I've kept my own personal story mostly out of this blog, but I recently came across a question on Reddit that inspired me to write about how Z and I escaped from that trap that kills so many relationships when the passion declines after a year or two. And an old friend read it and encouraged me to expand on the story here. So here goes!
The questioner asked about HL/LL (high libido/low libido) couples who had managed to survive new couple burnout and have a successful sex life. I’m the lower libido partner (LL) in a successful long-term relationship that almost went the “dead bedroom” route after two years together. It was hard, but we figured out answers that worked for us. Twenty years later, we probably have more and better sex than 95% of the couples our age.
I can tell you what worked for us, but every couple is different. Whether anything is going to work usually depends more on the nature of the relationship outside the bedroom than inside it. If it’s solid, most libido differences can be resolved.
The BackgroundZ and I met and became a couple in 1992. Sex had started out being spectacularly good, but in retrospect, that was mostly the raw rush of intense emotion. We were head over heels in love, a first for both of us at 28, though neither of us were virgins.
In my case, that emotional intensity was compounded by a lot of anxiety, because I was completely out of my league. I'm short and skinny, flat chested, with no butt to speak of, and not the least idea of how to be sexy. I was the classic South Asian science nerd, with few social skills and no interest in boys, makeup, dancing, dating, or much of anything outside my lab. A femme fatale I am not.
Z, on the other hand, is tall, blond, athletic, handsome, and brilliant, and for a long time I felt like a fairytale prince had come slumming into my neighborhood and would inevitably move on. Other people didn’t help. Family and friends all warned me not to get too attached and for some reason our society as a whole is quite hostile to couples where the man is much better looking than the woman. As you can imagine, I was both infatuated and terrified of losing him, which lent real intensity – not to mention desperation! – to the sex.
After two years, though, I had finally accepted what he had figured out almost from the start: we are an incredibly good fit for each other. We sync perfectly at an intellectual level; we find the same weird things irresistibly funny; we're both fiercely loyal to the people we love; we're impatient with conventions in the same way; and we're total nerds, curious about just about everything.
Even the one big personality difference works for us, since he's shy and way too kind-hearted and people take advantage of him all the time, whereas I'm socially fearless and I'm often told that people find me intimidating. So I run interference for him and fend off the groupies and freeloaders and he supplies the charm and restrains my occasional Attila the Hun impulses. Our friends tell us it's like watching a very well-practiced "good cop/bad cop" routine!
As usual with new couples, a lot of the romantic intensity had worn off after a couple of years. In addition, I had finally faced up to the fact that doing science no longer made me happy. I had known from the age of 5 that I was going to be a scientist, and from age 10 that I was going to be a world-famous brain scientist.
But goals shift and interests broaden as people grow up, and by the time I finished my masters I knew I wasn't up for the monastic, single-minded PhD/postdoc/junior faculty/tenure grind, and by '94 I knew I didn't want to be a lab drone for the rest of my life.
Z, meanwhile had finished his post-doc and had been hired as an assistant prof, so he was facing exactly the kind of pressure (new courses to teach, pressure to publish and to write grant proposals) that I had shied away from. That included moving to a new part of the country and, for me, job hunting while trying to make a transition out of the only career I'd ever even considered for myself, in a city where I didn't know a soul.
That meant a tremendous amount of stress for both of us, and our sex life fell off a cliff. I not only had no interest in having sex, I felt numb when we did have sex. I started saying no, I’m not in the mood, and after a while Z almost stopped asking. We had sex less and less often and each time was unsatisfactory. This scared the hell out of both of us.
What saved us was our nerdiness. With my background in neuroscience and his in the social sciences and psychology, we turned ourselves into sex nerds, learning everything we could about sex, desire, arousal, marital happiness, and so on, to try to understand what was happening to us and how to fix it.
The BasicsIn retrospect, it seems obvious that stress was the primary problem. All I can say is that at the time it wasn’t obvious at all. This was before the Web even existed, and we floundered around looking for clues. But it was clear we weren’t alone, because there were hundreds of self-help and marital advice books out there, all aimed at couples whose sex lives have mysteriously vanished.
