As a relationship counsellor, this is a comment I have heard many times in a variety of ways. In my new book, The Relate Experience, which includes stories told to me by counsellors and former clients, I write about a couple called George and Sarah*.
In the first session Sarah said “We want to get our marriage back to how it was when we first wed.” The clue to the problem is here - when we first meet a new partner there’s excitement in the unknown and the sexual chemistry is strong. Two separate identities merge into a new and life affirming wholeness. After years together, the excitement inevitably fades. As long as there’s mutual respect, the ‘love’ remains, but the ‘in love’ bit - the passion, the lust and the excitement - may have subsided.
In an article for Psychology Today, psychotherapist Vikki Stark claims the statement “I love you but I’m not in love with you anymore” describes “the loss, on the part of at least one partner, of the pleasure of the other’s company”. Stark sees it as the “death knell” of the relationship. Well, it can be, but it depends on what exactly the person means by what they say.
If it’s a euphemism for being heartily sick of their partner, it may be that there’s no way back and that separation is the best thing for them. But it can equally signify that the intimacy has simply faded somewhere along the line, leaving a sense of loss and aloneness. This intimacy can be rekindled, but it usually requires a concerted effort from both partners and even the objectivity of a qualified counsellor.
A lack of intimacy often develops after the arrival of children. They take time, energy and attention, meaning one partner can easily feel side-lined. Sex sometimes suffers and often doesn’t return to the way it was before. In The Relate Experience, a former client, Sandra*, recalls, “we’d lost the intimacy, but at the time I couldn’t have said that because I wasn’t conscious of it.” How often do we feel in relationships that something is wrong, but are actually unaware of what the problem is?
It isn’t surprising that passion can fade when relationships mature. In one study, Stony Brook University in New York interviewed 274 couples and found “a drop in very intense feelings for those married over twenty years”. This decline is almost certainly inevitable and perfectly natural for couples living, holidaying, socialising and sleeping together. But if there’s still a lot that’s good in a relationship it can hold together. Interestingly, the study also found that intense feelings increased again after thirty years. Could the effort to stay together and work through problems bring renewed affection?
Love and sex news: in pictures
Love and sex news: in pictures
1/10 'Female Viagra' approved
A drug dubbed the ‘female Viagra’ has finally been approved by the US Food and Drug administration but concerns have been raised over the drug’s possible side effects. Flibanserin, produced by Sprout Pharmaceuticals, was approved by the FDA on the third application in five years – after twice failing over concerns regarding possible side-effects.
2/10 Grindr users surveyed on sexual preferences
Grindr users are not that gay, at least according to a new survey. More than 300 users on the gay dating app, contacted by Pink News as part of an informal study, did not identifying as exclusively attracted to men. The study used the Kinsey scale, based on the work of sexologist Alfred Kinsey, which ranges from 0 (exclusively straight) to 6 (exclusively gay) and also allows identification as asexual (X). Pink News found that the average answer was around five, with the most frequent answer being five, followed by six and then four when they contacted users from their office in central London.
3/10 Watching porn does not cause negative attitudes to women
The average porn user may have more egalitarian views towards women than non-users, a contentious new study has suggested. Researchers at Western University in Canada have even argued that many pornography fans might be “useful allies” in women’s struggles for equality in the workplace and in public office. They reported in the Journal of Sex Research that the 23 per cent of people who said they had watched an “X-rated” film during the previous year were no more or less likely to identify as feminists than those who did not watch porn.
4/10 The characteristics of men who pay for sex
Men who pay for sex share similar traits to rapists and sex offenders, according to new research. A study from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), claims that men who have sex with female sex workers feel less empathy for them than men who do not buy sex. Part of this reason is due to the fact that they view them as "intrinsically different from other women,” according to the authors.
5/10 How much sex we have (and how much we'd like)
As a nation, we don’t have as much sex as we would like, a survey has (somewhat unsurprisingly) confirmed. In a poll of 1523 people by YouGov, 64 per cent of Britons said they would wish to have sex at least a few times a month. The same sample said that only 38 per cent had sex at least a few times a month. In addition, 10 per cent said they wished to have sex every day, a goal which only 1 per cent admitted reaching.
