WebMD asked top sex experts to explain what happened to your libido and what you can do to get lovemaking back on track.
By Colette Bouchez
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
"I used to enjoy making love with my husband but now it's something I do just to get him off my case. I can't figure out where my sex drive went or how to get it back. "
"Once my partner and I 'get started,' I really enjoy our sex life. The problem is I just don't ever want to get started."
"I always thought my husband and I would be making love until we were 90. But I just turned 39 and my libido is nowhere to be found."
If these sexual issues sound familiar, you're clearly not alone. Experts say that a lack of interest in making love -- even with partners we adore in many other ways -- is not as unusual as we might think.
"A disappearing sex drive is a common problem -- sometimes in women as young as her 30's -- and while it hasn't reached epidemic proportions yet, I think we're only seeing a small portion of the women who are affected," says Rebecca Amaru, MD, a gynecologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
Indeed, in one global study of sexual problems published recently in the Journal of Impotence Research, up to 43% of women expressed a loss of sexual desire, beginning as young as age 40. Similarly, up to 36% of women who were having sex reported they weren't enjoying it.
Understanding Your Sex Drive - Or Lack of It
For some women, low sex drive or even the inability to have sex is linked to specific problems. According to renowned sex therapist NYU professor Virginia Sadock, MD, this can include illness, medications, or sometimes even a specific physical problem related to intercourse.
"It can also be the result of hormonal changes that begin in the 40's. A lack of lubrication, for example, makes sex less comfortable and over time that can dampen desire," says Christiane Northrup, MD, author of The Wisdom of Menopause (Hay House).
When low sex drive is health-related, experts say, the solution is easy.
"For some women all it takes is a little dab of either lubricant or estrogen cream on the clitoral area. You can't believe how many women suffer, not realizing how easy this problem is to solve," says Northrup.
But while for some women the answer might be as close as that tube on the nightstand, Sadock says, for many others the lack of libido is intimately linked to the complex emotional algorithm that makes up a woman's sex drive.
"If a woman is upset, confused, tired, if she is feeling overworked and under appreciated, even if she is not consciously aware of some problems within her relationship, I can promise you that a tube of lubricant is not going to be enough to make her feel like having sex," says Sadock.
Case in point, the Journal of Impotence Research study found that relationship problems were frequently at the heart of many women's low sex drive.
Moreover, Sadock says other studies found that even when a woman's body is turned on, she won't recognize it if she's not emotionally open to making love.
"In one study conducted in the Netherlands doctors found that even when measurements of vaginal lubrication confirmed sexual excitement, a woman didn't perceive desire if she was not in touch with the idea of being turned on," says Sadock.
This, she says, can also occur when self-esteem is low.
"When you don't feel good about yourself, if you view yourself as undesirable, then you'll push desire out of your mind as well," says Sadock.
Finding Your Sex Drive Again
So how do you coax your sex drive out of hiding?
For women who need a little encouragement that intimacy is still within their grasp, Sadock recommends giving fantasy a try.
"Put your partner out of your mind and focus strictly on sex," says Sadock. Imagine, if you will, having the most wonderful, delicious, glorious romp with anyone you desire -- a movie star, an old flame, a mysterious stranger -- and then see how you feel.
"Even if you don't get overwhelmingly excited, if you can at least feel a sense of openness about sexual excitement, then there is little doubt that your desire is still intact," says Sadock.
Ramp Up Low Sex Drive by Resolving Issues
"Many women are scared to even consider their relationship as the cause of their desire issues because they are afraid it means the marriage is over, but this is not usually the case," says Sadock.
Indeed, she says, most often it's not the catastrophic divorce-level problems that are standing in the way, but rather a compilation of small but very "fixable" issues that have just piled up over time.
"If you feel neglected, or taken for granted, if you're angry because he spends more free time with his brothers than with you, if you think that the only time he's nice to you is when he wants sex, these are often the kind of thoughts that eat away at a woman's sexual desire," says Sadock.
Amaru agrees and adds, "When I finally get patients to open up about what is bothering them, I often find they are simply overloaded in their life -- too much work, too many responsibilities, too much on their shoulders, with too little help and acknowledgement from their partners."
If, in fact, you can identify feelings of resentment or even anger, the next step is to talk to your partner -- but not in an accusatory way.
Experts say avoid phrases like "You make me feel lousy" or "You turn me off when you ... ." Instead, start by assuring your partner that you find him attractive and let him know this is about rekindling the great sex life you once had together.
"Few men can resist the opportunity to rev up their partner's sex drive," says Sadock.
Now that you've got his attention, let him know how much his affections matter to you and how sexy you feel when he tells you're pretty or shows his appreciation for the little things you do.
"Let him know that you need to feel he cares for and appreciates you all the time -- not just when he wants sex," says Sadock.
Also important: Spend time together alone away from the kids, the phone, the computer, the TV, even for just 20 minutes a day. The goal, says Sadock, is to relate to each other as man and woman -- not just mommy and daddy, or even husband and wife.
One of the sexiest things you can do, she says, is make a date for lunch. "It's an interruption of the business day, and it takes real effort to put other things aside even if you're just going for a pizza, it can be a powerful turn on for the both of you."
Sex Drive & Desire: Use It, Don't Lose It
For many women, taking these few steps can have an amazing and immediate impact on their libido. For others, it may take some time to get the mojo started again. What can you do help the process along?
If you enjoy sex once it's been initiated, remind yourself of that and go with it even if sexual desire isn't apparent at the start, advises Amaru.
"This is not about forcing yourself to have sex when you don't want to. This is about recognizing that once you get started you enjoy it, and helping yourself to get over the barrier so you can enjoy it." The more often you do that, she says, the more likely you are to reconnect with your desires.
Finally, if self-esteem is the problem, do whatever it takes to make yourself feel sexy and pretty again. "Buy the lingerie that camouflages what you don't like, get a spa treatment that makes you feel good, color your hair, go for the make-over, do what it takes," Sadock says.
Moreover, Sadock offers us this encouraging thought to keep in mind: "It is a psychological fact that when a man looks at a woman he has known for a long time, his mind blends how she looks at the moment, with how she looked when he first met and fell in love with her. So even if you see all the lines and creases and bumps and bulges, he really doesn't. You actually look a lot better to him than you look to yourself."
The fact that he wants to make love to you, says Sadock, tells you that he finds you attractive. So hold that thought and go for it.
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Rebecca Amaru, MD, a gynecologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, Virginia Sadock, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry, NYU Medical Center, New York City; Christiane Northrup, MD, author, "The Wisdom of Menopause" (Hay House); Laumann, EO, International Journal of Impotence Research, (2005) 17, 39-57; (http://www.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/llog/Laumann2005.pdf)
Reviewed on July 28, 2010
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