It’s common to experience ebbs and flows in the bedroom — especially in a long-term relationship and/or a marriage. As our sex drives and bodies change over time, we may find we’re not as virile as we might have been 10 or 20 years ago. There is no “right” or “normal” amount of sex to be having with your partner as every couple is different. Still, it can be cause for concern if you desire intimacy but haven’t had sex for a period of time you consider abnormal for your particular relationship. A lull in the bedroom can last anywhere from days to years, and, for some, this can result in a “dead bedroom” or a sexless marriage. This can cause partners to feel more like roommates than spouses, that the “spark has died,” or that they aren’t sexually compatible anymore. But a sexless marriage doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship is over, that there is anything wrong with you, or that you’re no longer compatible.
If you’d like to reanimate your sex life with your spouse, there are a few things to try. Here are ten tips to take into consideration.
1. Acknowledge the issue
If it’s been years since you’ve last had physical contact, it can be difficult to broach the topic. You may feel resentment toward your partner, you may feel they have no desire for sex and it’s a lost cause, or that you’ve tried in the past and it hasn’t led to anything, so what’s the point? While all these feelings can contribute to staying silent on the matter, consider the alternative — staying unhappy in a sexless marriage. In the long-run, acknowledging the issue openly and honestly with your partner is important for the overall health and happiness of the relationship and for you. Consider opening the floor with a third party, like a couple’s counselor, to help mediate and guide the conversation.
2. Don’t assign blame
To start the conversation, psychotherapist Sarah Kaufman, LMSW, at Cobb Psychotherapy says to “approach the situation with an open mind, curiosity, and no judgment.” Crow suggests bringing up the conversation by “starting with ‘I’ statements such as, ‘I need more affection and sexual intimacy.’” You may add something like “This is really scary for me to talk about, but it’s important to me because I care a lot about our relationship.”
During the conversation, Crow says it’s important not to “accuse your partner or ask the question "why...?’ If you ask why your partner doesn't want more sex, it puts them in a defensive stance and they feel the need to justify their level of desire.”
Crow also says “not [to] compare your level of sexual desire with your partner's in a way that is pejorative. Use statements like, ‘We seem to have different needs when it comes to sex’” instead of saying things like “You don’t want sex as much as I do.” Statements like these can make your partner feel as though the amount you desire sex is “right” and how often they desire sex is “wrong.” While it can be difficult when partners have mismatched libidos, neither person has the “right” libido, and neither person is the “problem.”
3. Pinpoint when you stopped having sex
Shani Hart, sex educator at Hart's Desires tells O.school, “When I hear from my clients that they're in a sexless relationship, the first thing I ask is ‘When did it start?’ From what I have seen, most couples don't just blink and poof, they're in a sexless relationship overnight.” Oftentimes, a stressful event — be it a new job, childbirth, loss of a family member, mental or physical health challenges, new medications, etc — can dramatically impact a person’s sexual desire. Understanding if there is an underlying stressor can help you find ways to cope with that stressor head-on and identify changes needed.
4. Get to the root of the issue
Sometimes, “focusing on the frequency of sex is a deflection from what is really going on in a relationship. Some couples would rather fight about the lack of sex than truly ask whether they are compatible or happy,” says Crow.
Mending the relationship on a fundamental level — whether there is resentment, anger, guilt, sadness, or frustration due to some deeper issue — is essential before attempting to regain a healthy sex life with your partner. That’s because the lack of sex may be a symptom of that issue.
Consider seeing a therapist individually or as a couple to figure out what those underlying issues may be and how to repair them. It can also be helpful to explore resources, books, forums, and communities with information on how to strengthen the health of a marriage.
5. Consider whether you and your partner were enjoying sex in the past
Sometimes, we don’t desire sex because the sex we were having was not that enjoyable to begin with. This could be that we weren’t having our needs met, that sex felt like it was all about pleasing our partner, that sex was painful, or something else. This can cause us to not desire sex or make us feel anxious and avoid sex all together.
Understanding what you really enjoy may take some exploration. Carmel Jones, sex and relationship expert at The Big Fling suggests sitting down to think "about what you want out of your sex life.” She also suggests masturbating “to get to know your body on a deeper level.”
Consider the things that were working sexually with your partner in the past. It can also be useful to open a discussion about sexual fantasies. Doing this can help you get to know the kinds of things your partner enjoys and also give you the opportunity to share the things you like.
6. Know that sex might look and feel different with age
As we age, our bodies go through changes like menopause, we experience things like erectile dysfunction, hormone changes, heart conditions, arthritis, or other physical or mental health challenges. It’s also normal for our sex drive to change over the course of our lives. For this reason, it’s important not to compare your sex life to other couple’s or even to your own sex life that you might have been having in the past.
