If you feel bitter about your partner wanting less sex than he or she used to, you're not alone. As a telephone relationship counsellor, I talk to many clients all over Australia who feel the same way.
They remember the days when they met their partners and became infatuated; when they could not keep their hands off each other. That period was the falling in love and lust stage, known as limerence, driven by the neurotransmitter phenylethylamine (PEA) which, combined with dopamine and norepinephrine, creates pleasingly positive feelings towards each other.
This "love molecule" can prompt euphoria, increased energy and increased sexual desire. It is responsible for the intense passion and the rose-coloured glasses we see our partners through, as if they can do no wrong.
I wish I could bottle it.
Unfortunately, this period only lasts from about six months to two, or maybe three, years. This intensity is impossible to maintain and when the limerence period is over and the couple settles into their day-to-day routine, any difference in sex-drive the partners had before this time will be starting to show.
It is natural for our sex drives to go up and down and "mismatched libidos" is one of the most common problems sex therapists see. I had a client last month who called me when he was extremely upset.
He had been married for about three months after meeting his wife two years earlier; they were mad about each other and they always had great sex. However he noticed that very soon after he proposed and gave her an expensive engagement ring, their sex life started to deteriorate. Now, after being married, it had become worse. He still loved her but felt he had been "trapped" by her.
When I spoke to them as a couple, his wife explained that the wedding preparation was a very happy but stressful event for her and she had little time and energy left for sex. She didn't even notice a problem, but it all became obvious after the honeymoon when normality set in and her husband started to complain.
In our session, it became clear that his sex-drive was a lot higher than hers and this issue started affecting their relationship. Lovemaking is a sensitive area to discuss as there is a fear of hurting each other's feelings. In dealing with the situation, I helped the couple make a plan to work together toward positive, effective communication to restore their intimacy.
This "desire discrepancy", as it is often called, does not generally reflect a lack of love but can lead to questioning sexual compatibility as a couple. Often, the issue is about the frequency of sex: one person would like to have sex three times a week and the partner would be happy with once a week or fortnight. It is actually quite common for a couple to have a different level of desire. What are the chances that we meet somebody who satisfies all the requitements we want in a relationship and who also has the same sex drive?
Loss of libido is not a problem we usually associate with men, on the contrary, there is a belief that men can't get enough sex and are always ready to go, while women may "have a headache" or pretend to be asleep. However, some of my colleagues agree that they are now seeing many more women who complain that their partners are not as interested in sex as much as they used to be.
When a couple has mismatched libidos, a vicious 'pursuer-distancer' cycle often begins. The partner with the higher sex drive becomes the pursuer, chasing the less-interested partner for sex. The pursuer keeps asking for sex, becomes irritated or angry when rejected and frequent arguments unfold.
The partner with the lower sex drive becomes the sexual distancer. They try to avoid sexual contact by going to bed early, are reluctant to hug or kiss as it may lead to sex, or pick a fight about something unimportant. The behaviour of the distancer provokes the pursuer to chase even more - and the distance becomes emotionally and sexually unavailable. They talk less, become less affectionate and the intimacy they used to have soon disappears.
A man's sex drive can fluctuate for all the same reasons a woman's can. He could be stressed, unhappy, tired because of having to work long hours. There can be lifestyle issues such as tobacco, alcohol consumption and the use of medication for depression, high cholesterol, diabetes, and so on. Men don't always realise these issues can affect their sexual functioning. If they suddenly experience erectile problems, premature or delayed ejaculation, they can become very reluctant to have sex and can acquire "performance anxiety". They are often too embarrassed to tell their partners and they then become the "distancers".
Women often don't realise erectile problems can be due to health rather than desire - and can take a partner's avoidance of sex personally. They question whether they are attractive anymore or if someone else may be involved.
Limerence doesn't last. I keep telling my clients that good communication is the most important part of a healthy, happy relationship and they have to realise they can't expect their partners to be mind-readers. But, if your relationship has reached the stage where communication between you and your partner has broken down and your sexual relationship is no longer fulfilling and loving, you may need the intervention of a relationship counsellor.
It's my experience that couples often leave these issues unattended, or when they do finally decide to seek counselling, it may be too late. To save your relationship, you may need perspective, education, information and re-assurance from an outside source.
Matty Silver is a sexual health therapist based in Sydney, www.mattysilver.com.au.