Too Tired for Sex?
There could be a number of things going on in your body and brain that make sex feel like a low priority item.by Sarah Ellis Health Writer
It’s been a long day, and you’re finally crawling into bed with a book that will help lull you into some much-needed shut-eye. Just as you’re settling in, your partner rolls over toward you and gently takes the book out of your hands. “Not tonight,” you say, trying your best to stave off their advances. “I’m just too tired right now.”
We’ve all been there—those times when sex sounds fun in theory, but in reality, a nap sounds way more appealing. Everyone has low-energy days, that’s just part of being a living, breathing human. But if your sex life is starting to suffer because you’re always feeling too tired to get it on, you may want to examine the roots of this more closely. Otherwise, your relationship and happiness may suffer over time.
Identify the Why
The sleuthing mission starts with understanding what you mean when you say, “I’m too tired for sex.” Sheryl Kingsberg, Ph.D., chief of behavioral medicine at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center & member of Planned Parenthood’s national medical community, explains that there are multiple reasons why someone may feel fatigue, and not all are related to your sex life. “It’s important for a woman to tease out … ‘Am I too tired for sex? Or am I too tired for everything?’” she urges. Here are a few explanations for why your sex drive is lower than it once was.
You’re busy and exhausted. Let’s be real, 2020 has been a stressful year. Between a global pandemic, escalating racial tensions in the United States, and the uncertainty of these next few months (Will schools reopen in September? Will I still have a job come next month?), you have every reason to feel overextended. “Certainly, one of the frequent issues is no time, no energy, no privacy,” Kingsberg notes. Between caring for your quarantined family members and trying not to catch COVID-19 yourself, sex might be the last thing on your mind.
You’re dealing with illness. Whether it’s chronic illness or a short-term viral infection, if your body is fighting extra hard to keep you healthy, that may rob you of energy that you could normally expend elsewhere. Conditions ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to Crohn’s can cause fatigue during uncomfortable symptom flares. People living with chronic fatigue syndrome frequently feel so exhausted they can hardly get out of bed. Depression and anxiety can rob you of the desire to be sexual with your partner. “There could certainly be health issues going on … but it wouldn’t be specific to sex,” Kingsberg says. “Many of the medical reasons that would have you too tired for sex would have you too tired for almost any exertion.”
You’re going through hormonal changes. Sex drive tends to decrease gradually with age as your testosterone levels get lower (for both men and women). Then there’s menopause, a time when your estrogen levels decline significantly over a several-year period. This is sometimes accompanied by a loss in sexual desire. Whereas you once craved sex twice a week, perhaps now every other week sounds totally satisfying to you. Kingsberg explains that some women in midlife have more energy than before after becoming empty nesters, while others have pesky menopause side effects that make them feel less than sexy. “Things like mood changes, hot flashes, and night sweats can certainly zap one’s energy,” she says. But you don’t necessarily need to address that change in desire unless it’s bothering you or your partner.
You’re having relationship trouble. If the fatigue only applies to your sex life, and you’re feeling plenty of energy for other things, you may want to take a beat to examine your relationship dynamic. Are there unaddressed issues that you and your partner need to resolve? Kingsberg explains that couples often struggle with different levels of sexual desire, which can cause tension in their sex life if they don’t communicate. “The person who has higher drive often does not understand what it feels like to have less drive, and they often feel rejected or controlled by the person who has less drive,” she says. The person with less drive then feels pressured by their partner, and sex starts to feel like a chore. Not to mention, if you’re frustrated with each other in other areas of life (like finances, parenting, or lifestyle choices), this will bleed over into your sex life, too.
Your expectations of an “ideal” sex drive are unrealistic. First of all, get the idea of a “normal” or “healthy” sex drive out of your head ASAP. “Libido varies from person to person, and there is no ‘normal’ amount for how much you should want to have sex,” says June Gupta, director of medical standards at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Your sex drive can fluctuate—from wanting to have sex every day to not wanting to have sex at all—based on any number of underlying health conditions, changes to your body, or lifestyle factors.” No matter what your friends tell you about how often they get it on, you do not need to compare yourself to them because your life is your life. Period.