Most of these books promoted tricks for increasing novelty and riskiness and excitement, trying to recreate something like the vanished “thrill” of sex with a stranger or semi-stranger that people experience during dating and romance. And, of course, the "How to Spice Up Your Marriage!" approach only provides a short-term fix, because what is novel and exciting today is boring and routine tomorrow.
Eventually, we identified four problems that were messing us up. At the time, we didn’t have good labels for them. Since then, however, there has been a great deal of attention to all four in research and on the internet, so I will describe them using what we know now, not in terms of the vague ideas we had back then.
Asker vs. Guesser: I've gradually become convinced that the conflict between Ask culture and Guess culture is grossly underestimated in a lot of “dead bedroom” situations. It certainly played a major role in ours.
I’m an Asker and Z is a Guesser. To me, asking for a favor or being asked for one has low emotional cost, so I ask for what I want and I say yes or no when I'm asked for something, without worrying much about it. Pretty simple and straightforward.
But people raised in a Guess culture are taught that any request you make imposes a serious obligation on the other person, so you should never ask lightly. They’re also taught that turning down a request, especially from someone close to you, is a serious rejection that can threaten that relationship. So you are supposed to figure out in advance whether or not a request is going to be acceptable, and you're NEVER supposed to ask for something that the other person isn't willing to do. This means that Guessers agonize about making requests and about saying no to someone else's requests. They also think that anyone who repeatedly makes "thoughtless" requests – ones that get 'no' answers – is selfish, rude, and insensitive.
(This is also the sort of culture where you’re considered rude if you take the last cookie when someone offers it to you. You are not supposed to accept it until the other person has offered three times and you've said no twice. It’s a culture that involves a lot of indirection and subtlety and potential for misunderstanding, so it can also cause a lot of conflict between Askers and their Guesser in-laws!)
Guess culture rules seem clumsy and inefficient to me, but it's a system that works quite well as long as everyone was raised knowing the rules. Where it causes trouble is with mixed couples or groups. Compare these exchanges:
Two Askers: "Hey, hon! Can you grab me a beer?" "Nah, I’m busy.” "'K, no probs!" [Gets up and gets beer.]
Asker/Guesser: "Hey, hon! Can you grab me a beer?" "Oh, FFS, can't you see that I'm busy? My hands are full! You're so damned lazy!" "Jesus, I just asked! Why can't you just say no?"
(Or, worse yet, the Guesser silently interrupts what s/he is doing, fetches the beer, and stalks off, fuming resentfully about being asked to do something at an inconvenient time.)
Guesser/Asker: “Um… hey, hon, are you busy?” “Yeah, why?” “Uh, okay. … Um, when you’re done if it’s not too much trouble could you maybe bring me a beer on your way back?” “Sure, but it’ll be a bit. I’ve got my hands full right now.” [Awkward silence while the Guesser tries to decide whether it would now be considered rude to get up and go get the damned beer and the Asker tries to figure out whether that was one of those mysterious exchanges that is going to make the Guesser sulk for days.]
(Or, alternatively, there is no conversation, because the Guesser won’t ask, but feels neglected because the Asker didn’t say, “Hey, I’m up, want me to get you anything?” – which is what a Guesser thinks any polite, thoughtful person should do.)
This can get pretty pathological where sex is concerned. If the HL partner is a Guesser, initiating sex is risky and being told no is perceived as a serious emotional rejection. And the LL/Asker partner generally has no understanding of how deeply wounding that rejection is. So after a string of "no" answers the HL/Guesser stops asking, frequency of sex goes to zero, and the LL partner is mystified and feels unjustly accused of being responsible. Even when I was uninterested in sex, I didn’t understand why Z stopped asking, so I assumed he wasn’t interested either.
