A sexual dry spell can be worrisome, but these tips may help you cherish each other more than ever.
Popular culture and its unrealistic overemphasis on sex does not encourage and support healthy, long marriages. Those expectations can even turn to paranoia if you and your spouse are in the midst of a dry spell in your sexual intimacy.
The first thing you need to know is that dry spells in marriage are normal. It’s the rare marriage that doesn’t experience them for one reason or another, and they don’t necessarily mean anything is wrong, or that your marriage is in trouble. And “dry spell” can mean different lengths of time to different couples. Some spouses might raise an eyebrow at a quiet two weeks, while others may have been bedroom-shy for months and now feel embarrassed to talk about it. Or maybe you have talked about it, but the sparks still aren’t flying, or the communication doesn’t feel productive, so you worry about the future of your relationship.
Turn it into a spiritual exercise
Monte Drenner, a licensed counselor and life coach in Orlando, Florida, often advises couples on sexual issues, and has seen some marriages benefit from what might otherwise be a bad situation:
“Much like fasting or giving up something for Lent, abstaining from sex can lead to spiritual growth if both parties are focused on that goal,” he says. “The more each member of the couple grows spiritually, the stronger the marriage will be in the long run.”
So if you’re finding bedroom activity waning naturally, it might be the right time to talk to your partner about consciously abstaining to grow in different areas. If you both agree, Denner suggests that you may be rewarded in other areas of your marriage: “Sacrificing sex for a brief period of time is a great example of giving up something for something even better.”
But Denner says that communication, and making abstinence a mutual decision is key. “This dry spell, however, can become a problem if abstinence or the length of the dry spell is not mutually decided upon.”
Don’t use sex as a tool or weapon
While consent is always necessary in sexual encounters — including those between husband and wife — sex should never be used as a weapon. Unfortunately, we see this a lot on TV sitcoms: “You’ll do this, or you won’t get any tonight.” It’s often delivered in a teasing way, but it can be a dangerous mindset to use in real life.
“If one person is withholding sex from the other, then anger and resentment can set in, which will only hurt the relationship,” says Drenner. Ignoring or withholding sex can lead to long-term bitterness and hurt.
Over time, those negative emotions can worsen and take an emotional toll on the marriage. So you should never leave your spouse wondering why you’re not having sex (or feeling like it’s a punishment/reward system).
Refocus on your marriage
This kind of emotional and physical rut can also happen if either spouse places too much attention on other corners of life: focusing on work for a job, or taking care of the kids, which can lead to cutting back on time solely devoted to the husband and wife relationship.
“Things like career and family obligations can often impact a couple’s sex life and will if these things, rather than the marriage, are the priority,” says Drenner.
Sometimes, we need to put family first, and turn down certain work assignments or miss a few of our kids’ hockey practices in the name of date night. (It sounds frivolous, but those alone nights are actually very important.) Ask yourself if you truly place your marriage first, or if you’ve just been telling yourself that you do without following through.
“Too many couples do not make the marriage a priority and therefore suffer in their relationship,” says Drenner.
Gradually rebuild your intimacy
Nicole Prause, neuroscientist and licensed psychologist, is the founder of the start-up Liberos, which researches the brain science involved in sex drive. She explains that sometimes in the realm of psychiatry, forgoing sex is suggested to couples, in order to rebuild the relationship using Sensate Focus exercises instead.
“Sensate Focus exercises are used to help with a variety of sexual problems,” says Prause. “The very first rule is to take intercourse off the table and have graduated touching exercises with your partner.” So if you’re already going through a period of abstinence, these exercises might be worth a try.
The phases are meant to gradually build or restore trust, intimacy, and pleasure between partners. Sensate Focus exercises can reduce negative associations one or both spouses have to sex (for whatever reason) because they establish ground rules that foster communication, equality, kindness, and awareness. According to Prause, there is no right or wrong timeline for moving through the phases: “Depending how quickly the couple moves through the stages, they may not have intercourse for several months.”
So think of a dry spell as an opportunity to re-discover each other. And once you do get to intercourse, Prause suggests that you may be better off than before: “One of the goals of the exercise is to help reduce demands when the couple does begin to have sex again,” says Prause. “Hopefully, they will recall a period of still feeling very close and intimate with each other when they were not having sex per se, and this dry spell will help them learn that sex does not need to occur in the same way at a particular time to have a strong relationship.”
Take a fresh perspective
The chance to start fresh shouldn’t be underestimated. While sex is an important part of the marriage sacrament that should be taken seriously, that intimacy should also be enjoyable. No matter how long you’ve been married, you can enjoy the same playfulness you knew as honeymooners … you just have to make a little effort. Adam Busch, who runs a dating newsletter service in Sacramento, California, believes undergoing a sexual dry spell may actually be a chance to bring back a dash of the spice from your early days together.
“Taking breaks can be good for a couple because it is another step in breaking up routine,” he says. “One of the biggest killers of any relationship is routine. When sex becomes routine, it loses the luster that it originally had. Sometimes creating a sex break can be beneficial for building up desire, but only if the reason for the break is correctly communicated.”
So how exactly can abstaining from sex revive a sense of novelty in your marriage? Busch cites an observation from psychotherapist and speaker Esther Perel.
“She makes a point that long-term relationships and marriages idealize two different concepts: security and desire,” he says. “Long-term relationships want security: a person that is comforting, always there, grounding — the things that console us.” Basically all the things that make you a great parenting team.
“Yet, the other half, desire, is often created from a sense of unknowing, mystery, and adventure. These characteristics are in direct conflict within both raising a family and being in a long term relationship.” Bottom line? You need to step back occasionally from the parent and co-worker your spouse is, and see him or her as an exciting, romantic person again. So if you flip your “dry spell” around to get back into a dating mindset with your partner, you may help create a sense of newness again.
Remember that your marriage is unique
While our culture may place too much emphasis on sex, Denner notes that it’s important for couples to remind themselves that they don’t have to follow society’s lead. They need to evaluate what makes them feel happy and fulfilled.
“What is realistic for a married couple will depend upon various factors, like age, health and desire,” he says. “I counsel couples to do what is realistic for them and not be concerned about what is ‘normal’ for others.” Your “normal” may look vastly different from another couple’s “normal” — and that’s not necessarily to your detriment.
As with most things in your marriage, you and your spouse must talk to one another and work through challenges together, whether physical, emotional, or a combination of the two.
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