This month: The loss of desire in long-term relationships
Because every man wants to have better sex, even if that means actually committing to a relationship, we’re proud to present Ask Esther Perel, a monthly series in which critically acclaimed sex therapist Esther Perel answers your questions about sex and relationships and helps you and your partner have a more fulfilling life, together.
Editor’s note: The following question is by far the one we hear from readers most: it regards the loss of desire for couples in long-term relationships. Esther will be answering in two parts. Part Two is here.
My wife and I have been together for 17 years. In the beginning, our sex was great, both of us reaching orgasm about the same time. The last 4 or 5 years have been different. My wife has lost interest in sex. When we do have sex, she shows no reaction. She no longer reaches orgasm either through oral stimulation or intercourse. I know she still loves me, so that’s not the reason. I have no idea what has turned her off to sex. — M
Loss of desire in committed relationships is the plague of modern couples. I can’t tell you how many men and women complain about the loss they feel when a partner becomes sexually disinterested. It’s not sexual dysfunctions that bring people to the offices of sex therapists; it’s loss of desire.
Desire is the organizing principle of sex in modern relationships — not the presence of kids or “wifely duty.” But to expect unwavering lust for the same person for the long haul is actually a grand experiment of the human kind, and it proves more challenging than many would hope.
I’ve never met you nor your wife and I don’t know your sexual history together. Your sharing that the two of you used to have joint orgasms tells me little about her experience and more about how you measure sex. I’ve never known a woman that loses her sexual desire who is okay with it, even if she tell you she is. That said, I can give you some idea of the many reasons why women lose desire in relationships.
I’ll often hear, “If I never had sex for the rest of my life, I would be okay.” They say it because they think it’s hopeless. Some women may never have experienced a luscious sexuality, but if they did at some point in their life, then they are often quite bewildered about why their desire has flatlined.
Here’s a list of reasons why women lose sexual interest and some thoughts on how you might tackle your conundrum.
10 Reasons Why Women Lose Sexual Interest
1) She’s playing the “dutiful wife.” So many women tell me, “I’m having sex because I’m supposed to.” Or, “I want to do it for my husband; I know he needs it.” They’re so busy making sure that they’re “good wives” and thinking about the sex he wants that they no longer know what they want. They don’t have the space to connect to their own desires. But there’s no blame involved here; the man is not doing something wrong. If anything, it’s wonderful that he still desires his wife.
2) There may be a hormone deficiency. You didn’t specify the age of your wife, but if she’s menopausal, that would certainly make a difference. Too often the reason is a thyroid deficiency. An endocrinological check-up could be useful.
3) Orgasm does not equate to satisfaction. The performance model of sex — the idea that sex is only good when everything “works” (you both climax or when there is some other measurable and visible result) — is limited. Pleasure and connection extend vastly beyond performance and a repertoire of sexual techniques. You may want to ask her what sex means for her. From my experience, women will think sex is great because they felt lustful and wanted; it’s not necessarily related to performance or orgasm. In fact, when they experience strong desire, some women may be more than happy to fake the orgasm.
4) Foreplay is as important as sex. What is often called foreplay is — for many women — the play itself. Kissing, stroking, tickling and teasing are often what pleasure her most. A common complaint I hear from many women is that their man only touches them or kisses them with a goal in mind. They think, “The whole day can go by and I don’t get a kiss, but when he’s horny, he’s gets all gushy.” She needs the affection to be continuous; for her, foreplay starts at the end of the previous orgasm.
Many women are reluctant to engage sexually because they immediately assume that they will have to commit to the entire act. She may enjoy fondling, playing and kissing, but she doesn’t want to build up all the energy and arousal necessary to reach orgasm.
The man is left in the middle. For some men, there is a direct route between kissing and coming, but women mistakenly assume that he always wants the whole thing when he would be happy just to connect as well. It gets blurry, because on the one hand he means it, and on the other, if he gets excited he doesn’t understand why it should stop … especially if she sometimes gets into it as well. This is a knot in need of untangling in many couples, and each will untangle differently.
Remember: women’s sexuality is subjective and diffuse. The genital- and orgasm-focused approach to sex is a rather male approach. For her, it’s more often than not what happens between her ears that charms her than what happens between her legs. Feeling seduced, pursued, complimented, charmed, cherished and made to feel beautiful are her biggest turn-ons.
5) It’s hard to be selfish. To enjoy those kissess and caresses, a woman needs to give herself permission to stop worrying — whether that’s thinking about the kids or her wrinkles or her extra pounds. She will need you to help her with the permission to stop worrying and let go. Any way you can take care of her that alleviates her burden and feelings of responsibility will be helpful.
Esther Perel is the best-selling author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, a practicing psychotherapist, celebrated speaker and organizational consultant to Fortune 500 companies. The New York Times, in a cover story, named her the most important game-changer on sexuality and relationships since Dr. Ruth.