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Q: My girlfriend and I just had our two-year anniversary. We live together, share a lot of interests, our friends and family get along. The problem is since moving in together our sex life has slowed to a crawl. Now we have sex about every other week. I want to be more adventurous, but since we don’t have sex much there never seems to be a good time to bring it up. I love her but I’m not sure about committing to monthly sex for the rest of my life. How can we solve this? – Corey, New York
A: First of all, congratulations on what sounds like a stable, well-rounded relationship. Your issue is a serious one, but it’s worth pointing out: in order to work on a relationship, you need a relationship worth working on.
It’s also important to say: you are not alone. “Desire mismatch remains the most common reason couples attend sexual health clinics, and demands for more sex are still the most common pitfall,” says Dr. Nicole Prause, a therapist and neuroscience researcher studying sex. The reasons why are complex and unique to each couple, but economic uncertainty, historically high stress levels, and technology overload aren’t helping. When was the last night you laid in bed with your significant other, eyes fixed on your phones instead of talking, cuddling, or getting busy?
The good news is, a real relationship doesn’t have to mean a life of frustrated near-celibacy. With the right effort, sex within a committed relationship can be hotter and more rewarding than ever. The question is, where to begin?
Good Relationship ≠ Good Sex
Step 1: Examine Your Sexual Relationship
Think back to the beginning of your last – or current – relationship. Wasn’t the sex just bonkers? Here’s the thing: that shouldn’t be surprising. Like any new experience, sex is subject to your brain’s response to novelty and the feel-good brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin that come with it.
Thanks to your brain, sex in a new relationship is a symptom of exciting new feelings for a new person, a new relationship, and new stuff you’re trying together, rather than a cause. When the relationship begins to settle in that newness fades, so does the spontaneous, uncontrollable, effortlessly good sex. It doesn’t mean something is wrong, it just means your relationship is changing as you and your partner come off an extended high.
Take a look at your relationship as it stands today. Are the fundamentals strong? Is your emotional relationship sound? Is your co-habitation working? Is your friendship tight? Do you enjoy most of the time you spend together most of the time?
If you’re like Corey, you’re saying “yes” to these questions. That’s great. Now, is your sexual relationship strong? And that doesn’t just mean ‘do you have sex a lot.’
What’s the quality of the sex you’re having? Does it still blow your mind (at least occasionally)? Does it feel like you’re still discovering new things with your partner? Are the two of you able to talk about sex – the things you desire and like, and the things you’re uncomfortable with? Does your partner tell you when they’re enjoying something you’re doing, or not? Do you feel sexually compatible in the things you want, and might want to try later on?
If you aren’t able to answer all of those questions with an enthusiastic “yes!” that’s OK. All it means is a) you’re normal, and b) a good relationship doesn’t automatically equal a good sexual relationship.
Just like other intra-relationship issues like money, cleanliness, and values, your sexual relationship is something that needs to be actively worked on. Assuming sex will be plentiful and good because you love and desire one another only sets you up for a world of disappointment in a long-term relationship. The question is, what can you do about it?
Talk First, Sex Second
Step 2: Sex-Positive Communication
You might be tempted to express your frustration to your partner at how infrequently you’re getting busy. Whatever you do, resist this urge. If you’re waiting to say anything until you’re angry and frustrated, you’ve waited too long. Chances are, your partner is well aware of the issue and likely already has their own frustration, guilt, or hurt feelings about it.
“Threatening to leave, threatening to cheat, expressing anger, are all going to shut the partner down further, yet we just cannot seem to stop our patients from these patterns,” says Dr. Nicole Prause. Every expert we spoke to pointed to the same issue: the biggest mistake guys make when it comes to addressing a sexual issue is focusing on quantity or kinkiness instead of communication.
Ask yourself: How much do I actually know about what my partner wants? How much do they know about what I want? Do we feel open and not judged about what we want? Do we trust that our desires and fantasies will be met with acceptance? Are we sexually generous with one another? What am I doing to foster a safe, comfortable environment where my partner and I can express ourselves sexually?
It sounds radical, but forget the issue for a second (whatever it is) and focus instead on building open communication in a sex positive environment.
You may have heard the term “sex positive.” There’s a lot of definitions out there, but Dr. Nicole Prause defines sex positive as “supporting any person's consensual, safe sexual preferences.” In practice this means developing your capacity to be open, non-judgmental, and supportive when discussing what you and your partner want in the bedroom.
“Almost all couples don’t truly express what they want in sex,” says relationship coach Lucinda Loveland. Shame, health issues, trauma, fear of a breakup or just plain embarrassment are all barriers to open sexual communication.
The question is, what does sex positive communication actually look like? With help from our experts, we’ve assembled a series of scripts based on behavioral research that can help get you started on the right foot.