You might research how the change you’ve gone through typically impacts sexuality and some of the things you can do to accommodate those changes in your sex life. For example, consider looking up different sex toys you can incorporate if you have arthritis, or sex positions that may be more comfortable. There are also many resources on how to have sex with erectile dysfunction, or how to navigate your sex life if you are taking medications for anxiety and depression that might impact your libido.
7. Discuss contexts in which you and your partner may be more likely to feel sexy
Many people “experience what’s called ‘responsive sexual desire’” meaning that “their sexual desire responds to contexts or settings,” Irene Fehr, MA, CPCC, sex and intimacy coach tells O.school. When context changes (ex. having children), we become stressed out, we have less time to spend with our partner, our body changes in ways that can be challenging. When we experience financial instability, for example, or we don’t feel like our partner is paying attention to us, our sexual desire may lower.
“Couples in such situations can repair their sexless relationship by learning about the needs of the ‘responsive sexual desire’ partner and create contexts that feed it” says Fehr. Understand what each of you need in order to enjoy sex; individually think about your best sexual experiences with your partner and notice what the context was like. What made it feel so good? While it may not sound sexy, scheduling time for moments of intimacy can be a great first step toward re-creating the contexts that feel good and comfortable to you and a partner. Scheduling time can be especially important if you have children. It ensures you’re giving dedicated space to you and your partner during times the kids are away.
8. Explore sex or couples’ therapy
“Sometimes you need a pro to step in, and that's ok!” says Jones, “It's a big and healthy step when someone seeks counseling.“
“A sex-positive sex therapist can help you explore what might be happening, [and] work to understand whether the problem may be psychological or physiological,” says Kaufman. Sex positivity is about viewing all consensual sexual behaviors, desires, and interests non-judgmentally and as a healthy part of the human experience. Kaufman also says if you are searching for a sex therapist “ask them about their background and approach. Find someone who is sex-positive and judgment-free to help foster a safe environment to explore.”
9. Start small and don’t expect sex off the bat
If you and your partner have not had sex in a months or even years, sex can feel intimidating. It may be that you feel platonic toward one another or that being intimate with your partner feels completely foreign now. If your partner has a lower sex drive, and every touch leads to sex, they may start to feel adverse to simple intimate touch at all. Let your partner know that small acts of intimacy don’t have to lead to sex.
It can be helpful to “start small” before jumping into sex. You might try to find ways to experience other forms of intimacy, like holding hands, taking baths or showers together, practicing sensual massages, complimenting each others’ bodies, cuddling and watching a movie, or spending time only kissing. Engaging in small forms of touch and affection that feel comfortable can help bring romance and intimacy back into your relationship that may feel like it's missing if you feel more like roommates at this point.
10. If you are able to ease into having sex, don’t prioritize orgasm
Oftentimes, we think of orgasm as being the goal of sex. This doesn’t have to be the case, however. For couples who haven’t been intimate in some time, reaching orgasm may be difficult for a period of time. Rather than focusing on orgasm, or putting pressure on yourself or a partner to perform in a certain way, focus on the acts that make you and your partner feel connected.
What to do if sex doesn’t feel possible with a partner
For some couples, sex may not feel possible. It may be that you feel you’ve tried it all, but nothing seems to be working. Perhaps a partner is experiencing medical issues, or you are finding you and a partner have mismatched libidos. If this is the case, it may be time to consider some alternatives. For example, you might suggest an open relationship. Of course, exploring consensual non-monogamy isn’t right for everyone and for some couples, it may not seem to be an option at all, and that’s okay.
If you find that alternatives are not a possibility, you’ve tried everything to try to regain your sex life and nothing is working, and you feel deeply unhappy with the situation, it could be a moment to evaluate the relationship as a whole. Is it worth fighting for? Is it time to walk away? While walking away from a long-term partnership can be a hugely difficult and life-changing decision, for some people it is the right option. The end of a relationship doesn't mean you’ve failed or that you must wholly lose your partner as a staple in your life. Conscious uncoupling can be a way to mutually choose to redefine your relationship with your partner as something that was once romantic that is now platonic. Still, it’s a big leap for many to even consider. A couples’ counselor or individual therapist can help you come to a decision that is best for you.
The bottom line
Being in a sexless marriage can weigh on both partners but just because you’ve experienced an extended lull in the bedroom, doesn’t mean your sex life is over. There are many things to try to try to regain a healthy, joyful sex life. As you go on this journey with your partner, try to withhold judgement and resentment. Both partners are likely dealing with deeper, complex feelings around the relationship and sex. It can be a lot to address and overcome, but it is certainly possible.