Complaints of sexual slumps are pretty common, especially in long-term relationships. In fact, according to a CNN health report, more than half of Americans are dissatisfied with their sex lives and over 40 million Americans feel like they are stuck in a sexual rut. Those are some big numbers.
I don't report these big numbers to be discouraging. I think we have enough overestimation of sexual problems going on in our society, especially toward women in light of the current focus on the pharmaceutical race to find a desire drug for women.
I do report those big numbers to offer a potentially alternative way to look at your sex life if it does feel like you're in a bit of a slump.
Research has consistently shown that sexual and relationship satisfaction are very much related. Though the issue of what came first is less understood.
Some attempts have been made to untangle this. For example, Dr. Sandra Byers published a paper in The Journal of Sex Research that examined sexual and relationship satisfaction longitudinally. After measuring satisfaction over the course of 18 months, Byers concluded that sexual and relationship satisfaction do appear to change concurrently, but more complex models are necessary (e.g.: longer time period, more measurement points, larger sample, dyadic sample) to fully understand the connection.
In 2002, Dr. Susan Sprecher published a study that sampled couples, and found that as one satisfaction improved so did the other, and vice versa, but did not solve the directionality issue. Also, most of this research has been conducted in heterosexual samples, certainly limiting the generalizability of the results.
There are entire books and theoretical frameworks based upon sexual and relationship satisfaction being interconnected. Constructing the Sexual Crucible is a book that was written by David Schnarch years ago (1991) and discusses how to apply this concept to couples therapy. Some sex therapists use sex as a window to the relationship. So, when the sex is suffering, it is an indicator something has gone awry.
Although all of this research supports that sexual and relationship satisfaction are heavily intertwined, we really don't know whether one is more important than the other, and we don't know which one comes first. Maybe this is different for different couple dynamics, or maybe there isn't one direction and they are bidirectionally related.
We do know that sexual slumps are a natural part of a long-term monogamous relationship. Desire ebbs and flows, both throughout an individual's life and throughout the context of an individual relationship. So, I think it is useful to come up with strategies to minimize the impact this may have. If we want to use science to inform these strategies, I suggest that if you're feeling like your sex life is in a slump, it may be worth looking to your relationship for potential causes.
Often, women (and men) discount the possibility that perhaps their relationship may be the culprit for a sexual slump. But why would you want to have sex with a partner who isn't pulling their weight on the home front? Why would you want to have sex with someone who doesn't appreciate you? Why would you want to have sex with your partner when you don't feel confident about yourself? These are all very valid and common reasons for not wanting to have sex, but your partner won't know to make more of an effort if you don't allow yourself to be vulnerable and let them in on your thoughts.
So, although the issue of what came first -- the lack of desire or relationship troubles -- is a scientific question yet to be answered, it may be worth a try in your own life to put this theory to the test. When you do something to improve your relationship, does your sex life benefit? What about the other way around -- when you make an extra effort in the bedroom, does your relationship improve? There certainly won't be any harm to come out of this little experiment, and you may just find yourself shifting away from the slump.