In my time as a relationship and intimacy expert, I’ve seen a lot of couples who aren’t thinking about divorce and appear from the outside to be happily married and doing fine—but they aren’t having sex. And that means that no, they aren’t doing fine.
We all know that keeping up a healthy sex life in a long-term relationship can be challenging. According to the 29,000 adults interviewed for the 2012 Durex sex survey, 54 percent of couples report being dissatisfied in the bedroom—and one in five couples have stopped having sex altogether.
But when you’re in a committed relationship and you stop having sex, you’re more prone to physiological stress and anxiety. You’re more at risk for infections due to lower immunity, and you’re likely to feel less emotional intimacy, vitality, arousal, and connection with your partner. Of course, there is an ebb and a flow to how often most couples have sex. Typically, the most challenging part of the cycle is figuring out how to transition out of the ebb and back into the flow.
But when you find yourself sexually frustrated, there is something surprisingly simple you can do—and no, it doesn’t involve any Cosmo-style “sex moves” or buying a dozen red roses.
Let’s say you want to have sex with your partner, but it’s not happening. Sure, there’s a lot going on with work, kids, and business trips—all of that is usually true. But sometimes all those responsibilities are enough to keep you from having sex, and other times they function as an invitation to be more devoted and more creative to connect with one another.
Well, if that’s your situation… try telling the truth.
Maybe you don’t like that he went to sleep without saying good night the past three nights. Maybe you don’t like how she handled something with your son. Perhaps you are annoyed she spent more money than you agreed on when purchasing the new couch. Or you are finally fed up about him leaving his dirty laundry on the floor. It could be something big or just as likely something small. Whatever it is, you didn’t like it, and now you’re feeling resentful.
It may be such a low level of resentment that you don’t even notice it yourself or such a big one that you keep thinking about it at odd times throughout your day—despite being focused on other things. Whether the trigger was big or small, you are now feeling blocked, constricted, angry, or resentful. And feeling blocked, constricted, angry or resentful does not lead to good sex. Ever.
So what do you do about it? You tell the truth.
No more minimizing your own experience to avoid making a fuss. No more holding it in because you don’t know how to say it or because you think you shouldn’t be so bothered about it. No more of that! It really is time to say something, to clear the air and get back on the same page.
I teach my clients to set themselves up for success by first asking permission to have a conversation. Here are some possible ways to do so:
“I have something important to share. Are you available to hear it?”
“I want to share something vulnerable with you. Is this a good time?”
This step is both to get permission and to alert your partner you have something important to say and need them to listen in a loving way.
There are three possible answers to this question: “yes,” “no,” and “not yet.” If you get a “not yet,” accept it and ask when a good time might be. If you get a “no,” share this article and have a conversation to clarify whether you both want a relationship where you can be honest with one another.
Once you have an affirmative answer, then communicate why you are sharing and what you hope to achieve by doing so. You might say, “I’m telling you this because I want to feel closer to you and I’d like to have sex tonight,” Or perhaps, “I’m telling you this because it has been bugging me, I haven’t been able to let it go, and I hope that telling you will help me clear it so I can get back to feeling at ease in your presence.”
The key here is that you don’t approach this in a way that feels out of control or blaming. You have identified your issue and can say it with care—not holding back (or it will be missed) while also not blasting your partner with it (making it hard to listen to). This is a technique that uses courage and compassion: Facing some tough moments is always worth it. Once your partner understands why you are sharing and what you hope to get from doing so, they’ll be prepared to listen well.
Instead of feeling attacked and subsequently defensive, your partner will be able to hear your experience and be there for you.
Then go ahead and share what’s been bothering you: “When you leave dishes in the sink, I feel taken for granted and assume you don’t care about my feelings. This makes me feel unimportant, and when I feel that way, it’s hard to feel attracted to you.”
“When you make plans for us to have dinner with your friends before checking with me, I feel angry and ignored. I feel unseen, and that makes me want to withdraw from you when what I really want is to be connected and considered.”
This technique is not the way to reconnect sexually after abstinence for six months or six years—it’s best used for couples who generally have a healthy sex life and haven’t had sex in a little while (whatever amount of time that is for them).
In my experience, it’s a surprisingly effective method. It takes practice to do this well—to be able to know what the issue is and take full responsibility for your experience rather than blaming your partner. However, it’s well worth the effort to develop the skill.
During a coaching session with me, I see couples use this technique and shift from tense and resentful to relaxed and loving. The main reason honesty works is that connection and intimacy are built through authenticity and vulnerability. When you share honestly with your partner, it can be very difficult—both to express what is really bothering you and to hear and internalize criticism. But rather than feeling attacked, recognize your partner’s share as an act of courage contributing to your connection.
Alexandra Stockwell is a physician-turned-relationship coach. She has coached more than 1,500 men and women on their journey to live vibrant, meaningful lives and trains other coaches to do the same. For more information, visit her website or check out her Facebook page.