by Gary Seeman, Ph.D., retired
Couples may have sexual problems for a variety of reasons. Often they hesitate to initiate lovemaking because they don’t feel like it – and there’s an underlying belief that attraction can only be a spontaneous feeling. If their main issue is having lost that spark instead of another obstacle like the effects of a physical illness or recovering from infidelity, I usually offer the following tips.
If you’ve felt a spark in the past, you can probably feel it again.
Feelings don’t have to lead.
You’ve planned romance in the past and can do so again.
Don’t let power plays overcome your sexual relationship.
Help each other get comfortable.
You can start with sensuality.
Don’t rely on alcohol or drugs.
You don’t have to go it alone; sexual problems are well understood and can be helped.
If you’ve felt a spark in the past, you can probably feel it again. You may even notice that spark at times now. The point is that if you’ve felt it in the past, you’re able to affect each other that way. The goal is to find your way to allow that spark and help it grow.
Feelings don’t have to lead. Many people believe that attraction is something that’s there or it’s not – that feeling attracted to your partner is something that can die and there’s nothing you can do about it. But this belief is almost always a trap. You worry that you won’t be attracted, and then you search for all the reasons this is so. The lack of attraction may be for many reasons, having little do to with your potential as a couple. Perhaps one or both of you are tired or preoccupied. Or you’re afraid that you’ll try to initiate and be rejected. But you don’t have to follow those thoughts or feelings, just as you wouldn’t continue ruminating about work stress before a date. You can let those feelings go and create conditions for romance.
You’ve planned romance in the past and can do so again. Have you forgotten that when you were dating, you would dress attractively, choose a romantic restaurant and bring flowers? If you want to rekindle your spark, try courting each other again. Bring creativity back to the bedroom by setting aside time for romance and try something different than your usual routine to make things fun and sensual.
Don’t let power plays overcome your sexual relationship. If you want a positive and loving relationship, don’t get caught in power plays that further alienate you from each other. Replace grudges with generosity and forgiveness. You may have strong feelings that get in the way of wanting sexual activity with your partner, and each of you has the right to engage in sex or not. If strong feelings are in the way, communicate more if you can or consider couples therapy.
Communicate. People are often shy about sex or believe that talking about it will ruin what should be a natural function. I agree that you shouldn’t talk it to death. But personal intimacy and lovemaking enhance each other. Express what you like and don’t like. Give each other permission to talk about your sexual preferences and concerns. Let each other know if you need some time and caresses to relax into pleasuring. Or support each other in resolving sexual problems you may not have felt comfortable discussing earlier. Traumatic experiences or physical difficulties earlier in life may make sexual activity anxiety provoking, for instance. Support each other emotionally and consider getting professional help for such issues.
Help each other get comfortable. Don’t make this attempt a do or die situation. Bring a sense of humor and comfort to the bedroom. One of my colleagues suggests that when you’re ready to reconnect sexually, you can even “agree to have awkward sex!”* And if it’s not working today, don’t put your partner on the spot. Hold each other. Talk about what you need or whatever might be distracting you, and support each other in recovering your romance.
You can start with sensuality. Anxiety and sexual excitement don’t go well together, so don’t put pressure on each other to perform. If you’re trying to get comfortable again, you can start with sensuality. You might even agree that you won’t have intercourse or penetration this time but will concentrate instead on sensual touching. Even if your sex life is good, refocusing on sensual pleasuring can bring creativity back to your lovemaking and build the heat between you.
Don’t rely on alcohol or drugs. They may put you at ease for the moment, but alcohol can even cause sexual dysfunction. As they lower inhibition, they can let loose anger and other negative feelings as reactions to an awkward moment. And there’s a risk of habituation – where you depend on getting high before making love. This is known as “state-dependent learning.” Or worse, for many the regular use of alcohol or drugs risks addiction. For more on how alcohol can actually spoil a romance, see my article on that topic. (I’m not referring here to medications used to help people with physical problems that interfere with sexual functioning.)
You don’t have to go it alone; sexual problems are well understood and can be helped. Some couples suffer from serious relationship problems that are preventing intimacy. Others may struggle with a wide variety of physical problems, which could respond to medical and psychological treatment. If the suggestions just given don’t help you, you may do well to seek specialized help, such as a professional psychotherapist trained in sex therapy or a physician with expertise in evaluating sexual functioning. Although I’ve found the methods just given helpful to many, I may refer you for a medical work-up or sex therapy if your difficulties can benefit from a specialist. Such specialists are trained in putting you at ease to discuss your sexual concerns and in helping you evaluate whether you can benefit from psychological or medical interventions, or both.
* David Bullard, Ph.D., personal communication, 4/12/10.