Content Warning: This article discusses cultivating a healthy sex life. Part of that discussion involves talking about what is not healthy. It will briefly discuss sexual coercion and how we overcame it. My husband and I have been to a lot of therapy, which has allowed us to navigate these difficult conversations with trust and openness. That openness will be evident in the way I present this article. Although I hope this article can help couples who are in dire need of sorting out their sex life, I also think this article might be triggering to people (particularly women) who are in the most difficult sexual circumstances. Please consider whether this article is suitable for you before continuing. Lastly, this article is written in the framework of the cisgender, heterosexual experience and covers issues that are typical in opposite-sex relationships. Therefore, there will be gendered language. This article may not reflect the experiences of people in same-sex or non-cisgender marriages or relationships.
My marriage was steeped in trouble from the very first. We loved each other deeply, but there were many external problems that made our relationship so much harder than it needed to be. We dealt with my husband’s chronic illness, the loss of both our incomes when the company we worked for downsized, and a complicated situation with his narcissistic ex. But of all the things that made marriage difficult, it was our sex life that did us in.
We started out hot and heavy. That was at the beginning of our relationship, when everything was new and our marriage was untouched by the hardships of the world. My husband was an equal partner, my partner. We carried each other’s burdens, showed up for each other equally, and did all those healthy and lovely things that make exuberant sex easy.
But as time went on and we became parents, got very busy with our careers, and the honeymoon wore off, our routines changed. My husband became less involved in the household, leaving it mostly to me. I became bitter and resentful, not just because of our relationship, but also because of some personal shit of my own I needed to be in therapy for but wasn’t. I became a very unpleasant person to be around. So, naturally, sex became a major issue. I became emotionally shut down as our relationship deteriorated, finding myself unable to be interested in sex when our marriage was in turmoil. And as I turned inward and away from my husband, he began to chase me. He sensed that my disinterest in sex signaled that I was no longer in love with him. That fear drove him to try to initiate more and more sex—not for the sex itself, but for the reassurance that everything was okay. Of course, I interpreted his growing sexual need as a signal that he cared only about sex and not the health of our marriage. So, I withdrew even further. It became a vicious cycle of chasing and running. A self-fulfilling prophecy.
There are so many details I could share about that long and difficult time in our lives. But since I think you’re here for advice and not for my personal memoir, I’m going to jump right to the point:
Healing our sex life had to be a priority if we were going to create the relationship we envisioned when we got married.
And before I continue, let me dispel something right now: we did not need to heal our sex life because of my husband’s “sexual needs.” The “men have needs” thing is a manipulative trope made up by men to coerce women. I hate this argument doubly because, first, it objectifies women, and second, it infantilizes men. Men are not toddlers who are incapable of controlling their impulses. That was a lie passed down to them from the influential men in their lives, which they internalized and believed. That line of argumentation only serves to subjugate wives to the needs of their husbands, neglecting the wife’s needs altogether.
The only path to sexual healing in a marriage is for a couple to get on the same page about it. And that means taking both partner’s needs into account. Here is how we navigated getting on the same page about our sex life. I won’t say it was easy, and I won’t say our approach will work for everyone. But, it did work for us. We did all of this while both attending individual therapy, which I highly suggest. Some issues run far too deep for a couple to sort out on their own. An objective, qualified therapist can help navigate those tricky waters.
#1. We had to address my burnout.
There could be no forward progress on healing our sex life until we addressed why I was no longer interested in sex. I was overwhelmed. Our transition into parenthood had somehow left me managing my career, the children, and the household obligations, while my husband had only his career to balance. At that point, I was only showering every 3-5 business days. I was sleep-deprived, under-fed, and constantly overstimulated by the needs of our children. There was absolutely no way for me to be interested in sex when I was carrying so much of the household responsibilities myself. Addressing this burn out meant establishing new household routines. It meant my husband stepping up to help around the house and with the kids because (1) he’s their parent, too, and (2) I couldn’t be expected to do it alone while working just like him and be expected to be a vixen in the bedroom. Something had to give.
#2. We had to address his co-dependence and rejection sensitivity.
