Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Understanding The Lack Of Sexual Desire in Your Marriage

A common complaint of couples in long term relationships is a decline in sexual desire. While the cultural finding seems to be that men are often the partner complaining, research suggests that long-term relationships can have a dampening effect on either partner – for reasons that are not solely due to aging.

In my work with couples I have found that the resentment, criticism and impatience that couples show about many issues in their life often cover the rejection and shame associated with the belief that they are no longer sexually desired. When they are finally able to address it one hears comments like:

  • “She never makes an advance – I don’t need someone complying out of obligation”
  • “For over a year he’s just not interested. How is that supposed to make someone feel?

Whereas couple therapists have long maintained that a couple’s sexual problems are actually a reflection of problems in other areas, the reverse is also true. Many couples will fight about anything rather than face what is not happening in the bedroom.  

What is often misunderstood by partners is how much the lack of their own or their partner’s sexual desire is a result of negative self-judgment, presumed rejection, lack of understanding of what men and women want, lack of understanding of what men and women fear, lack of understanding of what makes them desirable and avoidance of even talking about their sexual connection.

Research, books and articles written on sexual desire in married women, the Viagra myth with men, why women have sex, how romance lasts, and the impact of domestic life on sexual passion offer couples some information that may help them understand the lack of sexual desire in their marriage.   It may even offer some ideas to “bring back that loving feeling.”

Here’s a List of Mini Descriptions of Major Findings about Sexual Desire

  • Generally men have more sexual desire than women both in frequency and intensity.
  • Women actually vary more as a group and even individually in sexual desire as a function of monthly cycles, hormones, and life roles.
  • There is more connection for men in thinking about sex and being sexually aroused.  Men take their cues from their bodies.
  • Whereas sexual desire is more tied to physical arousal in men, for women it is a function of many other factors including context, beliefs, attitudes, feeling desired, feeling accepted and open communication in a relationship.
  • Sexual researcher Rosemary Basson suggests that although a woman may be very interested in her partner, she may not initiate sex because for many women sexual desire does not precede sexual arousal. Many women enter into sex feeling neutral and it is the sexual experience that stirs the sexual desire.
  • Although relational factors are important to women, Sims and Meana, studying sexual decline in married women, report that stable, even caring relationships are necessary but not sufficient for sexual desire –women want to feel the romance. Like men they want someone to think they are “HOT.”
  • According to Meston and Buss, authors of Why Women Have Sex, women endorse the same top two reasons as men for having sex – “I wanted to experience the physical pleasure.”   “It feels good.”
  • Men and women can be their own best enhancer or detractor when it comes to sexual desire. What dampens sexual desire in both men and women are self-expectations and self-judgments.
  • Men want to be admired in the bedroom. Their concern about sexual performance is a major one. Often their avoidance of their partner is an avoidance of failed performance- even just once. Many women have told men in my office – “Please trust that I love you- we will figure it out together.”  But that’s only after she finds out that he’s rejecting himself for not living up to his sexual expectations – not her.
  • The fact that this is an age of Viagra and similar drugs has certainly helped many men but as Abraham Morgentaler, author of The Viagra Myth explains- medication is far from a cure all. The refill rate for Viagra is less than 50% not because it doesn’t work but because it does very little for young men who think using it will turn them into the stud on Sex in the City or for married men who expect that it will replace talking to and understanding a partner and her needs.
  • Reporting on his experience with men and sexual issues over many years, Morgentaler agrees that men worry about performance well beyond what women expect but the notion that sex is simply a primitive urge for men is false.  Most men want to take Viagra to please their partner with whom they want to feel a connection.
  • According to Ethel Perel and Marta Meana one very important thing that makes women feel desired is being the “chosen one.” They suggest that when being courted a woman’s sexual desire is raised by the thought “He is choosing me from among others.”  Once married, the woman may undermine the same attention. Feeling that he is stuck with her, she sees his advances as a wish for sex not as a signal of her unique desirability.
  • Some insight for men might be to consider how to communicate  “ You are the one!”  to their partner of 4 or 40 years – Wowing about the girl on TV and then expecting to be sexually desired is not likely to work.
  • Women’s misperceptions of their partners’ desire are very often a result of their own negative feelings about themselves physically and emotionally.
  • A woman’s vision of herself as sexy, hot, and desirable is, in some ways, even more important than her partner’s vision of her. This self-perception is, of course, further enhanced or hampered by the reaction of her partner.
  • In her article “Learning to Lust,” Elton quotes research suggesting that what too many women don’t realize  is that men don’t need perfection. When a man is in the throes of ecstasy – he is not evaluating her legs – why is she?
  • Most men are far more accepting of their partner than their partner is of herself. Men often feel caught in a no-win situation when their compliment is met with “You know I don’t like how I look – how can you say that?” Too often I have worked with men feeling helpless and certainly not sexual in such situations.
  • The rejection of self for whatever reason equates to a rejection of a partner who loves you.
  • Self-Care – If a woman’s body image is an important point of reference for her – working on it is a personal and relationship enhancer. Married women with low sexual desire reported that one of the downsides of marriage was giving up on their own appearance.
  • Even the first steps in an exercise program or buying sexy lingerie can begin to enhance a woman’s sense of her own sexuality.
  • According to Sims and Meana, married women with low sexual desire report that having a partner who is no longer taking pride in his appearance makes sexual desire and connection more difficult for them. As discussed in the blog “True Love Means- Looks Still Matter” – self care is sexually attractive.
  • Whereas men seem not as affected by their body image in acting on their sexual desire (their sexual performance is another story) their appearance matters in fueling the desire of their partners.
  • In the book Why Women Have Sex, Buss and Meston report that whereas men are most sexually attracted by visual cues, women are most sexually attracted by scent followed closely by visual cues. While the author suggests evolutionary reasons and connections with scent and suitable mate DNA choice, the other message is the importance of these cues in enhancing desire. Maybe we should re-think why he is buying her perfume and what she could be buying him?
  • In Sims and Meana’s study of married women with low sexual desire, the majority of women reported feeling happy but not sexual in their relationships. Most felt badly about this. The overall reasons they gave for their lack of sexual desire included:

Institutionalization of the Relationship –With marriage, sex had become a commitment, a responsibility, and a routine.

Overfamiliarity and Loss of the Romance-What was once sweet words and subtle suggestions of love-making were now overt suggestions, expectations or grabbing or pinching.

Responsibility and De-Sexualized Roles – Too much to do, too little time, and nonsexual roles dampened sexual feelings. It was reported that it is difficult to feel sexual with someone who feels needy or overly dependent.

  • According to Sims and Meana, both women and men, regardless of the dampening of desire in a long term relationship, believe that their sexual desire would be stirred by novelty, mystery and the idea of a new partner thinking they were sexy.
  • Stephen Mitchell’s Book, Can Love Last?, Perel’s Mating in Captivity as well as our couple book Healing Together all speak to the issue of igniting dampened sexual desire by becoming “ the new and unexpected partners” to each other. In some way, all advocate being separate enough as individuals to be less predictable; assuming the best about self and taking nothing for granted about the other; daring to risk communicating about sex, and creating the romance.

The Lyrics of Enrique Iglesias capture the sentiments.

Could I hold you for a lifetime
Could I look into your eyes
Could I have this night to share this night together
Could I hold you close beside me
Could I hold you for all time
Could I have this kiss forever


Photo by Thor Thorsson, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.