they got there, without shaming their partner. If it’s a relatively new issue, you can start a conversation at home when you’re both relaxed. Ask your partner if it’s a good time to talk. Express how you are feeling about your sex life, she says, using “I” statements rather than accusations. "Ask how they’ve been feeling—and be curious about their experience.” Goldberg adds that removing judgement is critical: If any statement includes “should,” it’s a judgment.
Lastly, Selzer-Lang says, “Recognize your partner may be less comfortable talking about sex than you are and be patient.” Talk about what gets each of you in the mood—candles, soft music, erotic material or taking time to seek deeper connection—and strive to make it happen. If you want to prioritize improvement, set aside uninterrupted time together. Ideally, says Goldberg, the partner with higher desire learns to express their needs in a more enticing and inviting way—with less nagging and pressure. This allows their mate the emotional space to feel desire again and become a willing participant who enjoys the act of sex, as they see how much joy it brings their lover. Selzer-Lang is also a firm believer that the broader your definition of sex, the more sex you can be having, especially when it comes to mismatched libidos. She suggests incorporating the lower desire partner in self-stimulation—lending a hand so to speak.
Ultimately, says Goldberg, communication is key to future happiness. “If it’s been discussed, explored and acknowledged, a relationship can stay strong even if the sex doesn’t change.” Self-awareness, empathy, compassion and open discussion are needed. The healthiest outcome may be redefining expectations, she adds. And realizing that times have changed. In the past, marriage was about land and survival, not love and lust; emotional needs were met by families and villages, not solely by a spouse. Individualistic modern society comes with the expectation that one person must be a romantic partner, co-parent, business partner (in running a household) and a primary support—for whom you should spontaneously feel lust. Goldberg’s assessment: “Sex is natural, but good sex is not. It takes work and effort.”