“I can’t wait to see you tonight."
"Oh, I can’t get enough of you!"
"I just want to kiss your face and touch your body!"
Have phrases like this gone by the wayside? Do you wonder what happened to your spouse’s interest in sex? Is there an absence of desire and passion? Do you want to fall for your sweetheart all over again? You can make it happen! Even if the well of sexual intimacy has gone all but dry in your marriage, it is truly possible to get things flowing again. Armed with a bucket of insightful tools, you’ll be on your way to restoring sexual intimacy in your marriage—the most important relationship in your life.
In my first two articles on sexless marriage, I addressed some of the basic factors that affect the demise of intimacy and sexuality in relationships. In looking at intimacy through the lenses of neurobiology, personal history, and interpersonal dynamics, it is clear that there is no singular root cause for the decline of sexual intimacy within a marriage. If you haven’t had a chance to read the first two installments in this series—or if you’d like a refresher—the background on sexual intimacy offered in these articles is truly beneficial.
As I noted in my second article in this series, "Whether the decline in sexual connection is rapid or sluggish, the results are the same; the marriage suffers when the bonding power of sexual intimacy disappears." This installment, the third and final of the series, focuses on providing the valuable tools and insights you need to rebuild and foster intimacy in your marriage. By utilizing the tips offered, the bonds of your marriage will become stronger and healthier than ever. As your connection with your spouse grows stronger, your sex life will begin to enliven and progress. Given time, your sex life will improve dramatically as a result of the tender, loving care given to all aspects of the relationship!
If you are like most of my clients, you want your sex life to be back on track immediately. This is understandable, but remember that patience is truly critical! The process of rebuilding sexual connection takes dedication and effort. In general, sexual intimacy deteriorates over time rather than resulting from one incident. A lack of sexual connection often results from a series of unresolved hurts and ruptures in the marriage.
Remember, too, that sexual disconnection can also result from a history of emotional injuries that were carried into the marriage from previous personal history. No matter the source, it will take time and patience to address and resolve the emotional damage that leads to the destruction of intimacy. Given that sexual intimacy within a marriage is far more than mere sexual intercourse, it is vital to appreciate that simply "having more sex" will not create the healthy and delicious sexual connection that lasts a lifetime.
Simply put, a person’s psychological history (recent and distant) affects the ability to connect intimately. From an early age, defenses are unconsciously put up when psychological threats and injuries occur. The psyche does this automatically to protect against further mental and emotional injuries. Unfortunately, these defensive walls are difficult to tear down once they are in place. Indeed, these walls can be beneficial in protecting against psychological damage from abuse and neglect, yet the same walls can also keep intimacy and love at bay. The walls that were once erected to keep a person psychologically "safe" are the very same walls that often prevent vulnerability and intimacy with a safe and loving partner.
Unconscious defense mechanisms are often at the root of sexual disconnection. It takes work to become aware of the behavior patterns that prevent loving intimacy; it takes even more work to dismantle the unhealthy walls to allow true intimacy. In truth, little slights and injuries routinely occur even in the best of marriages.
When a couple works to continually keep communication clean and healthy, the natural psychological hurts that occur within a marriage are resolved quickly. When a couple doesn’t communicate well, the slights and injuries remain unresolved; as a result, additional layers and walls are often built that obstruct intimacy and love. In fact, many barriers to true intimacy are the result of pre-marriage relationship injuries. Whether psychological injuries are caused in childhood or in adulthood, the psyche holds on to unresolved hurts. When emotional injuries from prior life relationships (parents, former relationships, etc.) are not resolved and are unconsciously carried into the marriage, the "ghosts" of these untended issues are often unintentionally exacerbated within the marriage.
“In offering a basic outline of strategies to restore sexual intimacy, it’s important to remember that emotional safety is key.”
The psyche responds by shouting, "This isn’t safe! Close off! Hold back! Don’t let yourself be exposed!" It is no wonder, then, that sexual intimacy suffers when hurts build and fester over time. Through appreciating the complexity of sexual disconnection, spouses can cultivate an attitude of patience and understanding as the rebuilding process occurs.