In the reverse case, you get a "chasing" dynamic, where the HL/Asker keeps asking and the LL/Guesser feels harassed, coerced, and abused and deeply resents it. So even though the LL/G often "gives in," it tends to be the worst kind of duty sex with no emotional connection for either person.
It's important to understand how this works, because the solutions to a “dead bedroom” problem are completely different for Guess/Ask couples, for Ask/Guess couples, and for Guess/Guess couples. (Ask/Ask couples don't have trouble with this part of the HL/LL problem.)
Responsive Desire: In established relationships about 10% of men and 50% of women never or rarely experience spontaneous desire for sex. Sex researchers call this pattern “responsive desire.” RDs (people who fit that pattern) aren't necessarily people with low libido, but we don't get horny unless we're in a specifically sexual situation, which means we depend on something or someone else to get us started.
When two RDs or two Guessers pair off, they need to do things like scheduling sex or it just dies out completely. It can be just as bad when an HL/Guesser like Z gets paired with an LL/RD like me, because Guessers hate asking and RDs seldom even think of asking unless it’s on their calendar.
The deeper problem with responsive desire isn’t really about libido. It’s that the partner with spontaneous desire (SD) doesn’t understand how a person can be in love and attracted to someone if they never initiate sex. The SD partner wants to be lusted after and feels unloved, unattractive, and undesirable if the RD never seems to WANT the SD partner. So it can really undermine the SD partner’s ego and self-image if their partner never initiates sex, even if the RD partner seems to enjoy sex and is usually happy to accept an invitation.
Arousal vs. Inhibition: Not all LLs are the same. Desire is best understood as the result of increasing excitation and decreasing inhibition, something that sex researchers call ”the dual control model of sexual arousal." As Emily Nagoski puts it, you have to turn on the ONS and you have to turn off the OFFS. People differ in how hard it is to do each of these, so there are a lot of different combinations and therefore a lot of different kinds of LLs.
I happen to be a sensual person who really enjoys sex once I'm in the mood, but I also often carry a lot of stress around because of my work and just who I am. And what we eventually figured out is that a high enough level of stress stomps on my brakes, killing my libido. So, in an important sense, my problem had a fairly simple solution once I knew what was happening, whereas someone else, with deep religious hangups, depression, or other emotional problems might be a completely different kind of LL.
But all too often the stock solution to low libido is to advise the couple to try to step harder on the LL’s accelerator – watch porn! get a vibrator! read erotica! dress sexy! get kinky! try bondage! have a threesome! – when the real solution for that person is to take pressure off the brake.
Often this turns into a never-ending series of demands for the HL partner to become sexier and more attractive – lose weight! go to the gym! get a six-pack! dress better! get a boob job! be more dom (or sub)!
But if the problem is with the LL partner’s “brake,” then pushing on the accelerator like this will have no actual effect on the LL partner’s libido. Meanwhile, putting all the blame and responsibility on the HL partner can be tremendously destructive to that person’s confidence and self-image.
We never went to those extremes, but Z still felt my lack of response as a major blow to his self-confidence. Most people experience unrequited love or passion quite often as teenagers and young adults and learn to deal with it and not to take it too personally. As a highly attractive teenager and man, Z had been the target of many unwanted crushes, but had never had his own affections unreturned, and at 30 it was a painful experience. Since then we’ve seen the same dynamic play out in a marriage where the HL partner is a beautiful woman, and her beloved husband’s loss of interest devastated her self-confidence and led to spiraling depression.
Duration Matters! As we discussed in detail in my last post, the duration of sex is critical for many LLs. Like a lot of women I’m fairly slow to warm up. There's a good deal of evidence that, on the average, women need sex to last longer, while men prefer to have sex more often. One indication of this is that, on the average, gay women – who don't have to accommodate male preferences – have sex somewhat less often, but spend MUCH longer on each encounter, with the result that they are far more likely than straight women to have orgasms and to have multiple orgasms.
