Old habits die hard. Even painful ones. Especially destructive habits that you've perfected with another person. Like your intimate partner.
One of those bad habits is living in a sexless marriage. Even the phrase "sexless marriage" implies a "trait" instead of a "state." States come and go in. Traits define you.
I prefer to consider your sexless marriage a "state" that it's about time you leave. Enter a new state. Redefine yourself as having a "sexed marriage." Read on to learn how. But first, a definition.
Barry McCarthy says it's one where sex happens less than 10 times a year. He's allowing for the occasional birthday present romp or a drunken New Year's eve.
But he's also suggesting something else.
Can I really claim to be a runner if I'm constantly on crutches? A dancer if the last time I danced was in 1965?
Too many of us think about sex in funny ways. Yes, it's physical. And yes, it is great when the body works well.
But if you can cut a head of cabbage, or make a sour face when you suck on a lemon, you can be sexual. We can demand that every PART of us work well, but that's often an excuse. A vanity. A withholding strategy.
I have a colleague whose daughter was a figure skater that had a microfracture and tears in both hips that required two major surgeries. It left her with problems even walking. Everyone claimed it was a terrible shame that she could no longer skate. And it was.
Except that this young woman believed that it was only a "shame" if she never skated again. "I didn't like the idea that skating had been finished not on my terms, but on my body's terms..." It was something she simply wouldn't accept. So she began the job of designing her own program and re-training herself to figure skate.
Watch her video.
So how do you retrain yourself to exit a "sexless marriage" and enter a new and passionate one?
Imagine having this conversation with your partner:
You: You know, Charles/Helena, we've really let our sex life go. I know I've played a big part in it, but I'm not here to assign blame. I want to make positive changes. I'm wondering, what do you think? Do you want to break our bad habits and start getting ourselves into better sexual health? I really love you and I want this part of our lives together to be terrific.
For some of you, you're going to have to memorize that phrase and say it after great practice. For others, it just takes you saying it in an upbeat and positive way. Sex can cause people to get pretty grim and the fights about sex are typically nasty. To change things, open up and ask for a companion.
Start wherever you are. If you've stopped kissing, start again. If you suck at fighting, learn how to fight well in a marriage (an essential skill...) so you can let go of resentments that block desire. If you never embrace, begin again.
Timing is everything. And so is good communication. If you are already kissing and embracing, spend longer at it. Gottman advocates a 6-second kiss. Schnarch suggests that you hug "until you both relax" in each other's arms. You know, an exhale and a comfort in just holding and being held.
Planned Parenthood had a chart of sex that involved first being friends. You know, showing interest, listening, being empathetic. Showing up and being, you know...a friend.
Next comes learning to be a special friend. This involves holding hands. Walking together. Sharing intimate secrets. Making them the first person you call when you have good news or bad. Special friends.
Next is learning to become sexual. They suggest following hand-holding with kissing. Kissing is an exceptionally intimate thing to do, and many couples give up kissing a moment longer than you kiss your favorite aunt on the cheek hello. Kissing involves first looking, really looking into your partner's face. Taking them in. Recognizing them as a fleeting mammal on the earth a limited time, just like you are. Kissing requires initial tenderness in order to allow the heat to build. And repetition. And navigating glasses and beards, and braces and dentures. It requires waiting for an invitation to introduce a tongue. Then doing it tentatively, and not riotously.
Fondling is the next step, and we tell couples that real fondling is more than groping the erotic zones hoping to jet-propel a reaction. Fondling is as much a caress that arouses the person touching as the one being touched. It's not a professional massage, and neither is it a mechanical act. Know the areas that are sensitive and responsive (vs sensitive and ticklish...) and learn how to touch in a way that pleases your partner. That takes experimentation. And feedback. People change over time. Re-learn.
You'll hear a lot of people talking about how good a lover their partner is. Or how poor. But fewer people focus on how eager and willing they are to allow their bodies to be aroused. How open? How vulnerable?
When you've been in a sexless marriage, reactivating your body requires tolerating starting up a cold engine that's been garaged for a while. If you expect it to turn over the first time the key is inserted and turned, you're dreaming.
There will be resistance.
There will be ambivalence.
There needs to be a willingness to try it this way and that way, and be patient.
