“Not Tonight Dear” Why Couples Stop Having Sex (and what you can do about it)

When I do couples therapy a very common complaint is that the sex is infrequent or nonexistent. Over a period of time this tends to erode a couple’s sense of connection. It also tends to breed resentment and anger.

Why do couples stop having sex, and what can you do to prevent this?

There are a number of reasons that can cause couples to stop having sex.

1. Anger and resentment in the relationship

A big reason is unresolved anger or resentment in the relationship itself. Most couples don’t want to have sex when they’re angry. (Angry sex or makeup sex seems to be relatively rare amongst most couples.) Often the anger or resentment issues are long-standing, and feel unresolvable. The couple feels distant from one another, and as a result stops being affectionate or sexual.

The solution to this problem is talking. Talking calmly and non-defensively in order to resolve problems and eliminate resentments. Clearing the air on a regular basis is essential for couples happiness. If you can’t do it yourself, get some couples counseling and learn the skills for resolving conflict.

2. Mediocre or boring sex

Another reason couples stop having sex might seem very obvious — the sex isn’t very good. Perhaps there are sexual problems such as erectile difficulties or difficulties having orgasms. Or perhaps the sex is just mediocre and routine. Perhaps sex is too much work.

The antidote to this problem is to work on improving the quality of sex and touching. There are a number of exercises that couples can do to improve their ability to please one another. One such exercise is called sensate focus. In this exercise couples take turns touching one another all over the body, while the recipient of touching give us feedback about what feels good. The purpose of this exercise is to learn where and how to touch your partner in order to give them the most pleasure.

Verbal communication is also essential for improving the quality of sex. Most couples talk about everything other than sex. It’s difficult for couples to communicate what they like and don’t like sexually. But without this communication the couple is driving blind, and the most likely outcome is going off the cliff.

If couples cannot achieve this on their own, then a few sessions of focused sex therapy can be very helpful. During these sessions the couple learns how to talk about sex comfortably, and troubleshoots issues that are preventing them from having good sex. Typically sex therapy is brief therapy — less than 10 sessions. Unless you have a fabulous sex life, a few sessions of sex therapy, learning how to communicate sexual desires, fantasies, turn-on’s, and turn-offs, is highly recommended.

3. Issues with initiating sex

Another reason couples stop having sex is issues with initiation. Initiating sex is a very delicate balance. When one person approaches the other, there is tremendous potential for hurt and rejection. If one person suggests sex, and the other turns it down, this often leads to resentment and finally avoidance.

Other initiation issues include one person doing all of the initiating, with the other partner never initiating. Or perhaps neither person is initiating sex, instead waiting for the other to initiate. If neither person initiates obviously there will be no sex.

Initiation issues are complex. One general rule of thumb is that as much as possible, partners should never reject a sexual initiation. If absolutely necessary, then the rejection should be as kind and gentle as possible, and include a rain check suggestion. Something like, “I’d really love to honey, but my stomach is killing me. Can we make love tomorrow night instead?”

The reason for this guideline is that very few people will persist after multiple sexual rejections. Couples who have a healthy sex life typically will almost always say yes to sex, even if they are tired or stressed. They may negotiate different sexual activities, or even suggest having sex the next morning or night, but they rarely say no. Saying no often usually leads an eternal no.

4. Failure to make sex a priority

Sex is a very important component of relationships, yet many couples fail to make it a priority. Couples allow work, children, exercise, socializing, television, Internet, and housework to dominate their priorities so completely that they don’t have time for sex. This is a huge mistake. Sex is one of the basic glues that hold couples together. A failure to make the romantic and sexual relationship a priority often leads to divorce.

Couples should figure out a way that they can consistently have private time in order to have sex. Perhaps this might mean even scheduling sex, which most couples resist as being unromantic, but is often essential when people are very busy. Perhaps Wednesday night is date night, and the prime focus is to connect and to make love. Sunday morning might be another time to schedule. If couples work close each other, perhaps a noontime meeting at a hotel or at home might be fun.

Turn off the TV or computer and talk, cuddle, and get close. Make having sex a priority even if it means scheduling sex. Yes scheduled sex is a little bit less romantic, but it reminds me of a famous comedian’s line, “Sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go it’s pretty good.” Paraphrasing this a bit, we get “Scheduled sex is a less romantic experience, but as less romantic experiences go it’s pretty good!”

