How do we regain our sex drive if we’ve lost it? Some people might try to rekindle the spark through toys, lingerie and new positions – but getting the zing back into your fling is a little more complicated than that. It turns out people in distressed partnerships are extremely reluctant to get help – research from the Gottman Institute in America shows it takes an average of six years for unhappy couples to seek help.
The clichéd unhappy couple has been together for a number of years and are possibly parents to young children. They go to therapy because her interest in sex has waned over the years. She’s “okay” with this, given she is working and busy with childcare, but misses “the spark we used to have”. This leads to fights, as the man is wondering when things will get back to how they were pre-children. Each time he brings up sex, she feels pressured and soon she begins to see sex as a chore.
Spending an hour with Nic Beets and Paula Dennan, clinical psychologists and couple therapists with almost 50 years of experience between them, is illuminating. Among the myths they dispel are the beliefs you can’t get the spark back once it’s gone and that “it should be easier than this”. Beets and Dennan also say the natural state of two individuals being together is often a differential level of sex drive.
Desire can be broken down into two categories: the first can be thought of as primarily biological (lust or libido and the result of hormones and chemicals), while the second is primarily psychological (the choice to get sexually involved). This simple concept allows people to see that biological changes to sex drive are normal. In our culture this is not recognised: the low-desire person is pathologised and made to feel like something is wrong with them. Remember, we may be the high-desire person in one relationship but the low-desire person in the next one – it is relative rather than personal.
It’s common for women’s biological sex drive to change through the course of her menstrual cycle, as well as with certain contraceptive pills, IVF, having a baby or the impact of menopause. Similarly men’s sex drive waxes and wanes over the life cycle with stress and life-role changes – it’s rare to find a man who has the same high libido at 50 as he had at 20, unless he is in a new relationship and the chemical rush of falling in love has kicked in.
Getting partners to adopt a curious and non-judgemental approach often comes through correcting misinformation held by one or both partners. Naming one person as the problem misses the point, as each partner’s behaviour impacts the other. Because you share sexuality in a relationship, it’s a problem for both partners and a joint way forward is needed.
A stage model of relationships
To help couples understand what’s going on, Beets and Dennan use a framework developed over 30 years ago by pioneering therapists Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson. Partnerships follow an evolving process that moves through five different stages. Desire differences and how they play out through sexual activity are typically seen in the first two stages – bonding and differentiation.
When couples first get together, a stage known as “bonding” occurs, where everything is new. People present their best selves; they are typically patient. It is a joyful stage and we are on a chemical high. If desire problems surface at this stage, the reason is often biological. An example would be a 20-something couple, completely into each other, who find sex difficult. The reason might be the contraceptive pill, the effect of an anti-depressant, painful sexual experiences or one of the partner’s sexual history.
At some point (typically between six months to two years) one or both parties emerge from the sense of oneness to the next stage – differentiation. This is when one party starts to define something about themselves that the other partner may not like. What most couples miss is that differentiation doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the relationship. In fact, it signals that the relationship is at the door of a new stage.
The founder of this model of couple therapy, Pearson puts it like this: “All significant growth comes from disagreements, dissatisfaction with the current status, or a striving to make things better. Paradoxically, accepting that conflict produces growth and learning to manage inevitable disagreements is the key to more harmonious relationships.” Therefore, when many people are ready to call it quits, the relationship is actually calling for deeper connection.
The crucial and most painful part is showing your vulnerability and saying what you want. It’s risky, especially when your partner likes things the way they used to be in the bonding stage. Only by working through disagreements does the relationship mature. The good news is, through this process greater intimacy and better sex becomes possible. When a couple has successfully differentiated, their perspective becomes, “We have a problem here, we need to work it out together”. But this can feel like rejection or abandonment to the other partner, who may be still in the bonding stage. One partner still wants closeness; the other is all about self-discovery. Conversely, the person feeling rejected wants less intimacy as they are feeling disconnected.
Two languages for intimacy
There are two languages for intimacy: verbal and non-verbal. Non-verbal includes touch, gaze and action. One person might be comfortable with verbal vulnerability (talking things through), while the other might show vulnerability and connection through reaching out sexually. Both ways are valid, although gender stereotypes tend to get trotted out. Women are often accused of needing to connect verbally before readiness for sex shows up. The opposite stands for men (he’ll be ready to talk after sex). Pathologising either end of the scale is unhelpful. In reality, lots of men use language to connect and lots of women find sexual connection easier.
A change in sex drive or desire within a committed relationship often invites the challenge for new ways of thinking about the relationship. What this can look like in the end is an invitation to a deeper level of intimacy, if we’re ready for it. Chasing new infatuations will only get you to the bonding stage. But if you are after more sex and deep connection, it comes through being vulnerable. Then the potential for bedroom excitement and greater intimacy takes off.