How to Break the No-Sex Cycle

Performance anxiety can make reconnecting difficult. Here's how to ease in.

Posted Jul 06, 2019

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Jen and Mark had lots of sex in their early days, but then it started slowing down. Now, a few years into their relationship and with the demands of their young son and jobs, it’s way down, and overall affection has dropped off as well. Each would say they don’t like the current state of the union, that they worry that it’s becoming a new normal, that they are slipping into roommate status, but find themselves sidestepping the topic.

Jen and Mark’s situation isn’t all the uncommon. When I meet new couples in my practice and ask about their sex lives, I often hear variations of this theme: that they are too busy, that one partner tries to initiate sex late at night when the other is tired and declines, that the husband had an ED experience after having too much to drink and now is backing off, afraid of repeating history again. Overall intimacy goes down, and any initiation is met with anxiety—about performance—and with avoidance or excuses. They are growing increasingly disconnected from each other and stuck in a rut.

Jen and Mark’s initial slow-down is normal. Research shows that oxytocin levels are high at the start of a relationship but begin to drop over a period of time naturally. The thinking is that this is evolutionary. Once the couple has emotionally and biologically bonded, it’s time to move forward to other things—like gathering food, or the modern-day equivalent, focusing back on everyday life and jobs—and to start nesting and planning for a family.

But for Jen and Mark, this normal process has psychologically begun to spiral down, fueled by their busyness, their distractions, and eventually their growing anxiety.

Some suggestions for getting your sex life back on track:

Bring it up

This is probably the most important and difficult step, especially after weeks or months of avoidance. But there’s no way around this: Someone needs to step up, talk about the elephant in the room. Awkward? Yes. Essential? Yes. 

But if face-to-face seems too overwhelming, consider writing an email. Talk about how you’ve missed the affection and intimacy between you both. Talk about soft emotions, such as worry and concern, rather than anger and frustration. Say you want to know how the other has been thinking and feeling about this, that you want to get out of the rut and would like to set aside a time to have a serious and productive adult conversation about it.

Focus on the problem under the problem

So you have the conversation. The next step is finding out what's the problem under the problem. Sex is often the casualty of bigger underlying relationship issues. Unsolved everyday problems—about money, kids—can fuel emotional disconnection; resentments about who is and who isn’t getting their way can translate into power struggles over sex itself. Unless these are addressed, sex is likely to stay on the back burner.

But sometimes the problem under the problem isn’t about bigger things like money or kids, but about sex itself. Here is where Mark talks about his performance anxiety and fears of impotence, or Jen talks about feeling sexually unsatisfied. Again, the starting point is talking—to deconstruct and come up with a plan to solve the problem. 

And sometimes you find that it is none-of-the-above, and the problem really is about falling into a rut, a going on autopilot where you've both let routines take over your lives. The challenge is to overcome the understandable awkwardness of initiating or doing it.

Get comfortable with non-sexual physical contact

If affection and physical contact have been on the wane, any physical contact can feel awkward and raise anxiety. And this is what you are trying to fix—the anxiety that your sexual drought has wrought—the performance pressure, the expectations, the fear of rejection. To help counter this, you need to desensitize yourselves to simple physical contact with no expectations of moving into sex: having five hugs a day whether you want to or not, or deliberately snuggling together on the couch when you're watching a movie or in bed before you go to sleep. 

Keep expectations low

As you both once again feel more physically comfortable with each other, you can move on to, say, getting naked and snuggling in bed and see what happens. But if you do, it’s important to keep expectations low, as in near zero. The goal is to not sabotage these fragile beginning by moving too quickly but instead to move at a pace that works for both of you. This helps keep everyone’s anxiety under control and reduces the pressure of having to go from 0-60 or create the ultimate sexual experience.

Consider sensate focus exercises

For a more structured easing into sex, consider trying Masters and Johnson’s sensate focus exercises. Masters and Johnson developed and used these exercises as the starting point in the treatment for all sexual problems that couples presented. Essentially these exercises are a step-by-step desensitization program—providing control to reduce anxiety, moving at a gentle pace that builds self-confidence and ensures success. There are a number of online resources to help you move together through the process and steps.

Do and tweak

Once you’re sexually back on track, you want to resist just doing the deep sigh and calling it mission accomplished. In order to avoid falling back into old patterns again, you make time to debrief and fine-tune. May seem a bit unromantic and nerdy, but it's important.  

Get help

If any of these steps seem overwhelming, if there are serious problems that are undermining your relationship, you may benefit from even short-term therapy to help sort these out, to help you move forward at the pace that feels right, to have a safe place to say and hear what you each need most.

Like most relationship issues, the key is reversing patterns through honest communication and clear behavior. It’s not about getting the other to change, but instead working together to change the overall climate of the relationship.

Start slow, speak up.

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