These Are 5 Main Reasons Couples Stop Having Sex
If you’re going through a dry spell, you need to read this.
The first time I laid eyes on Debbie, I was gobsmacked: golden hair, full lips, perfect body beneath a lemon-yellow summer dress.
Until that moment, I’d thought love at first sight was Disney propaganda. But the idea struck without warning: Marrying this woman would make my life perfect.
Seduction didn’t work, so I took pleasure in verbal jousts, a couple of grad students teasing and laughing. Months of this. Her sense of humor was as wondrous as her looks. We slowly morphed into friends without benefits.
Nearly a year after our first encounter, she mailed me a photo of her topless by a swimming pool. She’d started having dreams about me, her note said.
We were married within the year. Now my life was indeed perfect, the sex a nonstop wet dream from which I hoped never to wake up.
Eventually, of course, I did wake up.
We’ve all heard that old chestnut: If you put a bean into a jar every time you have sex your first year of marriage, then take a bean out every time thereafter, the jar will never be empty.
Scientific validation for this is sketchy, but people who study long-married folks—and long-married folks themselves—agree: Chances are, you’ll be getting less as the years wear on.
Sex-Life Killer: Your Past
Walking around with our Pleistocene-epoch genes can be tough, especially on a college campus.
“The average college freshman sees more attractive females in a single day than our hominid ancestors saw in an entire lifetime,” says UT Austin psychology professor David Buss, Ph.D.
Combine this with social media and dating apps, and mate choice seems limitless.
Willoughby, an assistant professor at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life, says today’s 20-somethings are showing anxiety, “terrified about making a mistake. There’s this pressure to pick the perfect person who will make them happy and fulfilled for the remainder of their lives.”
So sow your wild oats and get it out of your system, right? Maybe not.
Willoughby’s research has found that the more premarriage partners people have, the lower the sexual quality, communication, and relationship stability is during marriage.
Possible reasons: The more relationships you’ve had, the easier it is to cut and run; skills like communication and compromise aren’t developed.
This can lead to the “comparison effect.” If you were once a player, “it’s easy to compare in your mind all these previous experiences you’ve had,” he says.
This sense of missing out can erode sexual satisfaction with your long-term partner. Plus, we’re living unimaginably longer than our ancestors did.
“Even 200 years ago,” Buehler says, “people married young, had kids young, and were dead by the time they hit 40. Today, we’re outliving the natural life of our hormones.”
Modern men can procreate decades longer. Or pretend they can.
Which brings us to the cast of thousands of imaginary partners in today’s pornography. This may affect marital relations—a bit.
“We do have enough research now to suggest a weak negative relationship between viewing pornography and relational and marital sexual satisfaction,” Willoughby says. “It’s not strong, but it’s there.”
The negative tug, so to speak: It’s about expectations.
The porn star is “willing to do anything and everything the male partner wants her to, and taking great pleasure in doing so,” Willoughby says. “After watching all these clips, he starts thinking, ‘Gosh, why is my wife not in the mood? Why is she saying she’s too tired or she had a long day?’”
Sex-Life Killer: Your Kids
“Kids are the most effective libido squashers I know of,” says Alman.
Wee ones have a tendency to hang on to their caregivers like monkeys, providing so much physical touch that the last thing you want is more groping from a partner.
Touch, notes Fisher, releases oxytocin, further bonding parent to child while temporarily suppressing dopamine and libido. Breastfeeding and general exhaustion can further deplete desire.
In one study, Laumann surveyed women in their 20s about their desire for sex.
In those without children under six, 34 percent reported no interest; in those with kids, the number soared to more than 95 percent.
A man may find himself at the end of the queue for affection. It’s easy for him to feel unappreciated and even a smidge resentful, says Alman.
Buehler says it’s not surprising “that couples with children under age 5 have the least sex and report more sexual dissatisfaction than any other group.”
The recent trend toward delaying pregnancy may further exacerbate all this, Buehler says—obviously, parents in their 30s and 40s are not as energetic as they once were.
Sex-Life Killer: Stress
If both partners work, finding time to be intimate can be hard.
