We’ve all been there: When a sex drought hits a relationship, it’s never fun. It weighs on the relationship—but also each person in it individually—emotionally and mentally. No one expects the honeymoon phase to last forever, but when the once-thrilling, sexy spark dims, it can feel devastating. Where can we go from here?
The grind of going back to work, and the corresponding uptick in stress that sometimes comes with that, only make things more challenging, so we turned to L.A.-based psychotherapists and authors of The Tools, Barry Michels and Phil Stutz. They are our go-to, brilliant, no-nonsense experts when it comes to getting unstuck—whatever the context may be. Below, they’ve expanded on one of their essential podcast conversations for us—here’s the original session, (#5), titled, “Why You’re Not Having Sex”—revealing both what causes sexual dry spells and how we can not only end them, but maintain the passionate relationships we crave.
When couples tell you they aren’t having enough sex, what’s usually the reason?
BARRY: One of the most common complaints we hear as therapists is that couples aren’t having enough sex. We’ve heard every explanation in the book:
“Between our jobs and kids we’re too exhausted.”
“There never seems to be time.”
“My wife used to be hot but not so much anymore.”
“If I have to hear my husband fart one more time I’ll rip his eyeballs out.”
But really, these are just excuses.
The truth is, there’s something about modern life that actually leeches the sex out of relationships. To understand this fully, you first have to delve deeper into the nature of sex: It isn’t just a physical act; it’s about passion—that hungry excitement you feel inside toward someone.
To feel passion, you have to let go of control—and that’s where the problem lies. Most of modern life requires the opposite of letting go; it’s about trying to control things: You have to find the right spouse; your kids have to behave right and be admitted to the right schools; you have to find a house in the right neighborhood, take the right vacations, even drive the right car. All of this requires a lot of money, which means you also need to have the right job and the right connections. The list goes on and on.
The more your life becomes about control, the less passionate your life—and your relationship—become. In a weird way, when life is about getting things “right,” then letting go of control actually becomes threatening. Passion becomes an enemy that’s going to overthrow your well-ordered life; you resist it without even realizing it.
This sets up an inner, unconscious conflict: You long for passion, but you don’t dare let yourself feel it. If you step back from this conflict, you realize that the real danger isn’t passion—it’s this inner conflict. If you don’t resolve it, the results are terrible: Either the passion comes out in an ill-advised, impulsive way that can destroy your relationship, or the passion goes underground forever; your life loses its juice. One of the saddest things in the world is to see a couple sitting at a restaurant not speaking to each other through the entire meal; you sense the dead space between them; they lost the spark such a long time ago they’ve given up hope of ever recovering it.
Once a relationship has lost its passion, is it possible to get it back?
BARRY: Yes—if you want more passion in your relationship, you have to get in touch with a part of yourself you usually keep under wraps. It’s the part of you that isn’t trying to control things—it doesn’t care about keeping up appearances. In fact, the essence of this part of you is that it’s out of your control.
What’s the connection between that part of you and sex? If you think back to the best sexual experiences you’ve had, they all have this quality: It’s a little out of control; it feels like another part of you is taking over, and that part of you is looser, more improvisational, and more passionate than your everyday, put-together self.
PHIL: Barry is talking about a part of you called the Shadow. The Shadow was discovered by the psychiatrist Carl Jung and it embodies whatever qualities you feel aren’t “right”—qualities that endanger your organized, controlled existence; it’s messy. Everybody tries to hide their Shadow because they feel embarrassed and threatened by it.
How do you invite the Shadow in?
PHIL: If you want to have a good sex life, no matter how long you’ve been together, you need to nurture and create a space for the Shadow; you need to let yourself be vulnerable and bring it into the bedroom with your partner. Ironically, even though you’re embarrassed of it, the Shadow is the part of you that can have passionate sex, get close and be intimate with someone.
In working on this, every interaction with your partner matters: Each time, you’re either going to bring your Shadow out or hide it inside. When you hide it, that drains the relationship of its passion.
And part of what “bringing your Shadow out” means is that you have to express interest in your partner all the time, not just right before you want to have sex. Where people fail each other is between the times they have sex. When you pass by your partner in the kitchen, you might want to touch them, look at them sexually, tell them they look great, etc. This needs to be done all the time.
BARRY: This happened to me yesterday. I was nervous about the podcast we were doing today, and my wife left a really sweet message on my voicemail. I can’t repeat what she said, but needless to say, it made me feel fantastic!
PHIL: That’s a great example. It was completely unrelated to having sex in that moment—it was just creating a larger sexual context for your relationship.
What if you’re still struggling to get in the mood?
PHIL: Patients will say to us, “But I’m not feeling it—I’d be faking it.” That’s fine—then fake it. You’re responsible for making your partner feel sexually desirable. If you both do it, you’re creating a sexualized context for your marriage, and both of you will feel better for it.
BARRY: And after a while, trust us, it won’t feel fake—it’ll be very real. It’s like that saying from Alcoholics Anonymous: “Fake it ‘til you make it.”
PHIL: These practices take a lot of work and they may be counterintuitive, but they release you from the delusion that sex is supposed to happen by itself, even if you’ve been together twenty-five years. Doing them will create a tremendous amount of goodwill and good feeling in a marriage.
Is it normal for it to feel like…work?
BARRY: That brings up another aspect of modern life that kills sex. We have this illusion that the first three months of a relationship will last forever. The truth is that the first three months of a relationship are just a phase: You’ve found “the one,” you’re happier than you’ve ever been, you’re having sex every night, you couldn’t get the person off your mind even if you wanted to. But somewhere around the three- to six-month mark, poof—it vanishes. The person becomes very ordinary. What’s really happened is you’ve entered a new phase of the relationship. That’s the phase in which everything we’re suggesting becomes real work. Modern life tells us that having to work at a relationship means it’s bad, when it really means it’s normal.
PHIL: Think of it as a curve that goes up when you meet the person, and the peak of that curve is called the idealization phase. The person is perfect and magical and will make you happy and sexually stimulated for the rest of your life. Then you start to notice their failings and imperfections, and then you drop down to the disillusionment phase where you think you’ve been sold a bill of goods and you can’t believe you’re in this situation. It’s at that point that your relationship really begins. In this “work-phase”—which lasts for the rest of your life—you’re rebuilding a positive image of your spouse not because the person is magical and not because it happens by itself, but because you’ve consciously committed to it.
BARRY: Exactly. Here’s another way to say it: The work-phase requires you to bring your Shadow to the relationship every day—in an effortful, and ongoing way.