We’re always hearing that we could be having better sex, a better orgasm, or a better relationship. But how often do we hear the nitty-gritty of how we can actually better understand our deepest desires and most embarrassing questions? Bustle has enlisted Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist based in San Francisco, to help us out with the details. Today’s topic: What to do if you find yourself in a sexless relationship.
Q: I’ve been with my girlfriend for about a year. When we first met, we had sex every single day. It was great, and we both talked about how happy we were. But a few months ago, she stopped wanting to have sex. It was like a night and day difference. I don’t understand what happened. I have tried everything I can think of to get her interested again, but nothing is changing. Every time I try to talk to her, she changes the subject, tells me she doesn’t feel like talking, or says stuff like, “I don’t know what to tell you.” I’ve asked her if she wants to break up, but she says she sees herself spending the rest of her life with me. I love her so much, and have been trying to be as patient as possible. I’m just not sure how much longer I can wait.
A: I’m so sorry to hear about your situation. I get asked variations of this question on a surprisingly regular basis. It’s normal for sex to slow down in a relationship, but experiencing such a dramatic shift can be scary and frustrating. The fact that your girlfriend won’t communicate with you makes things even worse.
So, how important is sex in a relationship, anyway? It actually depends. “For some, [sex is] absolutely crucial. It is the glue that expresses intimacy and affection,” explains Carol Queen, Ph.D., sex educator and staff sexologist at Good Vibrations. “For others, there are many ways these kinds of love are expressed, and sex isn't as high on the list. For yet others, sex is a non-priority.” For asexual couples and individuals, for instance, sex is just not as necessary to a relationship as it is to allosexual people.
“But obviously if both partners aren't on the same page with what sex means to them or their desire for it — and that's a common issue among couples ... [then] the situation can become fraught, or at minimum, calls for clear and direct communication,” Queen adds.
Here's What Might Be Going On
Drastic drop-offs like this almost always happen for a reason — and there are a lot of factors that can impact your sex drive. It’s not your responsibility to figure out exactly what happened, but there are some common reasons for a suddenly (or not so suddenly) sexless relationship.
“A sudden decrease can be caused by emotional issues within a relationship,” Queen tells Bustle. “[Or] shifts in someone's sexual or gender identity, whether or not the person has started to deal with the possibility of coming out or changing their life accordingly; external issues like dealing with trauma (past or present) or substantial stress; health issues (things like genital pain, of course, but also lots of other things, including depression, can tank one's libido — and so can some of the meds that treat some health conditions); or hormones ([it is] pretty common postpartum and at perimenopause to have desire [or] libido issues, though not everyone undergoing these life transitions experiences them).” Any of these could happen all at once or as a slow decrease in sexual desire, she adds.
Here are some common reasons for a decreased sex drive:
- She might be scared. Recognizing that the relationship has become serious and has potential for a lifelong partnership can cause some people to pull away.
- She might be stressed. Our sex drives are very susceptible to shutting down because of stress. She may have been stressed at work, having a disagreement with a friend, or experiencing family drama.
- She might be depressed. Depression is another big libido killer. Or if she recently started taking antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication, those might be the culprit.
- She might have a health issue. There are plenty of health conditions that can dampen your sex drive. She may want to meet with a doctor to suss out some potential causes.
- She might have experienced sexual abuse at some point. I work with a lot of sexual abuse survivors, and one common pattern is that once the the survivor feels attached to their partner, sex can start to feel more vulnerable. The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline is available at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) for support, or you can visit hotline.rainn.org.
- She might be responding to relationship stress. Had you guys been fighting around the time when her sex drive disappeared?
- She might be cheating. She might be pulling away from you because she has been or is continuing to be unfaithful, even emotionally.
- She might have lied to you about the sex you were having. At the beginning of a relationship, most people try to put their best foot forward and impress their partner. She might have been trying to make it seem like you two were the perfect match sexually. Sex is hard to talk about openly, so she may now be feeling unsure about how to let you know that she wants sex less frequently or wants to have different kinds of sex.
It could be any number of potential culprits causing the decrease in desire, but you want to make sure you bring it up to her at the right time in the right manner. “Make sure you are starting the convo at a not-stressful or time-pressured moment,” notes Queen. “Ask if your partner has the bandwidth now to have a discussion and let them know what you have observed [about] sexual frequency and anything related to it, plus why it is a concern for you.” She also stresses that you shouldn’t accuse your partner or divert to a highly emotional, frustrated mode. Instead, approach the situation with a calm and conversational demeanor. “Bonus if you can practice active listening and reflect back to your partner what you hear them saying to you,” they add.
If talking with your partner isn’t helping, Queen recommends a physical for the low-libido person with a sex-positive doctor and couples therapy. “If this is not situational and relatively easy to figure out together, it can really help to have an informed [and] trained advocate with you as you figure out what's going on and how to help,” says Queen.
So, what do you do now? Here are six steps to consider.
1. Reset Expectations
Your girlfriend may be thinking that you’re expecting to carry on the bunny-rabbit like pace of your first few months together. That could be creating some pressure for her, which may be leading her to pull away. “It is not uncommon for couples to lament the changes in sexual desire and frequency without also recognizing that change is part of life,” Dr. Martha Lee, D.H.S., relationship counselor, clinical sexologist, and founder of Eros Coaching, tells Bustle. “Change doesn’t mean worse but can be better as couples often focus on other aspects of life such as their careers.”
