How to fix a sexless marriage by removing bad habits

We often blame our desire for sex (or lack of it) on our sex drive, mental health, or simply the number of years of marriage. We view sex starved marriage not just as a major problem, but 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 using the 9 steps listed below.

But first, a definition.

What constitutes a sexless marriage?

Barry McCarthy says it's one where sex happens less than 10 times a 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.

But if you can cut a head of cabbage or make a sour face when you suck on a lemon, 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: Retrain yourself

So how do you retrain yourself to exit a "sexless relationship" and enter a new and passionate one?

First, grab an ally

Imagine having this conversation with your partner:

You: "You know, Charles/Helena, as a married couple, we've really let our sex life go. I know I've played a big part in it. I want to make positive changes. I'm wondering, what do you think? Do you want to break our bad habits and start getting ourselves into better sexual health? I really love you and I want to fix this sexless marriage. I want this part of our lives together to be terrific...."

For some of you, you're going to have to memorize that phrase and say it after great practice. For others, it just takes you saying it in an upbeat and positive way. Sex can cause people to get pretty grim and the fights about sex are typically nasty. To change things, open up and ask for a companion.

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. Couples having sex should at least be friendly to one another.

If you suck at fighting, learn how to fight well in a marriage (an essential skill...) so you can let go of resentments that block desire. We can teach you excellent fighting habits in 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, introduce better ones

After befriending your partner, your next step to help you fix a sexless marriage 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:

  • 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.

Learn again to be sexual by becoming sexual

Start wherever you are. There are no baby steps in restarting sexual intimacy after being in a sexless partnership. Fixing a sexless marriage isn't easy. Even the little things feel big. One of you reaches out, the other freezes. You quickly withdraw, feeling hurt and rejected.

"Wait! That was just trying to hold hands! This will be impossible!"

No, it was both of you trying to find some comfort in touching again.


Next comes learning to be a special friend. This involves holding hands. Walking together. Sharing intimate secrets. Making them the first person you call when you have good news or bad. Special friends. Begin by holding hands privately. Try it while watching your favorite series. Progress to resting your head on each other or putting your feet up on the other's lap. Or your head. Then rub the body part that's resting on your lap.

Progress to holding hands in public. Especially if you're over 50. People love to see that. Try it and see!


If you've never embraced, start now. Schnarch suggests that you hug "until you both relax" in each other's arms. You know, an exhale and a comfort in just holding and being held. Do it every morning and every evening, and when you meet and leave each other. There is no need to leave air between the two of you. Press up against one another like you're trying to get warm. And no grinding groins at this point. It's rude and won't be appreciated. Press and warm your whole body, and just relax into it.


Many couples have given up kissing entirely if they've stopped having sex with each other. If you've stopped kissing and you want to fix a sexless marriage, start kissing again. If you kiss each other briefly, do it a moment longer than you kiss your favorite aunt on the cheek hello. Work up to what Gottman advocates as a 6-second kiss. Count "one-Mississippi" for each second silently and don't complain about how your partner does it, unless you set aside time for "sex class." (more on that later...) Never criticize someone kissing you outside of sex class. It's a bad habit. Stop it.

Kissing is an exceptionally intimate thing to do, and hard to start doing again.

Kissing involves first looking, really looking into your partner's face. Taking them in. Recognizing them as a fleeting mammal on the earth for a limited time, just like you are. Kissing requires initial tenderness in order to allow the heat to build. And repetition. And navigating glasses and beards, and braces and dentures. It requires waiting for an invitation to introduce a tongue. Then doing it tentatively, and not riotously.


Fondling is the next step to improve a sexless marriage, and we tell couples that real fondling is more than groping the erotic zones hoping to jet-propel a reaction. Fondling is as much a caress that arouses the person touching as the one being touched. It's not a professional massage, and neither is it a mechanical act. Know the areas that are sensitive and responsive (verses sensitive and ticklish...) and learn how to touch in a way that pleases your partner. That takes experimentation. And feedback. People change over time. Re-learn.


And if you've been watching a lot of it, now's the time to stop. Pull the plug. Mourn the porn. And mourn you might if it's been a daily sexual partner "in vivo." You might need to put a porn blocker on your computer to block your inner 13-year-old.

Just do it.

