I’ve been seeing iterations on the same, frantic question on message boards in recent weeks. Maybe it’s a sentiment driven by too much together-time and way too much stress, but it can strike any couple, in any era: “I don’t feel ANY desire anymore. What do I do?!”
I can relate. Two years ago, I abruptly (and temporarily, thank God) lost my sex drive. Not like: “I’m less horny than usual, but could get fired up with the right moves.” More like: “I seriously want none.”
I knew it wouldn’t be healthy to “just go along with it” while ignoring my feelings, but I also knew it wouldn’t be right to leave my partner wondering why he was being denied. Having been in something of a sexless relationship before, I knew the importance of healthy communication surrounding disconnects in desire. It’s the first rule of preschool: “Use your words.” It should be the first rule of sex too. So I initiated a dialogue that honored my needs, reassured my partner, bought me some months to figure myself out — and ultimately preserved our bond.
Can you do this too? Sure. Just ask yourself two questions: Am I an emotional adult? And am I mature enough to be having sex in the first place? If you can answer yes to both, you’ll do great! First, though, a quick disclaimer:
This piece is aimed at adults in healthy situations. If your partner is abusive and/or seems predisposed to turning destructive at feeling challenged or “rejected,” then you should instead talk to a counselor about how to stay safe while maintaining your boundaries. And if your partner tries to harm, force, or threaten you, seek help. Safety first. Always.
1. Don’t assume you must make a big deal of it right away.
It’s fair if you don’t immediately turn this into “A Thing” that requires “A Talk.” It’s totally normal for anyone’s desire to wax and wane, so it’s cool if you want to gamble on yours coming back by… well… whenever feels normal for you guys. For now, you can simply say something like: “I’m not sure what’s up, but I really don’t feel like I want to do anything sexual lately. Don’t worry, it’s not about you. Let’s just keep things PG until I feel more normal again.”
But since it might take longer than expected for your sex drive to come back, it’ll help if you can pinpoint some of your reasons. Hence, the next item…
2. Take time to figure yourself out.
Don’t wait for your partner to say or do something magical to turn you back on. The moment your libido goes M.I.A., it’s already time to start analyzing why. On the one hand, a dip in desire might be telling you something important about the health of your body, mind, and/or relationship. On the other, your partner deserves not to be left guessing — and any explanations might help them better meet your needs going forward.
In my case, it was an enormous blend of reasons: an oppressive heat wave, a fear of getting pregnant (for medical reasons, I can’t use the most reliable forms of contraception), a fear of aging out of my eggs, and questions of whether I should end my relationship in response to those fears (although our bond was very rewarding, we both knew it wasn’t a “love of our lives” thing). On top of all this, I was hosting him while he house-hunted for a move to my city, so I was freaked out and short on personal space. Ultimately, I realized I was still interested in sex in general; I just lacked the energy for the emotional concerns that got mixed up in our sex life in particular.
Those reasons might give you some ideas. Identify as many of your own as you can: health stuff, money stuff, feelings stuff, anything. Then…
3. Initiate a more serious talk to explain things.
While it’s okay to take time to sort out your feelings, there’s no reason to leave your partner hanging indefinitely. That is, you can totally abstain as long as you want, but you eventually need to address this. Why?
- They might incorrectly assume they’ve somehow failed to measure up (and therefore feel needlessly sad or inadequate), and
- It’s constructive to let them know if there’s some way they could help you feel better in or about your relationship.
How did I manage this? I told my partner all my “stuff,” from the mundane to the serious. The heat wave, the stress about sharing a tiny space and disrupting my routine to help him navigate his relocation, but most especially my worries about pregnancy and fertility in light of the fact that we’d always mutually realized our relationship wasn’t headed towards marriage and kids in the first place. I admitted I was still unsure when or how things would resolve, but that this was as much as I understood for now and would update him if anything became clearer.
Even if you’re still not sure of all your reasons, though, you still need to talk. Because it’s unhelpful and insensitive not to. So here’s a possible starter: “You know, I’ve been trying to figure out why I haven’t felt like having sex lately… and I’m not totally sure yet… but I think maybe these things are playing a role…” Go from there.
4. Reassure them.
Despite the fact that you’re skipping sex, it’s entirely possible to keep them feeling appreciated, desirable, and loved. So do that. You don’t need to go through the motions of pleasuring them. Just offer some sincere, kind words.
