By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
I’ve been married to Bruce for eight years and I’m worried because we’ve lost the passion and excitement we used to have. It seems like there’s something missing in our relationship and I don’t know how to get it back. It’s not that we don’t get along, we hardly ever argue. That’s part of the problem – we’re more like friends than lovers. We mostly talk about our kids Ryan and Nathan, who are four and six, and never seem to focus on us.
Bruce says I’m too sensitive and that all couples go through dry spells in their sex lives. He says he still loves me but I’m not sure that I believe him. I seem to be the one who wants to work on improving our relationship, but lately the more I approach him, the more he withdraws. It all feels pretty exhausting and I’m not sure it’s worth it.
Most nights, I go to sleep feeling frustrated and lonely. When Bruce tries to initiate sex, I pull away because I just don’t feel attracted to him anymore. We can’t seem to connect and I don’t feel sexy at the end of a long day. Sadly, when we talk about our problems with intimacy and sex, they seem to get worse. Bruce says that I nag and worry too much. Maybe he’s right but we just can’t seem to break this vicious cycle and I worry he’ll leave me for someone else.
What do you suggest that we do to rev up our sex life and to feel excited about each other again? Please help me because I’m desperate to save our marriage.
It sounds like your relationship with your husband is defined more by friendship than passion but that you still love each other and haven’t given up. Rest assured – it’s common for couples who have been married for a while and have busy lives, to drift apart emotionally and sexually. Like many couples, you and Bruce seem to have lost the intense spark you once had but you can rediscover your sexual relationship and get back on track.
During the early phase of marriage, many couples barely come up for air due to the excitement of falling in love. Unfortunately, this blissful state doesn’t last forever. Scientists have found that oxytocin (a bonding hormone) is released during the initial stage of infatuation – which causes couples to feel euphoric and turned on by physical affection – such as touching and holding hands. Oxytocin works like a drug, giving us immediate rewards and binding us to our lover.
It’s normal to feel a sense of disappointment when our desire for sexual intimacy doesn’t match our partners and a pursuer-distancer pattern can develop. Your struggle with Bruce is a common one for hard-working couples balancing jobs, parenting, and intimacy. “Most sexual concerns stem from an interpersonal struggle in the marriage,” writes sex therapist Laurie Watson, author of Wanting Sex Again: How to Rediscover Your Desire and Heal a Sexless Marriage. She describes the tug-of-war between being too close and too distant from a partner as a repetitive pattern of one person being the pursuer and another being the distancer.
Why is this relationship pattern so common? Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington and The Gottman Institute, a distinguished observer of marital relations, believes that the tendency of men to withdraw and women to pursue is wired into our physiology and reflects a basic gender difference. In his classic “Love Lab” observations he’s noted that this pattern is extremely common and is a major contributor to marital breakdown. He also warns us that if it’s not examined, the pursuer-distancer pattern will persist into a second marriage or subsequent intimate relationships.
Let’s face it, when we fall in love and commit to someone, we have high hopes that we’ll feel blissful and excited by him or her indefinitely. This leads to unrealistic expectations and disappointment when the passion dies down. In her Huffington Post Article Not Having Sex? 7 Ways To Start Again, Laurie Watson writes “We think sex will grow in frequency and quality. Yet within two years, 20 percent of marriages end up sexless (less than 10 times a year) and an additional 15 percent become low-sex (less than 25 times per year).” According to Watson, skipping the wedding ceremony doesn’t seem to alter this fate since only one in three committed couples is barely having sex.
In his landmark book I Love You, But I’m Not In Love With You, author Andrew G. Marshall posits that it’s possible for couples to rekindle love by building a better understanding of themselves and each other, and ultimately building a stronger, more passionate connection. Marshall answers the question: Is it possible to fall back in love? He explains that Limerence is the early phase of falling in love characterized by elation and passion. Psychologist Dorothy Tennov coined this term in her landmark book Love and Limerence. Marshall writes, “Someone under the spell of Limerence is bound tightly to his or her beloved, however badly he or she behaves.”
But what happens to one’s feeling of love after Limerence is gone? Marshall calls the next phase Loving Attachment – the type of love characterized by a deep connection, sexual intimacy, and the ability to tackle the challenges of life together. Marshall posits that the two main culprits that destroy Loving Attachment are neglecting physical intimacy and not accepting each other’s differences. He labels the third type of love Affectionate Regard and says that it’s friendly but lacking in passion – similar to the love between a brother and sister.
What is the secret to helping you and Bruce revive your sex life and get back to Loving Attachment? Couples who “turn toward” one another rather than “turning away” are more likely to be happy and less likely to be headed for misery and/or divorce court according to Dr. John Gottman. In his book The Relationship Cure, he writes: “It’s not that these couples don’t get mad or disagree. It’s that when they disagree, they’re able to stay connected and engaged with each other. Rather than becoming defensive and hurtful, they pepper their disputes with flashes of affection, intense interest, and mutual respect.”
Author Teresa Atkin advises couples to rewire their brains to experience feelings of pleasure so they can experience emotional and sexual closeness. She reminds us that the human brain, while wonderfully complex, doesn’t always work in our best interest and we need to rewire it in order to experience pleasurable feelings. She writes, “Research shows that we get a healthy shot of dopamine (the feel good hormone) when we are seeking reward, and when there is something new to experience. Also excitement is transferable, so the heightened arousal that follows say, a roller coaster ride, can be used to rev up your sex life.”
Here are 6 tips to help you rev up your sexual intimacy and rewire positive connections:
- Get in touch with your pattern of relating. These include ways you might be denying your partner or coming on too strong sexually. Avoid criticizing each other and stop the “blame game.” You are responsible for your own happiness.
- Break the pursuer-distancer pattern. Distancers need to practice initiating sex more often and pursuers need to find ways to tell their partner “you’re sexy,” while avoiding critique after sex.
- Resolve conflicts skillfully. Don’t put aside resentments that can destroy your relationship. Experiencing conflict is inevitable and couples who strive to avoid it are at risk of developing stagnant relationships, posits author Kate McNulty, LCSW, in Managing Conflict to Protect Your Relationship.
- Increase physical affection. According to author Dr. Kory Floyd, physical contact releases feel good hormones. Holding hands, hugging, and touching can release oxytocin (the bonding hormone) that reduces pain and causes a calming sensation. Studies show that it’s released during sexual orgasm and affectionate touch as well. Physical affection also reduces stress hormones – lowering daily levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
- Allow tension to build. Our brains experience more pleasure when the anticipation of the reward goes on for some time before we get the actual reward. So take your time, share fantasies, change locations, and make sex more romantic.
- Carve out time to spend with your partner on a daily basis. Try a variety of activities that can bring you both pleasure. Have fun courting your partner and practice flirting with him or her. Don’t forget to cuddle on the couch and surprise your partner with a kiss.
In closing, talking about problems with sexual intimacy can sometimes make things worse. For your marriage or romantic relationship to thrive, it’s important to remain calm and not jump to conclusions. Just because your relationship is going through a dry spell, it doesn’t have to mean you are headed for divorce court. Practicing emotional attunement while relaxing together can help you stay connected in spite of your differences. This means “turning toward” one another, showing empathy, and not being defensive. Even if you’re not a touchy-feely person, increasing physical affection can help you to sustain a deep, meaningful bond.
I would love to hear from you and answer your questions! Please share this article, make a comment below, or select the Question tab on the navigation bar on this website. Thanks! Terry
Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”
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