No more Sex. Where is Eros?
How to rekindle passion and sexual desire
It is very common for long term monogamous couples to find themselves in a sexless relationship. It is one of the most common reasons couples seek therapy. Often, I hear couples say that they love each other. Everything in their lives is good. They talk to each other respectfully. They feel deep love for each other. They laugh together. They are a team raising children. But, they do not have any more sex. After a while, this one problem becomes distressing for both partners in the relationship. They are unable to change this problem, so they come to sex therapy. This phenomenon is seen in both heterosexual and same-sex couples.
Hearing so many couples with this problem, it seems that love and sex don’t live in the same world. It seems that good, deep connection and love does not mean good sex, as noted by Esther Perel, author of ‘Mating In Captivity’. The Greek mythology did not separate love and sex. Eros is the Greek God of love and sexual desire. Aphrodite is the Greek Goddess of love, sexuality and beauty. The Roman mythology does not separate love and sex either, Venus being the Roman equivalent to Aphrodite and Cupid being the equivalent to Eros.
I wonder why there is such a separation between love and sex in our modern couples.
Today’s couples live in isolation, in the middle of a busy world, where there is little community. Often people live far away from parents, friends and the wider family network. In London, for example, it takes between 30 minutes to one hour to go anywhere. Couples often say: ‘it can be such an effort to meet a friend after a long day’s work’. ‘We have no family nearby to look after the kids.’ Childcare is very expensive, it is sometimes the equivalent of one partner’s salary.
Esther Perel makes the brilliant observation that, in today’s world, we turn to our partner, one human being, to meet all the needs that an entire community used to meet. Perhaps in Greek and Roman times love and sex could thrive side by side because couples were supported by a wider community network?
In our modern world, a committed relationship has to be in between two different kingdoms. One is called ‘Sex’ and the other is called 'Love’. When two people start a relationship, they both live on the bridge between the two kingdoms of Love and Sex. Love makes the heart beat faster so we can bond. And Sex provides the fire and the energy. Sex is abundant. The essential ingredient of the kingdom of Sex is danger: 'I don't know my lover so well. Has he got a dark secret?' 'Will she leave me?' Getting to know someone new is dangerous because there is always the threat of rejection, and the exciting newness of the exploration of the new partner's sexual landscape. In that space, Sex is alive and well.
If Love and Sex do their jobs well, the relationship becomes safer, and then the two people in the relationship make the commitment to be together. We make a commitment in the attempt to seek more safety. Safety is the essential ingredient of the kingdom of Love. We seek safety because it is one of our primary drivers for survival. The safer we are, the better we feel. A committed relationship that feels safe is the baseline for a loving, stable relationship. It would be intolerable to live in uncertainty all the time. You want to know that your partner you have committed to is going to be home in the evenings. You want to know that your partner will give you a hug when you're feeling fragile. Knowing these things makes Love stronger.
When we commit to our partner, we are invited to fully step into the world of Love. This is where we make plans for the future. 'Let's get a mortgage together', 'will you marry me?', 'do you want a cat or a dog?', 'let's try for a child'. As soon as we fully embrace Love, the kingdom of Sex becomes bored because it has no more visitors, and eventually goes into a long hibernation, drawing the blinds down.
This is when Sex starts its slow death. After some time of not engaging with the kingdom of Sex, couples find themselves in a sexless relationship because the couple is no longer a space in which two lovers meet. It becomes family. It becomes cute. It becomes caring. It becomes polite.
What do couples typically do in the family, cute space? They eat. They put on weight. They spend hours on electronic devices playing Candy Crush. They watch television until they fall asleep. They stop looking after themselves. How many times have you seen the same old socks? More and more, safety is established: 'we're so good together that we can be comfortable seeing each other in our slippers'. And pretty soon you can't even remember what it feels like to be touched in a sexual way. There may be plenty of touching, like a loving, warm hug. But it is very different from being touched with the sexual energy of desire and passion that lives in the long forgotten world of Sex. You can even forget what it's like to be naked with your partner, or to have an orgasm. Your partner's pyjamas have replaced your lover's flesh.
