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How to Resurrect Your Sex Life

What to do when you haven't done "it" in a long time

Has your relationship ended up in a sexual desert? Perhaps the two of you went through a rough patch (often occasioned by a health scare) and stopped making love. Then — even though you never imagined a dry spell could become the prevailing climate — that desert began to seem too vast to cross. So how do you end the drought?

couple sex after years without intimacy marriage

First step to regaining physical intimacy with your partner? Making time to talk about it. — Corbis

As a professional sex researcher and relationship coach, I've heard from many people who resist broaching the subject with their partner because they fear rejection. A man in his late 60s, for example, told me his wife turns her back as soon as he slips between the sheets — the unmistakable message being "Don't even think about it." A couple in their mid-50s revealed they hadn't slept together in 11 years; first he had an operation, then they had marital issues, and before long their sex lives had become history, not current affairs. And don't think the disappointment dims with the decades: A man of 80 recently disclosed his sadness at the fact that his wife had stopped wanting sex.

Suspending sex may not be all that uncommon for a couple, but rarely are both members willing to say good-bye to the practice for good. At least one partner likely feels cheated, even betrayed; wasn't sex supposed to be part of that whole "till death do us part" deal?

It can be difficult to end a sexual drought, but it's not impossible. If the situation is dire, see a therapist: A skilled professional can tease out why the sex stopped, and what it might take to resume it. She or he can help each partner let go of whatever fears or grudges may be keeping sex at bay. Just as helpful, the therapist can prescribe exercises designed to slowly reintroduce physical contact — an approach I recommend. (Qualified therapists can be located through the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists.)

If you prefer not to involve a therapist, try this gradual, step-by-step method yourselves:

Schedule a chat. Ask your partner to set aside a time to talk about your sex life (or lack thereof). If your partner balks, you may have to press. "It's not optional," you can point out. "I would do something this important for you if you asked me." Unless your relationship is in tatters on all fronts, this should get you permission to discuss it. If there are medical issues — a bad hip, perhaps, or heart-attack concerns — agree to see a doctor for an exam (and, most likely, some reassurance).

Make contact. Hold hands while you have this discussion. You'll find the physical connection calming: It forges a bond that mere words cannot.

Take it easy. Start the conversation with kind and loving language. Say how much you love your partner, how attractive she or he is, how much you're looking forward to touching (and being touched by) him or her. Explain that you'd like to start with cuddling and then massage. A little snuggling should make an easy first step for both parties.

Try nonsexual massage. Experiment with "sensate focus" — a Masters and Johnson technique in which one partner gently strokes the other's naked body, back and front, each person learning how to touch and be touched again. As you vary the pressure of your touch, you give and get feedback on what feels good; however, there is no attempt to arouse the other person with genital touching. Instead, the goal is a sensual experience that builds trust (and comfort with physical interaction). Do as many sessions as you need to feel comfortable — and to find yourself craving more.

Clear the decks for action. You may need to buy a lubricant or a vaginal moisturizer to repair tissues. It may be necessary to get medical advice on erectile or medication issues. There are more solutions to physical problems than you can imagine.

Go a-courtin'. Flirt with each other during the day or at a dinner out. Say nice things about the sensate-focus exercises. Put on music. Dress up. Drink a glass of something festive. Set a positive mood.

Aim low. When you feel ready to make love, remove the stress by lowering expectations. Assure one another that this is just a start — the encounter need not include intercourse or orgasms. Agree that the main event is to give each other pleasure again. Then let yourselves cross whatever wasteland has been keeping you apart.

Do it till you're satisfied. Now comes the fun part: Practice what you've learned — and don't wait too long to make love again!

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