Why doesn’t your husband want to have sex?
Contrary to conventional wisdom, sometimes it’s men who first lose sexual desire in a long-term relationship, a new study finds.
Men’s desire for sex can be as tricky as women’s, according to researchers at the University of Kentucky. Men often lose interest when they feel insecure, when they worry they are losing autonomy in a relationship, or when physical changes cause embarrassment. Pressure to be the initiator compounds the stress.
“We expect male desire to always be high and to be simple, like an on and off switch, while we expect women’s desire to be a complicated switchboard, but they are both complex,” says Kristen P. Mark, associate professor of health promotion and director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab at the University of Kentucky and the lead researcher on the project, a broad look at men and women that analysed 64 studies on sexual desire conducted since the 1950s.
Psychologists say desire in both sexes ebbs and flows. And it’s natural for it to decline after the heady honeymoon period, which typically lasts about 18 months to two years. Still, almost 80 per cent of married couples have sex a few times a month or more: 32 per cent reported having sex two to three times a week; 47 per cent reported having sex a few times a month, according to The Social Organisation of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States, a 1994 University of Chicago study considered the most comprehensive in the field.
Women do lose desire more often than men: research shows that about one in three women — regardless of age — reports a lack of interest in sex for at least several months in the past year, compared with one in five men, according to Edward Laumann, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, who has studied sexual desire and dysfunction for 25 years. But experts say that men are often reluctant to talk about sexual troubles, so the problem may be more prevalent.
Mark’s research, published in March in the Journal of Sex Research, found that the reasons for a drop in desire generally fitted into three main categories — individual, interpersonal and societal. Some issues, such as stress, a drop in self-esteem or changes in their attraction to their partner, affect both men and women.
But men’s desire also wanes for different reasons. Men have trouble when they expect their desire to always remain high and it does not, or when they fail to make their relationship a priority. Sometimes men’s desire drops when a couple has sex for negative reasons — to avoid a fight, for example — rather than positive ones, such as to increase intimacy. Men also feel pressure to always be ready for sex and to initiate it.
There are often physical issues, as well. A man’s less-efficient bloodflow as he ages, diseases such as depression or medicines for issues such as high blood pressure or mood disorders can all hurt a man’s sex drive.
And these physical changes can cause emotional distress. Embarrassment is a big issue for men who have trouble getting or maintaining an erection, and so they may stop initiating sex. “For the guys who don’t like to do what they don’t do well, there will be avoidance, because they feel ashamed,” says Michael A. Perelman, co-director of Weill Cornell Medicine’s Human Sexuality Program.
Unlike women, men often lose interest in sex when they are unhappy or insecure, Laumann says. Stress about a promotion, worry about a child, the transition to retirement “all undercut a man’s sense of his abilities and prowess”, he says.
And sometimes the problem does stem from the relationship. Sex can become routine in a long-term marriage, or partners grow apart. A man may harbour resentments, often about money. Or he may de-eroticise his wife. “He sees her as a good person, mother, supporter, but not as an exciting lover,” says Barry McCarthy, a psychology professor at American University.
Is the relationship doomed when a man — or a woman, for that matter — loses interest in sex? Not necessarily. But it’s definitely a signal that you need to evaluate what is going on. And there is the possibility that a decrease in desire for your partner may indicate that the person is no longer right for you, says Gurit Birnbaum, a social psychologist and associate professor of psychology at the Interdisciplinary Centre, a private university in Herzliya, Israel. You may have grown too far apart, or your goals, values or interests may have changed. “Your body may be telling you something,” she says.
But often the problems can be solved. This will require talking, the experts say, and it’s important to do that before it is too late. “A relationship becomes more fragile when it loses its sex aspect,” says Birnbaum.
Start by having a conversation outside of a sexual situation — go for a walk or have a glass of wine. Tell your spouse you miss having sex rather than criticising. Both partners should ease pressure by accepting that men, not just women, don’t want sex all the time. “Approaching hard conversations by being vulnerable upfront automatically creates a safer environment for a tough talk,” says Mark.