Good in Bed: Getting back in sexual sync
May 26th, 2011
07:08 AM ET

Good in Bed: Getting back in sexual sync

Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, blogs about sex on Thursdays on The Chart. Read more from him at his website, GoodInBed.

With an estimated 40 million Americans stuck in sexless marriages, mismatched libidos could be the No. 1 sex-related issue facing couples in long-term relationships.

Generally, at the start of a relationship, the thrill of infatuation keeps us sexually motivated - the whole “can’t keep your hands off of each other” phase - but once we settle into a sense of routine, gaps in libido that may have previously been masked become revealed. Sex drive is very individual, and no two people can reasonably expect to always be in sync over the course of a long-term relationship, regardless of their love for each other.

Mismatched libidos are so common partly because our individual sex drives interconnect with so many other aspects of our lives, and numerous factors can lead one or both partners to experience diminished desire at one point or another. If you stay in a relationship long enough, it’s almost guaranteed that at some point you’ll be dealing with one or more of these issues and that your libido or your partner’s will change:

- Stress, depression, and anxiety
- Age, health, and medical treatment
- Lifestyle issues such as sleep, exercise, nutrition, and tobacco and alcohol consumption
- Relationship boredom
- Diminishing sexual attraction to one’s partner
- Relationship issues and anger
- Lack of sexual enjoyment during partner sex
- Milestones such as having kids that often test a relationship
- Lack of prioritization of sex

Unlike a general sex rut, in which both partners experience diminished desire, libidos that are starkly mismatched can present a whole new array of problems. When you want sex but your partner doesn’t, the rejection can sting - and highjack your relationship emotionally: Your self-esteem can plummet and an inner rage can seethe.

The ego is extremely frail when it comes to sex, and even being rejected once or twice can lead you to give up altogether. On the other hand, if you’re not feeling in the mood, even a hug or a kiss can feel like a sexual overture and create a sense of sexual pressure. Mismatched libidos can be complex, so it’s worth seeking out a therapist or counselor to help cope with them, especially if the problem has been going on for a while. In the meantime you can visit one of our experts in our forum at Good in Bed and here are some tips to help you get in sync:

- If you’re in a relationship in which non-sexual physical intimacy has dried up to the point where any gesture of intimacy comes off as an overture to have sex, it’s probably a sign that you need to cultivate more non-physical intimacy in your relationship. Recent research shows that kissing is paramount to men’s sexual satisfaction, according to researcher Debby Herbenick, Ph.D. Men who report engaging in more kissing, cuddling, and touching with their partners tend to be more sexually satisfied in their marriages. If sex is like a plant and easily prone to withering, then non-physical intimacy is a vital nutrient, like the sun. Create a zone in your relationship where you can be physical and affectionate without the pressure of those activities leading to sex.

- Don’t give up on sex, especially if you’re the partner with a higher libido. I offer this advice a lot to new parents, especially dads who often find themselves feeling like a third wheel or who are frustrated that their wives are so disinterested in sex. It’s easy to turn off and tune out, and many new parents have gone months, even a year or more, without having sex. But a couple has to restore intimacy, which often requires the patience and loving persistence of the higher-desire partner. Life is full of ebbs and flows, and common milestones—like having kids—can transform a relationship and often one’s sex life.

- Communicate about the issue, figure out what’s going on, and come up with a plan. Usually the issue just goes unacknowledged too long, leading to a sense of silent desperation. But relationships come with lots of difficult conversations - about money, kids, in-laws - and talking about sex shouldn’t be swept under the rug, either. When sex drive disappears (from an individual or a relationship), it’s generally a sign that something else is going on. Sex is a clue and a motivation to get to the bottom of the problem.

- Make the conversation sexy. It takes more than just constructive communication to get in the mood. That’s why so many sex therapists and counselors give their patients homework. The brain is the biggest sex organ, so find something sexy to say about your partner, share a fantasy, do something that is simultaneously sexy and boosts your partner’s self-esteem.

- Enjoy your sexuality on your own. Masturbation isn’t a substitute for the thrill and sensuality of skin-on-skin partner sex, but if you’re the higher-desire partner it can help take the edge off and fill natural gaps in libido. For lower-desire partners, just because you have less interest in sex with your partner that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t enjoy your own sexuality. Sometimes masturbation can provide a sexual jumpstart.

- Pay attention to how you handle the issue. When a little dry spell starts to become a permanent rut, we usually deal with it in one of two ways: lashing out and being mean, or holding a grudge and acting like everything’s fine. Neither option is healthy. Left unattended, mismatched libidos can create issues that spiral out of control and lead to unfortunate consequences, such as infidelity.

- Last of all, have sex. Try it - you’ll like it (we hope). This is especially true if you’re the type of person that wants to want sex, but just doesn’t. Sometimes you have to put your body through the motions and wait for your mind to follow.

If, despite these tips, you really feel like your libidos are irreconcilably mismatched, see a professional. Visit the website for the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists at aasect.org to find a therapist. With the right care and feeding, your sex life can thrive.

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