Scripts for Success
#0: Before You Talk the First Time
Observe these basic rules for the first time you bring up sex:
- Don’t bring up sex during sex
- Don’t start a talk in bed or during any intimate activity
- Don’t try to talk in a public place
- Avoid stressful times of the week/day
- Set aside plenty of time
- Do not, under any circumstances, bring up exes
#1: Blame It On Primer
It can be super difficult to just get started, so consider a low-stakes, indirect approach:
I read this article about how couples talk about sex and it really made me think – we have great communication in so many aspects of our relationship and I’d love to communicate more about the sexual side.
#2: Positive Framing
No matter what you’re talking about, it doesn’t have to be framed in a negative way. Instead of “I think we don’t have sex enough,” try a more sex positive version:
I know we’re both crazy busy, I’d love for us to spend some more time on our sexual relationship so it feels more rewarding for both of us.
#3: The Fill in the Blank
This is a well-researched technique in couples communication, and is best for expressing an issue in a non-confrontational way. Start with something positive, then name the issue and offer how it makes you feel (i.e., a vulnerability).
I like it when you ____, but when you ____, I feel ____.
If the issue is frequency, your script could be: I like when we dress up, go out for the night, and feel energized and sexy, but when we come home and you aren’t interested I feel inadequate/like I’ve done something wrong/like you’re not attracted to me.
#4: Sexy Follow Ups
Once you’ve got the ball rolling, be curious about what your partner may not have told you:
When have you felt the most turned on in our relationship?
What do you wish I would do more?
What would you prefer I do less?
Tell me something you like that I don’t know about…
What is a fantasy you’ve had that I can make come true?
#5: In the Heat of the Moment
Communication doesn’t stop after you’ve had that first discussion. During sex is the perfect time to gather crucial data. Start by pleasuring your partner and then hit them with leading questions like:
How does this feel?
What do you want me to do next?
Questions like these create an atmosphere where you and your partner can ask for things and, to your mutual delight, receive them. But presentation is important! Let the questions come naturally, instead of mechanically, for the best effect.
Building a safe, sex positive environment where both of you can ask and receive is the foundation for mixing up the routine and exploring new things, positions, and experiences.
Flirting is Foreplay
Step 3: Practice Being Proactive
It’s important to remember your sexual relationship exists outside the ropes of your bed, and so does sexual communication.
If you come home on Friday, order pizza, and read your phone while you both half-watch a movie, then don't be surprised when the night doesn’t transition to sex. Over time in long-term relationships people stop flirting, enticing, and being playful – and it’s detrimental to a robust sex life. Flirting is the foreplay to the foreplay. If you're not making your partner feel sexy before you want to have sex, don’t expect the evening to magically break your way.
Sex in a committed relationship demands you set your intention beforehand. Deploy sex-positive flirtation, innuendo, and suggestion to lay the groundwork for a hot session later. Texting throughout the day about a fantasy builds tension. Make a deck of sex-positive challenges for the bedroom (see #11 on our V-day guide). Reveal your intention with a scenario like, “I want to take you out for drinks tonight. You wear that black dress I like, we’ll have a good time, and when I just can’t take looking at you anymore I’ll bring you back home and I’ll do anything to you that you want me to.”
If your partner isn’t interested in that, well, it’s time to think about escalating your sexual communication.
Call in the Cavalry
Step 4: Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Help
If you’ve tried everything you reasonably can, it could be time to bring in a third party to facilitate communication. Seeking the help of a qualified relationship counselor, therapist, or sexologist isn't a bad thing, and doesn’t imply anything negative about you or your partner. This is especially true if infidelity, past abuse, or trauma are an issue for either of you.
“The level of distress is a good indicator,” says Dr. Nicole Prause. Highly charged negative emotions make it nearly impossible to communicate. “Therapists can be useful to bridge very emotional times until they become more manageable.”
If calm, sex positive attempts to communicate have been met with a wall, disbelief, or devaluation multiple times, tell your partner it’s time to see a therapist. You might try this script if you’re not sure what to say:
Our relationship is really important to me and I feel like I’ve been unable to communicate effectively about our sexual relationship. I’d like to see a therapist that can help us say things in a different way. Will you come if I make the appointment?
Thinking Long Term
We’re the first to admit: not everyone is ready to hear this advice. A lot of guys are out there in the trenches just trying to get a second date, never mind keeping the flame alive after commitment and co-habitation. But here’s the thing: having good sexual communication will make your whole sex life, from lips to toes, better at any stage of relationship. And if it’s not enough to make your current one stick, just think how your next partner will feel when they encounter someone with a sexual communication toolkit. So go forth, seek pleasure, and stay curious about your partner.