Sex & Relationships

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.

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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 responseafter climax.

For example, androgen receptors in the brain decline after ejaculation, and may take up to seven days to normalize. (That means the effects of testosterone may be blunted for a while, affecting zest.) Opioids released during copulation hang around for a while—apparently causing lingering declines in oxytocin, which hamper sexual responsiveness.

There is also likely a drop in sensitivityto dopamine—that neurochemical vital to our sense of well-being and desire. (Researchers have already recorded this drop following heavy gambling, gaming, and consumption of fattening foods, so it’s likely that too much exciting sexual stimulation also numbs the pleasure response of some brains.)

Whatever the precise mechanisms, the brain changes subtly after orgasm, and any decrease in responsiveness is bad news for lovers. Now, libido tends to go in divergent directions—simply because people experience the return to homeostasis differently following an orgasmic neurochemical wallop.

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Some folks are satiated, and simply uninterested in sex until their brains return to their natural sensitivity. Then, orgasm once again registers as a great idea.

Some want more sex (or more beer, or more something) soon afterward. This happens because their reward circuitry is somewhat numbed, and has left them restless or anxious, and wanting. Chances are they also need more stimulation than before to produce the same pleasure response.

This pesky dissatisfaction mechanism may have evolved, in part, to urge us to binge when a potential genetic opportunity is around (to assure fertilization). Above all, it increases the odds that we find novel mates especially alluring (the Coolidge Effect).

Chances are good that this mechanism is related (physiologically) to the addiction cycle. After all, the reward circuit is also the prime player in all addictions. Dopamine and dopamine receptors are implicated in both sex and addiction.

Could intense sexual stimulation be, in effect, a mini drug trip? A Dutch scientist once commented that the brain scans of men ejaculating reminded him of brain scans of a heroin rush. It’s plausible that intense sexual stimulation produces, in some brains, a mini withdrawal period, during which cravings for more stimulation are particularly intense. A “chaser effect,” if you will.

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Brains certainly respond in different ways to intense stimuli. For example, people have varied reactions to recreational drugs, and the reasons are not well understood. Perhaps couples who don’t habituate sexually are more in tune because of genetic make-up.

The point is that great sex can actually leave some of us needier than usual, craving additional proofs of our mate’s love—on our terms. Or it can leave us somewhat apathetic toward a mate because our brain isn’t registering subtler sources of pleasure, such as affection and close companionship. Either way, we may crave very stimulating or novel sex (or porn) so we can raise dopamine levels in our brain and feel good again, even if it makes our urges even more demanding subsequently.

Bottom line: Unless your brains both happen to be on the same schedule, your love life can go out of sync. When your mate rebuffs your advances, it may seem like she doesn’t care enough to ease your distress. Conversely, it may seem to her like all you care about is “getting some.”

Obviously, sometimes gender roles are reversed. Either way, you could suddenly be seeing the worst in each other, and, perhaps, doubting each other’s devotion—all because mindless, primitive bits of your reward circuitry are bleeping imperfectly matched impulses during the return to equilibrium. Bummer. Meanwhile, the grass may look greener just about anywhere else.

Outsmarting Biology

You now understand how lots of great sex can subtly cause your brain to demand more and more jollies—just at the time when your partner may feel the need for a recovery period of soothing affection…only. Or worse yet, “space.” What do you do?

Obviously, this is not a new challenge. The curse of sexual stimulation leading to desensitization and discontent is as old as humanity. Two thousand years ago, Roman poet Ovid cynically advised the following cure for love: “Enjoy your girl with complete abandon, night and day—and loathing will end your malady.”

Some couples beg, bicker, and develop headaches. Some negotiate date nights and sexual favors. Some take jobs in different cities, so their brains have time to return to balance. Said one man,

I once worked in a remote fly-in fly-out job, two weeks on, two weeks off. As a result, my wife and I enjoyed the best sex life of our marriage. The homecoming was a moment to be savored, especially whenever I caught the flight that got me home before the kids got home from school. But we also savored the moment of departure two weeks later. As she said, “I like it when you get home, and I like it when you go away.”

Sadly, after he stopped traveling they divorced. Other couples try to even out differences in libido with solo sex, using today’s hyperstimulating sex toys and Internet erotica. That’s logical, but as explained above, too much stimulation can sometimes backfire.

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Another logical strategy is to try to negotiate a middle ground. Fairness is good, but it may not restore mutual desire if you need more timeto return your brains to ideal sensitivity.

Interestingly, sages across the globe have also developed little known techniques for managing sex to keep lovers in balance and sustain the harmony in their unions. Kosher sex, for example, prescribes almost two weeks a month in separate beds while couples restore their magnetism.

In contrast, methods such as gentle tantra, karezza, and dual cultivation call for frequent lovemaking without the emphasis on orgasm. Such strategies foster harmony by helping couples retain their neurochemical sensitivity to the nuances and bonding power of warm affection. The results can be deeper contentment and less sexual frustration.

Whatever strategy you adopt, remember that any lack of enthusiasm for sex on the part of your mate is probably as involuntary as your single-minded desire for more sex. You two may simply be suffering from the mismatched effects of some sleepy nerve cell receptors. By understanding what’s really going on and working together, you can tiptoe around your genes’ underlying goals for your love life.

Gary Wilson has taught human sciences for many years. His wife Marnia is the author of Cupid's Poisoned Arrow: From Habit to Harmony in Sexual Relationships.
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