From your perspective as a sex educator and relational therapist, what are your thoughts about how to know if two people have sexually grown apart due to outgrowing one another sexually or whether a relational sexual reboot is just needed?
I guess I’m wondering, does the sexual spark ever just really die, or do you think there is always a way to bring it back to life? What if two people want it to be there but it just isn’t?
— Thanks, Blow My Embers
Let’s embrace the spirit of 2020-2022 and go bad news first: I certainly think that sometimes the sexual spark in a relationship can just die. Typically, however, this spark doesn’t just suddenly drop dead unexpectedly. Usually, it slowly withers away over time as essential (for many people) sex life parameters such as trust, romance, communication, connection, friendship, self-care, and lack-of-stress dry up either in the relationship itself or in the personal life of either partner involved.
Common and modern sex-life stranglers can include money issues, employment or housing instability, mental health struggles, an over-abundance of screen time at the detriment of together time, new babies, a lack of initiative and investment in the relationship, broken trust within or outside of the sexual sphere, and um, hello, the forever-mutating and uninvited third wheel to all of our relationships: COVID-19.
Of course, as a relationships therapist who specializes in working with sexual issues, varieties of “We just don’t seem to sexually click anymore” pop up often and certainly not all of these dying sparks are unrevivable. I’m glad that you mention the factor of both partners wanting to rekindle their sexual flame as this is revivability factor number one: does each sexual partner involved actually want to want to have sex? Or do they simply not want to have sex at all?
There is certainly a difference between these two options. Option 1 is workable: there are definitely ways to cultivate sexual desire that you wish were there, but only if you want to do-so.
Option 2 is a no-fly zone as far as I’m concerned. If someone has made the decision that they no longer want to have sex with their partner we can explore the evolution of that decision and make a plan for coping with that decision in couples therapy together, but we definitely can’t (and don’t want to!) convince anyone to have sex with anyone they don’t want to have sex with (and yes, this is the case no matter if you’re married, dating, have kids, whatever — consent is consent, my friends). A sex therapist’s job is absolutely not to pressure anyone into having sex that they don’t want to have and if you’re getting that vibe from any of the sexuality professionals you work with: fire them ASAP.
Let’s assume we’re in an Option 1 place where both partners want to get this party (re)started but aren’t sure how to do so (what you call a “sexual reboot”). Doing a Yes/No/Maybe List can help partners get in touch with new sexual options and spark new conversations about what you want to see more of, less of, or want to explore for the first time (find several of these worksheets on yanatallonhicks.com).
Solo exploration can help folks unlock new sexual ideas without the pressure of having their partner as their audience. Diving into virtual sex educational classes or new books can get the rusty gears in your erotic mind moving again. For some people, opening up their relationship to include other partners revitalizes their primary connection in the bedroom or, some couples decide to take sex off the table between them entirely and completely outsource sexual connections via non-monogamy.
If the spark-stranglers I mentioned at the start of this article resonate louder for you, seeing a sex-positive couples therapist can help excavate the issues that are poising the well of your sex life that aren’t actually about your sex life, such as unresolved conflicts, resentments, fears, unrevealed truths (kinks, fantasies, desires, or otherwise) and can help partners find solutions that are far more sustainable than “More lingerie!”
At the end of the day, trust your gut; is the spark still alive?
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a relationship therapist, sex educator, and writer living in the Pioneer Valley. You can find her work and her professional contact information on her website, yanatallonhicks.com.