Many women find that sex that takes less than 30 minutes of total time, starting from the first kiss or cuddle, leaves them unsatisfied, even if the act itself was enjoyable. HL women may respond to this feeling of incompleteness by demanding more sex; a lot of average women, as well as most LL women, respond eventually by losing interest and becoming aversive to sex, at least with the current partner. So having a lot of sexual encounters that are too short and not completely satisfying can either cause or aggravate low libido in many women.
In our case, we had done what many couples do over the first few years. We started out having sex every day and it became a routine. We got into the habit of falling into bed at the end of a long day and automatically having fast, intense sex.
When we moved, we had even less time than before and neither of us were getting enough sleep, so we were dead tired when we got to bed. Time for sex was competing with precious sleep time, so it "made sense" to skip the preliminaries and have sex quickly. But, in retrospect, this meant I never got fully aroused, never had an orgasm, and never felt satisfied, and sex rapidly became less and less enjoyable, and eventually began to seem unpleasant.
Finding AnswersOkay, by spelling out the problems in our case, I've kind of spelled out the solutions too, which makes it look easy. But back then, before the Web and in a much less open environment for discussing sex, it was hard as hell just to figure out what the problems were, much less the answers.
What we eventually concluded was that any answers we came up with had to deal with three things:
- Better ways to initiate sex (the Ask/Guess and Responsive Desire problems)
- Reducing stress in a major way
- Longer duration and better/more orgasmic sex
On stress, all of the pharmaceutical solutions had the potential side-effect of killing libido. As someone with some neuroscience training I was particularly skeptical about such a blunt sledgehammer approach to “fixing” the brain.
I had done a little bit of meditation and yoga over the years, and decided to get serious about that instead. I also switched from zen-styled meditation to vipassanā, now better known as mindfulness meditation. Z learned it with me and it has helped both of us reduce stress a lot.
We now know that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is the single most effective treatment for low libido, far more effective than any medication, but at the time we were starting out, this was mostly just a hunch on my part that reducing stress might help.
One of the people I had turned to for meditation instruction also told us that we should consider doing tantric sex, which addresses both stress and the duration/quality problem.
As readers of this blog know, the focus in tantric sex is on very deep relaxation and prolonged sexual arousal and orgasm, so this sounded perfect for us. The problem was figuring out how to do it.
At the time there were a lot of books and workshops that were heavy on the “spiritual” side of “sacred sex,” but none of them included any practical instructions. Even today, you can find hundreds of websites that present tantric sex as part of an elaborate hippie/New Age spiritual/mystical/religious thing, but include no practical instructions for the physical part of it.
But underneath all the religious obfuscation there are some simple principles for minimizing adrenaline and maximizing oxytocin during prolonged periods of sexual arousal. In addition to producing phenomenally good sex, following these principles has some pretty exotic effects on the human nervous system. These include a sustained euphoric feeling and some altered states of consciousness that are seriously weird and fascinating. It’s not surprising that pre-scientific people saw magical power in tantric sex and tried to find religious explanations for what was happening!
My meditation instructor introduced us to an older couple who had been doing tantra for more than 20 years and we were impressed by the closeness of their physical and emotional connection to each other. They introduced us to others, who introduced us to still others, and we saw the same pattern of long-term couples who were still as passionate as new lovers. And so I began my almost two-decade-long project of interviewing real tantric sex practitioners to find out what worked for them, a project that led eventually to this blog.
We discovered that a typical tantra session is usually around three to four hours, though some people shave that down quite a bit and others spread it out over longer periods:
- The first phase consists of general preparation and stress reduction, often including a shower or warm bath and meditation. (~ 30-60 min)
- The second, longest phase consists of a full-body, sensual massage for each person; the goal is very deep relaxation, but this time with a sustained period of sexual arousal and orgasm. (~ 45-60 min each)
- The third phase is a period of “couple meditation,” usually in intimate contact with each other with little or no motion, often with the woman sitting in her partner’s lap so they can stay closely connected; PiV penetration is optional but common, generally without any thrusting. (~ 10-30 min)
- The final phase is free-form conventional sex. (~ 10-45 min)
As you can imagine, the emphasis on deep relaxation techniques and extended time made it sound like tantric sex was tailor-made for our needs, and the stories about powerful full-body orgasms certainly didn’t hurt.
