Sex, puzzlement and a short history lesson

It’s easy to believe that we have, as a society, become quite relaxed about sex. Sex is now an everyday thing in TV dramas, advertising, magazine articles, music videos and fashion - and porn and erotica seems really popular. Social attitudes are changing: sexual orientation is now much less of an issue. We are, it seems, generally more broad-minded and accepting of sex as part of life, and generally less ashamed of our own desires.

So it can be all the more puzzling that we still seem run into problems in this area, particularly in long-term relationships. Surely nowadays we should be able to talk about these issues? Couples come into relationship counselling often wondering why they've hit a wall - and ask why they haven’t been able to sort these things out themselves, particularly when they don’t feel ashamed about sex?

The sort of problems that seem really common, but really difficult to ‘unpick’ in the relationship without some help, include:

  • Why don't we have sex very often?
  • Why does sex sometimes feel like just another chore?
  • Why have I stopped fancying my partner?
  • Why does my partner want sex when I don’t?
  • Why doesn’t my partner seem to want sex with me?
  • Why don’t I feel sexual these days?
  • Why do I feel sexual, but not when I think about sex with my partner?
  • Why was sex good once but now it’s boring?

One of the first things a couple wants to know is - what is normal? Are these issues normal? 

All the issues listed above are not only normal, they affect the overwhelming majority of long-term couples. So while we may be more ‘OK’ about sex in society in general, it appears that most of us still struggle with sex in our actual lived experience in a couple.

The reason for this is worth thinking about. The modern version of marriage and long-term relationships has not been around that long (maybe 200 hundred years?). Before that, most couples got together primarily for the economic union, part and parcel of which was having children. If love and romance was involved, the couple was lucky; but for most people, life was hard and marriage was a practical necessity.

Of course, the upper classes rarely married for love and romance either. For example, an aristocrat might marry into a rich merchant family, and create a dynasty of power and wealth. For these lucky few, who had the luxury of leisure time, it was expected that romantic and erotic needs would be met by mistresses, courtesans and so on.

In the conventional model of modern relationships, one person is chosen as your economic partner, co-parent and best friend - as well as the focus of all your erotic and romantic desires. We not only claim that this the best of all possible models, but that relationships that don’t achieve this are failures. We can feel ashamed: not about sex itself, but that we haven’t managed to maintain a fulfilling erotic connection in an otherwise happy relationship.

In fact, we know this is a tough ask. Half of all long-term relationships end in separation or divorce, and possibly 80% involve infidelity (yes, that high!). Rather than seeing this as a moral inadequacy of some kind, it may be that the ideal is just very difficult to achieve (and yet we keep on trying!). Even those relationships that survive, and where fidelity is maintained, will almost always complain of problems in the area of sex and desire - all the issues we outlined above. 

Long-term relationship are great at providing security, safety and companionship, and are good for kids. But they are not so good at excitement, surprise, and eroticism.

The reasons for this are well worth exploring further, but just for now its worth knowing that there are ways through to a more fulfilling relationship, if you want to try. This is almost never about improving sexual technique, but rather an issue of the imagination - how do we get back to our original excitement in the relationship?

Talking to you partner can be difficult because, while they are your best friend, they are the other half of the issue! When sex is working we don’t need to talk about it: but when issues arise, sometimes your partner is the least easy person to talk to.

So maybe start by talking to your partner - not about ‘fixing’ things, but share how common these problems are, and how they are quite puzzling too! Read this article with them. In rebuilding a tentative conversation about sex, you may find the whole gloom around the area starts to lift a little. Chances are, your partner is as concerned as you are - and if blame can be kept out of the discussion, you may feel relieved that sex is no longer the proverbial elephant in the room.

If you need more input, find a good relationship counsellor - the third party can often unstick things and get you talking.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Hampton, TW12
Written by James Earl, MSW (Sussex) PgDip (Relate) Prof CertT PST (Relate)
Hampton, TW12

I am a relationship counsellor for couples and individuals, helping with communication problems, affairs, and loss of intimacy and desire. Professionally trained and fully qualified. Based in Teddington, West London. First sessions are free.

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