As a therapist, I often work with clients who are trying to make sense of their low, or decreased, sexual desire.
Was there a sudden turning point, or a gradual change over the years? Could it be a lack of energy due to the demands of raising kids? The influence of various cultural, societal, or religious messages? The navigation of various life stresses and transitions? Work challenges? A change in health status?
One of the more difficult questions to ask is: Does my low sexual desire mean something is wrong with my relationship?
While problems with our sex life can certainly have a negative influence on our romantic relationships, there are many of us who report having low sexual desire yet are still deeply in love with our partners.
How do we navigate loving relationships when we don't really love having sex?
In a new study published in The Journal of Sex Research, Avigail Moor and her colleagues at Tel Hai College in Israel interviewed women who self-identified as being in loving long-term relationships while also experiencing a decrease in sexual desire. It was required that women felt their decreased desire was significantly lower than that of their partner's.
The authors interviewed 15 women between the ages of 25 and 59. Most were married to their partners and about a quarter were cohabitating. All women were required to be in a relationship of at least 1 year, with the average relationship length being 3.5 years. Approximately half the sample had children.
Over the course of the semi-structured interviews, the authors asked participants about: a) the quality of their relationship, b) how their relationship was impacted by their decreased sexual desire, c) their explanations for how their desire decreased over the course of their relationship, d) what impact women felt this had on themselves and their relationship, e) how women dealt with the decreased desire themselves, and f) how the couple dealt with and navigated these sexual desire differences together.
Love Doesn't Equal Desire
Participants, by definition of being able to participate in the study, said that their sexual desire never made them doubt their relationship or their feelings for their partner. That is, they saw sexual desire and love for their partner as being completely unrelated.
For example, one participant said: "I never doubted the relationship. And the older I get the surer I am of our relationship."
Further, over half the participants said that they didn't feel their desire discrepancy had a negative impact on their relationship. This subset of women shared that they had deeper and more intimate connections with their partner that went beyond sexual activity. Examples included navigating parenthood and life's ups and downs together as a team, which some women described as keeping their relationship strong, even if they experienced some sexual challenges.
My Low Desire, My Problem
However, and perhaps a bit unfortunately, in order to make sense of a decrease desire while being in a loving relationship, many women in this study went inward, blaming themselves for their decreased sexual interest. That is, they seemed to rationalize that if we don't have a problem, it must be my problem.
As one participant said: "Sometimes I feel really bad, like what's screwed up with me that I don't have a higher sexual desire ... and you start to think that maybe something is wrong with you."
Among these women, feelings of guilt and self-blame were described as frequently coming up over the course of their interviews.
The Pressure to Have Sex
While over half the sample felt that their sexual desire discrepancies did not negatively impact their relationship, the authors noted that most women still described some pressure and tension in their relationship around having different levels of desire.
Specifically, despite having relationships that were described as loving overall, some women in this study indicated that they could still experience conflict with their partner about how long it had been since they last had sex. Some women also said they worried that their partner took her low desire personally, going as far as to question her attraction and feelings.
Strategies for Navigating Desire Discrepancies
Due to having different levels of sexual desire, women in this study often indicated that they would sometimes consent to having sex that they weren't all that excited about in an attempt to meet their partner's needs; something the authors refer to as sexual compliance.
Some women also talked about avoiding sex, or the possibility of having sex, by coming up with excuses for why sex couldn't happen, such as pretending to be asleep when their partner initiated. Others described pulling back from other forms of physical affection or touch to avoid anything starting up or giving "the wrong idea."
Sexual Pleasure and Interest
While all women described experiencing a decrease in sexual desire over the course of their relationships, it did not mean that their sexual desire entirely absent.
Some women in this study indicated that they still felt some desire or attraction towards their partner, and some mentioned feeling desire for other people, even if they had no intention of pursuing those thoughts.
Perhaps most important to note is that women in this study described that when they did have sex, they could still experience sexual pleasure and satisfaction. That is, they may not always feel desire to have sex, but once they engaged, they could enjoy themselves. This offers support for responsive sexual desire models which suggest that women's desire may build and grow throughout sexual activity even if it's not present at the outset.
While sexual desire discrepancies can feel like a big obstacle to overcome (and women in this study certainly noted that tensions and fighting around sexual frequency could, and did, occur) women in this study ultimately talked about sex as just another thing that had to be navigated and compromised on in a relationship like where to eat, how chores get done, and finances.
Strategies used to "bridge the gap" in desire levels included engaging in open and honest communication, compromising at times, and having a shared understanding of where the other person was coming from and why they were or were not in the mood. Women also stressed the importance of coming up with other forms of closeness and touch when sexual activity was not on the table.
There is a myriad of reasons that women can experience a decrease in sexual desire, particularly over the course of longer-term relationships. While a decrease in desire may be due to relational factors (like poor communication or frequent fighting), many women can lose their interest in sex while still reporting an otherwise healthy and loving relationship.
The authors suggest that women's decreased desire is not something to be pathologized. They note that the women could benefit from not blaming themselves for experiencing a decrease in desire and, instead, they may benefit from seeing a decrease in desire over a relationship as a natural and perhaps even normal experience.
The findings from this study also suggest that when desire discrepancies are present, it is important to focus on other ways of connecting, finding a balance or compromise in terms of sexual frequency, and maintaining open communication about differing levels of interest in sex.
Facebook image: Dragana Gordic/Shutterstock
Moor, A., Haimov, Y., & Shrieber, S. (2020). When desire fades: Women talk about their subjective experience of declining sexual desire in loving long-term relationships. Journal of Sex Research, http://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2020.1743225