Part 1 of 3: Eight Desire Destroying Relationship Patterns
You’ve seen it in the headlines and you’ve heard about it on TV: the long-tem relationship that has lost its eroti spark and turned into the dreaded “sexless marriage.” Partners who’ve stopped having sex—or have it so rarely that it’s barely a memory—make up an estimated 20% of American couples. Yet, most “sex-starved” or “sexless” relationships start out as loving, intimate ones. What happens to rob them of passion?
Every couple’s sexual malaise evolves out of their own special circumstance; out of the very uniqueness of the relationship itself. Time, events, and emotional dynamics interweave to create a “mash-up” of elements that can distort or paralyze the sexual connection. To help a sexless couple become intimate again, it’s always important to discover how and why they lost their mojo in the first place. The eight patterns I’ll describe here are the best places to begin looking for clues. Take note, because if any of these have already shown up in your relationship, or if your sex life is no longer as robust as you’d like it to be, this could be your wake-up call.
8 Patterns That Drain Desire & Stifle Sexuality
Pattern #1: Job & Life Stresses
According to a recent poll, demands at work account for sexual avoidance among 29% of couples. When just one partner is overwhelmed by their job, sex can quickly take a back seat, but when both are focused on career, sex may get erased from the agenda altogether. Add-in the demands of raising a family, pregnancy or post-partum blues; maintaining a home, and coping with financial burdens, and anybody would have to ask: is it any wonder that couples opt out of doing whatever isn’t urgent, including having sex? Sadly, the more stress and exhaustion people feel, the less they see sex as a source of either spice or solace.
Pattern #2: Longstanding Discrepancies in Desire.
Partners often start out with an equal level of desire, but over time one person’s appetite diminishes or increases while the other remains the same. Sometimes the initial problem is one person’s exhaustion, overwhelm, preoccupation, or disappointment with the quality of the sex itself. Whatever the cause, their detachment is likely to prompt their partner to double-up efforts to keep sex on track. If those efforts are met with rejection, sex will suddenly become the center of the universe for the sex-starved partner. Unsurprisingly, the more he or she makes an issue of sex, the more resistant a partner is likely to become.
If one partner is dishonest about the sexual relationship, the divide between the two will grow wider. For instance, maybe the “low-libido” spouse is really having cybersex or an affair. Maybe he’s masturbating so often that there’s little erotic energy left over for his partner. Or, perhaps one of them needs a different kind of sex, but has turned-off rather than argue about it.
Pattern #3: Power Plays
Ironically, the frequency of sex is usually determined by how often the lower-desire partner will allow it, giving her/him an inordinate amount of sexual power which the other grows to resent. The resentful partner often reacts in a way that creates more tension, provoking an emotional volley from her mate. Suddenly, a frantic game of power “ping pong” becomes the adrenaline rush that stands-in for the sex they’re no longer having.
Any cycle wherein partners’ actions and reactions repeat themselves ad infinitum will slowly erode the quality of emotional and sexual intimacy. But, power-games are often played unconsciously, or partners are only dimly aware of their own ploys, so it’s difficult to stop a pattern than they’re at best half-aware of. However, if they’re wise enough to seek help, the whole “ping pong” sequence is usually brought to light in therapy.
Pattern #4: Complex Relationship Problems
People often cite relationship problems as the initial reason for ceasing intimacy—especially when unexpressed or unresolved anger has built up over time. Although women are often blamed for “punishing” men by withholding sex, in truth, plenty of men turn off when they are seething inside. Whether arguments or silent rage persists, the animosity within the relationship is as smothering as a thick wool coat in the summertime, making playful eroticism quite impossible. And, just like anger, sexual avoidance feeds on itself. The reluctance to be sexual can remain even if the couple’s problems begin to resolve.
Pattern #5: Lack of Trust or Emotional Safety
Thrilling sex only happens when partners can be raw and vulnerable with each other, making trust as much a foundation for sexual enjoyment as knowing your lover’s hot spots. Where there has been distrust or a troubled relationship, emotional safety vanishes—and sexual activity often comes to a screeching halt.
Pattern #6: Sexual Secrets
Secrets range from truth about sexual desires, fantasies or fetishes, to past traumas, or even guilt over previous indiscretions. These can cause pain to both partners by blocking intimacy as surely as if a brick wall stood between them.
One very common “secret” is the loss of attraction toward one’s mate—often due to changes in weight or appearance. Instead of tactfully addressing the issues, partners keep secrets because they are ashamed of their own feelings or afraid the truth will hurt their spouse. Sexual avoidance becomes their “solution.”
Pattern #7: Health-related Problems
Sex may cease temporarily when a partner is ill, but when health problems are undiagnosed, sex may come to a puzzling standstill. Even the emotional and hormonal shifts that occur post-pregnancy can get in the way of a previously vital sex life.
Health issues run the gamut from those that siphon energy to those that directly & indirectly (as a result of medication side-effects) impede sexual functioning—for instance: diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid conditions, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, MS, and hormonal irregularities.
Potentially life-threatening diseases may continue to affect sexual response, body image, or sensation even after successful treatment. Often, in the wake of illness, partners fear touching or being touched, hurting or being hurt, and avoid sex altogether rather than take those risks.
Mental health issues alter sexual expression, too, and require treatment by a therapist and/or medication. But some medications can suppress erection, sensation and desire, compounding the sexual problems.
Pattern #8: Sexual Function Problems
Though these disorders are usually quite treatable, lack of education about them or unwillingness to confront them can produce extended sexual avoidance. Typical “pink elephants in the room” include the inability to achieve or maintain erection, premature or delayed ejaculation, lack of arousal, lack of orgasm, or pain during sex.
Less obvious, but just as injurious to a couple’s sexual satisfaction, are these patterns: sexual shame or fear due to repressive upbringing; previous sexual trauma or abuse; gender identity confusion; and culturally ingrained negative beliefs about sex. Particularly incapacitating are feelings of disgust or dislike toward one’s body, including shape and size of genitals.
Remember that more than one of these eight patterns can co-exist—and usually do—compounding and complicating a couple’s difficulties. That’s one of the main reasons I usually suggest sex therapy where there has been a longstanding sexual disconnect. It’s hard to untangle and correct these issues entirely on one’s own.
Stay tuned for Part II of this series, where I cover men’s and women’s unique concerns, and Part III, for help regaining a lost sexual connection.