It took a long time for me to understand that his constant sexual advances weren’t about sex, but rather, were about connection. At first, I saw this as just one more way to manipulate or coerce me into having sex with him when I didn’t want to. But with time and both of us in therapy, my mind opened to what he had to say. I learned that he is a certifiable co-dependent. He has the tokens from Codependence Anonymous and everything. I learned that I could help squelch his desire for sex by giving him more connection and non-sexual intimacy. He learned that he can be truly satisfied by this kind of connection. As I began to feel more human again once he started helping with the kids and the house, I felt more inclined to show him this non-sexual intimacy. Things like forehead kisses, brushing his shoulders as I walk past him, or wrapping him in a big hug became part of our daily ritual. These things reassured him that we still had a connection even if we weren’t having sex, and that put an end to his constant sexual advances.
#3. He had to earn my trust that touching can be intimate without being sexual.
As an extension of #2, part of this work was for him to learn how to let me touch him without it leading to sex. I had stopped giving him non-sexual touches because, as part of that cycle and self-fulfilling prophecy I discussed earlier, he interpreted every touch from me as a signal that I wanted sex. When every hug turned into pressure to go to the bedroom, it was easy for me to stop giving hugs. My husband made a point of letting me touch him without any expectations. We spent focused time working on this—physically touching each other with the solemn rule that it could go nowhere. As he earned my trust this way, I began reaching out for intimate, non-sexual touch with him more often. And, as may trust grew, I found myself becoming interested in letting the non-sexual touch lead to sexual intimacy. Touch had to feel safe before it could feel sexual.
#4. I had to learn to communicate my feelings and needs surrounding sex.
I know this may sound obvious to some of you, but for a lot of us, it’s not: communication can resolve most problems. In fact, as much as many of us hate hard conversations, they are often the fastest way to solve the problem. I never felt like I could tell my husband when I wasn’t in the mood. I believed that telling him I didn’t want sex would crush him, so instead I said nothing. He would try to initiate sex, and rather than telling him no, I would just go along with it and resent him the whole time. That is not an emotionally, mentally, physically, or sexually healthy way to handle sex. I had to learn how to be very clear when I wasn’t in the mood if he tried to initiate sex. And, to his credit, as he did the work to resolve his co-dependency issues, he became the kind of person who was safe for me to be honest with. I learned that saying, “I’m not in the mood tonight; can we just cuddle instead?” did just as much for him emotionally as the sex itself, without making me sacrifice my needs.
#5. We made a sex schedule.
Listen, this will NOT be for everyone. And it is ONLY for people who have done the work in therapy and resolved some of the issues I mentioned in #1-4. Sex schedules in the hands of a sexually coercive spouse can be another tool of manipulation and objectification. So please do not do this unless you are in a safe and healthy place with your spouse. I was the one who suggested the sex schedule to my husband. I told him that I wanted just two nights a week when sex was totally off the table. I wanted two nights to not even have to figure out whether was in the mood or not—to not even have to have the conversation. We agreed that we would also make sure to have two nights for making sex a priority. Remember: priority is NOT the same as obligation. We simply agreed that we would set aside two nights a week as “romance nights” where we made sex and connection a priority. The other nights of the week are up to us. And you know what? We find ourselves usually choosing to have exuberant, enthusiastically consensual sex on those nights!
#6. Lastly, we made time for kid-free romance.
It is impossible to feel sexually connected when you aren’t making time for romance. It’s so hard when you have kids, I get it. But making time for romantic connection doesn’t have to cost money and it doesn’t have to be complicated. My husband and I made two simple adjustments to our routine that have really enhanced our romantic connection: (1) On Wednesday nights, we have dinner alone. We give the kids whatever they want for dinner and then begin the bedtime routine. Once the kids are in bed, we begin cooking our own dinner. We enjoy a candlelight dinner to relax and reconnect. And (2) we made Saturday nights our date night. When we can afford it, we arrange for a babysitter and have a night on the town. When we can’t afford it, we just do our Wednesday night routine again on Saturday. Making time for kid-free connection has not only elevated our relationship but has vastly improved our sex life.
Every marriage is unique, which means every marriage will have its own unique set of solutions for creating a healthy sex life. I hope that you’ll take what resonates from this article, and leave the rest. Maybe use it as a template for establishing your own path to healthy sex in your marriage. Whatever you decide, I’m wishing you healing, and reconnection, and a truly healthy and balanced sex life together.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.