‘The last time I tried having sex with my husband was two months ago,’ says Cath, 41. ‘I made sure the kids were staying with friends, I cooked him steak, I wore nice underwear – all the usual clichés. We had a great evening but it got to bedtime and he said he was too drunk and tired. I was furious. He could see how much effort I’d gone to – why couldn’t he do the same?’
Ten years ago, Cath and Mark’s sex life was a different story, but over the past few years, particularly since the birth of their youngest son, Cath has found herself reaching out to Mark more often – and being rejected. ‘He gets annoyed if I say I want to talk about it, but we’ve reached crisis point now,’ she says. ‘To an outsider, we might still look happy, but I can’t help feeling our relationship is eroding from the inside.’
Cath and Mark are experiencing an increasingly common problem among couples – a desire gap, where men’s interest in sex is on the wane. Last year, Relate reported a 40 per cent increase in men who didn’t want to have sex with their partners compared with 10 years ago. A survey earlier this year, carried out by the independent charity Men’s Health Forum, found 15 per cent of men aged between 18 and 59 admitted to a ‘lack of interest in sex.
‘Over the years, my colleagues and I have seen an increase in couples where the wife seems the more sexually spirited member of the partnership,’ says Prof Brett Kahr, chair of the British Society of Couple Psychotherapists and Counsellors.
For most, the problem isn’t physical, but emotional, rooted in confused notions about the roles men and women ‘should’ play. Michele Weiner Davis, clinical social worker and author of The Sex Starved Wife, observes that ‘hardly a day passes without some article, medical study or relationship expert offering women advice for stoking their sexual flames and rekindling their desire. The message is clear: men have insatiable sexual thirst; women have headaches.’
‘We have this naïve notion about marital sex,’ says Kahr, ‘that couples have sex because they’re aroused and attracted to one another. That’s probably the least common reason.’ Sex is often the most effective bargaining tool we have. We exploit our partners’ needs to emphasise how we feel about other areas of our lives. There are all kinds of reasons your partner may experience a loss of desire. Here are some of the more common ones.
The battle outside the bedroom
Alex, 45, has been with his partner, Liz, for six years. Recently, Liz’s 13-year-old son from her previous marriage came to live with them, and the atmosphere in the house has grown tense. ‘I feel like my home has been invaded and I’m constantly coming second to an angry teen,’ says Alex. He feels embarrassed about his resentment, but still can’t let it go to enjoy the same intimacy he and Liz used to have. ‘The worst thing is, she really can’t equate my feelings with our lack of sex life. She thinks that as I’m a man, I should just be up for it. I’m more insulted by that than anything else.’
‘The idea that men are always “up for it” is a lovely myth,’ says Kahr. ‘Most men might say their fantasy is a constantly available woman, but this is only true if they are in a receptive state of mind.’
Areas of resentment outside the bedroom turn sex into a battleground. The partner who feels weaker may well use veto to regain some status. ‘If they’re not in the mood, it doesn’t happen,’ says Davis. ‘It’s an unspoken agreement. The person with the lower desire expects his or her spouse to accept it, and also to be monogamous. That’s pretty much an unfair and unworkable set-up.’
Similarity kills desire
Too much intimacy, not too little, can kill desire, according to author and couples therapist Esther Perel. ‘Perhaps the way we construct closeness reduces the sense of freedom and autonomy needed for sexual pleasure,’ she says in her book Mating In Captivity. ‘The breakdown of desire seems an unintentional consequence of the creation of intimacy.’
Perel believes there is an eternal conflict at the heart of all long-term relationships – the dual needs for connection and independence. ‘We do almost everything together, which has many advantages, but Hannah feels more like my friend and partner in childcare than the woman I used to be crazy about,’ says Tim, 38. ‘When we have sex now, I spend the entire time fantasising about other women. It works, but I can’t deny I feel guilty about it.’
‘It is easier to coast along than challenge each other – that involves conflict, which can feel like a risk,’ says relationship counsellor Christina Fraser. ‘What these couples need to do is celebrate their differences.’ Sexual desire is intricately connected to how well couples can argue. If anger isn’t expressed elsewhere it will emerge as sexual conflict.
The shame of waning attraction
‘One of the great secrets we all know but do not want to admit is that none of us has the same body from year to year,’ says Kahr. ‘Your ageing partner’s body becomes the mirror to your own ageing body. Men might love their wives and find them attractive but (and this is something they would never say to a woman but will say to a male psychotherapist) they may also find different aspects of the woman’s body offputting. It’s often very private bodily matters that are shaming for the male partner and the female partner, so it’s very difficult to talk about.’
We consider it terribly cruel (with good reason) to tell our partner that he or she is no longer attractive to us, but this doesn’t make the strength of feeling less real. There is no easy solution, but ‘it is a barometer of the health and creativity of a couple how they manage these kinds of differences’, says Kahr. If a couple are otherwise extremely secure, they may find it possible to negotiate these changes on their own, or with the help of a counsellor. It is important to bear in mind that your partner may not be consciously aware of his feelings and, if he is, may feel as awkward and embarrassed as you.
Question your motives
While we may find the reason for the disparity in our desire by looking at our partner’s behaviour, it can also help to look at our own motivation. ‘Just as there are many psychological reasons men are under-aroused, there are also many reasons a woman might seem over-aroused,’ says Kahr. ‘And one of the great secrets about hypersexualisation among women is that sex can be used as an antidepressant. Often when someone is nursing a low-grade depression, sexualisation becomes an effective means of trying to wake oneself up, of giving you the illusion that you’re dealing with your problems.’
This particular motivation may apply just to a select group, but it does highlight that our desire is often influenced by complex emotions. ‘When Laura and I decided to try for a baby, I had no idea how much it would change our sexual relationship,’ says Vincent, 41. ‘I had a lot of anxiety about whether I really wanted kids. She was in her late thirties and, I think, worried time was running out. It was as if all the fun was knocked out of our sex life. I’d come home later and later in the hope she’d be asleep. It was a death knell for our marriage.’