Tantric sex isn’t something you just pick up overnight, and it took us a while to figure out the techniques and to sort out the irrelevant religious cruft from the things that were actually important, so it took us the better part of a year to get fairly good at it.
But deciding to learn it was helpful almost immediately because it forced us to set a schedule for sex. Which brings us back to the first point about initiation. Finding 3-4 hours of guaranteed uninterrupted time for sex takes some planning. We eventually settled on Sunday mornings, because by that point in a typical week I’ve had Saturday to decompress from work. It’s also probably the one time when the rest of the world intrudes the least.
So we started scheduling one block of time every week when we both knew, without question, that something sexual was going to happen, even if it was nothing more than the exchange of full-body sensual massages. This solved the initiation problem by eliminating it. We could have scheduled more times, but just getting back to once a week was a big improvement. Neither of us wanted to tempt fate by pushing things.
What we discovered, however, was that the massages gradually turned into wildly successful sex, and having really good sex once a week reawakened my enjoyment of sex and made me receptive to and appreciative of the spontaneous sex that eventually started to crop up in mid-week. Z was very cautious about messing with a fragile situation by asking explicitly, but we’re both pretty high-touch affectionate people and sometimes cuddles turned into kissing that turned into groping, and so on.
The initiation process that we have evolved from that is a compromise between his SD/G style and my RD/A style, a little dance that has two parts. On a weeknight when he is interested, he uses an open-ended, non-verbal style of invitation that doesn’t require an immediate answer. And I follow a rule of either accepting enthusiastically or regretfully asking for a raincheck, which means that I make a commitment to myself to take the initiative the next free night.
So, for example, he comes over to where I’m reading or working and nibbles my ear or kisses the nape of my neck, and then wanders off. I finish whatever I’m doing, see that it’s close to bedtime, and take stock: Are there any good reasons not to have sex tonight? Am I working on a rush project? Do I have a (real) headache? Would tomorrow night be better for some good reason? If so, I apologize and promise a raincheck.
But if there’s no substantial reason for saying no, I take a few minutes to visualize having sex, and to think about how good it feels, and in general take some time to get myself into the mood. Then I go over and kiss or hug him, and say something like, “Let’s go to bed early, hmmm?” and things move naturally from there.
We almost always take at least an hour from first kisses to the last after-sex cuddles, but typically only 10-20 minutes of that is standard vaginal sex. The most important part of the extra time is actually the “pre-play” – close, affectionate, physical contact, holding, stroking, and kissing each other, gradually transitioning to foreplay and “moreplay” and finally “normal” sex.
Summing UpDuring our worst period, I think we had sex three times in about five or six months. The end result of this adventure, more than twenty years later, is that we’re still having sex around three times a week, and those three times include many more total hours spent on sex than we had experienced per week in the period after we moved in together when we were still in our 20s. (Roughly 5-6 hours per week now, versus 2-3 hours per week back then.) And I’m experiencing “saturation sex” that is so satisfying for me that I don’t have to depend on my innate drive or libido to want it.
The hardest part for me in all of this was just learning to say yes when I didn’t have a good reason to say no, and then taking those minutes to think about how good I always feel after sex in order to get myself in the mood. But what really makes this work for us is that Z is such a good, generous lover. He claims to get more pleasure from my orgasms than from his own, and he certainly acts as if that’s true, because he pampers and spoils me outrageously in bed, for which I am eternally grateful.
Scheduling helped. Understanding responsive desire and the Asker/Guesser dynamic helped a lot. Massage and meditation were critically important in solving our problem and are still vital tools for keeping the same thing from happening again. We probably could have gotten back on track if we'd never heard of tantric sex, but taking the time to have great sex was vital, and learning tantric sex is by far the easiest way to do that.
So that’s how we got our mojo back and why I’m such a passionate advocate for tantric sex!