It doesn't take long after you have established safety that you might even start to feel embarrassed to have a sexual language, because sexual language belongs to the erotic world of Sex, which is being starved. Words like 'fuck me'. 'Touch me'. 'Suck me' are not welcome in the kingdom of Love because there is too much at stake: ‘what will she think of me?’ ‘He’s going to think I’m a slut’. In the Kingdom of Love, we want to maintain safety so we will not go to places where there is a danger of rejection. Instead, in Love, we use words like: 'I love you', 'I miss you' and if there is a little bit of sexual desire, we use words like: 'would you like to make love tonight dear?' Or worse: 'would you like a cup of tea and a biscuit?'
What to do about your loving relationship that has become sexless?
You rock the Love boat. You upset the Kingdom of Love. It seems completely counter-intuitive, crazy even. ‘Why would you want to rock the boat of a wonderful, loving relationship? It is only sex that doesn't work out after all. Everything else is fine! Sex isn't everything!’ I hear you scream.
Of course sex isn't everything. But sex is a big part of a sexual and romantic relationship. It is what sets it apart from the relationship with your friends, siblings, colleagues. In a sexless relationship, you start to form the habit of sleeping in the bed with your partner and between you two there is a huge rift, a big gap where the big elephant sleeps. The one that nobody talks about. The more it is ignored, the bigger the elephant gets in the bed between you, and eventually, one partner gets kicked out of bed. And when that happens, you feel unloved, undesired, taken for granted. 'He hasn't even noticed that I've been to the hairdresser'. 'I could just be anybody, it wouldn't make a difference to her'. 'I can't remember the last time when she asked me how my day was'. 'I love him but I cringe when he tries to touch me'. A sexless relationship can end up becoming an unhappy relationship. Slowly, long after Sex died, Love starts to get old and tired.
Rocking the Love boat is important. It means there is a little injection of danger, threats, energy, all those ingredients needed to awaken the Kingdom of Sex. It will open its blinds again and send an invitation to the couple again. And if the couple is courageous enough to step out of their safety and accept the invitation, a newfound eroticism can be discovered by a couple who have long been asleep on either side of the big elephant.
How to rock the Love boat and rekindle a sexual life that spells Eros, the God of love and sexual desire?
Here is my guide of 14 un-easy steps, but courageous steps.
Go for a medical check up: making sure there are no medical problems at play here: low testosterone levels, hormonal issues, diabetes, etc…
Start with the initial change: make time. I see so many couples that say: ‘we don’t have time. We get home from work at 7pm. By the time we feed the kids, wash the dishes, prepare them for bed, prepare ourselves for work the next day, it is 10.30pm and we are exhausted’. Sex is not going to happen if there is no space for it. It is easy for life to take over. And of course, whether you have children or not, life is always busy. If you have children, I would like to ask you: ‘do you want to have your children growing in a home where the parents have sexual apathy? Make no mistakes, children pick up things a lot, even more than adults. They pick up energy. There is a particular non-congruent energy that develops when parents are not physically connected. Often this develops into the grown up children having sexual difficulties. If you do not have children, it is easier to make time, and yet so difficult to do for some couples. I would ask the question: ‘what is the most important for you? Having a better connected relationship with your partner and more sex or spending hours on Facebook? Would you rather always say ‘yes’ to your boss when they keep asking you to do overtime, and always saying ‘no’ to your partner? Do you want your relationship to be ships passing in the night, and eventually sharing your bed with someone you barely know?’ These are important questions about your willingness to make time for your couple. It needs to become Priority One, and I would argue, it is the same Priority that looking after your children, because your children live in the relational space that you co-create with your spouse.
Now that making time has become your Priority One. The next stage is to make further changes. Look at your bedroom. It has been a place with the big elephant in the room. Often, the bedroom becomes a place of work, doing work e-mails on the ipad. Or a place for friends, checking Facebook on your phone in bed. Or a resting place for the dog who sleeps in between you. Or a place of exhaustion, when you collapse in bed with a quick ‘good night’ and fall asleep straight away. And, indeed, it also becomes a place for disappointment. All of these are hardly sexy. On the day that you have decided to rekindle your sex life, make changes to the environment first. Throw out of the bedroom all of the association of un-sexy-ness (starve the elephant). Buy new bedsheets. Buy a new rug. Buy scented candles and essential oils. Change the framed pictures. Buy new underwear. Throw away the old pyjamas.
