How to fix a sexless marriage by removing bad habits

We often blame our desire for sex (or lack of it) on a variety of factors:

  • our sex drive,
  • our mental health, or
  • simply the number of years of marriage.

Too many couples view sex-starved marriage not just as a major problem but as a permanent one.

Few of us, however, see sex and intimacy as bad habits we've worked our way into.

Even accidentally.

Old habits die hard. Even painful ones. Especially destructive habits that you've perfected with another person. Like your long-term relationship.

One of those bad habits is the routine of living in a sexless marriage. Even the phrase "sexless marriage" implies a "trait" instead of a "state." 

States come and go. 

Traits define you.

States come and go

I prefer to consider your sexless marriage a "state" that it's about time you leave. Enter a new state. Redefine yourself as having a "sexed marriage." Read on to learn how to use the nine steps listed below.

But first, a definition.

What constitutes a sexless marriage?

Barry McCarthy says it's one where physical intimacy happens less than ten times per year. He's allowing for the occasional birthday present romp or a drunken New Year's Eve.

But he's also suggesting something else.

Can I really claim to be a runner if I'm constantly on crutches? 

A dancer if the last time I danced was in 1965?

Too many of us think about sex in funny ways. Yes, it's physical. And yes, it is great when the body works well.

Can you can cut a head of cabbage or make a sour face when you suck on a lemon? Then you can learn to fix a sexless marriage.

We can demand that every PART of us work well, but that's often an excuse. A vanity. A withholding strategy.

Fixing sex-starved marriages by retraining yourself

So how do you retrain yourself to add more intimacy in your marriage and get out of that sexless relationship? and enter a new and passionate one?

Step 1: Start by being friends

Planned Parenthood had a chart of sex that involved first being friends. You know, showing interest, listening, being empathetic. Showing up and being, you know...a friend with an emotional connection.

Couples having sex should at least be friendly to one another. You have to be interested in your partner before sexual interest in long-term relationships.

Every couple has relationship issues. If you don't know how to fight, learn how (an essential skill...). so you can let go of resentments that block desire. We can teach you excellent fighting habits over a weekend!

But it's hard to consider being vulnerable with someone if you aren't a friend. To change around a sexless marriage, start with being better friends.

Step 2: Break bad habits, and introduce better ones

After befriending your partner, your next step to help you increase interest in sex is to start the physical stuff. What are examples of bad habits?

  • Avoiding each other around bedtime and mornings.
  • Staying on separate chairs watching entertainment.
  • Avoiding touching each other.

What are good sexual habits? Here are a few to improve your sex life:

  • Agreeing it's going to feel awkward and being okay with that.
  • Touching each other when sex is off the table: before work, etc. Sneak it around kids. It's fun!
  • Kissing each other good night and good morning.

Step 3: Be willing to be aroused

Forget all the concern about whether your genitals will perform as you expect them to. A lack of sex means a lack of arousal. That's the first hurdle. Or maybe they are not used to being willing.

You'll hear a lot of people talking about how good a lover their partner is...or how poor. But fewer people focus on how eager and willing they are to allow their bodies to be aroused.

How open are you willing to make yourself? How vulnerable are you willing to be?

You may be afraid of suffering sexual dysfunction or feel low sexual desire. Men and women change in the frequency and style of their sexual activity. Nevertheless, healthy relationships do engage in sexual intimacy.

If you've had trouble getting sexually aroused, you might worry about the "come hither" look from your partner. That worry is a mood killer. Try to stay present with what's happening between you both.

Step 4: The politics of wanting sex

There is no question that spouses can withhold sex as punishment or retaliation. Like burning the enemy fields upon retreat, they make sure that if they aren't happy, nobody's happy.

But that's not the entire story.

The truth is that many couples I see do want to want their partners, but the emotional cost is just tremendous. It's an inner war they are waging.

Step 5: Find Your conditions for good sex

I've also learned that a sexually inactive partner is often a passive partner sexually. They wait to be aroused. They believe that being aroused is something their partner "does" for them. Consider it a state you actively put yourself into.

You have to know what arouses you, and it has to be tangible. Do you know your conditions for good sex? Write them out with a heading called "My Conditions for Good Sex" and put it under your pillow.

Things like:

  • "soft lighting,"
  • "a clean body,"
  • "in a good mood"
  • "No stupid jokes!"

Then find time to be available to your partner when you've created those conditions.

Step 6: Practice the acceptance and refusal dance

To start up being sexual again requires both of you to practice the art of accepting and rejecting sexual overtures. Framed rejections as "rain checks." Work out the language ahead of time.

Step 7: Tap into good moods

If timing is everything, perhaps you'll begin to notice when your partner is in a good mood and you'll enhance that. Consider sharing pleasant or exciting sexual memories.

"I was thinking how much I love you and about that time in New Hampshire when we...."

Few of us are anxious to open up and be sexual when we are feeling irritated, depressed, or anxious.

Step 8: For the second time, accept that there are no sex police

I remind people of this fact when they tell me about how the sex they had wasn't "real sex." Many people keep a set of criteria for when sex "counts" and when it doesn't.

Included might be things like whether both of you climaxed or not. When you have sex less than ten times a year, these things take on enormous significance. When you have sex 2-4 x a month, it's just a natural thing. 

Step 9: Lower the bar

When you start up having a "sexed marriage," start by lowering the bar. Agree upon attainable goalposts to make progress like:

  • "If we're both aroused for longer than 10 minutes, it counts as "real sex."
  • "If either of us creates a sexually arousing fantasy, it counts as 'real sex.'"
  • "If we get naked and soap each other and laugh in the shower, it counts as 'real sex.'"

People overcome dramatic challenges. Take the young woman who had to learn to skate competitively again after breaking her pelvis. Or trumpet player Chet Baker learning to play again when his teeth were knocked out.

Starting up sexuality in a sexless marriage is going to take effort. But it's a collaboration of the best kind. 

No matter how you argue it, nothing says "lovers" like being sexually aroused together. What you do after that, given the lack of sexual police, is nobody's business but your own.

And if all else fails when you aim too high, high-five each other and say "Good try!"

Try again in a few days. A positive attitude is everything in this endeavor.

And if none of this works, call us. You can see a friendly sex therapist over a weekend and get things back on track.

 Just schedule an appointment with one of our sex therapists and say:

"We're wanting to get out of the 20 percent. I want to be in the 80 percent of married couples that are sexual with each other..."

Originally published July 27, 2017

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Dr. K

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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