“Not Tonight Dear” Why Couples Stop Having Sex (and what you can do about it)

When I do couples therapy a very common complaint is that the sex is infrequent or nonexistent. Over a period of time this tends to erode a couple’s sense of connection. It also tends to breed resentment and anger.

Why do couples stop having sex, and what can you do to prevent this?

There are a number of reasons that can cause couples to stop having sex.

1. Anger and resentment in the relationship

A big reason is unresolved anger or resentment in the relationship itself. Most couples don’t want to have sex when they’re angry. (Angry sex or makeup sex seems to be relatively rare amongst most couples.) Often the anger or resentment issues are long-standing, and feel unresolvable. The couple feels distant from one another, and as a result stops being affectionate or sexual.

The solution to this problem is talking. Talking calmly and non-defensively in order to resolve problems and eliminate resentments. Clearing the air on a regular basis is essential for couples happiness. If you can’t do it yourself, get some couples counseling and learn the skills for resolving conflict.

2. Mediocre or boring sex

Another reason couples stop having sex might seem very obvious — the sex isn’t very good. Perhaps there are sexual problems such as erectile difficulties or difficulties having orgasms. Or perhaps the sex is just mediocre and routine. Perhaps sex is too much work.

The antidote to this problem is to work on improving the quality of sex and touching. There are a number of exercises that couples can do to improve their ability to please one another. One such exercise is called sensate focus. In this exercise couples take turns touching one another all over the body, while the recipient of touching give us feedback about what feels good. The purpose of this exercise is to learn where and how to touch your partner in order to give them the most pleasure.

Verbal communication is also essential for improving the quality of sex. Most couples talk about everything other than sex. It’s difficult for couples to communicate what they like and don’t like sexually. But without this communication the couple is driving blind, and the most likely outcome is going off the cliff.

If couples cannot achieve this on their own, then a few sessions of focused sex therapy can be very helpful. During these sessions the couple learns how to talk about sex comfortably, and troubleshoots issues that are preventing them from having good sex. Typically sex therapy is brief therapy — less than 10 sessions. Unless you have a fabulous sex life, a few sessions of sex therapy, learning how to communicate sexual desires, fantasies, turn-on’s, and turn-offs, is highly recommended.

3. Issues with initiating sex

Another reason couples stop having sex is issues with initiation. Initiating sex is a very delicate balance. When one person approaches the other, there is tremendous potential for hurt and rejection. If one person suggests sex, and the other turns it down, this often leads to resentment and finally avoidance.

Other initiation issues include one person doing all of the initiating, with the other partner never initiating. Or perhaps neither person is initiating sex, instead waiting for the other to initiate. If neither person initiates obviously there will be no sex.

Initiation issues are complex. One general rule of thumb is that as much as possible, partners should never reject a sexual initiation. If absolutely necessary, then the rejection should be as kind and gentle as possible, and include a rain check suggestion. Something like, “I’d really love to honey, but my stomach is killing me. Can we make love tomorrow night instead?”

The reason for this guideline is that very few people will persist after multiple sexual rejections. Couples who have a healthy sex life typically will almost always say yes to sex, even if they are tired or stressed. They may negotiate different sexual activities, or even suggest having sex the next morning or night, but they rarely say no. Saying no often usually leads an eternal no.

4. Failure to make sex a priority

Sex is a very important component of relationships, yet many couples fail to make it a priority. Couples allow work, children, exercise, socializing, television, Internet, and housework to dominate their priorities so completely that they don’t have time for sex. This is a huge mistake. Sex is one of the basic glues that hold couples together. A failure to make the romantic and sexual relationship a priority often leads to divorce.

Couples should figure out a way that they can consistently have private time in order to have sex. Perhaps this might mean even scheduling sex, which most couples resist as being unromantic, but is often essential when people are very busy. Perhaps Wednesday night is date night, and the prime focus is to connect and to make love. Sunday morning might be another time to schedule. If couples work close each other, perhaps a noontime meeting at a hotel or at home might be fun.

