When We’re in Love, But Not with Sex

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Although problems in our sex lives can have a negative impact on romantic relationships, many people report that they still love their partners despite having low sexual desire.

How do we navigate loving relationships when we don’t really love having sex?

when we're in love but not with sex

Avigail and her colleagues from Tel Hai College in Israel conducted a study in The Journal of Sex Research. They interviewed women who claimed to be in loving, long-term relationships but also had a decreased desire for sexual pleasure. It was required that women felt their decreased desire was significantly lower than that of their partner’s.

The authors interviewed 15 women between the ages of 25–59. About a quarter of them were cohabiting and most were married to partners. All women had to be in a long-term relationship for at least one year. The average length of a relationship was 3.5 years. Half of the sample was married with children.

Participants were asked about:

A) The quality of their relationship

b. How their relationship was affected by their diminished sexual desire.

c) Their explanations of why their desire has declined over the course their relationship.

d. What effect did this have on the women and their relationships?

e) How women handled their decreased desire.

f) How the couple managed to navigate these sexual desire differences together.

Love Doesn’t Equal Desire

Participants were allowed to participate in the study if they said that their sexual desires did not cause them to doubt their relationships or their feelings towards their partner. This means that they considered sexual desire and love for their partner to be completely separate.

For example, one participant said: “I never doubted the relationship. And the older I get the surer I am of our relationship.”

Further, over half the participants said that they didn’t feel their desire discrepancy had a negative impact on their relationship. These women also shared deeper and more intimate relationships with their partners that extended beyond sexual activity. Examples included navigating parenthood and life’s ups and downs together as a team, which some women described as keeping their relationship strong, even if they experienced some sexual challenges.

My Low Desire is My Problem

Unfortunately, some women in the study blamed themselves for their diminished sexual desire to be in a loving relationship in order to understand why they had a decreased desire. That is, they seemed to rationalize that if we don’t have a problem, it must be my problem.

As one participant said: “Sometimes I feel really bad, like what’s screwed up with me that I don’t have a higher sexual desire… and you start to think that maybe something is wrong with you.”

In interviews with these women, they described feeling guilty and self-blame as common themes.

The pressure to have sex

Over half of the women in the survey felt that having sexual desires that were different from theirs did not affect their relationship. However, the authors observed that many women still felt pressured by the fact that they had different levels.

The study revealed that, even though they were in a loving relationship overall, some women could still feel conflict with their partner over how long it’s been since they last had sexual relations. Some women expressed concern that their partner might take their low desire for sex personally and question her feelings.

Strategies to Navigate Desire Discrepancies

Due to having different levels of sexual desire, women in this study often indicated that they would sometimes consent to having sex that they weren’t all that excited about in an attempt to meet their partner’s needs; something the authors refer to as sexual compliance.

Some women also talked about avoiding sex, or the possibility of having sex, by coming up with excuses for why sex couldn’t happen, such as pretending to be asleep when their partner initiated. Others described pulling back from other forms of physical affection or touch to avoid anything starting up or giving “the wrong idea.”

Sexual Pleasures and Interest

All women reported experiencing a decline in their sexual desire throughout their relationships. However, this does not necessarily mean that they are completely satisfied with their sexual desires.

The study found that some women felt a desire or attraction to their partner. Some also mentioned feeling a desire for other people even though they didn’t intend on pursuing these thoughts.

It is important to remember that even though they had sex, the women described feeling sexual pleasure and satisfaction. This means that although they might not feel the need to have sex all the time, once they did engage, they were able to enjoy themselves. This offers support for responsive sexual desire models which suggest that women’s desire may build and grow throughout sexual activity even if it’s not present at the outset.

Bridging Gap

Although sexual desire discrepancies may seem daunting (and the women who participated in the study acknowledged that there were times when tensions and fighting about sexual frequency did occur), women in this study saw sex in their relationships as another important aspect that needed to be worked out, including how to eat, chores, and finances.

Strategies used to “bridge the gap” in desire levels included engaging in open and honest communication, compromising at times, and having a shared understanding of where the other person was coming from and why they were or were not in the mood. It was also important for women to be open to other forms of touch and closeness, even if sexual activity is not discussed.

A decrease in sexual desire can occur for a variety of reasons, especially in long-term relationships. Relational factors such as poor communication and frequent fighting can lead to a decrease of sexual desire. However, women may still report a healthy and loving relationship and a loss of interest in sex.

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