For many women, their desire doesn’t exist within a vacuum and how they feel about their partner governs how much they might like to have sex with them.
However we often tend to look inwards if our desire fades.
We blame ourselves and see it as a dysfunction that we’re not interested in sex, or look for a medical or biological explanation for why we don’t fancy it.
But, Dr Lori Brotto believes a woman’s feelings about her partner contribute more than anything else toward her levels of desire.
This includes how she feels about her partner, how much she likes or admires her partner, and what she believes about the fate of her relationship.
Esther Perel writes that our relationship health/attitude towards our partner is key to experiencing desire because:
“If the sexual experience is not something you like in and of itself, then the quality of the relationship becomes a bigger determining factor—the intimacy, the connection you feel, the closeness is a motivator to engage in sex. For those who see intrinsic value in sex, who like it in and of itself, the quality of the relationship with their partner is not the determining factor for engaging in sex”.
Desire is built on motivation, and if we are someone who engages in sex for closeness with our partner but we’re not rewarded with what we need through sex (or things feel a bit frosty and we can’t overcome that barrier to get close), our libido can dip.
The top sign that this might be an issue is if you do experience desire, being turned on and still want to self-pleasure, but the thought of doing it with your partner turns you off (or feels like a chore!).
Science shows (and we believe) there are five main things to look out for in relationships which can negatively impact on desire. Below we’ll walk you through them, and provide some tools and resources to help you on your journey to resolve any issues…
Troubles with too little intimacy:
If our relationship is lacking intimacy, it could feel like we’re starved of warmth, friendship, kindness, compromise or physical affection. We may feel taken for granted, unloved or disrespected. A lack of intimacy may also be caused by a sense of not putting in the effort, or not understanding how to best help our partners feel loved and appreciated. This can leave us feeling quite distant from our partners, when a relationship should be a sacred space protected by the both of you where you can show up, be seen and feel loved.
Interestingly, for many couples they find there is a pattern- one partner wants to have sex to feel close, the other needs to feel close before having sex. Often in heterosexual relationships this is a gendered experience- the woman requires the closeness and the man requires sex to feel close. So there’s often an impasse in their sex lives as neither partner feels their needs are being met.
The solution? Work on the intimacy. Click the toggle below to open up some tips and techniques on how to do so.
We LOVE this quote from Ursula K. Le Guin: “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new”- because it suggests that our relationships aren’t static, and that actually they do require upkeep in order to stay healthy.
A great way of thinking about it is that your relationship is a sacred space, and the idea is to be seen and to see your significant other, in order to keep the space between you clear.
AlyssaMarieWellness describes four types of intimacy which are all important to nurture in order to feel closer to your partner:
- Physical (hugging, kissing, massages, sexual touch, cuddling, proximity)
- Emotional (affirming, caring, interested in each others feelings)
- Mental (meaningful conversation, shared values and interests)
- Spiritual (respect for each others beliefs, shared purpose, nurture each others inner peace)
Below are some tips and resources around increasing intimacy you might find useful that touch on the above categories (or take some time to consider your own ideas):
- Start with a relationship health check. Pop the kettle on, and download this worksheet that uses a relationship reflection wheel to help you step back and examine your relationship overall. It’s really useful to consider what areas of your relationship are currently OK and which need work, which will act as a guide as to what to do next. You know your relationship better than anyone else
- Next, consider how you express yourselves. We each have different ways we give and express love, and we might fall into the trap of expressing love or need in the way we prefer rather than how our partner wants to receive it. Finding out your Love Language can seriously improve your relationship AND your sex life by bringing awareness to the different forms of affection, and giving you a language to talk about your needs.
- Become curious about each other again. It’s really easy to take each other for granted in a relationship (here are the top 50 signs you’re doing this). Over time we all change, and each day is an opportunity to reconnect by exploring each other. Try these 36 questions that lead to love,
- Make opportunities to be intimate. It’s so hard when we’re busy and it can feel like there’s very little time for connecting with your partner, but all good partnerships require maintenance. The Good Sex has some great resources including a free guide to date night (with over 25 ideas to try out) and a guide to creating more intimacy with 35 ways to re-establish your connection and show your partner you really care. John Gottmans’ Eight Dates to Keep Your Relationship Happy is a wonderful book with great date ideas.
