The end goal is that you’re both happy with your sex life.
Sex might not be everything in a relationship, but for many people, it’s an important part. So what happens when you’re in a relationship but not having sex, because your partner stops wanting it? While that can be challenging to work through, it actually happens more than you might think, and knowing how to talk to your partner about lack of intimacy is an important skill to learn.
Candice Smith, co-founder of Two to Tango and couples intimacy coach specializing in sexlessness — which is generally defined as when the lack of sex is a problem for at least one person in a relationship — stresses first and foremost that if this is happening to you, you are not alone. In fact, 19% of couples in a 2018 U.S. General Social Survey reported being sexless, defined as having sex one or twice or having no sex within the past year. Smith adds some good news, though: "It is possible to reverse those patterns with intentional communication and action."
There are plenty of reasons for a lack of sex in a relationship, and everyone’s sex drive and interest level is different. "A partner may stop wanting to have sex for a variety of reasons," clinical psychologist Dr. Carly Marie Manly previously told Elite Daily. "Sometimes it’s one key issue at work, whereas in other situations a combination of factors contribute to the lack of interest in having sex. Some of the most common underlying issues include work stress, life stressors, physical exhaustion, mental fatigue, emotional exhaustion, physical health issues, unresolved relationship concerns, and emotional or physical infidelity.”
There's no ideal amount of sex any one person or couple should be having, and the end goal is that partners communicate so that they are both happy with their sex life. However, if you or your partner are unhappy with the lack of sex you’re having, there are some solutions. The key to breaking out of these patterns in "sexual avoidance," says Smith, is communication — even when it can feel really fraught and awkward to do so.
"If you are caught in this pattern, I don’t blame you for feeling stressed about the conversation," Smith says, but adds that the sooner you address it, the better. "The more anxiety mounts, the less likely it is for partners to talk openly about it." Here's how she suggests you best approach the issue, so that you and your partner can feel good about your sex life and no one feels pressured into doing anything that they're not totally comfortable doing — because that last part is crucial.
Instead of starting the conversation by talking about what the relationship is lacking, Smith says to focus on what addressing the sex issue would bring to the relationship. “Start the conversation by expressing this vision of better intimacy and a stronger relationship. Ask your partner about their ideal vision of intimacy, as well,” says Smith. “By grounding the conversation in hope and positive vision for the future, you are helping your partner start to focus on the larger picture, instead of initial fears or insecurities that could lead to defensiveness or even anger.” If the conversation starts to derail or get off topic, Smith suggests bringing it back to your “vision of ideal intimacy.”
She adds that you may get emotional during the conversation, and that’s OK. “Are you feeling a clenching in your gut? Tears coming to your eyes? A lump in your throat? Remember, these reactions are totally normal — this is your body’s response to stress. Breathe deeply and be compassionate with yourself.”
Assigning fault or blame should be avoided at all costs, says Smith, and that goes for both your partner and you. “Do not hurl accusations or make demands,” Dr. Jess O’Reilly, host of the SexWithDrJess podcast, previously told Elite Daily. “You are not a victim, but you have a right to talk about how you feel. Talk about why you believe you’ve stopped having sex and how you feel about it.”
In this situation, it’s important to be empathetic and mindful — to both your partner and yourself. “When you share your perceived contributions to the situation, don’t allow your partner to hide behind blaming you as a way to avoid facing responsibility. Respect goes both ways, and you are both as much responsible for the current pattern of sexual avoidance you're in as you are for making a commitment to work on improving it together,” says Smith. “Remember, this conversation is not about blame. It is about recognizing patterns that do not work for your sex life, and committing to work together to forge new patterns.”
Sex is a personal subject, but in this scenario it’s helpful to come at it as fair-minded and objective as possible, according to Dr. Manly. “Strive to take a step back from the situation with an objective attitude,” she said.
A productive discussion with your partner won’t go down too well if your emotions are running high. And as difficult as it may be to keep your emotions in check (not ignored, but controlled), it will be helpful. “Given that a lack of sexual intimacy can trigger uncomfortable feelings such as rejection and sadness, it’s important to pause to reflect on the situation as a whole,” Manly said. “Although it can be difficult to be objective when emotions are involved, it is helpful to assess the situation with as much detachment as you can muster.”
When dealing with any issue in your relationship, especially around issues of intimacy, it's important to remember that the two of you are a team. Smith says to work toward finding a solution that works for both of you, together. “Collaborate together about what works and doesn’t work for you. Ask your partner about their needs, desires, and limits, if what you’re doing now isn’t working,” suggests Smith.
As you work to find a solution with your partner, a lot of emotions and comparisons might come up. Try to remember that there is no single right answer to what amount of sex makes for a good relationship. “Be mindful of the fact that neither one of you is right or wrong,” O’Reilly said. “Neither one of you is broken. You can be healthy and want sex every day, and you can be healthy and never want it. Rather than looking to place blame, look for solutions.”
Working through the issue might take some time, which is why Smith says it’s essential for the communication between you to be ongoing. “Sexlessness does not always have a one-talk solution. Initiate conversations about sex and intimacy often, and don’t make them too serious. Talk about what you love about them. Tease and be playful. Ask what turns them on,” she says.
Having these kinds of conversations can be challenging because they require a certain level of vulnerability, but that vulnerability has the potential to bring you closer because it's so intimate. If you aren’t making any progress or you just need some support, Smith says to reach out and get some professional assistance. “If you continuously find yourself hitting roadblocks, consider reaching out to a professional for support — a sex coach, educator, or therapist who specializes in sexlessness will be able to provide you with communication tools and frameworks to guide the conversation in a more productive and effective way,” she concludes. So hang in there, be gentle and compassionate with each other, and work through the issue one way or another, together.
Candice Smith, co-founder of Two to Tango and couples intimacy coach
Dr. Carly Marie Manly, clinical psychologist
Dr. Jess O’Reilly, host of the SexWithDrJess podcast
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