For many couples, the sexual intimacy tends to wax and wane over time. I get countless couples who state they have had sex-starved or sexless marriages for years. They come to sex therapy to rebuild, but then struggle on the path to recovery.
For the purposes of this discussion, a sexless marriage is one in which sex happens 10 times a year or fewer. In these marriages, sex is so infrequent that by the time couples do have sex it can feel awkward, uncomfortable, and even involve sexual dysfunction.
Sexless marriages tend to be cyclical in nature. First, individuals wait for long periods of time between sexual encounters. During that time, pressure or tension builds between the partners. Next, individuals put higher expectations on the sexual experience. When they do have sex, something goes wrong or it just doesn’t meet expectations. This leads to both partners feeling like failures and waiting even longer before trying sex again. It’s a vicious cycle.
Relationships become sexless or sex-starved for a variety of reasons. Sometimes couples don’t intentionally set aside time to themselves as a couple. It is hard to be intimate if you don’t feel connected to your partner. Other times, an individual may develop a sexual dysfunction such as orgasmic disorder, erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, or pain during sex. Instead of getting treatment, the person avoids sex.
Whatever the cause, once couples get into the cycle, it can be difficult to break, especially if the cycle lasts for more than a year. After a year, couples begin to build resentments toward one another. The lack of intimacy can lead to problems in other areas of the relationship.
In sex therapy, couples learn how to rebuild their relationship over time. Couples can expect a sex therapist to assign different intimacy-building tasks to help them gain confidence and comfort within the sexual realm. Typically, sex therapy can last anywhere from six sessions to 15-plus depending on what relationship issues may also need resolution. I strongly encourage couples struggling with this issue to seek help before it is too late.
For couples who would like to prevent sexless marriages, here are a few intimacy-building tips to keep the spark in your relationship long term:
- Make your relationship a priority. Set aside time together alone at least three times weekly. This can include a date night, going for walks, cuddle time before bed, sharing a hobby, having a coffee together on your porch, sharing a meal, exercising together, or anything else that involves you two being alone together.
- Create and keep couple rituals. A couple ritual is a habit you and your partner share with one another that is unique to your relationship. A ritual can be simple or great. Examples include brushing your teeth together, watching a game show and competing for who can answer the questions first, kissing before you leave for work and once you get home, an inside joke or special language only the two of you share, etc. Develop a variety of couple rituals and keep these rituals going over the years.
- Intentionally and regularly put yourself in the mood for sex. People tend to wait until they feel sexy before initiating sex. The issue with this is that during different times in your life, you will have more or less desire for sex. Rather than waiting, learn what turns you on and intentionally do things to put yourself in the mood. I encourage each person in a couple to put themselves in the mood and initiate sex with their partner once every week.
- Flirt and keep flirting. While dating, couples are great at flirting with one another. They share sexy text messages, speak with innuendo, smile and toss their hair, dress their best, and in general try to attract their partner. Many couples get married and assume flirting is not necessary anymore. Flirting is a key component to keeping that spark flowing.
- Work at it. Try new things. Talk about likes and dislikes. Practice being more romantic. Be affectionate regularly. Whatever you do, understand that intimacy in long-term relationships takes work from both parties. As long as you are both committed to do that work, you’ll do just fine.