5. Excessive masturbation to pornography

This is primarily a problem with men. Some men turn to Internet pornography and masturbation when they are not having consistent sex in their relationship. There’s nothing wrong with masturbation, but there are some serious issues that can develop. One issue is that middle aged men do not have infinite sexual potential, so if they are masturbating frequently, they will have very little left over for their wife or partner. Their libido for their partner will be low. Or when their partner wants to have sex, they will be unable to because they have just masturbated that afternoon. (Obviously this is less of an issue for young men.)

The other issue with Internet pornography is that typically the women that are depicted are young, slender, and extremely beautiful. They may be of a different race or color than the man’s actual partner. For a man with a middle-aged partner, the contrast between the perfect bodies he sees in pornography in his own partner’s less than perfect body will be jarring. This may cause loss of desire.

A similar issue is that in porn women do many sexual activities that most women have little interest in such as anal sex, threesomes, orgies, or sex in public. A man whose sexual norm calibration is based on pornagraphy will will greatly out of sync with his actual partner.

The solution to this problem is to first impose a temporary moratorium on masturbation and Internet porn. Stop for 30 days. This will allow your libido for your partner to recover. During that 30 days focus on any of the other problems with sex and address them. Schedule sex at a frequency that is comfortable for both of you. Once you are reliably and consistently having sex again, there will be less need to masturbate. Also you can schedule your masturbation sessions so that they do not interfere with scheduled partner sex.

6. Failure to attend to personal hygiene or appearance

Once couples have been together for a while they often get lazy about their hygiene or appearance. They may not brush their teeth before kissing, or showering before being close. Both partners may walk around the house wearing sweat pants and sweatshirt. Lingerie disappears out of the relationship. People put on weight and don’t maintain their fitness.

All of these things can cause problems in the bedroom. I often hear from men or women that when they married their partner they were very attractive, but they’ve let themselves go, and they are no longer so attractive. Men complain that their wives come to bed in sweats and gym socks instead of naked or in lingerie.

These are difficult issues to discuss with a partner. There is potential for very hurt feelings when one person tells the other that their weight gain has made them less attractive. Or that their breath in the morning is deadly. Or that when they walk around in their granny nighty, it’s not in the least sexy. Obviously approaching these issues with tact and sensitivity is essential. Some are obviously easier than others. It’s easy to change one’s sleep apparel. It’s fairly easy to brush one’s teeth. As all of us who are middle aged know, weight loss is more difficult.

7. Failure to address sexual dysfunction

Another issue that can get in the way of having sex is a failure to address sexual problems. Many men suffer at least intermittent erectile difficulties. Many women have difficulty having orgasms, or difficulty lubricating adequately. Shame and embarrassment about these issues often leads people to avoid having sex with their partner.

Depending on the problem, there are good solutions available. Men with erectile difficulties can often benefit from either sex therapy to address issues of anxiety and performance, or erectile disorder medications such as Cialis, Viagra, or Levitra. Of these drugs I usually recommend Cialis, as it is long-lasting (lasts up to three days), and relatively side effect free. Often a low dose of Cialis such as 5 or 10 mg can greatly improve a man’s ability to get and maintain an erection. This restores confidence, and also makes sex relatively worry free.

On the female side, difficulties in orgasm can because by issues of anxiety or inhibition, or simply issues of sexual technique and stimulation. Unfortunately there is no medication that improves female sexual functioning, but sex therapy can be very helpful. Lubrication is often an issue, and few people realize that lubrication is the female equivalent of an erection. With aging comes less lubrication, and this can often make sex painful or difficult. The solution to this problem is incredibly simple — use artificial lubrication. There are a variety of lubrication products on the market, some are water-based, and some are silicon-based. Both are good. Use lubrication liberally, and sex will feel better and be more fun.

8. Forgetting that foreplay starts long before the bedroom.

Oprah has a wonderful saying that foreplay starts early in the morning when a man unloads the dishwasher. The well-known marriage researcher John Gottman has found that men who do more housework typically get more sex. Many couples forget that foreplay starts first thing in the morning. And never stops and healthy happy sexual marriages. Showing kindness, concern, consideration, affection, respect, admiration — all are forms of foreplay. Specifically, compliments that focus on someone looking sexy or handsome or beautiful or hot get the motor running. With modern technology we can flirt even more effectively. Sending a sexy text during the workday can lead to a much more pleasant and fun evening. (Just be sure that text has some subtlety so your work phone doesn’t create problems for you with your boss.)

In similar ways, physical touching and affection can turn up the heat later in the bedroom. A quick but passionate kiss in passing. A squeeze of the bottom. Caressing and sexual touch can be normal parts of your affectionate repertoire even outside the bedroom. (Try not to scare the children or the dog!) Remember, everything can be foreplay.

