Men's Health: Reviving Mate's Sex Drive

Old joke: Q: How do you get a woman to stop having sex with you? A: Marry her.

For many guys, unfortunately, this is no wisecrack; it's real life. Night after night they approach their partner for sex; night after night their partner has a headache — or else she's taking the concept of "must-see TV" way too seriously.

But a libido doesn't lag without cause. If your mate isn't as stoked for sex as you are, there's a reason. Here are seven common causes of a flagging sex life, and seven ways to raise the spirit so it flies again.

Talk About It

Reason #1: You don't discuss sex, ever. "For all I know, my wife wants more sex, too," says Dave (not his real name), a 32-year-old computer programmer who has been married for 14 years to the high-school sweetheart he still loves very much. "But sex isn't something we talk about. I'm afraid I'd hurt her feelings if I told her there was something wrong with our sex life. Besides, I don't think we should have to talk about sex. It ought to be one of those things that just happens, the way it used to."

Ah, the way it used to. Once that initial, steamy attraction settles into something calmer, the "don't ask, don't tell" policy doesn't cut it any longer.

What to do: If you and your wife already talk easily about other aspects of your relationship and feel happy with your marriage except in this one area, broach the subject of sex without blame or defensiveness, says Clifford Sager, M.D., a New York psychiatrist who treats couples with sexual problems.

Patricia Love, Ed.D., a couples therapist and co-author of Hot Monogamy: Essential Steps to More Passionate, Intimate Lovemaking, suggests telling your wife something like, "I'm feeling really sexy tonight. I'd like to make love to you," or "I would really love it if we had sex tonight. I'm really turned on by you." Then give your wife a fair chance to react. If neither of you has mentioned the "s" word before, she may be stunned by its sudden appearance. But she may also be relieved that the topic is finally up for discussion.

Get Help

Reason #2: The chicken-and-egg problem. Another reason couples stop having sex is that, well, they've stopped having sex. "When some couples get stuck on sex frequency, they polarize around it," says Helen Crohn, a New York clinical social worker and sex therapist. "He's feeling so hurt and rejected that he's become insulting, angry, and resentful. She's so defensive and upset with how he's treating her that whatever little sex they used to have has just about stopped." And things only grow worse when they look for a solution: He says if they'd just start having sex again, everything would be OK. She says everything has to be OK before she'll feel like having sex with him again.

What to do: If you and your mate are truly at a standoff and every attempt to discuss your sex life turns into an argument, make an appointment to see a marriage counselor who's certified in sex therapy. "Very often the sex problem is really a secondary problem, and there's another issue that has not been addressed," says Crohn. "The point is to get the problems sorted out."

Make Her Feel Appreciated

Reason #3: You've stopped chasing her. In a new relationship, a man's testosterone is usually driving him to fulfill his sexual desires. So he'll find all sorts of ways — gifts, compliments, extra attention — to make a woman feel special enough to open herself to him sexually. In turn, she feels desired, loved, and trusting — all of which makes her more amenable to lovemaking.

As the relationship ages, though, a man's work, family, and hobbies often take up more and more of the time he used to devote to treating his mate like a queen. This doesn't mean that he's no longer interested, but to his wife it may seem that he no longer desires her in that special way. So she becomes less interested in sex, which makes him even less interested in doing the things that made her want him in the first place.

What to do: Do something, man! Come home early from work and surprise her by fixing dinner; hold her hand in front of your buddies; let her know that even after all this time together, you still think she's the coolest thing going and that you're the luckiest guy in the world for being able to spin in her orbit. Then do both of you a favor: Don't slack off by being romantic only when you want sex; she'll see through that in a heartbeat. If this woman is the love of your life, treat her that way even when you're not in the mood.

Motherhood and Sexuality

Reason #4: She's a new mom. There's nothing like a baby to derail your sex life. The first months of motherhood are a roller coaster of emotional highs, exhausted lows, and powerful epiphanies about what it is to be a woman, a wife, and a mother. An increase in prolactin, the hormone that stimulates milk production, is one reason for a drop in sexual interest, but there are other causes. "A woman may have confusing new feelings about different parts of her body, which until now she may have thought of only in a sexual way," says Karen Kleiman, director of the Postpartum Stress Center in Rosemont, Pennsylvania. Fatigue and stress, her changing body and self-image, vaginal dryness due to hormone changes, and worries about becoming pregnant again can also significantly affect libido.

What to do: Take it slowly. Even though most women can have sex four to six weeks after delivery, it often takes longer for them to feel physically and emotionally ready to rock your cradle. Give your wife space, but keep talking, too, says Kleiman. "Discuss alternatives to intercourse — holding, cuddling, and other consistent forms of affection. Or maybe you'll decide you don't mind putting sex on hold for a while. The key is for the man not to feel rejected, and for the woman not to feel there's something wrong with her."

Make Her Feel Good

Reason #5: She's depressed. A decline in sexual interest is one of the markers clinicians use to diagnose depression. Your girl can have what seems to be the greatest life in the world and still be felled by a sense of bleakness and despair.

What to do: If you suspect that your partner has more than a passing state of the blues, the worst thing you can do is harangue her about her lack of sex drive. Instead, tell her how much you love her, and acknowledge her depression in a sympathetic manner. "The next step is a psychiatric or psychological evaluation, including a complete physical examination," says Dr. Sager.

Reason #6: Body stuff. Even if you find your partner as beautiful as the day you met her, she may be feeling self-conscious about how childbearing, gravity, and age have changed her shape. "My wife says she feels foolish having sex because everything jiggles," says Bill, a 42-year-old engineer whose partner has gained 20 pounds since their wedding day 20 years ago. "My feeling is, who cares? But she doesn't believe me."

What to do: Ask yourself whether you've been adding to her self-consciousness by nagging or teasing her about her weight or lack of firmness. If you have, you're reaping what you've sown: Who wants to have sex with someone who's made it clear that he doesn't like the body he's holding? Instead, keep reassuring your partner that she's immensely desirable and that your lovemaking is about more than what your bodies look like.

Get Her in the Mood

Reason #7: She's not turned on by what turns you on. Satisfying sex means different things to different people, and it's self-centered to suppose that other people's sexuality mirrors our own. This assumption, says Love, is the number-one problem in relationships.

This was the case with Charlie, a 39-year-old architect, and Cathy, his wife of 12 years. Two years ago, Charlie looked at his sex life and didn't like what he saw — a well-meaning husband who wanted quickie sex five times a week, and a loving wife who'd accommodate him, oh, every 10 days to two weeks. When Charlie would approach Cathy for sex, she'd complain that he was distant, that quickie sex made her feel as if she was being used.

What to do: If you want more sex with the woman you love, start creating the emotional conditions she requires to feel like having more sex.

"I started calling during the day just to say hello," Charlie says. "I paid her compliments, asked about her day, and started talking about how I was feeling, which I hate to do. But it made her feel closer to me, and that made her want to have sex with me more. It got us unstuck."

Charlie is a numbers guy, so he's been logging his progress on a calendar (a fact he hasn't shared with Cathy, since she'd probably brain him). A year ago, he and Cathy made love seven times in one "quarter." This fiscal, they're up to 34 times and counting. Charlie's discomfort with becoming more of a snag (sensitive New Age guy) is outweighed, he says, by his wife's happiness, which registers frequently in the bedroom, on top of the washing machine, under the dinner table — wherever the feeling strikes.