A good sexual relationship is built on emotional intimacy and closeness.
By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Jason and Kendra have been married for 12 years and have three children. Most of their conversations are about work, chores, their kid’s activities, and mundane aspects of their stale marriage.
Kendra puts it like this: “I love Jason, but the passion just isn’t there anymore.”
When Kendra drops this bombshell, Jason responds, “I thought we were doing okay, I really did. Even though we don’t have sex much anymore, it just seems like a phase we’re going through. I don’t have any energy left by the time I hit the bed at night.”
By all accounts, Kendra and Jason were passionate during the early years of their marriage. However, over the last few years, their sex life has dwindled and they rarely spend time together without their children. Kendra seeks out Jason for sexual intimacy and Jason often pulls away.
According to experts, the most common reason couples lose their passion for each other and stop being sexually intimate is a pursuer-distancer pattern that develops over time. Dr. Sue Johnson identifies the pattern of demand-withdraw as the “Protest Polka” and says it is one of three “Demon Dialogues.” She explains that when one partner becomes critical and aggressive, the other often becomes defensive and distant.
Dr. John Gottman’s research on thousands of couples discovered partners that get stuck in this pattern in the first few years of marriage have more than an 80 percent chance of divorcing in the first four to five years.
Foster Emotional Intimacy
A good sexual relationship is built on emotional intimacy and closeness. In other words, if you’re hoping to improve your physical relationship, you need to first work on your emotional connection. Focus on meeting your partner’s needs and communicating your own needs in a loving, respectful way.
In The Science of Trust, Dr. Gottman explains that couples who want to rekindle their passion and love need to turn towards each other. Practicing emotional attunement can help you stay connected even when you disagree. This means turning toward one another by showing empathy, instead of being defensive. Both partners need to talk about their feelings in terms of positive need, instead of what they do not need.
According to Dr. Gottman, expressing a positive need is a recipe for success for both the listener and the speaker because it conveys complaints and requests without criticism and blame, and can bring passion back into your marriage.
Dr. Gottman says, “This requires a mental transformation from what is wrong with one’s partner to what one’s partner can do that would work. The speaker is really saying, ‘Here’s what I feel, and what I need from you.’”
Rekindle Sexual Chemistry
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 discovered that oxytocin (a bonding hormone) released during the initial stage of infatuation causes couples to feel euphoric and turned on by physical touch. It actually works like a drug, giving us immediate rewards that bind us to our lover.
Holding hands, hugs, and tender touch are great ways to affirm your love for your partner and bring passion back into your marriage. Physical affection sets the stage for sexual touch that is focused on pleasure. Sex therapist and educator Dr. Micheal Stysma recommends that you set a goal of doubling the length of time you kiss, hug, and use sensual touch if you want to improve your marriage.
Sexual attraction is hard to maintain over time. For instance, Kendra and Jason lack passion because they are unwilling to give up control and show vulnerability. As a result, they avoid sex and rarely touch each other. Sex therapist Laurie Watson says, “Most sexual concerns stem from an interpersonal struggle in the marriage.”
Here are 10 tips to bring passion back into your marriage:
1. Change your pattern of initiating sex.
Maybe you are denying your partner or coming on too strong. Avoid criticizing each other and stop the “blame game.” Mix things up to end the power struggle.
For example, distancers may want to practice initiating sex more often and pursuers try to find ways to tell their partner “you’re sexy,” in subtle ways while avoiding critique and demands for closeness.
2. Hold hands more often.
According to author Dr. Kory Floyd, holding hands, hugging, and touching can release oxytocin causing a calming sensation. Studies show it’s also released during sexual orgasm. Additionally, physical affection reduces stress hormones — lowering daily levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
3. Allow tension to build.
Our brains experience more pleasure when the anticipation of the reward goes on for some time before we receive it. So take your time during foreplay, share fantasies, change locations, and make sex more romantic.
4. Separate sexual intimacy from routine.
Plan intimacy time and avoid talking about relationship problems and household chores in the bedroom. Sexual arousal plummets when we’re distracted and stressed.
5. Carve out time to spend with your partner.
Try a variety of activities that bring you both pleasure. Have fun courting and practice flirting as a way to ignite sexual desire and intimacy. Dr. Gottman says that “everything positive you do in your relationship is foreplay.”
6. Focus on affectionate touch.
Offer to give your partner a back or shoulder rub. People associate foreplay with sexual intercourse, but affectionate touch is a powerful way to demonstrate and rekindle passion even if you are not a touchy-feely person.
7. Practice being more emotionally vulnerable during sex.
Share your innermost wishes, fantasies, and desires with your partner. If you fear emotional intimacy, consider engaging in individual or couple’s therapy.
8. Maintain a sense of curiosity about sexual intimacy.
Experiment with new ways to bring pleasure to each other. Look at sex as an opportunity to get to know your partner better over time.
9. Vary the kind of sex you have.
Have gentle, loving-tender, intimate, and highly erotic sex. Break up the routine and try new things as sexual needs change.
10. Make sex a priority.
Set the mood for intimacy before TV or work dulls your passion. A light meal along with your favorite music and wine can set the stage for great sex.
The good news is that allowing your partner to influence you can reignite the spark you once enjoyed. In fact, Dr. Gottman reminds us that friendship is the glue that can hold a marriage together:
“Couples who know each other intimately [and] are well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams are couples who make it.”
Even if you are not a touchy-feely person, increasing physical affection and emotional attunement can help you to sustain a deep, meaningful bond.
This article was originally published at The Gottman Institute. Reprinted with permission from the author.