By Hara Estroff Marano, published on September 3, 2012 - last reviewed on November 7, 2012
Last year, during a bout of back pain and medication problems, I was too ill to consider sex with my husband. I figured that after I felt better, as I do now, my passion would return. Alas, it has not. My husband and I have not been intimate in several months. Neither my pharmacist nor my doctor could tell me whether my lack of passion is drug-related; the doctor actually ignored the topic. I am seven years older than my husband, and we are both in our 60s. Is there a shot, medication, or patch that I can take as men do? I have read Masters and Johnson and the Kama Sutra. I know that when a man wants sex, cuddling does not cut it.
If you wait for passion to return, you may be waiting forever. You can, and should, put sex back in your life now, starting with play. Masters and Johnson were pioneers in discussing sex openly, but their understanding of sexuality as mostly a matter of mechanics is woefully out of date. To jump to the punch line, the arousal system in women is different from that in men; it is far less direct and immediate. One upshot is that there is no patch for women, and all attempts to create one have failed. Nor does Viagra create desire in men; it provides a mechanical assist, and the sexual confidence that engenders can certainly abet desire. Levels of desire normally vary much more in women than in men. Not only is sexual desire in women far less tied to physical arousal, it often follows arousal—which is why it is unwise to wait until passion returns to engage in sexual play. Especially for women, desire is more a matter of mind than mechanics, and it is much more affected by the partner relationship and by how you feel about yourself and your body. The complexity of female desire is something both you and your husband need to take into account to resume love-making. Moreover, you cannot assume that what worked before will work automatically now, or work exactly the same way. Restoring sexual activity, especially after a period when it seemed aversive, is a different challenge than continuing it.
And of course, passion is always an interplay between two people. A sensitive partner would be most helpful in getting you on the sexual track you wish to be on. It may be that, however subtle, his demand (or your expectation) that desire for intercourse and/or orgasm will be automatic is in fact inhibiting your desire. Or perhaps, after experiencing an age-related illness such as arthritis, you have concerns that your age, or the age difference, will negatively affect your appeal to your husband or your sexual performance. Self-consciousness is a powerful inhibitor of desire. If this is a factor, exercises in mindfulness may help you release your concerns.
It is important that you and your husband engage each other sensually and sexually—in and out of the bedroom—without making intercourse your goal. There is a lot more to sexuality, and it involves feeling appealing and desirable and sharing your innermost thoughts with each other. Touching, kissing, and whole-body massage may lead to arousal and desire. Extended foreplay is also important. If your partner counts only intercourse as sex, if he has only an on/off switch with no settings in between, then he needs active demonstrations of the value of broadening his repertoire. It's one of those funny things— removing the pressure for intercourse often gives rise to the desire for intercourse. But there is much pleasure to be exchanged in touching and playing in and of themselves.
My story probably is not much different from that of hundreds or thousands of other couples. My wife and I have been together for 12 years and have three kids. Initially our sex life was frequent and hot. She always had multiple orgasms and was receptive to whatever I introduced. Slowly I have become bored. For two years, I have been telling my wife that I want something new and different from her. She does not want to change anything. She calls my desire "lewdness" and thinks I should be happy that we have even plain sex two or three times a week. This topic now sparks multiple fights. She refuses to see a family or sex therapist. I've lost all interest, although she is very attractive. Now if she does not initiate, I don't want to, knowing that I will get the same old "boiled potato." She is very upset because she feels I'm not attracted to her anymore. What do your experts have to say about this problem?
Let me make sure I understand you fully: You're the one dissatisfied with the status quo but you demand all the changes come from your wife? No wonder she is upset. If you were running a business, would you take the same approach? One of the basic rules of adult life is that you're responsible for your own happiness, for creating the relationship you want. With that in mind, I followed your suggestion and sought additional perspective to help resolve the standoff you and your wife are now stuck in. Here's what Evergreen, Colorado—based psychologist David Schnarch, a pioneer in integrating marital and sex therapy, had to say. "There's a huge amount of anger going on between these two people that neither one is apparently acknowledging. This has now spilled over into a withholding fight—on both sides. He has switched from the high-desire position to the low-desire position to be punitive and push her. They are dancing around this 'attracted to the other' issue. No, she's probably not attracted to him, for the combination of arrogance, entitlement, and self-blindedness he displays. He may be attracted to her body, but he's not attracted to her emotionally. Neither one is acting very appealingly. Neither is generous, and neither wants to admit this. This is not a couple that's used to talking straight about difficult issues, period. They both also don't let their partner accurately confront them.
"He's right, the situation is prototypic, but he doesn't want to accept that this goes beyond issues of sexual frequency, variety, and initiation. They are emotionally gridlocked. Although they may feel emotionally alienated, they are emotionally fused. Where he's off track is that he thinks the solution is that she needs to come around to seeing things his way and accommodating him. He has no perception that his behavior and attitude would push many woman to withhold from him as a matter of maintaining their sense of self. In other words, this is run-of-the-mill stuff—exactly the kind of thing that contributes to half of all couples breaking up."
A little humility would serve you well. The challenge is for you to grow as an individual, to look inside yourself to figure out how you may be failing your wife and what you need to do to make sure your wife is eager again to engage in sex with you.