In offering a basic outline of strategies to restore sexual intimacy, it’s important to remember that emotional safety is key. The psychological vulnerability that is critical to intimate sexual connection flourishes when partners feel safe with each other. To promote the necessary emotional safety, remember these vital points:
A) It takes time to build connection, so be patient with yourself and your spouse; don’t lose hope.
B) As steps are taken to deepen intimacy, it is important that partners provide each other with consistent emotional safety; take great care to avoid destructive comments or behaviors that may be part of your old patterns.
C) Promote new, loving behaviors by offering consistent, heartfelt expressions of gratitude to your spouse; loving connection will grow when you remind your sweetheart day in and day out how much he or she means to you. With those basics under your belt, you're ready for these 10 straightforward tips that have the potential to rock your world!
1. Communication is key: While this first tip may not sound sexy, it is the most critical element for creating true intimacy—learn to communicate consistently in an open, honest, and respectful way. Work tirelessly to communicate openly and effectively with your partner. Use "I" messages, and steer clear of blame. (If you need a tune-up on healthy communication, take a look at my Hitched articles that focus on communication skills.)
2. Make time to connect: Building intimacy takes time and energy. When spouses become disconnected, effort is required to "find each other" again. At this stage, it’s important to spend gentle time with each other. Take walks together. Make time to sit and relax over a cup of coffee or tea. Have quiet time as you garden together. Whether you ride bicycles, play cards, or cook as a duo, it’s important to engage in the "we" activities that you once found bonding. Note: spending time "zoning out" together in front of the television or with computers does not count as "connective time!" Relating and interacting builds healthy connection! The more you bond with your partner in daily life, the closer your partner will feel to you. Consistent, positive interactions build connection, safety, and trust in the relationship. Even simple, positive interactions that are focused on familiar household tasks and daily routines have enormous bonding power. Your efforts will pay off one step at a time.
“Note: spending time "zoning out" together in front of the television or with computers does not count as "connective time!"”
3. Focus on the positive: Strive to remember what first drew you to your husband or wife. Focus on his or her assets, not any faults or weaknesses. When you pay attention to the positive aspects of your spouse, you will foster a more loving connection. By offering frequent, genuine compliments and gestures of appreciation, your spouse will feel more connected and loved. A focus on building kindness and warmth in the relationship will foster your foundation of safety and trust.
4. Get to the heart and history of the issues: As safety is built in the relationship, you will be able to begin addressing the issues that drove you apart. Without resorting to blame or judgment, each spouse can benefit by writing out a personal timeline that reflects when and how sexual and intimate connection began to decline. Understanding what went "wrong" will help you understand how to improve the issues that created disconnection. The support of a professional psychotherapist can be very helpful as these issues are processed.
5. Clear resentments: Make a respectful list of any unresolved resentments that exist between you and your spouse. Many couples resort to bouts of hostility and anger, passive-aggressive exchanges, or "burying" issues. When issues are not resolved, they become "invisible," giant-sized boulders that make true intimacy impossible. As you and your partner discuss and resolve past hurts and resentments, the emotional distance between you will begin to diminish. Here, again, the support of a trusted professional can be extremely helpful.
“The more positive acts you notice, the more bonding intimacy you will create.”
6. Build your foundation: As you build a new, strong foundation for your relationship, make a conscious effort to communicate openly. Avoid returning to familiar, old behaviors that will tempt you to shut down or avoid connecting with your spouse. While avoidance may seem easier in the moment, running away from issues actually creates serious problems. So, with the goal of a healthy marriage in mind, smile and make time to discuss issues as they occur. If the ghosts of unresolved issues arise now and again, tend to them as quickly as possible. Be patient as you and your spouse clear your history of the issues that created barriers between you. This process takes a great deal of energy, but the long-term benefits are well worth the effort. As you focus on building safety and trust with each other, don’t be surprised if gestures of loving kindness begin to occur spontaneously. Notice and thank your partner for any acts of intimate connection. Whether your spouse offers you a hug, a loving look, or a gentle kiss, express gratitude for the gesture of connection. The more positive acts you notice, the more bonding intimacy you will create.
