Can’t She See I Need It?

Many men and women in long-term relationships are unhappy with the frequency they have sex. How can couples re-sync their desires?

According to a report in the March issue of The Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 54 percent of men and 42 percent of women are unhappy with the frequency of sex in their long-term relationships. A prime reason that couples go out of sync sexually lies in the brain’s reward circuitry. It’s a set of mechanisms that work together to drive all motivation, libido, appetite, and—when out of kilter—addiction. Therefore, it governs your attraction (or lack thereof) to each other between the sheets. It works subconsciously, which is why neither of you can will yourself to enjoy sex if the magic isn’t happening.

Your reward circuitry drives you by promising satisfaction using strategic surges of dopamine, the “go-get-it” neurochemical. But when no dopamine surges in the brain, it’s like the accelerator is not connected to the throttle. When it’s time for sex, going through the motions gets you nowhere or requires a lot of effort. Very disheartening.

Instead of taking your mate’s unresponsiveness personally, keep in mind that both libido and lack of libido play into our genes’ strategy for propelling themselves into future generations. After all, when are we most likely to spread genes around? When we’re sexually dissatisfied in an existing relationship. Obviously, this is more likely after lovers have exhausted their one-time booster shot of fiery honeymoon neurochemistry.

Precisely how does this sneaky gene-spreading program put couples out of sync? Let’s say things are cooling, so you and your beloved act out a sexual fantasy or try a sizzling foreplay technique. Briefly, you recapture some of the drug-like buzz that effortlessly sustained your early sex lives—when you were jacked up on Mother Nature’s surplus neurochemicals.

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But here’s the sinister bit: intense stimulation appears to have the power to trigger lingering changes that can leave some brains more dissatisfied soon afterward—and other brains desperately wanting time to recover. Said one husband:

I was going on the assumption that if she could just enjoy sex more, i.e., have more orgasms, we would have sex more often and my needs would be better satisfied. So, I was always trying to give her a good pounding. Instead she moved out of our bedroom.

It took years before they restored the harmony in their marriage.

Sexual frustration is stressful. But chances are you aren’t suffering alone. One woman explained:

“Regular” sex was always something that seemed to have to escalate in order for it not to become boring. “Let’s see, if I wear these crotchless panties, that will excite him” or “I guess we could have anal because that would be different,” etc. What usually ends up happening (if you have ever been married a long time or know people who have been) is that the wife starts withholding sex. Why? Because she has an innate fear that if she continues to escalate what they do to “alleviate the boredom,” then eventually, he’s still going to get bored. What do you do after you’ve done it swinging from the chandelier? You are out of ideas, and you no longer seem “fresh” [exciting] to your husband.

Incidentally, about 13 percent of long-term couples seem impervious to this phenomenon. But that leaves the vast majority floundering in the habituation swamp.

Bad News for Lovers

Before evaluating possible coping strategies, it’s helpful to know why intense stimulation promotes discontent despite its short-term solution. There’s much still to learn, but it looks like a variety of changes in the reward circuitry temporarily dampen the pleasure response after climax.

For example, androgen receptors in the brain decline after ejaculation, and may take up to seven days to normalize. (That means the effects of testosterone may be blunted for a while, affecting zest.) Opioids released during copulation hang around for a while—apparently causing lingering declines in oxytocin, which hamper sexual responsiveness.

There is also likely a drop in sensitivity to dopamine—that neurochemical vital to our sense of well-being and desire. (Researchers have already recorded this drop following heavy gambling, gaming, and consumption of fattening foods, so it’s likely that too much exciting sexual stimulation also numbs the pleasure response of some brains.)

Whatever the precise mechanisms, the brain changes subtly after orgasm, and any decrease in responsiveness is bad news for lovers. Now, libido tends to go in divergent directions—simply because people experience the return to homeostasis differently following an orgasmic neurochemical wallop.

