Sex & Sexuality

When It’s the Man With the Low Libido

It is estimated that in the United States, 20 million married heterosexual couples live in sexless marriages. The cliché of the wife who puts off her husband, pleading that she has a “headache,” is well known. However, many men suffer from low libido as well.

Men are more reluctant to admit to having sexual problems than women. Marriage counselor Michele Weiner Davis, author of The Sex-Starved Marriage says that to lack an interest “in sex is to feel less than a man. Just thinking about low libido — let alone talking about it — strikes terror in men because it threatens the very foundation upon which their feelings of self-worth are based. No wonder they’re tight-lipped.”

Experts say that a marriage without physical intimacy is not necessarily a problem, unless one or both partners are unhappy with the situation. But “according to one study, approximately 15 percent of married couples are sexless: Spouses haven’t had sex with each other in the past six months to one year,” says Gynecologist Jen Gunter.

Often, one of the spouses is dissatisfied and when the problem is with the man, the situation can be delicate. A husband-wife team who surveyed 4,000 people for their book He’s Just Not Up for It Anymore, Susan Yager-Berkowitz and Bob Berkowitz, write that “A lot more men are often not in the mood” than you would think. And because they are so reluctant to admit it or discuss it, the problem can remain stagnant for years and be difficult to remedy.

There are multiple routes to libido problems for men. As they age, men are less reliably able to get and maintain an erection. This is normal, and natural, but many men feel excessive shame when this happens. If their partner expresses disappointment, their shame can intensify, causing them to be nervous, or even to be reluctant to engage in sex in the future.

Other problems can occur when a marriage goes through one of the many slumps and valleys that are ubiquitous. Childbirth, the daily demands of work and parenting, illness, and menopause, are just a few of the issues that can cause a temporary lull. But if the pause lasts too long, it can become more and more difficult to “break the ice.”

Often this is surprising and dismaying to a couple whose relationship may have been passionate in the beginning. They can misattribute the waning fire and worry that their love is fading. Actually, Helen Fisher and others have made a distinction between limerance, that glowing state of first love and long-term romance. The expiration date on this  first phase seems to be approximately two years (this can vary, of course) but after that an abiding love settles in that is less prone to the sparks (and arrows) aroused by passion. People also have varying baselines of passion, which can be masked by the ardor of new love.

Dr. Gunter says:

“New love is intoxicating, and I’m not being metaphorical. A functional MRI study suggests that new love activates the reward centers of the brain and, like opioids, increases pain tolerance. I wonder how much the drug that is new love affects libido? If some men and women are simply on a lower libido spectrum in everyday life, might they revert to that once this “love drug” subsides, leaving those with a higher libido frustrated”

Savvy couples accept this and find ways to heat things up if necessary. Many others enjoy routine sex that may not be surprising, but can be quite comfortable and satisfying.

Start the conversation