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Why Does the Sex Dry Up in Most Long-Term Relationships? (And What to do About It)

Many men and women in long-term relationships are unhappy with the frequency they have sex. How can couples re-sync their desires?

According to a report in the March issue of The Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 54 percent of men and 42 percent of women are unhappy with the frequency of sex in their long-term relationships. A prime reason that couples go out of sync sexually lies in the brain’s reward circuitry. It’s a set of mechanisms that work together to drive all motivation, libido, appetite, and—when out of kilter—addiction. Therefore, it governs your attraction (or lack thereof) to each other between the sheets. It works subconsciously, which is why neither of you can will yourself to enjoy sex if the magic isn’t happening.

Your reward circuitry drives you by promising satisfaction using strategic surges of dopamine, the “go-get-it” neurochemical. But when no dopamine surges in the brain, it’s like the accelerator is not connected to the throttle. When it’s time for sex, going through the motions gets you nowhere or requires a lot of effort. Very disheartening.

Instead of taking your mate’s unresponsiveness personally, keep in mind that both libido and lack of libido play into our genes’ strategy for propelling themselves into future generations. After all, when are we most likely to spread genes around? When we’re sexually dissatisfied in an existing relationship. Obviously, this is more likely after lovers have exhausted their one-time booster shot of fiery honeymoon neurochemistry.

Precisely how does this sneaky gene-spreading program put couples out of sync? Let’s say things are cooling, so you and your beloved act out a sexual fantasy or try a sizzling foreplay technique. Briefly, you recapture some of the drug-like buzz that effortlessly sustained your early sex lives—when you were jacked up on Mother Nature’s surplus neurochemicals.


But here’s the sinister bit: intense stimulation appears to have the power to trigger lingering changes that can leave some brains more dissatisfied soon afterward—and other brains desperately wanting time to recover . Said one husband:

I was going on the assumption that if she could just enjoy sex more, i.e., have more orgasms, we would have sex more often and my needs would be better satisfied. So, I was always trying to give her a good pounding. Instead she moved out of our bedroom.

It took years before they restored the harmony in their marriage.

Sexual frustration is stressful. But chances are you aren’t suffering alone. One woman explained:

“Regular” sex was always something that seemed to have to escalate in order for it not to become boring. “Let’s see, if I wear these crotchless panties, that will excite him” or “I guess we could have anal because that would be different,” etc. What usually ends up happening (if you have ever been married a long time or know people who have been) is that the wife starts withholding sex. Why? Because she has an innate fear that if she continues to escalate what they do to “alleviate the boredom,” then eventually, he’s still going to get bored. What do you do after you’ve done it swinging from the chandelier? You are out of ideas, and you no longer seem “fresh” [exciting] to your husband.

Incidentally, about 13 percent of long-term couples seem impervious to this phenomenon. But that leaves the vast majority floundering in the habituation swamp.

Bad News for Lovers

Before evaluating possible coping strategies, it’s helpful to know why intense stimulation promotes discontent despite its short-term solution. There’s much still to learn, but it looks like a variety of changes in the reward circuitry temporarily dampen the pleasure response after climax.

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