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Some folks are satiated, and simply uninterested in sex until their brains return to their natural sensitivity. Then, orgasm once again registers as a great idea.

Some want more sex (or more beer, or more something) soon afterward. This happens because their reward circuitry is somewhat numbed, and has left them restless or anxious, and wanting. Chances are they also need more stimulation than before to produce the same pleasure response.

This pesky dissatisfaction mechanism may have evolved, in part, to urge us to binge when a potential genetic opportunity is around (to assure fertilization). Above all, it increases the odds that we find novel mates especially alluring (the Coolidge Effect).

Chances are good that this mechanism is related (physiologically) to the addiction cycle. After all, the reward circuit is also the prime player in all addictions. Dopamine and dopamine receptors are implicated in both sex and addiction.

Could intense sexual stimulation be, in effect, a mini drug trip? A Dutch scientist once commented that the brain scans of men ejaculating reminded him of brain scans of a heroin rush. It’s plausible that intense sexual stimulation produces, in some brains, a mini withdrawal period, during which cravings for more stimulation are particularly intense. A “chaser effect,” if you will.

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Brains certainly respond in different ways to intense stimuli. For example, people have varied reactions to recreational drugs, and the reasons are not well understood. Perhaps couples who don’t habituate sexually are more in tune because of genetic make-up.

The point is that great sex can actually leave some of us needier than usual, craving additional proofs of our mate’s love—on our terms. Or it can leave us somewhat apathetic toward a mate because our brain isn’t registering subtler sources of pleasure, such as affection and close companionship. Either way, we may crave very stimulating or novel sex (or porn) so we can raise dopamine levels in our brain and feel good again, even if it makes our urges even more demanding subsequently.

Bottom line: Unless your brains both happen to be on the same schedule, your love life can go out of sync. When your mate rebuffs your advances, it may seem like she doesn’t care enough to ease your distress. Conversely, it may seem to her like all you care about is “getting some.”

Obviously, sometimes gender roles are reversed. Either way, you could suddenly be seeing the worst in each other, and, perhaps, doubting each other’s devotion—all because mindless, primitive bits of your reward circuitry are bleeping imperfectly matched impulses during the return to equilibrium. Bummer. Meanwhile, the grass may look greener just about anywhere else.

Outsmarting Biology

You now understand how lots of great sex can subtly cause your brain to demand more and more jollies—just at the time when your partner may feel the need for a recovery period of soothing affection…only. Or worse yet, “space.” What do you do?

Obviously, this is not a new challenge. The curse of sexual stimulation leading to desensitization and discontent is as old as humanity. Two thousand years ago, Roman poet Ovid cynically advised the following cure for love: “Enjoy your girl with complete abandon, night and day—and loathing will end your malady.”

Some couples beg, bicker, and develop headaches. Some negotiate date nights and sexual favors. Some take jobs in different cities, so their brains have time to return to balance. Said one man,

I once worked in a remote fly-in fly-out job, two weeks on, two weeks off. As a result, my wife and I enjoyed the best sex life of our marriage. The homecoming was a moment to be savored, especially whenever I caught the flight that got me home before the kids got home from school. But we also savored the moment of departure two weeks later. As she said, “I like it when you get home, and I like it when you go away.”

Sadly, after he stopped traveling they divorced. Other couples try to even out differences in libido with solo sex, using today’s hyperstimulating sex toys and Internet erotica. That’s logical, but as explained above, too much stimulation can sometimes backfire.

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Another logical strategy is to try to negotiate a middle ground. Fairness is good, but it may not restore mutual desire if you need more time to return your brains to ideal sensitivity.

Interestingly, sages across the globe have also developed little known techniques for managing sex to keep lovers in balance and sustain the harmony in their unions. Kosher sex, for example, prescribes almost two weeks a month in separate beds while couples restore their magnetism.

