I hear a common complaint from my clients: “<Sigh> I just don’t have the interest/drive/desire for sex." These clients feel badly about this and wish it was different. Maybe their health isn’t what it was. Or maybe they feel pressured by their partner and that is what is bringing them in. Or maybe they long to have more sexual interest/drive/desire like they used to; nostalgia is a powerful force my clients and I frequently reckon with in my office.
What I also hear from many of these folks is how busy and full their lives are…to the point of regret or even downright dislike. They describe a life not of abundance but of near-constant responsibilities in all areas: demanding jobs, demanding kids, the high cost of living in northern California, aging parents, the wish to engage more in hobbies and socializing, the need to exercise and eat healthy and get adequate sleep, the never-ending cycle of household chores and errands, and some vague notion about pursuing personal fulfillment and happiness (“Is this all there is?”).
What many of these folks end up doing is relating to sex the same way they approach the rest of their pressure-filled lives: using a cost-benefit analysis with time and energy playing major factors in their decision-making. So for example, many people relate to their workday mornings as follows:
“I must be at work at 9am. Therefore I will need to wake up at 6am so I have enough time to walk the dog for 30 minutes, then leave for the gym at 6:30am and workout for 1 hour, then at 7:45am I will get showered and dressed, then at 8:20am I will start commuting to work and it takes me 30 minutes to get there but I will give myself a little bit of a cushion in case there’s traffic.”
Folks also tend to relate to their workday evenings similarly: “I have to leave work to pick up the kids at 4:30pm, then drive home, make dinner by 6pm, make sure the kids do their homework, get them bathed and in bed by 8:30pm, then maybe after that I can do the dishes, maybe a load of laundry, and in bed by 10pm.”
Every task is broken down into discreet chunks of time and prioritized according to any number of values (i.e. necessity, duty, self-care) while also assessing how much time and energy is needed to do that task and how much will be spent. I have heard more than once over the years a client say that when their partner invites them to have sex at night, they say to themselves “But I’m already so tired…how much sleep will I lose if I have sex tonight?” Wow - talk about unsexy sex. No wonder your sexual interest/drive/desire has declined.
Sure, sometimes sex is a box you check off your list of things to do. I don’t deny that reality and sometimes it honestly is a humdrum experience. In long term relationships that is going to happen…and when it’s disappointing and uninspired you need to practice resiliency, not blame your partner, and even move towards them versus away from them. After all, do you expect every dinner to be fantastic? You probably don’t, or I hope you don’t. Some nights you eat a bowl of cereal and move on, knowing that tomorrow and the next day and the next day you have another opportunity at dinner. Sex in a long-term relationship is the same way.
But when you perpetually consider sex a chore to maintain your relationship, it’s now in the same category as brushing your teeth or exercising to maintain your health. You do it because you should. There’s no emotional or relational investment to your partner, the sex itself, or a good outcome. You’re on autopilot. You do it to get it over with. When sex becomes “yet another thing you should do” in your life, you now relate to it differently and it inevitably loses its luster. (Cue that nostalgia. It’s often where people go in this moment.)
When clients describe their sex lives with a mindset that it’s “yet another thing to do”, I hear it and it honestly sounds pretty awful to me too. I feel sad for all involved. I hear one partner often trying to keep hope alive and keeping something afloat, while I hear another partner appreciating the other’s efforts but also feeling some degree of pressure and ultimately playing defense. The first thing I do is I usually encourage everyone to stop doing what they’ve been doing. I sometimes get push back from clients: “But then we’ll never have sex!”, they fear. “Doing that brings you the ho-hum sex you’ve been having, and isn’t that why you’re here in my office, to stop having that kind of sex?”, I say. Yes, they quietly acknowledge.
Creating a good to great sex life is not a emotionally or behaviorally passive experience and the work it takes to get out of these sorts of sexual ruts is proof of that. Your passivity is what in part produced your current humdrum sex life. It’s also not good to great because of your partner or because of mood-altering substances or because of the youthful and firm body you used to have or because years ago your feelings about your partner were mostly positive based on limited experience. Good to great sex is about you having an enthusiasm and openness to a not-yet-determined experience. Imagine that — not playing it out in your mind like a script that’s already been written and everyone knows their parts! This is a better mindset to have. And having the courage to tell your partner what you like and don’t like sexually helps too. But that’s usually step #2 in this process.
More on that later.
I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist located in Sonoma county, California.