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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

"Lesbian Bed Death"

The term 'lesbian bed death" was originally coined by Pepper Schwartz and Philip Blumstein who wrote the book, American Couples.  In their book, they wrote that lesbian bed death refers to a phenomenon that occurs in some long term lesbian relationships where one or both women lose interest in having sex with each other.

Lesbian Bed Death: A Myth or Reality?

While it's true that loss of interest in sex can also occur in long term heterosexual relationships, according to the authors of American Couples, it seems to occur with more frequency in lesbian relationships.  However, after their research results were published in the 1980s, their methodology was challenged.

Obviously, there are many happy lesbian relationships where couples continue to have sex and have a healthy relationship. Many lesbians remain in long term relationships, have children, and with the new law in New York that finally allows gay couples to get married, go on to get married.  So, it's understood that many lesbian couples lead happy lives together.

There Are Many Lesbian Couples Who Have Happy, Full Lives Together

But, for the purpose of this blog article, I'm focusing on a particular issue.  And, rather than debating whether lesbian couples' sex lives fizzle out more frequently than heterosexual couples, I'd like to discuss a particular phenomenon that I've observed with lesbian couples who come to see me in my private practice that often leads to lesbian bed death.  I've observed this phenomenon among lesbian couples more frequently than in heterosexual couples or gay male couples.

Given that this is a complex topic, one blog article can't be as comprehensive as this topic deserves. And my observations aren't part of any research, so I can't say that they are generalizable to the lesbian population as a whole, but I think this phenomenon does occur in many lesbian relationships, and it's worth, at least, opening up a dialog about it.

Obviously, the lesbian couples, and couples in general, who come to see me in my psychotherapy practice are couples that are having problems in their relationships, so I can't say they're representative of most long term lesbian relationships because I generally don't see the couples who are in happy relationships.

Long-Term Lesbian Relationships

The following vignette is a composite of many cases, to protect confidentiality, where a lesbian couple in a long term relationship has stopped having sex due to a particular dynamic in their relationship:

Sue and Ann
When Sue and Ann came to see me, they had been together for 10 years.  They came because they had not been sexually intimate with each other in the last three years.  They were familiar with the concept of "lesbian bed death" and, whether it was a myth or not, they were concerned that they had lost the sexual passion that was once so important to each of them.

At first, they both thought they no longer had sex due to long work hours and the pressures of everyday living.  But even when they went on vacation and they had time to be sexually intimate, they no longer felt sexual with each other.

As we explored their relationship dynamic, it became apparent that they were living together as if they were mother and daughter.  Even though they were both the same age (in their late 30s), Sue related to Ann as if Ann was her mother.  Sue liked Ann to behave in a maternal way towards her.  Ann didn't really like being in this role, but she went along with it to make Sue happy.

The problem is that when two people in a relationship relate to each other like mother and child it can feel incestuous to have sex.  So, it wasn't surprising that they weren't feeling sexual with one another.

Now, this phenomenon of a couple behaving as if they are parent and child doesn't just happen with lesbians.  It can occur in heterosexual relationships and in gay men's relationships.  But I've seen it most in lesbian relationships--although, once again, I don't know if we can extrapolate from what I've seen in my psychotherapy practice to make any general statements about lesbian relationshps or lesbian bed death.

What's more important is that couples like Sue and Ann need to be able to communicate with each other about this and decide it they want to change.

While it's true that most long-term romantic relationships have an element of reparenting in them, when this becomes the predominant dynamic, it can have a big impact on the couple's sex life.

Sue and Ann had already decided that they wanted to rekindle their sex life.  So, Sue began her own individual therapy (with another therapist) to work out early childhood issues of emotional neglect.  She had to grieve the loss of not having an emotionally available mother when she was a child.  Over time, this allowed her to treat Ann more like her girlfriend instead of like her mother.

Sue and Ann also became more comfortable in couples counseling talking about what they each wanted in terms of their sex life together.  Over time, they introduced novel ways of relating to each other sexually so that they were able to rekindle the passion in their lives.

Lesbian Bed Death: A Myth or a Reality?
Rather than getting into the debate about lesbian bed death, what's more important is what's going on in your relationship.

Lesbian Relationships:  What's Important is What's Happening in Your Relationship

If you feel that the passion has gone out of your relationship, the first step is to communicate with your partner about this.

There can be so many factors that might be affecting the sex life in your relationship, including internalized homophobia, unresolved family of origin issues, old resentments, health concerns, and numerous other issues.

Getting Help
If you find that you're unable to resolve this problem on your own, you and your partner could benefit from seeing a licensed mental health professional who has experience working with lesbian relationships.

You Can Work Out the Problems in Your Relationship

Marriage Equality

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who has an office in Greenwich Village.

I work with individual adults and couples, both heterosexual and gay.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me:

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