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Sex is often romanticized in movies and TV shows as something that happens easily and instantly when two people are overcome with the same desire at the same time. The sweaty film clips conveniently skip over the awkward bits, the messy details, and the sometimes disappointing reality that couples can face when trying to recreate that movie magic in the privacy of their homes.
Some couples may not even know where to start when they encounter problems in the bedroom. That’s when sexperts can offer empathetic and knowledgeable guidance.
“The starting point is really trying to pinpoint the roadblocks to sex in your own life, and then identifying a potential fix,” said social psychologist Justin J. Lehmiller, Ph.D.
Justin has spent years researching and writing about sexual health and desires. He graduated from Purdue University with a degree in social psychology, has taught at Harvard for many years, and is currently a Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute, a nonprofit research institute at Indiana University.
Justin’s message to singles and couples in a sex rut is to get to the root of the issue. Many contributing and underlying factors can come into play. Stress at work, low self-esteem, relationship conflict, and health concerns can all diminish sex drive or inhibit sexual performance. Couples need to ascertain if the issue is physical, mental, or a combination of both, and then they can create a plan of action to address what’s going on (or not going on).
A helpful resource for learning about sexual health is the National Coalition for Sexual Health’s Guide to Sexual Concerns and Pleasure, which identifies the most common sexual concerns, the causes behind them, and potential solutions.
“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer here,” Justin told us. “But something a lot of people don’t realize is that many sexual problems can be resolved simply through sex education and better sexual communication.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on routines and relationships around the world. Studies have found that the last two years have been rough on people’s sex lives. Singles have had trouble connecting with each other, and couples have had so many issues to balance at work and at home that they may not have had much spare time to devote to romance or maintaining a loving sexual relationship.
Across the board, singles and couples have reported having less sex during COVID. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
This year, couples can take the opportunity to recommit to their partners and rediscover their sexy sides. Dr. Justin Lehmiller recommends letting go of the stress of trying to make things perfect, and instead enjoying the moment in all its imperfections.
“Look at Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to alleviate stress, rather than pile more on,” he said. “Start first by talking to your partner about what you both want so that you don’t have wildly different expectations.”
Couples can brainstorm date ideas that fit their personalities, budgets, and energy levels. Maybe staying in for a COVID-safe movie night is their favorite way to connect, or maybe some couples want to put on their face masks and take dance lessons or have dinner at a fancy restaurant.
“Think about ways to celebrate that are going to promote relaxation and intimacy,” Justin advises. “For example, maybe you’re going to stay in and take an online course on massage techniques together. Then maybe you’ll light some candles, pull out the massage oil, and take turns practicing your new techniques.”
When all is said and done, Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to be an elaborate surprise or a grand romantic gesture like we see in movies. It can be whatever you like – maybe it’s an excuse to go out to eat or maybe it’s a time to stay in and binge watch “Righteous Gemstones” or “Friends.” No judgment. Whatever makes you and your partner smile is the right plan for your relationship.
It’s completely normal for couples to have ups and downs in their sex lives. Especially as the years go by, sex can become less of a priority in their relationship, and it can be easy for couples to slip into a rut where they rarely or never experience intimacy.
If you’re feeling frustrated or unsatisfied with your sexual relationship, the most helpful and constructive thing you can do is express your feelings with your partner using “I feel” and “I want” terminology. Even if it’s uncomfortable, experts urge couples to have open and honest discussions about sex.
“When people have sexual frustrations that they bottle up, it can spill over into the relationship in unhealthy ways,” Justin explained. “And the longer partners go without addressing the issue, the bigger the problems become.”
That’s why it’s essential that couples communicate early and often about their sexual needs, desires, and expectations.
Amanda Pasciucco advises couples to seek professional assistance if their issues do not resolve within a few months. Amanda is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist. She has worked with couples experiencing all sorts of sensitive issues, and she said that a lot of underlying causes can lead to sexual strife.
“Factors like blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and trauma can all affect mood,” she said. “Similarly, being in a COVID-pandemic funk causes a lot of individuals to have sexual issues.”
When self-help strategies aren’t working, couples can turn to professionals for additional support and guidance. Amanda recommended finding a certified sex therapist through vetted organizations such as the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) and its Referral Directory.
This Valentine’s Day, couples may want to reconnect on their terms and take the opportunity to rediscover intimacy. Amanda advised these couples to spend time in the bedroom noticing all the colors, textures, scents, and associations in that space. Maybe it’s time to redecorate and make sure the bedroom sets the tone for romance.
“If it doesn’t remind you of sensuality, then it ought not be in the bedroom,” Amanda told us. “Televisions and photos of family do not need to be in your bedroom. Neither do your pets. Focus on calming and sensual looks that make you feel something different than the rest of your home.”
Amanda also added that couples could benefit from learning more about their physical anatomy and how it works – and how it provides pleasure. She particularly called out that the clitoris is internal as well as external, and the more partners know about where things are, the more they will be equipped to satisfy one another.
Many romantic movies end with a wedding or a profession of love, maybe a passionate kiss in the pouring rain – and the story rarely shows what happens after that. In real life, our relationships will (hopefully) go on long after the happily-ever-after moment.
A healthy relationship will include plenty of tender moments watching sunsets and sharing intimacy. But there may also be times of disconnect, miscommunication, and sexual frustration. That’s when couples need to put in the work and open lines of communication to keep their love going strong.
“I think sexual frustrations and expectations are very important,” Amanda said. “If you are looking for a romantic and sexual partner, and you aren’t discussing these things, you are going to have a lot more issues than if you were to openly discuss them.”
Sex therapists can help couples understand what’s going on under the surface and take steps toward solutions. Dr. Justin reminded us that those solutions don’t necessarily involve prescriptions – therapy can be a healing power in a couple’s lives if they give it a chance.
“There’s this temptation to look for a pill to fix every sexual problem,” he said, “but our over-reliance on medication can lead us to ignore the actual underlying problems.”