In contrast, methods such as gentle tantra, karezza, and dual cultivation call for frequent lovemaking without the emphasis on orgasm. Such strategies foster harmony by helping couples retain their neurochemical sensitivity to the nuances and bonding power of warm affection. The results can be deeper contentment and less sexual frustration.

Whatever strategy you adopt, remember that any lack of enthusiasm for sex on the part of your mate is probably as involuntary as your single-minded desire for more sex. You two may simply be suffering from the mismatched effects of some sleepy nerve cell receptors. By understanding what’s really going on and working together, you can tiptoe around your genes’ underlying goals for your love life.

♦◊♦

More from Sex Week at the Good Men Project:

Benoit Denizet-Lewis: The Dan Savage Interview

Hugo Schwyzer: Male Self-Pleasure Myths

Amanda Marcotte: What Women Don’t Tell You

Ed Fell: 10 Secrets to Satisfying Sex

Andrew Ladd: A Billion Wicked Assumptions

Charles Allen: Why I Hate My Giant Dong

Emily Heist Moss: Does Size Matter?

John DeVore: Multiple Inches of Love

Joshua Matacotta: Do Gay Men Fear Intimacy?

Hugo Schwyzer: Mythbusting Bisexual Men

Bhatia & MacKinnon: The Psychology of Erectile Dysfunction

Robert Levithan: Sex at 60

—Photo Joelstuff V3/Flickr

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About Gary Wilson & Marnia Robinson

Gary Wilson has taught anatomy, physiology, and pathology for many years. His wife Marnia is the author of Cupid's Poisoned Arrow: From Habit to Harmony in Sexual Relationships. Among other projects, they host the website Your Brain on Porn.

Comments

  1. I have tried all kinds of therapies but I can’t get my libido back… I am heading for a divorce fast.

  2. I think this article is seriously misleading. Sexual problems in a relationship are all about brain chemistry? Really? Nothing to do with unresolved relationship issues, chronic sleep deprivation, kids, fatigue, stress, hormonal changes, obesity (one’s own or one’s partner or both), libido-killing antidepressant drugs, back pain or other physical injuries, diabetes, menopause, erectile dysfunction, etc. etc.? Or how about just boredom with being with the same person for 10 or 20 or 30 years?

    • Why must this be an “either-or” discussion? Resolving the brain chemistry piece seems to help couples address other issues more easily. Otherwise they’re always fighting against their biology…and the resulting boredom that you mention.

      • Guess I’m just tired of reading articles that use biochemical reductionism as the explanation for every human thought and feeling. It’s how big pharma has sold us all those libido destroying SSRI drugs.

        I usually have a pretty good sex drive, but there are times when I’m feeling down about myself because I have a middle aged body and I don’t feel that sexy when I look at my stretch marks and so on. The more my partner does to make me feel like he still finds me hot, the more interested I am in sex. Otherwise, I completely lose interest because I feel crappy about my body. There’s an example of a phenomenon that has absolutely nothing to do with biochemistry and everything to do with psychology. And that’s just one issue that could be a factor in someone’s relationship. It’s an issue I need to work on by not letting low self esteem issues interfere with my relationship and not putting all the responsibility on my partner to make me feel good. Also, it’s an issue he needs to be aware of so he doesn’t do things that unintentionally undermine my self esteem. Because overall we have a very good relationship,and we both enjoy sex, and we want to make it work. He has his own issues such as a back problem. I think it would be a mistake for either of us to write off any libido issues as just being about differences in dopamine responses that we don’t have any control over.

  3. Dimitri says:

    If these hypotheses were true, I’d expect couples who have infrequent or unsatisfying sex to be more affectionate and closer bonded than couples who are subjected to the sinister curse of frequent, satisfying sex. Seven years into a happy monogamous relationship with plenty of ebb and flow sexually, I am able to report precisely the opposite. I can say from experience that having less frequent sex absolutely does not increase my partner’s libido. I have tried to follow advice similar to the authors’ in the past, and it lead me to a toxic, self-loathing place, and to a relationship with little affection and infrequent, bad sex.

