For the six years Erica and her husband have been together, the relationship has been great — they’re very much in love, they communicate well and enjoy each other’s company. Their sex life, however, is another story.
During the honeymoon phase, the sex was pretty good — the new relationship sparks created a certain amount of electricity between the sheets. But a couple of years in, it became stale and repetitive, said Erica — who asked that we use her middle name to protect her privacy. She doesn’t orgasm during sex with her husband either. Eventually she told him that she needed a certain kind of clitoral stimulation to get off, but he didn’t have the right touch to make it happen. This, among other things, has affected her sex drive.
“I think a lot of it had to do with boring sex — same positions, predictable moves and words — and the fact that I wasn’t finishing either,” she said, adding that her exhausting work schedule didn’t help the situation.
A couple of years ago, the sex-related tension bubbled up into a huge fight. Her husband didn’t understand why she was so disinterested in sex.
They decided that Erica would talk to her doctor to see if her lower sex drive could be hormone-related. They’ve also started going to counseling to work through their bedroom issues.
“We’ve been going to see a therapist who specializes in marriage and intimacy counseling, together and him individually,” she said. “It’s a work in progress but we’re trying.”
Indeed, a 2016 Pew Research Center study found that 61% of married adults say a satisfying sex life is “very important” to a successful marriage. But there are plenty of couples who don’t hold sex in such high regard.
“For some people, sex just isn’t that important, so they wouldn’t mind having a lackluster sex life with their partners,” said Vanessa Marin, sex therapist and creator of the online course “Rediscovering Desire.” “For most people, though, being out-of-sync sexually is a huge problem.”
“Most people believe that great sex should just happen ‘naturally’ if the partners are compatible, but I firmly believe that chemistry is something we create and maintain.”
Sex therapist and psychologist Shannon Chavez said she sees couples “all the time” where everything is going well in the relationship other than the sex.
“Priorities change over time in a relationship and couples may focus on other areas of connection to meet intimacy needs,” she said. “It is only a deal breaker if a couple cannot communicate about it effectively.”
And just because you’re not wowed by your sex life with your partner at present doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a life of blah in bed. It’s definitely something you two can work on, Marin said.
“Most people believe that great sex should just happen ‘naturally’ if the partners are compatible, but I firmly believe that chemistry is something we create and maintain,” she said.
Your sex life can be improved. But not without putting in some work.
If you’re not satisfied with the current state of your sex life, don’t take it lying down. Below, experts offer advice on how to turn things around.
Take responsibility for your own pleasure.
Sex is a two-way street. Before blaming your partner for all of your bedroom woes, make sure you’ve addressed any personal issues that could be getting in the way of your enjoyment of sex.
“Deal with your mental barriers or body image issues that can lead to unrealistic expectations around sex and take control of your pleasure,” Chavez said.
Know that chemistry needs to be kindled and rekindled.
“Despite what porn and the movies have led you to believe, most people don’t have incredible chemistry right from the get-go, nor does chemistry sustain itself long term,” Marin said.
That means you’ll both need to put in — and keep putting in — effort to keep that sexy spark alive.
Address other areas of conflict in the relationship.
Perhaps there are problems outside the bedroom that are affecting your connection between the sheets; it could be lingering resentments, unresolved arguments, past betrayals or trust issues. Until you get those sorted out, it may be difficult to enjoy sex with your partner.
“Strengthening intimacy can help improve sex,” Chavez said. “It will help both partners relax, and feel more open and safe towards physical and emotional intimacy.”
Broaden your sexual horizons.
If things have gotten ho-hum, be open to experimenting together so you can discover what else you might enjoy in bed.
“A lot of people put pressure on themselves to automatically know exactly what they like and be able to describe it perfectly to a partner,” Marin said. “But sex just doesn’t work like that. Instead, you’ll find it much more useful — and much less stressful — to experiment with your partner and focus on sharing your experience in the moment.”
That might also mean widening your definition of sex. Instead of worrying about what you think sex “should” look like, focus on figuring out what actually appeals to you.
“Sex scripts are the narratives and beliefs you have about sex,” said Jesse Kahn, sex therapist and director of The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center. “This could include what you think qualifies as sex, what sex has to be like, what sex looks like with different people and partners, and how gender defines sex roles.”
“Maybe the current script of what sex is doesn’t work for your relationship,” he continued. “But if you change or broaden your understanding, you may find that you enjoy way more sexual activities together.”
Stop expecting your partner to read your mind.
It’s not fair to expect your partner to magically know what you like and dislike in bed, especially because our preferences may shift over time. If you want more foreplay or less graphic dirty talk, speak up and say so.
“You need to be able to share your inner world with your partner,” Marin said. “If there’s something you already know you don’t like, or you’re missing, share that with your partner.”
Telling your partner how you really feel about the state of your sex life may be daunting, but it’s necessary.
It’s understandable that you might be hesitant to voice your bedroom frustrations or concerns to your partner. Sex can be a touchy subject after all. But don’t let that stop you from having these important conversations. Use these expert-backed tips to help guide your approach.
Talk about your sexual histories and hang-ups first.
Laying some ground rules about how to talk about sex and discussing any sex-related baggage (or trauma) you’re each bringing to the relationship can increase self-awareness on your end, while giving you a better understanding of your partner too, Kahn said.
Don’t have the talk right before or after sex.
While small suggestions (go slower! go faster! a little to the left!) are worth bringing up in the heat of the moment, larger discussions should wait.
“I recommend having conversations about sex outside of the bedroom, separate from sex itself,” Marin said.
Be honest — but not harsh — in your delivery.
Share feedback candidly but do so with care.
“Be direct and give examples to help build understanding,” Chavez said. “Don’t criticize or shame your partner. Use ‘I’ statements and talk about what you’re experiencing.”
When your partner responds, really listen.
After you’ve said your piece, give your partner a chance to share their feelings and perspective.
“You can repeat back what you hear your partner saying and then give them an opportunity to clarify,” Kahn said. “Validate, empathize with and work to understand what your partner is saying.”
Slowing down the conversation this way will generate more thoughtful responses and minimize defensiveness, Kahn added.
Know that it’s normal for your partner to be a little upset.
You might be worried that admitting you’re not thrilled with the state of your sex life will hurt your partner’s feelings — and understandably so. But don’t avoid the topic out of fear of discomfort, Chavez said.
“It’s perfectly normal to react sensitively to feedback,” she said.
But you might be surprised at how receptive they are.
If you’ve been feeling out-of-sync in bed, your partner has probably picked up on that too. So finally having this conversation might even come as a relief to them.
“It’s a lot of pressure to feel like you need to read your partner’s mind and know everything they want and need,” Marin said. “If they have some practical feedback from you, that will take so much pressure off their shoulders.”
“I Love You But” is a series that offers advice on how to love someone when you don’t love a big aspect of their life ― from their sex and sleep habits to their pets.