When sex stops: can counselling help?
It is common in long-term relationships for sex to become infrequent, unsatisfying or stop completely - more common than most people realise. Trying to talk about it with your partner can be difficult, which makes the problem worse. It can be quite puzzling: 'I love my partner very much, so why has that spark disappeared?', 'I used it enjoy sex, so why nowadays does it feel like just another chore, rather than something to look forward to?'
Unless you have some very close friends who - unusually - talk about these things, we mostly just joke or complain about sex rather than really talk about it, so information is difficult to find. ‘Everyone else is at it six times a week’ may be an obvious myth - but - what’s OK, and what’s not OK? Is there a norm?
Often there are feelings of guilt and anxiety, too. ‘I don’t feel like sex but I know (s)he does! - and that’s not fair on my partner!’ And ‘will (s)he have an affair if I don’t show some interest?’
Add to that questions like - ‘I don’t even feel sexual in myself - but why not? - I never used to feel like this’ Or, just as difficult; ‘I still feel sexual in myself, so why don’t I feel like having sex with my partner?’
These are clearly difficult things to talk about with your partner. There can be a fear of hurting the other person if you're honest. Sometimes there can be a fear it will feel it will only make things worse to bring up the subject. ’It just leads to rows, and nothing changes.’
We have a whole set of phrases to describe not talking about it - ‘the elephant in the room’, ‘letting sleeping dogs lie’, and so on.
A few generations ago we might have thought a good starting point to understand these issues was feelings of shame around sex, but my experience in the counselling room says it is not usually shame that is the predominant feeling - it’s genuine puzzlement, mixed with frustration. ‘I’m really not prudish about sex, but I just can’t seem to talk to my partner about it, and I don’t know why we are having such difficulty. The rest of the relationship seems so good. I still think my partner is really good looking, but imagining sex with him just feels - a bit unseemly, a bit weird. I really don’t know why.’
Before buying a book called something like ‘Spice up Your Sex Life’, remember that these are not problems of sexual technique, and are unlikely to be addressed by swinging from chandeliers. I believe part the problem is rooted in our imagination - how can we see our best friend, our co-parent, our business partner (if we have property together), our rock, our security and safety - as exciting, as a lover, as ‘hot’?
We are so familiar to each other in the domestic sphere, it is often really difficult to see each other erotically. Eroticism is exciting, free, and unexpected: while everyday life is usually the opposite - safe, secure and stable. Can we see each other in two different ways?
This is where counselling can really unlock things for a couple, and start a conversation that will move things forward things for them.
A good relationship therapist - a trained specialist - should be able to explore your views of your partner, your views of sex and the life history of your relationship to help you understand the situation from a number of new perspectives.
Couples who have tried this report overwhelmingly how successful the process can be (Relate, the UK’s largest counselling organisation, say 80% of respondents reported a significant positive change in their relationship after counselling). Some couples, who before coming into counselling have admitted they are nervous, even report that they found the process fun as things begin to change for the better.
It is a shame to suffer in silence, Relationship issues like this may not be life-threatening, but they can lead to real unhappiness for a couple.