De-Stress and Make Love Again

A little creativity can rekindle those passionate feelings that got you together in the first place.

Sex isn’t everything. But when it’s not going right — or barely going at all, as is the case for one in three American couples — there’s trouble. You lose the wonderful, playful connection that inspires romance and intimacy, compassion and forgiveness, and that chases away sadness, loneliness, and conflict.

But sex is tricky for Cooperation stage couples. Pushed and pulled by the demands of children, jobs, maintaining a house or apartment, and meeting community and religious obligations, this treasure often falls to the very bottom of the priority list. In a national survey of 2,514 Americans, 88 percent said kids changed when and where they made love, 34 percent confessed that parenthood left them too tired for sex, and 30 percent confessed that sex was less romantic with kids in the next room. Meanwhile, intriguing new research suggests that women and men experience a natural drop in libido after the birth of a child; as levels of sexy hormones, including testosterone, diminish, levels of the cuddly hormone oxytocin rise. Before you know it, you’ve traded black lace underwear (or tasteful boxers) and satin sheets for a fleece sweat suit and flannel bed linens.

Sex is getting squeezed out like never before. More and more couples are in two-job families — and sometimes hold down more than one job apiece to stay afloat. Another trend pushing intimacy out the door: older parenthood and the fatigue that comes with raising a child in your late 30s, 40s, or 50s.

There’s no time or energy for the spontaneous turn-ons that once led to hours of long, slow lovemaking. If you’ve got kids, there’s not enough privacy for a quickie on the couch. Couples find themselves in a sexual stalemate that’s tough to break.

Don’t give up. You can revive a thriving passion. In fact, you’re in the best situation possible for cultivating a regular, satisfying sex life. When researchers dissected data from a national sex survey conducted in the mid-1990s, they found that Cooperation stage couples on average have more sex than singles. Amazingly, working parents with preschool children had more sex than single folks who worked fewer hours per week. And married women and men who worked a colossal 60 hours or more per week had 10 percent more sex than unmarried overworked folks. The reason? He or she is sitting across the dinner table from you: When you’re married, you’ve got a steady, live-in intimacy partner.

Define a great sex life on your own terms. The happiest couples have sex on a regular basis, but nobody can define regular for you. And it’s a moving target. Half of all 20-somethings in a University of Chicago survey said they made love at least twice a week — and an active 11 percent had sex at least four times. But among couples in their early 40s, just 30 percent made love even two times between Monday and Sunday. Nearly half had sex just a few times a month, but couples in this age group were the happiest — emotionally and physically — with sexual intimacy. What it means for you: There are no rules. The two of you should consider and discuss the frequency and type of sex that makes you happiest — whether it’s three times a month or three times a week.

Chances are, each of you is comfortable with a different level of physical intimacy: One yearns for more; the other is happy with less. Talk about your needs and how you feel when you’re at that just-right level of physical closeness. Try to reach a compromise and to find ways to build in extra intimacy so you’re both happy. That could mean more cuddle time in addition to sex or simply seizing more of the thousands of daily opportunities to share a hug and a kiss.

Look sexier, feel sexier. It’s easy to put off healthy eating, exercise, even haircuts. It’s tempting to pull on those baggy old jeans after a long week and to fall into bed in a ragged T-shirt. We suggest making the effort to look attractive. Pull out your best jeans and most attractive tops. Dress up a little — for day and evening. Splurge on a sexy nightgown or lingerie. The payoff is as much for you as it is for your spouse: You’ll feel sexier and more attractive when you look spiffy.

Take your libido for a walk. Forget weird health-food-store aphrodisiacs. Exercise is a safe, proven energy- and libido-booster. A stroll, a swim, or a trip to the gym can get you in the mood and help you enjoy sex more. In one University of Vermont study that followed midlife women for five years, those who exercised regularly reported more sexual satisfaction and stronger libidos than light exercisers or couch potatoes. And in a Harvard University study, midlife men who ran for at least three hours per week had a 30 percent lower risk of impotence than nonexercisers. Other research suggests vigorous exercise, combined with a healthy diet and other healthy habits such as not smoking, can take 10 years off a man’s sexual age. The link? Healthier blood vessels. The bonus: Physical activity helps you feel good about your body, and more likely to want to be close.