Reluctance to get aroused is not the same as an unwillingness to BE aroused. Let's get that straight. For many people, once they are aroused, they can easily and joyfully participate in sex. But getting to that state of arousal is the challenge. And those are people WITHOUT a sexual abuse history.
There is no question that spouses can withhold sex as punishment or retaliation. Like burning the enemy fields upon retreat, they make sure that if they aren't happy, nobody's happy. But that's not the entire story. The truth is that many couples I see do want to want their partners, but the emotional cost is just tremendous. It's an inner war they are waging.
They need to figure out a way to make sex less costly. Sometimes they do this by coming to terms with their own innate attractiveness and accepting themselves, warts and all, as sexual people. Once they believe they are sexy people, they have less of an attitude when their partner refuses to have sex with them. If they don't believe they are sexy people, they have a hard time believing that their partner finds them so. After a time of rejecting their partner's advances, their partner stops reminding them that they are attracted to them, which reinforces the "I'm not sexy" belief.
So believing in yourself as a sexually attractive person is the first step. And making an effort. Making an effort to toss the ratty p.j.'s and spraying air freshener or a match when you use the facilities. Putting on pleasant smells. Coming to bed showered. Knowing what your partner finds "sexy" and putting yourself in that place.
I've also learned that a sexually inactive partner is often a passive partner sexually. They wait to be aroused. They believe that being aroused is something their partner "does" for them, instead of a state they actively put themselves into, in order to be a good friend. You have to know what arouses you, and it has to be tangible. Do you know your conditions for good sex? Write them out with a heading called "My Conditions for Good Sex" and put it under your pillow. Things like "soft lighting," "a clean body," "well rested" or "an empty belly." Then find time to be available to your partner when you've created those conditions.
To start up being sexual again requires both of you to practice the art of accepting sexual overtures and rejecting sexual overtures, now framed by the wise as "rainchecks." While the language has to be worked out ahead of time, it can sound something like this:
Charles: Helene, I was hoping we could have some intimate time tonight. Are you interested in turning in early?
Helene: (Accepting) Oh Charles, what a charming invitation. Honey, I'd love to cuddle up and be close.
Helene: (Raincheck): Oh Charles, what a wonderful invitation. Thank you so much for asking me. I really appreciate you for suggesting it. Tomorrow, I'm having that major presentation and I need to stay up late tonight to prepare it. Can I take a raincheck until tomorrow night? I promise I'll be ready then!
Key things to pay attention to: Charles isn't asking for a particular set of behaviors, other than to be "intimate" and to "turn in early." Helene doesn't get all angry that Charles forgot about her big presentation. They act like "intimate friends" and work at keeping things positive.
Charles also uses his words. He asks for what he wants and risks being refused verbally. Too many sexual initiators initiate sex so tentatively as to having their partner's miss it as a sexual invitation. Others seem to pick times where they can "hit and run" the sexual invitation, intentionally choosing times when it is otherwise impossible for their partner to reciprocate. Even in those situations, their partners can ask for a raincheck, turning an otherwise "hit and run" invitation into a promising later rendezvous.
If timing is everything, perhaps you'll begin to notice when your partner is in a good mood and you'll enhance that. Consider sharing pleasant or exciting sexual memories with them as in: "I was thinking how much I love you, and about that time in New Hampshire when we...." Few of us are anxious to open up and be sexual when we are feeling irritated, depressed, or anxious.
I remind people of this fact when they tell me about how the sex they had wasn't "real sex" because it didn't meet a series of criteria they have in their head as counting. Things like whether both of you climaxed or not. When you have sex less than 10 times a year, these things take on enormous significance. When you have sex 2-4 x a month, it's just a natural thing.
When you start up having a "sexed marriage," start by lowering the bar.
Like the young woman who had to learn to skate again, starting up sexuality in a sexless marriage is a collaboration of the best kind. No matter how you argue it, nothing says "lovers" like being sexually aroused together. What you do after that, given the lack of sexual police, is nobody's business but your own.
And if all else fails when you aim too high, high five each other and say "Good try!" and try again in a few days. A positive attitude is everything in this endeavor.
Dr. K is the President and CEO of Couples Therapy Inc. She maintains her Intensive Couples Therapy practice on the edge of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts.