We often blame our desire for sex (or lack of it) on our sex drive, mental health, or simply the number of years of marriage. We view sex starved marriage not just as a major problem, but a permanent one.
Few of us, however, see sex and intimacy as bad habits we've worked our way into. Even accidently.
Old habits die hard. Even painful ones. Especially destructive habits that you've perfected with another person. Like your long term relationship.
One of those bad habits is the routine of living in a sexless marriage. Even the phrase "sexless marriage" implies a "trait" instead of a "state." States come and go. 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 using the 9 steps listed below.
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.
So how do you retrain yourself to exit a "sexless relationship" and enter a new and passionate one?
If you can pucker up when sucking a lemon, you can enjoy a good sex life.
Imagine having this conversation with your partner:
You: "You know, Charles/Helena, as a married couple, we've really let our sex life go. I know I've played a big part in it. 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.
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. Couples having sex should at least be friendly to one another.
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. We can teach you excellent fighting habits in a weekend!
Then you can start the physical stuff.
Start wherever you are.
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. Begin by holding hands privately. Try it while watching your favorite series. Progress to resting your head on each other, or putting your feet up on the other's lap. Or your head. Then rub the body part that's resting on your lap.
Progress to holding hands in public. Especially if you're over 50. People love to see that. Try it, and see!
If you never embrace, begin again. 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. Do it every morning and every evening, and when you meet and leave each other. There is no need to leave air between the two of you. Press up against one another like you're trying to get warm. And no grinding groins at this point. It's rude and won't be appreciated. Press and warm your whole body, and just relax into it.
Many couples have given up kissing entirely. If you've stopped kissing, start again. If you kiss each other briefly, do it a moment longer than you kiss your favorite aunt on the cheek hello. Work up to what Gottman advocates as a 6-second kiss. Count "one-Mississippi" for each second silently and don't complain about how your partner does it, unless you set aside time for "sex class." (more on that later...) Never criticize someone kissing you outside of sex class. It's a bad habit. Stop it.
Kissing is an exceptionally intimate thing to do, and hard to start doing again.
Kissing involves first looking, really looking into your partner's face. Taking them in. Recognizing them as a fleeting mammal on the earth for 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.
And if you've been watching a lot of it, now's the time to stop. Pull the plug. Mourn the porn. And mourn you might, if it's been a daily sexual partner "in vivo." You might need to put a porn blocker on your computer to block your inner 13-year-old. Just do it. Because sex in real committed relationships doesn't look anything like fantasy sex in pornography, and no one can do what Mary Palm and her four daughters do naturally. If you are looking for genuine sexual desire, the kind real men and women engage in (or women and women or men and men...) you have to forsake the frequency of sex for the rebirth of real sex. Give it three months and notice the burn. That's 'mourning the porn.' It will pass.
There are No Sex Police
If you haven't had sex in the past year redefine what "sexual activity" means. Stop thinking that if V and P don't intersect, it's not "healthy sex." Repeat after me:
"There are no 'sex police.'"
Timing is everything. And so is good communication. If you are already kissing and embracing, spend longer at it. Work up to 5-10 minutes a day. You're mammals and you have to get used to each other again.
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 are you willing to make yourself? How vulnerable are you willing to be?
When you've been in a sexless marriage, reactivating your body requires tolerating discomfort. It's like 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. Your marriage and family is worth it. There needs to be a willingness to try it this way and that way, and be patient.
And the big surprise will be that resistance will be on both of your parts. Even the "sexual expert" who has previously been whining about how much they miss sex with you.
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, weight, 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. Or asks them to be sexual.
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.
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 "rain checks." 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.
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.
And if none of this works, call us. You can see a friendly sex therapist over a weekend and get things back on track. Just call and say:
"I'm wanting to get out of the 20 percent. I want to be in the 80 percent of married couples that are sexual with each other..."
Dr. K is the President and CEO of Couples Therapy Inc. She maintains her Intensive Couples Therapy practice over the winter in Miami, Fl and the rest of the year in Boston and on the edge of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. She is a Gottman Certified Couples Therapist, has advanced training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and has been a AASECT board-certified sex therapist from 1982-2017. She continues her work in sex therapy.