“Why don’t we have sex anymore? We used to be all over each other”, John said in his first couples therapy session with his wife, Anna.
Or “I thought when the kids left the house and we became empty nesters we’d get back to having sex more frequently. It just hasn’t happened”, said Gene as he described part of his dissatisfaction with his marriage of 33 years.
The most common answer, though, is that sex just fades away due to all the other tasks of life.
“I’m so exhausted at the end of the day, all I can do is collapse into bed”.
“I don’t ever think about sex because I’m so busy thinking about work, the upset with my boss, making lunches for the kids, getting them to practices on time, grocery shopping…”
The genuine, although dissatisfying answer to the question of why couples stop having sex is, “For many many varied reasons.”
Answers like, one or both of them is exhausted by some combination of work, kids, aging parents or global political unrest. Or, one of them is sick, recovering from being very sick, maybe in ways that change their relationship with their bodies as a sexual place to live – menopause, cancer of the reproductive tract or prostate are classic examples.
Dr. Emily Nagoski, sex educator and author of the book Come as You Are, reminds us that, “Your sexual brain has an “accelerator” that responds to sexual stimulation, but it also has “brakes”, which respond to all the very good reasons not to be turned on”.
So, if there are an infinite number of reasons why couples stop having sex, we need to ask a different question…
Why DO couples have sex?
The answer, according to the research, is couples have sex because they prioritize sex.
You see, sex is not a drive, as many of us were taught to believe.
A drive is something like thirst or hunger. It’s necessary to survive and so our brains are wired to make sure we seek water and food.
Sex is not wired in the brain the same way as these drives, which is important to understand because then you can get rid of that outdated programming in your mind and make way for the new information!
The brain is wired for sex with a dual control system. This dual control system consists of an accelerator and brakes. And this is not a metaphor! This is actually how our brains are wired! (I geek out over this neurobiology stuff!)
So, if you are going to prioritize sex, it means attending to and decreasing all the stuff that is hitting your brakes in such a way that the accelerators can kick in and do their thing.
Accelerators are things like; lingerie, toys, porn, candles, anticipation etc.
Brakes are usually made up of some combination of these three elements:
Stress: Our lives are filled with stressful events, both positive and negative stress. We can’t just wish it away or talk ourselves out of feeling stress. We have to actively help our bodies move through and complete the stress cycle. And I’m not talking about bubble baths, spa days, and hours and hours on the golf course – though if those things help you, do them. I’m talking about identifying the stress itself and your response to the stress as two separate things. Some stressors you can control and many you cannot, but you can always help yourself move through the stress cycle. How? By attending to the physiological response your body has to stress, regardless of what the stressor is. Physical activity, breathing exercises, crying, positive social interactions, laughter, affection, and creative expression are 7 key elements for helping your body complete the stress cycle.
Relationship Issues: Sex and feeling sexy is easily accessed in the early days and months of a relationship. There are lots of accelerators and few brakes engaged. Over the years, without strong relationship skills, resentments build up, conflict is not skillfully handled and more and more brakes are engaged. Addressing these issues and opening ourselves up to pleasure with our partners is key to helping you prioritize sex together.
Believing your sex drive will kick in: As I said above, sex isn’t coded in the brain as a drive. So, waiting for it to kick in and have a rush of horny thoughts and feelings overtake you, isn’t a good plan. Instead, intentionally being willing to seek pleasure is the foundation of reigniting your sexual life, together or alone! Willingness to experiment and try some intimate contact. That might look like laying side by side on the bed together, at whatever level of undress you are open to, and simply touch each other because it feels good. You can even agree ahead of time (I encourage this for many of my clients) that you will not have sex. No pressure to perform allowed! Pressure and performance are breaks, not an accelerators!
If sex has disappeared from your relationship and you want to get it back, don’t wait for your sex drive to kick in, address the stress that is engaging your breaks, and prioritize sex without pressure, but rather a willingness to seek pleasure in all of it’s forms.