Reader Question: My partner and I have been together for almost eight years and we used to have a lot of sex – A LOT – but now we don’t. My sex drive never went down but it seems like his has. I understand everything is very stressful now, but for me sex would be a big stress reliever and not having that outlet is making things worse. If I try to initiate, he may go along with it, but I don’t want to feel like I’m the only one who is into it. He says he’s still attracted to me and I feel very confident that he loves me but none of my old tricks seem to be working!
Ding ding ding! That bell announces that you are the winner for The Most Common Long-Term Relationship Issue! Your prize is the confirmation that you’re not alone and assurances that the situation is changeable.
A shift in sexual frequency may be an easy or complex mystery to solve. Physical, mental and relationship issues may be at play. It requires a lot of talking and making space to have this conversation in a way that feels low-risk for everyone to be honest, and to work together on finding a mutually agreeable solution.
And we’ll get to that; but first, the easy part: explaining why you used to smash all the time.
The sensation of new love is mostly your brain being high. An influx of norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline brings pleasurable sensations that we associate with seeing, touching or even thinking about our crush. We may ruminate on them obsessively, and compulsively seek out interactions with them (more doses!) to keep feeling the high. But, as with any drug, we acclimate.
Research indicates that we can sustain the brain high of infatuation for a year and a half, maybe two if our interactions are spaced out enough. After that, what keeps us together will be the more substantive facets of love: intimacy, trust and commitment. We can still feel great passion for long-term partners, but it’ll be potentially connected to different things than when we first started dating, like: desire for comfort, positive associations from past sexual touch or feelings of love.
“Research indicates that we can sustain the brain high of infatuation for a year and a half, maybe two if our interactions are spaced out enough. After that, what keeps us together will be the more substantive facets of love: intimacy, trust and commitment.”
Often, what is alluring about a new partner is that they’re new; we have not yet learned all their weird habits or really come to see them as people yet. New partners are, in many ways, blank slates upon which we can project an ideal of what we want for our (sex) lives. And to new people we can present the best versions of ourselves as well, editing our behavior to give the impression we’re more together than we genuinely are, in hopes it will become true.
Facades cannot last forever though, and soon we get to meet the real, actual person with whom we fell in love. Over time, we change too. And we must continue to meet each other, or else a chasm of expectation and assumption slowly fills with things we don’t say, including: feelings and thoughts about sexuality, our bodies and the relationship.
Sexual frequency may fall off precipitously – if it does, the cause is easier to identify. Perhaps it’s a physical issue: recovering from illness, injury or having a kid. Maybe it’s depression as a result of a tough loss. It could be logistical issues presented by a big schedule or location change, or a crack in the relationship after infidelity is revealed or a big conflict erupts.
Other times sexual frequency ebbs slowly, almost imperceptibly. It could be that we get busier and our priorities shift, or that the original frequency of sex was simply unsustainable long-term. It can happen when people get used to each other and become incredibly efficient lovers – over time many couples go from exploratory love making marathons to economical orgasm-delivery sessions, which become predictable and unexciting.
Contrary to tropes, in male/female pairings, men are the partners more likely to step back from physical intimacy in long-term relationships. Therapist Stephen Snyder refers to this as men “gone missing in bed,” and he notes that while they might still masturbate on their own, some men withdraw from partners out of an anxiety about how to get their needs met without being entitled jerks.
For the last couple decades women have (finally!) been encouraged to focus on their desire and pleasure, while modern men are reckoning with the fact most of the existing models of masculine sexuality are incompatible with their egalitarian values.
We’re also generally socialized to believe that to truly love and respect another person, we can’t view them as sexual objects. But for a passionate relationship, we have to see each other as sex objects at least some of the time.
Or it could be something else entirely. Anyone who is convinced they know the true explanation based only on your question, without asking a ton of follow up inquiries, has something to sell you. The only person who can tell you is your partner… and be prepared for the possibility that he may not know either.
“The important thing is that you find time and a space where both of you are comfortable being vulnerable.”
The important thing is that you find time and a space where both of you are comfortable being vulnerable. Approach the conversation not looking to place blame but to express your personal needs and boundaries and listening for his. To be useful, this kind of check in will need to happen routinely.
Explain what you enjoy and miss about sex with him. Why do you prefer to engage with him instead of just getting off alone? Some folks miss uninterrupted time together with skin-to-skin contact more than straight up fucking. Conversely, when does a sexual situation feel satisfying to him? Does he feel like he needs to perform a certain way? Does he feel anxiety about sex or his body? What are the things that get him excited?
You’ve been together a long time, which means your current dynamic took years to evolve. Expect that it might take some time to improve as well. But opening the conversation is a good start.
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