How to Salvage Your Sexless Marriage
In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sexiest questions — unjudged and unfiltered.
DEAR DR. JENN,
My husband and I married young and once had a great sex life. We have only been married a couple of years but things have really gone downhill. We are lucky if we get it on once every month or two. My husband is game, but I just don’t feel super hot for him. He is handsome and sexy but my libido just feels kind of dead. How do you save a sexless marriage? —Not Feelin’ It
For starters know you're not alone. Lack of sex is the most common sex-life problem I see in my private practice with long-term married couples. It has been estimated that as many as 20 percent of couples are having sex once a month or less. And a libido mismatch is usually the culprit.
The disparity in desire between two people who love each other can create a lot of hurt, resentment and make people question their relationship. Typically, the lower desire partner ends up pacing the sexual relationship which can create a lot of resentment. Often, that person feels enormous pressure to perform when they are not in the mood which is harmful to the relationship dynamics. One of the biggest mistakes couples in this situation make is to look at it as one person’s issue as opposed to a couple’s problem. It is better to take a systems approach: Typically, both people are unsatisfied with the dynamic, and both people suffer. Not to mention, it takes both people to solve the problem. Here’s what you need to know to do that.
The arch of sexual desire is not the same for everyone. Research shows that for many women, the urge to be sexual does not precede feeling aroused, it follows it. For people who follow this arousal pattern, they are unlikely to feel sexual stimulation or have sexual thoughts out of the blue. They do not experience sexuality starting with desire, moving to arousal, achieve an orgasm and then resolution. Often, people with this kind of responsive desire will be receptive to sex, not because they start out feeling in the mood, but for other reasons like intimacy or connection. But they find that once they start being sexual, arousal and desire soon follow. You may be one of those people. After sex, you may find yourself saying, “we should do that more often!” This is especially common for women in long-term marriages.
Have constructive conversation about sexual preferences and desires. Sometimes sex dwindles due to a lack of honest communication about what one partner wants in bed. Asking for what you want requires courage, but the benefits are huge. A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that the more comfortable people were in talking about sex, the more satisfactory their sex lives were. According to the researchers, anxiety related to talking about sex had a direct impact on whether or not partners were communicating — and how satisfied they were. Couples that did communicate experienced greater satisfaction. Studies show that this correlation is particularly profound for women. Women who are able to talk about their sexual needs have higher rates of marital satisfaction, more frequent sex, more orgasms, and more multiple orgasms. (So, yes: Talk about it!)
Change the dynamic. In my clinical experience, the common dynamic I see in these scenarios are the high desire partner feels hurt and rejected and finds himself (not always a he, by the way!) pressuring his partner for sex and turning non-sexual moments into sexual pressure. This results in the lower desire partner feeling pressured and resentful and avoiding closeness and contact altogether because she worries that any contact may turn into sex. If the high desire partner is turned down for sex, instead of getting angry or lashing out, try saying something like, “I understand that you’re not in the mood for sex tonight. What is something else non-sexual that we can do to connect and feel close? What are you up for?” I recommend the lower desire partner work on initiating sexual contact, not waiting for desire.
Tune in to your signals. Sometimes when your desire is not running high, you may have more subtle sexual thoughts or feelings that go on noticed. This is especially common when you view yourself as not being very sexual. Thinking of yourself in that way often disconnects you from anything sexual about you. It is important to nurture any small, fleeting blips of sexual energy that come your way. Build off of the positive and allow yourself to be more aware and in tune with your sexuality.
Have sex for other reasons. In a long-term relationship, sometimes you have sex to nurture connection, let your partner know they are still desirable, make them feel good physically, distract them from a bad day, or just because you want to be a giving partner. Don’t get stuck in a trap thinking that the only reason to have sex is because you are “in the mood.”
Rule out medical issues. You always want to rule out medical problems first. Get a physical and have your hormone levels checked. Go through a list of all of the medications you are taking with your doctor. Some, such as birth control pills, antidepressants, antihistamines, blood pressure medication, hair growth medication, marijuana, anti-seizure drugs, opioid painkillers, beta blockers, benzodiazepines, and cholesterol-lowering medications (like statins and fibrates) can all reduce libido.
Put effort into your sex life. Amazing sex over a lifespan requires time and effort. It doesn’t just happen. It is the dividend from a great investment that can only occur in a safe environment that encourages open communication, continued sexual education, and willingness to both give and take feedback. It requires you to take responsibility for your own pleasure by knowing your mind and body, and sharing that information with your lover. Now get out there, and get busy.