Very importantly, ban technology in the bedroom. It is not a place for work e-mails, Facebook or Candy Crush. Leave the technology in the living room. Buy an old fashioned alarm clock, rather than having your smart phone next to you. When you enter the bedroom, it has to be a sanctuary for your couple. It has to feel safe and sexy. Keep the space private from your children. Teach your children that they can be invited to your bedroom but not always granted access, just the same as their bedroom is their private space.
Develop a sexual language. One of the biggest blocks for couples is that it is hard to talk about sex. There is so much fear in it. Fear of rejection. Fear of your partner’s judgment. Even fear of being perceived to have sexual interests. Fear of non-rejection: ‘what if my partner wants to have sex with me? I can’t remember how to start!’ Developing a sexual language will help with getting the elephant out of the room. You can start with small steps. Start to become curious about your partner. ‘How do you like to be hugged?’ ‘Is there a part of your body that you don’t like touched?’ ‘Is there a part of your body that you really enjoyed being touched?’
As you develop a sexual language, you can then go further in the dialogue of sexual exploration. ‘What turns you on?’ ‘Tell me about one of your fantasies?’
You may also want to experiment with more risky language, less polite, more sexy. But it has to be a language that you both agree on, because you have to be both comfortable with it. What would it feel like if you said ‘cock’ or ‘fuck’ instead of ‘shall we have you-know-what tonight? Be mindful that this process can make some shame surface. It if does, stop it, and find another sexy language, but one that is adult and not childish (sex vs rumpy-bumpy).
Fun. Laughing. Sex is supposed to be fun. Once you have successfully made the first few changes, you will feel more relaxed around sex and sexual conversations. Bring back the fun in the bedroom. Sometimes sex can be a long, loving, connected act. Sometimes it can be a quickie. Sometimes it can be a relaxed, fun playfulness between two adults. Sex doesn’t have to lead to penetration or orgasms every time. Sex should not be a task.
Bring back seduction. Compliment your spouse when she is wearing a dress that really suits her. Ask your boyfriend to keep his sports gear on a little bit longer because he looks sexy in it. Take your spouse for a spontaneous drink in the pub on a week night. Tell your wife you have masturbated thinking about her. Go to a sex shop together. Woo your partner with red roses.
Reduce performance anxiety by not expecting the greatest sex of your life. Go with the flow, take your time to touch your partner’s body and learn its landscape. One step at a time.
For the new parents, it is especially challenging to rekindle a sexual life when caring for a baby. On this issue, I would like to quote Esther Perel who eloquently explains the dilemma and the solution: ‘Children are indeed a source of nurturance for adults. Their unconditional love and utter devotion infuse our lives with heightened sense of meaning. The problem arises when we turn to them for what we no longer get from each other: a sense that we’re special, that we matter, that we’re not alone. When we transfer these adult emotional needs onto our children, we are placing too big a burden on them. In order to feel safe, kids need to know that there are limits to their power, and to what is surreptitiously asked of them. They need us to have our own loving relationships, in whatever form they take. When we are emotionally and sexually satisfied, we allow our children to experience their own independence with freedom and support.’
For more insight on how to rekindle sex and desire in your relationship, I recommend Esther Perel’s book: Mating In Captivity.
Do things separately too. Meet your friends on your own. Take pleasure in being noticed by others to activate your sense of self.
Many couples, both heterosexual and same-sex couples, come to see me because their marriage or long-term relationship is faced with a dying sex life. When they come, they are often in a stuck place or dead end. There is no energy in it. Often they’re losing hope. They feel bad about themselves because there is a real sense of loss. Not only loss of a sexual life, but also loss of energy, loss of youth, loss of fun, loss of feeling sexually attractive, desirable and sexy. By the end of therapy, I have been the privileged witness to see many couples with a renewed energy, there is fun, love and sexual tension in the space in between them. There is creativity. There is a horizon full of possibilities. Most importantly, there are two separate individuals who can dance back and forth between the Kingdoms and Love and Sex and discover the world of Eros.
Silva Neves © September 2015.
Article written by Silva Neves - London
I am a fully qualified, experienced and accredited counsellor and psychotherapist, specialist in psychosexual therapy, relationship therapy, couples therapy, trauma therapy and sex addiction treatment. I work with a diverse range of clients.