A couple concerned about the lack of sexual desire and activity in their relationship, came to see me for a consultation. They had been living together for two years, loved each other and had no problem being affectionate. Sex, however, seemed to have fallen by the wayside after the first year. The couple had been avoiding the issue, but once it was raised, they realized they needed help.
I offer this example because the couple happens to be heterosexual.
What is Lesbian Bed Death?
Lesbian bed death is a term coined by sociologist, Pepper Schwartz in her book, American Couples (1983). Although her methodology was challenged and her results questioned, the term Lesbian Bed Death became a catchphrase that is still used today.
Does Lesbian Bed Death Really Exist?
Lesbian Bed Death is a misnomer, if not a myth. While diminished sexual activity is an issue lesbian couples discuss in treatment, gay and heterosexual couples do so with the same frequency.
I have seen lesbians in long-term relationships who continue to engage in sexual activity and heterosexual couples who stopped having sex after a few years into a marriage. I’ve seen gay male couples who lost interest in sex with their partners and those that continued being sexual after being together for many years.
One difference I have experienced between these three groups is that male couples have been more likely to suggest opening the relationship to include sex with other men. I have not yet seen lesbian or heterosexual couples who have proposed this as an option.
Why do Some Couples Stop Having Sex?
There are a number of reasons couples stop having sex.
Difficulties in communicating can impact the relationship in many ways, sex being one of them. If the couple is experiencing problems in other areas and cannot resolve the issues through talking, anger and resentment will build. These feelings can and often do impact a couples’ sexual intimacy.
Fighting, blaming, and criticizing each other will block the couple from opening up and being vulnerable. Feeling self-protective doesn’t allow for sexual intimacy.
Merging is another factor that can lead to diminished sexual activity. Many people confuse intimacy with merging. The difference is that intimacy requires two people who are independent and have their own feelings, thoughts, interests, and needs. It requires each partner to respect and accept the other’s differences.
Merging doesn’t allow for differences and separateness. Differences are seen as threatening. Need for time alone, time with friends, opposing opinions, different likes and dislikes may be felt as abandonment. There is no room for the partners to be separate distinct individuals in the relationship. Merging can kill sexual desire as sex requires two separate individuals. Merging can make sex feel too incestuous.
Sometimes, sex can fall by the wayside if couples allow other activities, chores, socializing and mundane tasks to get in the way. If sex isn’t a priority; if it isn’t seen as necessary and important, it will diminish over time. Avoidance of sexual problems or issues will not resolve them. Instead, sex will die out.
Health concerns and menopause can be a factor. Hormonal changes, a waning sex drive, and depression can add to lack of sexual activity. It is important to address these issues when they arise as a couple. It may be difficult to accept these changes especially if a couples’ sex life was a constant and enjoyable component of their relationship. Sex doesn’t have to end, but changes need to be accepted in order to get past this obstacle.
Past sexual abuse can be another causal factor leading to difficulties in present sexual relationships. Partners need to work on this issue together. This takes patience and understanding on the part of each individual.
What You Can Do About It
Couple therapy can be extremely beneficial—the earlier, the better. When it becomes clear that discussing these issues together does not lead to a resolution, it’s time to seek help. Often, couples wait until the problem becomes intolerable before turning to a therapist. Unfortunately, by this time, there may be so much anger, resentment, rejection and hurt that couples may break up.
When sexual abuse exists in a partner’s past, therapy—both individual and couple–can be tremendously helpful. Individual therapy can help by exploring what happened, the feelings around it, and the effect it may have on the current relationship. Couple therapy can be useful to help each partner learn how the abuse impacts their intimate relationship. It can also provide tools to improve it.
In general, I would advise couples who notice changes in intimacy–whether it be sexual or otherwise–to talk to each other. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, seek help.
Don’t avoid talking about sex.
Make time to be intimate. Be sensual with each other if sex feels too problematic or threatening.
Plan a sex date. Make sex as important as any other activity you and your partner do together.
Be aware if you are using excuses like being too busy or too tired to avoid sex.
Experiment with sex. Novelty can be exciting. Know your own body and what you like. Find out what your partner likes. Adopt an attitude of non-judgmental exploration.
Don’t avoid problematic areas of your relationship, sexual or otherwise.
Resolve issues. Don’t let them fester.
Recognize when you need help and discuss it with your partner. Make a plan of how to deal with problematic issues together.