When was the last time you had sex?
Last night? Last week? Last month? Last…year?
I’m the first to argue that frequency isn’t the most important element of a good sex life – satisfaction is.
But if Christmas comes more often than the two of you do together, you could be on the way to joining the many couples world-wide who are in a sexless relationship.
There are many reasons why sex stops, even in the most loving relationships. But for most couples it follows a similar pattern.
Wondering if your dry spell is just a blip or time to panic?
Here’s where you’ll find out.
STAGE ONE: ENTHUSIASM WANES AND FREQUENCY DROPS
You move from really looking forward to sex to thinking, ‘I could do without this right now’. Less inventive and exploratory, you move into a repetitive routine format that works for both of you. One of you starts saying no more often than the other.
Don’t panic if this is sounding worryingly familiar: all relationships have an omigodpanicpanic moment when it becomes apparent you aren’t matching bookends sexually, after all.
We all have a sex ‘home base’ – a natural libido level created by genetics, hormones, and ageing. It’s a set point: the amount of sex we most often want, whether you’re in a relationship or not. (If you’re solo, you’ll masturbate to keep the level constant.)
When we first get together, the rush of hormones falsifies our home base and pushes it much higher than usual. It’s only when the hormones wear off – anywhere from three months to 18 months of meeting – that any mismatch in sex drives starts to become apparent.
If you’re both sexually educated, experienced and have high motivation to keep each other satisfied, this is when you start talking about what you both like and don’t like in bed and your sex life improves. But if one is less motivated or there are other relationship problems going on, you’ll move into stage two.
It’s not just time that makes sex happen less frequently or seem less enjoyable. Having babies, work or money pressures, stress, health issues – all influence our experience of sex.
STAGE TWO: TEMPORARY DENIAL
Frequency falls even lower but you have plenty of reasons to explain why.
“We’re both working so hard! Things will ease up soon.”
“He’s just a bit depressed, that’s all.”
“We have two kids under two! Who has time for sex?”
The last excuse is valid, by the way. Very few parents have regular sex for the first few years of parenting. (Just be aware it’s very easy to slip into stage three if you don’t put the effort in later.)
For most couples, this stage includes a lot of justifying. If you’re still joking about not ‘doing it’, it doesn’t feel like a big problem. Things will just sort themselves out with time, right?
Don’t kid yourselves.
It depends on how long you’ve been in a ‘dead bedroom’ but if it’s quite a while, the news isn’t good.
A US survey of 1000 people found while a small portion of married people who’ve experienced a ‘dead bedroom’ get back on track, lots don’t. Thirty-nine per cent said dry spells lasted between one and five years.
It’s daunting having sex when you haven’t done it in months. Terrifying if you haven’t done it in years.
Most sexless marriages also remain sexless because of the Westermarck effect (named after a Finnish anthropologist). Westermarck believed humans have an innate tendency to lose desire for people they live with for a sustained period if they aren’t having sex with them. Living together as friends, means you begin to feel like siblings. Sex feels ‘wrong’ and intensely awkward, so you avoid it.
It doesn’t really matter what your reason for stopping initially was. Once you have stopped having sex for longer than a year, it nearly always stays that way unless one or both of you tackle the problem head on.
STAGE THREE: TENSE BARGAINING
Frustration is building. The person who still wants sex doesn’t understand why their partner doesn’t; the person being hit on feels constantly hassled.
It’s starting to dawn that this might be a serious problem, so you attempt to work out solutions. ‘The talk’ is had. Often, there’s bargaining to get what you both want. (One might agree to sex once a week under certain conditions, for instance.)
Inevitably, the blame game starts, with the lower sex drive person seen as the one with ‘the problem’. This is not helpful: mismatched sex drives are a couple problem, not the fault of one person. (As I said earlier, our resting libido is extremely hard to influence.)
The arguments about sex start to get nasty – and continue to escalate when solutions don’t appear.
