Low Levels of Sexual Desire Inside a Long-Term Committed Relationship?

Many of the couples with whom I do marriage therapy informed me that there is no passion in their marriage, and they wish they could go back to the days when they were dating, when things were exciting and passionate.

It seems like most relationships sooner or later enter a stale phase. The sex is no longer exciting and lovers are no longer titillated by the presence of their beloved. For some couples, it is the birth of a child, for others it is the monotony of daily life, for some the feeling of passion slowly dissipates over a number of years. Perel (2007) believes that both passion and intimacy is necessary for healthy relationships but providing both is a tall order for one’s spouse. Perel highlights the difficulties that couples experience as they try to maintain novelty, adventure, and excitement inside a long-term relationship. As a couple’s relationship deepens and grows couples can become overly familiar with each other and so maintaining a sense of novelty and excitement can be difficult. Stella Resnick’s book, The Heart of Desire points out that when couples become overly familiar, the relationship enters the familial stage. According to Stella Resnick, the spouse is viewed as a father or mother like figure, and this serves to dampen sexual desire. It seems contradictory, but these authors suggest that too much closeness can be problematic for a passionate relationship. It’s almost as if they have difficulty coexisting together. The existence of uncertainty, novelty, adventure, and discovery serves to fuel passion in a relationship and is often present during the earlier days of courtship. Some individuals also believe these feelings are a manifestation of true love, and the absence of these feelings is an indication that they are no longer in love and the perhaps separation is necessary. It is suggested in Chris Donaghue’s book Sex Outside the Lines that from an evolutionary perspective, it is too energy expensive for the human race to maintain such high levels of desire. It seems like our biology and societal expectations are working against us, so is it any wonder that couples choose to step out of the marriage and have an affair in order to gain access to the lost feelings of passion that they once experienced? Humans seem to crave and miss the experience of passionate love. It has been suggested by Tabatabaie (2014) that an extramarital affair “may revitalize a couple’s deteriorating excitement”. While an extramarital affair can destroy a marriage, it’s easy to see how it could introduce passion into a marriage if passion is partly defined as uncertainty and insecurity. I have personally seen marriages rejuvenated after an affair because partners are forced to see each other differently and explore new relationship territory.

           While Perel (2007) has been forwarding the idea that the fusion of couples reduces sexual desire Štulhofer Et al. (2014) suggests that, “higher levels of intimacy increase the odds of reporting low sexual desire”. This study contends that sexual intimacy is a necessary and important component of male sexuality. It has been my experience that when an individual feels comfortable and safe, they are able to express their sexual desires openly. The ability to express one’s sexual desire openly can most certainly increase the passion and excitement in a relationship as new territory is explored and enjoyed.

           While these two theories appear contradictory, I believe that insights from both can be used to help couples struggling with sexual connection. I believe that some individuals may need to develop intimacy in order to arouse the passion in their relationship. Conversely, some couples may need more distance and separateness in order to arouse the sexual curiosities, and consequently sexual passion. Perhaps couples need a balance of both intimacy and passion whereupon the couple develops a closer bond but is also forced out of their comfort zone into novel and unfamiliar situations.

BenBella Books (2015). Donaghue, C., (2015). Sex Outside the Lines: Authentic Sexuality in a Sexually Dysfunctional Culture. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books
Perel, E. (2007). Mating in captivity. New York: HarperCollins
Resnick, S., (2012). The Heart of Desire: Keys to the Pleasures of Love. San Francisco, CA: Wiley
Štulhofer, A., Ferreira, C., & Landripet, I., (2014). Emotional intimacy, sexual desire, and sexual satisfaction among partnered heterosexual men. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 29:2, 229-244, DOI: 10.1080/14681994.2013.870335
Tabatabaie, A., (2014). Sexotic therapy: embracing the exotic, irrational and paradoxical experience of living and loving. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 29:1, 8-20


What is Love?

