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Why Some Long-Term Couples Lose Their Passion for Sex

... and 4 keys to starting to talk about it.

Key points

  • Sex can vary in importance as we age, and sometimes it becomes more important with time.
  • It’s not uncommon to marry someone because of their obvious parenting skills, but then feel that your love life has been deprioritized.
  • It can be difficult (but not impossible) to create exciting sex when you never shared that with a long-term partner.
Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shuttrstock
Source: Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shuttrstock

This is a common but very challenging concern in my therapy room. Most often, it presents as follows: A woman with a male partner married him because they were great friends, and it was pretty obvious he’d be a fabulous father. Their love life wasn't a critical part of the equation. After all, she concluded, sex is not as important to a satisfying life then a solid marriage and a happy family.

But that decision was made 20 years ago. Several children later, not much has changed. She still loves her husband, and he is still a great father. But sex never got better, and now it's very difficult to motivate herself for intimacy. In fact, their marriage is nearly sexless, and she struggles with the reality that she may never enjoy sex again. This realization leaves her in despair: While sex wasn’t a priority two decades ago, she feels very differently about it now.

Having spent much of the last several decades focused on her children’s needs, now it's time for her. She wants to feel sexy again, and alive. She wants to look forward to being touched, rather than dread it. It breaks her heart that it seems almost impossible to feel this with her lifelong partner. To make matters worse, he enjoys sex with her. She feels guilty when she masturbates, since he's waiting so patiently for her libido to return.

Of course, this can be a dynamic in any partnership, regardless of gender. But at least traditionally, I've heard this concern more from women. From an evolutionary perspective, prioritizing a partner's parenting skill makes sense since ample support from a partner only increases the odds of offspring survival. That is hardly consolation for the fact that you see no reasonable solution for this issue that troubles you daily. You don’t want to divorce; you love your husband and your family unit. You don’t want an affair; you couldn’t live with yourself. The thought of opening your marriage seems ludicrous: Why stay married if you and your husband have sex with other people? And your current default solution of not enjoying sex for the rest of your life is so depressing.

From an evolutionary perspective, primate sexual adaptations do not include monogamy with a single partner for a lifetime. his means that even if you did marry because the sex was amazing, that delicious lust would likely dissipate over time. And if you've been together for a while, you are so used to perceiving your partner in a certain way that changing these perceptions can be challenging, but not impossible. The truth about sex is that we can all learn to give and receive love better, and this can reshape your sex life.

How to Talk to Your Partner

  • Find the right words to include your partner in this discussion. The longer you wait to address this, the more distant you’ll feel from him I often suggest you start with a “Let’s work on our love life” talk. Discuss what you’ve enjoyed and what you’d like to do differently. Expect to have many such talks over the course of your relationship. You may be surprised how much closer you feel after such intimate and authentic conversation.
  • Pay attention to how the two of you interact – both inside and outside the bedroom. Most married women tell me they don’t want sex with their "best friend." If you relate, this means it’s time to introduce some space and mystery in the relationship. Cultivate lives outside of each other. This helps make coming together more exciting.
  • Women tend to find male presence and power sexy. Men who are good dads often put their energy into fathering and being a solid husband, and less in demonstrating their masculine presence. Likewise, you’ve probably put more of your energy into mothering and daily responsibilities then manifesting your own inner diva. It’s time for this to change, and for both of you to prioritize your ability to flirt and tease. If this has never been a part of your personality, you can develop a new skill set. You both can work on becoming more of a sexual stimulus for the other.
  • Part of becoming a better lover involves expanding your sexual technique. There are endless ways to touch each other. I often suggest that couples get a sexual technique book, or search cyberspace for ideas. New techniques are exciting in part because they capture our attention. And the more you focus during sex, the more satisfying it becomes.

More Steps to Consider

But what if you read this and feel you are past the point of trying? Couples therapy is still very much in order. Sometimes it takes couples therapy to accurately understand why you are shutting down sexually. We don’t always see ourselves clearly, and your partner has a perspective that’s worth hearing. Couples therapy is a good move because you either strengthen your relationship or you give your partner time and space to metabolize the fact that you aren’t happy – a kind and respectful thing to do.

Sometimes at this point couples become more interested in options that previously felt untenable – like opening their marriage. Otherwise, you may explore the idea of splitting, or maintaining the status quo. Be aware that the latter is a precarious decision, in that you both are running the risk of eventually having an affair.

Regardless of how this unfolds for you, I urge you to keep your heart open. These challenges are common, and couples handle them in very different ways. All of these options are so much more successfully handled when you hold your partner's heart, as well as your own, with great care.

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