What usually happens when one person seems disinterested is the other makes a bit of an effort to get things started again but stops trying if their efforts aren’t enthusiastically welcomed. Advances are rarely welcome if there’s something else behind the reasons you aren’t having sex – boredom, inequality, feeling that you’re shouldering all the responsibility for the relationship. The initiator then gives up and finds something else to amuse themselves with – the gym, a new hobby, a new job, grandkids. It’s alarmingly easy to forget how good sex can be when you’re not having it and how quickly you both adjust to the new norm.
Course, the other thing that happens is that the thing they find to amuse themselves with is a person who does want to have sex with them.
STAGE FOUR: DAWNING REALISATION
You move from ‘We haven’t had sex in months/years’ to a very real fear of ‘Will we ever have sex again?’.
Your reaction to this depends on your age, stage and how much you enjoy sex.
Couples who happily draw the line under sex, have often never really been that sexual. It was never a defining part of the relationship so they aren’t concerned that it’s stopped altogether.
Age is another factor.
Some of us power energetically through the years, others slow down and start to feel worn out. Different things become important. When you’re young, swapping sex for a country walk or gardening sounds bonkers. As you side-step, nervously, towards middle-age, you start to get it. What excites you later in life isn’t usually what excited you in the first half of it.
Plenty of young couples end up in this place also.
Research shows thirty percent or higher of couples in a relationship longer than two years are in a sexless relationship (having sex six or less times a year). And the people surveyed weren’t all starting to think about their pension.
Relationship problems, the boredom of monogamy, not finding each other attractive anymore, dull sex, parenting, suspect or actual infidelity that’s caused trust issues, sex replacements (like porn), stress, anxiety and exhaustion – all play their part in reducing our desire for sex long-term.
STAGE FIVE: PEAK ANGER, DEPRESSION AND RESENTMENT
“I can’t live like this”.
“Am I that unattractive to you?”
“Every cuddle is about him trying to get laid.”
Sex hasn’t happened in so long, both of you have discussed it with close friends, maybe even therapists. Regardless of whether you’re the one wanting it or the one avoiding it, both feel equally as misled, misunderstood, maligned.
Hard truths are realised.
My partner doesn’t want sex with me and doesn’t care about satisfying any of my sexual desires: As well as feeling unlovable, unattractive and rejected, you feel bewildered, confused and frustrated.
My partner person isn’t happy just loving me and being affectionate, sex is more important to them than love: The thought of always being asked to do something you don’t want to, makes you feel resentful, depressed and utterly exhausted.
STAGE SIX: ACCEPTANCE OR THE END OF THE RELATIONSHIP
It’s crunch time and there are only so many choices left.
If you both happily accept the situation, you get on with your lives. If one person’s happy and the other still wants to be sexual, they might look after themselves with sex toys, masturbation and (invariably) porn.
Alternatively, you might relax the rules of monogamy. Hint you’d understand if they got sex elsewhere or assume they will have an affair and turn the other way when they do. You’d rather that, than lose them or your lifestyle.
If you’re a person who enjoys sex and loves the intimacy and connection and all the other profoundly extraordinary things that sex provides, no sex is usually a deal breaker.
In that case, it’s kinder on both of you to separate and let each other find someone more compatible, rather than try to rub along unhappily.
“I told my husband of twenty years I no longer wanted to be sexual with him and he sat me down, held my hands, looked me in the eye and said, ‘I’m so sorry but I can’t stay with you knowing that. It would break my heart’. We separated and are now divorced. Do I regret it? No. I am happier single and not being hassled and we’re still good friends.”
Other stories don’t end as amicably.
If you don’t understand why sex has stopped, your partner won’t talk to you about it and is no longer loving, I believe it’s a cue to exit. If things are so bad the entire relationship is on its knees, rescuing the physical part really is the least of your worries.
*This blog originally appeared as one of my columns in the Mail Online