12 Ways to Repair a Sexless Marriage, According to Marriage Counselors
Practical ways to re-light that spark.
When you and your partner have been together for a while, it can be natural to have sex less often. But if your sex life has come to a standstill—and you’ve found yourself in a totally sexless marriage—it probably has more to do with the relationship than the sex itself. “Oftentimes, sex problems are the symptom, not the underlying issue,” says psychotherapist Joyce Marter, speaker and chair of the American Counseling Association’s Midwest Region. Use these tips outside the bedroom to re-light that spark.
Be open about the topic
“A lot of times people don’t talk about [sex problems] because they’re afraid of hurting their partners,” says Marter. “Maybe they have feelings of shame or secrecy or inadequacy or general discomfort.” Stifling your emotions down won’t solve any problems, so it’s important to be open with your partner. If you’ve been unsatisfied, there’s a good chance your spouse is too, so discussing what’s going on is the first step to finding a solution.
Schedule chat time outside your comfort zone
You might actually want to get out of the house when you sit down for a conversation about your sex life. “Oftentimes, when people stay in the house, they get into their routine and don’t do a good job of setting aside time to actually fix it,” says Lisa Thomas, licensed relationship and sex therapist. Grab a coffee or a cocktail together instead, she suggests. Removing yourself from your normal space will help you stay focused on problem-solving instead of letting the topic drop when you jump up to do the dishes. Make sure to pick a place where you can blend in if you’re self-conscious about eavesdroppers.
Don’t point fingers
While it’s important to discuss ways to improve, steer clear of phrases that push the blame to your partner. Try not to use “you” phrases like “you’re always tired” or “you never want to experiment,” suggests Marter. “That’s blaming,” she says. “It’s not problem-solving and it’s not proactive.” Instead, focus on what you would love to see more of while emphasizing your partner’s strengths, she says. Try: “I really love you, and these are the desires I’d love to explore with you.”
Set aside time to talk every day
When you have a household and a family to take care of, conversations tend to focus on to-do lists, the family calendar, and work—often while simultaneously scrolling through your phone. “We’re not really taking thoughtful time to mindfully connect with our partners in a way that’s really present and grounded,” says Marter. “When you’re dating, you spend time getting to know one another. In longer-term partnerships, we forget how important that is.” She recommends carving out at least 20 minutes every day to just talk—no phones, no laptops, and no discussions of bills or household tasks. As you start opening up to each other again, you’ll build your emotional connection back up.
Hit the gym together
“I love working out together because it achieves several goals all in one,” says Marter. If stress is killing your libido and resulting in a near sexless marriage, exercise is a natural anxiety buster that can help you get back in the mood. Plus, bringing your partner along makes it a bonding experience while you work toward a shared goal, adds Marter. And the icing on the cake? Watching each other power through a sweat session will likely boost your own body confidence, and help you see each other in a new (sexy, sweaty) light, she says.
Don’t jump straight into sex
Foreplay warms the body up for sex, so skipping it can make penetration painful, especially for women. If that becomes a trend, a woman can get “anticipatory anxiety” over sex as she braces herself for pain, says Thomas. Plus, if either of you is feeling anxious—over sex or anything else—it’s hard to get in the mood. Make sure you’re both in the right headspace before getting frisky, suggests Wyatt Fisher, PsyD, a marriage counselor in Colorado. “It can be helpful to relax with your partner together to unwind and slowly ease into your sexual encounter,” he says. He recommends taking a bath together or giving each other a massage.
Address any physical pain
If sex is painful, it’s natural to shy away from intimacy. Focusing on foreplay is a start, but try adding lubrication to reduce any friction too, says Thomas. A woman-on-top position can also help the partner in pain control the pace and adjust if there’s pain. “When there’s sexual pain, [women] only associate their vaginas with pain,” she says, “so we teach them how to associate it with pleasure.” In that case, having some solo sex can help remind a female partner of the feel-good parts of love-making and reduce the anxiety of penetration. If the pain continues, set up an OB-GYN appointment to rule out any underlying medical problems.
Pay attention to each other’s needs
Sex is both physical and emotional, and it’s common for couples to have different definitions of what that should look like. One partner might be concentrated on physical gratification, while the other is focused on emotional intimacy. “Both are valid, and both should be cultivated,” says Fisher. “Couples should explore how to enhance both the physical and emotional closeness during sexual intimacy so both can feel satisfied.” Your biggest fantasies might not mesh perfectly with your spouse’s, and that’s OK—as long as each of you is willing to meet the other’s needs, sex can be a fulfilling experience for both of you.
Consider couples therapy
Don’t let the word therapy scare you. “People think couples counseling is for the last step and you’re on the verge of a breakup,” says Marter. “I don’t believe that at all. Couples counseling can be a really positive experience where you build on your strengths.” Having a neutral third person guiding the conversation can help pin down what each of you wants out of the relationship. Even if you think you know what core issues are driving the distance between you, there might be more to the story, adds Marter. A counselor can help you get to the roots of the problem and find solutions to work through them.
Plan to schedule intimacy
Putting sex on the calendar doesn’t sound particularly steamy, but spontaneity isn’t always an option. Sometimes sex stops simply because your routine is thrown off. Maybe you’ve had a baby or started a new job with irregular hours. It’s normal to put sex on hold during those tumultuous periods, but it could be problem if you’ve settled into your new normal and the spark still isn’t back, says Thomas. When your schedules take a big turn, you might not be able to have sex when you’re used to, so you’ll have to carve out a different time to fool around—say, during your lunch break or right before work. “Scheduling an intimacy date doesn’t have to be penetration,” says Thomas. “It can be laying down listening to music with your arms around each other or showering together.”
Practice body appreciation
As you and your spouse grow older together, you’ll probably see some changes in your bodies. If your own self-love starts to suffer, you might not feel sexy with your partner anymore. “We need to turn down the volume of our inner critic and speak to ourselves lovingly and kindly,” says Marter. “You would never say to somebody else, ‘You’re fat, you’re gross, you’re unattractive.’” And that includes criticizing your partner like that. Pointing out your partner’s weight gain will just bring their confidence down. Instead, tell your spouse what you love about them, suggests Marter. No matter how long you’ve been together, those little affirmations can go a long way.
Realize that kids don’t mean the end of your sex life
Your kids might be your greatest joy, but a new baby can also put a strain on your marriage. A study of almost 700 couples found that relationship satisfaction takes a dip after children enter the picture, regardless of the couple’s work hours or household chores. Not only do new parents lose sleep and stress out over finances and baby care, but breastfeeding can have a direct impact on desire, says Marter. “Instead of the breast being an erotic part of the body, [mothers] suddenly feel like a cow milking,” she says. “They don’t feel sexy or attractive.” That can resonate with fathers, too, if they start seeing their wife as maternal rather than sexual. Still, that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a sexless marriage. Keep your baby’s crib out of your own bedroom so you and your spouse have one-on-one time to feel like lovers—not just parents—as you rediscover what passion looks like with kids in the picture.