By Jay Dixit, published on February 5, 2008 - last reviewed on July 1, 2014
Sex is the purest form of self-expression, the most intimate way two people can give their love to each other—and when it goes wrong, it disrupts the entire relationship. What many couples forget is how deeply sex ripples out to the farthest reaches of their love. Every couple has less sex as time goes on, and that's not always a problem in itself. But if one partner longs for sex and the other doesn't want it, that's the most dire of relationship emergencies and requires immediate and zealous attention. Sex produces physical bonding that's unique, special, and important. In relationships, sex isn't just the icing on the cake. It is the cake.
Many people assume that if a woman rarely wants sex, it means there's something wrong with her libido—and that she needs medical treatment. "The biggest misconception is that low sexual desire is all hormonal," says Juan J. Remos, a doctor with the Miami Institute for Age Management and Intervention. "But libido is a lot more complex than that, and overlaps with every sphere of human experience, including vascular health, mental health, nutrition, body image, stress level, and the quality of your relationship generally." Taking medications like testosterone patches to boost your desire isn't going to work unless the problem is physiological—and low sexual desire in women is rarely the result of physiological causes. In most cases, the problem stems from how she feels about herself, her partner, and her relationship. So when a woman has low sexual desire, the first thing to do is to assess the relationship itself, and how it can be improved.
"We've all been brainwashed to think emotional intimacy is the best thing," says Kathryn Hall, author of Reclaiming Your Sexual Self. "But lots of couples get really emotionally intimate and their sex life tanks anyway." For many couples, emotional intimacy makes them feel like they're best friends—but doesn't feed their desire. The solution is to give yourself permission to be playful, to take risks, to be less emotionally intimate and more sexy. For many people, a far greater turn-on than emotional intimacy is feeling desired. "The secret is to forget about doing what you think is normal, and instead embrace whatever it is that makes you feel fun and young and sexy," says Hall. "Feeling desired is a prelude to feeling desire."
We tend to think that people should be able to choose whether they want sex in a relationship—and we assume that if one partner doesn't want sex, the other partner should accept it and remain monogamous without complaint. "This is impractical, unfair, and unworkable, and often leads to infidelity," says Michelle Weiner-Davis, author of The Sex-Starved Marriage: A Couple's Guide To Boosting Their Marriage Libido. When people get married, they naturally have to come to compromises in many aspects of their lives—where to live, whether to have kids, and whose career to focus on, she explains. But they often neglect to talk about what their sexual relationship is going to be like, how often they're going to have sex, and how high the quality of their sex will be. "That's an oversight because sex is the tie that binds," says Weiner-Davis. "To think that only one person should be in charge of that decision is very short-sighted."
People have different "love languages," she explains. For some people, touch makes them feel loved; for others it's meaningful conversations, or how much time you spend together. "But if you're married to someone whose love language is touch, you can buy them expensive gifts or take them on vacations or say I love you until the cows come home, but it won't matter because it won't mean love," says Weiner Davis. "In good relationships, partners try to figure out each other's love language and speak it—even if it's different from their own. Good relationships are built on mutual caretaking."
When a couple has emotional problems—anger, resentment, a lack of communication—in addition to a poor sex life, most people assume they'll need to fix the emotional problems first. But for many people, the opposite is true. "I don't think sexual therapy is any longer separate from marital therapy," says Remos. "If you start analyzing the sexual relationship of a couple, you get to everything else and vice versa. Sex is the window into everything else about the relationship."
Addressing emotional problems first can often work. But if a couple tries to fix those problems and comes up empty, dealing with the sexual problems first may be the solution. "Often I take sex off the back burner and talk to couples about how to improve their physical relationship, whether they're in the mood or not," says Weiner-Davis. "When couples start touching again, they feel closer to each other, which puts them more emotionally on the same page and makes it easier to resolve other differences."