Second, if you think you should be craving sex spontaneously several times per week, you might be thinking about this the wrong way. “Many women in a longer-term relationship have an expectation that they should have a lot of spontaneous desire,” Kingsberg says, when it often doesn’t work that way. After years of being in a relationship, you simply may not feel that lust or urgency for sex that you felt when you first met your partner. This is totally common, and it doesn’t mean you’re broken or your relationship is bad. “We do know there are health benefits to being sexual, and sometimes that lack of initial drive should not be the stopgap,” Kingsberg says. “That’s very validating for many women who, particularly in longer relationships, are wondering why there isn’t spontaneous interest.” Instead, focus on triggering your responsive desire, which kicks into high gear after you start getting sexual. (Think of it like exercise, which doesn’t really sound like a great idea until you’re actually doing it.)
You’re actually dealing with a medical loss of libido. Hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) is a condition that causes a severe decrease or complete loss of sexual desire. It can happen gradually over a long period of time or come on quickly, and it’s caused by anything from depression to severe stress to hormonal shifts. Medications are also important to look at in terms of affecting libido. If sex is truly not pleasing for you, or if it causes you pain or physical discomfort in any way, there may be a medical issue going on your doctor can help you address. Kingsberg explains that in these instances, it’s not a lack of energy so much as a lack of physical arousal that’s causing an issue. “They might have interest or energy for doing many other things, but not being sexual,” she says. “That may not be related to their partner; it may just be their loss of drive for sexual activity. Those women miss that, and they want to want. They would like that energy and that interest back.”
Dial Up Your Desire
Once you’ve figured out what’s causing your fatigue, you’ll be better equipped to manage it and get your mojo back. Your “fix” for this situation will depend on the root cause.
Gupta suggests talking to a counselor or medical provider to try to identify your individual needs. She also suggests making some lifestyle changes to bump up your energy more broadly: exercise regularly, limit your alcohol and caffeine consumption, and get as much high-quality sleep as you can manage. If your relationship is suffering, she suggests focusing in on that.
“There are activities to increase your sex drive, like special exercises, viewing movies or shows that are sexual to you, or masturbation,” Gupta suggests. “Talking openly with your partner can also help improve your sex drive and satisfaction.” Couples’ counseling could improve your relationship in the bedroom, too.
If you’re in midlife, Kingsberg notes the importance of talking to your healthcare provider about menopause and any side effects you’re experiencing. A medical professional is also your go-to if you want to get screened for HSDD or another related disorder.
Finally, getting your desire back might be as simple as switching up your old routine of having sex on schedule. “If you were relying on having sex at 11:30 p.m. on a Friday or Saturday night, maybe Saturday or Sunday morning is a better time for energy,” Kingsberg suggests. A full night’s rest plus quality time with your partner when you wake up? It doesn’t get better than that. Keep trying new things (and consulting experts when you need them) to figure out how to feel like yourself again.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. (n.a.) “Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.” cdc.gov/me-cfs/about/index.html
Responsive Desire: Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. (2020.) “Development and Validation of a Measure of Responsive Sexual Desire.” med-fom-brotto.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2020/02/Velten-JSMT-Development-and-Validation-of-a-Measure-of-Responsive-Sexual-Desire.pdf
Menopause Side Effects: North American Menopause Society. (n.a.) “Decreased Desire.” menopause.org/for-women/sexual-health-menopause-online/sexual-problems-at-midlife/decreased-desire
HSDD: Planned Parenthood. (n.a.) “Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD).” plannedparenthood.org/learn/sex-pleasure-and-sexual-dysfunction/sexual-dysfunction/hypoactive-sexual-desire-disorder-hsdd