So there it is — why couples stop having sex and what you can do about it. Don’t settle for a lack of sex or mediocre sex. Follow these guidelines and you can start having consistent and pleasurable lovemaking. If you need help, seek out a skilled psychologist who has specialty experience in doing sex therapy. Generalized couples therapy, although useful for other types of problems, does not usually help with sexual difficulties. Questions to ask a potential sex therapist are:

  1. What is your training in sex therapy?
  2. What is your approach to sex therapy? Can you give me an idea of the typical session?
  3. How long does sex therapy with you typically take? (If the person says a year or two then you should probably find someone else. Most sex therapy is brief therapy.)
  4. Finally, when you meet with the sex therapist, do they seem comfortable and direct talking about sex? Do they use direct language for sexual activities and sexual parts, or do they beat around the bush? If the sex therapist is not more comfortable than you are talking about sex, it is unlikely that they can be of much help.

Now I’ve got to go meet my sweetie for some crazy hot……never mind!  🙂

Copyright © 2010, 2011 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions


15 thoughts on ““Not Tonight Dear” Why Couples Stop Having Sex (and what you can do about it)

  1. This seems a bit simplistic (which is surprising coming from you!) In my (very limited) experience, the problem has a long complex history. For example, a friend of mine who’s wife finally left him (really, this isn’t me — my wife and I are still together!) sort of fit into the internet porn category, but even so, the history and specifics of this were extremely complex, including their having had physical problems before that which led him to the porn, and then him getting interested not in “classical” models but other things (that we don’t need to go into), and him trying to get her into that mode, which didn’t really turn her on, etc. etc. into a downward spiral. I think that you should write more about the concept of the downward spiral (what pilots call a “death spiral”), and how many of the things that you write about contribute to the many parts of that spiral, but which, generally, in-and-of-themselves (that is, taken separately) are probably too simple to explain the complexities of relationship (or even individual) problems. … But you know this! 🙂

  2. Andrew:

    This is a very valuable article – even thought i’ve previously taken a 5-session sex therapy class previously, I learned some new things from your article, including the Internet Porn info.

    Have you read Spousonomics? this is a book from my discipline, Economics, but links with yours i.e. Behavioral Economics. They have wonderful tools to deal with spousal issues, including sex.

  3. Hi

    I have a big problem at the moment with my partner, he is 27 and im 23. Before we moved in we used to have sex all the time almost every night. Now that we live together things have really changed. He does not seem to want to have sex as often, and i don’t mean having sex 4-5 times a week but we either just have it once or twice a week. This seems really strange to me as a young mans sex drive is usually very high regardless whether we live together or not. I have multiple times found that he watches porn on his phone but also not to the extent where i think its to much. I always initiate sex and when i do he always is to tired or he says im an addict,which i hardly think if i want it every second or third day. Can someone please help me, i am starting to think he may not find me attractive anymore even though i buy sexy undies and try make things fun.

  4. Hi,

    Thanks for your comment. In general the best thing to do is to talk openly and honestly about your concerns with your partner. Ask them questions about what they think is going on. It’s not uncommon for sexual frequency to diminish when people move in together. There are many reasons for this ranging from household conflict issues, familiarity, habit, etc. The key thing is to not personalize it–it’s not your attractiveness, and not be blaming about it, but just to work together to solve it.

  5. Hey, I’m having trouble too. I’m in a gay relationship and have been with them for over 2 years with some difficulties, we are very affectionate towards each other but go weeks to a month without sex and don’t understand why. I do find though it all depends on her whether we have sex or not. It’s to a point where it’s now taking its toll on us and we’re blaming everything. I wouldn’t know where to start to fix this or even how to!

  6. Hi andrew,
    I feel my relationship of 3.5 yrs on and 2yrs off so almost 6yrs is going to be over soon. For the past 6-8 months our sex life has gone downhill, to where we are only having sex once a month. We are very happy otherwise, cuddles and kisses all the time. I’m wondering if me being overweight(20 pounds) has been the source this. He has wanted me to lose this weight for yrs as we are young( he is 26, I’m 28) I feel we are too young for sex problems as we don’t have kids or even the stress of a house. Please help!! Thank you!!

