Long-term relationships can lose sex appeal

Thursday, October 7, 2004

They don't prepare us for it. They conveniently fail to mention it in Marriage 101. And even "Survivor" offers no clues on how to survive it. "Bed death" is what I'm talking about: when sexuality flees -- or sneaks out of -- the marriage bed.

It's not all that uncommon. As any therapist will tell you, "inhibited sexual desire" is one of the most common marital problems presented for therapy and definitely one of the most difficult to treat.

According to the 1994 survey "Sex in America," 20 percent of married couples and 40 percent of non-married couples have a non-sexual relationship -- defined as less than 10 times a year.

Other surveys show that one in three women qualify for the diagnosis. Men fare slightly better: One in seven win that prize.

However, despite all the chest-thumping that men typically do -- that they are ready, whenever, wherever -- it is actually men, after a certain age, who are the ones that will be more likely to go dead in bed. Beyond 40, a man's sexual response becomes less predictable whereas a woman's becomes more so.

Barry McCarthy, a psychologist from American University who has written many professional articles on the subject, explains that at 25, men are typically "autonomous sexual functioners," -- ready, willing and able at any moment. It is different for females. They are "interactive sexual functioners," more dependent on relational factors to arouse them.

As we age, we have to rely less on biology and more on the relationship; it needs to become more about partnership than performance. Women have been naturals at this for some time. Men, on the other hand, need to get on their learning curve if they are concerned about a moribund bed.

According to Dr. McCarthy, no one chooses nonsexual relationships. Instead, couples just fall into bad habits. Sexuality is avoided and gradually loses its priority status in the relationship.

Sexual desire is like any other behavior; if you ignore it or avoid it, it can become self-conscious and uncomfortable. "The positive feedback loop of anticipation, pleasurable experiences, and a regular sexual rhythm gives way to the negative feedback loop of anticipatory anxiety, failed performances, and sexual avoidance," writes Dr. McCarthy.

There are four components to healthy sexual functioning: desire, arousal, orgasm and satisfaction. When the focus in a long-term relationship is on arousal or orgasm, the odds for "bed death" increase. These are the aspects of the sexual act that, as we age, become less reliable and need to be de-emphasized.

Desire is the key element of a revitalized, healthy sex life. And critical to re-engaging desire is re-engaging positive anticipation.

One of the major reasons for negative anticipation in sex is unrealistic expectations. Let's not forget: Passionate-romantic sex lasts six months to two years -- even for the randy 20-year-olds.

Expecting Olympic feats or bunny-like sex after a certain point is definitely one way to increase self-consciousness and turn positive anticipation into anticipatory anxiety. Men, once they turn the corner at 40, rarely "report for duty" with an erection; women of a similar age are rarely awaiting their mate.

Just showing up together with a smile on your face is really what good sex is about in the long run.

I've got more on this topic. But you are going to have to wait until next week's column. Don't get upset, don't pout. Relax, anticipate. It is all good training for curing bed death.

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at mseabaugh@semissourian.com.

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