7. Strengthen your "checking in" skills: As you continue to move forward to build a strong foundation of trust and security that will support true intimacy, continue to check in with your spouse. Strive each day to let your spouse know you care; this builds greater trust and security. Interactions may be as simple as calling or sending a short text or two during the workday. It can also be helpful to set aside time each evening to have a "10 minute check-in" to see how your partner is feeling and faring! Such little acts of connection really matter in the long run. Your spouse will be able to experience your care and concern when you slow down the process. When the focus remains on restoring connection—rather than racing to have sex—your partner will be far more likely to respond positively to caring, gentle physical advances. Once it becomes part of your daily routine, the "checking in" process will become a natural and vital component of your marriage; you’ll wonder how you lived without it! Remember to use the "checking in" process frequently as you move toward increasing your sexual connection. Strive to make communication and connection a vital, unifying aspect of your daily lives. The resulting sense of safety and trust will form the ideal foundation for a warm and loving physical connection.
8. Moving into physical intimacy: Once both partners feel ready to begin connecting on a physical level, it’s important to proceed slowly. Although one partner may be wanting to race to have intercourse, it’s vital to wait until both ready. Moving slowly allows a couple to establish greater safety and connection. As you begin to connect physically, learn to touch each other without sexual contact. Make time to cuddle with each other. Explore non-erogenous zones. Stroke your partner’s back, neck, or shoulders. Massage each other in a non-sexual manner. Gentle, tender kisses are often welcomed. At this stage, it is critical that partners allow each other to become open and vulnerable in a slow and respectful manner.
“When the focus remains on restoring connection—rather than racing to have sex—your partner will be far more likely to respond positively to caring, gentle physical advances.”
9. Deepening sexual intimacy: Once you are both ready to move toward sexual intimacy, slowly begin to explore each other’s erogenous zones. Kissing, stroking, and gentle touch continue to be vital elements of the intimate interactions. At this point, sexual intercourse is not the goal. When gentle sexual exploration is the focus, intimacy and connection continue to build security. The intimate bonds that have been fostered during the previous steps now become stronger and more ingrained. Take care to keep communicating with your partner, for old patterns might want to slip in. A vigilant, love-filled attitude will keep you moving forward.
10. It’s far more than sex: When desire and intimacy intersect, truly meaningful sexual intercourse becomes possible. When both partners feel that the time is right, the intimacy you have worked so hard to build now allows for loving sexual intercourse. At this stage, a couple may find that the focus on sex itself pales in comparison to the loving, bonding exchanges that have now become part of the marriage. Healthy couples find that passionate sexual intercourse becomes a vibrant, delightful element within the overall package of loving intimacy. With safety and trust forming the bonds of connection, true intimacy is found. In this beautiful space, sexual intimacy becomes far more than sexual intercourse.
“Healthy couples find that passionate sexual intercourse becomes a vibrant, delightful element within the overall package of loving intimacy.”
The journey into healthy, loving sexuality is vital for a strong marriage. The 10 tips outlined above can go a long way to salvaging a marriage that has lost (or maybe never really had) a truly intimate connection. When attention is given to resolving problematic issues, healthy sexual intimacy is possible. With ongoing vigilance and lots of tender loving care, a couple can work to create the safety and security that are necessary for a love-filled, deeply intimate union. Given time, you will find that new, loving behaviors slowly replace the old barriers that kept you and your partner disconnected from each other. Be patient, and remember that your marriage—your love—is truly worth the effort!
Sexless Marriage (Part 1): Understanding Why Passion and Sex Die
Sexless Marriage (Part 2): Why Sexual Intimacy Fades
As a clinical psychologist in Sonoma County, California, Dr. Carla Marie Manly maintains a focus on helping clients transform their lives and their relationships. Using a body-mind-spirit approach that underscores the importance of overall wellness, Dr. Manly works with her clients on a highly individualized basis to uncover the core concerns that often manifest as psychological, behavioral, and somatic symptoms. Combining traditional depth psychotherapy with somatic therapy, Dr. Manly offers her clients a specialized approach to creating passionate, joy-filled lives. Working in both individual and group settings, she strives to promote change by increasing her clients’ personal self-awareness and insight. A devoted writer, speaker, and yoga instructor, Dr. Manly is dedicated to helping others create the lives of their dreams. California License: Psy25539. For more, visit www.drcarlagreco.com and follow her on Google+.