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Why Do Women in Committed Relationships Lose Sexual Desire?

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How often do you want sex? And is that enough? Not wanting enough sex is the big problem for most women who consult me as a clinical sexologist. And most sex therapists will agree that having a low level of sexual desire is a problem.  But the majority of these women are heterosexual with male partners who are – you guessed it – complaining. Lesbian couples don’t usually present with similar problems. So I guess I should say “relatively low levels of sexual desire!”

Over and over again I’ve found that moving in together does create a drop in frequency of sexual activity for all couples regardless of gender. Long distance romance remains exciting because it provides space and distance interspersed with sexy weekend liaisons. But which is “normal” – the level of desire we experience early in a relationship or what unfolds later on?

Women’s desire levels are generally lower to start with. And we don’t need decades of research to know that men usually think more about sex, fantasize more about it, work harder to get it, place more importance on it, initiate it more often, and masturbate more. What seems to ignite desire for women is the excitement and novelty of a budding new romance.

This is why couples therapist Esther Perel points out that “good intimacy doesn’t always guarantee good sex.” Her book Mating in Domesticity is a classic that I recommend to couples struggling with these issues. In it she points out that “the very elements that nurture love – reciprocity, mutuality, protection, closeness, emotional security, predictability – are sometimes the very things that stifle desire.”

Because we tend to be caregivers, women take care of our menfolk in committed relationships, much as we take care of children and pets. So these guys start to feel like a brother or worse yet a child, and sex with family members is a definite no-no in our culture. Children and pets need caregiving, which we provide as an act of love. Sexual desire requires that our lover does not need us.

Researcher Marta Meana’s recent study documents a severe decline in sexual desire among 19 married women. For some, formalizing their relationship as marriage made sex so available and so sanctioned that it lost the forbidden and erotic quality that had formerly ignited passion. For other women, overfamiliarity with their husband led to a decline in romance and in sexual experimentation, as well as a loss of  motivation to care for their appearance now that they had “hooked their man.”

A third group of women reported that holding down a job, being mom, and being a wife was overwhelming and “highly desexualizing,” making it extremely difficult to shift into romantic mode after changing diapers and fulfilling their professional roles. Many of the participants in all three groups specifically noted that while they were committed to their marriage, they thought desire would return if someone new came along who desired them.

As Meara puts it, “Women want a commitment because it signals they are uniquely desired. But once a commitment has been made, your guy is stuck and the meaning of commitment changes. In women, desire may be driven to the same extent as it is in men by novelty and excitement and a stranger thinking they are hot.”

Over and above anyone else, we are our own point of reference for how sexy we are. Feeling good about ourselves emotionally and physically appears to be a bigger mediator of female desire than men’s. This certainly bears out in my conversations with female clients.

Recently, for example, a woman told me that she no longer wanted to have sex “on top” of or astride her mate, “because my stomach sticks out and it would look terrible to him from that angle!”  He shook his head, “Honey, I probably don’t even have my eyes open … that used to be your favorite position because it felt best to you … what else could possibly matter?”

What do the rest of you think about all this?

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© Copyright 2011 by Jill Denton, MFT, CSAT, CCS, therapist in Los Osos, California. All Rights Reserved.

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  • Lynne Silva-Breen, LMFT May 15th, 2012 at 6:13 PM #1

    Great article, Jill. Was just talking about this very same issue with a couple today!

  • Anne March 10th, 2013 at 8:27 AM #2

    Great article – makes sense to me. I will definitely share this with couples I work with.

  • FreeThinker13 March 11th, 2013 at 5:52 PM #3

    I COMPLETELY agree with your article! You bring up so many great points! The following statement you made was spot on.

    “Women want a commitment because it signals they are uniquely desired. But once a commitment has been made, your guy is stuck and the meaning of commitment changes. In women, desire may be driven to the same extent as it is in men by novelty and excitement and a stranger thinking they are hot.”

    I am totally experiencing this myself at the moment and reading articles relating to this, aside from therapy, have been very therapeutic. It helps to know that you are not the only one going through a certain issue… Only in my case, I’ve lost desire not because I wanted to, but because he lost the desire first. Now it’s more exciting to me when I know another man desires me because at home I feel like I am completely undesirable.

    It’s hurtful to be rejected so many times and the only times he wants you, you have to say “no” because you are just too disconnected. Everything else is “the same” through… Very routine… And I think this is the main problem. I would however like to see more articles relating to men losing their desire as this does not only happen to women, but men as well.

  • James Finley, Phd--retired psychologist March 16th, 2013 at 5:59 PM #4

    Let’s consider another physical feel-good activity-a back rub. Receiving a rub once or twice a week would probably continue to feel good and be desired indefinitely. Giving this might get boring and tedious if it’s not reciprocal. And even if reciprocity is in place questions arise:
    Why am I not getting as good a rug as I’m giving?
    Can I tell her I don’t feel like getting/receiving a rub today?
    Wonder why he didn’t say he enjoyed it last night?
    Is she bored with me and would rather be rubbing somebody else’s back?

    Good parallel?


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