    I suspect a religious anti-ejaculation agenda behind this series of articles. That’s fine. Everyone’s free to believe what they want, and to practice whatever religious austerities they care to. It can be fun to imagine that science is finally validating the wisdom of the sages. But it’s hard for me to take the scientific hypotheses presented here seriously, knowing that my own experience is so contrary.

    I have a little more sympathy for the author’s anti-porn argument, since I personally find porn off-putting and don’t watch it. Perhaps I’m terribly anomalous for that reason, though I doubt it. Still, without more solid evidence I’m not ready to preach the virtues of abstinence from porn when it never appealed to me in the first place.

    • We suggest more sex, not less. The examples in the article were just to show the ways couples sometimes try to cope with habituation. It’s great that you don’t have that problem in your marriage.

      You are exactly right in that couples with unsatisfying, or no sex lives are usually not very happy.
      We suggest in our book, and the numerous other articles, to have intercourse daily. Yes, daily. Preferably lasting at least an hour. See: Another Way to Make Love
      http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cupids-poisoned-arrow/200908/another-way-make-love

      In addition to the daily intercourse, we suggest practicing daily “bonding behaviors” which involve a lot of caring touch and interactions. See: The Lazy Way to Stay in Love
      http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cupids-poisoned-arrow/200909/the-lazy-way-stay-in-love

      By the way, we are not religious.

      • I have no doubt that if you are in a relationship, in a career, in physical health such that you are willing and able to have intercourse every day for over an hour that of course your sex life is probably pretty satisfying. Being able to do that, by definition, means that you’ve avoided a lot of the usual daily challenges to maintaining a sexual relationship. From that I would extrapolate that if you want a good sex life, best not to have children, a long daily commute, or frequent vaginal dryness. Okay, I’ll get right on that….

  4. The mind is an “emergent” phenomenon, more than just the sum of brain chemicals. I don’t think the authors are suggesting that sex is all chemically pre-determined, but I kind of get that impression sometimes. I’m glad that the article reminds us that we have choices and strategies, because that says to me that we all have sexual agency. There are things we can do to make room for increased libido, and things we can do to contribute to more fulfilling sex. It’s quite discouraging and somewhat simplistic to say that one’s partner’s lower sex drive is “probably involuntary” because it’s just the way that brain parts work.

    I don’t get the feeling that the two authors are traditionally religious or anti-porn in a reactionary way. What I see in their writings is the use of scientific and quasi-scientific studies to suggest a particular set of sexual customs designed to make sex as sustainably pleasurable as possible without descending into addiction or boredom. A very worthy pursuit, I must say, more power to them, and I’m ready to explore anything that may work, but there’s something nutty going on here. (Now maybe that’s just my stubborn brain chemicals stuck in my pattern of false consciousness….)

  5. I just find the title of this article laughable. No one needs sex in the sense that you need it as an individual to survive. We do need it to continue our species, but not to survive as individuals. We don’t need sex like we need food, water, and air. We only want/desire it. But no one needs it.

  6. This seems to be scientific explainations for why some of the practices found in Kama Sutra and Taoism work.

  7. Henry Vandenburgh says:

    After monopause, my wife’s sexuality came back (we had a rough six year low libido [for her] period, during which, frankly, I had a lover.) But for my wife, sexuality came back at the once a week level. We’re now a very young 66 and 62. We were also going through tenure at two different universities, and tenure is hard on sexuality because of the constant pressure to publish.

    Sex is for us as satisfying as it once was when we were three and four times a week lovers. We usually take at least an hour on Sundays, and it’s indeed fairly tantric with lots of different activities.

    But she absolutely doesn’t want midweek sex. And my thermostat is set at about two per week. So masturbation has stepped in to fill the gap. So I think that, as appropriately during adolescence, it can play a positive role if used sparingly.

