We have all sorts of ways to describe the loss of desire in a long term relationship. We call it "bed death." We say that our love life is "flat" or "stale." Sometimes we don't even bother with metaphor and talk about "sexless marriages." Conventional wisdom these days suggests that it is inevitable that an interest in wanes in a long term relationship.
Social scientists have come up with theories to describe this. They distinguish "passionate love" from "compassionate love,". More recently they have begun pointing to fMRI research which they say shows how the brain "centers" light up in different ways, proving that at first love is like a drug, and later on it's more like a glue.
Of course there isn't any real science to human relationships. At least not in the sense that there are observable phenomenon one can isolate and study in a replicable way. It sells books, and makes for good stories, but from a certain perspective those stories are no truer than stories of love found in folk tales, Shakespeare, or Harlequin Romances.
Does Sex Get Stale?
When people say to me that their sex life has gone stale the first thing I want to know is what, precisely, they mean by that. Our discomfort and shame around sex often lead us to not ask questions when we should. To assume that we all know what a person means when they say their sex life is over. But we don't. Sex going stale could mean a thousand different things. If we continue the analogy of food going stale, then we are talking about a change in the taste of a thing. The flavor is gone. Eating it might make you sick. It isn't as it once was and as it is supposed to be. But does this work for our sex lives?
Certainly the first time you have sex with someone new it will feel different than sex with someone you've had sex with a hundred times before. This has a lot to do with the veil of familiarity that falls over a relationship and actually blurs our sexual experience somewhat. When you are familiar with a partner you imagine you already know everything there is to know about their body. You no longer wonder what will happen next, how far it will go, whether or not you'll enjoy it or not, will it be the best sex you've ever had? All of these questions probably run through the minds of people having sex with someone new. Familiarity settles you into an illusion that these questions have been answered. They haven't, of course.
You can have sex 100 times exactly the same way and think that you've discovered all there is to discover about each other. But then, if you change the rules about who does what, how, where, when, and even why, and have sex, that 101st time can feel like the first time. Part of what's missing is the genuine risk and exposure. Great sex usually involves some vulnerability. When you think you have nothing to risk, routine can set in.
Returning to the metaphor of sexual staleness we find it doesn't really hold up. It is descriptive; that is to say that it can feel like your sex life is stale, without flavor. But it doesn't explain the situation. If you bite into a piece of fruit and it tastes awful, the answer to the question why, may be that it has gone off. If your sex life is boring, the answer isn't simply that you've been at it too long.
Is Freshness the Key?
Yet this seems to be a pervasive idea, that the key to great sex is "keeping it fresh". You have to start by asking yourself what, in the organic world, stays fresh forever? The answer, of course, is nothing. Kraft cheese slices and fruit roll ups don't count. Everything that lives changes. That's inevitable. Maybe the problem isn't with the word fresh as much as it is with our focus on form and not perspective. We often think that making things fresh means doing new things. Incorporating new sexual activities, for example. As opposed to fresh as a perspective. Freshening up your sex life has a lot more to do with changing up your perspective than it does with changing where and how you do it. Although in fairness sometimes we need to change what we do in order to help us be able to see things differently. Change your usual route to work in the morning and all of the sudden you notice things in your neighborhood you hadn't before.
Sometimes It's Not the Food, It's the Eaters
Every long term relationship has conflict. Whether the conflict is explicitly about sexuality or your sex life, often trouble in a relationship plays out in the bedroom. Sex is a place where most of us feel some insecurity and some ignorance (both about our own desires and about what our partner really wants). So it's a soft spot, or an easy target if we're looking for a way to argue, whether or not the argument is really about our sex life.
Because we often remain silent about sex it's also a perfect scapegoat. You may be struggling with work, you might find yourself surprised by the course your life has taken. You may be dealing with aging parents, or feel overwhelmed by responsibilities of raising kids. You might be just trying to keep your head above water financially. All of these feelings matter and they need to be addressed or deal with in some way. Believe it or not, it can be easier to let it be about your lousy sex life.
When we say that sex goes stale, it's as if we are removing ourselves from the equation. If you like the analogy of staleness it might be more apt to say that it isn't sex that goes stale, but rather our taste buds that change as a result of neglect. The good news is that your sense of taste can come back. It does require that you start paying attention not only to your stale sex life but to your relationship and life as a whole.
Become Your Own Sexual Food Inspector
Let's wring every last bit of usefulness out of this metaphor and consider the good sex life gone bad as a problem of staleness. The answer, I would say, is to become your own food inspector. You can't trust the expert food inspectors here. The science of great sex and healthy relationships isn't like the science of food safety and disease. If your sex life has changed for the worse in a long term relationship, you need to start by identifying the markers of freshness and staleness in your sex life.
What does fresh mean to you? What is is that you want out of your sex life? Don't only think of frequency of sexual activities think about what you get and want out of your sexual life. If things have changed, what is it that you miss? Or maybe there was something that was never there. It's not helpful to just say "I want things to be the way they were." It's also not possible. Bring a fresh perspective not only to the problem but to your sex life.
What are the signs of staleness? It may be inevitable that we go through periods in a long term relationship when we neglect the relationship. Life is full and complicated and we can't pay deep attention to everything all the time. But a relationship that is neglected will almost certainly wither in some ways, and often sex is the first thing to go. Take some time to think about how you got here. Were there signs? Do you remember the first time you felt that something had changed? Did you talk about it then? Have you talked about it since?
Change can seem threatening to a relationship, and so we often won't bring it up. But change is inevitable, and talking about it, addressing it, certainly doesn't make a couple less likely to stay together. In fact it may make you better able to change together or to weather whatever individual changes you are each going through.
Ask for Help
You can do all your own research, you can introspect till the cows come home, but sometimes when a relationship is stuck, you need help in the form of a third person who isn't a friend or family member. Finding a good couples counselor or therapist can make a huge difference. If sex is the most pressing issue, finding a therapist who is comfortable talking about sex, or finding a sex therapist, may be a good first step.