Is lovemaking in the long-term relationship a dying art? According to the British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, in 2010 couples were getting down to it just three times a month, whereas in 1990 it was five.
And an IVF bigwig was recently reported as saying that couples were booking in, not because they were infertile, but because they were too tired for sex. (Though “tired” surely covers resentful, sad, and other hazards of existence that dull desire.)
So are committed couples suffering a sex drought? Whatever is – or isn’t – going on?
It’s a sensitive subject, and one that is easy to worry about. But Kate Moyle, sexual and relationship psychotherapist and host of The Sexual Wellness Sessions podcast, notes that frequency isn’t the best way to gauge the state of play. “People can be having enjoyable sex, but just not very often,” she says. “We’re constantly trying to objectively measure sex – which is a subjective experience.” And we do it by amount – “that’s actually not a great measure of our sex lives”.
Nor do the figures allow for the fact that in the many sexual seasons of an enduring partnership, times of plenty and scarcity are natural.
“Any long-term, committed relationship will have its ups and downs,” says Liz Hamlin, joint head of clinical services at Tavistock Relationships, and a couple psychoanalytic psychotherapist. “There will be times when a couple feels more connected, and there will be times when there’s emotional distance. It’s not possible to live at a particular emotional and sexual pitch for ever. There are different life stages.”
Clio Wood, 39, agrees that there’s something damaging in our cultural rhetoric, which suggests that you have to have sex once or twice a week – “And if it’s less than that, what’s wrong with you? It took me a long time to realise it isn’t always like that.”
The author of forthcoming book Get Your Mojo Back, she met her husband Bryn Snelson, 40, 14 years ago. There have been sexless times in their relationship – but dry spells are entirely normal, she says. Let’s stop pretending they aren’t. It is the reasons why they occur that merit investigation.
“At some of the best times in our relationship, we might not have sex for three months, and then we’ll have sex three times in a week,” says Wood. “Sex can be a barometer for the relationship, but it’s not the only thing you should measure. You have to listen to what your relationship is telling you.” But she also adds: “There have been some down periods and that has been reflected in our intimate life as well.”
As she says, if you’re not happy with each other, if you’re rowing, spending too much time apart or too much time together, it shows up in the bedroom.
Indeed, Hamlin says that working with couples who aren’t having sex, it’s often distressing to hear how resentment has built over the years, but they’ve tried to “get over it and move on”.
Often, people don’t realise how stifling their hurt has impacted their intimate life, and that rather than ignore their pain, “it may be more helpful to make sense of it”. Rather than get stuck in the circular arguments of “We don’t have enough sex” or “You want too much,” says Hamlin, it’s better to ask, “What is it representing, what is it communicating?”
And whatever it represents – within the relationship and without – sex does become a “big problem” when there’s a difference between partners’ desires, says Moyle. “We talk about a discrepancy. So it’s not that it’s problematic that one wants too much or too little, but that there’s a gap.”
Modern existence against us
But what comes first – metaphorically, alas – the discrepancy, or the relationship, personal or situational difficulty? Hamlin says that if there’s vast emotional distance between you, “it’s impossible to conjure up the desire for one another”.
Or there might be a specific reason – menopause, depression and antidepressants can all affect libido. The pace and cost of modern existence is against us, too. Sometimes, says Hamlin, couples work so hard to create a successful, comfortable life together – or indeed, just to fund the basics – that the fundamental of “a happy successful relationship, to be interesting and interested in your partner”, falls out of sight.
You have to actively want and work to carve out that space. It’s easier said than done. Moyle cites the idea of “switching off to turn on”. Unfortunately, “we don’t switch off enough. We all have our laptops and devices at home, and so getting into a sexual headspace – which is a different mindset – is also more difficult.”
We are also under constant pressure, often tired – shouldering mental exhaustion, not just physical weariness – so it is no surprise that, as Moyle says, “We have begun to think of sex as very hard work.”
The possible reasons that we’re unmotivated to get it on are many, “whether that’s about quality, the act of having it, it’s slipped to the bottom of our to-do list, or it’s not prioritised, or our perspective is that it takes a lot of time or effort”.
Looking for a fight
Yet to fully acknowledge this and address why, takes courage and maturity. Wood and Snelson had both, but still their relationship was tested to the limit before they took action.
The difficulty began after Wood gave birth to their first child, now seven. It was very traumatic – she suffered PTSD and postnatal depression. “It really impacted our relationship and our sex life,” she recalls.
They weren’t engaging or communicating with each other properly, she says. “I would be looking for a fight, and he would be withdrawing into himself. But then, that would explode into a big argument.”
Snelson recalls, “I felt a little bit under attack. Clio was pretty angry in that period, and by her own admission took a lot of that out on me. I took that literally – that I was the problem. That left me anxious about life in general and my self-confidence took a big knock. But,” he adds, “what she was really saying was ‘I need help here.’ I couldn’t see that, though.”
Wood knows she’d had depression on and off since her teens, but was reluctant to recognise it – and her mental state was a barrier, she says, to marital harmony. In addition, she had scarring from the birth, and a hypertonic – too-tight – pelvic floor, which meant sex was painful. “That and the depression, and the relationship, meant it was a long time before we had good fulfilling sex again,” she says.
At crisis point, they decided to seek therapy – together, and individually. It was transformative. “We are a million miles away from where we were three years ago,” says Wood. Crucially, they now understand themselves, and each other, better, and the occasional cross word isn’t taken personally.
“It’s about reading what is being meant as much as what is being said,” says Snelson. “So the communication might be sniping, but what is meant is ‘I’m not in a great place.’ That makes a world of difference, and helps us to feel better connected, which helps us like each other, and ultimately want to be intimate.”
Practical changes improved their bond – for instance, says Wood, having a date night. “Some of these things feel like treats when you should actually be doing something else like saving money or a chore on your to-do list. But that time as a couple is so important. When you do prioritise it, the difference is immense.” And of course, “The happier we are, the better the sex is.”
That rediscovery felt revelatory, says Wood, “because when you’re not having sex you forget how good it is, or how good it can be”. But, she adds, “That’s not to say you don’t revisit those other times. But that’s the point. It’s fine for there to be ups and downs, it’s fine for there to be fallow periods – because that’s what a relationship is like. It’s not a straight road.”
Five ways to escape a sex drought
Improve “sexual currency”. This is about making little bridges between partners, and is anything sexual which isn’t sex: a kiss, a hug, eye contact, flirting. Desire is more responsive than spontaneous and by improving sexual currency, we create the context in which desire can occur
Put down your phone. If you’re always scrolling, you miss cues that might have improved your intimacy – for example, one partner reaches for the other’s hand, but the other is texting
Actively prioritise quality time for the two of you. We all consider that we shouldn’t have to schedule in this part of our lives. It’s the Disney model – that love is enough, and it just happens, and actually it doesn’t. Why would it? We book in to see our friends, arrange work meetings, gym classes – why do we have a completely different attitude to this area?
Dine together at the table. We eat in front of the TV because we’re exhausted, but we’re missing opportunities to sit across from our partner, to forge a connection, to have eye contact, to talk
Don’t stress yourself further. If we’re thinking of sex as just another chore, we need to shift our mindset. And as it’s harder to go from negative to positive than vice versa, we might need to work at it. But don’t feel obliged to make huge changes. Think about what you might do that fits into your life and is manageable for you
For more, visit andbreathewellbeing.com/get-your-mojo-back