I emphasized, for instance, that this wasn’t a personal rejection. I told him I still loved him, I still loved our bedroom chemistry, I still thought he was hot, and he’d done nothing wrong — even if I was questioning whether our relationship, which I valued so much, was the kind of relationship I needed at that stage in my life. I also assured him that this was not about me having met someone else. Moreover, I emphasized that I wasn’t withdrawing my care or support; I was happy to keep hosting him despite my stress, because I understood the importance of his situation and was excited to help.
At the same time, I clarified what I wasn’t asking for: I wasn’t asking him to change anything at all about himself, much less go away and leave me alone. I wasn’t saying I wanted to go play the field or open up our relationship. And I wasn’t asking for us to transition into something more romantic or committed. I was just trying to figure out whether I wanted “us” to continue. That was all.
Offering (genuine) reassurance is extremely important if you want to protect your bond — or, at the very least, if you care about your partner’s feelings.
5. Let this become a two-way dialogue.
Ideally, your partner is respectful, will accept what you’re saying, and won’t get offended or try to make you feel guilty for taking a break from sex. They’ll be even more likely to take it well if you weren’t in the habit of withholding sex as a power play; they’ll know it’s not a manipulative ploy. Regardless, the whole situation might trigger some fears, needs, or concerns for them. Let them be vulnerable and share those.
Upon hearing me out, for instance, my partner started reflecting out loud about how the recent shakeups in his own life (shakeups that precipitated his move) had made him more confused than ever about starting a family. This became an opportunity for us to achieve deeper levels of emotional intimacy — which is what any such conversation should be able to accomplish. Appreciate that chance.
Now is also an awesome time to ask any question that’s nagging at you. Personally, I realized I was worried about his decision to move to Berlin: I needed to know whether he was doing that to be with me and whether he’d regret it if things ended between us. So I asked. His answers (which I trusted) neutralized one or two of my libido-killing worries. Try this. Ask.
6. Logistics: clarify what is and isn’t off-limits.
Maybe you don’t want one specific form of sex but are cool with all other forms. Maybe you’re fine with receiving pleasure but are too emotionally exhausted to offer it, and you don’t want things to be one-sided. Conversely, maybe you’re fine with giving pleasure but aren’t up for receiving… or maybe you’re not keen on giving while you aren’t able to enjoy receiving. Maybe you don’t even want to get handsy or indulge in deep makeout sessions because you’d rather not get horny at all. Anything’s possible.
On the flip side, figure out what you are okay with. Are hugs okay? Are quick kisses okay? There is no “wrong” preference here. And there’s nothing to be ashamed of. So state your boundaries. Your partner will appreciate knowing the rules of play.
7. Acknowledge the legitimacy of their need for gratification.
Here’s the delicate part. Most people enter relationships expecting some level of physical intimacy, and since sex and human touch are such hardwired biological needs, it can be demoralizingly difficult when opportunities for those things dry up. Since you likely don’t know when you’ll be in the mood again, you should be ready for the possibility that your partner won’t want to wait that long — and to talk about what happens if they decide they don’t.
You do not owe anyone any intimacy that you don’t want to give. Your boundaries are always valid. Regardless, there does come a point where it can be unhealthy and hurtful to expect continued monogamy and/or commitment from someone who has affirmed that their needs for affection (of any kind — including physical) aren’t being met. So if your boundaries and their desires no longer mesh, then you either need to find some mutually rewarding workarounds… or go your separate ways.
This was a serious conversation for me: since I’d expressed doubts about my desire to continue our relationship at all, I told my partner that I respected the fact that he had needs and that, if he felt too deprived, we could end the intimate aspect of our relationship at any time and go back to being platonic friends. He didn’t take me up on that offer, but we both felt better for the fact that I told him I didn’t expect him to wait forever. Meanwhile, we weren’t interested in opening up our relationship, but some people might decide that non-monogamy is the perfect solution.
There are lots of ways to manage this, and your partner might not even want to make any changes for now. But as long as you put the possibilities on the table for discussion, then hurtful surprises (e.g., cheating) are much less likely, and nobody feels trapped.
8. Promise an open line of communication while you figure it out.
Your partner will have fewer insecurities if you allow an open line of communication and agree to update them as things change. Meanwhile, while your relationship settles into a chaster groove, it’s important to keep reflecting on why your libido might have dried up and how you can remedy the contributing issues. If sex is something you enjoy, then it’s also something you deserve to enjoy. If you’ve lost the joy in it, it’s smart to talk to a counselor or physician; your body might be trying to tell you something helpful, and a professional can help you get the message.
Finally, once you think you have a solid grip on why you withdrew, then it’s time to tell your partner — and decide where to go from there. Either you’ll be returning to the usual festivities, or you’ll be moving on to some kind of new adventures. A win/win, whatever happens!