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My Partner Has Lost Interest in Sex

Dr. Olson,

I have been with my partner for 24 years and we still have a good relationship, but he has lost all interest in sex. He treats me well and really seems to care about me, but we haven’t had any sexual intimacy in almost three years. When I want to talk about it, he casually dismisses the subject. I miss having that physical intimacy and wonder if it’s okay to experience it outside my relationship with him.

For a variety of reasons, all couples, gay or straight, travel through sexual deserts, but a three-year trek through this desert is an unusually long period of time. First, let’s examine male sexual functioning in general terms. (You can get a copy of my handout on self-esteem on my website.)

I don’t like the term sexual performance. Sex is not a performance; we should not expect applause and a standing ovation when we are finished. Male sexual functioning is measured in four dimensions: desire, erections, ejaculation, and satisfaction. These dimensions vary from one individual to the next, and each dimension may vary within any single individual. As we age, desire, erectile function, and ejaculatory volume diminish, but many men sustain satisfying sexual activity late in life.

For most men, the volume of ejaculation doesn’t seem to matter much, and most men understand and accept that their sexual desire at age fifty isn’t going to be what it was at fifteen. On the other hand, men do worry a lot about their erections. As we age, several things occur: the strength of an erection diminishes, and a semihard erection can make penetrative activities more difficult; an erection is more easily lost, even while making love; and the recovery period between sexual acts can take longer. All these experiences can undermine a man’s confidence in his ability to engage successfully in sex.

Medications and medical problems (e.g., diabetes, prostate difficulties, or cigarette smoking) can diminish desire, interfere with having an erection, and lead to delayed or absent ejaculation. A combination of diminished desire along with erectile dysfunction or absence or delayed ejaculation can lead to a man’s wish to avoid having sex. Avoiding sex may seem preferable to a fear of failure. Stress can also be a significant contributing factor. Unresolved conflict in a relationship is frequently a cause for avoiding sex, but since you appear to love each other and your relationship appears to be good in all other ways, this does not seem to be your problem.

Although ejaculatory pleasure is intense, it isn’t essential. A satisfying sexual relationship as we age depends on recognizing that diminished desire, erectile difficulties, and delayed or absent ejaculation are not necessarily deal breakers. Men who sustain satisfactory sex lives as they age recognize that good sex is about physical intimacy—an expression of love in a slower and broader sense—and not just the moment of ejaculatory climax.

Ideally, the two of you would have a conversation about the situation, but from your note, it appears he is unwilling to do so. Since he is treating you in a loving way in every other way, try not to take his lack of interest in sex personally. He appears to care about you; he just doesn’t care about sex. Don’t compound the problem by blaming yourself for this difficulty.

Most men masturbate, even when in long-term relationships; people fall back on it for short- or long-term absence of sex with a partner. Masturbation is readily available and private, and it doesn’t require any negotiation with a partner. But some people use masturbation as a way to avoid conflict in a relationship when it exists, which should be avoided.

A decision about going outside of your primary relationship for sexual pleasure is an ethical one; in other words, I don’t have a universally true answer to your question. All relationships have rules; rules can be broken, but they can also be renegotiated. Although a discussion of this with your partner would be preferable, after over twenty years in the relationship and even lacking any discussion, you likely know how your partner would feel about this. Would he be indifferent? Would he feel betrayed?

Having a sexual partner outside of your primary relationship has risks. Not only do you risk getting sexually transmitted diseases, you risk believing you have finally discovered your true soul mate, interfering with your commitment to your partner. Some men are more successful than others in partitioning off sex as nothing more than a one-off moment of sexual pleasure. The correct answer to your question may not be the best answer for someone else.

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