  7. I have been engaged for 2 years – we got into a bad argument, I ended up sleeping in the other room for almost two months but we made up at some point and here and there we had intercourse with no problems sadly one day i found a text on his phone and it was another girl and seemed to be letting her know everything that was happening at home and in his work and there was some exchanged of love u’s which hurts me more than anything and the fact that he did it in our own home makes me more angry, anyhow he me that he never had sex with her and it was all jokes, she told me the same. We decided to make up and work things out but sex is absent completely – today he started to try to foreplay and when it could of happen it just did not and he did not want me to touch him he than fell asleep- now i think the worse – what should I do

  8. Hi,

    The main advice I would give you is to discuss these issues. The fact that after a fight you slept separately for 2 months suggests that there isn’t a lot of communication going on when there is conflict. It sounds like there are trust issues, sexual issues, and maybe even fidelity issues—all these need to get discussed, especially before you get married. Maybe some couples counseling sessions would help you two learn how to discuss difficult issues. Good luck!

  9. Hi,

    I can’t give you direct advice since I haven’t met with you, but in these situations I generally suggest you ask your partner what is going on, and be open to hearing that the weight is an issue. It might seem unfair that sexual attraction is conditional, but everyone has turn-ons and turn-offs, and weight can be one of them. Or it might be something else entirely. One can only find out by asking, and being open to the answers. The fact that there is still a lot of affections means you still like and love each other, which suggests things can be worked out. Good luck.

  10. General advice is that the best place to start is by talking about it, and being open to feedback. If that doesn’t work then counseling might help both of you to be able to discuss these issues. Good luck.

  11. I’m 28 and my husband is 32 and we have been married for 6 years. We seem to hardly ever have sex any more. When we got married we would find time for sex multiple times a day. The house mates even told us to keep it down! But now we Go months without having sex. I want the passion and the excitement back. I just don’t understand what happened. Are we too comfortable? We are moving to NSW but my husband will be going down a couple of months before me. I’m hoping this time apart will bring that passion and excitement back. – any thoughts?

  12. Hi,

    It’s quite normal for sexual frequency to drop after a couple has been together for a while, and real life usually gets in the way of having sex multiple times a day, or even once a day. But if you’ve dropped off to having sex less than once a week or so, then something is going on. It’s usually a good idea to just have a frank conversation about it–to identify possible causes. In general, these can include physical changes, weight changes, illness, depression, conflict, or emotional distance. The general question is : Why aren’t we having regular sex? Sometimes couples can reboot their sex life just by having a weekly date/sex night. Enjoy New South Wales, I’m a great fan of Australia!

  13. If your partner, male or female, is no longer sexually attracted to you, you need to figure out how to change that. Figure out what your partner finds attractive and be that for them, or else it just wont work. I’m no longer sexually attracted to my husband at all. We’ve been together for 7 years and have sex once every few months, and it’s always so painful because I’m never aroused that I have to make him stop after just a few pumps. But I keep telling him that he can change that by trying harder to connect with me outside of the bedroom. But he doesn’t. So, until he does, he won’t be getting any, and when he does, it’s not going to be good. It’s too bad because he is still very attracted to me and constantly wants sex, but it’s just not working. I still love him deeply and I don’t want to leave him, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to sleep with a man I actually found attractive. I have never cheated but I’m starting to see why some people do.

  14. I’m 28 and my boyfriend is 39. I’ve always had a low sex drive (maybe two or three times a week is average for me).

    Now that I’m five months pregnant I’ve felt a great drop in my sex drive. I’m always exhausted after I get home from work (late at night) and I simply just don’t seem to have the energy to make love as often as he wants to. Before I got pregnant I was content at two or three times a week but lately we’re lucky if we have sex once a week.

    He has a very high sex drive and wants to have sex every day and has been extremely frustrated with me because of it. He keeps reminding me that his ex wife had sex with him any time he wanted to all the time and that that is “normal” and that I am “not normal”. He also insists that women are supposed to have increased sex drives during pregnancy- and the fact that my sex drive isn’t getting revved up is also “not normal”.

    He sent me this article to read and none of these reasons really seem to explain what our problem is…

  15. I don’t give advice to people I haven’t met, but the general advice in these situations is to discuss it. It sounds like the reason you are not feeling sexual is that you are tired with the pregnancy, a perfectly normal thing especially since it sounds like your job is demanding and has long hours. And there was an issue in sexual disparity even before. Most couples have differences in how often they desire sex, and they work it out. Life is not perfect, and compromise is part of any healthy marriage. There are always other options, such as masturbation. By the way, factually, sex 2 or 3 times a week is actually above the national average for married couples, and way above the average for couples with children.

    I also like to remind partners who are trying to get their partners to have more sex that seduction doesn’t involve guilt induction or comparisons to other people. Effective seduction makes your partner’s life easier and better–John Gottman always has said that men who help with housework more get more sex. And Oprah once said that foreplay begins in the morning when the man unloads the dishwasher!

    The general guidelines are to talk without accusations, and if that fails, see someone who can help you talk calmly and compromise.

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