Ask A Therapist: Why Don't I Want Sex With My Boyfriend Anymore?

photographed by Erika Bowes.
Ever wondered what you'd say to a therapist, given the chance? We asked a cognitive analytic therapist with over 30 years' clinical experience for advice on the things we worry about in private.
Question:
I have had little to no sex drive in over 12 months, and though I am currently having tests to rule out oestrogen issues, I am almost certain it is an issue of the mind. Which is sad, because it feels like something that can’t be easily 'fixed'.
I am in a long-term relationship (three years), and we have lived together for half of that. We had a healthy, passionate sex life for almost two years, and both felt satisfied. I was very active previous to this partner, and felt confident in my sexuality.
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My sex drive slowed gradually, and initially, I put it down to living together and work stress. Now I feel more comfortable and stable in my job than ever, but my sex drive is still non-existent. It feels like a void. I have lost my sense of sexuality, identity and desires. I worried at first that I was falling out of love with my boyfriend, but actually, I don’t feel sexual desire for anyone.
It has been upsetting for him, and it took a while to regain his trust as he felt I wasn’t attracted to him. He has been patient and has tried hard to understand (something which even I don’t understand). If we have sex once a week, that’s a good month, but we can go up to a month at a time. I have felt so sad about it for so long. Every other part of our relationship is perfect, strangers have stopped us in the street to tell us how in love we look!
I dread evenings and weekends because I know that my boyfriend will want to have sex, but I might not be able to. I 'close up' mentally at the thought, before we’re even together. Then, if he tries to initiate, I feel pestered and am almost repulsed. If I let it happen, I do enjoy it (is the enjoyment just relief?) but I don’t feel 'turned on' or sexy.
I know that over time we will overcome this, but at the moment, my mind and thoughts feel like a barrier to getting better.
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Answer:
This is such an individual problem and yet so common. Each person's sexuality will have its own context. It is a difficult subject because generalisation is not helpful. By now I hope your medical tests will be over and I shall assume, as you suggest, that it is "an issue of the mind".
Freud wrote: "Where they love they do not desire and where they desire they cannot love." Whatever your feelings about this statement, it sounds as if it might resonate with you. Despite all your efforts and wishes, you cannot get desire going in your head. You feel so sad about it, because you have not consciously changed, it is more likely your unconscious that has changed and is responding by powering down, causing upset, and then switching off. I can only wonder about the causes for this. Three years is a long-term relationship, and the sexual connection may well be much more emotional than physical at this point. You live together; I don't know your age, are there plans for a baby? What are your intentions towards each other? Are there things to say that cannot be said between you? How do you negotiate the things between you in your otherwise "perfect" relationship? How much has the "in love" look been damaged by your "dread" of spending time with your boyfriend who can also "pester" and "repulse" you? Can you talk about this together? Can you ask yourself some questions about being "turned on"? You will have lots of history to draw on about what made you feel "sexy" in the past.
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Sex drive, or libido, has been the subject of much research and speculation. There is no specified definition of female desire and certainly no clear understanding of how it works. It may be that it is affected by the menstrual cycle, that there are patterns, but in our modern Western society, reproduction and sexual desire have become separated and now the biological component is only a part of the whole picture. It is now understood, according to Sari Van Anders, an associate professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Michigan, that "hormones have such small – if any – influence on desire". Van Anders also guesses that "desire depends on the context, the person, the time of their life, relationship factors and who's available."
Studies do confirm that desire is not static; that in long-term relationships it does tend to diminish. Why might that happen? Relationships suffer from ordinariness, domesticity, exhaustion, stress and busyness. Loss of desire happens to men for the same reasons. Some people use Viagra to help and there is some evidence emerging that mindfulness has a place too. Often, distress about lack of libido is caused by the partner who has higher levels of desire and makes the other person in the relationship explain it and feel bad about it. Having sex out of guilt and obligation makes it a dreaded chore, but there are ways to have sex where one pleasures the other, which could take the pressure off your active enjoyment. Meditation may help you to be more present rather than distracted by other thoughts that reinforce the concerns about judgement and disappointment.
Studies have shown that 50% of women report a return of desire when the problem outside of the bedroom can be identified and resolved. The imperfections between you and your boyfriend may well be the key to the problem. Difference and lack of synchronicity could actually make things more interesting between you. At the moment it feels like the situation has caused insecurity and doubts in you both and a bit of a deadlock in how to go forward. That may be because you are both sad and grieving what was once perfect and is now not, and this is the first hurdle of the otherwise "perfect" love. The problem is not just yours, it is between you and about your relationship. Couples' therapy would be worth considering.
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