6/10 One per cent of Britons 'have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all'
An estimated 1% of Britons have almost no interest in sexual activity, according to researchers. The identity, which describes rarely or never experiencing sexual attraction, has moved from a diagnosis of mental disorder in the past to a sexual orientation in its own right today. As public interest in “asexuality” grows, researchers at Glasgow University have found that romance and intimacy is still very much on the cards for those who take the label.
7/10 Women really are more attracted to men who make them laugh
Researchers at an American university have claimed that humour is a key factor in human “sexual selection”, with women appearing to be more attracted to men who make them laugh. Jeffrey Hall, an associate professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas, found that when two strangers meet, the more times a man tries to be funny and a woman laughs, the more likely she is to be interested in dating. The reverse was not true for women who attempted humour, according to his study “Sexual Selection and Humour in Courtship: A Case for Warmth and Extroversion,” which has been published in the Evolutionary Psychology journal.
8/10 What makes a perfect penis?
Scientists have now answered one of these great unknowns. According to a new study, “general cosmetic appearance” is the most important penile aspect when it comes to what women value down there. This is swiftly followed by the appearance of pubic hair, penile skin, and girth. Length comes in at number six, with the look of the scrotum trailing closely behind. The least important facet of the phallus, say the scientists, is the “position and shape of meatus”, the vertical slit at the opening of the urethra.
9/10 Students who marry after studying the same subject
Picking a university subject is already difficult enough for young people. But here’s an extra piece of data to weigh on your decision: you may be picking a life partner as well. Dan Kopf of the blog, Priceonomics, analysed US Census data and found that the percentage of Americans who marry someone within their own major is actually fairly high. About half of Americans are married, according to the 2012 American Community Survey (part of the Census). And about 28 per cent of married couples over the age of 22 both graduated from college. (The survey didn’t recognise same-sex marriages for the 2012 data, but it will for 2013 onwards, says Kopf).
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
10/10 Half of divorcees had doubts on their wedding day
Over half of divorcees considered abandoning their husband or wife-to-be at the altar on their wedding day, a new study has revealed. On top of likely worrying about wedding favours and making sure guests behave on their big day, 49 per cent of divorcees admitted they were unsure before the ceremony that their marriage would last. Some 15 per cent of divorcees polled said they were so wracked with doubt that they felt physically sick in the run up to their wedding.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
The question of what we value is also important. Relate’s recent study, The Way We Are Now 2015 suggests that “age seems to have an impact on the importance we attach to our sex lives,” but also significantly “while 73% of those aged 25-44 said that a good sex life is important to them, both older and younger respondents tended to rate sex as less important.” Despite intense and regular focus on sex in both social and traditional media, maybe many of us are realistic and do understand that while sex is very important in a relationship, it isn’t everything and can be improved.
That’s what Simon and Carmen* found too. A period of abstinence, flirtation and rekindling what first attracted them to each other intensified their almost non-existent sex life. They rediscovered what they loved about each other, which had become lost in the pressures of parenthood and day to day demands, and their relationship flourished once more.
Perhaps ultimately we need to consider what psychotherapist, Dr Jeremy Holmes calls “the paradox of intimacy” which “can only be achieved if [partners] can negotiate separateness more or less successfully”. Intimacy is a deep need in all of us. Without it we can’t thrive. In a relationship each partner entrusts their intimacy to the other. In the early years that can be exciting and satisfying but if that intense feeling of intimacy fades, a relationship can become very unsatisfying, maybe even scary.
For many couples, there’s often an understanding that it’s not the other partner’s fault. It’s still possible to love them. Returning to a successful relationship from this point requires negotiating a new recognition of the other as a separate person. If that can be achieved, a new freedom can be found and the path is clear to fall in love once again.
*Names have been changed.