    • Glad you’ve found something that works for you. The risk for some is that masturbation to today’s hyperstimulating Internet porn causes escalation and increased dissatisfaction. It would be easier to steer safely for a middle ground if people knew what signs to watch for that indicate an addiction process at work in the brain. Again, bravo for you!

      • Henry Vandenburgh says:

        I sometimes feel that I have an advantage in that my sexuality was well-developed before porn. So, even though I’ve used porn at times, it’s not key. I often masturbate in bed with my wife, touching her, if she’s not interested in love making. Imagining ex-lovers or acquaintances also gratifies my poly-instincts sometimes.

        I do think erotica has potential as a permission giver, especially for women, but I agree with you that the addcitive potential of porn is very strong.

        I enjoy yours and Gary’s articles, even though I may quibble with them.

        • Who wouldn’t quibble with at least some of what we say? Your point about your sexuality being well developed before significant porn use is very important. I used Playboy, Penthouse, etc. now and then when growing up. Saw a few porn flicks at the theatre in my twenties. Like you, I always found the real deal far more interesting.

          However, today most boys are starting Interent porn at about the same time they start to masturbate – around 11 years old. What are the effects of using porn (of every possible flavor) for nearly every masturabtion session from 11 years old on – and not using your imagination? I think we are starting to see the widespread effects of this.

          Here’s a quote on brain plasticity:
          “Researcher Jay Giedd used MRI scans to discover that at the beginning of puberty (age 11 for girls, age 12 for boys) there is a genetically triggered burst of overproduction, creating a forest of new dendrites and synapses in several regions of the brain, providing the opportunity for billions of new connections. This burst of growth is followed by a dramatic decrease in the number of synaptic connections (called pruning), a process that proceeds until the mid 20s. The teenage brain loses about 7 to 10% of its gray matter. This pruning gradually creates a more efficient, better integrated brain.”

          Not only are teens’ brains more plastic, they also produce higher levels of dopamine in response to rewards. Additionally, teen brains have less executive control (frontal cortex development), which is necessary for self-control and forseeing the consequences of actions.

          • J.G. te Molder says:

            And not using your imagination?

            Nothing, no effect whatsoever. That’s because today’s porn is bad, my god is it bad, so unbelievably boring and bad.

            Watching porn doesn’t get you any satisfaction, at all, because it’s so bad. This also ties in with studies of people getting desensitized to porn, which isn’t true. They didn’t get desensitized, the pron got bad.

            Back in the 80s and 90s, porn created a fantasy world, a story that was being told, and the sex was an integral part of it. If you even get a story or a fantasy world today, the sex usually has nothing to do with the story, let alone being an integral part of the fantasy.

            Sex scenes have gotten horribly long, and with usually nothing interesting to show at all. Five minutes and more of nothing but a close up of a penis going into a vagina, it’s just as stimulating as a close up of steam train piston moving in and out. While the most interesting things, the full body, the face, the eyes, the expression of the couples pleasure, is barely shown.

            The only place where there is still some good to be had, is in kink porn. Why? Because there’s no way they can make kink porn without at least some the fantasy, the kink, being present on screen. (Not that they’re not trying to get rid of it as well, mind you.) Porn viewers migrating to kink and not having enough with the non kink stuff, is not a sign of the viewers growing desensitized, it’s a show of how bad the porn’s gotten. Get a 90s or 80s porn and you can get off just watching, but not today.

            Nope, without fantasy and imagination, you get nothing out of today’s porn. You want to get something out of it, you need an active imagination, and take the few interesting bits shown on screen, usually the actor or actress you think is really hot, and we’ve them in an elaborate, imaginative fantasy of your own; otherwise it’s pointless.

          • Cecil Westervelt says:

            I don’t even know where to start with how limited and misleading that answer actually is. It also stems from an automatic assertion that the sexuality of young males is harmful to start with.