Turn off the TV or computer and talk, cuddle, and get close. Make having sex a priority even if it means scheduling sex. Yes scheduled sex is a little bit less romantic, but it reminds me of a famous comedian’s line, “Sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go it’s pretty good.” Paraphrasing this a bit, we get “Scheduled sex is a less romantic experience, but as less romantic experiences go it’s pretty good!”

5. Excessive masturbation to pornography

This is primarily a problem with men. Some men turn to Internet pornography and masturbation when they are not having consistent sex in their relationship. There’s nothing wrong with masturbation, but there are some serious issues that can develop. One issue is that middle aged men do not have infinite sexual potential, so if they are masturbating frequently, they will have very little left over for their wife or partner. Their libido for their partner will be low. Or when their partner wants to have sex, they will be unable to because they have just masturbated that afternoon. (Obviously this is less of an issue for young men.)

The other issue with Internet pornography is that typically the women that are depicted are young, slender, and extremely beautiful. They may be of a different race or color than the man’s actual partner. For a man with a middle-aged partner, the contrast between the perfect bodies he sees in pornography in his own partner’s less than perfect body will be jarring. This may cause loss of desire.

A similar issue is that in porn women do many sexual activities that most women have little interest in such as anal sex, threesomes, orgies, or sex in public. A man whose sexual norm calibration is based on pornagraphy will will greatly out of sync with his actual partner.

The solution to this problem is to first impose a temporary moratorium on masturbation and Internet porn. Stop for 30 days. This will allow your libido for your partner to recover. During that 30 days focus on any of the other problems with sex and address them. Schedule sex at a frequency that is comfortable for both of you. Once you are reliably and consistently having sex again, there will be less need to masturbate. Also you can schedule your masturbation sessions so that they do not interfere with scheduled partner sex.

6. Failure to attend to personal hygiene or appearance

Once couples have been together for a while they often get lazy about their hygiene or appearance. They may not brush their teeth before kissing, or showering before being close. Both partners may walk around the house wearing sweat pants and sweatshirt. Lingerie disappears out of the relationship. People put on weight and don’t maintain their fitness.

All of these things can cause problems in the bedroom. I often hear from men or women that when they married their partner they were very attractive, but they’ve let themselves go, and they are no longer so attractive. Men complain that their wives come to bed in sweats and gym socks instead of naked or in lingerie.

These are difficult issues to discuss with a partner. There is potential for very hurt feelings when one person tells the other that their weight gain has made them less attractive. Or that their breath in the morning is deadly. Or that when they walk around in their granny nighty, it’s not in the least sexy. Obviously approaching these issues with tact and sensitivity is essential. Some are obviously easier than others. It’s easy to change one’s sleep apparel. It’s fairly easy to brush one’s teeth. As all of us who are middle aged know, weight loss is more difficult.

7. Failure to address sexual dysfunction

Another issue that can get in the way of having sex is a failure to address sexual problems. Many men suffer at least intermittent erectile difficulties. Many women have difficulty having orgasms, or difficulty lubricating adequately. Shame and embarrassment about these issues often leads people to avoid having sex with their partner.

Depending on the problem, there are good solutions available. Men with erectile difficulties can often benefit from either sex therapy to address issues of anxiety and performance, or erectile disorder medications such as Cialis, Viagra, or Levitra. Of these drugs I usually recommend Cialis, as it is long-lasting (lasts up to three days), and relatively side effect free. Often a low dose of Cialis such as 5 or 10 mg can greatly improve a man’s ability to get and maintain an erection. This restores confidence, and also makes sex relatively worry free.

On the female side, difficulties in orgasm can because by issues of anxiety or inhibition, or simply issues of sexual technique and stimulation. Unfortunately there is no medication that improves female sexual functioning, but sex therapy can be very helpful. Lubrication is often an issue, and few people realize that lubrication is the female equivalent of an erection. With aging comes less lubrication, and this can often make sex painful or difficult. The solution to this problem is incredibly simple — use artificial lubrication. There are a variety of lubrication products on the market, some are water-based, and some are silicon-based. Both are good. Use lubrication liberally, and sex will feel better and be more fun.