Because sex in real committed relationships doesn't look anything like fantasy sex in pornography, and no one can do what Mary Palm and her four daughters do naturally. If you are looking for genuine sexual desire, the kind real men and women engage in (or women and women or men and men...) you must forsake the frequency of sex for the rebirth of real sex.

Give it three months and notice the burn. That's 'mourning the porn.' It will pass. If it doesn't consider whether you may have a sexual addiction.


If you haven't had sex in the past year redefine what "sexual activity" means. Stop thinking that if V and P don't intersect, it's not "healthy sex."

Repeat after me:

"There are no 'sex police'."

Timing is everything. And so is good communication. If you are already kissing and embracing, spend longer at it. Work up to 5-10 minutes a day. You're mammals and you have to get used to each other again.

Step 3: Be willing to be aroused

Forget all the concern about whether your genitals will perform as you expect them to. The biggest challenge for couples who have long been without sex is that they just aren't used to being aroused with their partner. Or maybe 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?

If you've had trouble getting sexually aroused, then worrying about it when your partner gives you a "come hither" look will be a mood killer. Try to stay present with what's happening between you both.

Face into the resistance

When you've been in a sexless marriage, reactivating your body requires tolerating discomfort. It's like starting up a cold engine that's been garaged for a while. If you expect it to turn over the first time the key is inserted and turned, you're dreaming.

There will be resistance. There will be ambivalence. There will be hard feelings and cold exchanges. Tolerate it with good humor and keep trying. Your marriage and family are worth it. There needs to be a willingness to try it this way and that way and be patient.

And the shocking surprise will be that resistance will be on both of your parts. Even the "sexual expert" who has previously been whining about how much they miss sex with you.

Reluctance to get aroused is not the same as an unwillingness to BE aroused. Let's get that straight.

For many people, once they are aroused, they can easily and joyfully participate in sex. But getting to that state of arousal is the challenge.

And those are people WITHOUT a sexual abuse history.

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.

Ending the war with yourself

They need to figure out a way to make sex less costly. Sometimes they do this by coming to terms with their own innate attractiveness and accepting themselves, weight, warts and all, as sexual people. Once they believe they are sexy people, they have less of an attitude when their partner refuses to have sex with them. Or asks them to be sexual. Or they ask to change around a sexless marriage.

If they don't believe they are sexy people, they have a hard time believing that their partner finds them so. After a time of rejecting their partner's advances, their partner stops reminding them that they are attracted to them, which reinforces the "I'm not sexy" belief.

So believing in yourself as a sexually attractive person is the first step. And trying. Making an effort to toss the ratty p.j.'s and spraying air freshener or light a match when you use the facilities. Putting on pleasant smells. Coming to bed showered and use mouth wash. Knowing what your partner finds "sexy" and putting yourself in that place.

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, instead of a state they actively put themselves into, in order to be a good friend.

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 sexual overtures and rejecting sexual overtures, now framed by the wise as "rain checks." While the language has to be worked out ahead of time, it can sound something like this:

Charles:  Helene, I was hoping we could have some intimate time tonight. Are you interested in turning in early?

Helene: (accepting) Oh Charles, what a charming invitation. Honey, I'd love to cuddle up and be close.

Helene: (raincheck): Oh Charles, what a wonderful invitation. Thank you so much for asking me. I really appreciate you for suggesting it. Tomorrow, I'm having that major presentation and I need to stay up late tonight to prepare it. Can I take a raincheck until tomorrow night? I promise I'll be ready then!

Key things to pay attention to:

  • Charles isn't asking for a particular set of behaviors, other than to be "intimate" and to "turn in early." 
  • Helene doesn't get all angry that Charles forgot about her big presentation.
  • They act like "intimate friends" and work at keeping things positive.

 Charles also uses his words.

He asks for what he wants and risks being refused verbally. Too many sexual initiators initiate sex so tentatively as to having their partner's miss it as a sexual invitation. Others seem to pick times where they can "hit and run" the sexual invitation, intentionally choosing times when it is otherwise impossible for their partner to reciprocate. Even in those situations, their partners can ask for a raincheck, turning an otherwise "hit and run" invitation into a promising later rendezvous.

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 with them as in: "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" because it didn't meet a series of criteria they have in their head as counting. Things like whether both of you climaxed or not. When you have sex less than 10 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.'"

Like the young woman who had to learn to skate again after breaking her pelvis, or trumpet player Chet Baker, 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!" and 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

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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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