Sex & Sociability

Question and commentary on connections, both sexual and social

Starting Again After A Sexual Lull

Resuming sex can present difficulties for some people.

For a 60ish woman who came to my counseling office to manage anxiety it was a casual mention that she and her husband of twenty some years had simply “fallen out of the habit” of sex. For a young couple who were new parents it was finding the time and energy for sex after a long and difficult pregnancy forced abstinence. For a recent widower the problem was starting over with a new partner.

For various reasons, usually driven by circumstance rather than choice, one may go through a sexual drought, a period of no sexual contact, and find it becomes increasingly difficult to bridge the lengthening gap. When it is a single person the difficulty is compounded by the process of finding and forming a new relationship. But what of loving established couples? Shouldn’t it be easy to pick up where they left off? It would seem that mere hunger for physical connection would compel the partners back into each other’s arms. Often, that just doesn’t seem to be the case.

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The answers to my ”So what’s stopping you?” are varied. “I’m shy,” “I don’t know how to start,” “I don’t know what to say,” and “I’m waiting for him/her to let me know” or “to make the first move.”

Very often acknowledging that there ever was a very definite nonverbal ask and response arrangement between them is difficult. Her signal that she was available for sex might have been as simple as an announcement that she was going to take a bath or his that he shaved before coming to bed. Often how the partner positioned him or herself in bed when they retired – turning toward or away – was enough to say it all. If those signals were subtle sometimes even the person sending them was unaware or the person responding to them didn’t know exactly what elicited the response. They would engage in sex and assume it “just happened naturally”.

So how to begin again and become conscious of the delicate, often unspoken dance of desire call and response? Like many other interpersonal dynamics, talking about it helps. In fact, it’s often the only way to avoid miscommunication that can be so vague as to go undetected . “I’m going to take a bath now” can be taken as a statement of fact and not an invitation to love making, and result in hurt feelings and a missed opportunity, while “How would you like me to let you know when I’m in the mood?” can begin a very fruitful discussion.

I think most people avoid a bald statement of desire or intention, although that would simplify things immensely: “I would like to make love tonight. Are you interested?” is just too naked for some. A direct nonverbal approach – one reaches for the other and begins caresses – is more palatable for many, yet still too bold for some. What they both have in common is the greater risk of being unequivocally rejected. There is no mistaking an overture in both these scenarios and no mistaking a refusal either.

In fact, the fear of rejection is what keeps most people from beginning sex after a hiatus and from having the sex they want in general. (Many surveys of coupled individuals find that a large percentage of women and men state they would prefer to have sex more often than they are having it.) Therefor, it seems that a necessary part of the “How would you prefer that I let you know I’m interested” discussion needs to be “How would you prefer me to let you know when I am not interested?”

Taking the hand that is caressing your hip, bringing it to your lips and kissing it before turning away in bed, might comprise an acceptable call and response – keeping in mind that no one LIKES to be refused sex although we all acknowledge that sometimes those are the facts of life.

So a “Do you want to?’ followed by an “I’d prefer a raincheck for this weekend” will do it for some while a kiss on the neck responded to by a squeeze of the hand is a complete conversation for others. The important thing to remember about getting started sexually after a lull is that someone has to make the first move and you, reader, rather than your partner, are the likely candidate. Starting a discussion about sex may be easier and far more productive in the long run.

Isadora AlmanM.F.T., is a Board-certified sex, marriage, and family therapist, lecturer, author, and syndicated advice columnist of "Ask Isadora."

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