- Do a random act of kindness for your partner. Investing effort not only gives you a sense of purpose and will make you feel good, but it also helps increase the love and thoughtfulness in your relationship.
- Heal. For anything around betrayal/hurt/affairs, check out the amazing work of Esther Perel.
- Be the change you want to see. When you’ve figured out what it is you need in your partnership, role model the behaviour you want to change. We have the most direct influence over ourselves and our own behaviour, so try making changes first and foremost to how you interact.
- Remember a time when you felt really in love. How did you feel? What did you think? What did you do differently than you do now? Write a list of all the reasons you love your partner, or why you fell in love with them.
- Fix the sex. Esther Perel is an amazing sex therapist, and her advice around relationship therapy shocked the therapeutic community because “her thinking went against long-established relationship wisdom”. This is because, as Perel acknowledges, she “worked with so many couples that improved dramatically in the kitchen, and it did nothing for the bedroom. But if you fix the sex, the relationship transforms.” It’s an interesting spin on what is thought to be common sense, but in fact her assertion works. If we can transform the way we relate to each other in our most intimate moments (and increase our desire to do so), the rest of the relationship is bound to come together too. Check out this post on how the quality of the sex you are having impacts on desire- and how to transform it!
- Consider tantra. Things like “soul-gazing” and other tantric concepts might also be useful here- this article has some ideas on other ways to create connection.
- Work on the conflict- 1 partner wants to have sex to feel close… (resentment usually a killer here!)
- Up the physical intimacy- it’s really easy to only have physical/sexual contact in the lead up to sex, but this can create massive issues! See this post on sex and physical intimacy in the build up for some more information. Or consider bringing into your relationship the 6 second kiss. We LOVE the Gottman method and this is their recommendation to create closeness.
- Create rituals- anything you can do to make sure the relationship has “specialness” is important. E.g. Taco Tuesdays or a morning cup of tea for time spent together.
- Work on vulnerability. Some of us can experience a fear of intimacy or vulnerability. Layla Martin creates some of her work around this idea that the more commitment, trust and intimacy grows in your relationship, the more fear we have of intimacy. Inevitably, the stakes are higher because we have more to lose if they walk away. And so, avoiding vulnerability might mean we don’t speak our truth, or be fully seen, in order to void rejection. The solution (according to Layla) is to create honesty and space with your partner where you can explore this “resistance to sex and intimacy”. Read more in this section about sex and intimacy, or check out these 13 tips to relax and surrender into sex.
Or perhaps there’s too much intimacy!
Interestingly, another issue that can arise for couples is a sense of “too much intimacy”. Here desire and attraction is stifled because there’s too much familiarity!
Esther Perel is a brilliant sex therapist who writes about this concept.
She believes that at the heart of human need are two opposite factors:
- Love is all about the need for security, caring, responsibility, dependability, closeness, predictability, safety, grounding, permanence- aka “having”
- And it’s contradiction- desire– needs mystery, adventure, risk, danger, the unknown, the unexpected, surprise, distance, intrigue and space to thrive- aka “wanting”.
And the paradox is that the more we “have” (love) someone, the less we “want” (desire) them. Because how can we want what we already have?
So it makes sense that over time, the more we perceive to “have” our partner, the less we “want” (desire) them. Which is why often in long term relationships our sex drives can dip.
Contrary to what we’re often told- although increased intimacy can help with other relationship issues, it doesn’t always mean better sex. Instead our lives can merge into a togetherness that feel suffocating- we forget our partner is their own person with dreams, desires, hopes, and is wanted by others.
These opposing forces govern our lives, and one of the hardest tasks within a relationship is to balance the two. The solution? Work on creating more space and less ownership in your relationship. Click the toggle below to open up some tips and techniques on how to do so.