The word love is used so frequently to describe such a wide variety of things that it has almost lost its meaning.

I love pizza, I love my wife, I love my children, I love my country, I love my mother, and I love it when an idea goes according to plan. I love all these things but the experience of each is uniquely different. While I may love pizza, it's incapable of receiving that love and returning it to me. When I eat pizza, I may feel a loving feeling towards it, but perhaps I'm not loving myself because it is an unhealthy food choice. This silly example highlights the problematic nature of the word love.

I believe love is both a feeling and an action. Most people can recognize the feeling of being in love with another person. But people can also fall in love with objects. A person who falls in love with his motorcycle will treat it much like a lover. He will spend time polishing it, looking at it, reading about it, enjoying its company, and thinking about it when he is away from it. When he sees his motorcycle, it will bring joy to his heart and fill him with excitement. However, motorcycles are much like a pizza, they cannot return love like humans can. It would be interesting to evaluate brain scans of individuals looking at their spouse with whom they are in love and compare it to the brain scans of a person who is in love with a possession such as a jet ski.

I believe that love is also an action. If you are in love with someone you will do things for them that will maximize their happiness and growth. For example, an individual in love may sacrifice some of their own comfort in order to help pay for their spouses schooling. If someone is doing the action of love they will do whatever is necessary to facilitate the health of the one that they are loving. Providing physical affection, conveying your commitment, listening empatheticaly, valuing your partner’s dreams, providing physically, and encouraging healthy lifestyle choices could all be seen as loving actions. Some actions could be seen as loving in the moment but long-term consequences could be detrimental and therefore unloving. For example, a husband may buy his diabetic wife a chocolate cake in order to demonstrate his love for her. Eating the cake is not in her best interest despite her gratitude, and so such an act could be classified as somewhat unloving. It is easy to do the actions of love when there is a feeling of love, but I believe that true love is demonstrated by doing the action of love when the feeling is absent. Sometimes when I'm angry at my children and do not feel loving towards them, I still conduct myself in a loving way. Rather than shouting and screaming at my children, I provide discipline that they can understand and learn from. I try and discipline in a way that conveys my unconditional acceptance for them as a person, but also my concerns about their behavior. To discipline my children appropriately is to love them, because I care about their ability to self-regulate and conduct themselves in a way that will maximize their happiness and growth in the long run. However, if you ask the children they would see my discipline as unloving. I believe there is sometimes confusion about the definition of love and people often state that they are in love even if their actions do not demonstrate this. An individual may state that he has fallen in love with his coworker and that it is true love, and he would do anything for her. However, suppose that his coworker has a family of her own and is happily married. I would ask the question; does this man actually loves his coworker? If he really loved his coworker would he jeopardize her marriage and family relationships? It would be more accurate for him to suggest that he is experiencing the feelings of love but not actually loving his coworker.

By more closely examining the definition of love, what it is, and what it isn't, I believe that we can more fully enjoy it. If I understand that love is sometimes just a feeling I can relish the experience for what it is without worrying about destiny and marriage. I understand that when I watch a movie my emotions are being manipulated by what I see on screen and that it's not real. But because I understand how movies are made and the science behind it, this does not diminish my enjoyment of the movie, if anything it increases it. I believe that the more we understand something, the more we can enjoy it. Understanding what love is and what love isn't does not diminish our ability to embrace and enjoy the experience.

References:  Crooks, R., Baur, B. (2014) Our sexuality (12th ed).Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.  

More and more therapists in Utah have received the necessary training to treat sexual addictions, but very few therapists receive training on sexual health. Working as a sexual addictions therapist, I am often confronted with the question; what is healthy? Health is not the absence of disease, and so in order to assist individuals and couples develop healthy sexual relationships, I complete the intensive training to become a Certified Sex Therapist (CST). This page currently contains two essays and some links to help guide you on your journey to become more sexually alive.     

          Matthew Bridgstock, LCSW CSAT CST

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