By Lynn Krown, MA, MFT, Certified Couples and Sex Therapist
Articles and blog posts on the death of sex in a marriage abound. It is the number one reason heterosexual couples seek me for marriage counseling. The pain and frustration is heartbreaking. Your relationship may be strong in many areas, but the loss of your sex life is threatening to break you up and destroy your bond.
You may be frightened and despairing at the loss of sex in your marriage, wondering if can you can bridge the emotional distance and repair the current damage, let alone rekindle desire.
While on the surface the issue appears to be sex, it is always so much deeper. Sexuality is a powerful force, a primal physical drive that moves us to couple — and uncouple. But sex also involves aspects of the psyche. Sexuality is strongly influenced by the unconscious. And for many I counsel in couple’s therapy, cultural and religious factors play a part.
When I first meet with a couple, we determine if the lack of sex is due to medical problems such as prostate issues, cancer, aging, medications, addiction and hormones. Conditions that cause pain can interfere with desire. The inability to have a satisfying sex life due to physical impairment must be treated from both a medical and psychological clinical perspective.
Are you able to have sex, but not doing so because of a loss of desire? Distinct from the lack of sex due to physical problems, the consequences of irretrievable desire can be devastating: divorce, infidelity, disconnection and the corresponding emotions of anger, loneliness, blame and shame. There is much to understand, as we begin to work towards change.
Why Did Desire Leave?
“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source.” Anais Nin
In the beginning, when we fall in love, we are engaged in a state of infatuation called limerence. We delight in physical touch, gazing into our lover’s eyes, and the intense pleasure that comes with merging physically and emotionally with our beloved. There is a tendency to idealize each other. Science tells us this early stage of a relationship is a biological phenomenon that drives humans to mate. But science also tells us that this “in love” phase is temporary, lasting anywhere from six months to three years.
By the time a couple enters my office, it is usually years later. They wonder, “what happened to the person I married?” It seems clichéd, but the magic is gone.
Not only has the initial limerance worn off, but after years of marriage, other underlying issues have taken root. It’s usually not going to be a quick fix.
If you are a woman with low desire and no interest in sex, you may be worried that your husband will leave you or have an affair. Perhaps he is already engaging in sex outside the marriage, or watching porn excessively. He may be dissatisfied, angry and pressuring, or even worse – ignoring you and isolating himself.
If you are man with low desire, you may be suffering from depression and low self-esteem. Your wife may be blaming herself, and experiencing anxiety and depression because she feels unloved. She may be worried that you are not interested in her personally, or that you are having an affair. You may also feel inadequate and ashamed.
There are interpersonal problems between both of you, but there are also deeper problems within each of your individual psyches based on your infant and early childhood experiences within your family of origin. Sorting this out is part of the psychotherapeutic process.
Styles of Relating
“Show me how you were loved, and I’ll show you how you love.”
One of the key behavioral aspects I focus on is attachment style. We all have an attachment style, or a way that we relate in an intimate relationship. Very often, one partner is the pursuer – usually the wife who wants and needs attention, while the husband is often the distancer — the one who fears being engulfed.
Each couple has their own attachment dance that influences their ability to come together and connect. If you can’t connect, you can’t have a satisfactory sexual relationship for the long-term.
Another factor is that over time, you and your spouse may have developed a repetitive pattern of relating to each other that has crystalized, leaving little room for authenticity and spontaneity. By the time you come to therapy, you could be at war, or living in an isolating détente, like two separate countries. Your day-to-day interaction may be civil, but habitual and lacking in true intimacy. You may or may not be cooperative in childrearing or the practical aspects of daily life (running a household, managing your social life, or running a business). Your emotional and physical contact is, on the surface, disengaged.
Working it Out
“Sex is not something you do, it’s a place you go.” Esther Perel
The way back to desire and sexual connection begins with a willingness and commitment to do the work necessary to grow and evolve as sexual beings, and learn how to nurture mature love.
What does this mean, to “do the work”?
First, couples need to reframe their sexual relationship, to recognize that intimacy has many facets. Sex starts in the imagination and includes many expressions of eroticism besides the act of intercourse.
We also need to identify beliefs we have about our sexuality that are influenced by culture, family and religion that may impede our full sexual expression. For example, if you grew up in a household where physical affection and touch were not expressed, you might be inhibited and undemonstrative with your partner. This can erode intimacy over time.
As you expand your awareness, you can choose how you are going to behave as an individual and in a relationship, instead of reacting unconsciously. In your new, mature love, you decide to choose your partner.
There is also the important task of learning how to reconnect when you get caught in old patterns. Some of the tools I use with patients involve establishing connection through eye contact, tone of voice, speaking from the heart and creating a safe space to express vulnerability. Like learning to ride a bike, learning to have a passionate, intimate, and evolving relationship requires skills and practice.
The good news is, in most marriages, you are still deeply connected. It’s as if an imaginary pipeline of feelings and emotions, and subtle sensitivity to hurt and rejection, flows between you and your partner. This pipeline is part of the marital bond that keeps you together. This bond holds the memory, the wish and the desire for reconnection. It is the essence of a human being to want to love and be loved. It is also part of human nature to put barriers in our own way. Navigating and making sense of this contradiction is the task of therapy. The fact that you are in my office means there is a willingness and hope.