8. Forgetting that foreplay starts long before the bedroom.

Oprah has a wonderful saying that foreplay starts early in the morning when a man unloads the dishwasher. The well-known marriage researcher John Gottman has found that men who do more housework typically get more sex. Many couples forget that foreplay starts first thing in the morning. And never stops and healthy happy sexual marriages. Showing kindness, concern, consideration, affection, respect, admiration — all are forms of foreplay. Specifically, compliments that focus on someone looking sexy or handsome or beautiful or hot get the motor running. With modern technology we can flirt even more effectively. Sending a sexy text during the workday can lead to a much more pleasant and fun evening. (Just be sure that text has some subtlety so your work phone doesn’t create problems for you with your boss.)

In similar ways, physical touching and affection can turn up the heat later in the bedroom. A quick but passionate kiss in passing. A squeeze of the bottom. Caressing and sexual touch can be normal parts of your affectionate repertoire even outside the bedroom. (Try not to scare the children or the dog!) Remember, everything can be foreplay.

So there it is — why couples stop having sex and what you can do about it. Don’t settle for a lack of sex or mediocre sex. Follow these guidelines and you can start having consistent and pleasurable lovemaking. If you need help, seek out a skilled psychologist who has specialty experience in doing sex therapy. Generalized couples therapy, although useful for other types of problems, does not usually help with sexual difficulties. Questions to ask a potential sex therapist are:

  1. What is your training in sex therapy?
  2. What is your approach to sex therapy? Can you give me an idea of the typical session?
  3. How long does sex therapy with you typically take? (If the person says a year or two then you should probably find someone else. Most sex therapy is brief therapy.)
  4. Finally, when you meet with the sex therapist, do they seem comfortable and direct talking about sex? Do they use direct language for sexual activities and sexual parts, or do they beat around the bush? If the sex therapist is not more comfortable than you are talking about sex, it is unlikely that they can be of much help.

Now I’ve got to go meet my sweetie for some crazy hot……never mind!  🙂

Copyright © 2010, 2011 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

 

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Radical Non-Defensiveness: The Most Important Communication Skill

“Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.
Jack blamed Jill,
Jill blamed Jack,
And each vowed they would
Never come back.”

What is the secret of good couples communication? What one simple skill tremendously improves the ability of couples to discuss difficult subjects?

It is the skill of non-defensive responding. What do I mean by this?

Let me give you an example. Imagine a hypothetical couple Jack and Jill. Jack comes home from work and is tired and hungry. Jill got home from her job one hour before. She’s sitting on the couch reading the paper.

Jack says, “I can’t believe you haven’t started dinner. I’m really hungry! You’re just sitting there relaxing, while I’m starving!”

(If you were Jill, how would you react?)

A typical response that Jill might make would be something like, “You’ve got hands, why don’t you make dinner! Why do you expect me to be your slave!?”

At which point it is likely a good fight would ensue.

The non-defensive response would be something like, “It sounds like you’re really hungry and kind of annoyed that I haven’t started dinner yet. You’re absolutely right, I was really stressed out when I got home from work and I decided to relax for a while rather than start dinner. I can see how you would feel frustrated getting home from work tired and hungry and seeing me just sitting here. Why don’t you sit down and relax and I’ll get us some quick snacks, and then get dinner started.”

Notice the difference. In the first example Jill counterattacks. Jack will counterattack in return and quickly things will escalate into a full fight.

In the non-defensive example Jill acknowledges Jack’s feelings. Then she finds some truth in his statement. Next she validates his feelings. And finally, she proposes a solution.

This is an incredibly powerful skill for reducing conflict and improving communication between people. In this article I will give you some basic theoretical rationale for why non-defensive responding works so well, and then teach you — step-by-step — how respond non-defensively.

First the theory. Human ego is a delicate thing. We spend a lot of our energy defending our sense of self against attacks or criticisms. The problem with this model is that it’s impossible to defend completely against all attacks or criticisms. This is because most of us are very far from perfect — we are quite flawed — and we know it.