Close your bedroom door. Keep your bedroom private so that the two of you will associate it with intimacy and romance — not with late-night TV, catching up on work, or dogs and kids jumping on the bed. This “off-limits” designation also gently trains your household to respect this personal parental space — but we still recommend locking the door for your own peace of mind before lovemaking begins.

Enforce healthy bedtimes — for you and the kids. From grown-ups to toddlers, we’re a sleep-deprived nation. Getting the children to bed at a decent hour not only ensures a happier morning routine (and a better school day), it also gives the two of you more quality time together when you’re still awake enough to enjoy it.

Find a new path to lovemaking. Before life got so complicated, you may have spent hours relaxing and talking and playing around before making love. Now you’ve got 45 minutes after the last kid’s fallen asleep and the extra work you brought home from the office is finished. The transitions are faster — sometimes too fast to feel sexy. Ease into sex with a warm invitation to lie down together, or try a shared foot massage. Or get playful. Tickle, laugh, be silly. Rediscover the playmate in your partner.

Do anything — and everything — in a new way. Paint your bedroom a new color; go to an unusual restaurant you’ve never tried before; hit the roller rink instead of following the well-worn route to the local Cineplex on date night; read up on a delicious new sexual technique, then practice on your sweetie. Why? Novelty can trigger a rush of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. That’s the same love chemical that made you feel happy, energetic, and totally obsessed with your partner back in the Passion stage, says Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher, Ph.D.

Add S_X to your day planner. We know. It doesn’t sound erotic. Truth is, if you don’t plan for sex, it won’t happen very often. And it can be just as hot — or hotter — than the spontaneous version. A bonus to mapping out your sexual calendar: You’ll find times other than 10 p.m. for getting together. Look for little pockets of time in the morning, at lunch, in the early afternoon. This can be especially helpful for the 23 percent of American couples who sleep in separate beds or even separate rooms due to snoring, kicking, or other sleep problems.

Make the first move. If you and your partner have reached a sexual stalemate, one of you will have to make a move. Often, one partner needs physical closeness in order to reconnect emotionally, while the other needs more emotional intimacy in order to find the path back to sexual intimacy. One way to close the distance: Combine the two. While sitting or lying with your spouse, gently hold or touch him or her. Talk about your positive feelings. (Save heavy-duty relationship issues for a time when you’re not heading for intimacy.) See what happens.

Touch first. Don’t wait to feel turned on to make love. Thanks to a busy lifestyle (who’s got time for spontaneous sex?) and hormonal changes, Cooperation stage women and men need kissing and caressing to jump-start desire. That’s a huge shift for most of us. One University of Chicago study found that 51 percent of 25- to 29-year-old men were aroused just watching their wives undress. But among men in their mid-40s, the number dropped to the 40 percent range. This change is natural and normal, experts say. Using touch — instead of overwhelming desire — as the prelude to lovemaking guarantees more and better sex. Waiting to feel turned on first, in contrast, guarantees sexual starvation.

Experiment. Revive the sexy things you did early in your relationship, or try something new. You’ve got a level of trust now that’s light-years beyond what you had as newlyweds. Dare to ask for something you’ve always wanted. One idea: If you’ve never done it before, search for each other’s G-spots. In women, this walnut-size area is located on the top wall of the vagina, about two inches in. Men have a similar area on the perineum, a small stretch of delicate skin between the base of the penis and the anus.

Have a new sex talk. Your body’s different now than it was when you married. So are your needs and desires. A little conversation can make all the difference. Be brave. Say what you want — and what you don’t want. If your partner’s ideas about what you like are obsolete, it’s up to you to update him or her. Keep it upbeat by talking about what you like rather than what you dislike. And give positive reinforcement when he or she does something you adore.

Be as specific as possible. Your idea of doing something new might mean a new position; your spouse’s might be to invite along something battery-powered. The authors of the 2,000-year-old Kama Sutra, the ancient Indian sex handbook, got it right when they said, “Though a man loves a girl ever so much, he never succeeds in winning her without a great deal of talking.”

Save problem-solving for outside the bedroom. If something’s not going well, wait for another, less vulnerable time to bring it up. Experts say the worst time to talk about serious sex problems is when you’re trying to have sex. Emotions are too sensitive.

Dad: Unload the dishwasher — and put all the pots away! University of California sociologists who surveyed 3,563 parents found that when dads did more housework, their wives found them more sexually attractive. Experts say women see the extra help as a sign of love.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest