People in long-term relationships often lament that their sex life isn’t what it once was. Whereas at first they couldn’t keep their hands off each other, several years later they’d rather be sleeping or watching TV than getting busy in the bedroom. A Vancouver sexual-health expert is leading a study to find out why.
“Based on what we know so far and what’s been written on the subject, desire is highest at the start of a relationship, when mystery, romance, and chance-taking are at their highest,” says Lori Brotto, head of the UBC Sexual Health Laboratory, by phone. “With time, what you gain with security and stability you give up in terms of eroticism. There’s an inverse correlation: the more stable and secure you are, the more you relinquish the very thing that ignited your desire.”¦That’s why you’ll see 60-year-old women in brand-new relationships who are horny again.”
Brotto says the impetus for the study can be traced directly to her clinical work.
“Lack of interest is the most common complaint I see in the clinic,” explains Brotto, who’s an assistant professor in UBC’s department of obstetrics and gynecology and a registered clinical psychologist.
That gripe is most prevalent in two groups, she notes: new parents in their 30s trying to juggle family and work commitments, and couples in their 50s, 60s, and older who have been married for a long time.
Lack of lust can be caused by a range of factors: sexual dysfunction or disorder, depression, sleep deprivation, loss of attraction to one’s partner, or emotions such as anger directed toward a partner. (The study is still recruiting participants, who must be fluent in English and have been living with their partner for at least five years. An online questionnaire will be available until mid January.)
Hormonal changes and imbalances are also frequently blamed for decreased sexual drive, Brotto explains, so much so that there’s a popular but false notion that women can cure low libido by wearing a testosterone patch.
“Don’t be so quick to assume it’s hormones,” Brotto says. “There are hazards involved in taking hormones, and assessment is done on a case-by-case basis. The fact is, there isn’t a Health Canada–approved medication—hormonal or not—for women with sexual problems.”¦We live in a quick-fix society, and a lot of people don’t want to work at things. They’d rather take a pill to make their problems go away.”
Brotto also cautions against what she calls the “overpathologization” of normal experiences, something that occurs all too often in medical circles.
“I’m very sensitive to the potential for diagnosing when it’s not warranted,” says Brotto, who is a member of the sexual- and gender-identity disorders work group for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the authoritative psychiatric guide, the fifth edition of which will be published in 2013. “Our belief is that it [diminishing desire] is quite a normative process.”
Even if a lack of interest is normal, that doesn’t mean you have to accept it, she notes. There are things you can do to reignite desire, whether it’s as simple as scheduling regular dates with your partner or bringing risk taking back into the relationship if that was once part of the fun: say, doing it outdoors or at the office.
And there’s good reason to keep your sex life a priority: besides the obvious feel-good factor, sex has tremendous physical and emotional health benefits.
“It’s highly correlated with relationship satisfaction,” Brotto says.
Three large-scale studies—the 1999 U.S. National Health and Social Life Study, the 2005 Global Study of Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors, and Britain’s 2000 National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles—showed that sexual dysfunction is associated with poor health. As well, a 2007 New England Journal of Medicine study showed that sexuality is closely linked to health at older ages.
David McKenzie, a Vancouver sex therapist and registered clinical counsellor, has some suggestions for long-term couples wanting to turn up the heat. It starts with a simple step: spend time apart.
He refers to the book Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic (HarperCollins, 2006) to back up his point. The author, New York psychotherapist Esther Perel, argued that habit, certainty, and continuity extinguish desire, and that individuals need to cultivate autonomy in their unions.
“Her thesis was that too much intimacy, too much physical closeness kills passion,” McKenzie says in a phone interview. “So couples who are always texting each other or who have lunch together or who work and live in the same space might have limited passion. There has to be a healthy distance; each partner has to have a life of his or her own. There’s truth to those sayings ”˜Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ and ”˜Familiarity breeds contempt’.”¦You don’t want to be so enmeshed that you can’t see each other anymore.”
McKenzie, who offers a workshop called Hot Monogamy, says that once the sense of companionship strengthens, it gets harder for couples to have sexual variety.
He suggests role-playing, wearing seductive clothing, and exploring fantasies like threesomes or being blindfolded as some of the ways to rekindle the spark.
“Attraction plus obstacle equals excitement,” McKenzie says. “If you’re secure in a relationship, don’t be afraid to try risqué things.”