“When there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to seek”– Esther Perel
The real question here is how to create separateness and closeness at the same time?
We know what nurtures love isn’t what fuels desire, so it is about considering what, for you and your relationship, increases the elements of desire.
When speaking live, Perel often asks her audience to shout out when they felt most drawn/attracted to their partners.
Most comments fall into four categories:
- when we see them ‘in their element’/or doing something competently
- as different from how we usually see them- there is a sense of mystery or the unknown
- when jealous or through the gaze of a 3rd
- when absent or there is a sense of longing (e.g. the threat of a breakup)
These four factors create want because you don’t feel like you have.
This is why we often desire our partners more when they’re public speaking or with friends or tending to an emergency.
Or why things feel so intense and your chest hurts and you just want them in a heated argument where you’ve tentatively considered “the end”.
Perel states that the secret is (*drum roll*) to learn to live with otherness.
To live like you never own each other.
To not take each other for granted.
To never assume you “have”- instead always prepare to “want”.
It’s the distance- the space between us and our issue- that fans the embers of desire.
Not sexy lingerie, dirty weekends away or that bottle of lambrini at the back of the booze cabinet.
You can watch Perel’s TED talk on desire where she discusses her take on low desire here.
Alternatively keep reading to find out how this relates to attraction (or a loss of) below, or this post on how to mix up your sex life to create more novelty.
I’ll leave you with a question from Perel herself to consider.
“Fire needs air…. are you smothering the sizzle?”.
Unresolved conflict and communication issues:
A really common reason for a lack of desire is that there is unresolved conflict bubbling away in the background.
Anger, disappointment or resentment are sure fire ways to deflate desire. If we usually want sex to feel close to our partner or we are turned on by giving pleasure and things are feeling a little frosty, it’s no wonder we’re not feeling like getting hot under the collar with our partner.
Interestingly, we find that although conflict may exist in the relationship already and CAUSE a low libido, often arguments or pressure result as an EFFECT of a mismatch in desire in the relationship- so it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.
In particular for many people, this centres around initiation of sex– the “danger zone” and pressure point of many couples. Many couples can experience a gulf that opens up between them when it comes to sex and how much they each want to experience it.
Interestingly the difficulty often doesn’t lie in the different amounts of sex you both want sex, it’s how you understand and navigate this together. These chats feel incredibly loaded because of strong emotions about the issue on both sides (shame, upset, guilt, worry, frustration, rejection, comparison, fear). Perhaps you recognise being worried about how many times you can say no before an argument starts, or your partner giving you an ultimatum about going elsewhere or breaking up about the perceived lack of sex? This might mean the sex you are (or were) having has become stressful and tied to guilt, pressure or even coercion. You might even avoid your partner all together to side step the issue if they do try to initiate sex.
Breaking this cycle and changing the way you communication can revolutionise a relationship that’s become weighed down. Click the toggle below for tips on how to communicate better and navigate conflict better.
If you’re anything like me this will be your nemesis so I hope I can share some light on what works…..
- Start with yourself! Become more intimate with yourself and your own emotions and needs through this amazing “4 Ns” exercise. Consider the models you had to learn about conflict resolution as a child (e.g. from watching your parents or other adult figures). What did you learn about how to argue? How might that have impacted on your conflict resolution style now?
- The BEST place I’d signpost you to is the Gottman method. John Gottman writes that in relationships that have become unhealthy there are four communication styles that can be really damaging– criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling. Understanding more about these (and the solutions) can be really useful.
- Organise “check-ins” together. Consider scheduling in “weekly CEO meetings” to give space to each other to connect, and circle back to anything during the week that you’d like to air. These questions are really beautiful ones to ask during this space to help both of you open up. Gottman also recommends a State of The Union meeting, which is a weekly check in for your relationship and can be INVALUABLE at created a shared sense of understanding and a container to help you argue more constructively.
- Channel Stephen R. Covey: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. This is the golden rule of communication, and the best place to start! Learning the skills of Deep Listening can be really useful to help you begin.