The problem is that we don’t accept it. We have this all or nothing model of ourselves which says either we are perfect or we are awful. So when any criticism comes along, it challenges our model of being perfect and we slip into the painful feelings of complete inadequacy.

We don’t like feeling inadequate, so we try to deny or counterattack any criticism. There are so many types of defensive responding that it’s difficult to catalog all of them. But some of the major types of defensive responding are described below. (These are based on John Gottman’s work on communication.)

Major Kinds of Defensiveness

1. Denying responsibility. This involves denying that you’re at fault no matter what your partner accuses you of. If your wife says you hurt her feelings by saying something insensitive, you reply that you didn’t do anything wrong.

2. Making excuses. This is when you acknowledge the mistake, but create a reason for why circumstances outside your control forced you to make the mistake. Classic examples of this are, “traffic made me late,” or “I just forgot to pick up the milk.”

3. Disagreeing with negative mind reading. This is when you disagree with your partner’s interpretation of your internal state or emotion.

Jack: You seemed very frustrated with me tonight.
Jill: That’s not true, I was just tense being at a work party.

4. Cross complaining. This defensive response involves meeting your partner’s complaint or criticism with an immediate complaint of your own. An example would be:

Jill: you never take me out anymore.
Jack: and you never cook me dinner anymore!

5. Rubber man/rubber woman. This is based on the old saying, “I’m rubber, you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” In this form of defensiveness, you immediately counterattack with a similar criticism.

Jack: You were very mean to me at the party tonight.
Jill: Well you were mean to me yesterday when we visited your mother’s house.

6. Yes-Butting.  This is where you start off agreeing, but then end up negating the agreement.

Jack: You said you would put away your work papers off the dining room      table.
Jill: Yes I did, but I was waiting for you to clear off your books first.

7. Repeating yourself. This involves repeating the criticism again and again without listening to your partner.

8. Whining. This involves the sound of your voice and the stressing of one syllable at the end of this sentence. For instance, “You always ignore me at parties.”

9. Body language. Typical body language signs of defensiveness are crossing your arms across her chest, shifting side to side, and a false smile.

Ultimately the goal of all defensiveness is to preserve the self. This is a commendable but hopeless goal, since defensiveness triggers elevated levels of criticism from the other person. As Gottman has so elegantly described, the more you defend yourself, the harsher the criticism you receive. That’s because when someone criticizes you they want you to acknowledge the validity of their feelings and thoughts. When you respond defensively you are invalidating them, so they escalate the criticism. If you can’t hear them the first time, they say it louder.

This of course leads you to become even more defensive because the criticism is now much harsher. And the two of you are off to the races! The fight escalates, gets personal, and both of you end up feeling damaged.

So what is the solution? How do we get out of this vicious cycle of defensiveness and criticism?

The answer is a radical shift in the way we think about ourselves. Radical non-defensiveness is the answer.

What is radical non-defensiveness? First it requires a shift in our core beliefs about ourselves. Remember that most of us have an all-or-nothing model of our self. We believe, “I must be perfect otherwise I am crap. If anyone points out my imperfections, they are basically saying that I am crap, and I won’t listen and I will counterattack.”

Radical non-defensiveness means that we shift our core belief about ourself to, “I am a flawed human being. I make many mistakes. I can improve on almost anything I do. But even with my flaws I am a worthwhile and valuable person.”

With this radically changed belief about the self, criticism changes as well. Instead of criticism meaning that we are worthless human being, it simply acknowledges the reality of being flawed, and helps us to improve.

If you think about it for a moment, you might realize that radical non-defensiveness is the antidote to perfectionism. Perfectionism beliefs cause much human suffering. When we feel that we need to be perfect in order to be worthwhile we are living in a glass house. The smallest pebble can crack our armor. And that pebble can be any criticism.

The radical non-defensive model is completely the opposite of perfectionism. I don’t need to be perfect to be good and worthwhile. I can shoot for an 85 rather than 100. If I make a mistake, I can acknowledge it and realize that everybody makes mistakes.