In a time crunch, sex may not be a priority, a study in the Journal of Marriage and Family reports. Different shifts, child care, aging parents: These stressors can trigger a cascading hormonal response that can affect libido.
But even couples who aren’t growing to resent each other can gravitate toward sexlessness.
“Sex can be a lot of work,” Alman says. “The woman may feel she has to shave her legs, she may need a long time to orgasm—there’s a lot of stuff involved, and sometimes the payoff just isn’t worth it.
Sometimes she thinks, ‘My vibrator can get me off a lot quicker,’ and he thinks, ‘I can sit and watch porn and get just as hot and feel just as satisfied.’”
Another huge bedroom buzzkill: A whopping 11 percent of Americans take antidepressant medications.
Alas, research shows that these drugs can cause and worsen many forms of sexual dysfunction, from fading libido to the inability to climax to “emotional blunting.”
Though these medications can smooth out the emotional lows, they also seem to cap the highs, putting the brakes on sexual excitement, passion, and maybe even love.
Sex-Life Killer: Comparisons
If you’re thinking about leaving this article on your wife’s nightstand, hold off.
Take a moment: Is anything truly broken?
If both of you are okay with your sexual frequency, be it nonstop, middling, low, or none, then from Alman’s point of view there really is no problem.
“If you’re happy and your partner is happy, those are the only votes that count,” she says.
Yeah, right. In our sexualized culture, it’s easy to think you’re pathological or at least an oddball.
“The reality is that more couples live happy lives, even with no sex between them, than most people would imagine,” adds Alman.
Even sexually active couples should resist the urge to compare. When researchers at the University of Colorado asked more than 15,000 people about their sex lives, they did find a link between sexual frequency and happiness.
But that happiness was relative: If people knew their peers were having more sex than they were, their happiness dipped.
“Many people just assume that everyone else is having fantastic sex five nights a week while they’re lucky to get it on their birthday,” says Alman. “A lot of what I do as a therapist is letting couples know what’s what: No, not everyone is having better sex than you are. No, not everyone has a bigger penis. People can be really adept at making themselves unnecessarily miserable.”
Sex-Life Killer: Mismatches
Discord often has less to do with frequency than with a discrepancy between how often each partner wants it. A partner who is feeling sex-deprived can wonder if a mate’s lack of interest is evidence that the love is gone.
Both partners should acknowledge that dry spells happen.
“It is completely normal for a couple’s sex life to have peaks and troughs,” says Buehler. “The important thing is to discuss the troughs. Do you both understand why sexual frequency has slid—the birth of a child, perhaps, or the illness of a parent? If so, accept it and make a pledge to get back on track when the period of extra strain has passed.”
Clients roll their eyes at one of Buehler’s suggestions for kickstarting sex: scheduling it. “They resist the hell out of doing this because they want to be ’spontaneous.’ I say good luck with that.”
Tamar Krishnamurti, Ph.D., of Carnegie Mellon University, adds a cautionary codicil to such counsel, which has become a staple of sex therapy.
In a 2015 study, she and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon split 128 married men and women into two groups and told one group to double their weekly frequency.
Not only did doubling sex fail to make affected couples happier, it led to a small decline in their happiness. They also reported a decline in both sexual desire and enjoyment.
When sex becomes a homework assignment, it can quickly lose its luster—a phenomenon that’s well documented in infertile couples who are forced into sex-on-demand dictated by the ovulatory cycle.
It’s better to plan to share pleasurable experiences with your partner without necessarily making intercourse the goal.
“Our desire to initiate sex itself diminishes more quickly than our capacity for pleasure,” Krishnamurti explains. “Focusing on creating pleasurable experiences may allow an increase in sexual intercourse frequency to happen more naturally.”
Alman adds: “Sex doesn’t always have to equal penis-in-vagina intercourse. Cuddling, kissing, rubbing against each other in ways that are pleasurable and can result in orgasm to either or both, or maybe no orgasm but certainly pleasure. Aren’t these sex too? In my book they are.” And don’t discount the power of affectionate touch.
One study found that the more cuddling, kissing on the lips, and hugging couples engaged in, the more easily they were able to resolve their conflicts.