- Get acquainted with feelings. To gain understanding, look for emotions behind what your partner is saying. We all communicate in different ways, and sometimes our tone/words don’t match what we’re trying to convey. Look at this feelings wheel to become more emotionally literate, and remember concepts like anger often being a mask for hurt.
- Be assertive. If you aren’t being understood, repeat yourself. But vary the words, the tone, the concepts. Just because we say something doesn’t mean our partner hears, understands or agrees. So find ways of saying the same thing differently until you feel understood.
- Learn to communicate. How about doing a fun quiz night about communication style in a colours quiz (results here). Sure it’s cheesy- are you blue, green, red or yellow? But it might help you reflect on your communication styles and open up some really great areas to talk about.
- Get some tips: knowing how to talk to a partner about your sexual difficulties is really helpful. Find out more on how to talk to your partner about a low sex drive here
Loss of attraction:
This one probably isn’t rocket science. For many of us, sex requires attraction, and without this element we might feel like we just don’t fancy it (or them).
Attraction is often linked to the physical appearance of a partner, but in fact is also closely tied to our general feelings about our partner which is hugely impacted by all of the above.
It can feel a little scary, overwhelming, or even relieving, if you’ve found yourself here. Maybe you’re worried you’re not attracted to your partner, or perhaps you know you definitely aren’t.
So, now what? Click the toggle below for tips on how to increase the attraction between you…
This was kind of sort of me, and I felt so worried that this meant THE END. But I’d like to being with saying, doubts and worries are totally normal- this is a great article that normalises it. And that’s OK. Of course we’ll all go through life at times, not feeling 100% about our partners. I’d argue doubt is normal. The key thing to define here is: are your feelings are about your partners emotional or physical unattractiveness? Resentment, frustration, hurt or anger can all make our partners seem less attractive to us, whereas when we’re lighthearted, close, laughing, we might see them in their best light. I’d suggest, if it’s both, to begin with what’s going on emotionally between you and try to resolve that, before you consider your partners physical attraction, as this may change the closer you get.
- Consider increasing the intimacy: our attraction to our partner is massively dictated by how much we like them, so if things feel a bit frosty between you, or you’ve become disconnected from each other, increasing your levels of intimacy (see above) might also be useful. Begin with what’s going on emotionally between you and try to resolve that, before you consider your partners physical attraction, as this may change the closer you get.
- Increase the separation: in this article Jancee Dunn (author of How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids) recommends the following:
“Another thing Esther Perel recommended to me was next time you go to a party with your partner, keep your distance and observe them from afar. She explained that you become more drawn to your partner when you see them through other people’s eyes. When you’re in a long-term relationship, you’re accustomed to seeing your partner at their worst and you’re overly conscious of their bad habits. Seeing them at their best – dressed nicely, performing a little, using their best jokes – can act as an aphrodisiac. Sometimes the realisation that you would choose them all over again can reignite something, and put you in the mood for when you get home.”
- Work on the communication. Our attraction is also linked to how close we feel to our partners (above around communication). So melting the ice between us involved learning better conflict resolution, new ways to communicate, and reducing the space that might be the cause of or caused by my low sex drive.
- Up the thrill level! “Research on the neurochemicals has found that our sexual desire is triggered when we do something new with a long-term partner. A thrilling activity is ideal: it can give you a wash of hormones that makes you feel new to each other again.” (from this article “A strong libido and bored by monogamy”). They give examples like going on a zip wire, taking up dance lessons or going scuba diving together to help get your hormones activated and increase desire.
- You’ll also find some good tips in this Lovepanky article or this great article by Good House Keeping. about more general increasing the lust and attractiveness together
Finally there are another couple of great resources on relationships:
This book by Sharon Pope called “Stay or Go”- a fantastic free e-book that guides you through sorting out your relationship or leaving that has some great tips for resolving troubles around intimacy and communication.
Have you found any useful resources or have any great tips on relationships and how they impact on desire?
We would love to hear from you in the comments below- lets share our thoughts and help each other ↓↓↓