Let’s go over — step-by-step — how to respond non-defensively. (Some of this is based on some of David Burns’s work on communication.)

First let’s create another example of criticism. Back to Jack and Jill. They have finished dinner, and Jack retires to his laptop computer, where he spends the next several hours deep in Internet surfing. Jill tries to talk to him about something that happened at work, but he ignores her. Finally, she explodes, “You never listen to me!  You are always surfing on your stupid computer! You don’t care about me, and you’d rather watch YouTube videos than listen to my problems. You are an uncaring husband!”

Whew! That’s pretty intense criticism isn’t it? How can Jack respond non-defensively to this?

Let me take you through it step by step.

Step One: Paraphrase back to the person the thoughts and feelings they are expressing to you.

Jack says, “It sounds like you’re really frustrated and angry with me right now, because I was on the computer rather than focusing on you.”

Step Two: Find SOME truth in what they are saying. In this step what you try to do is select whatever reality-based truth there is, and ignore hostile names or labels. You focus on the behavior that you’ve committed rather than the nasty labels.

Jack says, “You are absolutely right. I have been spending way too much time on my computer and not enough time connecting with you.”

Step Three: Validate the emotion paraphrased in Step One, and connect it to the behavior in Step Two. This lets the person know that many people, including you, might feel the same emotion in the same situation.

Jack says, “I can see why you might feel frustrated. If I wanted to talk more with you and you were reading all the time I’d probably feel the same way. It makes perfect sense.”

Step Four: Offer possible solutions. Here there are several options. One option is a genuine apology. This is very powerful. Another option is to suggest discussing the problem in order to find solutions. This option is best when the criticism encompasses a complex problem that can’t easily be resolved. Another option is to simply fix the problem right then and there.

Jack closes his computer and says, “I’m really sorry. I do want to hear what happened at work, why don’t we sit together on the couch and talk about it.”

Step Five: Thank the other person for bringing the problem to your attention. This is probably the most alien step of all for most people. How can you thank someone for criticizing you? If you recall in the radical non-defensiveness model, you acknowledge that you can always improve, and that criticism is often what helps you to improve. So thanking the person for criticizing you is really saying thank you for caring enough about me to help me improve.

Jack says, “Thanks Jill for telling me how you feel. That allows me to be more conscious of being a better husband. Thanks again.”

One typical objection to non-defensive responding is “Won’t the the other person criticize me more if I don’t defend myself?” The truth is actually the opposite. The more you defend yourself the more criticism you receive, and the harsher the criticism becomes. Most criticism is designed to create change or to be listened to, and defensive responding achieves neither.

Another objection is, “What if the criticism is completely unfounded or unjust? How can I respond non-defensively in that case?”

Criticism is rarely completely unfounded. There is almost always SOME truth in most criticism. Even if it just factual truth, you can agree with it. Example:
Jill: You were flirting with that woman Nancy at the party. You’d like to sleep with her.
Jack: You are absolutely right, I was flirting a little. I can see how that would upset you. I don’t want to sleep with her though. What can we do at the next party so I don’t upset you?

Try using this skill at home, at work, with friends, and with family. You will be surprised at how effective it is. I’ve summarized the steps below.

Now I’ve got to go apologize to my sweetie for spending so much time writing this….

Non-Defensive Responding Step by Step
1. Empathy: respond with empathic reflection, “It sounds like you are feeling quite angry at me for forgetting your birthday.”  (Use tone matching and empathic body language). Reflect both content and feeling.

2. Find some truth in the statement, and strongly agree. “You are absolutely right. I totally forgot your birthday! What a dope I am!”

3. Validate the emotions reflected in step 1. “I can see why you are angry. I’d be angry in your situation too!”

4. Offer possible solutions, compromise, problem solving, or an apology.
“I blew it, I’m very sorry, and I’d like to make it up to you by taking you away next weekend. How does that sound?”

5. Show appreciation for the person giving you the feedback. “Thanks for letting me know how you feel. Now I can make a point of not forgetting your birthday.”

Copyright © 2010, 2011 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.