You may want to talk to her about what you want from your sex life at this point, and make it clear that both of you get to determine what feels right for your relationship. That also means checking your own expectations, notes Queen. “I so frequently hear from people who cannot see elements of their partnered life that might make it hard for a partner to keep up, libido-wise — and I think higher-libido people need to hear that this can really feel like catch-22 pressure for a lower-libido partner, especially if they did start out together in a highly sexual way.”
2. Explain That Communication Is Important For You
Your girlfriend is putting you in a really unfair position of asking you to stay with her in a sexless relationship, even though she’s not willing to talk about your sex life. It’s torturous! “The lack of communication can lead to second-guessing, tit-for-tat behavior, communication shutdown, and more miscommunication than anything,” Lee tells Bustle.
My job wouldn’t exist if talking about sex was easy, but that doesn’t mean communication isn’t important. You can’t have a healthy relationship with someone who isn’t willing to talk about sex. Tell her, “I know this is hard to talk about, but I can’t stay in this relationship if you won’t even try.”
You may also want to consider writing her an email, and giving her the chance to express her thoughts in writing. Sometimes writing out our feelings can be a lot easier than saying them out loud. Along those lines, Queen suggests that low-libido people keep a journal to help them suss out what the issues are. “Sometimes a person knows exactly what's up with their sexual feelings, or in their relationship — but other times it's really a mystery to the person who has experienced the libido loss,” she says. If communication is just not working or your partner can’t identify the issue themself, it might be a good idea for them to see a sex therapist who can help figure out the situation.
3. Tell Her What Sex Means To You
Sex means so much more than just getting our rocks off. It’s a way for many couples to connect, show love, develop trust, be vulnerable, be authentic, or soothe each other. What does sex with your girlfriend mean to you? “Sex means different things to different people,” notes Lee. “It’s not about the want of sex, but the why of sex that is important.” Telling her what you’re missing about your sexual connection can be a great way to help her understand why it’s important to get things back on track.
“And listen for what it means to them,” Queen says. “Some people are not, in fact, compatible around this; others don't know how to address stress or resentment that can build a bridge back to a comfortable sexual relationship. But understanding the role of sex in each of your lives is definitely part of that bridge.”
4. Build Intimacy Together As A Team
Since you’ve been raising this issue for some time now, your girlfriend might be feeling a lot of pressure to change things on her own. She might be feeling embarrassed, guilty, or unsure of how to start. “It doesn’t matter so much the reason of the reduced sexual frequency or even whose supposed fault it is — but [it helps] to face things together because you can be closer and stronger as a team because of it,” Lee tells Bustle. “It is not what happens, but how you handle things that matters.”
Make it clear to her that you’re more than willing to work together to get your sex life back. Offer to go to couples counseling or a doctor’s appointment, schedule date nights, read a sexual technique book together, or act out one of her fantasies.
5. Explore Other Relationship Structures
I’m not sure what your stance is on monogamy, but one option to consider is opening up your relationship. It may not be worth ending your relationship if there’s the possibility that you could both be satisfied with you getting sexual fulfillment elsewhere.
There are a lot of different non-monogamy options out there, ranging from one-night stands to serious relationships with other people. “This is not for everyone,” Queen says. “But it might be especially relevant to partners [whose] identity and sexual interests are shifting.” Don’t try this unless you’re ready to really talk it through. “If you are in a low-communication relationship, this should not be Plan A,” Queen advises.
Opening things up definitely doesn’t have to mean opening the relationship to other people. According to Lee, it’s important for couples in a delicate spot in their relationship to strengthen their fundamentals: “Are you enjoying time together? Are you having fun? Are you inspired? Are you your best self?” Trying new things together can be a form of opening up your horizons and bringing the spark back.
6. Know When The Relationship Isn’t Working
I know you love your girlfriend, but this pattern is not sustainable. You can’t be expected to stay in a sexless relationship with a lack of communication. She’s not showing respect for you or your needs.
I hear from people all the time who say, “But everything else is so perfect. I don’t want to have to end my relationship just because of sex.” They talk about sex as if it was some minor incompatibility, like, “Everything is perfect, but I sure do wish she liked rock climbing.”
It’s hard for many of us to give value to our sex lives, but if you’re not on the same page about the importance of sex in your relationship, it can create a lot of friction in the bedroom — and not the good kind. Queen suggests being willing to walk away “only if other ways of dealing with a truly discordant [or] incompatible relationship have not gotten you to a better place... Many couples have created workarounds in their relationships, but this isn't possible for everyone. Staying in a relationship that includes a consistent source of frustration and pain is not a healthy outcome for either partner.”
You’re never going to find someone who is your absolute perfect match in the bedroom, but there has to be enough compatibility to sustain a future together. Breaking up will be painful, but it will be better than wasting years of your life being lonely and unfulfilled.
Additional reporting by Mackenzie Sylvester.
Lodise N. M. (2017). Female sexual dysfunction: a focus on flibanserin. International journal of women's health, 9, 757–767. https://doi.org/10.2147/IJWH.S83747
Carol Queen, Ph.D., sex educator and staff sexologist at Good Vibrations
Dr. Martha Lee, D.H.S., relationship counselor, clinical sexologist, author, and owner of Eros Coaching
Images: Rowena Waack/Flickr; Giphy
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