  8. I really liked this article. I’m sure there are other reasons people don’t want to have sex, but for some couples this might be an issue. The idea that doing things that are more intense may actually make the sex go downhill is something I haven’t seen before. The idea that people respond differently to being satisfied is also fascinating. For a couple that has that problem, this could really help.

  9. As mentioned, one of the main reasons that couples slow down or stop having sex is when the electricity declines after they have been together a while. Maybe the stress of everyday living starts to get to them, maybe the relationship’s give and take kills the juice, or maybe there are unresolved issues that surface, and kill the buzz. Either way, to go back to the title of the post, you do not, in fact, “need” sex, and it is not your wife’s (or husband’s) job to provide you with the sex you ‘need,’ that is a sure-fire way to kill the fun. Does the bank give money to people who ‘need’ it? No, and your spouse won’t give you sex, for long, when you ‘need’ it. The odd thing is that if you pursue what you really need, like finding a creative outlet, taking risks to get a promotion at work, reaching out to friends for connection, stepping into more *authentic* masculinity (or femininity) then you will be emotionally happier and more attractive, you won’t need your spouse to sleep with you for you to feel good about yourself, and therefore his / her sex drive will be more likely to come back.

    I am an Executive Coach who has been taking on a lot of work with relationship issues. I can help men and women create better relationships. You can contact me via my website (www.DarkMatterConsulting.com) if you want to learn more.

    David Kaiser, PhD

  10. Cecil Westervelt says:

    From what I have observed, in the majority of cases, reduction of sex is about control.
    It’s used as a method of causing ones partner to be uncomfortable in order to get something else. The act of denial is the point itself.
    This is most often the case with females. Given that the general idea is that sex is a need for men, and they can’t do without it, that makes such a scenario pretty nasty.
    With males, I have observed a tendency to start feeling defeated, unwanted, unloved. the psychological cost of being sexually marginalized, rejected most of the time, putting forth effort, being the one to initiate and so forth, easily outweighs any and all benefits.
    There is a massive disparity in attitudes about sex. Male sexuality is demonic, and should be fettered and frowned upon. Female sexual liberation, however is all positive. This moves into relationships, and damages them.

  11. Some couples turn to a swinging lifestyle to keep their sex life alive. Many swingers claim this actually saved their marriage and keeps them from cheating. However, I’ve known some that have broken up as a result of swinging as well.
    I agree with Maria, there’s a whole variety of factors that come into play when sexual problems start to arise in relationships and the right one needs to be diagnosed first before you can start making an action plan.

  12. I had the same problem. I ended up talking to my girlfriend about it and she broke down crying about insecurities and that I was better than her. I’m glad we had the talk because straight afterwards we had sex and it was exceptional :)

  13. In my younger years (Early 20′s) I felt that sex was a vital part of a relationship. I would make myself initiate it, and continue until she was absolutely spent from it, before anything was ever done to stimulate me. Most of the time, I didn’t even finish, but just snuggled up and went to sleep. Most every time, I felt like I was just doing it because it was what I had to do. So, after awhile, I began studying why this was. Why, in effect, I could not ever get excited about sex.

    The answer came not in a single flash, but as after watching and noticing things. It just didn’t feel good mentally. Sure, there was physical reflex pleasure, but it wasn’t in my mind. Equipped with this, I just simply stopped trying. It has been over 3 years now (I’m in my late 20s now) since my last sexual encounter, and I don’t even desire it any more, and I am still in a wonderful mentally loving relationship that I enjoy.

    I know this is a bit off topic and rambling, but I would invite people to study their own selves, study why they want sex, or can’t respond to it. You might just learn something about yourself, and stop being so blasted focused on this dull, dreary sex nonsense.

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  15. Being in the right mood is very important when it comes to having good sex. It would do wonders if the couple can talk about their insecurities and solve any problems.

  16. When it comes to enhancing male or female libido, a lot of factors play their role. Simply taking a pill or using a sexual enhancement gel will not do the trick. Mood setting, relationship status, stress in life and many other factors are involved.

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