I just got back from multiple weeks of travel, talking to a variety of audiences, from medical providers to book club women to grown ups on a relationship retreat.
And you know what everyone wants to know?
“Why do couples stop having sex?”
And of course the answer is, “For lots of different reasons.” Like, one or both of them is plain old exhausted by some combination of work, kids, and impending nuclear holocaust. Or one of them is very sick, or recovering from being very sick, in ways that change their relationship with their bodies as sexual places to live – cancers of the reproductive tracts are classic example.
The most common answer, though, is that sex just drops off the radar, in the face of all the other shit that needs to happen day to day. It becomes unimportant or undesirable. Life, with its stress and aggravations, hits the brakes. Always remember: It’s rare to struggle with sex because there’s not enough sexually relevant stimulation in your life; if you’re struggling, it’s because there’s too much stuff hitting your brakes. Sex shrivels up when the accumulated frustrations of life and relationship keep the brakes on.
Because the answers vary so much, I think “Why do couples stop having sex?” is the wrong question. The right question is, “Why do couples have sex?”
And the answer, according to the research, is that they prioritize sex. Couples who sustain great sex lives aren’t necessarily the couples who still can’t wait to stuff their tongues down each other’s throats; they’re the ones who decide it matters for their relationship that they stop doing all the other things they could be doing – kids and family and work and friends and entertainment and community and householding and even sleep – and spend time playing together with their sexual bodies. Considering how much else we have to do, it’s frankly astonishing that any pair of people in the modern, post-industrial West has any sex at all.
So what does it take to prioritize sex?
It doesn’t take lingerie or porn or sex toys or role play or all the other fun paraphernalia available to us, to activate the accelerator. It takes a serious commitment to getting rid of all the crap that’s hitting the brakes. That crap is usually some combination of these three factors:
Stress. I’ve written lots about this. The ultimate answer is, you can’t “tell yourself” not to be stressed. You have to do something with your body to complete the stress response cycle. Physical activity, creative self-expression, laughter, affection, sleep, these things all work. But “relaxing” is not a decision; you have to do something with your body.
Relationship factors. Early in a relationship, there’s nothing but hot and sexy love firing in your emotional brain, so it’s easy to experience pleasure. But over the years, a lot of gunk builds up in the emotional pipes of the relationships – resentments, small and large, frustrations and sadness about all the times you wanted to and your partner didn’t, or all the times you wished you wanted to when your partner asked – and so when you get in bed, you’re not just getting in bed with your wonderful partner, you’re getting in bed with all those years of accumulated gunk. Solution? Clean out the pipes. Which can be hard work, if you don’t have the skills. The two most evidence-based ways to get those skills are John Gottman’s work (see Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work) and Sue Johnson’s work (see Hold Me Tight.)
They’re Think They Have to Be Horny First. I’ve written at length about this here and on Medium because it’s such an important subject, but the short version is: pleasure is the measure of sexual wellbeing. You don’t have to crave sex before you start having; you have to be willing, as Ian Kerner puts it, to try some intimate contact. If the willingness to experiment is there, that’s all it takes to take the first step into sexual pleasure.
People are often surprised at how much of Come As You Are isn’t about sex. It’s because most of the reasons people struggle with their sexuality aren’t about sex, they’re about stress, relationships, body image, past trauma, or judgment and shame about how sex works versus how they think it’s “supposed” to work.
So there you have it. If sex has disappeared from your relationship, the sex itself isn’t always the problem (though occasionally it is). Usually it’s because people are waiting to be horny, and they’re never getting horny because of all the stuff hitting their brakes.
So figure out what’s hitting your (and your partner’s) brakes. And get rid of that stuff. And sexual pleasure will flow naturally into the space you create for it.